Two people walking up steps to Kifune Shrine

Our guide to Japan's top places, plus our lesser-known favourites

Japan has enough headline destinations to fill several holidays, but our biggest tip? Also go somewhere you’ve never heard of. Somewhere small and rural, where visitors are a novelty. Those are the places where the magic really happens.

Strewn like pebbles along 3,000 kilometres of the Pacific coast of East Asia, the 6,852 islands of the Japanese archipelago range from the minuscule to the massive (Honshu alone is almost the size of the whole UK). Of the four main islands, Honshu has the country’s biggest cities, its most storied historical sites, and the magnificent snow-capped peaks of the Japan Alps. Northerly Hokkaido is dominated by rolling plains and dramatic national parks. Kyushu is a fiery land of lush forest, volcanoes and cosmopolitan cities, while Shikoku is the forgotten sibling — its plunging valleys concealing hidden villages and ancient hot springs.

Within these islands the variety is endless. Sure, you could stick to the cities — Japan has some of the biggest, boldest and most exciting in the world. But do that and you’ll miss everything else: the pickled-in-aspic samurai towns, the remote alpine villages, the tiny islands brimming with contemporary art, and the mountaintop temple communities unchanged for centuries.

Get yourself to the pristine beaches of Ishigaki or the virgin jungle of Yakushima, hit the slopes at the world-class ski resorts of Niseko or dive into turquoise seas and scuba off the coast of Okinawa. Tokyo and Kyoto are just the beginning.

"What do Japanese artisans, engineers, Zen philosophy, and cuisine have in common? Simplicity and attention to detail." - Hector Garcia

Snowy in winter and balmy in summer, with rolling hills, wide open spaces, lakes, rivers and nature reserves, Hokkaido is a haven for wildlife and dramatic natural scenery.
Revitalise the body in tiny hot-spring towns and salve the spirit in the sacred mountain temples: Tohoku is the place to lose yourself in the romance of rural Japan.
It may be dominated by the world’s biggest city, but Kanto’s unsung highlights include mountain hikes, hidden beaches and some of the most spectacularly ornate shrines in Japan.

Just a hop, skip and a jump (read: a short bullet train ride) from Tokyo, on a good day Hakone offers views of Mount Fuji in all her glory — and it’s your best bet for a good time even if she doesn’t oblige.


Welcome to Nikko, where the stage is set for the final showdown between art and nature. Will magnificent pagodas measure up against towering Japanese cedars? Is the beauty of Tokugawa’s mausoleum a match for the majesty of Kegon Falls? We’ll let you keep score.


It’s impossible to sum up Tokyo in a line, a paragraph, or even a book.

The most diverse of Japan’s regions stretches from coast to coast, encompassing snow-capped mountains dotted with thatch-roofed villages and small coastal cities with beautifully preserved craft districts.

About 1,500 metres above sea level, surrounded by snow-capped mountains twice as high, Kamikochi lives up to its name — which means “the land of the gods”.


Kanazawa is what we like to call the Goldilocks city: “just right” in every possible way.


Picture Japan as it was hundreds of years ago: small villages of wooden buildings surrounded by mountains cloaked forest and shrouded in mist; streets filled with little more than foot traffic and the voices of shopkeepers selling their wares. Welcome to the Kiso Valley.


Sitting on a plateau ringed by snow-capped mountains and watched over by the famous “Black Crow” castle, Matsumoto is the gateway to some of the country’s most spectacular scenery.


It’s best-known for its picture-perfect preserved town centre and elaborate spring-and-autumn festivals, but if you ask us, Takayama’s real treasures are found in the surrounding alpine countryside.

Balancing historic Kyoto and buzzing Osaka, with ancient pilgrimage routes and mountain shrines to boot, Kansai is a microcosm of the best of Japan.

With so many temples and shrines squirrelled away in its mountains and valleys, it should come as no surprise that hiking in Japan is almost inseparable from pilgrimage.


Whoosh into Kyoto’s futuristic central station on the bullet train and you’ll be greeted by karaoke bars and concrete, not Zen gardens and mysterious shrines. But don’t let that fool you.


Come to Koya for age-old mountain temples in mist-wreathed forest; stay to feel close to something deep and old and mysterious.


Tokyo has size and Kyoto has history — but as anyone will tell you, Osaka has the kind of cool most cucumbers can only dream of.

Chugoku offers world-class modern art alongside time-warp samurai towns, with World Heritage Miyajima providing a counterpoint to Hiroshima’s fascinating but heart-wrenching wartime history.

What do you think of when you think of Hiroshima? Delicious, noodle-based layered pancakes? Retro streetcars trundling through the streets? World Heritage shrines and friendly deer?


On an island in Hiroshima Bay, just a few minutes’ ferry ride from the city, you can cross the threshold between the mortal world and the land of the gods.

The smallest of the four major islands, Shikoku’s plunging valleys and hot-spring towns are a glimpse of Japan before the Meiji Restoration ushered in the industrial age.

30 years ago, Naoshima was just one of 3,000 tiny fishing islands in the Seto Inland Sea. Now, it’s home to an extraordinary collection of world-class modern art, spilling out of galleries and museums into abandoned houses, workshops, shrines and beaches.

On Japan’s third-largest island, bubbling, sulphurous waters rise from the ground while cities pulse with cosmopolitan history and dense rainforests hum with life.

Sometimes you don’t want to be a tourist. Sometimes you want to ditch the crowds, throw out the guidebook, and just get a taste of what it’s like to really live in a Japanese city. That’s when you book a ticket to Fukuoka.

With white sandy beaches, coral reefs subtropical climate — plus a totally unique Ryukyu culture rooted in pre-Japanese kingdoms — Okinawa is much more than “Japan’s Hawaii”.
The InsideAsia team in Bristol

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