If you’re planning a trip to Japan, one of the most important – and challenging – steps is deciding where to visit.
With so many amazing destinations to choose from, and so much information on the Internet, narrowing down your ideal destinations can seem daunting (whether it’s your first time, or a return visit).
The good news is that Japan has so many incredible places to visit, and bucket list-worthy Japan experiences, that you basically can’t go wrong.
The “bad” news is that there’s no such thing as a true “best places in Japan” list, since so much comes down to personal preferences and interests (this is why we specialize in custom trips to Japan).
But to help you navigate the possibilities and decide where to visit, we’ve put together our very own guide to Japan’s best destinations.
Originally written July 24, 2016, this post was updated and republished on December 3, 2019.
Our Favorite Places in Japan
This guide is based on years spent living in and traveling throughout Japan, for both business and pleasure. As Japan experts, this is our job!
It’s also based in great part on having designed and arranged custom trips to Japan for countless travelers from around the world, and includes not only our and our clients’ favorite places, but also some favorites of Japan and other travel experts we’ve come to know throughout the years.
So we hope it helps you decide where to go, whether you’re most interested in major highlights or off-the-beaten-path gems.
But first, a bit of important background!
Japan is Larger than it Looks
Next to an enormous country like China, Japan looks rather small on most maps, and in fact it’s not a huge country (though it’s larger than most people realize).
In terms of area, Japan is slightly smaller than the state of California. But in terms of remarkable places and experiences, Japan is as dense as Europe, where you can travel one or two hours in basically any direction and come to a wonderful city or town and unbelievably good food.
This density of incredible places and experiences is what makes Japan feel much larger than it otherwise might. Most travelers to Japan only fully realize this after a first visit, which often prompts a desire to return again as soon as possible to explore further.
Thus, despite its apparent size, we strongly recommend you “admit defeat” from the beginning, and accept that you won’t be able to “do” Japan in just one trip (whether you have 2 weeks or 2 months).
Trust me: I’ve spent years exploring Japan, and I am not remotely near finished!
Because of this, it’s essential to whittle down the virtually countless list of possibilities and try and determine your ideal destinations.
How Long Should You Spend in Japan?
One of the key factors in how many places you can visit is of course how much time you have available (not to mention your ideal travel pace).
People often ask us, “How many days should I spend in Japan?” There is no simple answer to this, but our usual answer is that you should spend as long as possible!
Apart from the fact that there is so much to see and do, it’s also worth devoting extra time (if you can) as it’s a relatively long journey for travelers from far-off parts of the world like the US, Europe, and Australia.
7-10 DAYS IN JAPAN
Typically, the minimum we recommend is about 7-10 days in Japan, which will give you a great starting point, and plenty of time for an introduction to the country.
Our 8-day sample trip featuring Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hakone is a great example of how much you can see and do with this amount of time.
10-14 DAYS IN JAPAN
With 10-14 days in Japan, you can add on additional destinations, or simply spend more time immersing yourself in each place you visit.
In addition to our Two Weeks in Japan: A Perfect Itinerary, our sample trips below provide vivid examples of how much you can see and do with about two weeks in Japan:
- Luxury Japan: Art, Culture & Cuisine
- Japan Cities, Mountains & Art
- Luxury Ryokans & the Japanese Countryside
3 WEEKS IN JAPAN
While less common among our travelers from places like the US, many of our Australian clients are fortunate enough to be able to devote 3 or more weeks to traveling around Japan.
With 3 or more weeks in Japan, you have time for a relatively comprehensive itinerary, including a variety of regions and a significant degree of immersion.
With this much time the possible itinerary permutations are almost limitless, so we hope our list of destinations below helps you narrow things down to your own personal wish list!
LESS THAN 1 WEEK IN JAPAN
If you’re thinking of visiting for less than a week, make sure to see our article on where to go if you have 5 days in Japan.
Japan’s Best Destinations to Visit
Now that we’ve covered some key background details, it’s time for the fun part!
The destinations below are divided into two main sections:
- A brief overview of Japan’s must-visit destinations
- A list of other amazing places in Japan
“Must-Visit” Destinations in Japan: The Essentials
Of course, when it comes to something as subjective as travel, there is no such thing as a true “must-visit.” It comes down to personal preference, above all.
But based on our and our travelers’ collective experience, we consider the modern capital of Tokyo and the ancient capital of Kyoto to be essential destinations, especially if it’s your first trip to Japan.
To complement the two, we recommend at least a 1- or 2-night trip into the Japanese countryside (and a traditional ryokan experience) to round out your itinerary.
Tokyo needs little introduction.
One of the world’s most exciting and eclectic cities, Tokyo is full of amazing restaurants (with cuisine both high and “low”), beautiful gardens, cutting-edge architecture, charming backstreets, and a glittering neon-filled cityscape.
Kyoto could not be more different than Tokyo, but is equally enthralling.
One of the most culturally rich cities in the world, Kyoto is what many travelers dream of when envisioning Japan. You could easily spend weeks wandering its back streets, generations-old craft shops and restaurants, ancient temples and gardens.
Like Tokyo, Kyoto offers fantastic day-trip possibilities including Nara and Osaka (both featured below), along with Uji, Shigaraki, and many more.
A TRADITIONAL RYOKAN IN THE JAPANESE COUNTRYSIDE
A trip including Tokyo and Kyoto would be great, but to complement the two cities we often recommend at least an overnight trip to rural Japan.
In the countryside, stay at a beautiful ryokan and enjoy onsen (hot springs) and kaiseki cuisine.
Fortunately, this type of experience is available in countless areas throughout Japan, including the Izu Peninsula and Hakone (both featured below), along with many more (see our article on the best ryokans for a short visit).
A trip including these three elements – modern Tokyo, historic Kyoto, and stay at a traditional ryokan in the countryside – is the perfect recipe for a rich and rewarding Japan travel experience.
For a great example of this, see our 8-day Japan Essentials: Tokyo, Kyoto & Hakone sample trip.
More Amazing Destinations in Japan
Now that we’ve covered our recommended “must-visits”, we can get into our longer list of other amazing places throughout Japan.
We couldn’t include every single place we love in Japan, and please note that these are not listed in any particular order!
Kanazawa is a historical gem of a city, thanks in great part to having been spared during World War II. The main reason visitors flock to Kanazawa is Kenrokuen Garden, considered one of Japan’s Three Great Gardens.
Along with its garden, the city is renowned for its impeccably preserved geisha and samurai historical districts, traditional crafts, and its wonderful cuisine — including some of Japan’s best-quality seafood and sake.
Other Kanazawa highlights include the D.T. Suzuki Museum of Buddhist philosophy, the bustling Omicho Market, the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, and Myoryu-ji (the Ninja Temple).
One of the best places in Japan for art lovers, the art island of Naoshima is home to a large collection of contemporary art museums, galleries, exhibits and installations.
Benesse House (also home to Naoshima’s most noteworthy hotel) features works by an impressive collection of artists, including Yayoi Kusama, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Gerhard Richter, Shinro Ohtake, Richard Long, David Hockney, and many more.
The gorgeous Chichu Art Museum was designed by Tadao Ando to let in an abundance of natural light, and features a small but impressive collection of works by artists including Claude Monet, James Turrell and Walter De Maria.
The Art House Project is a collection of abandoned houses and workshops – as well as a temple and a shrine – that have been converted into venues and art installations for artists from Japan and around the world.
If you have time for a visit to Teshima while visiting Naoshima, it’s worth a visit! Located just 30 minutes away by ferry, Teshima is a tiny island with three notable art sites.
In addition to the Teshima Yokoo House and Christian Boltanski’s “Les Archives du Cœur,” the island’s highlight is the stunning Teshima Art Museum.
Just a half-hour from Kyoto, Osaka is a lively city famous for its food, and home to Japan’s most fun-loving citizens.
As anyone from either city would tell you, despite their proximity the two neighbors could not be more different from one another. Osaka’s food is what draws many culinary travelers to Osaka, and the people of Osaka are notorious for their obsession with eating and drinking.
Osaka has an eclectic culinary universe, with specialties ranging from casual favorites such as street-side takoyaki (fried bite-sized balls filled with octopus and other goodies) and okonomiyaki, to elegant establishments and Michelin-starred restaurants.
Osaka is less about sights and more about tastes, but its non-culinary highlights include the reconstructed Osaka-jo (Osaka Castle) and the world-famous Osaka Aquarium.
HIROSHIMA, MIYAJIMA & ONOMICHI
Located in Hiroshima Prefecture, the city of Hiroshima, Miyajima, and Onomichi are all very worthwhile stops.
There are plenty of interesting things to do in Hiroshima.
Hiroshima is most famous for being the site of one of two atomic bombs dropped on Japan at the end of the Second World War. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is located in the Peace Park, adjacent to the sobering sight of the iconic A-Bomb Dome.
The powerful Peace Park and Museum are well worth exploration, but after reliving the horrors of 1945 you’ll see that Hiroshima’s present is much brighter.
Hiroshima’s people are friendly and outgoing, and in addition to the famous local specialty, okonomiyaki, Hiroshima is full of bars and restaurants offering local sake (and, in winter, the amazing local oysters).
Miyajima Island is a stunning UNESCO World Heritage site located just outside of Hiroshima. The island is home to the historic Itsukushima Shrine, which was originally founded in the 6th century and has long been one of Japan’s most sacred sites.
Even if you have not heard of Miyajima, chances are you have seen photos of the iconic shrine: it’s one of the most photographed sights in Japan, thanks to its magnificent red torii gate, which appears to be floating in the waters of the Inland Sea. The scenery changes dramatically from high tide to low.
Onomichi is a quaint port town on the southern coast of Hiroshima Prefecture. In addition to its attractive surroundings and pleasant atmosphere, Onomichi is home to Onomichi U2, a renovated warehouse offering a unique collection of locally-oriented shopping and dining options.
For a small town, Onomichi also has an unusually high concentration of temples, 25 of which form the well-known Temple Walk. Art lovers will want to pay homage at the Onomichi City Art Museum, designed by world-famous architect Tadao Ando.
Located in a remote wooded area of Wakayama Prefecture, south of Kyoto and Osaka, the small mountaintop Buddhist community of Mount Koya is one of Japan’s most magical, if increasingly popular, destinations.
Yet, step past the souvenir stands and you’ll find that Mount Koya remains a fascinating destination for anyone interested in Buddhism, history, traditional culture, and nature.
Mt. Koya is one of the best places in Japan to experience a stay in a Buddhist temple. Aside from the chance to stay in a shukubo (temple lodging), Koya-san’s most famous landmark is the otherworldly Okunoin Cemetery, one of Japan’s most sacred sites, and the location of Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum.
Located within easy reach of Kyoto, Nara preceded Kyoto as the ancient capital of Japan, and today is home to a treasure trove of Japanese history (including the UNESCO World Heritage historic monuments of ancient Nara).
Nara’s most well-known monument is the impressive 8th century Todaiji Temple, the world’s largest wooden building, which houses Japan’s largest Buddha, the Daibutsu. A nice walk from Todaiji – and also in Nara Park – is Nara’s most celebrated shrine, Kasuga Taisha.
Other highlights in Nara include the 7th century Horyuji Temple (Japan’s first UNESCO site), Yakushiji Temple, Chuguji Temple, Issuien Garden, and the charming Naramachi historical district.
KUMANO KODO PILGRIMAGE
The Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route is one of Japan’s most enchanting walks.
Deep in rural Wakayama Prefecture, but just a few hours south of Kyoto and Osaka, the UNESCO-recognized Kumano region is filled with spirituality and history, as well as beautiful landscapes, charming villages, hiking, and onsen.
Walks along the pilgrimage route range from day hikes all the way up to challenging multi-day walks for the more adventurous. Kumano Kodo is also part of a Dual Pilgrim program with its sister walk, Spain’s better-known Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James).
KISO VALLEY & NAKASENDO WAY
The Kiso Valley lies in the lovely countryside between the central city of Nagoya, and the alpine cities of Nagano and Matsumoto.
In the heart of the Kiso Valley you can experience a walk along the old Nakasendo Way, which once connected Kyoto and Tokyo. The most well-preserved stretch of the Nakasendo Highway lies between the villages of Tsumago and Magome.
Magome is a charming post town easily reached from Nagoya, and the perfect starting (or end) point for the walk.
The walk from Magome to Tsumago is about 8 km (3-4 hours) and culminates with your arrival in Tsumago, one of Japan’s loveliest villages.
Fewer Clients, Richer Experiences
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Located just to the south and west of Tokyo, most visitors to Japan travel through Izu without even realizing it.
The shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Kyoto passes through the northern end of Izu, but the majority of its gems lie to the south.
Izu is overflowing with natural beauty, onsen, and remarkable seafood and produce, and a handful of our favorite areas include Shimoda (on Izu’s southernmost point), Shuzenji Onsen, Izu-Kogen, and Yugashima Onsen.
Too vast to describe in a short article, Japan’s northernmost island is renowned for its pristine nature and expansive landscapes, incredible seafood and produce, and – by many accounts – the best skiing and snowboarding on Earth.
The whole of Hokkaido is full of stunning natural beauty. Start in Sapporo or Hakodate (both wonderful culinary cities), then venture off into the wild.
While not an absolute must, one of the best ways to explore Hokkaido is by self-drive. Renting a car is not always the best way to get around on Japan’s main islands, but on Hokkaido it’s often a great option.
YAEYAMA ISLANDS, OKINAWA
When most people think “beach holidays” and “Asia,” Japan is not the first place that comes to mind.
Yet Japan is home to one of Asia’s loveliest subtropical destinations, the beautiful Yaeyama Islands of Okinawa.
The whole Okinawan archipelago is full of gorgeous little islands, but for one of the most unique experiences Japan has to offer, the remote Yaeyama Islands have no equal.
Geographically closer to Taiwan and mainland Asia than to mainland Japan, the Yaeyama Islands feature not only picturesque beaches and nature (including jungles), but a rich Ryukyu heritage and culture.
TAKAYAMA, SHIRAKAWAGO & GOKAYAMA
Established in the 16th century, Takayama is a historic town in the Hida Mountains of the Japanese Alps renowned for its traditional atmosphere and culinary offerings, including the famous Hida-gyu beef, wonderful rice and mountain vegetables, and some of Japan’s best sake.
While the town has become popular over the years, even when the town center is filled with day-trippers a stroll in most directions will reveal quiet backstreets.
Well-known highlights in Takayama include the Miyagawa River morning market and the Sanmachi Suji district, which boasts beautifully preserved historical buildings housing taverns, inns, and shops. If you want to get out of town for some exercise and activity, there are great cycling opportunities in the beautiful surrounding countryside.
Shirakawago and Gokayama
Deep in the Japanese Alps are the UNESCO World Heritage historic villages of Shirakawago and Gokayama. Historically, the villages were incredibly difficult to access, and thus cut off from most of the rest of Japan until relatively recent times.
Today these remote villages are among the most photographed places in Japan, thanks to their steeply-sloped thatched roofs (known as gassho-zukuri, or “praying hands”) — capable of withstanding the heavy snowfall that the region receives each winter — and beautiful mountainous surroundings.
While popular with tourists, the villages are nevertheless lovely and picturesque.
Hakone is the Tokyo area’s most famous nature retreat. In addition to its onsen, it’s most well-known for its views of Mount Fuji on clear days (which can, admittedly, be frustratingly rare).
For art lovers, there is the excellent Hakone Open-Air Museum, or take in the beautiful landscapes from Hakone’s famous sightseeing loop.
The circuit takes you around the region via a charming variety of modes of transport including the Hakone Tozan Railway, Cable Car, Hakone Ropeway, and cruise across beautiful Lake Ashi.
Fukuoka is a cosmopolitan city at the northern end of the rugged Kyushu island. Also known as Hakata, the city of Fukuoka is one of Japan’s culinary capitals, and is also blessed by relatively mild weather, a buzzing energy yet laid-back feel, and access to Kyushu’s beautiful landscapes.
Fukuoka’s food is the draw for many travelers. The city is legendary for its tonkotsu ramen, and also one of few cities in Japan with a thriving yatai culture. Yatai are humble and casual food carts, where you can drink and dine among locals.
In addition to its culinary highlights, Fukuoka is a magnet for creatives with a vibrant arts scene, attracting young artists and designers from throughout Japan (and Asia).
Kurashiki is a small city best known for its beautifully preserved historical district, located along a picturesque canal. Its old merchant district, known as the Bikan Historical Quarter, is lined with attractive former kura (storehouses) that have been lovingly preserved and converted into charming galleries, boutiques, and cafes.
In addition to the hidden gems you’ll come across as you stroll, well-known highlights include the 200-year-old Morita Shuzo sake brewery, and the Ohara Museum of Art, which also boasts an impressive gallery of Japanese ceramics.
Matsue, located in western Japan’s beautiful but little-visited Shimane Prefecture, is one of Japan’s hidden gems.
Most visitors travel to Matsue for the breathtaking Adachi Museum of Art. In addition to its impressive collection of modern Japanese painting (including works by Yokoyama Taikan), the Adachi Museum is most renowned for its world-famous garden, which blends almost magically into the surrounding landscape.
In Matsue itself, enjoy excellent seafood and sake, and visit Matsue-jo (Matsue Castle), one of only a handful of surviving original castles in Japan (dating from the 17th-century).
Matsue is also the ideal base from which to visit Izumo Taisha, one of Japan’s oldest and most important Shinto shrines, as well as the idyllic Oki Islands.
Kinosaki Onsen is one of Japan’s quintessential onsen destinations.
In addition to the onsen at your ryokan, one of the highlights of a visit to Kinosaki is heading out for a stroll through town in your provided yukata (light Japanese-style robe) and geta (wooden clogs).
The old-fashioned town features seven sento (bathhouses), which sit among pretty streets of traditional wooden buildings and narrow bridges.
Jutting out into the Japan Sea, to the north of Kanazawa, is the rugged Noto Hanto (Noto Peninsula).
Made famous by the wonderful book Rice, Noodle, Fish, Noto Hanto makes for one of Japan’s best self-drive destinations.
Visit the Wajima Market, enjoy dramatic coastal scenery, have lunch at Flatt’s, and – if you’re lucky – spend the night at one of Noto’s beautiful onsen ryokans.
Takamatsu is a pleasant city on the northeast coast of Shikoku. It’s the largest city in Kagawa, a prefecture famous for its delicious udon noodles. A ferry also connects Takamatsu to Naoshima (see above).
But the real highlights of a visit to Takamatsu are Ritsurin Koen, a lovely landscape garden, and the serene Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum.
Takamatsu is also a convenient jumping-off point for Kotohira (home to Konpirasan Shrine and the wonderful Kanamaru-za kabuki theater), and the Iya Valley in Shikoku’s remote interior.
Yakushima is a subtropical island off of Kyushu’s southern coast. The remote island offers miles of untouched coastline and some of Japan’s most stunning hiking, with trails winding through lush forests full of mossy rocks and ancient cedar trees (some as old as 7,000 years!).
Despite gaining recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, Yakushima remains largely untouched by tourism, and is the perfect place to experience the natural beauty and peaceful, tranquil aura of rural, off-the-beaten-path Japan.
While we couldn’t include every single one of our favorite places in Japan, we hope our guide to Japan’s best destinations helps you decide where to go on your trip!
Where in Japan Will You Go?
Whether you usually plan your own trips, or normally work with a destination expert, planning a trip to Japan can seem overwhelming at times.
At Boutique Japan, our specialty is crafting completely customized trips for travelers seeking unique, authentic experiences.
If you are interested in learning more about working with us, please feel free to explore our trip planning process.