From its millennial culture to its fame as the Land of the Rising Sun, Japan draws in millions of tourists from all over the world every year.
Home to futuristic cities like Tokyo (where you’ll find the best sushi and craziest bars in the world), Japan’s stunning countryside is dotted with ancient temples, and its beautiful islands and beaches boast some truly breath-taking sunrises. Let’s explore this magnificent country and its ancient culture together.
Read on to find out about the best places to visit during your holiday to Japan.
Naturally, we’re starting in Tokyo, Japan’s capital city. European tourists will feel like they’re in another world here, and although it can sometimes feel a little disorienting, it’ll also give you a real buzz. Ancient traditions mix with cutting-edge technology in this city, and you’ll find many historic temples sitting next to skyscrapers and luxury shops.
The list of things to see and do in Tokyo is almost endless, but perhaps the first thing we recommend is looking out for buildings built by celebrated architects, such as Renzo Piano and Le Corbusier. We also suggest popping into a few city museums, such as the Edo-Tokyo Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art and Watari Museum of Contemporary Art in Shibuya, which are all part of the most important museum network in Asia.
Tokyo’s 23 districts are all worth a visit, and each one offers something unique. In Shibuya, for example, you’ll find the Hachikō Memorial Statue, while Asakusa is home to Sensō-ji Temple and Tokyo Bay boasts an intriguing artificial island called Odaiba.
On we go to Osaka, the second largest city in Japan and a particularly beautiful one at that, thanks to its large network of canals, which were once used for trade purposes. The city is also characterised by an architectural style that combines Japanese tradition with modern Western architecture.
One of the best things to see in Osaka is its spectacular aquarium, which is home to aquatic fauna from the Pacific Ocean. Also on your list should be Universal Studios Japan, which is the first theme park of its kind in Asia. Last but not least, we recommend a trip to Osaka’s National Museum of Art followed by a visit to Shitennō-ji, which is one of the country’s oldest temples and the first built by the State to introduce Buddhism to Japan.
If you’re looking to enjoy the city’s lively atmosphere at its best, head to the Minami district, which is full of interesting restaurants, bars and shops.
Shingu is a fairly new city, given that it was only founded in 1933. That being said, pilgrims have been travelling to the local region of Kumano for thousands of years to pray in the three sacred shrines located in Hongu, Hayatama and Nachi.
Hayatama is so ancient that it outdates any written records, and excavations have unearthed remains of religious rituals dating back to 300AD. The elegant martial art of Aikido was also created in this area and is practiced throughout the region.
Shingu is the birthplace of sushi as we know and love it today. Nare-zushi – which is typical of this area – is a traditional type of sushi originating in Southeast Asia.
Famous for its pampered cows and delicious marbled meat, Kobe is a magnificent city immersed in nature, with a mountainous backdrop that makes for a very impactful view from its port. It is also home to one of Japan’s oldest Shinto shrines, the Ikuta Shrine.
Speaking of mountains, a cable car connects the port and city to Mount Rokkō. Along with waterfalls, mountains and hills, this area is also famous for its outdoor spas in Arima Onsen, while the city centre is home to Sorakuen Garden, a traditional Japanese landscape garden opened to the public in 1941.
Kanazawa is quite a special place, given that it’s home to the remains of an ancient feudal castle that once belonged to the Maeda – the empire’s richest daimyō (or feudal lords).
Kanazawa is also home to one of the three most beautiful landscape gardens in Japan. Kenrokuen Garden abides by the Chinese theory that a perfect garden must contain six essential elements: spaciousness, seclusion, artifice, antiquity, water and great views. Kenrokuen is packed with water fountains, bridges, trees that are always in bloom, tea houses, and many scenic spots to boot. As such, it definitely deserves its nickname of the ‘Garden of the Six Sublimities.’
Sadly famous for being the second city to be hit by the atomic bomb, Nagasaki pays tribute to this tragic event in Nagasaki Peace Park, a memorial to everyone who fell victim to the bombing – with a black pillar marking the explosion’s epicentre.
Also worth a visit is Meganebashi (or Spectacles Bridge), which is a beautiful stone bridge crossing the River Nakajima in the centre of Nagasaki. Just a few kilometres from the centre of town is Mount Inasa, which offers magnificent views over the city.
Just as we promised, we’re taking you to a lesser known areas of Japan: an island!
Miyako-jima boasts some of the best beaches in the whole country. Yonaha Maehama Beach is a seven-kilometre-long, white, sandy haven and a great spot for doing water sports and admiring beautiful sunsets. Yoshino Kaigan on the other hand is a great beach if you love snorkelling, as the waters here are home to schools of colourful fish and an incredible coral reef. Also worth a mention is Sunayama Beach, thanks to its white sands and intriguing rock formations.
Last but not least, Miyako-jima is home to a beautiful botanical garden housing 1,600 types of tropical plant. Make sure to stop by!
Kagoshima city is home to Sakurajima Volcano, which is one of the most active in Japan. The volcano is an important tourist attraction, and you’re welcome to admire it up close or relax in one of the nearby natural spas (onsen).
In addition to Sakurajima, Kagoshima is home to several must-see attractions, including Sengan-en Garden, which features ponds, streams, shrines and even a bamboo grove. Kagoshima City Aquarium on the other hand spans seven floors, while the Reimeikan Museum is dedicated to local history and culture.
Sakaiminato is famous among manga fans as being home to the Mizuki Shigeru Museum – a modern art museum named after a famous manga author. It also houses many of his artworks and sketches. The city’s most touristy street is also dedicated to him. It’s called Mizuki Shigeru Road.
Make sure to also visit YumeMinato Tower.
Nagoya is home to some of the most interesting and peculiar museums in the world. First off is Tokugawa Art Museum, which is built on the foundations of the Owari feudal residence. It now houses a collection of ancient Japanese treasures, including armour, swords, masks, poems, maps and tea utensils, as well as a beautiful garden to boot.
We also recommend a trip to the Railway Museum, where you can have a go on a train simulator, and last but not least, the Science Museum. This museum is famous for having one of the largest planetariums in the world, which takes the form of a striking giant silver globe. Every month, the planetarium puts on a number of events linked to astronomical phenomena, and although the shows are in Japanese, they’re a truly unique experience.
Nagoya is also where you’ll find Atsuta Jingu, one of the most important Shinto shrines in the whole of Japan. The shrine is dedicated to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu and, houses the sacred Kusanagi sword (which is unfortunately not on show). You can also visit the restaurant for some tasty kishimen noodles, which are a local specialty.
This particular city is famous for its view of the Amanohashidate, one of the three most picturesque areas in Japan. It comprises a strip of white sand dotted with pine trees running along the city coastline.
Not only is it very striking, it’s also where you’ll find some important points of interest, including Amanohashidate Shrine, where the King of the Eight Dragons is enshrined. Amanohashidate is also a great place to visit Motoise Kono Shrine, Chion-ji Temple – which is dedicated to Bodhisattva Monju, the Buddhist god of wisdom and intellect – and the famous Isokiyoshisui water spring. Last but not least, make sure you cross the famous swing bridge connecting Amanohashidate to Mount Monju.
Hakodate is often associated with nearby Mount Hakodate, whose summit can be reached by cable car. At its feet stands the picturesque district of Motomachi, which is famous for its fish market and old warehouses housing shops. A second mountain also dominates the area. Mount Komagatake is an extinct volcano, and you’ll find it in Onuma Park.
Thanks to its nearby volcano, Hakodate is home to various thermal spa towns, including Yachigashira Onsen and Yunokawa Onsen, both of which are famous for their resident macaque populations.
Fukuoka is a city with many souls, and a place where ancient temples exist side-by-side with shopping centres and beautiful beaches. In the centre of this seemingly modern city, for example, is Tōchō-ji Temple, which houses a 10-metre wooden statue of Buddha, while Shofuku-ji Temple is the oldest Zen temple ever built in Japan. the modern waterfront is home to Momochi Seaside Park, as well as a few futuristic buildings, including Fukuoka Tower.
Here, you’ll find the best street food for miles around, and it’s typically enjoyed outdoors in a Yatai (a typical food cart that can host up to ten people). There are about 150 in the city, and they’re really iconic in Fukuoka, making them the ideal place to enjoy some local Japanese food.
Yokohama is an island home to a modern urban community in the suburbs of Tokyo. The main attractions in this area are the shopping and food. It’s also home to Cosmo World, Chinatown, Zoorasia – where animals roam freely in their natural habitat – and a town square filled with luxury boutiques housed on the lower floors of Queen’s Tower.
We recommend visiting two truly unique museums while you’re here: Cup Noodles Museum, where you can find out all about the history of instant noodles with fun interactive exhibits and modern art installations, and Shinyokohama Raumen Museum, which is dedicated entirely to ramen!
This is the smallest of Japan’s four main islands and it’s a treasure trove of interesting things to explore. First off, it’s home to 88 Buddhist temples, and its mountainous terrain makes it ideal for hiking enthusiasts.
The island’s provinces are Kōchi, Matsuyama, Tokushima and Takamatsu, and each one offers something unique. Matsuyama, for example, is home to thermal springs and a magnificent ancient castle, which adds to its feudal feel. Meanwhile in Takamatsu, we recommend a trip to Ritsurin Garden and Shikoku Mura, an open-air architectural park where you can admire some perfectly preserved traditional buildings.
Okinawa is a wonderful place comprised of 150 heavenly islands, where ancient historical buildings, important monuments and modern amusement parks co-exist in harmony. Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum is dedicated to the history of the Allied Invasion in 1945, and the prefecture is also home to ancient castles that have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including Shuri Castle, Katsuren Castle and Zakimi Castle.
In contrast to these ancient buildings is Churaumi Aquarium, which is famous for its whale sharks and manta rays, as well as Ocean Expo Park and Okinawa World. The prefecture is also a great place to admire some breath-taking natural wonders, such as Sefa-Utaki, a sacred place of worship, and Hiji Waterfall, which you can marvel at after a nice hike through the forest or aboard a boat sailing on crystal clear sea waters.
If you’re visiting Japan, you absolutely have to go to Kyoto. A trip to Katsura Imperial Villa and Nishi Hongan-ji Temple will give you a decent overview of traditional Japanese architecture and decorative art.
Kyoto is also home to several other temples, including Ninna-ji, which is a World Heritage Site, and Ryōan-ji, which is home to Japan’s most famous rock garden. We also recommend visiting the Kiyomizudera pure water temple, as well as Kinkaku-ji and Ginkaku-ji, both of which are adorned with ornate gold and silver leaf.
This is one of the most beautiful places in Japan and it’s famous for the sacred bridge of Shinkyō and numerous temples immersed in unspoiled nature. Nikko’s local scenery is truly breath-taking. Here, you can marvel at some of the best waterfalls in the world, such as Kirifuri and Kegon, which are nestled in lush vegetation and are a real sight to behold.
Other major attractions include Yakushi Porch, Three Buddhas Porch and a mausoleum dedicated to the shōgun Ieyasu Tokugawa.
Kamakura is a typical Japanese seaside resort dotted with dozens of temples, all of which come together to create a truly unique atmosphere.
Among the various Buddhist, Zen and Shinto temples in the area is Kotoku-in, which features a 13-metre bronze statue of Buddha, as well as Hasedera Temple, Zeniarai Benten Shrine and Kencho-ji Temple. And if you fancy doing as the locals do, you can join the numerous surfers poised to ride the perfect wave on Yuigahama Beach.
Volcanoes, thermal spas and ski resorts are the main attractions in Hokkaido. Asahi Volcano is located in Daisetsuzan National Park, and it’s not the only natural park in the area. In fact, Shikotsu-Tōya National Park is home to numerous volcanic lakes, natural thermal springs and Mount Yōtei.
And if you want to experience the thrill of going skiing in Japan, head for Niseko, Rusutsu or Furano!
Want to relax on sunny beaches and explore cultural attractions that satisfy your thirst for knowledge? Naoshima is the place for you.
This is a small Japanese island home to modern art museums, interesting architecture and some great art installations. For example, I Love Yu is an original art installation housing a public bathhouse! Its relaxed atmosphere is perfect for those looking to explore a more unusual side to Japan.
Mount Fuji needs no introduction: it is the highest peak in Japan and one of the country’s three sacred mountains. In our minds, its snow-topped peak sits immersed in thick fog or clouds all year round. Climbing Mount Fuji is a truly unique experience, and depending on whether you’re a beginner or experienced hiker, you can choose from one of four footpaths depending on your experience level. Shintoists are required to climb the mountain at least once in their lifetime.
Mount Fuji also boasts two ski resorts, Fujiten, in the Five Lakes region, and Snow Town Yeti.
You’ll find Hakone nestled in Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park and it’s famous for its natural hot springs (or onsen) with a view of Mount Fuji. Although this city’s main attraction is definitely its hot springs, there are also a number of other interesting places to visit, such as Hakone Temple, for example, which is located near Lake Ashi and boasts a striking red gateway.
Hakone Open Air Museum is also very interesting. It’s home to a collection of contemporary art, featuring works by the likes of Picasso and Rodin. The Hakone mountains provide an amazing backdrop to boot.
We all know (and love) Sapporo’s famous beer, and this is where it is made. In fact, Sapporo is also home to a dedicated museum where you can learn all about the beer’s history and how it’s produced.
Sapporo is also famous for its snowy landscapes (it hosted the Winter Olympics in 1972), and you can admire some incredible ice sculptures if you come during the Snow Festival.
Nara is a very important city and was once the capital of Japan. It might therefore be unsurprising to hear that it’s home to numerous valuable temples and artistic artefacts dating back to the eighth century.
Right here, for example, stands Tōdai-ji, which is one of the most important temples in Japan and is home to a large park where deer graze freely. You can also admire Daibutsu, an imposing 15-metre bronze statue of Buddha, as well as a park area featuring more than 3,000 lanterns (and a Shinto shrine).
Make sure you also visit Isuien Garden, Yoshikien Garden, the National Museum of Nara – which features a collection of Japanese Buddhist art – the imperial Heijo Palace and Hōryū-ji Temple, which is one of the oldest wooden structures in the world.
Explore Japan with Costa Cruises
Set sail with Costa Cruises and discover the modern and futuristic cities of Tokyo and Osaka, as well as more remote historical places immersed in nature, such as Kobe, Kagoshima and Kanazawa. Japan is guaranteed to blow you away with its ancient temples, Mount Fuji, Okinawa’s incredible beaches and much, much more.