Our guide to Japan's top places, plus our lesser-known favorites
Japan has enough headline destinations to fill several vacations, 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 kilometers 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 dove 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