Japan is somewhere I think everyone should visit. From futuristic skyscrapers to tranquil bamboo forests and neon arcades to serene temples, it’s like nowhere else on the planet.
The food is incredible, the people are ultra polite, and it has one of the most efficient public transport systems in the world. We love the combination of ease of travel and glorious bewilderment.
I recommend mixing a few of the popular cities (most people won’t want to miss Tokyo and Kyoto) with some quieter, more rural places in Japan to see a different side of the country and take a break from the crowds.
If you only have time for one Japan destination, make it Kyoto. This is traditional Japan as you imagined it—geisha in brightly coloured kimonos emerging from wooden teahouses, forests of bamboo, temples and shrines in gold and silver and scarlet, raked gravel Zen gardens, intricate feasts served on lacquered plates, graceful tea ceremonies, and markets full of intriguing but unidentifiable ingredients.
The concrete high-rises of downtown Kyoto can be disappointing, so head out towards the mountains to the surrounding neighbourhoods where you’ll find narrow stone streets, old wooden houses, monks in flowing robes, and the sounds of chanting and gongs from the many temples and shrines.
Gion is the place to spot geisha, Higashiyama has many beautiful temples to explore, and Arashiyama, up in the western hills, is one of the most traditional neighbourhoods and home to bamboo groves, quirky temples, and monkeys.
Kyoto is one of the top Japan tourist spots, so try to visit the popular temples early in the morning as they do get crowded.
If Kyoto is the heart of traditional Japan, Tokyo is its ultramodern counterpart.
It’s here you’ll find the skyscrapers, noisy arcades, busy pedestrian crossings, quirky youth fashions, and many many incredibly delicious restaurants.
Tokyo is also home to some of the weirdest activities we’ve ever done. From themed cafes (cats, owls, maids, robots, goats—you name it, Tokyo has it) to sensory-overload shows and arcades to cos-play go-karting.
On my first trip to Tokyo I was overwhelmed by the sprawling city and couldn’t help comparing it unfavourably to Kyoto.
On repeat visits I’ve grown to love the city (the food certainly helped) and while it isn’t as attractive as Kyoto, there is so much to do that you won’t want to skip it.
Mount Fuji is on most people’s lists of places to visit in Japan, but this must-see Japan landmark can be rather elusive and is often hidden by clouds.
There are a number of places you can see the mountain from (Kawaguchiko is another great option), but Hakone is easy to reach from Tokyo and there are lots of other things to do in the area in case you are out of luck with a sighting.
Despite visiting on a cloudy, drizzly day, we were lucky that Mount Fuji emerged from the clouds above Lake Ashi and it was magical!
Hakone is also fun to visit because you can do a loop of the sights on different modes of transport—train, bus, pirate boat (yes, really!), and cable car.
Nikko is a temple town and UNESCO world heritage site in the mountains a few hours north of Tokyo and makes a cool retreat from the city. The area is famous for its vibrant autumn colours.
The temples and shrines with their vermillion gates and moss-covered stone lanterns are scattered on the wooded hillside.
The main attraction is Toshogu Shrine, a stunning complex with more than a dozen lavishly decorated red and gold buildings amongst huge, ancient cedar trees. The crowds can be overwhelming, so afterwards head to one of the quieter shrines.
Koya-san (Mount Koya) is one of the most interesting places in Japan to experience the traditional side of the country.
This secluded and sacred temple town is located in the forest-covered mountains of Kansai and is one of the best places to get a taste of life as a monk by staying in a shukubo or temple lodging.
After wandering around the otherworldly Okunoin forest cemetery, we checked into our simple tatami room at the temple, soaked in the communal onsen bath, and enjoyed a delicious shojin ryori vegetarian Buddhist meal.
In the morning we were up early for the chanting and meditation ceremony with the monks. A temple stay at Koya-san is a fascinating experience and well worth the detour from Osaka or Kyoto.
Nara was Japan’s first permanent capital and is full of historic treasures including many UNESCO world heritage sites.
It’s one of the top Japan attractions and makes a rewarding day trip from Kyoto to visit the temples and wild deer in Nara Park.
The Daibutsu-den (Hall of the Great Buddha) at Todaiji is the main sight—it’s the largest wooden building in the world and nothing prepares you for the immense sight.
Inside is the 15-metre tall gold and bronze statue of Buddha that dates back to 751.
Come to pay your respects to the victims of the atomic bombing at Hiroshima’s moving Peace Memorial Museum and Park and stay to explore the modern city that was almost entirely rebuilt after World War II.
Hiroshima is usually combined with a visit to the famous floating torii gate at Itsukushima shrine on nearby Miyajima Island (the gate is currently under renovation).
You’ll also want to try the delicious local speciality okonomiyaki, a thick pancake of batter, vegetables and noodles.
Osaka is a Japan must-see for many visitors. We love the neon craziness of Dotonburi, the amazing food, friendly people, affordable prices, and the scary rides and brilliant Harry Potter World at Universal Studios Japan.
But, if you have limited time on your first trip to Japan, I would probably say choose Osaka or Tokyo as they are both sprawling modern cities.
If you are flying into or out of Kansai airport then it makes sense
to spend a night or two in Osaka. You could also visit as a day trip
If you are interested in getting off-the-beaten-track, Okayama is a great place to visit in Japan.
This modern city is home to one of the best gardens in the country and is especially beautiful in sakura season when you can enjoy the cherry blossoms without the crowds of Kyoto or Tokyo.
As it’s on a bullet train line, it’s a convenient and affordable base for exploring the area including the historic Kurashiki, Naoshima Island, Himeji Castle, and Hiroshima.
We also did a fantastic bike trip on the Kibiji Bike Trail through rice fields to untouristy temples.
Author: VCL team