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The “Land of the Rising Sun” is very varied and travelling there can be daunting, so here’s the ultimate guide to the best places to visit in Japan!
The Best Places to Visit in Japan
A list of the best places to visit in Japan would not be complete without its sprawling mega-capital. With the same population as the entire continent of Australasia, Tokyo is truly massive, so don’t try to do it all! I would actually recommend leaving the capital until the end of your trip, rather than doing it first. It is as wacky as Japan gets and quite unlike the reserved rest of the country, so it’s good to build up to and avoid total culture shock when you step off the plane!
Shinjuku is Tokyo’s nightlife district and where I stayed while I was there. Full to the brim with cafes, restaurants, bars and karaoke joints, this area never sleeps – at 6am you are more likely to see revellers from the night before than businessmen on their way to work! Accommodation in Shinjuku is expensive (but cheaper than the rest of Tokyo) and cramped, so be prepared to pay through the nose for a room not much bigger than a cupboard.
Trying out karaoke is a must – shop around with one of the many touts to find the best deal (often you can get it for cheaper if you forgo the drinks deals). Karaoke aside, one of the best places to visit in Japan (let alone Tokyo!) I found was Kawaii Monster Café. This kitsch wonderland has nightly shows as weird and wondrous as itself. Entry to the shows come with optional all you can drink offers (with a welcome bottle of champagne) which was the best value drinks option I saw in all of Tokyo – at just £25 per person for the night.
Finally, a short train ride away from Shinjuku is the famous Shibuya crossing – think Times Square but with even more people! Whatever time of day or night you go you will find the sparkling crossing packed with people. Be prepared to run out ahead of the crowds to snap a photo in this loco location!
Akihabara is the pinnacle of wacky Japan. Even brighter than its trendier neighbours, this area is Japan’s Mecca for all things nerdy. While I didn’t feel the need to brave one of its many ‘Maid Cafes’, I would definitely recommend exploring one or two of its many arcades. Gaming culture here is unlike anything I’ve seen before, and having a go on the games ourselves often took a backseat to marvelling at the local demonstrating their frightening skills. Who knew tap tap could be a competitive sport?!
Saving the best till last, one of the best places to visit in Japan (if not THE best) is the teamLabs exhibition space. This fusion of art and technology is what you would get if Willy Wonka had made light bulbs instead of chocolate. There are two exhibitions, a short train ride away from each other – Borderless and Planets. You have to buy tickets for each separately, but I could not recommend both enough! Borderless is much larger than Planets, and your ticket is for the whole day, so turn up early (before it opens at 10.00AM) to avoid hour long queues. Then, once you’ve had your fill, take a picturesque train ride on the Yurikamome line through Tokyo’s futuristic architecture to the Planets space. Planets is timed entry and takes less long to navigate, but its exhibits are more intense and stimulate more of your senses (I don’t want to give too much away!). Both are very popular, so you need to book a good few days in advance!
Pro tip: In both exhibitions, there is a lot of mirrored flooring, so don’t do what I did and avoid wearing a skirt! The exhibitions have shorts or coverings to put on to save your modesty, but you’re definitely best off just avoiding skirts all together.
Tokyo is surrounded by fun suburbs to visit, and the chilled out Kamakura is a great escape from the madness of the city. An hour South of Tokyo, Kamakura is a brilliant mix of beautiful shrines, rewarding hiking trails and an expansive beach. I stayed in Kamakura Guesthouse, which was a little out of the way of the main sights, but was a perfect picture of Japanese hospitality. Expect very friendly and polite staff, chilled out floor seating in the common area and futon beds in the gender-divided dorms. See the giant Buddha at Kōtoku-in and then take the Daibutsu hiking trail for other more peaceful shrines, a small bamboo grove and beautiful views of the bay.
Pro tip: In travelling Japan, you will have to get a lot of trains. The JR rail pass gives you unlimited access to all JR company lines (including the bullet train lines) but is quite expensive. Price up your journeys before you go, you may find that if you are only taking a few trains it is cheaper NOT to get the JR pass. However, if you are stopping often and using the bullet train line often like I did, it will almost always be better to get the JR pass.
Nara is magical city that feels like Disney come to life and is definitely one of the best places to visit in Japan. Here, semi-wild deer roam the parks and streets and will bow to you if you offer them food! Street vendors sell crackers meant for deer consumption, buy a 150 yen packet, and you’ll be feeling like Snow White in no time! To add to the romance of the town, it is also crammed full of Shrines and Temples – a huge statue of Buddha is housed there in the largest wooden building in the world. Wander through the parks taking in the sights and wildlife with the rest of the tourists or take sanctuary in one of the world class Japanese gardens such as Yoshikien (which doesn’t have an entry fee).
Mount Kōya (or Kōya –san as the locals call it) is one of the best places to visit in Japan and was my favourite experience in my whole trip there. Koya-san is a Buddhist monastic community, built in the midst of stunningly beautiful mountains and is the centre of Japanese Buddhism. There are no hotels there, just practicing monasteries which host guests. These monasteries are very expensive and book out months in advance, so don’t delay in booking accommodation. I stayed at a temple called Yochi-in which I could not recommend enough, it was cheaper than any others I looked at and was absolutely beautiful. The staff were friendly, and although the rooms were minimalist (as you would expect from a Buddhist temple), they were very spacious. Start the day by taking part in their prayer ceremony (an experience I will never forget) and end it by soaking in their onsen (Japanese shared hot spring baths).
Getting to Kōya-san is even more difficult than finding accommodation there (I ended up taking 3 trains, a funicular and a bus!), but it is well worth the effort. It may take you upwards of 3 hours, so be sure to leave early to make the most of your time in this unique location. First get a train to Hashimoto – for those using the JR pass, you will want to navigate via Oji to ensure you don’t have to pay extra. Then you need to pay for a separate local line ticket to take you on a scenic (but slow) train to Gokurakubashi, where you board the stomach-droppingly steep funicular up the mountain. Complete the journey with a bus into the centre of town (you are not allowed to walk on the road from the funicular station to town, so the bus is mandatory).
If you’ve managed to book a temple and actually reach Kōya-san, then you are in for some of the most rewarding experiences in all of Japan. Immaculate monasteries line the streets, whilst immense temples and shrines are scattered throughout. Brilliant vermillion red pagodas and bridges bring vibrancy to the otherwise tranquil landscape. The jewel in Kōya-san’s crown is Okunoin, a temple set 2km into the forest of the mountain. A sprawling and moss covered mausoleum has developed around the stone paths that lead to the temple, which creates one of the most spiritual atmospheres I have ever experienced. Wander through at dusk for the most atmospheric experience of the tombstones peeking out from behind the trees as the stone lanterns light up one by one.
Osaka is Japan’s third city and well worth a visit. It is trendy and has more grit than much of the rest of Japan. I stayed at U-En Osaka, a friendly and vibrant hostel in a great location that offers modest private rooms and a great café. Osaka offers great shopping, both for mainstream fashion in one of its many malls or edgier streetwear in its hip Dōtonbori district. Take a trip down to the canal area in the evenings and you might be lucky enough to watch aspiring J-Pop groups performing amazingly choreographed songs to their adoring fans. There’s are plenty of bars in Osaka, but one of the best I found was Bar Space Station, a video game bar which games which get more entertaining the more drinks you’ve had!
Kyoto is home to some of the most beautiful imagery in the whole country and is easily one of the best places to visit in Japan; it is difficult to think of a trip here without it! Here I stayed in K’s Guest House, which is a hostel chain across Japan. It has great and reasonable accommodation as well as a really lively common area and rooftop views.
Fushimi Inari-Taisha was my favourite location in Kyoto and is by itself one of the best places to visit in Japan. 10,000 vermillion red gates line an incredible 5km round hike up and down a mountain. Walking through gate after gate puts you in a very zen like state and hiking it was incredibly special. Once you’ve suitable tired yourself physically and spiritually stop off at the Vermillion Café, which is a western style coffee shop overlooking the river that makes great food and coffee.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is another popular location in Kyoto, but can often be a bit too popular! Be sure to get here very early if you want to get the most from it – I visited late morning and the tranquillity of the place was tarnished by the crowds of tourists! That said, the bamboo is stunning and atmospheric and you can always escape the crowds by turing into Tenryu-ji to lose yourself in the beautiful gardens there.
If you are visiting in April, Kyoto is the very best place to visit in Japan to see Cherry Blossom, and nowhere is better than the Philosopher’s Path. Running through the North-East area of the city, this path is unbelievably beautiful in the springtime and links several major temples. Spend an afternoon strolling along this picturesque walk, inevitably stop to take a million and one photos and then dive into one of the nearby ramen shops for a tasty lunch.
Kyoto itself, without any specific sights, is itself a beautiful city – take time just to wander around and take in Old Japan. Start in Maruyama Park and head to the Gien districts to take in the traditional wooden houses which line the paved streets and see if you can catch a glimpse of a rare Geisha hurrying about her business. Finish with dinner on Pontocho, a street almost as picturesque as Gion, but much more affordable!
Pro tip: Kyoto has 17 Unesco world heritage sites (which is more than most countries!), so do not expect to do everything. Plan which sites you want to see and go early to avoid the tourist crowds.
Outside of its big cities, there is still plenty on offer and one of the best places to visit in Japan is the island of Naoshima. This naturally beautiful island in Japan’s inland sea has become a home to world class contemporary art and is one of most interesting places I went in the country. Even if art isn’t your thing, this island is really special with breath-taking beauty and the opportunity to stay in a beach side yurt Tsutsuijiso Lodge and have the waves lull you to sleep is something anyone would love. To get to Naoshima, go first to the charming port town of Takimatsu (and be sure to try the unreal udon noodles while you’re there!) and get one of the ferries than run every hour or so to Naoshima.
Beyond its natural beauty and fascinating culture, Japan is also a country of immense historical significance and nowhere is this clearer than Hiroshima. This city was completely destroyed by the atomic bomb that was dropped on it during the first world war and has rebuilt itself as a city of peace. The Peace Park and Peace Memorial Museum were truly humbling experiences and no visit to Hiroshima is complete without them. There is more to the city than just its memorials however, and I had one of my best meals in all of Japan there at an okonomiyaki (noodle pancakes) restaurant. Head to Okonomi-mura an apartment building refurbished to be 4 floors of amazing teppanyaki-style restuarants where expert chefs whip up the regional speciality.
A short train ride and a quick ferry from Hiroshima is the delightful island of Miyajima. Most famous for its ‘floating shrine’, Miyajima has much more to offer than just this, and is one of the best places to visit in Japan. Miyajima is a striking island which has a steep mountain at its centre and a charming seaside resort built around it. If you are in the mood to splurge a little, the island boasts some incredible Michelin-starred sushi restaurants such as Miyajima Tensen which offers unbelievable sushi at more believable prices. After lunch take the cable car up to the top of the mountain for one of the most stunning views in all of Japan of the Halong Bay-esque islands of the inland sea, then make the hike down back to town through the island’s bewitching forests.
When you think of Japan, you think of Mount Fuji and no trip would be complete without seeing the majestic mountain properly. Kawaguchiko is a mountain town which boasts some of the best views around of Japan’s greatest treasure. Although it is a bit of a pain to get to (you need take the bullet train to Mishima station and then get an hour and a half bus), seeing East Asia’s most famous mountain framed perfectly and reflected in the lake there is worth the trip. I stayed in another K’s House here and would definitely recommend it, however, there are two in the town and be sure to book K’s House Fuji View not K’s House Mount Fuji, as only Fuji View has views of Fuji from the rooms. Waking up to watch the sunrise reflect off Mount Fuji from your hotel room is an unreal experience and one I will never forget!
This country is an amazing travel destination and offers the most varied travel experiences. There is so much to see that just this list of the 10 best places to visit in Japan is so long, but I managed to see all of this in just 3 weeks! Preparation is key to get the most out of your Japan experience, so go out there and start planning your Japanese adventure now!