11 Best Cities To Visit In Japan: Must Know For First Timers

Japan is one of the most popular countries to visit in the world—and really, why wouldn’t it be? The country has everything from scenic views to amazing cultural hotspots, to some of the best food in the world. Touring Japan is always a great move, but some cities are just more popular than others. 

Are you looking to book a vacation abroad in the country known for its cherry blossoms and excellent media? Do you want to take a true taste of Japan? Our list of the best cities to visit in Japan is here for you. Let’s get our list on!

Tokyo

tokyo - best city to visit in japan

It should come as no surprise that Tokyo, the capital city, and also the largest city on earth, has become the top city for people to visit in Japan. Tokyo is one of the most recognizable cities in the world. It also currently serves as the nation’s fashion capital.

If you have yearned for a moment to hang out with the hip and happenin’ around Harajuku, this is where to do it. If you want to see ancient temples or a city aglow in neon lights, going to Tokyo will let you see both.

Popular Attractions:

  • The Tokyo Skyline. Get a tall hotel so that you can see it in all its glory. The skyline close to Shibuya is considered to be one of the most impressive in the world. 
  • The Imperial Palace. A castle? In the most populous city in Tokyo?! It’s more likely than you think. This is a must-see for history buffs and architecture lovers alike.
  • The Ghibli Museum. Fans of Howl’s Magic Castle and Kiki’s Delivery Service will be happy to know that Tokyo is home to a museum dedicated to the wonder-filled artwork of Studio Ghibli. 
  • Sanrio Puroland. Truth be told, it’s fairly obvious that Tokyo would have several venues totally dedicated to Hello Kitty. If you want to see the largest one, go to Sanrio Puroland—a positively massive theme park dedicated to Sanrio!
  • Shibuya District. Fashionable, trendy, and cooler than anything you could imagine, Shibuya is an amazing treat for anyone who wants to shop till they drop. 

Hiroshima

Hiroshima - second of the best cities to visit in japan

It’s hard to imagine that a city that was all but decimated by a nuclear bomb in the 1940s has become so incredibly popular today. Yet, here we are. Hiroshima is the birthplace of A-list actor George Takei, not to mention the home of a wide range of different hotspots. 

The history in this city is palpable. You can find incredible gardens from eons ago as well as feudal castles. Of course, the most recognizable history can be seen in the ruins of the buildings hit by the Bomb—and the shadows of people who were vaporized as a result of it.

Popular Attractions:

  • Hiroshima Peace Museum. This museum is right next to a memorial to those who died as a result of the atomic bomb. As you might imagine, it’s an homage to peace and a warning about the perils of war. 
  • Atomic Bomb Dome. After the bomb was dropped, most buildings were vaporized. The Atomic Bomb Dome is the remnants of one of the few buildings to still stand. 
  • Hiroshima Castle. This castle is nicknamed “Carp Castle” because of all the fish in its surrounding moat. It’s beautiful to the point of looking like it belongs in a fairytale book. 
  • Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium. Most people don’t realize this, but Hiroshima is a baseball hotspot. The “Zoom-Zoom” Stadium is one of the largest baseball stadiums in Japan, not to mention a proving ground for international baseball superstar hopefuls. Anyone who is a fan of the sport should watch a game here. 

Kyoto

kyoto - third of the best cities to visit in japan

Often tied with Hiroshima for the unofficial title of the most beautiful city in Japan, Kyoto is a must-see for anyone who wants surreally gorgeous photos. Historically, Kyoto used to be the capital of Japan until the late sixties, but that’s not why most people visit.

Kyoto’s primary claim to fame is being home to over a thousand Buddhist and Shinto temples. It’s the religious capital of Japan. If you are a practicing Buddhist or just want to appreciate spirituality, this is the city for you. 

Popular Attractions:

  • Fushimi Inari Taisha. Are you a fan of Shinto shrines? If so, you might enjoy one of the most spectacular of them all. This surreal shrine features thousands of torii gates that turn the shrine into its own little world. It’s a historic and architectural hotspot for the ages!
  • Kiyomizu-dera. If you want to see a spiritual haven that has exquisite views by the water, then this Buddhist temple is a must-see. Kiyomizu-dera is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 
  • Arashiyama Monkey Park. While Kyoto has a bunch of formal gardens, there’s always time to monkey around at this park. The Arashiyama Monkey Park lets you meet real snow monkeys up close!

Nagoya

Nagoya

Nagoya is in the heart of Aichi Prefecture and tends to feature more “modern” attractions. If you have kids, then they will probably want to check out Nagoya. This seaside shipping hub features tons of gambling centers, theme parks, and shopping districts. 

Locals in Nagoya get to enjoy intellectual hotspots like the Toyota Museum but also get the option of touring historic venues like Atsuta Jingu and Nagoya Castle. 

Popular Attractions:

  • LEGOland Japan. Unleash your inner child (or just let your kids go wild) at the theme park that is totally dedicated to everyone’s favorite building blocks.
  • Nagoya City Science Museum. Looking to learn about science? This family-friendly museum features one of the largest planetariums in the world plus awesome hands-on exhibits. You may need to know Japanese to get the full experience, but many sites are easy to translate with a phone. 
  • Shirotori Gardens. Once you’re done having fun in the bustling city areas, you can wind down at the peaceful Shirotori Gardens. The views here are incredible year-round.

Yokohama

Yokohama

Most people don’t realize this, but Yokohama is the second most populous city behind Tokyo. This sprawling urban center caters to just about every type of person, simply because every type of person also lives here!

Considering the sheer size of this city, it’s not surprising it has great shopping centers, beautiful gardens, and a fairly lively nightlife scene. 

Popular Attractions:

  • Yokohama Chinatown. Believe it or not, Yokohama’s Chinatown is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the entire city. There’s ample shopping, gorgeous aesthetic streets, and plenty of places to explore for locals and foreigners alike. 
  • Cup Noodles Museum. This is one of two different ramen-centric museums that you can visit in the city. The Cup Noodles Museum focuses on everyone’s favorite iconic ramen brand. It’s a deliciously cool trip!
  • Yokohama Cosmo World. Theme parks are a very popular venue in Japan, and it’s hard to get better than Yokohama Cosmo World. This park features one of the tallest Ferris wheels in the world. 

Nara

Nara

Prior to modern times, Nara was the original capital of Japan. The entire city is so ancient, so chock-full of history, that UNESCO mentions it as a major heritage hotspot. Here, you can find imperial palaces, stunning Shinto shrines, and incredible scenic walks. 

Fans of Buddhism and Shintoisn will be particularly fond of this city. At times, you can almost feel the spiritual energy in some of the temples in the area. 

Popular Attractions:

  • Todaji Temple. Perhaps one of the most iconic Buddhist temples in Japan, Todaji Temple is famous for its massive Buddha statue. It’s also the home of Omizutori, a series of rituals involving both fire and water. In order to see these amazing ceremonies, you have to plan ahead and visit at the right time of the lunar year. 
  • National Museum. Japan’s National Museum is located in Nara. The museum itself focuses on Buddhist artwork throughout the ages. Traditional Japanese artwork can be found throughout every corner of this sprawling museum.
  • Mt. Wakakusayama. This is one of the most beautiful mountains in Japan, and it comes with its own unique ritual. Once a year, locals set the mountain on fire in what is known as Wakakusa Yamayaki. 

Kanazawa

Kanazawa

When people think of Japanese samurais and geishas, chances are they are thinking about Kanazawa too. This city is famous for being a centerpiece of Edo-era culture. Walking through these streets lets you see Edo period architecture, geisha performances, and traditional Japanese gardens.

“Elegance” seems to be the name of the game in Kanazawa. Almost everything here seems like it belongs on a postcard! Oddly enough, this city is rarely frequented by tourists. So, it’s a hidden gem, through and through.

Popular Attractions:

  • Kanazawa Castle Ruins. Perhaps the most well-preserved castle ruins in Japan can be found in Kanazawa. Guided tours are available. If you’ve ever wanted to party like it’s 1599, you will want to see these ruins. 
  • Omicho Market. There’s something perennially charming about the Omicho Market. This fresh food market offers a traditional taste of Japan at reasonable prices. It’s also entirely indoors, making it a little unique compared to other sites in town.
  • 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. While much of Kanazawa is dedicated to the world of yesteryear, this museum is all about modernity. As one of the top contemporary art museums in Japan, the 21st Century Museum offers exhibitions from the biggest names of today. 

Osaka

Osaka

Most foodies who watch major culinary shows already know about this city’s reputation. Osaka is nicknamed “the nation’s kitchen” as a result of the world-class restaurants, izakayas, and bars throughout the city.

Unlike Kanazawa, Osaka is thoroughly modern. It’s one of the biggest manufacturing cities in the country and regularly acts as a huge trading hotspot. Oddly enough, Osaka also has a lot of Ferris wheels within its city limits. It’s a great way to get a sky view.

Popular Attractions:

  • Shinsaibashi-Suji Shopping Street. If you have ever wanted to live in a lo-fi hip-hop music video, you might want to take a walk down this street. This massive shopping district is beautiful and features a wide range of high-end stores that offer tax-free pricing. 
  • Universal Studios Japan. Theme parks are extremely popular among tourists in Japan, both local and foreign. Universal Studios has a branch in Osaka complete with rides and state-of-the-art entertainment. 
  • Harukas 300. The sky views of Japanese cities are always incredible. In Osaka, the best way to see the full sprawl of the city is to go to the Harukas 300 observation deck. You get to see everything from 300 meters in the air!

Sendai

Sendai

If there was ever a city in Japan that was an underrated destination, it’s Sendai. Often viewed as a typical Japanese city, Sendai is a lot quieter than most other destinations on the list. Of course, that’s during most of the year.

This city’s claim to fame is being the home of the Tanabata Festival and for being the “city of forests.” Greenery is everywhere here, and that’s just part of the city’s unique charm.

Popular Attractions:

  • Aobayama Park. Sendai was once famous for its Date clan castle. Unfortunately, it was mostly lost to fires and raids. Aobayama Park is where the bronze statue of Masamune Date stands alongside the ruins of the castle. It’s a beautiful reminder of the history here.
  • Jozenji-Dori Street. Are you looking for an Instagram-worthy shooting location? Look no further than this beautiful tree-lined street that doubles as an open-air art museum. Jonzenji-Dori also hosts the local jazz festival. 
  • Nikka Whisky Distillery. Did you know that Japanese whisky is some of the best in the world? In Sendai, you can tour a Japanese distillery and also get a tasting of the goods. This tour is ideal for people over the age of 21.

Sapporo

Sapporo

Sapporo is the main city on the island of Hokkaido. Most people might already know this name from the beer brand that carries its name, but there is so much more to this city than beer. This mellow seaside city is equal parts culinary hotspot and college town. 

This is the type of city that people go to when they want to take a break from reality and want to enjoy civilized peace and quiet. A little bit cerebral, a lot a bit of fun, you’ll love unwinding in Sapporo. 

Popular Attractions:

  • Sapporo Beer Museum. Considering how popular Sapporo beer is, it’s not a shock to hear the city erected a free museum dedicated to the brewery. You can find out everything from how the beer is made to the history of brewing in Sapporo. 
  • The Ōkurayama Ski Jump Stadium. Sapporo might be a city noted for relaxation, but it’s also a skiing hotspot. The city-owned ski jump stadium lets guests practice their ski skills. It’s the hottest place in town during the winter months!
  • Sapporo City Maruyama Zoo. Getting in touch with wildlife is a breeze at the Maruyama Zoo. Their most popular features include the red panda exhibit and their elephants. Kids adore this zoo!

Kobe

Kobe

Finally on our list is a city that is hard to have beef with: Kobe! While this city is most famous for its ultra-luxurious meat market, the truth is that there’s a lot more to see throughout the region. Fans of fine dining, sake, and herbs will want to check out this city. 

Of course, it’s also a city famous for its harbor and beautiful waterside views. It’s hard not to want to take a stroll down the area’s Harborland, especially at night. 

Popular Attractions:

  • Kobe Nunobiki Herb Gardens. There are few things as lovely as the smell of fresh herbs. In Kobe, the Nunobiki Herb Gardens take things on another level. There are over 70,000 herbs that call this fragrant garden home. Between the beautiful lighting and the year-round events, it’s easy to see why people fall in love with this venue. 
  • Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum. It’s not a trip to Japan without a little taste of sake, right? In Kobe, sake is a major part of the culture. This museum is entirely dedicated to the history of sake production and its impact on Japan. Going through this tour will give you a newfound appreciation for this amazing beverage. 
  • Kobe Harborland. This section of Kobe is part theme park, part shopping district, and part restaurant district. You can enjoy a trip on one of the many rides, check out upscale shopping, or just get a meal worthy of a photograph here. Though this area is always busy, the truth is that it’s still fairly relaxed despite the crowds.

Conclusion

One of the best reasons to visit Japan is the sheer number of different cities you can choose to see. Every city in Japan has its own unique personality and set of attractions. All you have to do is figure out which city suits your needs.

From the culinary hotspot of Osaka to the historic city of Kanazawa, you’re bound to find a place that is your own little paradise in Japan. No matter where you go, you can always count on finding something that’ll make you smile.

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