Many first-time visitors to Japan are often surprised to learn that, as one of the world’s most advanced industrialized nations, this relatively small Asian country also boasts a rich and fascinating history that dates back thousands of years.
Indeed, long before many of Europe’s most spectacular cathedrals were built, Japan’s Shinto and Buddhist temples were already well-established and drawing pilgrims and patrons for their often elaborate designs and décor. At the same time, the country was already perfecting the skills and trades that would set it on the path to riches, from fine porcelains and ceramics to textiles such as silk.
Much of this rich tradition has, despite wars and natural devastation, been preserved (or rebuilt), and a visit to Japan is a memorable adventure. Boasting an endless list of top attractions, fun things to do, and points of interest to explore, a vacation in Japan is certainly a great investment of time and money.
Discover the best places to visit in the country with our list of the top tourist attractions in Japan.
1. Mount Fuji
Without a doubt Japan’s most recognizable landmark, majestic Mount Fuji (Fuji-san) is also the country’s highest mountain peak. Towering 3,776 meters over an otherwise largely flat landscape to the south and east, this majestic and fabled mountain is tall enough to be seen from Tokyo, more than 100 kilometers away.
Mount Fuji has for centuries been celebrated in art and literature and is now considered so important an icon that UNESCO recognized its world cultural significance in 2013. Part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, Mount Fuji is climbed by more than a million people each summer as an act of pilgrimage, which culminates in watching the sunrise from its summit.
While some still choose to begin their climb from the base, the majority of climbers now start from above the halfway mark, at the 5th Station, resulting in a more manageable six-or-so-hour ascent. Those who do attempt the complete climb are advised to depart in the afternoon, breaking up the climb with an overnight stop at one of the “Mountain Huts” designed for this very purpose. An early start the next day gets you to the top for the sunrise.
Of course, for many, simply viewing the mountain from the distance, or from the comfort of a speeding train, is enough to say “been there, done that.”
2. Imperial Tokyo
Tokyo’s most famous landmark, the Imperial Palace with its beautiful 17th-century parks surrounded by walls and moats, is a must-see when visiting the nation’s capital. Don’t be put off by the fact that the majority of the palace is closed to the public (it’s still in use by the Imperial family), as there is still enough to see simply by strolling the grounds.
In addition to the many fine views of the palace from numerous points in the surrounding parkland, visitors are permitted into the East Higashi-Gyoen Garden and other areas that are opened to the public as part of an organized tour. One of the most romantic views is of the famous Nijubashi Bridge, or “double bridge,” so named for its watery reflection.
Another one of the must-sees for tourists visiting Tokyo is the famous Ginza shopping district. This always bustling area is home to the Kabuki-za Theatre with its Kabuki performances, as well as the Shimbashi Enbujo Theatre with its traditional Azuma-odori dances and Bunraku performances.
3. Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park
While little needs to be said here of the horrors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945, much can be said of the incredible efforts this vibrant city has made to commemorate the many victims of the world’s first nuclear attack. Perhaps even more importantly, Hiroshima has become a symbol of lasting peace.
Visited by more than a million people each year, many from overseas, Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park (Hiroshima Heiwa Kinen Kōen) lies at the epicenter of the atomic blast in what was once a bustling part of the city. Here you’ll find a number of important monuments, memorials, and museums relating to the events of that fateful day.
In addition to the grounds and gardens with their colorful cherry blossoms, the park is where you’ll find the Peace Memorial Museum, with its numerous exhibits dealing with the issue of world peace. It’s also where you’ll find the Memorial Cenotaph and the Flame of Peace, as well as the Atom Bomb Dome, the ruins of an administrative building that lay at the center of the explosion.
4. Historic Kyoto
One of Japan’s most visited cities, lovely Kyoto – one of the few cities in the country to be spared the devastation of WWII – attracts more than 10 million visitors annually. Most of them are here to explore Kyoto’s fine old streets and architecture, much of it unchanged since the Imperial family took up residence here more than 1,000 years ago.
Even then, the city was Japan’s most important cultural center. This legacy, in fact, continues to this day with its many museums and art galleries, each bursting with important sculptures, paintings, and other art forms.
Highlights of Kyoto’s Buddhist-influenced architecture include its many well-preserved temples, 30 of which are still in use, and important structures such as the 14th-century Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji), famous for its exquisite gold-leaf-clad exterior.
Be sure to also visit Nijo Castle, a 17th-century fortress that has retained its original walls, towers, and moat. Also worth seeing are the castle’s beautiful gates, along with its palace with fine interior décor.
Another landmark to visit is the original Kyoto Imperial Palace (Kyoto-gosho). Built in AD 794, it’s one of the city’s most visited historic sites.
Finally, no visit to Kyoto is complete without spending time exploring the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. This beautiful area of tall bamboo is just a few minutes’ walk from the town center.
5. The Island Shrine of Itsukushima
Just a short ferry ride from mainland Hiroshima is the island of Miyajima, famous the world over as Japan’s Shrine Island. Covering an area of 30 square kilometers in Hiroshima Bay, Miyajima is best known as the home of the Itsukushima Shrine, a Shinto temple dedicated to the Princess daughters of the wind god Susanoo.
Dating from the eighth century, the majority of the shrine’s buildings rise out of the waters of a small bay supported only by piles. The effect at high tide is simply stunning, making these structures – including the famous Great Floating Gate (O-Torii) – appear as if they’re floating on water.
Linked together by walkways and bridges, it’s a fascinating place to explore, in particular its larger halls. These include the exquisite Honden (Main Hall), the Offerings Hall (Heiden), the Prayer Hall (Haiden), and the Hall of a Thousand Mats (Senjokaku).
Another notable feature is the shrine’s stage, where visitors are entertained with traditional dances and musical performances. Also worth exploring are the island’s exquisite grounds and gardens, home to wild deer and numerous bird colonies.
6. Temple City: Historic Nara
For centuries the hub of Japanese culture, the lovely unspoiled city of Nara is home to a large number of historic buildings, along with important national treasures and works of art.
In addition to its many historic streets, the city boasts numerous important old temples. These includ the magnificent seventh-century Kofuku-ji Temple, perhaps the best known of the Seven Great Temples of Nara; and the splendid eighth-century Todai-ji (Great East Temple), famous for its huge bronze statue of the Great Buddha (Daibutsu), cast here in AD 749.
Also of interest in Todai-ji are its Great South Gate (Nandaimon). This spectacular two-story structure is borne on 18 columns, with two Nio statues standing eight meters tall, and it guards the temple entrance. Also of note here is the Hall of the Great Buddha, the world’s largest timber building.
7. Osaka Castle
Built in 1586 by famous Japanese warrior and politician Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Osaka Castle (Ōsaka-jō) was at the time the largest and most important fortress in the country. Although destroyed and rebuilt a number of times since, the present structure, built in 1931, remains true to the original.
Highlights of a visit include the huge five-story, 42-meter-tall main tower. Built on an imposing 14-meter-tall stone base, the tower is home to a number of displays detailing the history of the castle and the city. Be sure to visit the top floor for its superb views over Osaka, an especially attractive sight as the sun sets.
Also of interest in Osaka Castle Park is the Hokoku Shrine, while Osaka’s best-known temple, Shitennō-ji, is also worth visiting and dates back to AD 59. Notable as Japan’s first Buddhist temple, this lovely shrine features a five-story pagoda along with a number of other exquisitely decorated buildings. Among them are the Golden Pavilion (Kondō), with its fine statues and paintings; the Lecture Hall (Kōdō); and a lovely covered corridor linking three of the site’s gates.
8. Chūbu-Sangaku National Park and the Japanese Alps
Japan boasts a number of outstanding areas of natural beauty, many of them designated as national parks or, in some cases, UNESCO World Heritage Sites. One of the country’s most spectacular of these is Chūbu-Sangaku National Park in the center of Honshu. Located in the park’s northern and central regions is the group of mountains collectively referred to as the Hida Mountains, or Japanese Alps.
This region contains some of the highest peaks in the country, including Hotaka at 3,190 meters, and Yari at 3,180 meters. Similar in many ways to the Alps of Central Europe – both in the character of the landscape and in its abundance of snow in winter – the Japanese Alps attract large numbers of walkers and climbers in summer and skiers in winter.
Of particular interest is the park’s abundance of flora and fauna, including the rare ptarmigan and mountain antelopes found at higher altitudes. The park’s many hot springs also draw visitors and led to the development of various spas and holiday resorts, the best known being Kamikōchi.
9. The Atsuta Shrine, Nagoya
The Atsuta Shrine, in the heart of the city of Nagoya, is the most important Shinto shrine in Japan, and attracts more than five million visitors each year. Established in the first century, this religious site is famous for its preserved Imperial insignia, the “grass-mowing sword” (kusanagi-no-tsurugi), one of only three in the country.
Also of interest are its principal shrine, Hongu, surrounded by an enclosing wall, and the treasury with its numerous works of art, including old and modern paintings, ceramics, jewelry, and traditional masks. While in Nagoya, be sure to also visit Nagoya Castle. This splendid moated complex was built in 1612 and boasts a 48-meter-high main tower that is famous for its two gilded dolphins (shachi). It’s also a popular place to visit for its museum, containing art treasures from the former palace, and its spectacular views over the city and the Nobi Plain.
10. Fukuoka Castle and the City’s Ancient Festivals
One of the few surviving examples of the once prolific and majestic hilltop homes preferred by Shoguns and city rulers, Fukuoka Castle (Fukuoka-jō) is one of the highlights of a visit to Fukuoka. Once part of a massive complex that covered an area of some 47,000 square meters, this beautiful castle still impresses with its size and its position on a tall foundation overlooking the Naka River.
Fukuoka is also well known for its many events and festivals. The best-known of these is Hakata Gion Yamakasa, a famous two-week long, 700-year-old celebration held each July that draws millions of visitors from across the country to its colorful parades, as well as its traditional races and costumes.
The city is not without its modern attractions, too. Most notable among them is Canal City Hakata, a-city-within-the-city complete with a canal running through the complex, along with great shops, hotels, restaurants, and a theater.
11. Sapporo, Hokkaido
Located on Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, the city of Sapporo offers many things to do for tourists. As the island’s largest city, it’s a hub of cultural activity, hosting many excellent events and festivals. It also has a distinctive culinary style; a rich theatrical history; and plenty of museums, galleries, and parks.
The focal point here is very much the city’s attractive downtown area, the center of which is Odori Park, a large swath of green that’s very pleasant to explore. From here, you can also access points of interest such as the Sapporo TV Tower, as well as the city’s famous aerial tramway, an easy walk away. The Mount Moiwa Ropeway will eventually get you to the summit’s Upper Station, from where you can enjoy incredible views over the city, a real treat at night.
The mountain is also the location of the Mount Moiwa Ski Resort, a popular winter destination, especially since the 1972 Winter Olympics were held in the city. And if you’re arriving in winter, be sure to visit the Sapporo Snow Festival, held here each February and drawing in excess of two million revelers.
Tips for Making the Most of Your Visit to Japan
- Shoulder Season Travel: Due to its being blessed with so many amazing points of interest, Japan’s top attractions can, during the peak summer months, get rather busy. If you can be flexible with your trip planning, create a sightseeing itinerary that will allow you to explore this beautiful country during the quieter shoulder seasons. You’ll not only be rewarded by fewer lineups, but will be able to enjoy things other visitors will miss out on: spring cherry blossoms in places like Nara Park; amazing fall colors in the hillside spa destination of Jozankei Onsen; and historic structures such as Fukuoka Castle blanketed in snow.
- Faster Than a Speeding Bullet (Train): Thanks to its superb modern and efficient public railway system, Japan is an easy country to get around. Japan Railways is responsible for more than 21,000 kilometers of rail lines, connecting all points to larger cities such as Tokyo. The best of these is the Shinkansen Bullet Train, capable of traveling 320 kilometers per hour, making a trip such as Tokyo to Fukuoka – some 1,170 kilometers away – doable in just over six hours. Be sure to pick up your Japan Rail Pass or book your rail tours before departure to ensure savings.