Where to go in Japan
Japan is made up of four main islands: Honshu, by far the largest and most populous, housing Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hakone, and the Alps; Shikoku, just across the Seto Inland Sea from Hiroshima; Hokkaido to the north, great for skiing and wild nature tours; and Kyushu to the south, boasting volcanoes and hot springs galore. There is then a further 6,482 smaller islands, most notably the sub-tropical Okinawa archipelago, found some 640km south of the main island group.
A first-time tour will generally concentrate on the key highlights of Honshu: Tokyo, Kyoto, Hakone & Mount Fuji, Hiroshima and Miyajima. You’ll often see this route described as Japan’s ‘golden route’, and although a well-trodden path it is popular for a reason, and with careful planning from our specialists we’ll ensure you never feel like you’re following a typical tourist trail.Read More
Best places to go in Japan
To whet your appetite we’ve offered some additional colour on Japan’s most commonly visited destinations below. There’s so much more besides though – our specialists will be delighted to discuss their personal favourites and off-the-beaten-path highlights with you.
There’s a dizzying array of activity in Tokyo, with neon signs, high-speed trains and a crush of people, although there’s always a place to find a bit of calm and green, in classic gardens and on temple grounds. The city’s intriguing mix of old and new is what can truly take your breath away with the centuries-old temples and shrines mingled among futuristic skyscrapers, world-class restaurants, sophisticated hotels, and some bizarrely themed cafes. It’s a place with delightful contrasts and endless discoveries waiting to be made.
Discover Japan’s futuristic capital on our example itinerary Essence of Japan.
The former capital of Japan, Kyoto is the country’s cultural and historical heart, as well as one of its most enchanting cities. It’s home to everything from spectacular gardens and shrines to ancient temples, geishas, castles and traditional teahouses, while boasting a world-famous sight, a bamboo forest with giant trees, some that tower over 65 feet. Walking through the sea of green, when the sunlight filters through the darkness, you might think you’re walking through a storybook. It’s famous for its food too, a great place to sample all the main classics and sublime kaiseki cuisine.
Dive into Japanese traditions in our Alternative Japan example itinerary.
Hakone National Park
Hakone National Park, part of the wider Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, is a famous resort area known for its stunning views of Mount Fuji and its natural hot springs. A popular weekend or day trip from Tokyo, visitors can take the Hakone Ropeway, climbing 3,425 feet to soak up a spectacular view of volcanic activity. Sightseeing cruises on Lake Ashi are also a favourite way to enjoy the gorgeous vistas, and there are plenty of art galleries and museums to explore too. Hakone is home to a wealth of excellent ryokan accommodation – a great option to relax and unwind while enjoying hot springs and traditional Japanese cuisine.
Our example itinerary Highlights of Japan features Hakone and many other destinations in Japan.
This modern city on Honshu Island was largely destroyed by a nuclear atomic bomb during the Second World War, but it’s made an impressive recovery thanks to the resilience of the people, and continues to develop as a centre for culture, economics, and government. At the plaque marking the site right below the detonation, visitors leave paper cranes and flowers in memory of dead. Peace Memorial Park, built on land that was destroyed by the 1945 bombing, houses a skeleton of a building that provides a poignant reminder. It’s also home to a formal Japanese garden and Hiroshima Castle, surrounded by a moat and park.
See Hiroshima on our Japan – The Grand Tour example itinerary
Just 15-minutes ferry ride across from Hiroshima, Miyajima is a gorgeous island which makes a great base from which to explore Hiroshima but also to take time out and enjoy a slower pace of travel. All the island’s accommodation – a mix of ryokan and ‘hybrid’ western-friendly ryokan – is located in a pleasant village around the ferry port. The remainder of the island is pure untouched natural beauty: ideal for hikes, hot springs, and nature walks. Also known as “Shrine Island,” Miyajima is home to one of the country’s top three sights, the famous red torii gate, which appears to be floating on the water.
At nearly 12,400 feet high, Mount Fuji is Japan’s tallest mountain, a sacred perfectly shaped volcano that’s been worshipped for centuries. The most iconic of Japan’s images, its symmetrical form has long been celebrated in paintings and poetry, most notably Yamabe Akahito’s 8th-century verses. On a clear day it can be seen from Tokyo, and countless points throughout the surrounding regions, seemingly assuming a different character from each perspective. The Fuji Five Lakes region on its northern slopes of Mount Fuji offers the best chance for good views due to its proximity.
A cosmopolitan city near ancient Kyoto, Osaka is the second largest metropolitan area in Japan after Tokyo. It’s truly a world of its own, with the people here considered the friendliest and most outgoing in the country. It offers everything from Kita’s underground shopping labyrinths to neon-lit Dotombori and historic Tenno-ji which provides a glimpse of old Osaka, home to Tenno-ji Temple and Shin Seka. It’s also known as the place to enjoy some of the tastiest cuisine and the most unique fashions.
Located in the mountainous Hida region of Gifu Prefecture, picturesque Takayama offers the chance to experience traditional rural life in Japan. It’s famous for its authentic old town, colourful festivals, rich history of carpentry and exceptional high-quality local beef. The star attraction for travellers is the well-preserved old town with its narrow, pedestrian-only streets lined with historic wooden townhouses, some of which now serve as shops and restaurants. Just a short walk east is the Higashiyama Temple Area, with its magnificent gardens and temples.
Located on the north coast of central Japan, Kanazawa was one of Japan’s few major cities that was spared from World War II bombing, resulting in a well-preserved architectural heritage. Often referred to as “Little Kyoto,” it’s jam-packed with history and tradition, including a main street with old wooden tea houses in the geisha district, a labyrinth of cobbled streets and samurai residences in the Nagamachi samurai district and an abundance of traditional crafts. Some of the most beautiful gardens in the country can be found here too, with Kenrokuen Garden one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan.
The charming and deeply picturesque Kiso Valley, set in the low Japanese Alps, houses several small and beautifully-preserved villages – Narai, Kiso, Tsumago, Magome – which are linked by the Nakasendo Highway, an ancient samurai path which was once the main route between Kyoto and Edo, modern-day Tokyo. The section which passes through the Kiso Valley is arguably the most scenic: rising and falling through dramatic ridges and verdant forests as it meanders from village to village.
Mount Koya is the atmospheric centre of Japanese Buddhism. This 1,200-year old mountain-top settlement, surrounded by dense forests, houses a medley of monasteries and temples. Accommodation in Koya-san is at simple Buddhist temple lodging: not the most glamourous accommodation, but certainly very memorable! During your stay, you can opt to join the evening tour of the Okuno-in ‘necropolis’ – a sprawling cemetery of over 200,000 stone stupas.
See a different side to Japan on our example itinerary – Alternative Japan
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