Best things to do in Japan
Find out more about those top places in Japan
As the ancient capital of Japan, Kyoto is littered with an abundance of riches ranging from phantasmagorical Buddhist temples, sprawling palace complexes and historic tranquil gardens. Today, the modern city buzzes around ancient attractions, which include the iconic lakeside Golden Pavilion, a working Zen Buddhist temple, and the endless pathways of torii (shrine gates) that crisscross the wooded hillside of Inari-san. What is more, the Gion district was Japan’s largest geisha quarter in the 18th and 19th centuries and today has retained its picture-perfect low-rise streets and ornate wooden houses. However, Kyoto is also a forward-thinking city. It is home to the International Museum of Manga, one of Japan’s most iconic modern cultural exports, while the historic Nishiki Market houses everything from traditional street food stalls to cutting-edge Michelin starred restaurants.
The famed golden pavilion of Kinkaku-ji may just be Japan’s most spellbinding building. Coated in gold leaf and perched above a tranquil reflecting pond, the temple was originally a retirement villa constructed for a Kyoto shogun that was transformed into a place of worship by his son. Today, the complex is one of the most popular attractions in Japan so it is best to arrive early in the day to avoid the crowds.
Spread across the bamboo-clad hillsides of Inari-san are countless bright orange torii (shrine gates), which are one of Japan’s most memorable sights. While the sheer number of gates is mesmerizing, the area’s real highlight is Fushimi Inari, which is one of Japan’s most popular shrines and is the head shrine for more than 50 000 sub-shrines peppered throughout the country. Make sure to be on the lookout for the stone foxes that are scattered throughout the complex, as they are sought to be messengers of Inari, the god of agriculture.
To experience the might of the Tokugawa Shogunate make sure to explore Kyoto’s Nijo Castle, which was their ancestral home. Dominating the northwestern corner of the city, the fortress was built in the 17th century and has imposing whitewashed walls and palatial interiors. You may notice that the palace floorboards squeak when you walk, which was a deliberate aspect of the design used to alert guards to the presence of intruders. For the best experience, walking tours of this vast complex are recommended.
For a glimpse into traditional Japanese culture, a visit to Kyoto’s Gion district is a must. By the mid-18th century the neighborhood was Japan’s largest ‘pleasure district’, where geishas entertained clients in various tea houses, restaurants and bars. To fully understand the area’s rich history and its iconic place in Japanese culture take a walking tour of its cobbled lanes and bazaar-like markets with a knowledgeable local guide.
The most important shrine in the Japanese Jodo Buddhist sect, Chion-in is one of Kyoto’s most breathtaking temple complexes. Owing to its popularity as a point of pilgrimage, the complex is rarely tranquil but it does contain a number of world-class historic attractions, including San Mon, the largest temple gate in Japan, and its giant bell, which is also the largest bell in Japan.
The best place to escape Kyoto’s 24/7 buzz is to head for the Arashiyama bamboo forest, which is a nationally recognized place of outstanding scenic beauty. While the area’s highlight is unsurprisingly its vast groves of bamboo, which can reach upwards of 20 meters tall, it also has a number of other attractions, including the Togetsu-kyo Bridge and the Nonomiya Shinto shrine. One of the best ways to explore this vast area is by rickshaw tour.
Built in the 15th century as a retirement home for a Kyoto shogun that was transformed into a temple after his death, Ginkaku-ji is one of the city’s most impressive attractions. Surrounded by towering bamboo and pine forests and tranquil landscaped ponds, the temple can become very crowded during peak times so it is recommended to visit as part of a guided tour early in the morning or in the evening.
To explore the rich variety of ingredients that go into Kyoto’s world-class cuisine stroll through the winding alleyways and covered market halls of Nishiki Market. With vendors selling everything from freshly caught seafood to wasabi salt and kawaii anime-themed sweets, the market is sure to be an eye-opening experience. For the best experience, take a guided food tour of the area so that you can sample some of Kyoto’s mouth-watering delicacies.
As the largest city on earth, Tokyo is the world’s beating heart. With more than eight million people living in the city center, and nearly forty million in the Greater Tokyo Area, the city is unsurprisingly a sprawling metropolis. More than any single attraction, it is Tokyo itself that enthralls visitors with its unrivaled vibrancy and diversity. While traces of old Japan are still visible if you look hard enough, the city is thrillingly modern. A highlight of Tokyo is the LED-lit Shinjuku entertainment district that offers an overwhelming array of high-class cocktail lounges, grungy dive bars, traditional Japanese taverns and in your face karaoke lounges. What is more, Tokyo is a remarkably affordable city with tickets to sumo wrestling and kabuki plays costing little and the vast Tsukiji Market is home to mouth watering street food that goes for bargain prices.
There is no experience on earth like a sensory overloading night out in Shinjuku. Perpetually neon-lit and packed with a dazzling array of weird and wonderful bars and karaoke joints, the area has something for everyone. For an unforgettable experience, head to Golden Gai, which is an enclave of eccentric tiny bars (many are no bigger than a couple of stools) that are popular with Tokyo’s alternative crowd of artists, writers and other bohemian characters.
The most famous temple in Tokyo if not all of Japan is Senso-ji, which is entered through the iconic Kaminari-mon. While the temple has origins in the 7th century AD, much of what stands today was built following World War Two as the ancient wooden structure was badly damaged during Allied firebombing campaigns. For the best experience arrive early in the day or late in the evening when the crowds of pilgrims who arrive to pray at the gold-clad image of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, have died down.
Constructed in the 1920s to commemorate the rule of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken who transformed Japan from an isolationist and feudal state into a rapidly modernizing nation, Meiji-jindu is one of Tokyo’s most atmospheric Shinto shrines. While the shrine itself is impressive, it is currently undergoing renovations preparing for its 100th anniversary so the best way to experience the complex is by exploring its immaculate gardens, which were designed by the emperor himself.
One of Japan’s most treasured cultural exports are the breathtakingly animated films of Miyazaki Hayao, who founded the world-famous Studio Ghibli. At the studio’s museum you can explore the processes behind the production of iconic works such as Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away and more. The museum is one of Tokyo’s most popular attractions with tickets selling out months in advance so make sure to plan ahead.
While what remains of the complex is a mere fraction of its original extent, Tokyo’s imperial palace remains one of Japan’s most impressive attractions. The palace grounds can be explored freely and are the best place to admire its imposing stone walls and watchtowers while the interiors can only be visited as part of a guided tour, as much of the area remains the royal family’s private residence.
Arrive early in the day to sample the culinary delights of Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market. Despite the fact that the city’s main wholesale market has now moved location, the historic stalls at Tsukiji remain the best place to sample Japan’s finest seafood ranging from sea urchins to poisonous puffer-fish and the impressively large giant tuna. For the best experience, take a walking tour of the buzzy market where you will get to sample classical Tokyo gastronomy in the area’s best restaurants.
If you can tear yourself away from the allure of the world’s largest metropolis then the best day trip from Tokyo is to the iconic Mount Fuji, which is the de facto emblem of the Japanese nation. The mountain has a number of well maintained hiking paths that lead to the summit, which can be reached in roughly five hours. For those who do not want to hike, admiring the view from base camp is worth the trip alone.
No trip to Tokyo would be complete without experiencing the flamboyant and dramatic art form of kabuki theater. The best place to see these shows is at the historic Kabukiza where plays are spread over an entire afternoon or evening. While shows are entirely in Japanese, Kabukiza is one of the few theaters in Japan that offers moment by moment English translations through state-of-the-art headsets usually used by diplomatic translators. For the best experience, reserve tickets well in advance for premium seats.
Osaka means “large hill” or “large slope” and it is also the name of one of Japan’s most visited cities. Located in the Kansai region of Japan, it is Japan’s third largest city and has a population of over 2.5 million people.
Known for its blend of modern architecture and ancient buildings, nightlife, beautiful culture and amazing hospitality, it is the perfect city for a lovely getaway. Frequently visited by people who want to avoid the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, it has no shortage of wonderful attractions such as the Sumiyoshi Shrine, Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan, and Abeno Harukas.
The Sumiyoshi Taisha as its known by locals is the oldest shrine in Japan, having been built in the 3rd Century. Regarded as the main shrine of over 2000 Sumiyoshi shrines in the country, it was built to worship the Kami, a Japanese god which offers protection to sailors and fishermen at sea. On your way to the Shrine you would come across the enchanting Sorihashi Bridge which goes across a pond. The most exciting time to visit the Sumiyoshi Shrine is during the Hatsumode festivities.
Situated in the Tempozan Harbour Village, the Osaka Aquarium is one of Japan’s amazing aquariums. Opened in May 1990 the mind-blowing aquarium features about 29,000 animals of 470 different species which are displayed in separate tanks representing a region of the Pacific. In 2013 a new area was added called “New Interactive Area” that affords visitors a chance to see the animals at a really close range and possibly touch them.
This is one of Japan’s greatest landmarks, the Osaka Jo is Japan’s most famous castle and it holds a significant part of Japanese history especially during the sixteen century where it played a major part in the unification of Japan. The castle initially built in 1583, has been completely destroyed a few times both by enemies of Japan and by natural disasters. In 1995 the Osaka Jo was restored to its former glory by the Japanese Government.
At a height of 300 meters the Abeno Harukas is the tallest building in Japan. The multipurpose building has 62 floors and is located in Abenosuji Itchome, in Osaka. Designed by renowned Argentine architect Cesar Pelli, the building is one of Japan’s main attractions. Its main highlight is its observation deck called “Harukas 300”, it offers a panoramic view of the city. Abeno Harukas is a name gotten from an old Japanese word which means “to brighten”.
The Mozu tombs are a cluster of tombs located at Sakai in Osaka Prefecture. The Tombs were built as a resting place for the elite families of Japan, the size of the toms signify the status of its occupants, meaning bigger tombs go to more important persons and vice versa. Built around the 4th to 6th centuries they are about 100 tombs, the largest of all being the Emperor Nintoku Kofun, it is also the largest tomb in Japan.
Hiroshima needs little introduction. Since August 6th 1945, this once little known Japanese city has been known for one thing: the dropping of the world’s first atomic bomb. However, Hiroshima is far from a depressing place. The rebuilt city’s premier attraction is the Peace Park, a vast swathe of central Hiroshima given over to commemorating one of World War Two’s darkest moments. Highlights of the leafy Peace Park include the abstract cenotaph, which lists the names of all the known victims of the bombing, and the Flame of Peace, which will burn until all nuclear weapons are decommissioned. However, the main draw is undoubtedly the Atomic Bomb Dome, the hollowed out husk of one of the few buildings that survived the blast. Beyond Peace Park, Hiroshima is one of Japan’s most vibrant cities with a plethora of bars, restaurants and cutting-edge art galleries.
One of the world’s most haunting monuments to World War II is Hiroshima’s Atomic Bomb Dome, which was the only structure that survived the nuclear blast in the downtown area. Originally built as an industrial promotion hall in 1915, the building today is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is best seen in the evenings when floodlit.
To truly understand the devastation wrought on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by nuclear weapons, a visit the former’s Peace Memorial Museum is a must. Displaying items ranging from clothing to a broken watch that stopped at the exact time of the bomb and melted lunch boxes, the museum offers a harrowing look at the human suffering inflicted by the bomb. For the best experience, guided tours of the museum are available that fill you in on the history of nuclear weapons and the role the museum plays in advocating for disarmament.
One of the world’s most contemplative locations is Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park, which is laid out close to the epicenter of the blast. The centerpiece of the landscaped garden is the cenotaph that is inscribed with the names of all known victims of the attack and the tranquil Pond of Peace. Other highlights include the eternal flame, which will burn until all nuclear weapons are decommissioned.
Modeled after origami paper cranes, which in Japan symbolize longevity, the monument is dedicated to all the young children who lost their lives during the atomic bombing and those who subsequently perished from diseases, such as cancer. The monument is one of Hiroshima’s most touching as schoolchildren from across the globe show their solidarity by sending colorful origami cranes to be displayed around it.
The most popular day trip from Hiroshima is to the nearby island of Miyajima, which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. The island is most famous for its spectacular torii (shrine gates) that pepper the landscape, including an often-photographed one that seems to float on water. The island contains numerous hiking trails that lead to other landmarks, including Itsukushima-jinja. The easiest way to reach the island is by organized tours from Hiroshima.
While the original castle was obliterated by the atomic bomb in 1945, it was painstakingly reconstructed in the 1950s and is now one of Hiroshima’s most impressive attractions. The surrounding park is one of the city’s finest while the castle itself is home to a museum with a vast collection of artifacts that explore Hiroshima’s rich history through the ages. For the best experience, visit on a Sunday when samurai demonstrations take place.
For a glimpse into Japan’s post-war economic miracle, visit Hiroshima’s Mazda Museum where you can take guided tours of the highly automated assembly line, which is a whopping 7 kilometers long, and get to grips with the latest technology in the car industry.
Before Kyoto rose to become the capital of Japan, the title was held by the city of Nara, which is known as the cradle of Japanese civilization. In the city’s 7th and 8th century heyday, the growth of Buddhism in Japan bestowed upon the capital a breathtaking array of temples, most of which have survived until now. Nara’s star attraction is Tōdai-ji, which is the largest wooden building in the world and also houses the largest bronze statue in the world. The statue, known as Daibutsu, was first unveiled in 752 and remains jaw dropping impressive. Beyond this, the ornate temple of Hōryū-ji claims to be the oldest surviving wooden building in the world while many smaller temples have fine examples early Japanese statuary. What is more, Nara has scarcely changed since the Middle Ages leaving it a perfectly preserved hidden gem that lets visitors experience the glories of early Japan.
Prince Shotoku, who is often called the patron saint of Japanese Buddhism, founded Nara’s Horyu-ji temple in 607 AD. Today, it is one of the oldest extant temple complexes remaining in the country and gives visitors a remarkable introduction to the rich history and traditions of Japanese Buddhism. Divided into East and West temples, the complex houses some of Japan’s most impressive sculptural art and is best explored as part of a guided walking tour.
The Todai-ji is the largest wooden building in the world and was constructed in 752 AD to house Nara’s most iconic piece of art, the Daibutsu (Great Buddha), which is also the largest bronze statue in the world. The statue rises to nearly 20 meters in height and consists of nearly 500 tonnes of bronze and roughly 100 kilograms of gold. For the best experience, arrive early before the crowds to make the most of this unforgettable attraction.
With origins dating back 1300 years Kasuga Taisha is another of Nara’s most historic sites. Erected as a shrine to protect the city, which at the time was Japan’s first permanent capital, it was ritually rebuilt every 20 years maintaining Shinto tradition. While the structure that stands today has been in place since the 19th century, it is well-maintained and the interiors are bedecked in thousands of atmospheric lanterns.
If you have ever seen pictures of small Japanese sika deer approaching tourists for food and pets it is more likely than not that they were taken in Nara Park. Considered sacred until the mid-17th century, the killing of these deers was punishable by death and today they still live a fairly luxurious life roaming the immaculately manicured park. The park is one of Japan’s oldest and has numerous age-old chaya (tea houses) where you can stop for a refreshment and marvel at the gorgeous setting.
The Kofuku-ji temple complex was moved from Kyoto to Nara in 710 AD and was once the largest in the city. Initially it would have had close to 150 wooden buildings but through countless fires and Shogunate warfare what remains today is more modest. Of particular note are the temple’s towering pagodas, one of which is Japan’s second tallest, and the Tokondo, which contains some of the country’s most priceless sculptures.
Established by a Chinese Buddhist priest brought to Japan to reform Buddhism, Toshodai-ji is the perfect place to experience what Nara would have been like in its royal heyday. Containing the only surviving parts of the former imperial palace, the temple is a must visit for those who are in Nara for a few days.
Built in the 19th century Japanese imperial style and remodeled extensively in 2016, Nara’s National Museum is one of the country’s finest collections of Buddhist art. With sculptures dating from as far back as the 15th century BC, the collection is simply breathtaking. To best experience this mammoth assortment of historic art take a guided tour that will show you the collection’s highlights.
While today Kanazawa is just one of a number of medium-sized cities that line Japan’s enchanting western coastline, in the 19th century the city was the country’s fourth largest. Fortunately for Kanazawa, the city did not industrialize and was spared the fire-bombing campaigns that brought the Japanese Empire to an end during World War Two. In this way, the city is a hidden gem that contains a treasure trove of wooden samurai houses, geisha districts, tranquil gardens and an impressive medieval castle. Today, the samurai district of Nagamachi is a dream for visitors while the geisha neighborhood of Higashi Chaya offers a glimpse into traditional Japanese culture. Beyond this, Kanazawa is a perfect gateway to the nearby Noto Hantō peninsula and Eihei-ji, one of Japan’s most enigmatic temples.
Constructed between the 1620s and the 1840s, the Kenroku-en gardens are one of Japan’s most breathtaking. Once belonging to a sprawling private residence, they are today open to the public and are modeled after the famed Sung Dynasty gardens of China that showcase the six aspects for perfection: seclusion, spaciousness, antiquity, water, broad vistas and artificiality. The gardens get very busy so arrive early.
Built in 1580, Kanazawa Castle is one of Japan’s most imposing. While much of the structure burned down in a fire in 1881, what remains are the towering stonewalls and numerous monumental entry gates that can be freely explored. During its heyday, the castle was home to fourteen generations of the Maeda Clan. For the best experience, make sure to take a walking tour of the complex and local guides will give you an insight into the fortress’ original splendor.
While Kanazawa has a reputation for traditionalism, it is also home to one of Japan’s most iconic contemporary art galleries, the 21st Century Museum. Opened in 2004, the gallery is free to explore (although some temporary exhibitions may have a small fee) and hosts a rotating selection of Japan’s most cutting-edge art. Even if you are not a fan of modern art, make sure to check out the building, which is arranged like a gigantic bento box.
After falling into disrepair in the Meiji era, the Gyokusen Inmaru Gardens have been revitalized thanks to an extensive reconstruction program. Originally laid out as a 17th century pleasure garden, the complex of tranquil lakes, dense forests and picture-perfect bridges are today free to explore. For the best experience, make sure to stop at the iconic Gyokusen-an Rest House for some herbal tea.
One of Kanazawa’s most enchanting areas is Nagamachi, which was once home to the city’s samurai warriors. The cobblestone streets, wooden houses and tranquil coy ponds have scarcely changed in centuries and make for an unforgettable sight. To get the most out of your visit, take a walking tour that will offer fascinating insights into the samurai lifestyle.
Packed with age-old tea houses where geishas would have once performed, Higashiyama is the perfect neighborhood to get a taste of traditional Japanese culture. Guided walking tours are available that will help explain the role of the geishas in imperial Japanese society.
The DT Suzuki Museum is one of Japan’s most innovative. Housed in a concrete cube set amongst a tranquil lake, it tells the story of Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki, one of modern Japan’s most influential Buddhist philosophers who is often credited with introducing the concept of zen to the West.