There are so many places to visit in Japan and Japan attractions it’s impossible to ever get bored. To check off all the amazing things to do in Japan would take lifetimes as there are so many unique places to visit in Japan.
Hopefully this list will help you decide the right place to travel in Japan for you. Or, at the very least provide insight into places in Japan you have never heard about. From Japanese cities to ski towns here is our ultimate list of Japan destinations.
Places to Visit in Japan – Cities
Most Japan trips will start and end in a city. Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and Sapporo all have great international airports so after you fly in it’s best to stay a few days and introduce yourself to a Japanese city. These are often among some of the best destinations to visit in Japan.
Kyoto is one of the top places to visit in Japan. It carries a world-class reputation and was once the capital of Japan. Needless to say, there is a lot to do in Kyoto. From walking around the Geisha district to exploring the thousands of temples and shrines, or eating your way around the city, you’ll be hard pressed to get bored in Kyoto.
The city blends the best of ancient and modern Japan, and any visitor here will fall in love with Kyoto’s points of interest. Some of my favorite Japan landmarks are Fushimi Inari Taisha, Gion at night, and Kinkaku-Ji.
- Catch sunset at Yasaka-no-Tou (Japan landmark)
- Visit Kyoto Imperial Palace (Japan landmark)
- Enjoy Higashiyama Jisho Ji (Japan landmark)
The city of Nara is only a 45 train ride from Kyoto and is where you can find Nara Park.
Nara Park is home to hundreds and hundreds of deer. These deer are considered the messengers of the Gods, and have become a symbol of Nara.
Once you arrive at Nara Park, you will no doubt start to see the deer. They will approach you in hopes of food, and you can get some deer crackers from the many vendors around. Please only feed them the deer crackers as human food is bad for their digestion and can even lead to death.
Nara Park is a great free thing to do in Japan, especially for families who love wildlife. It’s worth noting that if you bow to the deer, they will likely bow back. Although the most famous thing to do in Nara is see the Nara deer there are plenty of other temples there to explore. Keep walking through the deer to see the famous Todai-ji temple, a Japanese landmark.
Top Things to do in Nara:
- Enjoy the company of deer!
- Gander inside Todai-ji (Japan landmark)
- Walk around Naramachi
You’ve definitely heard of Japan’s most populous city, Tokyo. It is one of the best cities to visit in Japan, and certainly a good introduction to Japan. There are a lot of places to explore and stay, and more than enough sites to occupy vistors. In Tokyo, moving around is not an issue, because the city has one of the most efficient and interconnected transport systems on the planet.
Being the capital of Japan, Tokyo is large and cannot be completely explored in a single visit. It is a huge city with twenty district wards and expensive taxis, so if you are coming to Tokyo, be prepared to come for subsequent visits because there’s a whole lot in store for you.
Top Things to do in Tokyo:
- Get a bird’s eye view of the city from Tokyo City View
- Have a taste of Japanese beer at The Beer Station
- Take a short walk to the Tsukiji Fish Market and shop for fresh vegetables and fish. (Japan landmark)
If you have spare time and wondering what to do in Japan consider heading to Hiroshima. Hiroshima, Japan, is one of the country’s hotspots for cherry blossom viewing. It’s got a beautiful castle, cool trams, fantastic food, a lot of nature, and a dark, tragic history. Most people know Hiroshimas as the place where the first atomic bomb was dropped, the first of two that ended WWII.
If you are into history and sightseeing Hiroshima is a fantastic place to visit. It’s also a great jumping off point for a few island day trips.
- Visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Japan Landmark)
- Go to the Atomic Bomb Dome (Japan Landmark)
- Catch a Carps game
Sapporo is the capital of Japan’s northernmost prefecture – Hokkaido. The most recently settled of the Japanese archipelago, this region was once home exclusively to the distinct ethnic group, the Ainu people. Today, however, Sapporo is about as Japanese as you can get.
With oodles of ramen in store for hungry travelers, a good collection of centuries-old Western-style buildings, and plenty of mountains with nature and ski opportunities, there’s a lot to do in Sapporo. The city sees minimal tourism compared to its other Japanese counterparts and is well worth a few day stop.
- Have a Beer at Sapporo Beer Museum
- Go up the Sapporo TV Tower (Japan landmark)
- Try Genghis Khan
Himeji is a city in the Kansai region of Japan, it’s most well known for the beautiful, centuries-old, white Himeji Castle and sees frequent visitors because of it.
Himeji castle – located in the Hyogo Prefecture – is bright-white, giving it the name ‘White Egret’ or ‘White Heron Castle.’ Considered the finest example of purely Japanese architecture, the castle complex includes 83 buildings, perpendicular stone walls, as well as a moat and defensive guard posts. These structures served it well through the tumultuous centuries of Japan’s feudal period, which was characterized by constant warring between the various warlords who exerted control over areas of Japan’s countryside.
In a nutshell, the castle’s prominence over the surrounding ground, gleaming white façade, and elegantly terraced roofs will leave you speechless. Peak season is March through May – largely for the cherry blossoms – so if you’re planning a trip then, bring your camera and expect crowds.
Things to do in Himeji
- Photograph the Himeji Castle (Japan landmark)
- Shop at Himeji’s Flea Markets
- Check out Himeji Ceramics Market
Yokohama is the second largest city in Japan by population, but it’s far less visited than nearby Tokyo. It’s a major port city and has notable famous attractions such as the Nippon Maru.
Located in the Port of Yokohama, the Nippon Maru is a 1930’s wooden sailing ship that’s purportedly got enough miles on her to circumnavigate the globe dozens of times.
Though she’s getting a little long in the tooth, the old ship has been lovingly restored to near original condition. Over its lifespan, the ship has been a transport and training vessel and was still in use in the ’80s, when it was converted to a full-time museum.
At over 300 feet long, with 30 sails and an impressive array of masts, the ship serves to exhibit its own history and that of the Japanese Navy, whose officers were trained on the ship for generations. The ship and Yokohama Port Museum are located on the waterfront just across from the Landmark Tower and are an easy stroll from the Metro station.
Things to do in Yokohama:
- Shop at Yokohama Chinatown
- Enjoy the Landmark Tower Sky Garden
- Visit the Cup Noodles Museum
The city of Kobe is well known for one thing – World renowned Kobe Beef. Kobe Beef is the creme de la creme of beef in the entire world. Kobe beef is from the Tajima strain of Japanese Black cattle and the real stuff can get very expensive.
Expect to pay at least one ¥8000 for Kobe Beef, anything less and it’s likely not the real deal. Do your research if you want the real Kobe beef, there will be many imitators claiming to serve you Kobe beef around Japan. My first time traveling to Japan I walked into the first restaurant advertising in the city of Kobe, I paid ¥2000 for the entire meal set. Was it delicious? Sure was. Was it real? Absolutely not. Kobe Beef is a special Japanese meal that is typically reserved for special occasions. However, there are many more things to do in Kobe than eat expensive beef!
Vegetarian or not a beef eater? Don’t worry there are plenty of other things to do in Kobe to occupy a few days.
Top Things to do in Kobe:
- Enjoy World Class Kobe Beef
- Climb Mount Rokko
- Learn about sake at Kiku-Masamune Sake Brewery Company
Located on the island of Honshu is Japan’s third largest city, Osaka. The city is huge with a population of over 2.5 million people and is bustling with plenty of things to see in Osaka.
Osaka isn’t always located on the traditional Japan tourist trail like Kyoto and Tokyo, but it is full of life and things to do. Osaka has plenty of great restaurants, shopping, bars, and culturally interesting activities to keep visitors busy for at least a few days. Some of the best things to do in Osaka are visit Den Den Town, Dotonbori, and Amerika-Mura. We spent three full days in Osaka and had a blast.
- Try Jiggly Cheesecake
- Evening Cruise on the Dotomborigawa River
- Sumiyoshi Taisha Temple (Japan landmark)
It’s arguable as to whether Hakodate, the southernmost city of Honshu island, is home to the best seafood in Japan. Certainly, it’s where you’ll find the most unique dish: Ika odori, or “dancing squid.” Available at the Hakodate Morning Market, a colorful culinary paradise just steps from Hakodate station, this donburi rice bowl uses the salt in soy sauce to trigger muscle movement in the squid, which is very much dead.
Other attractions in Hakodate, which is now connected all the way to Tokyo via Shinkansen, include the night view from Mount Hakodate, the star-shaped Goryokaku Fort (which is best viewed from nearby Goryokaku Tower, especially during cherry blossom season) and Yunokawa Onsen, where many spas are open to day visitors from the city. Structures in historical Motomachi, including one of the only Russian Orthodox churches in Japan, pay homage to Hakodate’s colonial heritage.
Things to do in Hakodate:
- Tsugaru Fort
- Go up Goryokaku Tower (Japan landmark)
- Explore Motomachi
On paper, Matsumoto might not jump out at you as one of the unique places in Japan, with the exception of 17th-century Matsumoto Castle. However, this city in the heart of the Japanese Alps is compact and charming, and also makes a great base for exploring the region. The most popular day trip from Matsumoto is to Jigokudani, a mountain onsen where you can find Japan’s famous “snow monkeys,” but this is only the beginning.
Another great natural adventure is the scenic Kamikochi area, where a crystalline river flows through towering mountains that offer a different experience in every season. The Nakasendo Way, meanwhile, blends history and scenery. Take the train from Matsumoto to Nagiso and walk between charming towns like Tsumago and Magome, which were founded during the Edo period, when the Nakasendo was the main trading route between Kyoto and what is now Tokyo.
Things to do in Matsumoto:
- Check Out Matsumoto Castle (Japan landmark)
- Pay a visit to Jorinji Shrine
- Enjoy a traditional Japanese tea ceremony
I don’t think I need to explain why Hiroshima is one of the top places to visit in Japan. On the other hand, while they have a similarly sad history, I personally find Kyushu island’s Nagasaki a more interesting city to visit. This is largely because of the role Nagasaki served in Japan in the decades and centuries prior to the bombings of World War II: Prior to Japan as a whole opening up to the West, it was the only place in the country where foreigners were permitted.
Much of this is still on display in Nagasaki city, from Dutch-colonial Dejima, to the ornate 19th-century Oura Church, to Shinchi Chugakai, which is one of the oldest Chinatowns in Japan. Other unique places in Japan in and around Nagasaki include Gunkanjima Battleship Island, the famous (among Japanese, anyway) “night view” from Mt. Inasa and Yoshinogari, a historical park whose architecture replicates the style of the ancient Yayoi period.
Things to do in Nagasaki:
- Pay a visit to the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum (Japan landmark)
- Climb Mount Inasa
- Visit Koshibyo Confucius Shrine
Whether you’re ultimately bound for Okinawa beaches or want to explore the cultural of the Ryukyu Kingdom that used to occupy this archipelago, the city of Naha is a great place to hunker down for a few days. Take advantage of the only monorail in Okinawa to visit the city’s top attractions, from 14th-century Shuri Castle, to the dramatic Naminoue Shrine, to the stunning beaches of Ie and Tokashiki islands, which sit just offshore.
Naha is also home to interesting culinary traditions. When you’re not slurping down a bowl of rich Okinawa soba noodle soup, made with melt-in-your-mouth pork belly, head down to Kokusai Street, where you can sample quirky taco rice. A combination of Tex-Mex flavors brought over by American military members and Japan’s staple food, this simple meal is always satisfying.
Things to do in Naha:
- Shuri Castle (Japan landmark)
- Ride the Yui Monorail
- Check out Naha Beach
Shingu is one of the jumping off points for the Kumano Kodo trail and Yunomine Onsen. It’s a smaller city in Japan with a ton to do. First as mentioned it’s one of the closest cities to Kumano and it’s thousands of temples and shrines to explore.
Also near Shingu is the Kamikura Shrine, a Shinto shrine high above the city that is easily accessible and with few tourists!
Things to do in Shingu:
- Visit Kamikura Shrine (Japan landmark)
- See Shingu Castle
- Enjoy Kuwanoki Falls
Unique Places to Visit in Japan
Traveling to unique places in Japan can be difficult for a number of reasons. If you haven’t explored much of the country, for example, you might feel obligated to visit mainstream destinations like Tokyo and Kyoto before proceeding onto more authentic places, or even researching them. Language can be a factor, too, as can your general level of familiarity with Japanese cultural norms.
However, don’t let anything or anyone convince you not to explore Japan off the beaten path. Whether you’re a frequent Japan traveler and want to dig deeper into lesser-known reaches of the country, or a first-time visitor who wants to add a surprising diversion (or two!) into an otherwise pedestrian itinerary, Japan is nothing if not a treasure trove of endless discovery.
One of the most easily accessible unique places in Japan is the Hokuriku region, which occupies the northern coast of Honshu island and the prefectures of Fukui, Ishikawa, Niigata and Toyama prefectures. Hokuriku offers a wide variety of interesting destinations and experiences, from cities like Kanazawa (which is known as “Little Kyoto” because of its charming geisha districts) to the skiing on offer in Myoko Kogen in the mountains of Niigata.
Whether you’re more attracted to the decidedly urban things to do in Kanazawa, the enchanting farmhouses of Shirakawa-go or want to marvel at autumn colors along the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, you can reach most Hokuriku destinations direct from Tokyo, onboard the aptly-named Hokuriku Shinkansen bullet train. Trains on this route depart frequently and are all covered by the Japan Rail Pass!
Things to do in Hokuriki:
- Kutaniyaki Art Museum
- Higashichaya Old Town
- See the Symbol Road Monument
When it comes to truly unique places in Japan, San’in truly takes the cake. Occupying the northern half of the Chugoku region (the Westernmost part of Honshu island, where you’ll find Hiroshima), San’in boasts out-of-this-world attractions like the bizarre Tottori Sand Dunes, ancient Izumo Shrine, the expertly manicured gardens of the Adachi Museum of Art and Motonosumi Inari, a coastal temple that features mysterious red gates descending down toward the Sea of Japan.
Like Japan as a whole, San’in is larger than it appears on the map; to see everywhere in this region, you’ll need a bare minimum of two weeks. San’in is also one of the regions of Japan where people speak English the least, so you’ll want to have a translation app on hand in case you find yourself unable to communicate. Access San’in from the east by riding the Super Hakuto limited express train from Osaka or from the west by riding the Sanyo Shinkansen from Fukuoka or Hiroshima to Shimonoseki.
Things to do in San’in:
- Climb the Tottori Sand Dunes
- Check out the Sand Musuem!
- See the Izumo Shrine
It’s difficult to name a single best island in Japan, being that there are hundreds of smaller landmasses within the country’s territory besides the four main ones. When it comes to Honshu and her three little sisters, however, one stands out to me above the rest: Shikoku, which is the smallest, and unfortunately the most overlooked, at least historically. You can get to Shikoku by riding a JR Highway Bus from Osaka to the city of Tokushima, or by taking a local train from Okayama to Takamatsu.
As for why I feel this way, there are a few reasons. In addition to Tokushima and Takamatsu, famous for the Awa Odori dance tradition and regal Ritsurin garden, respective, Shikoku boasts the cities of Kochi and Matsuyama, which are home to two of Japan’s 12 remaining additional castles. Matsuyama is also where you’ll find Dogo Onsen, which is Japan’s oldest public bath house. Nature lovers have plenty to enjoy as well, from trekking in the Iya Valley, to pleasure boating along the Shimanto River, to sea kayaking near the southern port of Susaki.
Things to do in Shikoku:
- See the Naruto Whirlpool
- Enjoy Tokushima Ramen
- Amble about Ritsurin Garden
Just outside Sapporo itself but close enough that it makes a super convenient day trip, Otaru is a cool place to visit. With its romantic, Western-style buildings, old warehouses, and canal, it’s steeped in history.
Otaru was actually the original terminus for Hokkaido’s first railway system, so – back in the day at least – it was big news. That was also thanks to the herring industry here, which is no more. Today the Victorian-style gas lamps and the grand Western buildings of Nichigin-dori provide remnants of its glory days.
For Instagram fiends, there’s the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival; every year in mid-February, tiny snow lanterns hide candles along the canal and other areas to beautiful effect.
Things to do in Otaru:
- Walk along the Otaru Canal
- Check out the Otaru Museum
Yunomine Onsen is a very small ancient Japanese town known for its hot springs and historical ryokans. It’s an interesting place to visit in Japan as it serces as a jumping off point to the Kumano Kodo. It’s located in the sacred mountains of Kumano and is a stop on the wonderful Kumano Kodo trail. It’s a very spiritual quiet town where one could easily come to enjoy the nature around them.
I loved Yunomine Onsen and thought it was one of the best places to visit in Japan. It feels so “Japanese,” and the waters are said to change color up to seven times a day! Make sure to buy some eggs and cook them in the public hot spring cooking basin (Yuzutsu).
Things to do in Yunomine Onsen:
- Soak in a hotspring
- Boil eggs in the hot springs
- Try Onsen Coffee
One of the most beautiful places to visit in Japan is Nachi Falls. If you want to see Japan’s largest waterfalls you’ll have to head to Nachikatsuura in Wakayama Prefecture. It’s here you’ll see the grand waterfall that drops over 133 meters!
That’s not the best part though. Directly in front of the waterfall is Sanjudo Pagoda, a three story Japanese pagoda situated ever so perfectly in front of the fall.
Things to do near Nachi Falls:
- Get a view from Sanjudo Pagoda
- Kumano Nachi Taisha Shrine (Japan landmark)
- Walk through the evergreen primeval forest
Kinosaki is an onsen town only 2.5 hours away from Kyoto. It’s been dubbed, “the best onsen town in Japan” and has seven different hot springs. This town is over 1300 years old and much of the ancient vibe has been kept here.
Given it’s close location to Kyoto, it can get busy, but that still doesn’t take away from the feeling of it all!
Things to do in Kinosaki Onsen:
- Soak in an onsen of course!
- Visit Gokurakuji Temple (Japan landmark)
- Ride the Kinosaki Ropeway
One of the most interesting places in all of Japan is Rabbit Island. Yes, you read that right. On the small Japanese Island of Okunoshima lies a land filled with enough Peter Cottontails to fulfill all your childhood dreams. During WWII, the isolated island served as a top-secret location for a poison gas factory. Rabbits were used as test subjects for chemical weapons such as tear and mustard gas.
Now more than 1000 bunnies on this island living wild and free and you can go there and cover yourself with them all (as long as you have some food).
There is no proof that the bunnies now days are direct ancestors from their wartime friends, so no one can say exactly for sure why the island is inhabited by over 1000 bunnies now – some say that school children brought them to the uninhabited island in the ’70s. Besides the bunnies, around the island are information points about the war, a Poison Gas Museum, and ruins from the gas plants used.
The only way to get to Rabbit Island is via the Okunoshima ferry. From Hiroshima take a train or a bus to get to JR Tadanoumi Station. Once you step out of the station turn right and the ferry terminal is less than a 5-minute walk.
You will get to a booth with a giant bunny billboard. From the mainland to Okunoshima takes less than 20 minutes and takes about 12 mins costing 620 ¥. Make sure to bring some change with you so you can purchase rabbit food. Don’t bring your own food and feed it to the rabbits, it’s not good for their digestion.
- See what’s left of the Poison Gas Museum
- Surround yourself with animal love!
- Go for a short hike!
Naoshima is an island town in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea. I like to call it “art installation island” as it’s well known for its numerous art museums and projects around the island.
A lot of the museums, installations, and sculptures was installed by the Benesse Corporation. The Benesse House is an interesting art museum/art hotel to visit. Besides that I recommend walking around and seeing the interesting sculptures, there’s also a bus to take you around the island.
Apart from the art, the island has all the island features you could want on a sunny day. Sandy beaches and beautiful water.
Things to do on Naoshima:
- Tour the Benesse House
- Soak in the Naoshima Public Bath (I Love Yu)
- Photograph the pumpkins!
Places to Visit in Japan for Skiing/Snowboarding
Japan is world-famous for its white, light, and fluffy powder. It’s one of the best places in the world to travel for ski bums!
Want to experience the charm of northern Japan without the crowds of Hokkaido, and with ever-so-slightly warmer winter temperatures? Head to Tohoku, which occupies the northern reaches of Honshu island. Tohoku includes cities like Aomori, which is famous for apple production, and Sendai, the gateway to quirky Tashirojima “cat island,” as well as interesting nature like volcanic Lake Towada, mysterious Oirase Stream and Zao Onsen, whose trees become caked in snow during the winter months and turn into “snow monsters.”
Morever, Tohoku is home to some of the best places for skiing in Japan, albeit relatively unknown ones, at least for foreigners. But if you don’t want to hit the slopes of Akita or Yamagata prefectures, you can base yourself in Morioka, which like Sendai and Aomori is connected to Tokyo via Shinkansen, and visit the ancient Samurai town of Kakunodate. Or re-discover Fukushima prefecture, which apart from the relatively small exclusion zone around the doomed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station is safe and beautiful.
Things to do in Tohoku:
- Enjoy the Shirakami Sanchi mountain range
- Check out the Nebuta Matsuri fest
- Get a dose of culture in Hiraizumi
One of the best things to do in Japan in the winter is ski or snowboard. If you can’t make the trip all the way to Hokkaido to go skiing, the island of Honshu has some great ski resorts.
Happo One is located on Mount Karamatsu in Hakuba, Japan and is very easily accessible if you have the JR Pass. Happo One is a good family friendly resort with lots of skiable intermediate terrain.
Things to do in Hakuba:
- Snowboard at Happo One
- Soak in an Onsen
- Enjoy the apres ski scene
Furano is one of the best places to go in Japan. What sets Furano apart from more well-known ski resorts in Japan, like Niseko, is that it remains a Japanese town. There aren’t a plethora of hotels, gift shops, board shops, tour providers, or English speaking residents.
This can be seen as a negative for foreigners, but for powder fiends and travelers this is the stuff dreams are made of. While it does not bring all of the offerings of a larger resort Furano can still cater to those seeking a winter holiday with more culture.
The real draw for visitors to Furano is that legendary Hokkaido powder. The town and resort are located in central Hokkaido and thus receive drier snow albeit less of it than the resorts along the coast like Niseko, Kiroro, or Rusutsu.
In an average year, Furano receives a whopping 9m of snow. While it’s a big resort by Japanese standards Furano isn’t massive by international standards. It has 9 lifts, 24 courses, and 974 meters of vertical, and has been on the FIS World Cup Skiing Circuit 10 times. Make sure to see the Shirogane blue pond while you’re there too – a huge Japan point of interest.
- Check out the Lavender Fields in the summer
- See the Shirogane Blue Pond
- Snowboard at Furano Ski Resort
Nozawaonsen is a small village in Nagano Prefecture. The village is famous for its number of hot springs, all from at least the 8th century. Here you’ll find steam rising up everywhere from the traditional ryokans and shops in the winter.
Nozawa Onsen is also considered one of the birthplaces of skiing in Japan and the Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort looks over the town. It’s one of the best places to go skiing or snowboarding in Japan and gets that great JAPOW that Hokkaido gets.
Things to do in Nozawa Onsen:
- Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort
- See the Dosojin Fire Festival
- Stay in a Ryokan
Niseko often refers to Niseko United which is a collection of four ski resorts that connected on the same mountain. They are Grand Hirafu, Niseko Annupuri, Niseko Hanazono, and Niseko Village.
Each resort is individually owned, but they have all come together to create Niseko United on one mountain, Niseko Annupuri. To make it even more confusing there are two more resorts not a part of the collective on the same mountain, Niseko Weiss and Moiwa.
Most visitors pick up the Niseko United All Mountain lift pass which provides you access to all four of the Niseko United resorts lifts and services. A one day All Mountain lift pass is ¥7400 per day. If you only want to ride one area of the mountain for the day it’s possible to purchase an individual lift pass at each resort for about ¥2000 cheaper.
Things to do in Niseko:
- Climb up Mount Yotei
- Get a face full of powder at Niseko United
- Soak in an Onsen at the Niseko Greenleaf
Places to visit in Japan for Nature
To travel to Japan is to be at peace with all the nature around you. Here are some of my favorite spots to be among the trees!
Another of the most famous Japan landmarks of Hiroshima has got to be this icon – the floating torii at Itsukushima (or Miyajima). An aspect of Japanese Shinto shrines are their tori – or gates – often painted vivid vermillion, signifying a sacred place.
What’s special about the one on the island of Itsukushima (or Miyajima, as it’s more commonly known), is that it is embedded just offshore, so it appears to be floating.
The shrine itself is on a site first said to have been graced by a shrine back in 593 AD, but the current design is 16th-century. Also on stilts, at high tide, this has the pretty awesome effect of looking like a sea palace.
At low tide (the least Instagrammed side of the torii) you can see all the five-yen coins that people have wedged into every crack they can find. Locals pick through shellfish in the wet sand too. It’s a pretty cool time of day to be there.
Things to do in Miyajima:
- Photograph the Itsukushima Shrine
- Enjoy the many deer
- Go shopping on Omotosando Shopping Street
If you’re still wondering where to visit in Japan then Kumano should be high on your list. The Kumano Kodo trail network is in the Kii Mountain range of Japan. Kumano is an isolated, sacred site of healing and salvation. It is the Spiritual Heart of Japan and all around you can feel at peace with nature.
This spiritual origin of Japan has been a pilgrimage destination for over 1000 years. People from all levels of society would make the pilgrimage using a network of routes across the Kii Peninsula. Emperors, artisans, aristocrats, and even peasants would travel for over 30 days hubs like Osaka and Kyoto.
Nowadays the Kumano Koodo is a maze of trails that travel up and down ridges, along the coast, and through old Japanese forests full of cypress and cedar trees. Scattered across the ancient network are around 3000 shrines and plenty of amazing sites.
The majority of the trail network lies in Wakayama Prefecture but extends into parts of the Mie and Nara Prefectures. You can get here via rail in about four hours from the Japanese cities of Osaka and Kyoto. To check the train schedule look on Hyperdia, and make sure you grab a JR Pass before you arrive in Japan. JR West offers a regional pass for tourists that should cover most necessary public transport around the route.
Things to do on the Kumano Kodo:
- Stay in a Ryokan
- Walk under the O’Torii (Japan landmark)
- Walk through the neverending forest trails
Nikko National Park
Located a little more than 100 kilometers north of Tokyo, Nikko National Park is the perfect destination for a one or two-day trip from Japan’s capital city. Chockfull of natural wonders like lakes, rivers, mountains and waterfalls, the park is also famous for the Toshogu Shrine, which is considered to be one of the most ornately adorned shrines in the country.
Though stunning at all times of the year, the park is exquisite in autumn, when the tree’s leaves turn stunning shades of orange, red and yellow. There is an ancient Shogun’s mausoleum, the famous statue of Three Wise Monkeys, and more picturesque bridges and shrines than you’ll know what to do with. If you’d like to get in a little exercise, there are plenty of hiking trails too.
Things to do in Nikko:
- Walk across the Sacred Bridge
- Check out Sanbutsudo (Three Buddha Hall)
- Photograph the Fire-Story Pagoda
Places to Visit in Japan for the beaches
Japan has world class beaches that should not be ignored!
The southernmost islands in the Japanese archipelago, the Yaeyama Islands – of which Okinawa is part – are home to white sand beaches, impossibly blue skies, and palm trees swaying in the stiff Pacific breeze like few other places on earth. If you’d been blindfolded, teleported, and plopped down here and weren’t sure where you were, you might think Hawaii, especially due to the American influence which comes with the large US Navy and Air Force bases nearby.
Peppered with hotels in every price range and with lots of scenic views and places to relax, eat and drink, this may be the most satisfying time you’ll spend in Japan.
Things to do on Okinawa:
- Dive to the underwater ruins of Yonaguni
- Try Okinawan cuisine
- Head out to Kume Island
Best Time to Visit Japan
Conventional wisdom suggests that the best time to visit Japan is either in the spring, when the sakura are blooming, or during the autumn, when a blaze of leaves colors the cities and countrysides of Japan. These are indeed the most beautiful times to visit Japan, especially if you’re a photographer, but they aren’t conducive to feeling like you’re off the beaten path. Whether you’re in a busy city like Kyoto or obscure cities in San’in region, spring and autumn are the most crowded times of year to visit Japan.
My favorite alternative to the Japan cherry blossom season is the dead of winter—this might seem crazy, but hear me out! Many of Japan’s coastal cities are relatively mild during the colder months, and rarely see snow or temperatures below freezing. In the mountains and far north in the country, meanwhile, icy landscapes evoke an enchanting winter wonderland, from the “snow monkey” onsen at Jigokudani outside of Nagano, to the “snow monsters” that take shape in the mountains of Yamagata prefecture.
As far as summer travel to Japan, I don’t generally recommend this, as the summer months coincide with Japan’s tsuyu monsoon, with a few exceptions. If you don’t care to visit Japan during winter (it’s worth it, I’m telling you!) but also want to avoid the crowds of spring and autumn, travel during shoulder months like May and October. Weather during these periods tends to be warm and sunny, and while you won’t see many cherry blossoms or autumn leaves, you also won’t see an excessive quantity of fellow tourists.
How to Build Your Japan Itinerary
The most common pitfall of planning a trip to Japan, regardless of where you plan to go, is not giving yourself enough time. Japan looks much smaller than it is on the map, especially if you’re from a large country like the US, Canada or Australia. The optimal amount of time for taking a comprehensive trip to Japan is 3-4 weeks, though you can take shorter trips if you only want to focus on one region or city.
As far as how to structure your trip, I like to move in a circle, starting in Tokyo (or sometimes Osaka) and riding Shinkansen bullet train whenever possible.
How to Travel Around Japan
Transportation in Japan could be your number one expense, depending on how much you plan to bop around the country.
Rail travel in Japan is simply expensive. The faster the train, the higher the ticket price, especially if you’re traveling on the famous Shinkansen (bullet train).
You can lower your cost significantly by buying a Japan Rail Pass – only offered to visitors of Japan. The JR Pass is something you will typically want to think about purchasing before your trip, and you can pick it up once you arrive at a JR station. From there (depending on your type of pass) you can travel Japan freely on JR trains. They have different types of passes according to where you’ll be and length of your trip.
The first time I visited Japan I wanted to see as much as I could so I bought a 14 day JR Pass for less than $400 and traveled every two-three days around Japan.
The second time I visited I was only in Hokkaido doing minimal travel as it was a ski trip so I decided to just pay for my train travel outright.
The third time I visited, I also declined a JR Pass as I was doing minimal travel, but after spending ¥12000 on one round trip train journey from Osaka-Shingu, I think I would have been better off with a designated rail pass.
When planning your trip to Japan you should consider where you are visiting and the distances you’ll cover. Long distances may require high-speed trains and will generally cost more than a short one hour journey.
If you are traveling to one region of Japan, it may or may not be worth it for you to purchase a rail pass before. If you want some spontaneity in your Japan travels a rail pass is the way to go.
We’ve also found that MOST (but not all) buses and subway rides in Japan charge you by distance covered. It is not a flat fare.
Most importantly, always, ALWAYS keep your bus, train, or subway ticket on your throughout your entire journey. You will need it to exit the station.
A few examples of our costs:
- Furano to Niseko Ski Resort Resort Liner Bus: ¥5500
- Kyoto city bus: ¥210
- Kyoto-Nara train: ¥490
- Osaka city subway ticket: ¥200-350
- Osaka-Singu Rapid Rail Service: ¥7000
- 14 day JR Pass: ¥46,432
- Shingu-Yinomine Onsen Bus: ¥1500
Car Rental in Japan
If you want to explore Japan on your own terms sometimes a car rental can be a good option. Car rentals can be had for as little as $40 a day.
Keep in mind that to rent a car in Japan you need an International Drivers Permit. Unlike many other countries who let you rent a car off just your license (as long as it uses the Latin language), in Japan, you need to go the extra mile.
An IDP is different than your regular license and must be certified in your home country beforehand. For Americans, this can easily be done at AAA for $20.
No car rental company will rent to you in Japan unless you have one, so make sure it’s done before you attempt to pick up your rental.
Money Saving Tips for Japan
Take public transport
You may think that the trains in Japan are expensive, but they are nothing compared to the price of taxis in Japan. If you step into a taxi, you should be prepared for a costly fare.
No – the Japanese are not trying to rip you off, that’s just the fare for traveling via taxi in Japan. It’s also important to note that in most cities public transport stops around midnight even in Tokyo, so if your flight lands late have a plan for how you are getting to your accommodation.
Stay in Guesthouses
If you don’t want to stay in hostel the next best thing is a Japanese run guesthouse. I found them to be extremely better value than hotels in Japan and almost always busy. Yes, most hotels in Japan have crazy small rooms. We book a lot of our accommodation on Airbnb. You can see our top Airbnb tips if it’s your first time booking.
Cook Your Own Food
If your accommodation has a kitchen then it’s best to make use of it. We saved a ton of money this way in the expensive resort town of Niseko and made our own meals every night.
The grocery store provides great value especially on Japanese food like noodles, rice, and vegetables. You can even find food to cook with at the convenience stores.
Check out the ¥100 shops
A ¥100 shop is equivalent to an American dollar store. You can find almost anything at them so it’s always worth it to scope some out!
Eat your fresh fruits and vegetable before you get to Japan
Fresh fruits like strawberries, blueberries, and even oranges are pretty expensive in Japan, so try to avoid them if you’re on a budget. I found a lot of vegetables besides mushrooms and a few leafy greens to be higher than average as well.
Frequent Convenience Stores
You can get almost anything you want at Lawsons, 7-11, and Family Mart. They are open around the clock and have things like pastries, coffee, pre-made meals, toiletries, and sake.
How Much Does it Cost to Travel in Japan?
So how much Japan spending money per day should you have? Besides the pre-trip expenses like airfare, luggage, and any Japan packing list items you’ll want to buy I believe you can get by in Japan for ¥7000-10,000 a day.
Actually, to prove this I tracked all our expenses for one day out in Osaka. We were not frugal, but not lavish in our spending either. We ate what we wanted to eat and did what we wanted to do and had a fantastic time!
- Breakfast Pastry: ¥230
- Train to city: ¥210
- Coffee: ¥420
- Okonomiyaki lunch: ¥1030
- Pinball: ¥200
- New Clothes: ¥2600
- Soft Ice cream: ¥440
- Coffee: ¥550
- Train to Osaka Castle: ¥230
- Osaka Castle: Free
- Train to dinner: ¥180
- Ramen with beer: ¥1235
- Accommodation: ¥4000/pppn
- TOTAL: ¥11,325
Now you definitely could do it a lot cheaper than this or for much more. Many things on the above list are superfluous, but I like coffee, ice cream, a beer with my meal, and the occasional shopping spree.
When I first traveled to Japan for the first time, I was on a backpacker budget. I visited there in February (off season), spent my nights in hostels, ate basic meals from 7-11, and only indulged in a few cheap excursions – but for the most part, stuck to the free temples and just walked around and enjoyed the view. I had a fantastic time on less than the ¥6000 a day.
You can travel cheaply through Japan if you are determined. At the same time, if it’s your one big trip to Japan, I don’t think you should be afraid to spend money on food and experiences you can’t get back home.
What to Pack for Japan
Travel Water Bottle
The tap water in Japan is very clean so there is no need to buy plastic water bottles and contribute to our world’s plastic problem. We’ve shifted to using an insulated aluminum water bottle as it handles the hot sun well and also keeps drinks warm when need be. See all of our favorite water bottles here.
Smith Lowdown 2
If you’re visiting during the summer you will definitely want sunglasses in Japan. My favorites are made by Smith. The Chromapop lens technologyis like seeing the world with a fresh set of our eyes. They enhance contrast, reduce glare, and reflection for superb vision while driving, walking around town, or out on the water. We also love the style of the glasses for anyone who likes to live an active lifestyle.
It is considered rude to wear your shoes inside in Japan so most places will give you slippers to walk around with once you take your shoes off at the door. However, I never found these slippers comfortable and would rather have my own from home.
You’ll be doing a lot of walking in Japan especially if you are hanging out in cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, Sapporo, or Osaka. Make sure your feet don’t want to kill you and get a pair of good men’s walking shoes or women’s walking shoes.
Chances are you’ll want a camera for your trip to Japan. Our favorite pocket-sized point and shoot camera for quick trips are the Sony RX100V. It takes fantastic photos and video and is the size of your palm.
Check out some of the best sellers right now and pick up a copy. There’s nothing better than enjoying a good book under the comfort of a Japanese katsu table. I’ve recently upgraded to the Kindle Paperwhite and absolutely love it. It’s small, has touchscreen functions, and a backlight so that I can read at night without a harsh glare.
We don’t travel without travel insurance and neither should you. You never know what can happen in a foreign country and it’s best to be prepared. World Nomads provides good short term coverage.
Sometimes it’s nice just to have a real book in your nds when traveling. We recommend the Lonely Planet Japan guidebook.
Japan mainly uses the Type A plug like North America, but there is generally no socket for the grounded portion. Make sure you find a good universal adapter like the one I have to keep you charged. Otherwise, you may struggle to find one once you land.
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Thank you to Robert Schrader, of Japan Starts Here, for his contributions to this article.
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