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10 Major Cities in Japan: Which One Should Top Your Bucket List?

10 Major Cities in Japan: Which One Should Top Your Bucket List?

Last updated: 14 June 2023

Once you’ve decided to explore Japan, how do you choose which major cities in Japan to see? The truth is, there is no one-size-fits-all answer; it really depends on the preferences of each individual traveler.

Do you enjoy a high-tech urban atmosphere with crowds of people or quiet solitude among nature? Would you rather shop for the hottest trends or visit historical spots? Swim among tropical fish or feed crackers to friendly deer?

Keep reading to find the perfect selection of major cities in Japan for your next travel adventure!

Top image credit: Suchart Boonyavech / Shutterstock.com

Table of Contents
  1. 1. Sapporo
  2. 2. Tokyo
  3. 3. Yokohama
  4. 4. Nagoya
  5. 5. Kyoto
  6. 6. Nara
  7. 7. Osaka
  8. 8. Kobe
  9. 9. Hiroshima
  10. 10. Okinawa
  11. Which major city in Japan will you choose to visit?
10 Major cities in Japan
10 Major cities in Japan

1. Sapporo

1. Sapporo
Quick Facts
  • Prefecture: Hokkaido
  • Recommended to travelers who like: The winter season and fresh seafood, produce, and dairy products.
  • Points of interest: Sapporo Snow Festival, Sapporo Beer Museum, Shiroi Koibito Park (cookie factory), Sapporo Factory (shopping and entertainment complex), seafood markets.
  • Famous foods: Kaisen-don (a seafood rice bowl), soup curry, Jingisukan (barbecued mutton), miso ramen, soft serve ice cream.

Of the major cities in Japan, Sapporo, in Hokkaido Prefecture, is Japan’s northernmost major city and the nation's fifth-largest overall. The chilly climate makes it the ideal destination for people who enjoy the winter season.

The city is the site of the famous Sapporo Snow Festival, an event held each February showcasing an array of marvelous ice and snow sculptures that is visited by about 2 million people each year!

Athletic types can visit the Sapporo Winter Sports Museum, which showcases the legacy of the 1972 Winter Olympics, or they can hit the slopes, skiing or snowboarding in one of the ski resorts near Sapporo. And of course, not to be missed is Sapporo’s delectable seafood cuisine, revered throughout Japan!

2. Tokyo

2. Tokyo
Quick Facts
  • Prefecture: Tokyo
  • Recommended to travelers who like: Big city thrills, the latest technology, trendy spots.
  • Points of interest: Tokyo Tower, Tokyo Skytree, Shibuya Crossing, Sensoji Temple, Meiji Shrine, Ryogoku Kokugikan (the National Sumo Hall), Otaku and Kawaii Culture Spots.
  • Famous foods: Monjayaki (pan-fried batter and various ingredients), ningyo-yaki (baked cake in the shape of a doll), kintaro-ame (a traditional candy)

Tokyo inarguably is Japan’s most well-known city. The Tokyo Metropolis is made up of 23 Special Wards, home to upwards of 35 million people. It is also known for having the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing, known as Shibuya Scramble Crossing, and what many would say is the busiest train station in the world in Shinjuku.

Tokyo also is the center of otaku culture in Akihabara with a plethora of games, anime, and electronics shops; while the Harajuku and Shibuya districts are known worldwide for their contributions to fashion and kawaii (cute) culture.

However, traditional culture is still very much alive in Tokyo, with a number of shrines and temples throughout the city as in its historical Asakusa area, festivals held throughout the year, and also the world’s largest sumo stadium.

3. Yokohama

3. Yokohama
Quick Facts
  • Prefecture: Kanagawa
  • Recommended to travelers who like: Cities by the sea
  • Points of interest: Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse, Yokohama Landmark Tower, Marine Tower, Yokohama Chinatown, Yokohama Port, Nipponmaru Memorial Park, Yokohama Museum of Art, Cosmo Clock 21 (Ferris wheel), Cup Noodles Museum, Minato Mirai 21 shopping center
  • Famous foods: Gyunabe (beef hot pot), sanma-men (Yokohama-style ramen), Spaghetti Napolitan, chuka-ryori (Chinese cuisine)

Yokohama lies south of Tokyo, on the scenic western coast of Tokyo Bay. It is known for being Japan’s first port that officially opened to foreign trade in 1859. It’s not a stretch to say that international influences have shaped Yokohama’s character, from the city’s signature brick architecture to the famous Yokohama Chinatown that was formed by Chinese immigrants who settled in the 1800s.

Kanagawa is the city with the second largest population in Japan. Visitors to Yokohama can take in a scenic harbor view via waterbus or atop the iconic Ferris wheel, as well as enjoy various museums and shopping opportunities. Yokohama is also a great place to stay if looking for a change from Tokyo.

4. Nagoya

4. Nagoya
Quick Facts
  • Prefecture: Aichi
  • Recommended to travelers who like: Cars, transportation and technology
  • Points of interest: Nagoya Castle, JR Central Towers, Toyota Automobile Museum, Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology, SCMaglev and Railway Park, Asahi Beer Factory, Nagoya City Science Museum, Osu Kannon Temple, World Cosplay Summit
  • Famous foods: Miso-katsu (miso sauce pork cutlet), tebasaki (chicken wings), kishimen (a flat noodle dish), tenmusu (rice ball with shrimp tempura)

Nagoya has long been the center of Japan’s automotive and aviation manufacturing, as well as a technological hub with a growing robotics industry. Visitors can explore Nagoya’s tech-centric side by visiting the Nagoya City Science Museum, the SCMaglev and Railway Park, or either of the two Toyota museums. In recent years, Nagoya has gained international fame for being the location of the World Cosplay Summit, where cosplayers from 20 nations worldwide compete in the World Cosplay Championship and participate in one of Japan’s most impressive cosplay parades.

5. Kyoto

5. Kyoto
Quick Facts
  • Prefecture: Kyoto
  • Recommended to travelers who like: Traditional culture
  • Points of interest: Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kiyomizudera Temple, Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion), Ryoan-ji Temple, Gion (geisha district), Kyoto National Museum, Ine Town, Amanohashidate
  • Famous foods: Kaiseki ryori (multi-course Japanese haute cuisine), yuba (tofu skin), shojin ryori (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine), yatsuhashi (a cinnamon mochi confectionary filled with red bean paste or other flavors)

Kyoto was the official capital of Japan for over 1,000 years and remains one of the foremost destinations to experience traditional Japanese culture. The city has around 2,000 temples and shrines, including the “Golden Pavilion,” Kinkakuji, Ryoanji known for its zen rock garden, and Fushimi Inari Taisha, the shrine with a tunnel of 5,000 vermillion torii gates.

One of the most talked-about areas of Kyoto is the “geisha district” of Gion. While geiko (the Kyoto term for geisha) and maiko (apprentice geiko) are known for being elusive, if you are lucky, you just may encounter one of the kimono-adorned beauties taking a stroll!

Art and history lovers will also not want to miss the Kyoto National Museum, which houses over 230 designated National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties.

6. Nara

6. Nara
Quick Facts
  • Prefecture: Nara
  • Recommended to travelers who like: Culture combined with nature
  • Points of interest: The Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara, Todaiji Temple and Daibutsu (Big Buddha statue), Kasuga Taisha Shinto Shrine, Nara Park, Yoshino cherry blossom spots, Nara National Museum, Nara Park
  • Famous foods: Narazuke (Nara pickles), persimmon cuisine, Nara chameshi (rice cooked in Japanese tea), yomogi (mugwort) mochi

Nara, Japan’s very first capital, is another treasure trove of traditional culture as well as a place of natural beauty. It is the location of the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara,” which is made up of six temples and ruins, along with the Kasugayama Primeval Forest.

However, one of the things that Nara is most known for is its abundance of wild deer that roam the city freely. This is rooted in the ancient Shinto belief that deer are messengers of the gods.

Visitors have the chance to get acquainted with the local creatures by visiting Nara Park, home to hundreds of deer, who are known to bow to those feeding them their special “shika senbei” crackers. And if you want to check out Japan’s fastest mochi pounders, they are located in Nara as well at a shop called Nakatanidou.

7. Osaka

Laboo Studio / Shutterstock.com
Laboo Studio / Shutterstock.com
Quick Facts
  • Prefecture: Osaka
  • Recommended to travelers who like: An urban area with a lively character, food, and charm
  • Points of interest: Dotonbori (nightlife district), Osaka Castle, Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan, Universal Studios Japan, Kuchu Teien Observatory, Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine
  • Famous foods: Takoyaki, okonomiyaki, yakiniku, kitsune (deep fried tofu) udon, taiko manju (a baked sweet filled with azuki bean paste that is shaped like a taiko drum)

Osaka is the largest city in the Kansai region and one of the largest in Japan, but what it’s really known for is its lively and colorful character, from its distinct dialect to its cuisine that has become popular throughout Japan. Osaka is a great place to experience a unique urban atmosphere, with entertainment for both adults and kids.

Osaka has one of the world’s largest public aquariums and is home to Universal Studios Japan. And no trip to Osaka would be complete without a visit to the entertainment district of Dotonbori, with its iconic neon signboards, countless restaurants, and amusement facilities.

Osaka also has places to enjoy traditional Japanese culture and history, such as Osaka Castle, Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine, and even Bunraku puppet shows.

8. Kobe

8. Kobe
Quick Facts
  • Prefecture: Hyogo
  • Recommended to travelers who like: Eating steak by the sea after a mountain hike
  • Points of interest: Kobe Harborland, Meriken Park, Nada district sake breweries, Arima Onsen, Mount Rokko, Kobe Earthquake Memorial Museum
  • Famous foods: Kobe beef, akashiyaki, (egg batter octopus dumplings), takomeshi (octopus rice), sake

Kobe is a port city roughly 30 km west of Osaka. Just like Yokohama, it was one of the earliest cities that opened to foreign trade after Japan’s policy of seclusion officially ended. The name “Kobe” has become synonymous worldwide with the area’s high-quality Kobe beef. In fact, basketball superstar Kobe Bryant is said to have been named after the specialty!

The city also borders the Mount Rokko mountain range, which is a popular hiking spot and is next to one of Japan’s oldest hot springs, Arima Onsen. Another draw is the sake breweries in the Nada district, known for being among the best in Japan. Kobe was also one of the sites hit by the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995. The city has since become entirely rebuilt and the event is commemorated in the Kobe Earthquake Memorial Museum.

9. Hiroshima

9. Hiroshima
Quick Facts
  • Prefecture: Hiroshima
  • Recommended to travelers who like: History and places for peaceful reflection
  • Points of interest: Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, Hiroshima Castle, Shukkeien Garden, Memorial Cathedral for World Peace, Hiroshima Gokoku Shrine, Hiroshima Peace Pagoda
  • Famous foods: Oysters, Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, Hiroshima Tsukemen (a cold and spicy dipping ramen), Momiji Manju (maple leaf-shaped cakes filled with azuki bean jam)

Hiroshima is the site where the first atomic bomb was dropped in 1945. Soon after, the city was also devastated by the Makurazaki Typhoon. Despite this tragedy, Hiroshima has since been rebuilt.

Many demolished monuments were reconstructed, as well as new ones reflecting its status as a “City of Peace,” which was proclaimed by the Japanese parliament in 1949. Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park has become a symbol of this reborn city. Other worthwhile spots to visit include Hiroshima Castle and Shukkeien Garden, among many other locations dedicated to peace and harmony.

10. Okinawa

10. Okinawa
Quick Facts
  • Prefecture: Okinawa
  • Recommended to travelers who like: Beachside relaxation, watersports
  • Points of interest: Churaumi Aquarium, Sefa-Utaki (a historical sacred site of the indigenous Okinawan religion), Ocean Expo Park, Shuri Castle, Okinawa Peace Memorial, Tamatorizaki Observatory, various beaches
  • Famous foods: Goya chanpuru (a dish with bitter melon, egg, tofu, and pork), umibudo (sea grapes), Okinawa soba (wheat noodles in soup) shikuwasa citrus fruit

The last destination on our list is not actually a city! Because of its unique geography, it made sense to include Okinawa Prefecture as a whole. Okinawa is Japan’s southernmost prefecture, made up of 160 islands. It is known for its subtropical climate that is home to many rare species of plants and animals.

White sand beaches and clear, blue waters of colorful fish make Okinawa the prime place to visit for those interested in swimming, snorkeling, and scuba diving, while still exploring Japan. This collection of islands, known also by its older name, Ryukyu, have a unique culture of its own, which has been integrated into the more typically represented traditional Japanese culture.

Which major city in Japan will you choose to visit?

So have you decided which city in Japan you would like to visit? Modern Tokyo? History-rich Kyoto? All of them? Whichever place you visit, you can be assured to find treasures in just about every corner of Japan!

*This information is from the time of this article's publication.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.

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