When planning a trip to Japan, it is easy to become overwhelmed with the numerous varieties of places to visit. Although Japan seems small (its area size is smaller than California!) every inch of this country is filled with history, UNESCO sites, and amazing views. Just like how most foreigners think of New York when America is mentioned, most people only think of Tokyo when Japan is mentioned. While Tokyo is an incredible hub of cultures and excitement, Japan has so much more to offer.
This country is deeply rooted in tradition. It isn’t surprising to walk down a busy city street, turn a corner, and suddenly walk into a centuries-old temple. Japan takes immense pride in the preservation of its history and keeping the integrity of the land that their cities were built on. There are few places in the world that put as much focus on the natural world as Japan does nor are there many places that constantly celebrate the history and land of an area. Japan takes the phrase “keeping history alive” to a whole new level. Travelers visiting this country for the first time will find no shortage of places to visit, and with the Tokyo Olympics coming in 2020, this list couldn’t have come at a better time.
From sprawling fields of flowers to bustling historic cities, here is a list of 20 interesting places that you can only go to in Japan.
20 Ishigaki's Turquoise Water Beaches
Ishigaki is one of the islands of the Yaeyama Islands group and is located in Okinawa Prefecture. Most travelers who visit Okinawa fly into and stay on the main island, Naha. However, if visitors are interested in a visit that is much more nature-focused, we suggest flying to Ishigaki. The island is only an hour away from Naha, but that hour makes up a world of a difference.
Ishigaki has less than 50,000 people living on the island. Travelers will often find themselves on stretches of pure white sand beaches with not a soul in sight. The island is also perfect for island hopping.
From the main port, visitors can hop on any ferry and escape to one of the surrounding islands in no time at all. In less than an hour, travelers can visit Taketomi, Yonaguni, Iriomote, and Kuroshima to name a few. There are dozens of incredible white sand and turquoise water beaches that constantly claim the titles of most beautiful beaches in Japan. Travelers can bike entire islands, swim with manta rays, and relax in nature without the rush of being in a city. There are numerous tours that will take you out to swim among the coral reefs or show you the best places to spot sea turtles. You can kayak through a mangrove forest and hike to see the most incredible views. If you’re tired of constantly being in the city and want to escape for a while, then Ishigaki should be your top choice.
19 Hiroshima (Deer Freely Roam The Island)
Some people only vaguely remember from their history textbooks the importance of Hiroshima. This is the first site in the world to have an atomic bomb deployed over it. With such a devastating history, this city does not often come to mind first when people think of leisure travel in Japan. However, this city has come a long way since the tragic nuclear attack. Today, Hiroshima is a fantastic place to visit for food, nightlife, and historical sights. Of course, the first thing you should do is visit the Hiroshima memorials. The Peace Memorial Park has a flame that will burn until the last nuclear weapon is destroyed. The Atomic Bomb Dome, one of the few buildings that were left standing after the bomb, stands as a tribute to those who died. And the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum allows visitors to hear individual stories of those who were affected by the bombing.
Afterward, visitors can visit Miyajima Island. There, the iconic Itsukushima Shrine floats on the water. Deer freely roam the island and are unafraid of people. And let’s not forget about the food! Hiroshima is famous for some of the largest and most succulent oysters in Japan. This city is also famous for its Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki, a crepe-like food that is covered in vegetables, meat, and noodles! Finally, you can finish off your day by visiting some of Hiroshima’s numerous bars and karaoke bars.
18 Nara - Hello, Bambi
Did you know that Tokyo was not always the capital of Japan? Traditionally, the capital of Japan was wherever the emperor resided. So, at one point of history, Nara was the capital. There are dozens of ancient temples and shrines in this area. One of the temples, Todai-ji, holds the world’s largest bronze Buddha. The statue weighs over 500 tons! Nara is also the location of the famous deer park.
There are countless videos of visitors in Japan being surrounded by these cute animals, but don’t let those Bambi eyes fool you! These deer can become quite aggressive when they see you holding food.
If you become tired of the solemnity of the temples and shrines, one of the most beautiful gardens in Japan is located in Nara. The Isui-en is a traditional Japanese garden. Here, the Japanese landscape is carefully cultivated to evoke peace and harmony. Each rock and tree is deliberately placed to achieve balance. A perfect time to visit is in the autumn when the maple trees turn brilliantly red, but the garden is still gorgeous year round.
Walking through Nara with its ageless temples and shrines surrounding you, it feels as if you are transported back into time. Each step along the cobblestone roads is living history.
17 Sapporo - Snow Crabs, Anyone?
One of the absolute best times to visit Sapporo is in the winter. Every year for two weeks in February, this city holds the Sapporo Snow Festival. Hundreds of snow and ice sculptures line the parks. Some of the sculptures soar over 50 feet into the air. Light shows play against the icy backdrops, and food vendors line every sidewalk. You can slide down freezing slides made of ice, eat every kind of Japanese street food, and gawk at the incredible amount of snow in the city.
Sapporo is also a fantastic place to visit if you are a seafood fan. This city is famed for its abundance of snow crabs, king crabs, and scallops. There are restaurants whose entire menus are comprised of crabs and even some places where you can eat unlimited snow crabs. If seafood isn’t the top choice for you, then the city is also known for its special miso ramen and beer.
If you’re interested in visiting this city during the snow festival, you better start planning now! Millions of people flock to this city to see the frozen artworks every year. Hotels and flights are booked months in advance! This year, the festival will start on January 30th to February 11th.
16 Naoshima - For The Artsy Hipster
Can you imagine an entire island dedicated to art? That is what Naoshima is. This tiny island lies off the east coast of Japan, specifically in the Seto Inland Sea. The island is studded with art installations by artists such as Walter de Maria, Lee Ufan, James Turrell, and Yayoi Kusama to name a few. Soichiro Fukutake, former chairman of the Benesse Corporation, is the patron of the arts on this island. His corporation began the island’s creative transformation. There are multiple art museums on the island, including the Benesse House, which is both an art museum and a hotel, the Chichu Museum, the Ando Museum, and the Lee Ufan Museum. There are even art pieces that have been scattered through the port town. The most recognizable is probably Yayoi Kusama’s giant speckled ‘Pumpkin.’
Walking through Naoshima is an incredibly unique experience. Some of the most renown artists in the world house their pieces on the island. Set against a backdrop of the ocean and mountains, there is no other place in the world like Naoshima.
However, getting to Naoshima is a challenge. Depending on what direction you are coming from, there are multiple train transfers, buses, and ferries involved to get to this artistic island. In our opinion, this is just a small price to pay to spend the day surrounded by art and nature.
15 Chichibu - Festivals And More Festivals
Located in the Saitama Prefecture, Chichibu is just a little over an hour away from Tokyo by train. The difference between the two cities is astounding. From the hectic streets of Tokyo and towering skyscrapers, Chichibu is but a small, quiet, and peaceful town. This area is known for its abundance of hiking trails and the Chichibu Fudasho Pilgrimage, a 62-mile pilgrimage of 34 temples that are dedicated the Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy. Usually, the pilgrimage takes about a week to complete. However, guests are also able to do shorter hikes and visit a few of the temples individually.
There are two major events that happen in Chichibu. The first takes place in December. The Chichibu Yomatsuri is a night festival that is held on December 2 and 3 every year. The festival features massive floats that are adorned with lit lanterns. The floats are all hand-carried through the streets accompanied by drum and flute music. At the peak of the festival, a two-hour fireworks display lights up the city.
The second event in Chichibu takes place during late April and early May. During this time, Hitsujiyama Park is completely blanketed in shades of pink. Strategically planted, the flowers become a pink ocean during the spring. This jaw-dropping display draws in hordes of tourists every year.
14 Fujiyoshida - Thrill-Seekers Only
Fujiyoshida will appeal to every visitor. This city has something to offer to everyone. Food lovers can enjoy Fujiyoshida’s famous udon noodles. Using the fresh cold water that trickles down from Mt. Fuji, the handmade noodles have a surprising thickness and firmness that set these noodles apart. There are over 60 udon restaurants in this city, and each one has its own blend of spices and seasonings.
Thrill-seekers can visit Fuji-Q Highland where there are numbers of crazy rides, including a few record-breaking ones. The Takabisha has the steepest drop of 121 degrees, and the Dodonpa is one of the fastest roller coasters in the world.
Those that are interested in shrines can visit the Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengen-jinja Shrine. This shrine is dedicated to the goddess of Mt. Fuji and has a history of 1,500 years. It is also one of Japan’s largest forest shrines, and walking into it feels like stepping into another world. The towering trees completely block out the city and its sounds. The temperature drops a few degrees, and even in the heat of summer, goosebumps rise on the skin. Exploring this massive shrine is an otherworldly experience.
People who enjoy scenic views can see some of the most stunning views of Mt. Fuji from this city. The Arakurayama Sengen Park is a popular place to see Mt. Fuji. In the spring, the back-and-forth walkway is strewn in cherry blossoms and at the top of the park is the Chureito Pagoda. There is even a photo point set up so that visitors can snap the perfect shot of the pagoda with Mt. Fuji in the background.
13 Mount Fuji - The Most Incredible Sunrises
Speaking of Mt. Fuji, this incredible mountain is more than just a photo op. If you are capable, Mt. Fuji is also an extremely popular mountain to climb. The mountain is divided into ten stations with ten being the summit. There are paved roads that go up to the fifth summit, and this is where most people begin their hike. There are four entry points to enter the hike—one in Yamanashi Prefecture and three in Shizuoka Prefecture. Depending on which trail you take, the climbing times range anywhere from 4 to 10-hour ascents and 2 to 6-hour descents. The hike doesn’t require any climbing skills, only perseverance and endurance. The main challenge of the hike is that it is rather strenuous. Hikers have to walk at a steep climb for several hours. The most popular way to hike Mt. Fuji is to actually start at night. Then, by the time you’ve reached the top, you can witness one of the most incredible sunrises at the summit. If climbing at night doesn’t appeal to you, you can complete the climb during the day and spend the night at the top. There are huts that you can rent and spend the night in. After seeing the sunrise, you can begin making your way down. The steep and gravely slope makes for a slippery descent, and many people run or half jog down the mountain.
12 Shiragawago - Nestled In Snow
During the winter, this city has one of the most charming sights. Thatched roof homes are nestled in the snow with their glowing widows peeking out. Located in the Gifu Prefecture, this collection of villages sits along the Shogawa River Valley with a backdrop of towering mountains.
The largest and most famous village, Ogimachi, is a UNESCO world heritage site. These villages are famous for their gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some of which are over 250 years old. The houses are constructed with thatched roofs in a steeply pointed style. They are said to resemble the hands of Buddhists monks when they are pressed together in prayer. The style is more than just ornamental, though.
The roofs were designed to carry huge burdens of snow during the winter. During earlier periods, with the snow acting as insulation, the inside of these farmhouses were toasty warm and perfect for cultivating silkworms.
Today, the city is no longer in the silk-making industry. However, there is the Tajima House Museum of Silk Culture that is dedicated to preserving the history of silk making in Shirakawago.
Many of the farmhouses have been preserved as museums, each house telling the history of its former inhabitants. There are also some houses that are available to spend the night in. Guests will experience a traditional Japanese lodging with tatami mat floors and futons. The homes also include meals that feature local cuisine and ingredient.
11 Hokuto - Flowers Galore
A lesser-known but up-and-coming city in Japan is Hokuto. Located in the Yamanashi Prefecture and just a few hours away from Tokyo, this rustic town draws in many city dwellers looking for a weekend escape. In the summer, you can visit the Akeno area where millions of sunflowers blanket the fields. Farmers even go into the fields with their tractors and cut out designs into the flowers. Shops around the area offer delicious sunflower ice creams and other inspired food. Those who are interested in alcohol can visit the famous Suntory Distillery. Since Hokuto has some of the purest water in Japan, a crucial ingredient to creating excellent whiskey, it makes for an ideal location for a distillery.
In the spring, travelers can visit the Jindai-zakura, one of three of the oldest cherry blossom trees in Japan. This tree is estimated to be between 1,800 to 2,000 years old. The Jindai-zakura takes center stage surrounded by younger sakura trees, one of which was grown from a seed that went to outer space! While wandering through the fields of flowers and sakura trees, you can also sample food that was inspired by the clouds of pink flowers such as sakura ice cream and mochi.
In the winter, visitors can visit multiple hot springs, one of which has a high content of radium and locals swear prolongs life! Also popular in the winter is hōtō, a local noodle dish served in a steaming cauldron with loads of pumpkin and vegetables.
10 Asago - “Castle Floating In The Sky”
Asago city is home to one of Japan’s most ethereal sights, the Takeda Castle ruins. Nestled on a mountaintop, this ruined castle seems to float on a sea of clouds. Views of the castle during sunrise and sunset are absolutely unreal.
With nicknames such as “castle floating in the sky” and the “Japanese Machu Picchu,” this location is a must for any traveler visiting Japan. The castle was initially built in 1411 and later abandoned in 1600.
Over the centuries, the majority of the castle disintegrated until little but the stone walls were left. It may sound odd that a cluster of stones is so awe-inspiring. But there is no denying that there is something otherworldly about those walls rising over a plain of rolling clouds.
In the spring, the Shirai Oomachi Fuji Park is a sight to behold. There are over 500 meters of trellises draped in wisteria. The colors range from shades of white, pink, and purple. Visitors can walk through the trellises with flowers brushing against their shoulders. Another unique sight to visit in Asago is the Chasuri Yama Tumulus. This is the burial tomb of a chief, whose identity is unknown, during the Yamato period (3 century to 8 century). Walking around the huge dome, travelers cannot help but wonder what is inside this ancient piece of history.
9 Nagano - Japanese Macaques, Anyone?
Nagano is an excellent place for the outdoor enthusiast. During the summer and spring, there are numerous hiking trails and mountains to explore. The famous Matsumoto Castle is also in Nagano. One of Japan’s oldest standing castles left, the building’s black walls and red bridge offer a striking image and is a popular location for visitors.
In the fall, people flock to Nagano to see the brilliant display of fall colors. Visitors can also visit the apple orchards that this prefecture is famous for and pick their own apples. Japan takes such pride in growing their fruit that each apple is carefully raised to perfection, producing some of the best-tasting fruit in Japan.
The winter seasons does not mean that things wind down. Instead, Nagano has some of the best skiing locations in Japan. One of the most popular resorts is Hakuba. During peak winter seasons, people around the world come here to work as teachers and staff. So if you’re a first-time snowboarder or skier, don’t worry! Nagano is also home to one of the most adorable and peculiar sights. Just a short drive away from Matsumoto castle, there is a nature park that is filled with Japanese Macaques. These monkeys are unafraid of humans and roam around freely. During the winter, the monkeys sit in the hot springs to keep warm. With flushed faces and frost in their hair, seeing the creatures peep out of the water is certainly a treat!
8 Fuji Five Lake - Attempt The Dragon’s Peak
The Fuji Five Lake region is comprised of five lakes—Kawaguchiko, Saiko, Yamanakako, Shojiko, and Motosuko. The area is nestled at the northern base of Mt. Fuji and offers fantastic locations for camping, hiking, and fishing. The most accessible lake is the Kawaguchiko Lake. The Oishi Park, which is next to the lake, has fields of flowers every season. The most popular season is during the summer when the park’s lavender fields are in full bloom. Lake Motosuko is also fairly popular for hiking and camping. One of the best trails to climb is the Ryugatake Mountain, also known as Dragon’s Peak. This mountain is extremely popular for people who want a chance to see the “Diamond Fuji.” A few times a year, the sun rises and sets directly over Mt. Fuji. People flock to the best vantage points to see Mt. Fuji crowned with the sun. The other three lakes are less developed and more difficult to get to but not impossible. During the autumn, the lakes are surrounded by red maple trees. A perfect afternoon involves walking around the lakes with some freshly-roasted sweet potato to eat and keep your hands warm.
7 Hakone - Healing Waters
Hakone is a favorite weekend get away from the dazzling lights of Tokyo. This area is particularly famous for one thing—ONSENS. If you are unfamiliar with what an onsen is, then prepare yourself. Onsens are also known as hot springs, and Hakone is one of Japan’s most popular hot spring resorts.
The area has been known for its healing waters for centuries. There are dozens of springs with natural hot spring water, which is full of lovely minerals, in this city. Guests can enjoy the hot springs in a public bath or stay at a ryokan and enjoy the baths there.
Ryokans are Japanese-styled inns that usually have a hot spring attached to them. These inns are a fantastic way to experience the traditional Japanese lifestyle. Most inns have tatami mat floors which are made of bound rice straw, futons, traditional Japanese bedding that is laid on the tatami and rolled up each day, and baths (shared open-aired pools that are gender-separated.)
A heads-up for those unfamiliar with onsen etiquette. There are quite a few rules about using these public bathhouses, and if you are interested, the BBC travel does an excellent job of explaining them. You can find this website by clicking here.
6 Shikoku -Miracles Do Happen
Japan is comprised of four major islands, and the smallest of these is Shikoku. The island is known for being the birthplace of the famed founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kōbō Daishi.
There are 88 temples that surround the island. Each temple is said to be built on a location where Kōbō Daishi performed a miracle. Japan’s most famous pilgrimage is a 750-mile route that connects all 88 temples. The complete journey takes over a month to complete, and it isn’t surprising to see pilgrims dressed in white walk along the road following the footsteps of the Great Master.
In today’s modern times, the route can be completed using cars, buses, taxis, and bikes. There are those that argue that the pilgrimage loses all meaning unless completed on foot, but that doesn’t stop the buses of pilgrims from trundling along. If you’re just a curious traveler, you don’t have to hit up every temple. Some people only go to the first and last temple of the route while others just choose a handful that are in scenic areas. Regardless of how many temples that you visit, an awesome souvenir to buy is a goshuinchou. These are gorgeous cloth-bound books that contain blank pages. At every temple that you visit (and not just the ones on Shikoku), the temple caretaker will stamp your book with the temple’s sigil. They often even write it by hand in beautiful ink brush calligraphy.
5 Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route - Snow Canyon
If you ever want to feel insignificant in comparison to the world, you have to drive through the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route in winter. Beginning in Toyoma and snaking through the Japanese Alps before ending in Nagano, this area receives about 125 feet of snow annually. The most famous area is called the Snow Canyon. That is because for this particular stretch of highway, the road is surrounded by walls of snow reaching up to 66 feet. This is taller than a five-story building. While there is too much snow falling each night to continuously clear it, when the worst of winter has passed, the plows come out to play. For over a month, snow plows work tirelessly to clear over 14 miles of highways. The buildup of snow on the side becomes the Snow Canyon. There is so much snow that it isn’t until mid-April that it is safe enough for tourists to come through, and it doesn’t begin to melt until late June and July. If you’re interested (and you should be) in seeing this incredible sight, there are tour buses that take you along the route.
Side note: While it may seem incredibly tempting to run into the snow wall and get stuck in it, past experience has taught us that it is extremely solid and more like brick than it is snow, in case you were wondering.
4 Ise - Where The Ocean Meets Land
This gorgeous place where the ocean meets the land is located in the Mei Prefecture. It is the holy city of Japan and is the location of the most sacred Shintō shrine, the Ise Jingū. The shrine is constantly being rebuilt every 20 years using only Japanese cypress trees. No nails are used in the building. Instead, every piece of the temple is carefully fitted together. Declared the “home of the gods,” many Japanese people hope to do an “Oise Mairi” which is a pilgrimage to the Ise-Jingu shrine at least once in their lifetime.
Another incredible sight in Ise is the Ama, which are women pearl divers. These women can hold their breath for up to two minutes and free dive to the ocean floor to collect shellfish and pearls. The history of women pearl divers traces back as far as 750. The divers range in age and some women are as old as 90! It is amazing watching these women demonstrate their work.
Also, located off the shore of Ise is the Meoto Iwa. In English, they are called the Wedded Rocks. The larger rock symbolizes the husband while the smaller is the wife. A sacred rope connects the two together. If you are lucky, you can capture the moment when the tide is low and the sun sets behind the rocks.
3 Kyoto - Not Unusual To See An Exquisitely-Dressed Geisha
Probably just as famous as Tokyo, this city also used to be the capital of Japan for over 1,000 years. During World War II, when discussions were being had about where to drop the atomic bomb, historians around the world rallied that Kyoto be spared due to the numerous historically irreplaceable structures in this city. There are too many temples and shrines to list and all of them are steeped in history.
Some of the most recognizable include the Kinkaku-ji, the Fushimi Inari Shrine, the Nanzenji Temple, and the Imperial Palace. The Kinkaku-ji temple is a Zen temple that is completely covered in gold foil. The Fushimi Inari Shrine is famous for its pathway of 10,000 vermillion torii arches.
The Nanzenji Temple an incredible rock garden and is the head temple for the Zen Buddhism Sect. Visitors can even visit the Imperial Palace where the royal family once resided. These are just to name a few of the more popular places. There are too many historic sights to name!
In Kyoto, it isn’t unusual to see an exquisitely-dressed geisha walk through the narrow alleys. What was once a prolific part of Japan, the art of being a geisha is but a small fraction of what it used to be. It is possible to see some geishas in Tokyo and other areas of Japan, but the majority of them are located in Kyoto where the heart of Japan and its history is preserved.
2 Kobe - Sake And Beef
Kobe is a port city in Japan and located in the Hyōgo Prefecture. There are many things that Kobe are famous for, but two that stand out? Sake and beef. The Nada district of Kobe is Japan’s top rice wine producing area. With excellent rice growing conditions and clean water, this area produces the best rice wine in Japan. There are multiple sake breweries in the area, and some are open to the public. You can tour the breweries and watch how the sake is made and most places allow you to taste the product too. After touring the breweries and the sake museums, you should head into a restaurant and try Kobe’s other famous specialty, their Kobe beef.
You may have heard the crazy rumors about the cows that are fed beers and massaged. Well, those rumors are true. The cattle that provides Kobe beef is meticulously raised. The cows are not left to the fields on their own. These select cows are kept in close quarters. They are indeed fed beer to encourage their appetite and only eat select grass and grain. And yes, the cows are massaged daily. All of this effort leads up to a cut of meat with the most intense marbling you’ve ever seen. Every square inch of the meat has delicate lines of fat running through it. The result? A piece of meat that simply melts in your mouth. Pair that meat with some of Japan’s finest sake and you’ll never want to eat anything else ever again.
1 Aokigahara Forest - A Place That Is Not To Be Treated Lightly
In the year 864, Mt. Fuji erupted and amazed the rulers of Japan. The event was so awe-inspiring that the people began to worship the mountain as a god. The lava pooled down the volcano and created massive crevices and craters. From that ground sprang the Aokigahara Forest.
Because the forest is nestled at the base of a powerful god, it is considered sacred to the Japanese people. The forest is extraordinarily beautiful. The trees block out the majority of the sunlight so that the forest floor is cool.
Roots spring out from every direction, crawling in and out of the marks left behind by the eruption. Walking through the stillness of this incredible forest, a certain weight rests on your shoulders. Voices don’t rise above a whisper, and each step seems almost reverent. However, the forest protects an unfortunate secret. Many people in Japan still consider the forest to be a sacred location. Thus, there are those who find the burden of life too much to bear and use the forest as a final resting spot. The forest has gained the unfortunate reputation of being the “Suicide Forest.” There have been several films and documentaries about the forest and countless tales of people finding the remains of the sad souls left behind. Public media has sensationalized the forest and dampened the spirituality of the place. If you decide to hike through the forest, please treat it with respect. It is a beautiful place and not an area to treat lightly.