Where to go in Japan

map & itineraries

With so many picture perfect locations at home, it’s no wonder the Japanese invented the ‘selfie’, posing in front of beautiful places all over the world. It’s in their genes. When working out where to go in Japan, you first need to get your head around the fact that it has four main islands, all easily accessible by train or road. Honshu is the largest, with the capital Tokyo as its heart. The northernmost is Hokkaido, with the winter sports city of Sapporo a wonderful spot to visit any time of year. Shikoku is the smallest but sweetest, if walking trails and hot springs are your thing, and Kyushu is the southernmost, subtropical hotspot. Which are most people’s thing.
Itsukushima Kyoto Hakone Nagano Matsumoto Kanazawa Nikko Hiroshima Kurashiki Nara Tokyo Shikoku


Hakone is the mountainous region west of Tokyo, accessible by bullet train to Odawara. A trip into the mountains is so easy in Japan, with a cable car up soaring over the blue waters of Lake Ashi, to the volcanic crater of Owakudani and, on a clear day, views to Mount Fuji. Hakone is the place to take an onsen hot spring bath too.


A city with a tragic past but vibrant present. Totally obliterated by the 1945 atomic bomb, and 70,000 of its residents killed, its reconstruction into the merry metropolis that it is today became a symbol of Japan's post-war pacifism. Indeed, it is still central to the campaign to ban nuclear arms. There is a lot to take in here, but visits to the A-Bomb dome, Peace Park and Museum are extremely thought provoking.


Officially Itsukushima, this island and national park, is more well known as Miyajima, and is an hour’s ferry ride from Hiroshima. Miyajima means ‘shrine island’, with the Itsukushima Shrine at its core. Spend a night in a ryokan and watch the last day trippers go back, leaving you to enjoy the walking paths through maple and cherry with no one but the resident deer.


Pilgrims of Japanese gardens come here for the horticultural hedonism of Kenrokuen, one of Japan’s top three gardens. Located in the Hokuriku region, on Honshu’s west coast, it is going to pack out with visitors in 2015 when the bullet train finally comes here from Tokyo, bringing visitors to see the beautifully preserved Nagamachi samurai district and the Ninja Temple.


Unscathed by WW2 damage, this old canal town has the charm of Amsterdam, and definitely a town to cycle around too. Like Holland, you can head into the surrounding countryside by bike, through paddy rather than flower fields, past temples rather than windmills. And the historic Bikan district has cafes and shops in converted storehouses and mills to enjoy, albeit selling different wares than Amsterdam’s.


Because it’s the ancient capital, you expect to walk into a world of samurais and sentos. But Kyoto is a contemporary metropolis, grown organically out of a world of imperial palaces, fourteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as the Golden Temple of Kinkakuji and the historic district of Gion, with old wooden buildings squeezed into narrow streets, many now teahouses and restaurants. Kyoto is pure cultural chic.


Matsumoto is home to one of Japan’s most famous castles, the Ukiyo-e Museum which has the world’s largest collection of the traditional art of woodblock prints and has hiking and biking delights on its doorstep. The scene of monkeys coming down from the icy mountains to warm up in the nearby Yudanaka hot spring baths is like something out of a Japanese fantasy graphic novel. But it’s real.


The winter capital, host of the Winter Olympics in 1998 and main town serving the Joshin'etsukogen National Park. Combine the physical therapy of mountain air with spiritual solace, staying at the famous Zenko-ji Buddhist temple. This is a place to spend a couple of days, immerse yourself in mountain village culture, and take in the stunning landscape of this Hilda Mountain Range, aka the Northern Japanese Alps.


A cultural gem often upstaged by Kyoto, despite having the highest number of buildings designated National Treasures in Japan. The ancient capital of the Kensai region, its beautiful central park is a suitable home for Daibutsu, the largest Buddha statue in Japan, located in one of the largest wooden buildings in the world too. The Nara Museum of Buddhist art is also a transcendental treat.


Gateway to Nikko National Park and home to three historic temples of Toshogu, Rinnoji, and Futarasan. Toshogu is most famous for its carving of the Three Wise Monkeys, so merchandising abounds. As one of Japan’s most sacred sites, Nikko can get very crowded, also drawn to its somewhat contrasting theme parks. But get away from it all on the hiking trails of the Nikko National Park.


The smallest of Japan's four main islands, with that exquisite combination of natural and cultural heritage complementing each other. Such as the Iyadani valleys, and along the Yoshinogawa River, with forested and coastal trails to traipse along by day, and wonderful rural hot springs to soak in at night. Such as Dogo, the Japan’s oldest spa resort dating from the 8th century. It is adjoined to Honshu by road.


Needs little introduction, as Japan’s capital, with one of the largest urban populations in the world. Take it all in from above, with fab views from the landmark Skytree, or watch life go by in Hamarikyu Gardens city park. Culture vultures will fly straight to the imperial gardens of Chiyoda, or the boutique shops and markets of Asakusa. Suckers for a shopping spree head to Ginza and Ikebukuro.

Japan itineraries

Itinerary 1
14 day Japanese culture itinerary: Tokyo ► Nagano ► Matsumoto ► Takayama ► Kanazawa ► Hiroshima ► Kurashiki ► Kyoto ► Yokohama ► Tokyo

Itinerary 2
14 day walking vacation: Tokyo ► Nikko ► Nikko National Park ► Dewa Sanzan ► Kakunodate ► Tono Valley ► Tokyo

Itinerary 3
16 day Shikoku Island and Kyoto vacation: Osaka ► Kyoto ► Shikoku Island ► Tokushima ► Iya Valley ► Kochi ► Uwajima ► Matsuyama ► Kotohira ► Takamatsu ► Naoshima Island ► Osaka

Travel times in Japan

The following times give you a rough idea of the travel times between the main attractions in Japan:
  • Tokyo – Kyoto: 2 hours 18 mins by fast train
  • Tokyo – Nagasaki: 7 hours 14 mins by fast train
  • Tokyo – Nikko: 3 hours by car
  • Hiroshima – Itsukushima (Miyajima) Island: 1 hour by ferry
  • Osaka – Yakushima: 1 hour 20 mins by air
  • Kobe – Naruto, Shikoku Island: 2 hours 15 mins by car
  • Osaka – Sapporo: 21 hours by sleeper train Twilight Express


Photo credits: [Hokkaido: Chi King] [Miyajima - Sika deer: Richard Fisher] [Kyoto - Three Tea Houses: Joopey] [Hakone - Owakudani cable car: Guilhem Vellut] [Nagano - Lake Suwa: yeowatzup] [Matsumoto - Yudanaka snow monkey: Marc Veraart] [Kanazawa - Kenrokuen gardens: Chi King] [Nikko - Three wise monkeys: *suika *] [Hiroshima - A bomb dome: xiquinhosilva] [Kurashiki - historica quarter canal: bryan...] [Nara - Daibutsu buddha: Elena Gurzhiy] [Tokyo: Balint Földesi] [Shikoku - sand sculpture: lensonjapan]
Written by Catherine Mack
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