Japan offers up a real feast for travelers, with mountainside onsen (hot spring) villages, sleepy beach-lined islands and buzzing megacities all on the menu.

You could arguably spend a lifetime sampling the country’s delights, but some towns and sights are staples – core ingredients to any great Japan trip. Here’s our pick of the 10 best places to visit in Japan.

1. Tokyo

Best for contemporary culture

Tokyo is a city forever reaching into the future, pushing the boundaries of what's possible on densely populated, earthquake-prone land, adding ever taller, sleeker structures. It's Japan's top spot for contemporary art and architecture, pop culture, shopping, drinking and entertainment (and a tie with Kyoto for dining). But more than any other sight, it's the city itself that enchants visitors. It's a sprawling, organic thing, stretching as far as the eye can see. Constantly changing and with a diverse collection of neighborhoods, no two experiences of Tokyo are ever the same.

Planning tip: Tickets for sumo, kabuki and Giants baseball games usually go on sale one to two months in advance. The Imperial Palace and Ghibli Museum are other popular attractions that require prior planning.

Father and daughter playing with snow in Kyoto Japan
A man and his daughter wearing kimonos play with snow in a garden in Kyoto © Eriko Koga / Getty Images

2. Kyoto

Best for traditional experiences

Kyoto, Japan's imperial capital for a thousand years, is home to more than a thousand temples. Among them are the monumental, like Kinkaku-ji (an exquisite pavilion sheathed entirely in gold leaf), and the meditative, like Ryōan-ji, with its stark Zen rock garden. And temples are only the start of it: there's the culture of tea, which you can appreciate at one of the city's many elegant teahouses; the art of the geisha, those iconic performers of traditional music and dance; and also a rich food culture, including kaiseki (Japanese haute cuisine).

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3. Naoshima

Best for architecture

Naoshima is one of Japan's great success stories: a rural island on the verge of becoming a ghost town, now a world-class center for contemporary art. Many of Japan's most lauded architects have contributed structures, including museums, a boutique hotel and even a bathhouse – all designed to enhance the island's natural beauty and complement its existing settlements. The resulting blend of avant-garde and rural Japan is captivating. It has also inspired some Japanese to pursue a slower life outside the big cities, relocating to Naoshima to open cafes and inns.

Planning tip: Try to plan your visit during one of the three exhibitions of the Setouchi Triennale festival, which happens during the spring, summer and fall every three years – the most recent occurring in 2022. Naoshima hosts various art, drama, music and dance events that make this festival so special.

Two bench stand empty beneath trees with autumnal leaves and next to a large lake, Lake Kawaguchiko, with the giant Mt Fuji in the distance. The mountain is topped by snow.
Gazing upon the mighty Mt Fuji is an essential Japanese experience © nicholashan / Getty Images

4. Mt Fuji

Best for views and pilgrimages

Even from a distance, Mt Fuji will take your breath away. Close up, the perfectly symmetrical cone of Japan's highest peak is nothing short of incredible. Dawn from the summit? Pure magic. Fuji-san is among Japan's most revered and timeless attractions. Hundreds of thousands of people climb it every year, continuing a centuries-old tradition of pilgrimages up the sacred volcano. Those who'd rather search for picture-perfect views from the less-daunting peaks nearby can follow in the steps of Japan's most famous painters and poets.

Planning tip: The best time to climb Mt Fuji is during its official season, from July 1 through mid-September, to avoid the rainy season and snowfall. Always check for typhoon warnings before hiking in Japan.

The Memorial Cenotaph at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. The cenotaph is a white, smooth monument in a half oval shape.
The Memorial Cenotaph at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park © WorldStock / Shutterstock

5. Hiroshima

Best for being reflective

Hiroshima today is a forward-thinking city with attractive, leafy boulevards. It's not until you visit the Peace Memorial Museum that the true extent of human tragedy wreaked by the atomic bomb becomes vividly clear. A visit here is a heartbreaking, important history lesson. The park around the museum, much of which was designed by Japan's great modernist architect Tange Kenzō, offers many opportunities for reflection. But the city's spirit of determination – as well as its food – will ensure that you'll have good memories to take with you when you leave.

A forest walkway on the island of Yakushima that goes through the trunk of a giant cedar tree.
Yakushima's wild forests were the reported inspiration for Studio Ghibli's classic Princess Mononoke © Gary Saisangkagomon / Shutterstock

6. Yakushima

Best for forest bathing

Yakushima, a small island off the coast of southern Kyūshū, is often described as magical and enchanting – otherworldly even. It's a place where words fail and clichés step in. Home to some of Japan's last primeval forests, you'll find the yakusugi, an ancient cedar native to the island whose giant roots form alien tentacles. Hiking trails underneath them cover craggy terrain, often fuzzy with moss. The landscape here is believed to have inspired the iconic Studio Ghibli animated film Princess Mononoke.

Detour: When you're not hiking, stop by the Yakusugi Museum to learn more about the importance of yakusugi, or Japanese cedar trees, to the islanders of Yakushima. An English audio guide is available.

Okunoin Cemetery in Koyasan, Japan. A number of small stone statues are wrapped in fabric, amidst a forest setting.
Oku-no-in is one of the most sacred places in Japan and a popular pilgrimage spot © Pal Teravagimov / Shutterstock

7. Koya-san

Best for exploring temples

Riding the funicular up to the sacred Buddhist monastic complex of Kōya-san feels, appropriately, like ascending to another world. There are over a hundred temples here, the highlight of which is Oku-no-in, where paths weave their way among towering cryptomeria trees and time-worn stone stupas covered in moss and lichen. Other temples offer a different experience: the chance to spend the night, dine on traditional vegetarian Buddhist cuisine and wake up early for morning meditation with the resident monks.

Planning tip: Though Japanese temples and shrines do not have established dress codes, visitors are expected to stay relatively quiet in these sacred spaces.

8. Okinawa and the Southern Islands

Best for beaches

Okinawa and the Southwest Islands offer a totally different experience from the rest of Japan. This semi-tropical archipelago forms an arch between Kyūshū and Taiwan. Until annexed by Japan in the 19th century, they formed their own kingdom – the Ryūkyū Empire – and the cultural differences are apparent in everything down to the architecture and food. This is where you'll find Japan's best beaches, like those on the Yaeyama Islands and the Kerama Islands, with sugar-white sand fringed with palms and turquoise waters. Bask in the sun, or snorkel and scuba dive.

Locals eat at tables set up on the road outside a late night restaurant in Osaka, Japan. The restaurant is lit up in lights and appears bright against the dark night sky.
Osaka takes the crown when it comes to Japanese street food © Vincent St. Thomas / Shutterstock

9. Osaka

Best for street food and nightlife

Tokyo doesn't nab all the superlatives when it comes to urban experiences. Osaka, Japan's third-largest city, is tops for street food: don't miss its signature dish, takoyaki (grilled octopus dumplings). It also has the most dramatic of nightscapes: a dazzling display of LED lights, animated signage and flashing video screens along the canalside strip Dōtombori. The city, Japan's oldest merchant center, has a pace, spirit and zest for life all of its own; its unofficial slogan is kuidaore (eat until you drop).

Planning tip: In addition to nightly accommodation fees, Osaka hotels will typically charge an accommodation tax that varies depending on the standard nightly rate.

Two hikers with large backpacks walk along a trail through thick forest in Kamikochi, Japan.
Beautiful Kamikōchi attracts hikers from far and wide © Suchart Boonyavech / Shutterstock

10. Kamikōchi

Best for mountain hikes

One of the most stunning natural vistas in Japan, Kamikōchi is a highland river valley enveloped by the soaring peaks of the Northern Japan Alps. Easy day hikes are possible along the pristine Azusa-gawa through tranquil forests of willow, larch and elm. The birthplace of Japanese alpinism, Kamikōchi is also the gateway for more challenging treks up some of the country's tallest mountains, such as Yari-ga-take (3180m). Private cars are banned from Kamikōchi, which lessens the impact of the crowds.

This article was first published April 2021 and updated January 2023

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