Top 15 Destinations in Japan
With over 12 million people, Tokyo is one of the largest cities in the world. With its huge skyscrapers, underpasses, overpasses and crowds of pedestrians, Tokyo may not seem the most attractive city on the surface, but the city has a vibrant charm all of its own and the street level detail is what makes Tokyo such an incredibly interesting place to explore. The city has many major sights to visit such as Senso‐ji Temple in the old downtown area of Asakusa or the fashion hub of Shibuya from where all new trends are said to emanate.
The beautiful national park in the Hakone area is around 50 miles west of Tokyo and just to the south of Mount Fuji, Japan's most sacred peak. The area consists of a handful of small villages and hamlets all connected by a variety of local transport, including buses, cable cars and a mountain railway. Hakone has plenty to see and do, from tasting eggs boiled in volcanic waters to taking a boat trip across beautiful Lake Ashi. Or maybe you will just sit back and relax whilst soaking in one of the many therapeutic hot spring baths.
Home to 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites, over 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, this ancient city showcases the heart and soul of traditional Japan. Kyoto boasts an array of world‐class gardens, majestic festivals and delicate cuisine, all of which make much of the rhythms of nature and the changing of the seasons. Grid‐like Kyoto does have its fair share of neon and concrete, but the discerning eye will soon pick out Kyoto’s sacred shrines, time‐honoured teahouses and mysterious geisha hidden down the quiet alleyways.
Just 40 minutes by local train from Kyoto, Nara is renowned for the wealth of its Buddhist and Shinto heritage. Nara was formerly the end of the Silk Road and was the area which first saw Buddhist teaching making the transition across the ocean from China. The myriad of shrines and temples are all set against the backdrop of the low lying mountains and in the midst of Nara Park, which is home to a vast population of pesky deer, who will happily munch on your guide books and anything else they can get their noses into.
For the quintessential Japanese hot spring destination, look no further than Kinosaki Onsen. The town boasts seven bathhouses which sit among pretty streets of traditional wooden buildings and narrow bridges. Visitors to Kinosaki Onsen enjoy a stay in a Japanese inn where sumptuous cuisine is served at low tables in tatami rooms. Afterwards guests dress in provided ‘yukata’ and ‘geta’, light kimonos and wooden sandals, and take to the streets for a pleasant evening stroll around town.
Hiroshima is a city that needs little introduction. It is of course infamous for being the site of one of two atomic bombs dropped on Japan at the end of World War II. Despite it's tragic past, Hiroshima is now a bustling and vibrant city. The Peace Park and Museum are a poignant reminder of Hiroshima's past; other attractions include Hiroshima Castle, the baseball stadium and the Hiroshima Prefectural Museum of Art. Shukkei‐en Garden is also well worth an afternoon stroll with a number of tea houses dotted about the grounds.
Osaka is Japan's second city and an extremely vibrant and lively place to stay. The city aquarium is world class and you cannot stay in Osaka without taking a ride on one of the city's several giant ferris wheels. Osaka Castle is well worth a visit despite being a reconstruction as the original was burnt down at the end of World War Two and you will find a variety of very interesting museums scattered throughout the city. After dark Osaka really comes alive, and a walk through the bright lights of the Nanba district is a great way to take in the atmosphere, with some great people‐watching opportunities.
Just 50km from Tokyo, Kamakura is a world away from the lights and action of Japan’s buzzing capital. This peaceful city operates at a much more leisurely pace of life and is brimming with gorgeous buildings, quaint cafes and temples galore. The main feature of the city is the Great Buddha of Kamakura, a bronze statue which dominates a plaza in the city. For some more cultural enrichment, travellers should head to one of the numerous temples that speckle the region of Kamakura. If the weather is nice, another popular hotspot for visitors and locals alike is the Itsuki Garden, a delightful spot of natural beauty. Grab a drink or a bite to eat at the cafe and immerse yourself in the serenity of your surroundings. You might even be able to see the Great Buddha in the distance if it’s a clear day.
Tucked away on the coast of Japan, looking out over the Harima Nada Sea, Himeji is the home of the most beautiful castle in the entire country. Sitting on a raised brick platform, the castle gleams pearly white and is adorned with numerous pointed roofs, each one lined with traditional decor. It becomes even more stunning when the cherry blossoms bloom, surrounding the castle with a haze of pink. It is both a beautiful sight and an important one because of its historical significance. Dating back to 1333, the castle was passed down from hand to hand during Japan’s feudal times and survived numerous battles, natural disasters and even proposed demolitions until it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993. Once you’ve taken in the castle, take a wander through Himeji town and cast your eye over its crumbling buildings, relics of a bygone era.
Translating as ‘Shrine Island’, Miyajima is by far and away one of the most popular destinations in Japan – and with good reason. The island’s pride and joy is its Itsukushina shrine and particularly the Torii Gate, which is built in the sea and is often referred to as the ‘floating shrine’. This gate is considered to be the boundary between the living and the dead and in order to maintain its purity, births and deaths are forbidden from taking place near it. Another unique feature of this region is the deer that can be found in every nook and cranny of the island. These cheeky animals will steal the food right out of your hand if you’re not careful. According to the Shinto religion, the deer are sacred as it is believed that they are the messengers of God.
Officially known as Hida Takayama, this atmospheric town has retained a traditional touch like few other cities in Japan. Offering a pretty riverside setting in the Central Alps region, Takayama is the gateway to some of country’s best hiking and a great destination for those looking to experience the rural side of Japan. Easily explored on foot, the town offers a wealth of museums, temples and galleries, as well as a beautifully preserved Old Town. It's also home to one of Japan’s best-loved festivals, Takayama Festival, which is held twice a year in spring and autumn.
Occasionally referred to as ‘little Kyoto’, Kanawaza is a small city facing the Sea of Japan. Of the city’s array of cultural attractions, Kenrokuen is by far the best known. This castle garden dates back to the 17th century and is considered one of Japan’s top three landscaped gardens - although many would consider it the most beautiful of them all. The city also boasts a variety of museums, Omicho Market, pretty temples and wonderfully preserved geisha and samurai districts. With all these sights combined, Kanawaza clearly does rival Kyoto in terms of its Japanese history and culture.
Located in the centre of Japan, mountain-ringed Nagano has been a place of pilgrimage since the Kamakura period from 1192 to 1333. The city evolved as a temple town around the beautiful Zenkoji, which is one of the most popular temples in Japan and still draws over 4 million visitors each year. In 1998, the city hosted the Winter Olympic Games and has become an increasingly popular travel destination ever since. Visitors are drawn to the area’s natural beauty, ski resorts and hot springs, alongside the famous Matsumoto Castle and the Jigokudani Monkey Park.
Often referred to as Koyasan, Mount Koya has been a sacred and holy place since the 9th century. Monk Kobo Daishi founded the first temple there as well as the Singon Sect of Buddhism, which has more than 10 million followers today. Nowadays, the plateau also contains more than 100 temples built around the main monastery. Visitors can spend a night at this UNESCO-listed site and join the monks in their daily routines, including a dawn prayer service and sampling vegetarian meals. A visit to Mount Koya not only allows you to experience a very different aspect of Japanese society, but to appreciate the surrounding peace and beauty of the area.
Known as one of the best-preserved post towns in Japan, Tsumago is situated along the ancient Edo route between Kyoto and Tokyo. Post towns were places of rest for travellers journeying across Japan and today the town is still home to a variety of Edo-style inns. In fact, great lengths have been gone to in order to preserve the town’s historic ambience. During the day, cars aren’t allowed along the main street and phone lines and power cables have also been concealed. Tsumago therefore gives you a true taste of what life was once like in Japan and is well worth a visit.
Check out the following useful resources to help plan your visit to Japan:
Best Time to Visit - Japan's climate and seasons
Tourist Visas - what you need to know prior to travel
Top Travel Tips - information about money, food and luggage forwarding
Traveller Reviews - what our passengers say about our Japan tours
Transport in Japan - handy info on getting around by train in Japan
Top 10 Japan Experiences - get the most out of your time in Japan
Cherry Blossom Festival - all your frequently asked questions answered
Travel Alerts - current travel advice for Japan