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For many travelers, Japan is an exotic place with a history and culture unlike anywhere else in the world. So many people that visit Japan fall in love with it almost instantly. History buffs can see all the castles and landmarks, spiritual wanderers can visit the temples and religious sites, and curious travelers can learn all about the culture at the traditional inns, tea houses, and sumo wrestling matches. Japan is also an ideal destination for foodies who understand that Japanese food is much more than just sushi, outdoor enthusiasts who want to try climbing Mount Fuji, or simply admire the natural beauty of the cherry blossom season.
Although it’s a small country, planning a trip to Japan can be a challenge if you’re not sure where to go and don’t speak Japanese. Yet it’s easy to get around Japan because of the top-notch public transportation system here. So here are the top places that you absolutely must visit when you take a trip to Japan.
But to find your Zen after busy days in the city, head to Kyoto, which offers a wide array of things to do where you can learn about Buddhism, temples, and cultural history. This city has more shrines and temples than anywhere else in the country, so it’s a great place to take some quiet time for yourself and connect with your own sense of spirituality. Don’t miss the Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine and the Gold Pavilion, but there are lots of less popular temples here too to find solace, as well as the Arashiyama bamboo forest just outside town.
Tokyo is the most common starting point for travelers to Japan, so that’s why it tops our list. However, this is a city that you’ll love almost instantaneously. This is an extremely busy and fast-paced city that will take your breath away. Here you’ll find a unique mix of traditional Japanese and modern attractions, which make it a top tourist destination. Don’t miss the Imperial Palace, the Sensoji Temple, and the Ginza. The Tsukiji fish market is an excellent place to try locally caught fish for sushi. Try to take it all in and simply people-watch until you get your bearings. Great places to do this in Tokyo are Shibuya Yoyogi Park.
Osaka is a huge business hub in Japan and home to many global businesses and international corporations. But even if you’re traveling here for pleasure, it’s a quirky city that’s a favorite among foodies as well. The countryside around Osaka is also really peaceful if you need a break from city life. Some things to check out in Osaka include the Shinsaibashi shopping district, Video Game Bar Space Station, Kaiyukan Aquarium, and Dontonbori entertainment district after dark.
There are lots of reasons to visit Japan, but beer doesn’t always top that list. However, beer lovers simply must visit Sapporo, which is famous for beer and the capital of Hokkaido, the northernmost mountainous island of Japan. The 1972 Olympic Winter Games were in this area and brought it onto the map. But one of most interesting reasons to visit Sapporo today is the ramen-themed park! The main types of ramen soup to try are shoyu, shio, miso, and tonkotsu, so make sure to try them all so that you can pick your favorite! If you visit in February, you can also attend the Sapporo Snow Festival and see the famous snow sculptures.
To experience what “old world” was once like, head to Takayama to see a very well-preserved town that dates back to the Edo period of Japan’s history. Takayama is in the mountainous region of the Gifu Prefecture and is a perfect destination to experience the rural side of life in Japan. This is a great place to shop for souvenirs, sample local sake, and dine at traditional restaurants. Take a look at the local crafts being sold in the traditional wooden houses and note the detailed architecture all around you. One of the most wonderful festivals in the country takes place here too twice per year in the spring and fall. The Takayama Spring Festival is held in April and is the festival of the Hie Shrine. The Autumn festival in October is the festival of the Hachiman Shrine, and both are known for their elaborate floats.
Kanagawa is the Japanese prefecture where Yokohama, which borders Tokyo, and Kamakura, a coastal city full of history. Kanagawa makes an easy day trip from Tokyo to spend time on the beach and see the temples. There’s a huge Buddha statue that you can’t miss when you visit. Another top spot to visit in this prefecture include Hakone, which is famous for taking a dip in the hot springs, and you can also see picture-perfect views of Mount Fuji from this area too.
More intricate and inspiring temples and shrines await you in Nikko, which is best known for the UNESCO World Heritage site of Nikko National Park. This is an ideal destination for travelers who are fascinated with elaborate and intricate Japanese architecture because the temples here are incredibly impressive. You can take a quiet walk between the temples and through the trees. Since this day trip takes a couple of hours by train from Tokyo, many tourists join a tour group on a bus with a knowledgeable guide to tell you all about the area’s history.
Although there are many reasons to visit Nara, this Japanese city is most famous for its resident deer population. Over 1,000 deer roam around Nara National Park, and you can buy some crackers to feed them! Besides the deer, there are temples and heritage sites that are situated in the same area and make for an excellent guided or self-guided walking tour. Just outside the park, make sure to see the Todaiji Temple with its 49-foot-tall Buddha statue.
To fully understand a new place, it’s important to know its history, even if it’s a painful one to learn about. Hiroshima became world famous because of the atomic bomb, but today it represents a place of peace. In fact, there’s a Peace Memorial Museum located by the dome that survived the bombing on that fateful day. Itsukushima Shrine of Miyajima Island is another World Heritage Site worth visiting while you’re in this area.
Something that many first-time travelers to Japan don’t realize is that this is a premier winter snow sports destination. One of the best places to experience Japan’s winter sports scene is in Hakuba-mura, which is in the Northern Japan Alps. To be more specific, it’s located in the Kitaazumi District in the Nagano Prefecture. Both skiers and snowboarders love this place because there are over 200 trails and some great pubs by the slopes to kick back and relax those tired muscles at the end of a long day. This is a great ski resort town to visit to see a different side of Japan. To soothe sore muscles even more during your trip to Hakuba-mura, check out the local mineral hot springs!