Japan is called the “land of the rising sun” because, from China, it appears that the sun rises from the direction of Japan. Nearly 30 million tourists visit the archipelago of thousands of islands every year because there are so many famous things in Japan to see.
The island country offers a diversity of contrasts that visitors love, from its ancient culture and fascinating history to mega metropolises with slick skyscrapers and glittering neon lights to mountainside hot springs, turquoise beach islands, and once impenetrable shogun castles now standing sentry to empty chambers, and ancient shrines wafting incense across ethereal Buddha sculptures. Japan seamlessly combines the old with the new in perfect harmony.
Japan at a Glance
- Capital: Tokyo
- Population: 125.7 million (2021) World Bank
- GDP: 4.941 trillion USD (2021) World Bank
- Climate: hot, humid summers and cold winters
How to Get Around Japan
Traveling around Japan using Shinkansen bullet trains is super-easy. The network of high-speed railways is comfortable, convenient, luxurious, and above all, super-fast! Running at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour, the Shinkansen is known for punctuality, quiet and comfortable seats, and safety with no fatal accidents in its history.
However, at first, it can be difficult to know where and how to buy Shinkansen tickets. The Japan Rail Pass is very cost-effective and takes some of the stress out – I say some because as an American who is not accustomed to travel by train, it’s still a bit confusing.
Thanks to the Japan Rail Pass, the Shinkansen can also be a very cost-effective means of travel.
Another option to seeing the most sights is to take a guided Japan tour.
25 Kirinoya Ryokan
Most people fly into the airport in Narita and head right away to nearby Tokyo. But I recommend staying for 1 night in the tiny village of Narita for an authentic Japanese experience.
After landing, we checked into a ryokan – a traditional Japanese inn – right on the edge of the small but quirky downtown. We took a short walk into town for an early dinner of tempura (me) or sushi (the rest of our group), then headed back to the ryokan to sleep off the jet lag before continuing to explore more of Narita and then on to Tokyo the next day.
24 Naritasan Shinshoji Temple
Naritasan Shinshoji Temple was built in the year 940. We spent a couple of hours visiting the many temples and strolling around the surrounding park grounds which are as vast as they are exquisite, including a pond with giant coy, myriad walkways, meditation areas, and buildings of historical significance, as well as the picturesque shop-lined street bordering the temple complex.
Nara, once known as Heijo, Nikko was the first permanent capital of Japan, established in 710. The capital was moved to Nagaoka in 784 when the government was threatened by powerful Buddhist monasteries. The city houses artwork and cultural pieces dating back to the 8th century. This charming city is filled with shrines and charming lantern-lit lanes you can stroll through.
23 Nara Deer
One of the most fascinating features of Nara is where over 1000 free-roaming friendly deer wander within the city’s Nara Park. The park also hosts Todai-Ji temple, a huge structure that houses a serene 16-meter Buddha statue and a peaceful atmosphere that’s the perfect antidote to Tokyo’s crowded streets.
With Mt. Fuji as a backdrop and mountain scenery on the shores of Lake Ashi, relaxing hot springs, and several world-class art museums, Hakone is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Japan.
22 Mt. Fuji
Hakone is the best city to view Mt. Fuji. The perfectly symmetrical cone of Japan’s highest peak (12,000 feet above sea level) is nothing short of incredible and considered among Japan’s most revered attractions. Hundreds of thousands of people climb it every year, continuing a centuries-old tradition of pilgrimages up the sacred volcano.
21 Hot Springs
You can’t come to Hakone and not stop to bathe in one of the many onsen baths. For many people, the volcanic valley is the whole purpose of the visit.
From the hot springs, visitors have gorgeous views of Mount Fuji on the horizon.
20 Lake Ashinoko
One of the most popular things to do in Hakone is to board a boat ride on one of the replicated pirate ships that sail around Lake Ashi. From aboard their decks, you can enjoy breathtaking views of the lake’s stunning scenery and majestic Mount Fuji in the distance.
Set ohores of Sagami Bay, with forest-coated hills surrounding it, the small coastal town of Kamakura is known for its temples, shrines, gardens, beaches, and more.
As it was once the capital of Japan, the peaceful coastal city is home to dozens of Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, and other landmarks for tourists to visit.n the scenic s
Kamakura is also known for its beaches, where surfers can catch a wave at Yuigahama Beach.
19 Kotoku-in Temple
The most distinguishable and defining feature of Kamakura is the Kotoku-in Temple, featuring the iconic Great Buddha of Kamakura. The mighty bronze statue stands dates to 1252 and towers over 42 feet over the surroundings, and is the most famed and photographed attraction.
Nikko is a vibrant town located at the entrance of Nikko National Park, which has been around since the 1600s. Nikko is set in a spectacular spot amid the mountains, surrounded by lush forests, waterfalls, and lakes. Many tourists visit Nikko for its beautiful nature and scenery, but the city boasts a wealth of important Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples
18 Shinkyo bridge
One of Nikko’s most famous and photographed sights is the centuries-old Shinkyo Bridge. Take a stroll across Japan’s oldest and picturesque bridge that spans the Daiya River.
Shirakawa is a village known for being the site of Shirakawa-gō, a small, traditional village showcasing a building style known as gasshō-zukuri. Together with Gokayama in Nanto, Toyama, it is one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.
With half a million inhabitants, Himeji can be reached in less than one hour from Osaka or Kyoto and is also a popular stopover on journeys along the Sanyo Shinkansen.
Himeji is most famous for its magnificent castle, Himeji Castle, widely considered to be Japan’s best and most beautiful surviving feudal castle. The castle is designated both a national treasure and a UNESCO world heritage site.
16 Himeji Castle
Himeji-jo is the largest castle in Japan and the finest surviving example of early 17th-century Japanese castle architecture. Also known as the “White Heron Castle,” for its resemblance to the elegant white bird spreading its wings, unlike many other Japanese castles, it was never destroyed by war, earthquake, or fire and survives to this day as one of the country’s twelve original castles.
The castle grounds comprise 83 buildings excellent example of prototypical Japanese castle architecture and ingenious defense systems dating from the beginning of the Shogun period.
Tokyo, Japan’s lively capital is by far one of the most popular travel destinations in Japan. With a population of around 14 million people, it is busy, chaotic, vibrant, the world’s busiest metropolis, and often the first point of contact for travelers,
Tokyo is a city constantly pushing against the boundaries. Glowing neon radiance, skyscrapers, pop culture, cutting-edge fashion, Buddhist temples, fish markets, karaoke bars, art, and more, there is so much to see and do, you could spend a week just exploring its city centers and enjoying the food tours in Tokyo.
15 Shibuya Crossing
You won’t want to miss the world-famous Shibuya Crossing. Every day, approximately 3 million people cross the iconic multi-directional intersection known as “The Scramble.” Bodies scurry across the controlled mob crossing in a chaotic yet functional pattern below tall buildings with gigantic neon screens looking on.
It’s in famous Harajuku, a fascinating neighborhood in Tokyo, where you can watch Japanese fashionistas, goth Lolitas, colorful cosplay-laden, or kawaii (cute) schoolgirls who use the main street as a runway.
It’s quite literally a feast for the eyes.
Kabukicho is not for everyone but is a fascinating adventure if you dare. The infamous entertainment district is best known for its neon lights and adult-oriented nightlife such as host and hostess clubs.
There are known to be touts and hustlers, especially in the lantern-lit alleys, so be sure to keep your wits about you.
During the day, visitors can dress up in novelty warrior armor at the Samurai Museum and learn sneaky feudal combat tactics at the Ninja Trick House.
12 Sensoji Shrine
The ancient Senso-ji Buddhist temple was built around the year 645. It is Tokyo’s oldest temple and one of its most significant. It is a popular spot for omikuji (fortunes). These propitious sheets are offered in many different languages, enticing foreigners alike to see how their luck plays out.
IN OKINAWA ISLANDS
Located in the westernmost part of Japan, the Okinawa Islands offer a totally different experience from the rest of Japan. Until annexed by Japan in the 19th century, they formed their own kingdom – the Ryūkyū Empire – and the cultural differences are apparent in everything down to the architecture and food.
The Okinawa Islands are where you will find Japan’s best beaches, legendary for their white sand, swaying palm trees, shimmering turquoise sea, pristine beaches, and luxurious resorts.
The coral reefs make it a great place for snorkeling and scuba diving.
Osaka, Japan’s third-largest city is a charming port city that blends the old with the new. It also has the most dramatic of nightscapes. From the twin skyscrapers, linked via a sky bridge, with their “floating” garden observatory to the lovely cherry trees.
Unfortunately, since the city was largely destroyed during WWII, you won’t find as many authentic historical sites as in some of the other Japanese cities, but it still has its own charm.
Neon-lit Dotonbori, filled with flashy billboards, is the pulsing heart of Osaka. Located in the Minami District, stacked on both sides of the Dotonbori-gawa River where you’ll find plenty of restaurants and bars and a mecca of food stalls. Since its unofficial slogan is kuidaore (eat until you drop), do try the kushikatsu – deep-fried skewers of meat or vegetables and takoyaki – grilled octopus dumplings.
9 Osaka Castle
Historically significant Osaka Castle dates back to 1597 and has been destroyed and rebuilt on more than one occasion. The reconstructed castle lies in a lovely park in the city center.
The inside isn’t really that historic or interesting, but there’s a museum where visitors can learn about the castle’s history, and views from the top are dramatic.
Unique Kyoto is a must for every visitor to Japan, oozing more charm than you could think possible. It is simply magnificent and often tops the list of people’s favorite Japanese cities, including mine. Japan’s imperial capital for a thousand years, it is home to sacred Shinto shrines, iconic Buddhist temples, palaces, traditional Zen gardens, and bamboo forests. One of the most famous things to see in Japan are the geishas of Gion in Kyoto.
Because of its historical significance, it was one of the few cities spared from the bombings of World War II, preserving much of the historical art and architecture, including 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
8 Nishiki Market
Head to Nishiki Market to sample all manner of enticing (and repulsive!) seafood, other foodstuffs, and Japanese candy. After a quick bite on the go, continue walking to more downtown shopping where you’ll find anything your heart, or pocketbook, may fancy, from yukata – the casual kimono, to fans, jewelry, art, tea sets, paper lanterns, masks, and of course Maneki neko – the Japanese lucky charm cat.
7 Nijo Castle
Built in 1603, UNESCO World Heritage Site Nijo Castle was the residence of the first (1603) Togugawa shogun warlord during the Edo period (1603-1867). It is one of the best-known castles in Japan, due to its historical importance, and prominence. The castle had every security measure in place to protect Tokugawa Ieyasu.
6 Sanjusangendo Hall
Sanjūsangen-dō is a Buddhist temple of the Tendai sect. The temple was founded in 1164 by Taira no Kiyomori for the cloistered Emperor Go-Shirakawa. It is famous for its 1001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy.
The temple was founded in 1164 and rebuilt a century later after the original structure had been destroyed in a fire.
5 Kiyomizu Temple
Kiyomizudera is one of the most celebrated temples in Japan. Founded in 780 on the site of the Otowa Waterfall in the wooded hills, it’s well known for its large wooden veranda which offers sweeping, jaw-dropping views of the Kyoto countryside.
Kiyomizu-dera means “Pure Water Temple” and in 1994 it was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
4 Golden Pavilion
Rising above its reflecting pond like an apparition, the Kinkakuji Golden Pavilion is an impressive site and one of the most famous temples in Japan. Its top two stories are covered in reflective gold leaf reflecting the Mirror Pond that surrounds it.
Stationed at the foot of Kinugasa Hill, the temple grounds are wooded and present a lovely place for strolling and meditation
3 Imperial Palace
The Kyōto Imperial Palace is located in the spacious Kyoto Imperial Park (Kyōto Gyoen). The former palace of the Emperor of Japan, it used to be the residence of Japan’s Imperial Family until 1868, when the emperor and capital were moved from Kyoto to Tokyo.
The palace was repeatedly plagued by fire and was rebuilt each time. Most of the present buildings were rebuilt in 1855. Preservation of the Kyoto Imperial Palace was ordered in 1877.
The park also encompasses the Sento Imperial Palace, which served retired emperors for 500 years.
2 Bamboo Forest
Bamboo Forest is a natural forest of bamboo in Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan. The forest consists mostly of mōsō bamboo. The paths that cut through the bamboo groves make for a nice walk and are particularly attractive when there is a light wind swaying the bamboo stalks. Bamboo has been used to manufacture various products at local workshops for centuries.
1 Gion Geisha District
Gion is Kyoto’s most famous geisha district. It is filled with lovely 17th-century ochaya (teahouses), shops, and restaurants and where geisha and maiko (geiko apprentices) decked out in colorful kimonos are often sighted.
As expert hostesses, maiko and geiko ensure everyone’s enjoyment by engaging in light conversation, serving drinks, leading drinking games, and performing a traditional dance.
My favorite amusement in all of Japan was in Gion! In this district, ladies can be transformed into a maiko, a geisha-in-training, through a three-hour makeover. The ordeal begins with a green tea ceremony and ends with a slow stroll with a parasol to the nearby shrine – not an easy feat wearing geta, the traditional geisha thong sandals with high wooden soles. This head-turning experience is guaranteed to be a highlight of your Japanese trip!
Click here to read about my whole geisha of Gion dress up experience! It was a hoot!
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and the southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials” and she was named one of the “Top 35 Travel Blogs” in the world.
She is also the star of the upcoming TV series “Destination Takeover” which is scheduled to premiere in the new few months.
Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled extensively through six continents looking for fabulous destinations, exotic beaches, and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer tribe.