Japan is an incredible country to visit. With thousands of years of history, bustling cities like Tokyo, iconic train hotels and more serene island getaways, Japan is a country that’s got a little something for everyone who visits. Now, this all well and good, but it can be totally daunting when finding the very best places in Japan to cram into your trip.
After all, you will want to make the most out of your time once you’re in Japan.
I’m not sure if it’s Japan’s rich culture, iconic cities or beautiful landscapes but there are so many places to see in Japan that require a little bit of planning.
Over the years, we’ve visited Japan many times and explored the breadth of the main islands. They’re incredible. So, to help you get the most out of your visit, I’m sharing my top places in Japan that you can’t miss. This way, you can focus on all the planning, without getting too bogged down with the research.
Have an amazing time visiting Japan.
One of the key, and probably the most famous, cities in Japan to visit has to be Tokyo. It’s one heck of a city that’s the size of some small European countries. It’s colossal.
Now, the first thing I’d recommend when visiting Tokyo is to treat it like 20 different cities. I know it sounds like a lot, but it’s so large. This way, you focus on ‘pockets’ of Tokyo to explore before heading to a new area of the city.
Trust me, you don’t want to be darting from one side of Tokyo to another every day. It eats up so much time. We made that mistake on our first visit.
It’s also worth noting that you won’t be able to see everything in one trip, and that’s fine. Just make sure to prioritise the key things to do in Tokyo that make you the happiest. This way, you want to leave dishevelled tired and disappointed from not cramming every site into your itinerary.
Now getting around Tokyo is another thing you have to consider; especially with public transport.
With regards to tickets, this is what I found most confusing, multiple subway companies run in the city (with each requiring their tickets). I can’t tell you how many times we ended up buying the wrong tickets.
To combat this, it can be easier to buy this travel ticket that allows unlimited travel on the Tokyo Metro lines and Toei Subway lines. It takes out loads of stress.
Once you’ve arrived in Tokyo, make sure to explore places like; Akihabara; the neon area of the city filled with vast arcades, huge stores and, you guessed it, neon lights everywhere. It’s cool to stroll around, especially at dusk.
Also, don’t forget to head to other areas of Tokyo like Harajuku that’s quite a cool area of Tokyo. Here, you’ll find loads of little cafes, iconic stores and back lanes filled with the coolest independent retailers.
We spent a good half day walking around Takeshita Street and the lanes in Harajuku.
Now, one of the coolest galleries is TeamLabs Planets. It’s a multi-sensory gallery that’s interactive. The rooms you visit are like nothing you’ve seen in a traditional gallery. It’s totally out of this world.
However, book these advance tickets before arriving. We had to book days in advance to get in.
It’s incredible as it takes all the stress of organising transport to and from Tokyo yourself. Just be sure to book this tour in advance, tickets sell out fast at peak times.
Mount Koya or Kōyasan is easily one of the best places in Japan to visit that’s south of Osaka. In fact, it’s one of the most important Buddhist sites in all of Japan. Now, you only need to visit Mount Koya for a day trip; so it’s best to locate yourself in Osaka and make the most of the city too.
Now, to get here from Osaka is quite easy; even if it takes a little time. If you’re driving from the centre of Osaka, it’ll take you around 100 minutes. Whereas the train is around 120 minutes. Both are easy, and we always prefer travelling by train in Japan. It’s so efficient.
To make things easier, book this private walking tour of Mount Koya that’s so incredible; especially with the qualified guide. To make things easier, the guide will pick you up from Koyasan Station and teach you all about Shingon Buddhism and you’ll get to learn more about Kongobuji and Okunoin temple, too.
The latter, Okunoin Temple, is where Kobo Daishi is consecrated and is a UNESCO-protected site that’s so important to many people in Japan.
3.) Nachi Falls
Standing way over 100 metres high (I think it’s about 130 metres or so), that makes it the tallest waterfall in all of Japan. Best of all, Nachi Falls form part of the UNESCO-protected sit and pilgrimage route within the Kii Mountain Range.
Once here, make sure to visit the ornate pagoda of Seigantoji and enjoy the beautiful views across to Nachi Falls. Oh, and you can pay a small fee and sip some of the naturally sourced waters, here. It’s said to promote a long life.
Now, the site around Nachi Falls does get busy (it’s like visiting Niagara Falls in North America), but don’t let the crowds put you off. It’s stunning.
The historic capital of Japan, Kyoto is another of the country’s most iconic cities to explore. In fact, it’s one of the best places in Japan to visit when travelling to Osaka and Kobe. After all, it’s relatively close.
Now, one of the things that makes Kyoto so special is its history. It’s filled with a heap of imperial palaces, temples and traditional buildings that are well worth exploring.
Once here, make sure to visit the Ryōan-ji Temple, Gorge at the fresh-fish Nishiki Market and see the beauty of Kinkaku-ji.
If you’re feeling extra fly when in the Gion district, check out kaiseki dining a traditional and historic dining experience that involves geishas and lots of delicious foods.
Also, if you’re short on time, but want to see the main sights, book this day tour of Kyoto by bus. This way, you’ll get to see the
Tenryuji Temple, the iconic Sagano Bamboo Forest and Nijo Castle. Plus, so much more.
Perched deep in the mountains, Nikkō sits north of Tokyo and is a great place to stop to experience a lesser-visited Japanese city.
Within the city, you might notice Nikkō Tōshō-gū, the incredibly beautiful Shinto shrine that is over 400 years old.
Now, by Japanese standards, Nikkō is very small; but don’t let that put you off, it’s lovely for a longer day trip from Tokyo or whilst heading towards Kegon Waterfall. It’s around 35 minutes away from the falls and easy to include both places in one trip.
Also, don’t forget to also visit the rest of Nikkō National Park which is almost 100 years old. After all, you’ll already see the falls and you might as well explore the likes of Lake Chūzenji and so much more.
6.) Shiroyone Senmaida
Located near Shiroyone, these 1,000 rice fields (give or take a few) are iconic in Japan.
A protected area in the country, Shiroyone Senmaida is a must-see when visiting the Noto peninsular (northwest of Tokyo). By train, it will take around 5 hours and much less by flight when landing near Toyama.
In fact, personally, I’d recommend basing yourself around Toyama and exploring the wider region on day trips from there.
Now, at certain times of the year, The annual Senmaida Light Up (Aze no Kirameki) takes place when the fields come alive with thousands of twinkling lights. It’s a magical experience that can’t be missed (usually in the winter months).
It’s one of the best places in Japan to visit if you want some time away from the bustling cities.
Situated on the main island of Honshu, Osaka is another of Japan’s most famous cities to visit. Not only that, it’s one of the best places in Japan to visit when visiting Kobe and Kyoto, too.
You see, they almost form a close-knit triangle and it’s so easy to dart between the three when in this region of Honshu; especially on the Shinkansen Bullet Train.
Now, you can pick up tickets at the station. You don’t need a seat reservation but you can reserve one for a small fee. There are also some classes that you can choose from and offer slightly different levels of comfort. Best of all, the Shinkansen lines connect Japan’s main islands of Hokkaido, Kyushu and Honshu whilst connecting nearly every major city across the country.
Whilst here, make sure to explore Osaka Castle in Chūō-ku, visit the Sumiyoshi-Taisha Shrine and Stroll through Dōtonbori. We found it easiest to grab a taxi between sites in Osaka; especially when trying to save time.
Spending longer in Osaka? then book these tickets to visit Universal Studios in Osaka itself. It’s a really fun day, especially if you’re staying in the area for a while and want a more relaxed time.
Oh, and don’t forget to grab some Takoyaki (たこ焼き) which are grilled octopus balls. They’re typically served as street food and actually come from Osaka itself. You can also visit the oldest Takoyaki in all of Japan whilst in Osaka, too.
It’s called Aizuya and well worth visiting if you want the original ones.
8.) San’in Kaigan Geopark
The San’in Kaigan Geopark is one of Japan’s UNESCO-protected sites and one that is great to see. This is especially true if you’re travelling northeast of Kobe and following the coast down Honshu.
You see, the whole region is shaped by tectonic activity, with this area once being a part of the mainland of Asia (many millions of years ago). This makes the landscape unique and quite ‘active’ when it comes to geological changes.
Now, the park is way over 2,000 square km, so you’re bound to find lots to see. Make sure to stop by an Onsen, too. We loved Kumihama Onsen Yumotokan. It’s all geothermally heated and the team are all so friendly.
If you’ve got more time, explore the wider coastline of the Sea of Japan and Genbudo Cave which is so stunning.
9.) Mount Fuji
The very highest mountain in all of Japan, Mount Fuji has become an icon of the country’s dramatic nature. It’s easily one of the best places in Japan to visit and easy to visit whilst you’re in Tokyo.
You see, Mount Fuji is relatively close (90km) to Tokyo and can easily be seen from the city (weather permitting). Not only that, you can book this day trip tour that will take you to some of the best viewing points of Mount Fuji.
You’ll also get to stop off at Oshino Hakkai for lunch or a little explore, too.
Looking for a challenge? Then plan a longer hike to the top to feed that adventure gremlin inside. That being said, if you’re not an experienced hiker, go with a guide and always tell others of your plans.
Pack plenty of water, layer up and prepare for a great view from the top (especially around sunrise and sunset).
10. ) Yamanouchi Snow Monkeys
For around a third of a year, snowfall completely covers the region of Yamanouchi. This makes for a rather frosty environment, especially for its most famous resident, the Macaque.
Within the Yamanouchi Monkey Park in winter, you’ll get a glimpse of a natural behaviour that started many many years ago, when Macaque began to use the hot springs to relax.
Typically called onsen in Japan (I’m not sure if it’s the same if a monkey is doing it), this behaviour is so cute to see and well worth a little visit when exploring Japan.
11.) Kegon Falls
I briefly mentioned Kegon Falls earlier on, but it needs a dedicated mention. After all, Nikkō National Park is a vast and unspoilt region of Japan to visit.
Now, Kegon Falls was created by a huge volcanic lava flow that carved the fall itself. Standing almost 100 metres, it’s an impressive site to see whilst visiting Lake Chūzenji.
If you don’t fancy the walk to the bottom of the falls, you can pay to take a lift that’ll zoom you down. A visit to just Kegon Falls will take around 2 hours, and it’s well worth it if you’re in the Nikkō region.
12.) Kawachi Fuji Garden (and wider Kyushu Island)
Perched within the hills a little south of Kitakyushu, Kawachi Fuji Garden is more popular with locals in Japan. This massive wisteria garden has become even more popular in recent years and is open during bloom seasons (but closed in winter).
During full bloom, tickets can be tough to get, so make sure to either book before you arrive. Now, it’s not the kind of place you’ll make a dedicated trip to Kyushu Island.
I’d recommend basing yourself in Fukuoka (like we did) and exploring more of the region from there. Once here, you can take a day trip to the garden and even partner it with other activities in Fukuoka too.
We loved our day trip on the Aru Ressha Sweet Train and our visit to Mamedamachi. The former was so beautiful and the train is such an experience to book for an afternoon trip in Japan.
Looking for an opulent and world-renowned train trip in Japan? Then book this train where you stay on board. We booked a journey on the iconic Seven Stars Train which went all around Kyushu Island.
It was something I’ll never forget.
13.) Sanriku Fukkō National Park
Perched within the Tohoku region of Japan, Rikuchū Kaigan National Park is one of northern Japan’s most beautiful places to visit near Sendai City (around 100 miles away).
Now part of the Sanriku Fukkō National Park, it’s one of the best places in Japan to visit as you venture north but not as a dedicated trip in itself.
14.) Tottori Sand Dunes
North of the city of Okayama, the Tottori Sand Dunes are absolutely stunning to see whilst driving the coastline in this area of Honshu.
If you’re looking for a desert landscape, it’s likely you wouldn’t think of Japan straight away. Well, minus the fact that Japan is a country of islands, you can actually find your own little sand dune oasis within Tottori.
Once here, spend the day exploring these vast dunes that are just a stone’s throw from Tottori city where I’d recommend spending the night.
Yoshinoyama and the mountain, aptly named, Mount Yoshino. It’s rather small but the views are incredible, especially in Sakura (cherry blossom) season.
This UNESCO-protected region has thousands of sakura trees that bloom to give an incredible display in spring. It really so pretty.
However, be prepared that Sakura season timings are weather-dependent. They do change slightly, depending on the climate when you visit.
To make things easier, book this cherry blossom tour that takes in some of the main sights in the area. You’ll get to check out Nara Park and, of course, see the iconic Mt.Yoshino.
16.) Lake Mashū
Said to be the clearest lake in the world, Lake Mashū is one of the best places in Japan to visit when visiting the island of Hokkaido. Now, it’s likely you’ll spend lots of time in the biggest city, Sapporo. This makes sense; it’s huge and is a perfect base to explore some of Hokkaido.
That being said, Lake Mashū is still a five-hour drive (east) of the city; so it’s no day trip.
Perched right within the volcanic caldera of a resting volcano, Lake Mashū is a great spot to see, especially in winter when the weather conditions are clearer.
During the winter months, the lake regularly gets covered with fog, with local folklore suggesting you’ll have bad luck if you see the lake through the breaking fog! *gulp*