Compared to the U.S.A., Japan is a small country. Despite its size, the country offers a wide range of tourist attractions: from snowy mountains to pristine beaches; from traditional shrines to futuristic buildings. The choices may seem endless.
Do you go to the usual cities like Tokyo or Kyoto? Do you immerse yourself in Japan’s traditional culture or do you enjoy its ultra-modern lifestyle? Do you soak in the country’s natural wonders or do you get lost among the crowd? Do you eat the usual food or go for the more exotic ones?
To help you make your choice, here are my recommendations for the top 10 cities to visit in Japan and a bucket list of some usual and unusual things you can see, eat, and do in each one.
1. Tokyo (Where the Old and the New Thrive Side by Side)
Japan’s capital is the most common destination for many tourists. It has an eclectic mix of traditional and modern attractions.
Here you will find towering skyscrapers alongside quiet temples and sprawling forests. Here you will find the most fashion-forward people parading the streets alongside stiffly uniformed employees. Here you can eat freshly-caught sashimi and comfort food like ramen.
Be prepared to shell out quite a bit. Tokyo can be very expensive but also very cheap depending on where you go
- Senso-ji Temple (the Asakusa Kannon Temple)
- Tokyo’s oldest and one of the most popular temples
- Tokyo Skytree
- The tallest tower in the world at 2,080 ft.
- Meiji Jingu
- The shrine dedicated to Japan’s Emperor Meiji and Empress Jingu
- Digital Art Museum at the Mori Building
- The world’s first digital art museum
- Ueno Park
- Very crowded during the cherry blossom season
- Also has a zoo, museums, and historical monuments
- Eat at a themed café or restaurant (maids, robots, cats, dogs, monsters, owls, and hedgehogs are just some of the themes you can choose from).
- Eat the freshest sushi and sashimi in the city at one of the sushi restaurants in Toyosu Market (the new location of what used to be the Tsukiji Fish Market).
- Have lunch at Nakiryu or Nakajima, Michelin-starred but still affordable ramen shops.
- Dare to eat grilled chicken innards at a yakitori stand.
- See if you can finish the 8-layer ice cream cone at Daily Chico.
- Add to your manga, anime, or video game collection by buying something from one of Mandarake’s stores in Akihabara or Nakano.
- Conquer Mount Fuji or Mount Takao.
- Experience virtual reality or relax at a planetarium in Ikebukuro’s Sunshine City.
- Go to the top of Tokyo Tower or Skytree during a clear weekend and get the amazing view of Tokyo and Mount Fuji in the distance.
- Join the Shibuya Scramble Crossing.
2. Kyoto (Where You Go Back in Time)
Kyoto was Japan’s capital for more than 1,000 years. Traditional Japanese culture, therefore, oozes from every part of the city. Kyoto prefecture actually has 17 World Heritage Sites. Although the city now offers modern-day entertainment, tourists visit it for its temples, shrines, parks, old houses, and attractions that make you feel like you’ve gone back in time to the era of katana-wielding samurai.
Kyoto is currently jam-packed with tourists because of the upswing in travel. If you plan to go to the usual tourist spots, hit all your main spots early to avoid the crowd.
- Kinkakuji Temple (the Golden Pavilion)
- Probably the most-photographed UNESCO World Heritage Site in Kyoto.
- Once a villa to the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu.
- The second and third floors are plated with gold.
- The name originates from the gold plating on the temple.
- Ryoan-ji Temple
- Famed for its Zen rock garden.
- No matter the viewpoint, one rock is hidden from the viewer.
- Unknown origins. Once an aristocrat’s villa, then a head priest’s residence.
- Nijo Castle
- Used to be the seat of government when Kyoto was the capital of Japan.
- Residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1603.
- A 3 part site, the Ninomaru Palace, Ninomaru Garden, and the Honmaru.
- A very beautiful place to view cherry blossoms in the spring.
- Streets of Gion
- The locale of Geisha (or geiko) and Maiko (apprentice geisha)
- A very historical location dates back to the Edo period with original streets and storefront buildings.
- Many Kyoto styled restaurants serving Kaiseki Ryori (haute cuisine).
- A great destination for souvenirs, foods, and handmade crafts.
- Daimonji Fire Festival
- Gigantic kanji characters blaze on the hills surrounding the city
- Tradition that honors ancestral spirits during the 3-day Obon festival in August
- Splurge on a kaiseki ryori (a multi-course Japanese meal)
- Try some shojin ryori (Japanese Buddhist vegetarian cuisine) or obanzai (a variety of local vegetables cooked in traditional ways and served in small dishes)
- Participate in a tea ceremony
- Have dinner at one of the restaurants along the Kamogawa River
- Have some matcha desserts at Tsujiri in Gion
- Dress up as a samurai and be part of the Toei Kyoto Studio Park’s Edo era activities or be a ninja for one day at the Ninja Dojo
- Walk through the 5,000 torii gates of the Fushimi Inari Shrine
- Watch how kimonos are made at the Nishijin Textile Center
- Attend a performance at the Minami-za Kabuki Theater
- Get a fortune by water at the Kifune Shrine
3. Nara (Where Ancient Culture is Celebrated)
Before Kyoto, Japan’s capital from 710 to 794 AD was a place called Heijo.This ancient capital is now known as Nara. Nara is famous for its deer. According to Shinto traditions deer are messengers of the gods and therefore are sacred beings. But the city offers more than friendly animals. It also has a lot of temples, shrines, and mochi! If you want history but don’t like the big crowds of Kyoto, then go to Nara.
- 49-foot gold and bronze Buddha of the Todai-ji Temple
- The statue was finished in 752 AD and weighs over 500 tons making it the world’s largest Buddha statue
- The temple is part of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara
- Pagoda of the Horyu-ji Temple
- Believed to be one of the oldest wooden structures in the world
- Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara
- A 617-hectare UNESCO World Heritage site showcasing structures and areas that used to be important when Nara was the capital of Japan.
- Besides Todai-ji Temple and other historical sites, it encompasses the Kofuku-ji Temple, the Kasuga-taisha Temple, the Gango-ji Temple, the Yakushi-ji Temple, the Toshodai-ji Temple, the Heijo
- Palace (Nara Imperial Palace), and the Kasugayama Primeval Forest
- Omizutori ceremony at the Todai-ji Temple
- One of the oldest festivals in Japan
- Giant torches are set on fire to cleanse people of their sins and to usher in Spring
- Isui-en Garden
- Japanese-style garden located between Todai-ji Temple and Kofuku-ji Temple
- Also has the Neiraku Art Museum (contains ancient works of art) and Sanshutei (Japanese-style restaurant overlooking the garden)
- Compare other sushi you’ve eaten with Nara’s kakinoha sushi (mackerel sushi wrapped in persimmon leaves)
- Try some Narazuke pickles (vegetables pickled in sake lees)
- Decide which type of somen noodles you like more: reimen (cold noodles dipped in sauce) or nyumen (warm noodle soup)
- Get some freshly-pounded yomogi mochi from the fastest mochi pounders of Nakatanidou
- Order some manju (steamed bun filled with sweet bean paste) from where it originated in Japan: Nara
- Feed the deer at the Nara National Park
- Take a traditional rickshaw ride through the old merchant district of Naramachi
- Stay overnight at a Buddhist temple
- Learn origami and calligraphy or dress up in a sumo suit or kimono and take a souvenir photo at the Nara Cultural Center
- Take part in one of Nara’s oldest traditions by lighting a candle and making a wish during the Nara Toka-e Lantern Festival (August 5th-14th)
4. Osaka (Where Neon Signs Abound)
Osaka is the third largest city in Japan. It is famous for its distinct dialect, numerous entertainment spots, and very yummy food. Lots of tourists go to the Universal Studios Japan when they’re in Osaka, but you can get off the beaten track with some unusual activities like watching an Osaka-style comedy show. Since Osaka is one of the top tourist destinations of Japan, expect crowds of people at every spot.
- The Glico Running Man and the gigantic moving crab are only some of the neon signs you have to take a photo of this vibrant neighborhood
- Osaka Castle
- Considered one of the greatest castles in Japan
- Symbolizes efforts to unify Japan during the warring states period
- Very popular spot during the cherry blossom season
- Hosenji Temple
- A small temple in the middle of the crowded city
- The Buddha statue enshrined here is covered in moss because visitors splash it with water when they say a prayer
- The neighborhood surrounding the temple has some very traditional shops
- Tenjin Matsuri
- One of the main festivals of the country
- Shrines are paraded along the streets and canals of Osaka then a fireworks display is held afterward
- Kamigata Ukiyo-e Museum
- Kamigata used to be the name of the Osaka-Kyoto region during the Edo era
- The museum is the only one in the world showcasing this type of ukiyo-e (woodblock prints)
- You can’t go to Osaka and not try its famous street food: takoyaki (fried batter stuffed with octopus and other ingredients)
- Grill your own okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancakes made of cabbage, batter, and whatever toppings you want)
- Try some of the regional specialty: ikayaki (crepe-like food with squid and a special sauce)
- Dare to eat some pufferfish as a hot pot dish or sashimi
- Snack on some taiyaki (cakes shaped like fish and filled with various sweet stuff like custard or sweet red bean paste)
- Play with marine animals at Kaiyukan, one of the biggest aquariums in the world
- Ride the Redhorse Osaka Wheel, the biggest Ferris wheel in Japan whose gondolas have see-through floors
- Enjoy an Osaka-style comedy show in English at the ROR Comedy Club
- Watch a Bunraku puppet show at the National Bunraku Theater
- Watch a baseball game at the Hanshin Koshien Stadium
5. Sapporo (Where Winter is Truly a Wonderland)
One unusual fact about Japan is that its islands are situated in different geographical zones. So, the north is covered in snow for half of the year while the southern tip is always tropical. Sapporo is the capital of Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido. It’s famous for Winter activities and beer! But it does offer other activities even when there’s no snow. Sapporo gets crowded during the winter months so be warned.
- Odori Park
- The venue of the annual Sapporo Snow Festival in February
- Intricate ice sculptures by sculptors from all over the world are displayed
- Tokeidai (Clock Tower)
- The building was erected in 1878 and the clock, bought from Boston, was installed in 1881
- A symbol of the city’s history and culture
- Sapporo Olympic Museum
- The 1972 Winter Olympics was held in Sapporo
- Showcases memorabilia from the event and other winter sports
- Check out interactive exhibits where you can virtually try ski jumping, bobsledding, and figure skating
- Maruyama Zoo
- The largest zoo in Japan
- The stars of the zoo are the polar bears
- Moerenuma Park
- The area was a landfill until it was completely transformed in 2005 into a space where art and nature coexist
- One of its attractions is Hidamari, a glass pyramid structure
- Feast on Sapporo’s signature food: kegani (hairy crab)
- Sip some piping hot soup curry (soup flavored with curry sauce and containing spices, meat, and fresh vegetables)
- Indulge in a cake buffet at the Ishiya Chocolate Factory and sample
- Hokkaido’s famous shiroi koibito or “white lover” (a confectionary made of white chocolate and wafers)
- Enjoy some “adult” ice cream at Milk Mura (soft-serve ice cream in mugs served with a chaser of liquor)
- Order some Jingisukan/Genghis Khan (Sapporo-style Mongolian barbecue, usually mutton and vegetables)
- Sample some beer after a tour at the Sapporo Beer Museum
- Ski or snowboard at a ski resort
- Hike or ride a ropeway and cable car to the top of Mount Moiwa where you can have a gorgeous night view of the city
- Ride a carriage and learn how to milk a cow at Sapporo Satoland, an “agricultural amusement park”
- Dig through the antiques sold at Susukino Antique Shop Route 36
- Play with snakes of North Safari Sapporo during summer and dog sled with huskies during winter
6. Fukuoka (Where Tonkotsu Ramen Was Born)
Fukuoka is one of the largest cities in Japan. This is not surprising because it is actually made up of two old cities. The old Fukuoka and Hakata, which were divided by the Naka River, were merged during the Meiji era. Hakata became the main ward while what was known as Fukuoka became the Tenjin ward. The two wards make up Fukuoka City, the capital of Fukuoka Prefecture. Some consider Fukuoka as the ramen capital of the world. It is the birthplace of tonkotsu ramen (pork bone-based broth ramen).
Being a seaside area, Fukuoka can be crowded during the summer months.
- Ohori Park
- Officially registered as a “Place of Scenic Beauty”
- Kushida Shrine
- Hosts the annual Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival, where men race across the city while carrying decorated floats weighing almost a ton each
- Displays the biggest Otafuku mask in Japan at its torii gates from January to February
- Fukuoka Castle (a.k.a. Maizuru Castle)
- A 17th-century hilltop castle overlooking the Naka River
- Best visited during the cherry blossom season because of its 1,000 varieties of cherry blossom trees
- Marine World and Seaside Park in Uminonakamichi
- The Aquarium contains a lot of local marine creatures
- The Park showcases flowers and animals
- Shofukuji Temple
- The first Zen Buddhist temple in Japan
- Played a major role in introducing tea to Japan
- Conducts daily tea ceremonies
- Slurp some tonkotsu ramen where it all began (take note, locals call it Hakata ramen)
- Buy and eat mentaiko (pollock roe) from Yanagibashirengo Market
- Try some goma saba (mackerel sashimi tossed in a special dressing) fresh from the sea
- Eat some street food at a yatai (a mobile food cart or stall) along the Naka River at night
- End your food trip with some Hakata no Hito (a sweet pastry with red bean jelly in the middle)
- Enjoy the amenities of Canal City Hakata, a sprawling mall complex
- Watch a sumo national tournament at the Fukuoka Convention Center in November
- Swim in one of the artificial beaches of the Momochi Seaside Park
- Play with the robots at Robosquare
- Get lost in Tenjin Chikagai, the network of underground passageways in the Tenjin area that contain shops and restaurants
7. Yokohama (Where Water is Life)
Yokohama is the second largest city in Japan. It was one of the first places to open its ports to foreign trade when Japan’s self-isolation policy ended in 1859. This move changed Yokohama from a small fishing village into a major trading city. Yokohama has a very busy port so expect traffic.
- Osanbashi Pier
- A.k.a. Osanbashi Yokohama International Passenger Terminal
- Offers a great view of Minato Mirai (future port), Yokohama’s iconic skyline and port
- Also a great spot to enjoy the annual Kanagawa Shimbun Fireworks Festival in August
- Yokohama Landmark Tower
- Its Sky Garden observation deck has a 360-degree view of the city and nearby areas
- Red Brick Warehouse
- Constructed in 1910 and used as custom houses until 1989. Now stores and shops have taken up residence within and around the historical warehouse.
- Yokohama Archives of History
- Contains historical memorabilia of when Yokohama opened its port to US trade as represented by Commodore Matthew C. Perry
- Housed in the building where the treaty was signed
- Nippon Maru Museum
- Learn more about Yokohama’s history through the exhibits inside this ship turned museum
- Sample ramen from various regions at the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum (yes, that’s the official English spelling of the place; and it’s really more of a food court than a museum)
- Design your own cup and noodles at the Cup Noodles Museum
- Go on a food trip at Yokohama Chinatown, said to be the largest Chinatown in Japan
- Try some Napolitan spaghetti (stir-fried pasta with tomato ketchup and vegetables)
- Drink some Kirin Yokohama Beer after a guided tour of the village where it’s brewed
- Take a sea or water bus tour of Yokohama
- Skate at Aka Renga’s Art Rink during Christmas
- Join the outdoor yoga at Marine & Walk, then go for some retail therapy at this shopping complex
- See a Noh play at the Noh Theater
- Be a pilot for a few hours with JFlight’s Airbus A320 flight simulator
- Bonus: Watch the 2019 Rugby World Cup Finals at the Yokohama International Stadium
8. Nagasaki (Where Different Cultures are Showcased)
Nagasaki was another small fishing village until Japan’s self-isolation ended. Then it became a bustling port city with many Europeans and Americans choosing to live in it. The city’s lively commerce abruptly stopped when the second atomic bomb during World War II fell on it.
The attractions of this city showcase its international influences and how it survived the ruinous effects of the atomic bomb.
- Nagasaki Peace Park
- Erected near the hypocenter of the atomic bomb explosion
- Contains five zones: Hopes, Prayers, Learning, Sports, and Plaza
- You will also find here, among other monuments and buildings, the Atomic Bomb Museum, the National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims, and the Heiwa Kinen-zo bronze statue
- Huis Ten Bosch
- During Japan’s self-isolation period, the shogunate of Nagasaki allowed Holland to continue to trade with the area
- Huis Ten Bosch is Dutch for “the house of the forest”
- It’s an open air museum/theme park showcasing replicas of Dutch-style homes and buildings, restaurants, hotels, and gardens
- Oura Cathedral
- One of a few Catholic churches in Japan
- Built by French missionaries in 1886, the oldest of its kind in Japan
- Considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site
- Koshi-byo Confucius Shrine
- The only Confucian shrine existing outside of mainland China
- Built by Nagasaki Chinese residents
- Glover Garden
- Thomas Blake Glover was a British tea merchant who played a major role in toppling the Tokugawa era, establishing the Meiji era, and starting the industrialization of Japan
- The main attraction of Glover Garden is Glover’s house, the oldest wooden Western-style house in Japan
- Slurp the local ramen: champon (noodles in pork broth, topped with bacon, seafood, and vegetables).
- Try some street food like kakuni manju (steamed bun stuffed with a piece of pork cutlet) and marakao (steamed cake in chestnut or chocolate flavors).
- Taste Nagasaki’s favorite Toruko Rice (Turkish Rice in English; pork cutlet with a special sauce on a bed of pilaf rice and served with Napolitan spaghetti).
- Sip some Dutch coffee.
- Have a bite of Castella Cake (steamed sponge cake inspired by Portuguese cakes).
- Feed the penguins at the Nagasaki Penguin Aquarium.
- Hike up Mount Inasa and see the “$10 Million View” of Nagasaki at night.
- Take a tour of the city via a tram ride.
- Book a ride to Hashima Island, a.k.a. Gunkanjima (Battleship Island), which was featured in a James Bond movie and has a very dark history.
- Wash some money at the Chinzei Taisha Suwa-jinja (Suwa Shrine).
- Komainu Well to test the legend that the money’s value will double afterwards.
9. Hiroshima (Where the First Atomic Bomb Fell)
The first atomic bomb during World War II was dropped on the residential and port area of Hiroshima in 1945. The explosion nearly obliterated everything within a 2-mile radius. Today, just like Nakajima, the city’s tourist spots represent its endeavor to be a “City of Peace” as proclaimed by the Japanese parliament in 1949.
- Peace Memorial Museum and Park
- A World Heritage Site
- The A-Bomb Dome has been preserved as it was after the explosion
- Conducts a Peace Memorial Ceremony every August 6 th to remember those who died because of the bomb and to pray for everlasting peace
- Hiroshima Castle
- The bomb destroyed the original castle and its reconstructed structure is a symbol of how Hiroshima rebuilt its culture after a massive tragedy
- Shukkei-en Garden
- One of the top 100 historic parks of Japan
- Its landscaping is so varied that visitors can stroll through a bamboo forest and find a tea field on the other side
- Fudo-in and Mitaki-dera Temples
- Fudo-in Temple’s main building, which remained intact after the bomb blast, is a Japanese National Treasure
- Mitaki-dera Temple, another reconstructed structure, is famous for its nearby waterfalls and foliage during autumn
- Memorial Cathedral for World Peace
- A.k.a. The Assumption of Mary Cathedral
- Built in 1954 as a tribute to the victims of the bomb and a prayer for lasting peace
- Try the Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki at Okonomi-mura
- Eat oysters—raw, fried, grilled, steamed—on board the Kakifune Kanawa
- See what level of spiciness you can stand with your Tsukemen (cold noodles dipped in spicy broth; the spiciness levels range from 0 (safe for children)-20 (master))
- Sip some Hiroshima sake at the Kamotsuru Brewery
- Have a bite of momiji manju (cakes shaped like maple leaves filled with sweet red bean paste)
- Climb Mount Haigamine and take in the breathtaking nightscape of Hiroshima
- Ride the Hiroden (tram), a.k.a. Moving Streetcar Museum
- Go up Orizuru Tower to get a 360-degree view of Hiroshima then fold a paper crane to add to the collection thrown from the tower
- Hike up Mount Hiji (Hijiyama) then relax by reading some manga at the Manga Library
Visit some of the nearby attractions:
- Miyajima Island’s Itsukushima Shrine (famous for its World Heritage “floating” torii), free-roaming deer, sacred trees, Mount Misen, and Omotesando Shopping Street
- Okunoshima’s rabbit haven
- Onomichi’s Neko no Hosomichi (Cat Street)
- Cycle or drive the Shimanami Kaido Bridge and visit 6 islands
- Takaramachi’s Yamato Museum, which showcases battleships
10. Kobe (Where Beef is King)
Kobe was also one of the earliest cities that opened its ports to foreign trade when Japan’s self-isolation policy officially ended. It was razed to the ground during the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. Like other areas destroyed by calamities, it has rebuilt itself to become a vibrant city known for its beef, great night view, and international desserts.
- Earthquake Memorial Museum and Park
- Videos, galleries, and artefacts show how the earthquake devastated the place
- Some areas have been preserved as a reminder of how powerful a natural calamity can be
- Kobe Luminarie
- Thousands of lights of different colors are lit in December
- The event is a tribute to the time when Kobe was left in darkness after the earthquake
- Tetsujin 28 Statue
- A 59-foot statue of the blue robot from the manga Tetsujin 28-go
- Considered a guardian of Kobe
- Built to re-start tourism after the quake
- Kobe Mosque
- The only Muslim mosque in Japan
- Merikan Park
- Named after the fact that the Americans docked in this place and the US Consulate was set up not far away
- Site of the iconic Maritime Museum and Kobe Port Tower
- Savor a juicy Kobe Beef Steak
- Try some Akashiyaki (Kobe-style takoyaki that is cooked in a broth after it’s been grilled)
- Hunt down Hyotan’s gyoza, a favorite among locals
- Heat up some of Kannoya’s Denmark Cheesecake and eat oozy Danish cheese on top of your cake
- Take a tour of Sawa-no-Tsuru Museum, Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum, or Kiku-Masamune Sake Brewery Company and sample their sake
- Ride the Shin-Kobe Ropeway to the top of Mount Rokko to see one of the Three Great Night Views of Japan
- While at Mount Rokko take a side trip to the Nunobiki Waterfall and Nunobiki Herb Garden
- Take a sunset cruise with Luminous Kobe 2
- Climb to the top of the towers of Akashi Kaikyo Bridge or cross it through the promenade
- Take a dip in one of Japan’s oldest onsen, Arima Onsen’s kinsen (golden hot spring; contains iron and is good for the skin and muscles) or ginsen (silver hot spring; contains radium and is good for the joints)
These are just some of my recommendations to get started with when coming to Japan. There are tons of obscure places that are like magic in Japan, however it is up to you to find them when visiting! I’m sure you’ll discover spots I haven’t listed here. If so, tell me in the comments below.