8 Must-Stop Places on a Trip Around Japan

Visit both well-loved and lesser-known places on your next Japan trip.

Shot of of building in Gion/downtown area of Kyoto

Kyoto is one of Japan’s must-visit places.

Photo by Jessie Beck

Since May 2023, travelers to Japan have no longer been needing a COVID test or proof of vaccination to travel there. Tourists are back in full force—nearly 2 million foreign leisure and business visitors visited the country in April 2023. According to AFAR’s Jessie Beck, who visited in May, the sheer amount of visitors can feel overwhelming. (A couple of tips: Plan to make restaurant reservations months in advance for upscale eateries and explore more well-known cities, like Kyoto, in the early morning before the crowds come.)

But Japan’s strong culture of hospitality, attention to detail, reliable public transport, hot springs, and cuisine still make it worth visiting, even during peak season. With the weak yen, it is a bargain.

Whether you want to visit Tokyo or one of Japan’s lesser-known places, here are eight of the best to consider on your next trip.

Crowds pass below colorful signs in Akihabara. The historic electronics district has evolved into a shopping area for video games, anime, manga, and computer goods.

Since the late 19th century, Tokyo has been the capital of Japan.

Photo by Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

1. Tokyo

Ever since it reopened, Tokyo has lured travelers with new attractions like the 2023-opened Tokyu Kabukicho Tower, Japan’s largest hotel and entertainment complex. But walk around for a distinct feel for some of Tokyo’s neighborhoods: Omotesando for fashion, Broadway Nakano for pop subculture, Asakusa for traditional culture, and Ginza for shopping.

One thing not to miss is Tsukiji Market, an area that brings in vendors selling fresh seafood and small bites both raw and grilled. (Note that the part of the market where fish auctions take place has moved a couple of miles away to Toyosu.) There are food halls in the basement of many department stores, known as depachika.

Where to stay

To experience Japanese culture in a way that evokes the five senses, head to the Hoshinoya Tokyo. AFAR senior deputy editor Jennifer Flowers recommends the stay in part for its atmosphere, which includes elements like woven tatami flooring and live traditional music in the reception lounge.

Left picture displays boat sailing through the Arashiyama district, right picture displays a lantern from around the Gion/downtown area of Kyoto

There’s plenty to explore in Japan’s former capital, from the boats of the Arashiyama district to the nightlife of Kyoto’s downtown area.

Photos by Jessie Beck

2. Kyoto

Travelers have long visited the former capital of Japan to see its temples and shrines, the golden pavilion at Kinkakuji, and the rock garden at Ryoanji. Go deeper by walking down its narrow alleys, where small independently owned shops offer handcrafted wares like copper tea caddies at Kaikadō or shibori-dyed scarves at Bunzaburo. Along with whisky and sake, Kyoto is famous for tea, so visit the Ippodo tea shop or take a 30-minute train ride to the Uji tea district, where tea is harvested.

Where to stay

Kyoto became home to Asia’s first Ace Hotel when it opened in June 2020. AFAR contributor Adam Graham notes that the 213-room stay offers the “vintage brickwork, big windows, and lofty ceilings that you’d expect from Seattle-born Ace.”

Early morning shoppers peruse fresh seafood at the the Omicho Market.

Omicho Market has been a part of Kanazawa for more than three centuries.

Photo by Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

3. Kanazawa, Ishikawa

Take a 3.5-hour trip northwest from Tokyo by rail and land in Kanazawa, a port city on the Sea of Japan famous for its seafood: the nodoguro black throat perch and shiro ebi white shrimp. After eating some of the daily catch at places like Omicho Market, carefully peruse the lacquerware and vibrant Kutaniyaki porcelain—this regional capital in Japan’s west also has a rich history of arts and crafts.

Many of Kanazawa’s major sites are all within walking distance, including the Kenroku-en Garden. (It is one of the “Three Great Gardens of Japan” from the Edo period that exemplifies the garden design of that time.)

Where to stay

Conveniently located next to the station, the Hyatt Centric hotel’s rooftop bar has memorable views of the city.

Matsushima, Japan coastal landscape from Mt. Otakamori

Matsushima is about half an hour outside of Sendai.

Photo by Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

4. Sendai, Miyagi

The gateway to the northern Tōhoku region, Sendai offers a short train ride into the mountains to visit the Nikka Miyagikyo whisky distillery (be sure to make a reservation for a visit). Farther along on the same train tracks is Yamadera, a Buddhist temple at the top of a small mountain with scenic views of the surrounding valley.

An especially popular day trip is to Matsushima, literally “pine tree island.” Matsushima has been a muse for artists and poets for hundreds of years and is one of Japan’s top scenic spots. The bay is dotted with more than 250 islands covered with pine trees that are best witnessed from a ferry. Near the ferry terminal are two historic temples: Entsuin and Zuiganji.

Where to stay

The Westin is in one of Sendai’s tallest buildings. It is about a 10-minute walk from the station and offers spacious rooms.

Long exposure of Floating Torii gate of Itsukushima Shrine at Miyajima, Hiroshima (gate sign reads Itsukushima Shrine)

Depending on when you visit, the red torii gate by Itsukushima Shrine could look like it’s floating in water.

Photo by Pajor Pawel/Shutterstock

5. Hiroshima

Make time for a contemplative and quiet visit to the Peace Memorial Park and Museum to see the A-Bomb Dome, a memorial where the atomic bomb was dropped during World War II. But Hiroshima also has historic sites that survived, such as Hiroshima Castle and Shukkei-en Garden, once the home of Emperor Meiji in the 19th century. Hiroshima’s local cuisine includes oysters, a savory Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki pancake filled with noodles, and a local style of shiru nashi spicy ramen with very little soup.

Take a 30-minute scenic Sanyo train ride from Hiroshima’s center to Miyajimaguchi Station, where a 10-minute ferry leads visitors to a massive red torii gate. This landmark in the bay marks the entrance to the colorful Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island. At high tide, the red gate will appear to be floating in water; at low tide, visitors can walk to the gate.

Where to stay

The Simose Art Garden Villas, one of AFAR’s best hotels to book in Japan, is both an art complex and resort. The getaway opened in April 2023, featuring 10 villas (5 “Waterside villas” and 5 “Forest villas”) and a restaurant.

Left photo displays soba noodles at a restaurant, right photo displays view of Mt Yotei from Niseko's ski slopes

Hit Niseko’s ski slopes, then warm up with some soba noodles at places like Teuchi-Soba Ichimura.

Photos by Jessie Beck

6. Niseko, Hokkaido

Skiers and snowboarders descend on Niseko each winter for the fresh powder. Due to its geography, the area is famous for its perfect, dry snow. So many tourists come to ski that English is more likely to be heard on the streets than Japanese during ski season.

There are four major ski resort areas to explore: Annupuri, Hanazono, Hirafu, and Niseko Village. AFAR’s Jessie Beck notes that Niseko’s ski area, in particular, has an après-ski scene for many types of travelers—from an evening soak in an onsen to a rowdy night out.

Where to stay

Park Hyatt Niseko Hanazono has ski-in and ski-out access, several restaurants, and luxurious rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows.

Matsumoto City Museum of Art built in 2002. Museum specialized are installations and paintings by Japanese artists

Get immersed in Matsumoto’s colorful culture at the Matsumoto City Museum of Art.

Photo by cowardlion/Shutterstock

7. Matsumoto, Nagano

Arts and crafts define this city. Visit the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, the largest collection of Japanese woodblock prints in the nation. The Mingei-kan Museum showcases Mingei traditional folk crafts, and the Matsumoto City Museum of Art has a permanent exhibit of Yayoi Kusama, a Matsumoto native. Matsumoto, in the heart of the Japanese Alps, is also home to Matsumoto Castle, which is a designated national treasure.

On the way back to Tokyo, consider a day trip to Suwa, just south of Matsumoto, to visit several of the sake breweries, including Masumi, founded in 1662.

Where to stay

The Mingei culture of traditional crafts is at the heart of the Matsumoto Hotel Kagetsu with pieces throughout the hotel and in some of the rooms. Matsumoto’s oldest hotel, it also has hot springs on the property.

Young people celebrating a sake festival in the old town of Hida Takayama, Japan on November 14, 2010

Don’t miss out on celebrations like the sake festival in Hida Takayama.

Photo by PIXEL to the PEOPLE/Shutterstock

8. Hida Takayama, Gifu

Hida Takayama can be reached via Japan Rail Hida limited express train from Nagoya station. The ride on the train is scenic as it follows a blue river winding into the Japanese Alps north of Nagoya. Its historic old town, Furui Machi Nami, retains the charms of days gone by; the morning market is one of the biggest in Japan.

Near Hida Takayama is Shirakawa Village, a World Heritage site, famous for its wooden homes with thatched roofs.

Where to stay

A stay at this traditional Japanese ryokan includes dinner and breakfast, with local specialties like Hida wagyu beef. The area is known for its onsen hot springs, ideal for a long soak after a day of sightseeing.

Yukari Sakamoto immersed herself in the food and beverage world in Tokyo working at Takashimaya department store’s sake section and at the Park Hyatt Tokyo’s New York Grill and Bar as a sommelier. She is the author of Food Sake Tokyo and offers tours to markets in Tokyo.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR