Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto,… – With these cities, Japan is home to some of the world’s largest metropolises.
They not only impress with their huge size, but also attract travelers with their cleanliness, safety and orderly structure. Others, like Nara, Matsumoto or Koyasan, reflect the culture and history of Japan with historical buildings like temples, shrines and palaces.
To help you choose, we have compiled a list of the 24 best cities to visit in Japan.
The former imperial city of Kyoto (population approx. 1.4 million) is one of the most interesting cities in all of East Asia with its wealth of cultural assets. Between the years 794 and 1869 it was the seat of the imperial court. Kyoto’s eventful history has left the city with a unique cultural heritage. There are beautiful temples and Zen gardens to marvel at, such as Ryoanji Temple with its famous Zen garden, the charming grounds of the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji), and the Nijo Castle of the Tokugawa shogunate, where you will feel transported back to the palace life of that era.
If you want to take a path along many temples, you should choose the philosophers’ path Tetsugaku no michi. And how about attending a traditional tea ceremony in Kyoto? The Japanese tea ceremony – or tea ritual – is very complex. It follows a very specific procedure and rules. The host serves tea and light foods such as rice, soups and pickled vegetables. The tea preparation is entirely the responsibility of the tea master. Before the ceremony, the guests invited to tea clean their hands and mouths with fresh water.
Osaka is one of the most important cities in Japan after Tokyo and is located on the island of Honshu. There are not as many traditional or picturesque places and temples as in Kyoto or Tokyo. But the city is definitely worth a visit. If you’re planning a trip to Japan, you must include Osaka on your itinerary.
The locals are known for their warm hospitality and locals will tell you that Osaka is one of the most laid-back cities in the country.
If you love Japanese food, you’ll find your personal foodie paradise in Osaka. After all, the city is considered the “Kitchen of Japan” and home to the best food scene in the country.
In addition, there are great shopping streets, museums, galleries, amusement parks and of course some really great sights.
Osaka’s unofficial motto is kuidaore, which means eat until you drop. So do just that! Not only explore the unique sights, but eat your way across the menu in Osaka.
Hiroshima is located in the west of the island of Honshu and is the capital of the Hiroshima Prefecture of the same name.
The historical development of Hiroshima was predominantly influenced by the atomic bombing in 1945. But before the city had to suffer this heavy attack, Hiroshima was even Japan’s seventh largest city in terms of population.
In 1593, the Hiroshima-jo castle was built by Mori Terumoto in the Ota River estuary. After some time, the entire settlement area around the castle was given the same name.
In 1945, the first atomic bomb used in the war was dropped on Hiroshima by the U.S. Air Force 8:15 a.m. (local time). An event that made the city make sad world history. The destructive power of the bomb was great and reduced almost everything in a radius of about two kilometers to rubble.
After its complete destruction, the city was lavishly rebuilt as the largest city in the Chugoku district starting in 1949; and this despite predictions that the city would never be habitable again. Now, more than 1 million people live in Hiroshima.
Historical monuments such as Hiroshima Castle and the Shukkei-en Garden have also been reconstructed. In addition, the large Peace Park was built in the center of the city to commemorate the victims of the atomic bombing.
The largest city on the southern Japanese main island of Kyushu is the city of Fukuoka, which has a population of around 1.5 million. It is located in Hakata Bay and is divided into seven municipal districts.
The region of Kyushu was early a traffic junction as a connection to the Asian mainland. Rice was grown as early as the 4th century BC and the people living here at that time lived mainly from fishing and trade. The port was probably built around 1161 and the Zen temple Shofuku-ji, which still serves as a place of meditation, was the first in Japan. Due to the attack of Mongolian warriors, a 20 kilometer long stone wall was built, remains of which can still be found in places today. The renewed attack of the Mongols was weakened by a typhoon, it is called the wind of the gods and has gone down in the history of the country.
Modern Fukuoka combines modern buildings with ancient shrines, temples, ruins and monuments. 234 meters high is the Fukuoka Tower, built in 1989. It is the tallest coastal tower in Japan and offers visitors the opportunity to enjoy a panoramic view of the city from a height of 123 meters. Another special feature is Ohori Park, which is one of the most famous parks in Japan and has a pond with a circumference of 2 kilometers. The Sumiyoshi Shrine, the Shofuku Temple or the Hakozaki Shrine are some possibilities for visitors to get to know the ancient culture of the country.
Nagoya is a Japanese metropolis and port city at the same time. It has a population of around 2.3 million and is located in the Japanese prefecture of Aichi on Honshu. Its population makes it the fourth largest industrial center in the country after Tokyo, Yokohama and Osaka.
As early as the Middle Ages, Nagoya was a commercial center and also the capital of Owari Province. The ruler Oda Nobunaga, who was born in Nagano Castle in 1534, shifted the center of power in central Japan by moving to Kiyosu Castle. Only a small number of buildings dating from this period survived the war.
Most were completely destroyed in May 1945, and the castle was rebuilt in 1959. The castle tower is famous for its gilded shachi about 2 meters high at the gable ends. The Tokugawa Art Museum exhibits the cultural treasures of the Owari branch of the Tokugawa family. This is an important collection of art from all cultural periods, including many national treasures.
Today, Nagoya Castle is still a popular attraction, even though it has only been partially rebuilt. Those visiting Nagoya can visit the Atsuta Shrine, visit the Tokugawa Art Museum or admire works of art at the Nagoya City Art Museum.
One of the most exciting Japanese metropolises between tradition and modernity is the port city of Kobe. The metropolis is located not far from Osaka and has one of the most important seaports in Japan. International maritime trade has made Kobe a rich city that is very modern and multicultural. The international flair of the city on the island of Honshu adds to the charm of the metropolis, as do many traditional Shinto shrines and modern harbor buildings. The skyline at the harbor is dominated by buildings such as the Kōbe Port Tower or the Maritime Museum Complex.
The modern Harborland with the Kobe Tower is ideal for strolling in the evening hours. A great view over the seaport can be enjoyed from restaurant ships. The cultural offerings of Kobe are diverse and range from the Maritime Museum in Meriken Park to the Kobe Water Science Museum and the Kōsetsu Museum of Art.
The city is best known as a Japanese stronghold for jazz with numerous clubs. Among the masterpieces of engineering in Kobe is the Akashi-Kaikyō Bridge, one of the largest suspension bridges in the world, connecting seaside Kobe with the city of Awaji. The spiritual flair is provided by temples and shrines such as Nofuku Temple. It is famous for its giant Buddha statue.
In addition to breathtaking nature, you will also find lively cities on Hokkaido. The largest city on the island and the fifth largest in Japan is Sapporo in the western corner of Hokkaido. Inhabited by nearly two million people, the city became famous because the first Winter Games in Asia were held here in 1972. One sight in Sapporo of which the inhabitants are particularly proud is the clock tower.
In addition, you get the concentrated charge of culture and history here, for example, in the Historical Village of Hokkaido or the Sapporo Beer Museum. It is also striking how green the city is: parks such as the Takino Suzuran Hillside National Park or the Moerenuma Park invite you to extensive walks and relaxing hours.
Although the blossoming of the many flower fields in spring and summer is of course simply spectacular, a trip to Japan in winter is also worthwhile. That’s when a whimsical event takes place in Odori Park: the Yuki Matsuri, better known as Sapporo’s Snow Festival. Since 1950, giant sculptures have been sculpted from snow and ice, like landmarks from all over the world. Hundreds of thousands of onlookers who visit the snow festival don’t want to miss out on this fun.
The Japanese metropolis of millions, Yokohama is a vibrant port city where visitors can admire many sights. Located about 30 kilometers south of Tokyo, Yokohama was the first port city to open up to Western trading companies from the mid-19th century after centuries of Japan’s isolation. Due to the favorable location near Tokyo and the port on the south coast, many foreigners settled here. To this day, Yokohama is a multicultural metropolis in Japan, offering many interesting neighborhoods and sights. At the old docks, the business district Minato Mirai 21 has been developed since the 1980s. The skyline with skyscrapers like the Landmark Tower is impressive. Attractions such as the Ferris wheel and the Yokohama Art Museum have opened here. The Landmark Tower has been the city’s landmark since the reclamation of the harbor area.
Yamashita Park is located at the port, where you have a great view over the gigantic port of the economic and industrial metropolis. Motomachi with its large shopping street is popular with tourists. In this district you can find numerous cafes, restaurants and boutiques. Motomachi has always been known as a multicultural area, where mainly Western visitors go shopping and dining.
Chinatown is also a tourist attraction. The Chinese have been established as workers and trading partners through the port. In the Chinese quarter, with about 30,000 Chinese, you can find well over two hundred restaurants. On Sundays, Kishine Park in the northeastern Kōhoku-ku district is popular with locals and tourists alike, among others.
Takayama is a picturesque city at the foot of the Japanese Alps. With good visibility, you can enjoy a wonderful panorama of the mountain range, which is over 3,000 meters high. Takayama has retained much of the architectural charm of the past.
Visit the old provincial administration, which offers interesting insights into everyday culture and society under the Tokugawa shogunate. As you stroll through the old town, you’ll see sake breweries, miso stores, and quaint streetscapes. The city is famous for the Takayama Festival each spring and fall, which features parades with magnificent gilded floats and puppet shows.
The spa town of Matsumoto in Nagano Prefecture, with its 16 spas, is an optimal place for recreation and departure for trips to the Japanese Alps. It is known for its magnificent hiking trails through the Alpine National Park. The mountain town is a true paradise for all nature lovers and active vacationers.
Matsumoto is also home to the “Crow Castle”. Probably the most beautiful preserved castle in Japan, it was built in the 16th century as a fortification. Follow in the footsteps of the samurai at Matsumoto Castle, whose original wooden structure has been preserved to this day. From there you have a stunning view in any season.
The old Japanese capital is not considered the “cradle of culture” for nothing and is characterized by numerous temples and shrines worth seeing. Historically significant buildings are quite normal in the Buddhist center of Japan and Nara transports guests from all over the world into a world where tradition and modernity play an equal role and are very evident in the cityscape.
The ruins of the Heijo Palace, for example, are among the significant sights of Nara. The artfully designed temples also exude an exotic and extraordinary atmosphere. Discover the cradle of Japanese culture and get to know Nara with its charming historical buildings and many cultural testimonies.
Temples and shrines can be found just like ruins of temple complexes in Nara and make the city a popular travel destination in Japan. The old capital of Japan inspires with the ruins of the Heijo Palace, but also the Nara Park is worth seeing and is a scenic highlight.
This park in Nara is best known as the habitat of the imposing Sika deer, which you can observe during your stay in the park. The deer are considered messengers of the gods in Japan and are so tame that they can be fed and petted during a visit.
Sendai is a modern Japanese coastal city. While it is bordered by water on one side, the mountains lie on the other, giving the landscape a certain charm.
As early as 1889, the responsible Miyagi Prefecture designated the city by the sea as its capital. A century later, this designation was taken as an opportunity to make Sendai a “major city by government decree.” In the 19th century, the bustling city was already a center of cultural, political and economic life. It became a trading hub. Special emphasis was placed on education and knowledge, and today there are two universities in the versatile city.
The original foundation of the city as the capital of its region was made by the feudal ruler and excellent swordsman Date Masamune. He had castle and palace buildings built on a hill 100 meters above the city. That is why the complex was called “Castle of Green Leaves” (Aobajo). Its ruins can still be seen today. Masamune was buried in the Zuihoden Mausoleum, which was built in the splendid and ornate style of the Momoyama period. If you visit it, you will find another museum next to it with items from the personal and family circle of the ruler who is still highly revered today.
Sendai, the largest city in today’s Tohoku region, has many religious and cultural attractions to offer in addition to numerous green spaces. In this vibrant business center, the Sendai Mediatheque stands out as an absolute novelty. The architecture of the Japanese Toyo Ito is expressed here in all its innovation and artistry.
The city is situated in a picturesque sea bosom, surrounded on all sides by the mountains. For a long time Nagasaki was a single port city, through which the connection with Europe was maintained.
In 1945 a real tragedy fell upon the city, it became a victim of bombardment. Most of the city was destroyed, the explosion killed 25 thousand people. Thanks to the fact that the city is located in a hilly area, the effect of the explosion wave was somewhat mitigated. Nowadays, in the epicenter of the explosion there is a monument under the name of “the Caller to Peace”. In the northern part of the city there is still a memorial ensemble – the Peace Park and the nearby Museum of the Atomic Bombing.
Since the city has always been connected with European countries, they have directly influenced its culture and way of life. Nowadays Nagasaki is often called the most European city in the country. The western part of the city really resembles a modern European district, even the buildings here are far from being characteristic of Japan. The most peculiar building of this district is Villa Glovera, once a rich English merchant lived here. On the other hand, the central part of Nagasaki looks more like a Chinese quarter. A few centuries ago a Chinese community lived here, and nowadays the main architectural monuments are some temples from the 17th century. The gourmets will definitely like the small Chinese restaurants located in this district. Every year on the territory of the “Chinese” district takes place the Dragon Parade – an exciting fairy-tale festival.
A rather tranquil small town with a great past set against a stunning scenic backdrop: Even today, the cultural monuments in Kamakura bear witness to its history and to the fact that Kamakura was once of greater importance. Explore the various cultural monuments in the city on the Pacific Ocean and experience the contrasts between this city and the mega-metropolis Tokyo – a strong contrast, which you will surely encounter more often in Japan. Besides the famous wood carvings, the Buddhist temples and shrines of Kamakura are also worth seeing and represent important cultural monuments in Japan.
A point of attraction for locals and guests in Kamakura today is the beautiful beach, which invites you to a relaxing stay. In addition to the beautiful sandy beach, Kamakura also has an impressive location that directly catches the eye. South of the city is the sea, but in the other directions rise the mountains, which are also home to many temples and shrines. Thus, Kamakura has a unique scenic location, which, in addition to the various cultural attractions, contributes to the popularity of the ancient city in the east of Japan.
The capital of Nagano Prefecture, located on the main island of Honshu, is also called Nagano. The Shinkansen bullet train connects the city with the cities of Takasaki and Tokyo.
Nagano has a population of more than 375,700. Nagano has a silk industry, mechanical engineering, woodworking, and universities and colleges.
From the 8th century, the present city of Nagano developed into the temple suburb around Zenko-ji. In 1897 it received the city charter. Nagano has been the site of Winter Olympics, Winter Paralympics and Special Olympics. Among the sights in Nagano are Zenko-ji temple and Togakushi shrine. A fondly regarded part is Tsumago-juku, the classic postal town, which is well preserved due to the dedication of its residents. Parts of Nakasendo Road still have the original cobblestones. The road is 8 kilometers long and can only be explored on foot.
Those who visit Nagano or the region can especially experience a great variety of different landscapes. There are large forests in the region, which are worth a trip at any time of the year.
One of the most important cultural sites and UNESCO World Heritage Site in eastern Japan is Nikkō, located not far from Tokyo. The city is the entrance to Nikkō National Park, famous for Toshogu, one of Japan’s most richly decorated shrines.
The mausoleum of Tokugawa Leyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, is also worth visiting, along with many other World Heritage sites. The center of Shinto and Buddhism is located in the middle of a picturesque, mountainous landscape and offers not only cultural sights but also some natural experiences. The area around Lake Chuzenji, for example, is known for its beautiful colors in autumn.
Kanazawa is a pleasant large city on the Sea of Japan. It is also the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture. The big city is touristy, but it also has quiet corners where relaxing is possible. High mountains and nature are a part that surrounds the city and gives it the beauty with which it enchants its visitors. Kanazawa is called “little Kyoto” for a good reason. First-class views from the top and into the open nature are possible from the city.
Besides, the following fact is very interesting for nature lovers: Kanazawa is home to one of the most beautiful gardens in the entire country. Vacationers can find action and relaxation here, they can stroll through the garden or even find whole districts with traditional houses, which used to be pleasure districts.
Urban flair and country idyll, all this awaits vacationers in Kanazawa in abundance. Tradition (old, traditional Japanese houses) meets the most modern architecture of public buildings. Green and concrete, steel and buds, all these are parts and ingredients of the wonderful city of Kanazawa.
For example, one of the absolute sights in Kanazawa is the ancient Kanazawa Castle. It is no longer preserved in its original form. The replica is definitely worth seeing.
Tokyo has been the capital of Japan since 1868 and is the cultural, economic and political center of the country. With almost 9 million inhabitants, it is the most populous city in Japan, located in the east on the main island of Honshu on Tokyo Bay, which opens up to the Pacific Ocean. The city is dominated by skyscrapers, highways and high-rise housing estates – but in between there are always small wooden houses. The Meiji Shrine, one of Japan’s most important pilgrimage destinations, is worth seeing. Or the magnificent Ginza shopping street, Tokyo’s chic shopping mile with its elegant stores. The district around the Imperial Palace is known as the center of the city. The palace itself is only open to the public twice a year. Those who like it quieter should visit, for example, the Inner Garden of the Meihi Shrine, which is famous for its irises. Especially in June, when this is in full bloom. And the Akasaka district is traditionally a geisha stronghold. By the way, you can get a fantastic overview of the city from the 634m high Tokyo Skytree.
Covering an area of 1,219 square kilometers, the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park spreads out around the volcano Fuji, which stands in the center. Numerous hiking trails with different levels of difficulty invite you to marvel at the magnificent flora and fauna, while the five lakes in the park are ideal for a leisurely boat trip. The recreation area is also known for its thermal baths, so-called onsen, which are filled by hot springs and provide relaxation after a long day in nature.
In addition to the city of Hakone, the Izu Peninsula and the Izu Islands form other parts of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, which provides a special picture motif due to its natural and very varied landscape. Since 1936, this piece of nature, which belongs to the prefectures of Yamanashi, Tokyo, Kanagwa and Shizuoka, has been one of Japan’s national parks.
Hakodate, the southernmost major city of Hokkaidōs, shares its new Shinkansen station with the smaller town of Hokuto.
The fact that Hakodate is surrounded by sea on three sides is also reflected in the menus of the numerous restaurants: sushi and sashimi are particularly fresh here. The main ingredient of the regionally popular Ishikari Nabe stew is salmon.
Viewed at night from Mount Hakodate-Yama, the city lights lie in the dark velvet of the bay like a thousand embroidered pearls. Experts rated Hakodate’s breathtaking interplay of urban atmosphere and immersion in the rugged nature of the north as outstanding as the night views of Hong Kong or Naples.
Visitors can make the climb to the top of the 334-meter-high mountain in just three minutes using the comfortable cabin lift from the city center.
The secret of Japan’s first Western-style defensive fortress is also revealed to visitors from above. Goryōkaku, built under the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868) from 1855, does not rise to the sky as a pagoda castle with many gables: instead, the complex spreads out in the shape of a five-pointed star. This design originated in Europe in the 15th century to ward off cannon attacks. This strategic advantage was of no use to the samurai. Despite the fortress, they failed against the modern weapons of foreign countries.
Today, the site delights its visitors as a sprawling resort with wide moats and many trees – a must-see especially during cherry blossom season.
Himeji is a city that is truly worth visiting. It is located in the Harima Plain and just under 10 km from the Seto Inland Sea. It is a city of Hyogo Prefecture and is located between Okayaman and Köbe. It is a large city with a population of about 470,000. Himeji was heavily destroyed during World War II and had to be rebuilt. In addition to numerous, historic temples, the city offers a very special and unusual attraction. When you enter the train station at the north exit, you will see a large clock with the Bremen Town Musicians on it.
A very special sight is the White Heron Castle. It is located in a beautiful park, on the outskirts of the city above the edge of the forest. The park itself is famous because of the cherry festival that takes place there. It consists of 83 buildings, which have a white exterior facade.
The first buildings were built during the reign of the Muromachi clan and was completed in the 17th century. It is a highly developed fortification and has a spiral ground plan. The castle has been used as a backdrop in famous movies. White Heron Castle is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most beautiful castles in the country.
Matsue is the capital of Shimane Prefecture and is attractively located on the eastern shore of Lake Shinji. Due to its location between Lake Shinji and Lake Nakaumi and the Sea of Japan, Matsue is also called “the water city”. Among the sights of Matsue, the Matsue Castle (built 1606-1611) is the most important. Furthermore, Matsue is also an ideal starting point for visiting the Shinto shrine “Izumo Taisha” as well as the Adachi Museum of Art with one of Japan’s most beautiful landscape gardens.
In the northeast of Kyushu, you’ll find Beppu, a major city known primarily for its hot springs. With over 3,700 hot springs, Beppu is a true mecca for bathers from all over the world.
You can hardly avoid a visit to a traditional onsen, as the hot springs are called in Japan. Often, accommodations even offer small, private pools so that you can step directly from your room into the warm water and swim there undisturbed. These accommodations are called ryokans, and their particularly traditional charm will immerse you in Japanese history dating back to the 8th century.
The Tottori Sand Dunes stretch for a total length of about 16 kilometers along the beach of the Sea of Japan. They reach as far as the vicinity of the prefectural capital of the same name, Tottori, from where you can plan wonderful excursions into this impressive terrain. The dunes reach heights of up to 50 meters and offer unique views of the Sea of Japan and the hilly green land behind the dunes.
Almost directly adjacent to the sand dunes is the densely populated prefectural capital of Tottori, from which the prefecture takes its name. Tottori has nearly two hundred thousand inhabitants.
Besides the ruins of Tottori Castle, which once served as the Ikeda clan’s seat of power over the city and surrounding area, Tottori City offers more. Several shrines invite visitors to explore Japanese tradition, and Ochidani Park shows its colorful side, especially in autumn. If you make it to Tottori City in the summer, don’t miss the Shan-Shan Festival, which features the traditional “Bon Odori” dance.