Two people walking up steps to Kifune Shrine

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

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.
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HOKKAIDO OKINAWA SHIKOKU KYUSHU CHUGOKU KINKI CHUBU KANTO TOHOKU HOKKAIDO SAPPORO NISEKO HAKODATE DAISETSUZAN NP OTARU BIEI AND FURANO LAKE TOYA TSURUI SHIRETOKO PENINSULA
Revitalize 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.
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HOKKAIDO OKINAWA SHIKOKU KYUSHU CHUGOKU KINKI CHUBU KANTO TOHOKU TOHOKU AOMORI HIROSAKI LAKE TOWADA KAKUNODATE HIRAIZUMI MOUNT HAGURO YAMADERA MATSUSHIMA NYUTO ONSEN SENDAI GINZAN ONSEN
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.
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HOKKAIDO OKINAWA SHIKOKU KYUSHU CHUGOKU KINKI CHUBU KANTO TOHOKU KANTO HAKONE NIKKO KUSATSU ONSEN YOKOHAMA NARITA AIRPORT KAMAKURA TOKYO MOUNT TAKAO
Kanto

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.

Kanto

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.

Kanto

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.
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HOKKAIDO OKINAWA SHIKOKU KYUSHU CHUGOKU KINKI CHUBU KANTO TOHOKU CHUBU IZU PENINSULA SADO ISLAND KAMIKOCHI KANAZAWA KISO VALLEY NAGOYA HAKUBA MOUNT FUJI NOZAWA ONSEN YUDANAKA TAKAYAMA NOTO PENINSULA SHIRAKAWAGO NAGANO MATSUMOTO
Chubu

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

Chubu

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.

Chubu

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.

Balancing historic Kyoto and buzzing Osaka, with ancient pilgrimage routes and mountain shrines to boot, Kansai is a microcosm of the best of Japan.
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HOKKAIDO OKINAWA SHIKOKU KYUSHU CHUGOKU KINKI CHUBU KANTO TOHOKU KINKI OSAKA LAKE BIWA KINOSAKI ONSEN KANSAI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT MOUNT KOYA AMANOHASHIDATE NARA ISE KUMANO KODO KOBE HIMEJI KYOTO
Kinki

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.

Kinki

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

Kinki

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.
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HOKKAIDO OKINAWA SHIKOKU KYUSHU CHUGOKU KINKI CHUBU KANTO TOHOKU CHUGOKU OKAYAMA HAGI MATSUE TSUWANO MIYAJIMA SHIMANAMI KAIDO HIROSHIMA KURASHIKI TOMONOURA
Chugoku

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?

Chugoku


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.
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HOKKAIDO OKINAWA SHIKOKU KYUSHU CHUGOKU KINKI CHUBU KANTO TOHOKU SHIKOKU TAKAMATSU KOCHI MATSUYAMA KOTOHIRA TOKUSHIMA IYA VALLEY NAOSHIMA
Shikoku

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, sulfurous waters rise from the ground while cities pulse with cosmopolitan history and dense rainforests hum with life.
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HOKKAIDO OKINAWA SHIKOKU KYUSHU CHUGOKU KINKI CHUBU KANTO TOHOKU KYUSHU KAGOSHIMA MOUNT ASO BEPPU NAGASAKI FUKUOKA UNZEN YAKUSHIMA YUFUIN KUMAMOTO
Kyushu

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”.
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HOKKAIDO OKINAWA SHIKOKU KYUSHU CHUGOKU KINKI CHUBU KANTO TOHOKU OKINAWA NAHA ISHIGAKI KERAMA ISLANDS IRIOMOTE TAKETOMI
The InsideAsia team in Bristol

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