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A Guide to the Best Cities in Japan

Charlotte Boswell

Japan is a country full of contrasts; blending the old with the new and combining cities with nature. It is a land of spectacular temples, excellent food, cutting-edge technology and snow-capped mountains, and with over 700 cities to explore we have put together our list of must-visit cities in Japan.


Japan’s capital city has significantly grown from the small 16th century fishing village it once was to a sprawling metropolis with a futuristic skyline, dazzling neon advertisements and surging crowds. Tokyo is a unique blend of ultramodern and tradition, mixing historic Buddhist temples and deep-rooted culture with soaring skyscrapers and 24-hour sushi bars. The food in Tokyo is amongst some of the best in the world and has the world’s highest volume of Michelin stars in a city. From sashimi to soba and from street-food stalls to high-end restaurants there is something for everyone. Culturally, the best place to experience Tokyo’s ancient history is the Asakusa district which is home to Tokyo’s oldest temple, the iconic Sensō-ji which dates as far back as 645 AD. The five-story pagoda decorated with colourful lanterns is particularly beautiful at night when illuminated and the crowds are sparse. The city also offers a diverse art and culture scene ranging from traditional sumo tournaments and centuries-old dance and music performances to cutting-edge art galleries and world-leading technology. 

Tokyo Skyline at Night Japan


Kyoto forms an important part of Japanese history having been the capital city of Imperial Japan for over 1,000 years. Often referred to as Japan's most beautiful city, Kyoto is renowned for some of the country’s best cherry blossom scenes, zen gardens and traditional teahouses, as well as an authentic geisha culture. Home to an astonishing 2,000 temples and shrines, one of the city’s most significant temples is Kinkaku-ji; The Golden Pavilion. It is located within a stunning strolling garden including ponds, bridges and plants that are arranged in a specific way to represent famous places in Japanese and Chinese literature. Another of Kyoto’s iconic landmarks is Fushimi Inari-taisha, an important Shinto shrine that features thousands of vermilion torii gates leading to a forest sanctuary. Amid the shrines are hundreds of fox statues and according to Shinto folklore, the fox is seen to be Inari’s, the Shinto god of rice, messenger.

Gion District Kyoto Japan Geisha Umbrellas Old Town


In the 17th century this beautifully preserved castle-city was Japan's wealthiest developing into a thriving centre for culture and the arts. Today, the coastal city of Kanazawa still has a well-preserved geisha and samurai culture. A highlight of any visit to Kanazawa is the Kenroku-en Gardens, these are considered as the country’s finest horticultural gardens and are acclaimed as one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan. Stroll through landscapes made up of water features, bridges, teahouses and flowering blossom trees. Enjoy the pink cherry blossom in spring, or the deep-red maple leaves in the winter. The 16th century Kanazawa Castle reached via the elegant Ishikawa-mon Gate is also worth a visit, as is the bustling 280-year-old Omicho Seafood Market, a warren of fishmongers and street food stalls selling kaisen-don, barbecued oysters and sea urchins. It is even possible to haggle here, something that is very uncommon in Japan.

Kanazawa Castle Cherry Blossom Temple Japan


Located in the Kansai region of Japan, the city of Himeji offers a wonderful blend of classical Japanese architecture and culture along with cutting edge modernity. Himeji is home to the magnificent fortress of Himeji-jo which is regarded as one of Japan's most beautiful surviving feudal castles. Unscathed from centuries of war and earthquakes, this sprawling temple complex is over 400 years old and consists of over eighty elegant buildings which are linked by a series of gates and winding paths. This UNESCO World Heritage site is also a stunning spot to see the cherry blossom in early April. Another of Himeji’s charms is the serene gardens of Koko-en that features nine walled gardens all differing in various styles of the Edo Period. Within the park lies the lord’s residence garden which is filled with a bamboo and flower garden, a pond with a waterfall and a traditional tea ceremony house where visitors can sample green tea.

Himeji Castle White Temple Green Trees Japan


Established as the permanent capital in the year 710, Nara is a treasure trove of remarkable temples, traditional Japanese gardens and UNESCO World Heritage sites. Nara’s centrepiece is the spectacular Tōdai-ji temple complex which was constructed in 752 and served as the head of all Buddhist temples in Japan. The temple however grew so powerful that 31 years later the city was stripped of its capital status and was moved to Nagaoka in order to decrease the temples influence on the government.  The Tōdai-ji houses the Great Buddha Hall where sits the world’s largest bronze Buddha statue, a somewhat impressive sight, and overlooks Nara Park where other stunning shrines as is filled with roaming tame deer. Nara is located less than an hour from both Osaka and Kyoto and is a highly recommended city to visit rich with history and culture.

Nara Park Autumn Pond Reflections Temple Japan


With a population of over three and a half million, Yokohama is Japan's second largest city. During the Edo Period (1603-1867) Japan maintained a period of self-isolation, however in 1859, Yokahoma’s port was one of the first to be opened to international trade.  Situated just 30 minutes from Tokyo, Yokohama manages to preserve its own identity with quieter streets, its own interesting history and an up-and-coming creative art scene. The city also boasts one of the largest Chinatowns in the world; decorated with beautiful red and yellow lanterns the district offers some of the best Chinese food found in Japan, or anywhere else in the world for that matter. Yokohama is also known for its beautiful botanical park Sankei-en Garden which consists of strolling paths, ponds filled with lily pads, several teahouses and a three-tier pagoda, making you feel like you are instead in Kyoto. 

Yokahama Skyline Mt Fuji Japan


Japan’s third largest city Osaka is known for its modern architecture, nocturnal residents and exciting food scene. Traditionally a major port and mercantile centre, this city has always traded heavily with China and Korea and previously acted as Japan’s capital. The city’s statuesque castle, is an important part of Japanese history as it played a key role in the unification of Japan. It is best visited when the pale pink cherry blossom flowers and glistening moats frame the castle.  Often referred to as one of the world’s greatest food cities, you will truly experience the Japanese food culture thanks to its array of restaurants, culinary shops and side-street stalls. According to locals, in Osaka it is possible for one to ‘kuidaore’; eat yourself bankrupt! Feast on Japanese classics such as sashimi, ramen and udon or try Osaka’s most celebrated dish, takoyaki. These delicious delicacies consist of small batter balls stuffed with octopus and topped with spicy mayonnaise, teriyaki sauce, seaweed flakes and cheese.

Osaka Castle Autumn Leaves Moat Wall Japan


Hiroshima, the first city to suffer a nuclear attack, is known for the devasting atomic bomb that was dropped on the city in 1945 during the final stages of World War II. Slightly misunderstood, this picturesque and friendly city offers numerous art galleries, a thriving food scene and sobering historic sites including the Peace Memorial Museum and the poignant Atomic Bomb Dome. A short ferry ride from Hiroshima lies the mystical Itsukushima Island that is home to several shrines and temples. Here you will find perhaps the most photographed site in Japan, the floating torii gate, a Shinto shrine dating back to the 6th century that serves as a symbolic gateway to the sacred island. A hike to the island’s peak, Mount Misen, is also worthwhile for spectacular views of the surrounding islands.

Hiroshima Torii Gate Itsukushima Island Japan


Perched on a hillside nestled between Mount Rokko and the sea, Kobe is said to be one of Japan’s prettiest cities. After the tragic earthquake in 1995, the city recovered remarkably well and is more vibrant than ever, it is also very compact and a great walking city for visitors. Famed for its signature marbled Kobe beef, which is often said to be the best in the world, the city offers a wonderful array of dining options to try this incredible cut of meat from high-end teppanyaki restaurants to down-to-earth burger joints. Kobe is also the leading producer of the alcoholic Japanese rice wine sake and features many sake breweries and museums. Close to both Osaka and Kyoto, Kobe can be visited as a day trip or as an overnight stop. Take an antique cable car up to Mount Rokko for unrivalled views, or soak in the Arima Onsen hot springs, the oldest in Japan.

Kobe Skyline at Night Water Reflections Japan


Matsue stands by the Sea of Japan where Lake Shinji and Lake Nakaumi meet, giving the city its name the ‘City of Water’. Famous for its wonderful sunsets over Lake Shinji, Matsue is rich with historical sites and traditional Japanese culture. The city is home to one of Japan’s twelve remaining original castles, Matsue-jō. Completed in 1611, this surviving tower castle was built to withstand a war perched atop a hill surrounded by moats and is known as the ‘black castle’ due to its darkly-coloured exterior. Matsue still also holds a strong samurai culture and the city features some beautiful and famous samurai residences just north of the castle. One residence that is highly recommended visiting is the Matsue Buke Yashiki mansion which previously belonged to a high ranking samurai family during the feudal era. Also in the district stands the former home of writer Lafcadio Hearn who was the first Westerner to gain Japanese citizenship under the name of Koizumi Yakumo. 

Matsue Castle Green Trees Japan


Following the devastation of Hiroshima, Nagasaki was the second city to be destroyed by an atomic bomb in August 1945 towards the end of World War II. Although the atrocious history still looms, Nagasaki is as much charming and vibrant than any other city in Japan. Framed by hills and a picturesque harbour, there is much more to Nagasaki than memorials and bomb museums and though these are essential to any visit, the city also offers many beautiful temples and shrines, strolling gardens and has an up-and-coming food and drink scene. Close to the city centre lies Mount Inasa where visitors can reach the summit by ropeway and enjoy unrivalled views over Nagasaki. Additionally, every October the 400-year old Nagasaki Kunchi Festival is held celebrating Dutch and Chinese cultures which have played a key role in the city’s history.

Nagasaki City Centre Shops Taxi Japan


Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido is one of Japan’s youngest cities. This dynamic metropolis offers everything you would expect from a Japanese city; neon-lit skyscrapers, a thriving food scene and world class shopping, it is also a great starting point to explore the island’s mountain ranges and hot springs. Sapporo is well-known for hosting the 1972 Winter Olympics, however the city may be most famous for holding the annual Snow Festival every February. The population literally doubles during this period as the city is celebrated with extravagant and remarkable snow and ice sculptures dotted around various parks and streets. Beer is also synonymous with Sapporo and ‘Sapporo’ beer is the oldest brand of beer in Japan which started brewing in 1876. Wash a bowl of hearty ramen down with a cold classic bottle of Sapporo in one of the city’s great eateries.

Sapporo City Centre View Japan


Located between Beppu Bay and volcanic mountains, Beppu is Japan’s spa city and is home to over 2,000 onsens (hot springs). Beppu is a city of contrasts; touristy yet charming, modern yet traditional, but one thing is clear, the city offers an unrivalled range of hot water baths, mud baths and steam baths, often said to be some of the best in the world.  Within Beppu lies the Hells, which are a series of ponds/baths where geothermally heated water rises to the surface creating steaming coloured pools. Although this viewing attraction is very pretty, it can come across as rather staged and touristy to some. As the steam rises out of the earth throughout Beppu, there is a great opportunity to join a cooking class whereby you cook your meal with the natural hot spring steam, resulting in ‘Hell Steam Cuisine’.

Beppu Park Onsen Hot Spring Pond Cherry Blossom Japan

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