I lived in Japan for nearly ten years altogether, and during that time I got to live and travel to various places in that great country. If you want to visit Japan, but don’t know where to go, here is where I like best (in no special order):
1. Sapporo and Otaru
Sapporo is the largest city in the northernmost island of Hokkaido, which is known for its nature, long winters, dairy farms, and more. In the city (and elsewhere), you can also get great tasting lamb and world famous Sapporo Beer.
I’ve been here in the winter for the Snow Festival and it was fantastic. Cold and snowy, yes, but if you can handle that for a short time, Sapporo is well worth visiting in winter. I do want to return for better weather and all the flowers blossoming in the late spring and summer.
Otaru is a great walkable town a short train ride away from Sapporo and is worth seeing, too. There are a lot of places to enjoy a Hokkaido “soft cream” (soft serve ice cream). Don’t miss the glass work and scenic canal.
Hiroshima is infamously known for where “the bomb” was dropped that arguably ended the war in the pacific. Now, you can see the Atomic Bomb Dome, which is eerily peaceful at night. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum lays out the heavy history of the place, and in my opinion, is a must-visit for anyone interested in history.
Hiroshima is also a bustling small city with a shinkansen (bullet train) station and street cars that can get you around town.
The trip to Miyajima takes a ferry. This is where you can see the famous torii gate in the water. There are some local food and a small aquarium, too.
Hiroshima is a good place to get acquainted with Japan if you don’t want to get overwhelmed with the crowds in other cities.
Kobe is another small city for those looking to avoid the crowds of Tokyo. I lived here for a short time and can assure you that there are great restaurants and great people here. Try some ramen for sure.
Kobe is a port city so it’s near the water, but it’s also mountainside. Hike up to Mt. Rokko for spectacular views, museums, and more.
And if you somehow get bored with Kobe, Osaka is less than an hour away by train. Or catch a baseball game at the nearby, famous Koshien Stadium.
Okinawa is part of Japan, but really it has its own separate culture and feel. This is where to go if you need to thaw out from visiting Hokkaido in the winter.
Experience the island life, Japan style. Okinawa has a long and important history, unique food, and friendly people. If you’ve been to other parts of Japan, you’ll definitely sense the different atmosphere of Okinawa.
There are resorts, beautiful botanical gardens, a world-famous aquarium—all not far from Naha. If you want a not-so-typical Japanese adventure, Okinawa is the place for you. Just check the weather before you book your trip because the Okinawan islands are susceptible to typhoons.
Not too far from Kobe and Osaka is this one-time capital of Japan. When people ask me my favorite place in Japan, I always tell them that Kyoto was my favorite place to visit. (For living, it would be Yokohama).
So if you’ve never been to Japan, Kyoto is a must see and my top recommendation. If you can make it at the end of March or the beginning of April, you’ll have a shot at being in the best place to do some cherry blossom viewing.
This is the ancient and historic Japan that most people imagine when asked to think of Japan. Beautiful gardens, traditional restaurants, and gorgeous architecture. Kyoto has it all.
It’s also where Nintendo is located, but visiting its headquarters is sadly not allowed.
Also, for train aficionados like me, I really love Kyoto Station. Its architecture doesn’t fit the more traditional look of the rest of the city, but its look is quite stunning. If you have the money, I’d recommend staying at the lavish Hotel Granvia Kyoto Station, which is actually part of Kyoto Station itself.
6. Tokyo / Yokohama
These are two different cities, but since they’re right next to each other, I put them as one entry. You can read about some specific places where you can take some great walks in this article here.
For the tourist and most ex-pats, the Kanto area is where it’s at. It’s like New York City in the States, it’s chock-full of fashion, food, art, and other aspects of culture. This is the best place to experience “futuristic Japan”, but you can also see historic Japan in different pockets of Tokyo and nearby towns.
If you could visit Kyoto and Tokyo, that would be your best one time experience for going to Japan. If not, decide if you’re more into historic Japan (Kyoto) or modern/futuristic Japan (Tokyo).