If I could give one bit of advice for visiting Japan, it’s to not consider this to be your only visit. There are so many places to visit in Japan, it’s a country that you can come back to time and time again and always find something new.
From the neon cities and vibrant towns to the natural escapes and authentic experiences, Japan’s 47 prefectures each have their own unique offerings in their food, heritage, and culture.
I understand why first-time visitors to Japan focus on the big attractions like Tokyo and Kyoto, but there’s so much more to the country than the famous tourist destinations. I’ve done more than a dozen trips here over the years, and some of the most enjoyable experiences have been discovering the Japanese places that are less-visited by foreigners.
There’s lots to see on the main island of Honshu, particularly in the centre, which is the most populous part of the country. But Japan’s other main islands – Hokkaido, Shikoku, and Kyushu – showcase the incredible diversity that you’ll find here.
I often find it incredible that there are such big differences in the sights across Japan – and that’s one of the greatest joys. No two towns are the same, no two prefectures offer exactly the same experiences. Everywhere you go, you find something new.
So, with all that in mind, I wanted to share some of my tips for where to visit in Japan and what you’ll find in each of them. Perhaps it may inspire you to come back again!
Japan’s largest island, Honshu, is where about 80 per cent of the country’s population lives, and is where the most important cities have existed over the centuries. So it should be no surprise that this is where you’ll find some of the best places to visit in Japan.
I’m sure you know a fair bit about some of these spots, but some of the other ones – just a short train trip away – might be new to you.
The bright lights of Tokyo probably need no introduction. Japan’s metropolis of a capital truly is a city that never sleeps, from the electronics and manga stores of Akihabara, to the nightlife of Shinjuku.
For visitors, some of the main sights of interest include the Meiji Shrine, Senso-ji Temple, and the Tsukiji Fish Market. But often it’s the quirky experiences that are the most fun – from cat cafes to karaoke bars and arcade halls.
Just exploring the various neighbourhoods can feel exciting, but I recommend venturing beyond the obvious spots like Shibuya and Ginza to areas like Meguro and Harajuku (which are well-known, but offer slightly more local experiences).
Although it’s technically a different city, Yokohama feels like an extension of Tokyo and it’s got its own character, so you might look to consider some of my suggestions for things to do in Yokohama.
Only an hour from central Tokyo, on the other side of Yokohama, Kamakura gives visitors one of the most convenient insights into old Japan. It was in this coastal city that Japan had its de facto capital from 1185 and 1333.
Enormous temples were built here during this era, when the samurai warriors rose to prominence and a new system of feudalism emerged. Most of them still remain today, which is why this is such a special place to visit.
In the relatively quiet streets, and even amongst pockets of tranquil forest, these huge temple complexes appear quite dramatic, as does the famous Big Buddha statue (which is about 14 metres high).
If you’re thinking of visiting, I’ve put together a guide for a day trip to Kamakura from Tokyo.
On a good day, you can see Mount Fuji from Tokyo – but that’s obviously not the same as being there yourself. Mount Fuji is more than just Japan’s highest mountain, it also has a deep religious significance and the slopes are dotted with temples and shrines.
Rather than just go for a day trip (although that’s still a fun option), I would recommend staying overnight around the mountain, like in the twin cities of Fuji City and Fujinomiya.
You’ll find the very impressive Mt Fuji World Heritage Centre dedicated to the mountain, plus easy access to hiking trails. There are also plenty of other interesting things to do in Fuji City.
One of the most famous destinations in Japan, Kyoto presents a deep dive into the country’s history through the buildings that remain from when this was the capital for more than a millenium (until 1868).
Stunning temples and shrines are set within gardens ranging from simple zen courtyards to lavish landscapes parks. The Imperial Palace dominates the centre of the city while, with so many things to do in Kyoto, it can take days to see all the sights that spread out from there.
Beyond the buildings themselves, Kyoto is also considered to be bastion of Japan’s heritage, with a strong focus on cultural activities. Expect to see kimonos, geisha, tea ceremonies, and more.
While Kyoto gets a lot of the attention, I think nearby Nara is just as interesting and it’s worth finding the time to do them both. It was Japan’s capital before Kyoto (although only between 710 and 794), so also has a selection of significant heritage sights.
The city is much smaller and there are fewer things to do in Nara, but the temples and shrines here are beautiful – particularly Todai-ji temple, which is the world’s largest wooden building.
As well as the cultural treasures, the parklands and surrounding forest create a nice balance between the urban centre. It’s also easy to do an excursion to the nearby World Heritage Site of Horyuji, the world’s oldest wooden building.
At first glance, you may think that Osaka is just Tokyo-lite – a big metropolis with fewer attractions. But there are actually lots of things to do in Osaka, from Osaka Castle to Shitennonji Temple and, of course, Universal Studios Japan.
Osaka has a really strong foodie scene and you could just spend your time here eating and drinking. It can seem a bit more fun than Tokyo, with locals more relaxed than in the capital, and there’s certainly plenty of activity any hour of the day.
Osaka can also be a good base to explore nearby areas like Sakai and Kobe, with beautiful onsen and small towns in the mountains around the city.
A decade ago, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you much about Kanazawa, but it’s really found itself on the radar in recent years, and is becoming a very popular place to visit in Japan. Not that it shouldn’t have been previously – after all, its heritage is one of its biggest selling points!
Kanazawa was once one of the country’s most important cities during the Edo Period (1603 – 1868). With a castle, temples, an extravagant public garden, and historic houses, there’s no shortage of things to do in Kanazawa.
But on the modern side of things, the fantastic 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art is a real highlight. This super cool museum has incredible contemporary artworks including the famous ‘swimming pool’ that you can stand inside!
In the north of Honshu, there are lots of smaller interesting destinations and, if you’re looking to get off the tourist trail a bit, you’ll find some great options in prefectures like Yamagata, Iwate, and Aomori. One example I want to highlight is the city of Aizu-Wakamatsu in Fukushima.
It’s historically a very important city for the Japanese because it’s here that the samurai put up their last defence at the end of the Edo Period. Many of the things to see in Aizu-Wakamatsu, like the castle and samurai training centre, relate to that time.
But it’s also somewhere you can experience more of the ‘real’ Japan, away from the tourist-heavy places I’ve already mentioned. Food in Aizu is a big focus – with delicacies like Aizu beef, sauce katsu, and Kitakata ramen. There are also sake breweries, local crafts, and traditional ryokan.
Despite being a thriving city of more than a million people these days, Hiroshima is still defined by the horrific nuclear attack it suffered at the hands of the US in 1945. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and other associated sights are reason enough to visit, to learn from that event with the hope it never happens again.
But there are plenty of other things to do in Hiroshima while you’re here, including a bustling downtown area, the reconstructed castle, and beautiful Japanese gardens. This is also the home of okonomiyaki, a delicious savoury pancake dish.
There are also other interesting things to do in the region – particularly the island of Miyajima with its famous orange torii gate in the water – and Hiroshima makes for a good base to explore them.
Some other highlights on Honshu that I want to briefly mention are:
- The thatched-roof village of Shirakawa-go, where you can stay overnight in the traditional houses used to harvest silk.
- You may be a bit templed out in Honshu, but the temples and shrines in the forests of Nikko are fantastic and have been named a World Heritage Site for good reason!
- The prefecture of Miyagi, which is easy to reach on the Shinkansen and has an incredible coastline and lush wilderness inland.
- Nagoya often gets skipped as people travel between Tokyo and Osaka, but it’s actually got really cool modern museums, castles, and gardens.
Often, Hokkaido is only an option when people are considering where to visit in Japan in winter. And that makes sense – after all, it does have some of the best skiing in the world.
But there’s much more to Hokkaido than just the snow and it’s the warmer months when you’re going to be able to enjoy its blend of fun cities and remote nature.
Hokkaido’s capital, Sapporo, is more than just a gateway to the snow. Anytime of the year, it’s cool, with a lively bar scene, hipster cafes, and modern art. Last time I visited, there was a huge beer festival being held in Odori Park, for instance.
All year round, you can visit the famous Sapporo Brewery – perhaps followed by food in the nightlife district of Susukino. As a contrast, there are lots of things to do in Sapporo related to traditional heritage at landmarks like the Hokkaido Shrine.
There’s nowhere in Hokkaido where you’re not near the nature, so head up into the lush green mountains that surround Sapporo. One option is to go up and see the Okurayama Ski Jump, with the Sapporo Winter Sports Museum next door.
Despite being one of Hokkaido’s main cities, Hakodate has a very relaxed atmosphere, perhaps a hangover from the days when it was just a small fishing village. It’s grown since then, becoming one of the first ports open to international trade, which has also given it a sense of heritage with historic embassies and churches.
Exploring the different neighbourhoods is one of the best things to do in Hakodate, while the city’s coastal position makes it an excellent place for seafood meals. But Hakodate also serves as a convenient base to explore the region.
The dramatic coastline has plenty of activities to fill the time, and nearby Onuma Park (with views of Mount Komagatake volcano) is popular with local visitors. My favourite nearby site is Mount Esan volcano, which has a hiking trail right up towards the crater.
Real adventurers will be able to venture deeper into the remote parts of Hokkaido, where there are excellent hiking and cycling trails, as well as plenty of other activities. But for those who don’t want anything extreme, Furano offers some stunning landscapes that are easy to reach.
The main attraction around Furano can be found in summer, when the countryside turns purple as swathes of lavender fields bloom. Although the region is beautiful all year round, especially the insta-famous Blue Pond with a rich vibrant colour caused by natural minerals in the water.
I think some of Japan’s most beautiful destinations are found on Shikoku, where forest-covered mountain ranges birth rivers that course down to the dramatic coastline. And culture is also strong here, with unique traditions still practiced in the cities and different regions.
The boisterous food markets of Kochi City give you a taste of why it has the reputation as Japan’s friendliest city. From sake-drinking competitions to street festivals, you’re definitely more likely to end up in a conversation with a stranger here than most other parts of Japan.
There are plenty of things to do in Kochi City to keep you busy, from the original castle to historic shrines and even a picturesque beach. But the highlights of Kochi prefecture are further afield, in its pristine environment.
There are lots of ways to get amongst the nature – you can go kayaking on the Shimanto River, cycling along trails that wind through quaint villages, or hike around the coastal path at Tosashimizu. It’s all a perfect antidote to the mayhem of somewhere like Tokyo.
In the neighbouring prefecture of Ehime, the local mascot is made to look like a mikan, a seedless mandarin that is grown across the whole region. Fertile fields for agriculture, small historic towns, and authentic local tradition – this is what you’ll find in Ehime.
A popular base to explore the prefecture is the main city of Matsuyama, which has a beautiful castle atop a hill, as well as what’s considered to be the oldest hot spring bath in Japan, Dogo Onsen. But beyond these highlights, there are lots of other things to do in Matusyama, from temples to local restaurants.
Smaller towns like Uchiko and Ozu give you a enthralling look into the heritage of Shikoku and the settlements that became wealthy through local industry. And the luxury Iyonada Monogatari Train is one of the quirkiest things to do in Ehime.
In the waters between Honshu and Shikoku, a series of small islands have been converted into open-air art galleries and cultural complexes, in one of the most eccentric modern projects in Japan – and they are a huge hit with visitors.
Naoshima is the best known of the Art Islands, and it’s here that you’ll find several major museums including the Benesse House Museum and the Chichu Art Museum.
The nearby islands of Teshima and Inujima are also significant, with more major museums, and so it’s worth leaving yourself time to visit them all. The islands of Ogijima and Megijima are smaller but have interesting art installations to explore.
If the northern island of Hokkaido is known for its snow, the southern island of Kyushu is known for its fire. It’s here that you’ll find Mount Aso, the world’s largest volcanic caldera, while hot water bubbles to the surface in countless spots.
One of the main things that has influenced Kyushu’s largest city, Fukuoka, is its role as an international port connecting Japan to much of Asia (it’s only three hours by ferry to South Korea, for instance). This has led to the development of a large red light district (more fun than seedy), and cuisine from across the world.
If you’re looking for nightlife, street food, and other great dining experiences, you’ll find them in Fukuoka. But the city doesn’t have a huge amount of important landmarks, so is not generally seen as a popular tourist destination.
I think it’s worth a night or two to soak up the fun atmosphere here, before heading on to some of the more interesting parts of Kyushu.
If you had to choose, I would recommend Nagasaki over Fukuoka. While it has some of the same lively atmosphere, it brings more charm and more picturesque surroundings.
Like Hiroshima on Honshu, Nagasaki’s reputation is largely defined by the legacy of the US atomic-bomb attack. There are quite a few museums and memorials related to the event here, but you’ll also find rich heritage sights like temples, churches, and foreign quarters.
Nagasaki makes a good base for trips around the region, and one of the most popular is to the abandoned industrial island of Gunkanjima, which featured in the Skyfall James Bond movie.
While you’ll find onsen across Kyushu, one of the main destinations for people seeking the rejuvenating hot waters is in Oita prefecture, in a town called Beppu, where there are a number of resorts dedicated to soaking.
Beppu is close to the prefecture’s capital, Oita City, which has carved out a niche as a leading artistic hub, with several important galleries and regular creative events in the city. Other things to do in Oita City include the castle, bustling shopping streets, and even an onsen at the top of a skyscraper!
Like each of Kyushu’s prefectures, Oita has a distinct cuisine, including a dumpling soup called dangojiru and a fried chicken called toriten. But many people make the trip for seafood meals at the fishing port of Saiki City, which is the first to receive the fish from the warm and rapid current that apparently makes them tastier.
And, finally, I want to mention Okinawa, which is politically part of Kyushu, but geographically its own entity, a series of islands more than 500 kilometres away.
The largest island, called Okinawa Island, is home to the capital city Naha and is a busy tourist hub, with plenty of resorts and other developments. But you don’t have to go too far to one of the other smaller islands to find a little bit of peaceful paradise.
The warm weather makes Okinawa a popular beach holiday destination, which is also known for its diving in the corals close to shore. But it’s also interesting to go deeper into the cultural heritage of the Ryukyu Kingdom, distinct from Japan, which has never been completely assimilated.