Ever tried to read a Japanese address? It can often be confusing for Westerners because of the unique administrative structure of the country.
Japan is divided up into 47 prefectures that form seven distinct regions. Each prefecture has its own history, landscape and culture. For those visiting the country or looking to move there, an overview of these prefectures can point you in the right direction. From snow monkeys to coral reefs, you’re bound to find a prefecture that combines your love of Japan with your personal interests.
Unfortunately, visiting every part of every country on Earth just isn’t possible. However, this quick glimpse into the personality of each prefecture can help you prioritize your time in Japan.
Hokkaido Region 北海道
Hokkaido is the only prefecture that takes up an entire region. It consists of Japan’s most northerly island. As a result, it features world-famous ski resorts and an annual Snow Festival in Sapporo. With no rainy season and a relatively low population, Hokkaido is also full of beautiful national parks that are great for hiking and camping.
Tohoku Region 東北
Aomori is a rural prefecture. It has a lot of coastline on both the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan. That along with the cooler northern weather makes it a great place to visit in the summer.
In Akita you can enjoy world-class skiing and then relax in an onsen hot spring. Akita is the largest city and a great place to visit museums or festivals devoted to traditional Japanese folklore.
Iwate is well known for its historic temples. The largest city is Morioka, a place famous for its tetsubin (kettles) and wanko (soba) production.
Yamagata grows more cherries and pears than any other prefecture. Fruit cultivation is its claim to fame, and you can also find apples, grapes, melons, peaches, persimmons and watermelons. If you like chess, you might also consider visiting the town of Tendo where they make boards and pieces.
Unlike other prefectures in Tohoku, Miyagi is urban. The capital Sendai has a population of over a million and is a manufacturing hub for the country. As a big city, Sendai has plenty of museums and attractions, or you can go a bit outside the city to visit the castle Aoba-jo or see the autumn leaves over the Hirose River.
These days, Fukushima is a household name after its nuclear plant suffered a meltdown in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Don’t worry, though. Except for the well-marked exclusion zone, this prefecture is perfectly safe. In fact, you can visit impressive castles and stunning natural parks without being crowded out by other tourists.
If you like dumplings, you can go to the capital city Utsunomiya. It’s considered the dumpling capital of Japan. Also think about visiting the town of Nikko. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site where you can see Toshogu, the tomb of shogun Tokugawa, Rinnoji Temple, and the Kegon Falls.
If you’re staying in Tokyo, consider Gunma as a quick day trip. You can relax in onsen hot springs and check out the historical Tomioka Silk Mill. Gunma also grows 90% of Japan’s konjacs, a plant important in Asian cuisine.
Ibaraki is about 150 km north of Tokyo along the Pacific coast. That makes it a nice getaway popular with surfers. Additionally, the prefecture is famous for its plum blossoms, which you can see at the garden Kairaku-en. Finally, Ibaraki is one of Japan’s leading areas for electronics research. You can even take the Tsukuba express directly between Tsukuba Science City and the electronics and gaming neighborhood Akihabara in Tokyo.
Saitama is filled with attractions that appeal to all kinds of interests. The town of Kawagoe specifically is known for its sights featuring historic Japanese culture like castles and merchants’ houses, many of which are now museums. You can also go to the Japanese Railway Museum, which is very popular with foreigners. Only 40 km from Tokyo, it’s easy to fit into your travel plans.
Tokyo, of course, is Japan’s capital and largest city. More than that, it’s the anchor of the largest metropolitan area on Earth and considered one of the world’s most important cities economically and culturally. As you can guess, there’s a lot to do and see.
Architecture buffs can check out Tokyo Tower and the newer Skytree, both of which give incredible views of the city and its skyline. Manga and video-game lovers can go to Akihabara, and there’s plenty of nightlife in Shibuya. Don’t forget sumo wrestling matches and training sessions, and last but not least, visit the endless Buddhist and Shinto temples.
Chiba is mostly an industrial area serving the greater Tokyo and Kanto area. However, you can go see ancient kofun, burial mounds from the Jomon Period, near the city of Futtsu. If you’re traveling with kids, Tokyo Disneyland and Kamogawa Sea World are both located in Chiba and easily accessible from Tokyo.
Kanagawa sits on Tokyo Bay. Almost a quarter of it is taken up by national and local parks, so it’s a great place to go to experience Japanese nature while still staying near the city. In fact, you can even stay in Yokohama, the prefecture’s largest city, which is the second largest city in Japan after Tokyo. There are also seaside resorts along the coast.
Chubu Region 中部
Nigita is known for its sakura cherry blossoms, themselves an icon of Japan. The cherry trees bloom in early April for about 7-10 days, resulting in festivals and celebrations. This festivity is referred to as hanami, and it’s popular among both the natives and world travelers.
Ishikawa is a great travel destination because it has both coastline and mountains. You can visit the beaches of the Noto Peninsula and hike in Hakusan National Park all on the same trip. In fact, you can visit Mount Haku, one of Japan’s three sacred mountains.
If you’re interested in traditional Japanese culture and folklore, Toyama should be on your list. Toyama Castle was built in the Edo period and contains a museum, and the Toyoma Folkcraft Village is full of museums dedicated to local arts and crafts. Of course, there are also modern attractions like the Toyoma Science Museum and Museum of Modern Art Toyama, both of which are located in Jonan park.
You might remember Nagano from when it hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics. Snow is an important part of this prefecture’s culture. Along with ski resorts that sport on-site onsen hot springs, Nagano is home to the Japanese snow monkeys. You can visit Jigokudani Monkey Park and get up close and personal with the monkeys known all over the world for their habit of bathing in the hot springs. At the resort, you can even take a soak with them.
The coastline is the main draw of Fukui. The beaches are popular destinations in the summer, and the rugged coast makes for great hiking all year round. Specifically, the Tojinbo Cliffs are a famous natural sight.
Gifu is a resilient prefecture. Despite earthquakes and bombings during World War II, they’ve continuously rebuilt many of their historical sights and monuments. There are plenty of castles and fortresses that display artifacts from the Edo Period.
Yamanashi is where you’ll find Mount Fuji. Many towns are easily accessible by train, and you can visit resorts and onsen hot springs with majestic views of Japan’s most famous mountain and symbol. Of course, you can also hike around the mountain and experience the natural beauty that surrounds it.
Aichi is one of the hottest places in Japan and especially humid in July and August. Many Japanese companies use this prefecture for their manufacturing facilities, including Toyota, NGK and Mitsubishi. Some of these plants allow visitors.
Shiazuoka also shares Mount Fuji. As a result, it’s a popular tourist destination for foreigners and natives looking to relax in onsen hot springs with a view of the holy mountain. Along with the tourism comes shops and resorts.
Kansai Region 関西
Hyogo is one of only two prefectures that touch the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan. It’s mainly rural and has a ton of parks you can visit and hike if you’re staying in Kyoto. Don’t miss the world-famous Himeji Castle, Japan’s largest castle, and one of few that is still the complete original structure.
Kyoto was historically the capital of Japan, and it’s one of its largest and most important cities. The city maintains much of its traditional Japanese charm, and the market downtown is a great place to get traditional Japanese food and products.
Common sights in this prefecture include the Arashiyama bamboo grove and the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine. It’s a great place to stay in a Ryokan and have an authentic Japanese experience.
A larger percentage of Shiga is natural parks than any other prefecture in Japan, so it’s a good place to go on a hiking excursion while staying close to Kyoto. One of the most interesting sights is the Hikone Castle that features a massive moat and tall white walls.
Osaka is Japan’s third largest city and the historical merchant capital of the country. It’s a welcoming prefecture full of shops and restaurants with some of Japan’s best sushi and ramen.
As such a large city, there’s plenty to do, from historical sights like Osaka-jo Castle to nightlife in Umeda. You can even visit Universal Studios Japan or Spa World, a “super onsen” that can service 5,000 bathers.
Nara is the place to be if you’re into Japanese history. Briefly the capital of Japan, it features the Todaiji Temple, which is both the world’s largest wooden building and contains the world’s largest gilded bronze Buddha. That’s not all, though. Temples and shrines adorn Nara Park, where visitors can feed the wandering Japanese deer that inhabit the area with no fear of people.
Mie is a relatively rural prefecture and a typical destination for nature lovers due to its coasts and mountains. You might also enjoy visiting the town Matsusaka where you can visit intact samurai homes. Castles and shrines also abound.
Most tourists go to Wakayama to see Wakayama Castle. That’s because not only can you see a large historic Japanese fortress, but you can experience hanami and view the cherry trees blossoming all the same place. Near the castle there’s also a museum of modern art.
Chugoku Region 中国
Tottori is a rural prefecture with a long coastline. This coastline features the Tottori Sand Dunes, a beautiful natural formation that’s part of the San’in Kaigan Global Geopark. You can also find castles, temples and museums in its various towns, all giving unique glimpses into Japanese culture.
For the fisherman traveling to Japan, Shimane is a can’t-miss. It’s along the Pacific Coast, and you can visit the historic fishing port of Mihonoseki. The Oki Islands are also beautiful sights that you can access by ferry.
Okayama’s mascot is Momotaro, the “Peach Boy” from Japanese folklore. In the tale, the boy goes on a quest to Kinojo Castle, which you can visit. In general, folklore plays a central role in the culture of this prefecture. You can also go to Naoshima Island and see the extensive network of modern art museums and exhibits.
Hiroshima is the perfect destination for modern history buffs. The Atomic Bomb Dome marks the world’s first of only two nuclear attacks, and nearby you can visit memorials and museums that together tell the story of this infamous event. If that’s not your style, Hiroshima is also known for okonomiyaki, the Japanese pancake.
Yamaguchi is a peaceful prefecture, and its sights reflect that. There are Zen gardens and plenty of onsen hot spring resorts for relaxing. Christian tourists may also take interest in the St. Francis Xavier Memorial Church, memorializing the saint’s visit to Yamaguchi four centuries ago.
Shikoku Region 四国
The most popular place to visit in Kagawa is Ritsurin Park. It’s one the country’s largest and most beautiful strolling gardens. After spending the day there, you can pass the evening at Sunport Takamatsu, a promenade on the waterfront.
Matsuyama is the largest city in the Ehime prefecture. There you can find the impressive Matsuyama Castle and the Dōgo Onsen, the oldest hot spring in Japan. It’s been used for over 2,000 years. Other cities in the prefecture include Uwajima and Imabari.
Are you a dancer? Do you like watching dances? Tokushima hosts the annual Awa Odori festival, which is devoted to Japanese street dancing. It takes place in the summer when you can also go visit the Naruto whirlpools that form in the Naruto Strait.
Kochi is located on the southern end of Shikoku Island. It’s considered by the Japanese people to be one of the best places to live in the country. That’s because the culture is friendly and hospitable. There are many parks and local markets, and for the tourists sights like Kochi Castle.
Kyushu and Okinawa Region 九州・沖縄
In the south of Japan, Fukuoka is a popular summer destination. Momochi Seaside Park specifically features over a mile of beachfront adjacent to Fukuoka Tower. Here you’ll also find shops and restaurants. Add to that shrines, museums, folk festivals and boat tours, and Fukuoka has something to offer everyone.
Saga has a lot of historical sights that date back to the Edo Period including two popular castles: Karatsu and Saga. If you want to dive even deeper into history, there’s an archaeological site in the countryside called Yoshinogari Historical Park. You can visit to see evidence of Japanese civilization from over 2,000 years ago.
Historically, Nagasaki has had a lot of foreign influence. It was one of the first places where Westerners arrived in the country, and this history is evident throughout the prefecture. You can see old trading posts and visit the Siebold Memorial Museum that tells the story of early foreigners in Japan. There’s even a large number of Catholic churches.
Kumamoto is known as a castle town. For those staying in Fukuoka, it’s a comfortable 90-minute train ride away. Take a day trip to visit Kumamoto Castle that allows you to explore the spacious and impressive interior.
Oita is a major tourist destination for the Japanese people. Beppu and Yufuin bring in millions of people from other parts of Japan every year. That’s because of the traditional onsen hot spring baths. Similar sights are the jigoku. The word means “hell” in English and refers to ponds bubbling with sulphuric goop from the geothermal processes below.
Miyazaki is closely tied with ancient Japanese mythology, and you can see this in places like the Amano Iwato Shrine. It’s also the legendary home of Jimmu, the mythical first emperor of Japan who legend says lived there almost 3,000 years ago.
Geologists both professional and amateur might be inclined to visit Kagoshima thanks to its access to the active volcano Sakurajima. Sometimes it can be seen erupting where it sits across Kinko bay from Kagoshima City. Of course, a number of beaches and museums will round out your experience.
Okinawa is the southernmost prefecture in Japan. It’s an international resort destination. On top of gorgeous beaches, coral reefs and crystal clear water make it a haven for snorkelers and divers.
Okinawa was actually a separate kingdom until it was annexed by Japan in 1871. As a result, it has a different culture from the rest of the country. That includes a unique cuisine that’s considered delicious and healthy around the world.