On my first visit to Japan eight years ago, I was instantly drawn to the electric energy of Tokyo. The capital is a microcosm of the country itself, which offers a thrilling combination of technological innovation, pop culture trends, meticulous culinary traditions, and varied landscapes that come to life during all four seasons. I made a much anticipated return to Japan in spring 2023, ready to revisit the places that enamored me—and experience new parts of the country.
In Tokyo, I checked into my favorite hotel in the city: Prince Gallery Kioicho. Its grandiose floor-to-ceiling lobby view of the night sky lit up with glowing buildings was a prelude to the energy 36 floors below. A few days later, I took a train two hours north to Nikko for the first time, to visit its shrine-filled streets and hiking paths, then moved on to the southernmost part of Japan in search of Oita’s best onsen. If you’re looking to move beyond the popular tourist destinations and discover places to visit in Japan beyond Tokyo, here are seven places to consider on your next trip.
Nikko is a mountainside retreat where nature enthusiasts can immerse themselves in enchanting scenery: waterfalls, lakes, fields of azaleas blooming in the spring, and forests of maple and linden trees that explode in oranges and reds in the autumn. It’s an ideal place for hiking, skiing, boating, or just finding peace within nature all year round. It’s also home to some of Japan’s most magnificent shrines and temples, many of them UNESCO World Heritage sites. Must-sees include the intricate carvings of sleeping cats and elephants at Toshogu Shrine and the glowing lanterns of Futarasan-jinja Shrine.
Where to stay
Book now: Ritz Carlton, Nikko
Guests of Ritz Carlton, Nikko can take part in a morning meditation led by monks, a sundown speedboat cruise on neighboring Lake Chuzenji, and a stargazing experience that offers views of the Milky Way and moon craters. The property’s 94 rooms and suites property are a stunning display of Japanese minimalism and luxury. Famed ramen institution Afuri has partnered with the hotel bar to offer a dinner and cocktail experience— illuminated by a wall of more than 1,000 Japanese whiskies. Check into the Lake Chuzenji View Suite, which offers over 1,000 square feet of soft wood tones and the sleek serenity of a private balcony and soaking tub overlooking the lake. After a long day of exploration, its on-site onsen is a meditative retreat to soak among forested mountains.
Kobe may be well-known around the world for its popular cut of steak, but the cosmopolitan city is a great weekend getaway for exploring its other impressive culinary offerings—and its sake breweries. Located 20 minutes from Osaka via train, the city includes lively neighborhoods that are easy to navigate by foot or a sightseeing bus that loops around major sites like Merikan park and the waterfront shopping district, Harborland.
When you’ve worked up an appetite, the Sannomiya district provides a number of options, including traditional Japanese izakayas (pubs) like Kaisentonya Sannomiya Seriichi, which serves up fresh seafood including sea urchin and oysters. For a wagyu kobe fix at an affordable price, try Steakland Kobe near Sannomiya station. The Nada district of Kobe is a major producer of sake; one of the most famous and oldest breweries to visit is Hakutsuru. Take a guided tour, visit the on-site museum, and enjoy the tasting room’s popular sake jelly dessert.
Where to stay
Book now: La Suite Kobe
After a day full of tasting, check into La Suite Kobe—a waterfront hotel located in the city center that includes two restaurants, a cocktail lounge, and outdoor pools.
Wellness takes center stage in this haven of bubbling natural geothermal waters visibly spouting from streets and hillsides at just about every turn. Located in the southernmost island of Japan, Kyushu, Beppu is the country’s largest onsen region. There are more than 3,000 hot spring vents here; most are the result of volcanic eruptions. Many of the springs are only for viewing due to their extreme temperatures, including the “7 Hells of Beppu” in the Kannawa district. Some date back some 1,200 years, including the steamy, icy blue waters of Umi Jigoku.
Where to stay
Book now: ANA InterContinental Beppu Resort & Spa
For an overnight stay that offers a chance to take a soak, ANA InterContinental Beppu Resort & Spa provides guests cliffside onsens with panoramic views of the city and bay in the distance. Particularly during sunset, when the steam rises and the sky flashes vivid colors of orange and fuschia, this location is a moment of zen worth the trip to Beppu alone.
Located on Kyushu’s northern shore, Fukuoka offers a thrilling energy similar to Tokyo that many international tourists overlook. Ramen lovers: Prepare to activate the slurp, because Fukuoka is the birthplace of tonkotsu, and there’s no shortage of places to try a bowl. Fukuoka’s ramen is distinct thanks to its Hakata style: ultra thin noodles served in a creamy pork bone–based broth. A popular spot for the region’s famed soup is Hakata Issou, but any of the always packed food stalls (called yatai) around the city can satiate a craving. Beyond ramen, Fukuoka offers a lively nightlife and shopping—including an entertainment center called Canal City that has over 250 shops, two hotels, and even a ramen stadium that houses eight noodle-themed restaurants. For a break from its more cosmopolitan side, visit Fukuoka’s Momochi Seaside Park, which features three man-made, swim-friendly beaches.
Where to stay
Book now: Miyako Hotel Hakata
After a full day, check into Miyako Hotel Hakata, a contemporary 208-room retreat with a poolside bar and glass exterior draped in greenery and waterfalls.
The coastal city of Yokohama is an easy day trip and can be reached from Tokyo in about an hour via train. Visitors can get lost in the beauty of lotus flowers and cherry blossoms at Sankeien Gardens, which covers 175,000 square meters of landscape and offers glimpses of sloping sea cliffs on the nearby coastline.
For a panoramic view of the gardens, walk up the stairs to reach the three-tiered Tomyoji Temple Pagoda. It’s a memorable sight, especially during the spring sakura season, when cherry blossoms blanket the grounds. Yokohama is also home to Japan’s largest Chinatown, with over 600 shops that sell curry and pan-fried soup dumplings besdie colorful sundries along its red lantern–lined streets. The 160-year-old market is a direct result of Yokohama’s history as a port of international trade.
Where to stay
Book now: The Kahala Hotel & Resort Yokohama
For overnight stays, the Kahala Hotel & Resort Yokohama—a member of Leading Hotels of the World, offers waterfront views and spacious luxury rooms. The property is only minutes away from the city’s popular Chinatown.
Nicknamed “Little Kyoto” because of its traditional charm, Kanazawa has a fraction of the tourists compared to its popular southern neighbor. Geisha and samurai culture still flourish in this coastal city, particularly in the Nagamachi and Nishi Chaya Gai districts.
On the food front, Omicho market is home to some of the freshest seafood in the region because of its proximity to the Sea of Japan. Here, visitors can explore over 170 shops and try delicacies like sea urchin or sweet shrimp korokke (fried croquette). Kanazawa’s other main attraction, Kenroku-en garden, often tops the list of Japan’s most beautiful gardens. It features an abundance of lakes and waterfalls, a flower viewing bridge that reveals cherry trees and azaleas, streams, a teahouse, and over 180 plant species in full bloom during spring and fall.
Where to stay
Book now: Tokyu Hotel
Located less than an hour away from the city center of Hiroshima, Miyajima Island is often associated with “floating” orange torii gates in the middle of the Seto Inland Sea, called Itsukushima Shrine. The structure is believed to be a gateway between the spirits and human world. Head to the island’s main commercial street, Omotesando, for souvenirs and restaurants, including a taste of momiji manjyu—a sweet bean paste candy that comes in a number of flavors that range from green tea to chocolate. Walking through Miyajima, you’ll also likely come across a number of four-legged residents—deer, which roam freely through the streets.
Where to stay
Book now: Iwaso
Though many people visit the island for a few hours as a day trip from Hiroshima, there are a number of ryokan to check into, including Iwaso, located a few minutes from the main ferry terminal. Guests can watch deer roam right outside their individual hanare (cottage) in a forest of maple trees with a stream nearby.