Which cities should you visit on your trip to Japan?
I’ve only been to Japan once, but fell in love with it right away and can’t wait to go back there.
Japanese cities are unique and fascinating. Each has its own character and style.
If you’re planning a visit to Japan and feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the things this amazing country has to offer, this list of top cities will help you decide how to spend your time there.
Here are the best cities to visit on a trip to Japan
The best places to visit in Japan include the most popular cities, like Tokyo and Kyoto, but also smaller cities like Nikko.
Kyoto is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Japan and for good reason. Kyoto represents the historic roots of Japan, having once been the capital of Japan for over one thousand years!
There are over 1600 shrines and temples in Kyoto, ranging from the major complexes to small ones on the street as you walk by.
Some of our favourite locations to visit in Kyoto include Nishiki Market, Arashiyama Bamboo Grove and Tenryuji Temple, the famous Torii Gates at Fushimi Inari Temple and wandering around the traditional Gion area, hoping to spot a Geisha!
We also enjoyed seeing Kinkakuji, the famous Golden Pavilion as it is truly spectacular.
There are many more areas to explore in Kyoto including many unexpected discoveries around every corner.
We also enjoyed so many people walking around dressed in their traditional kimonos. Gion is a great area where you can rent your own kimono for a few hours.
Throughout my whole visit to Tokyo, I never ceased to get impressed by everything from navigation in the city to biorobots.
It seemed to me that I ended up in another Universe, where everything is very logical and conscious.
For me, it’s their awareness that distinguishes Japan from the rest of the world. They do not use anything without a reason, everything makes sense and is logically justified.
The most fun and free entertainment in Tokyo is just walking around the city.
Believe me, it inspires much more than museums and exhibitions.
Some of my favorite areas to visit are:
- Ginza – a shopping “luxury” area with Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Dior and other brands.
- Akihabara – cool and vibrant anime district.
- Shibuya – entertainment area with shops and cafes. Attraction to see: Shibuya Pedestrian Crossing.
- Harajuku – Japanese fast food area.
- Shinjuku – skyscrapers district. Attraction to see: Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden.
My trip to Tokyo was during the Hanami festival when the Japanese admire blooming sakura.
At this time, all locals fill the parks, meet with friends and family and drink sake under sakura trees.
One of the nice places to admire sakura is near Tokyo Imperial Palace. This palace is the current residence of the imperial family, so it is open for tourists only twice a year – January 2 and December 23.
However, you can easily explore the East Gardens next to it and enjoy sakura if you are planning a trip to Japan in late March or early April.
Some other famous attractions that I love include Tokyo Tower, Meiji Shrine and Ueno Park.
It’s also great to walk around cemeteries in Tokyo: they look almost like parks, but they are not crowded and people are allowed to have picnics there.
Everyone has heard about Hiroshima, the city which endured the first atomic bomb attack at the end of World War II.
However, not all the people visiting Japan include Hiroshima in their itinerary. Most of the time, because of its dark past.
The truth is that Hiroshima is undoubtedly worth spending one or two days, and for many reasons.
The obvious one is to visit the War Memorial Park, the area encompassing several monuments commemorating one of the most terrible events of the 20th century.
If you have limited time, there are three landmarks you shouldn’t miss. The A-Bomb Dome, with its fascinating skeletal structure, is one of the few buildings near the explosion’s focus, which remained partly intact.
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, the A-Bomb Dome has become a symbol of one of the most destructive events in history.
The Peace Memorial Museum is a must-see to get a better understanding of the historical background which led to the terrible attack with the atomic bomb.
Last but by no means least comes the Hall of Remembrance, a unique place designed for contemplation and where you can also learn about some of the civilians who perished under the bombings.
But Hiroshima is much more than the symbol of a gruesome past.
It’s a modern city, rebuilt with taste, which has a lively and positive vibe. And the best way to enjoy the city is wandering around, without aim, trying to catch what makes it so special.
If you have the chance to visit in Spring, during the cherry blossom season, don’t miss a walk along the banks of the Ota River in the late afternoon.
Besides the breathtaking sakura – the cherry trees – in full bloom, you’ll get a taste of how locals celebrate Hanami, enjoying the fleeting beauty of nature by gathering in outdoor parties.
In any case, whatever the season, Hiroshima is one of the places one should visit at least once in their lives. If only for its historical significance.
Nagoya is the 3rd largest city in Japan after Tokyo and Osaka, but unlike its bigger brothers to the west and east, Nagoya is not a top tourist destination and is often skipped over. But it really shouldn’t be.
Nagoya has a lot to offer tourists, first of which is a far less crowded experience.
Especially if you are planning a visit during spring or fall a visit to Nagoya is a great alternative to get away from the crowds and still see beautiful cherry blossoms or autumn leaves at the many parks and gardens in the city.
The top tourist spots in Nagoya are Nagoya Castle, which is one of the best castles to visit in Japan because of the newly reconstructed Honmaru Palace.
A one-story wooden structure that used to be the elaborate living quarters of the lords of Nagoya.
Other destinations include Atsuta Jingu, the second most important Shinto shrine in Japan, and Osu district, a roofed-over shopping street with lots of second-hand shops and great street food.
Head to Yamamotoya Okute to have vegan Miso Nikomi Udon, an Udon noodle dish made with red miso.
Located on Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, the underrated city of Sapporo has plenty of things that can keep you busy for weeks such as incredible restaurants, a plethora of malls and an exciting nightlife.
As the island’s largest city and a hub of cultural activity, Sapporo is often referred to as the “Wild West of Japan” and is one of Japan’s best cities to visit.
Sapporo is a laid-back city, which is also famous as the jumping-off point for exploring more of Hokkaido, particularly the Mount Moiwa Ski Resort, a popular winter destination since 1972.
Sapporo is generally a friendly and laid-back destination and is sometimes simply treated as a stopover before people head out to mountains or hot springs.
Wide, tree-lined boulevards, similar to Paris, crisscross the city, making it very pedestrian-friendly and also a pretty fascinating city to stay for at least a few days.
Sapporo is also the home of the most popular beer producers in Japan of the same name.
The Sapporo Beer Museum showcases the history of beer brewing in Japan and you don’t want to miss it.
Over the winter, the city’s attractive downtown area, the center of which is Odori Park is lit up for winter illumination.
Each February, the city hosts marvellous Sapporo Snow Festival where hand-made snow and ice sculptures come alive.
There is a number of beaches dotted around the city, making it possible for travelers to enjoy smooth sand, unwind and escape hot and humid summer days.
Just a 90-minute flight from Tokyo, the city of Sapporo is definitely worth a visit.
This small city of fewer than 100,000 inhabitants makes a great escape from the much larger cities in Japan like Tokyo and Osaka.
It can even be visited as a day trip from Tokyo, although it’s best to spend at least one night here.
That way, you can avoid the crowds at the more popular sights by arriving first thing in the morning before the daytrippers get there.
The most popular of the various temples and shrines in Nikko is the Tosho-gu Shrine, the mausoleum of the powerful shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Whereas most Japanese architecture is rather minimalist and understated, this shrine is quite boisterously decorated.
In some ways, it resembles a Rococo Italian church more than a Japanese shrine!
Another popular spot in Nikko is the Shinkyo Bridge, a small red footbridge that’s highly regarded as one of the most beautiful bridges in the country.
A more off-the-beaten-track attraction is the five-kilometer walking trail that leads to the Takino-o shrine. This old pilgrim’s path is a little taster of what it’s like to walk the famous Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail.
If you love beaches, authentic local cuisine and culture then the city of Naha in Okinawa should be at the top of your Japan bucket list.
Once the stronghold of the Ryukyu Dynasty, this port city — that’s now the capital of the island of Okinawa-Honto — is filled with enticing attractions.
The top things to do in Naha include enjoying the nightlife in lively restaurants, nightclubs and bars along Kokusai-dori Street, browsing the historic ceramic pottery workshops and visiting Zuisen Distillery where they produce awamori, a distilled rice spirit that dates to the 15th century.
Major sights for visitors to see include Naminoue Shrine, Naminoue Beach and Shuri Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that served as the palace of the Ryukyu kingdom between 1429 and 1879.
Destroyed in WWII and rebuilt only to be damaged again by fire in 2019 it is the symbolic heart of the Ryukyu island archipelago.
Okinawa is distinctly different from other regions of Japan so foodies will want to explore its most famous dishes including the addictive umi-budo seaweed snack.
Find more places to see in Japan
The second biggest city in Japan, located on the island of Honshu, is worth a visit on a trip around Japan.
Osaka is famous for its ancient castle. It is surrounded by a lovely park. The castle has been reconstructed and offers a museum with historical exhibitions.
You may also want to see one of Japan’s oldest Buddhist temples (some say it was the first ever) – Shitennoji. Visit it for the beautiful architecture and the nearby park.
You can plan your visit to coincide with the Shitennoji Flea Market and go browsing for some Japanese antiques.
Another interesting attraction in Osaka is the Osaka Museum of Housing and Living, which features model houses, shops and other buildings from the late Edo Period, so you can step back in time and see how people used to live.
In the evening, the place to hang out in Osaka is Dotonbori. That’s where you go out to for bars, cafes, good vibes and neon lights.
Yokohama is one of the best cities to visit in Japan, and also makes for a surprisingly great day trip from Tokyo!
Getting to Yokohama will take about 45 minutes, either by the JR Tokaido line or the Tokyu Toyoko Line!
Aim to get there in the morning, preferably after a nice breakfast, to avoid crowds on the train.
Then, walk off your breakfast by strolling down Motomachi shopping street, Yokohama’s multicultural area, for some cute souvenirs and trinkets!
Or, if you are more into nature, Yamashita Park is also nearby and has beautiful landscaping. If you manage to visit Japan during the cherry blossom season, you can find the perfect viewing spot at Mitsuike-Koen, a lake surrounded by over 1,600 cherry blossom trees!
For lunch, head over to gorge yourself at Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum in Yokohama, the world’s first foodie amusement park featuring ramen!
At this food court of sorts, you can try regionally crafted ramen from all over Japan, represented by nine famous restaurants from different regions of the country.
And all in one convenient location! Plus, there is a variety of vegan options, including vegan ramen dishes! For more shopping, head over to Yokohama’s Chinatown!
Not only are there fun unique shops, but also some of the best photo opportunities in the city!
But you can’t leave Yokohama without visiting the Cup Noodles Museum! You’ll learn the history of instant noodles as well as make your OWN flavor! Including vegan flavors!
Before you hop on your train back to Tokyo, swing by Cosmoworld, a small theme park that used to have the highest Ferris wheel in Japan. It’s a fun way to end the day!
Niigata might not be as pretty as the likes of Kyoto and Kanazawa, but this port city has a lot to offer and it’s only two hours from Tokyo by shinkansen.
Niigata is in an area famous for producing quality rice and it is, therefore, a great place to try Japanese sake.
You can learn about how sake is made during a free tour (the tour is in Japanese but there are leaflets and signs in English) at Imayo Tsukasa brewery.
To continue your sake adventure, you can head to Ponshukan in Niigata train station and trade 500 yen for 5 coins which can be used in any of the sake “vending machines.”
If sake isn’t your thing, visit historic Saitō Villa where you can sip matcha in one of the traditional tatami rooms.
For a unique shopping experience, take a stroll down Nuttari Terrace Street, a renovated area that is now home to independent shops and cafes.
I recommend Aotogama for stylish ceramics and Tsumugu Coffee for a laid-back coffee break.
I thoroughly enjoyed getting off the usual tourist trail and exploring Niigata and think it is well worth adding to your Japan itinerary!
Plan your trip to Japan
Arriving in Japan for the first time can be a bit overwhelming. Virtual tours are a great way to prepare for your trip to Japan. They will help you learn about your destinations and become more familiar with them before you go.
More resources to help you plan a trip to Japan:
- Get travel medical insurance
- Find flights to Japan from anywhere
- Find vacation rentals or hotels in Japan
- Find guided tours and activities in Japan
- Get a Japan guide book