Possibly one of the most difficult questions to answer, since Japan has so many different and amazing things to see and do, but the question of where to visit in Japan if you could only visit one place was asked to a variety of foreigners from different countries and backgrounds.
With hundreds of responses, here are some of the most popular as well as lesser-known places that people said they would visit in Japan if they could only visit one spot. We’ll start with the most common answers and work our way down to some of the most unique and lesser-known areas of Japan.
The Big Two: Kyoto and Tokyo
With almost 20% of people choosing Kyoto and 15% choosing Tokyo, the two most famous cities were not surprisingly the top choices. As the capital city of Japan, Tokyo is the most populated and the business center for Japan, many people rated it on the top of their list of places to see.
Within Tokyo, more specifically some of the stand-out places that people wanted to see were the areas of Shinjuku, Akihabara, Odaiba, and Marunouchi (where the Imperial East Gardens are). Many people hoping to visit Tokyo wanted to experience the hustle and bustle of the Shibuya intersection as well as check out famous tourist attractions like Tokyo Skytree, Tokyo Disneyland, and the teamLab Borderless exhibit in Odaiba.
Kyoto, which ranked the highest, is Japan’s old capital and the epicenter of traditional Japanese culture and history. With over 2,000 temples and shrines placed throughout the city and having 17 Historic Monument World Heritage Sites designated by UNESCO, it’s no wonder many people want to visit Kyoto.
Some of the most popular places in Kyoto visitors hope to experience are big temples like Kinkakuji and Kiyomizu as well as the Fushimi Inari shrine most commonly visited for its thousands of red torii gates all arranged along a path that leads to Mount Inari. Responders also mentioned wanting to walk the streets of Gion as well as to walk through the bamboo forest of Arashiyama.
North And South: Hokkaido and Okinawa
Two opposite places also near the top of the list were the beautiful and tropical southern island beach areas of Okinawa at 5% of responders and the mountainous and nature-filled north island of Hokkaido at 10%.
At opposite ends with completely different landscapes, cultures, food, and lifestyle, the appeal was broad but strong. Those who chose Okinawa did so based on wanting to see beautiful beach views and experience the foods and lifestyle of the Okinawa natives.
Okinawa was originally a part of the Ryukyu Kingdom until the Meiji era and brings with it a unique language, culture, and traditions.
Foods like Okinawa soba, goya chanpuru, and umi budo - sea grapes are local specialties as well as Awamori alcohol, which is unique to Okinawa and has a version that contains a viper snake.
Okinawan people are known to be healthy and have long life expectancies and Okinawa has the highest number of people over 100 years old in all of Japan. Besides the beaches, many tourists head to Okinawa to see Japan’s largest aquarium, which is one of the few aquariums around the world that houses whale sharks.
While Okinawa is the smallest of the main islands of Japan, Hokkaido is the second-largest and northernmost part of Japan. Much like Okinawa, it was also previously inhabited by indigenous people, the Ainu, before assimilating into Japan in the Meiji era.
The capital of and biggest city in Hokkaido is Sapporo, where the famous Sapporo Snow Festival is held every year in February. The festival is visited by millions of people each year and one of the biggest tourist draws to Hokkaido.
But Hokkaido has many outdoor and natural appeals that make it a popular spot for many tourists as well. Hokkaido has some of the world’s best skiing and snowboarding in areas like Niseko. Since Hokkaido is mountainous there are also many natural hot springs across the prefecture, such as Noboribetsu, which is one of the most famous hot spring resorts in Hokkaido.
And as Hokkaido has many wide-open spaces dedicated to agriculture, places such as Farm Tomita draw in crowds of international tourists who are eager to snap photos of its famous lavender flower fields.
Those who like skiing, snowboarding, camping, hiking, fishing or other outdoor activities will love Hokkaido and its lush and sometimes harsh climate and nature.
Osaka, which is the third-largest city in Japan and is located in the Kansai area of Japan, is quite popularly known for its food, fashion and friendly people. Osaka is home to Universal Studios Japan, huge underground shopping streets like Umeda, and Osaka Castle. The famous Dotonbori Street also is the culinary center of Osaka and has a variety of foods including famous Osaka foods like takoyaki and okonomiyaki.
The iconic tallest mountain in Japan is no doubt one of the places many respondents wanted to see or climb. Some wanted to see the mountain from the five great lakes that surround Mt. Fuji while others wanted to soak in hot springs located in Hakone that have a beautiful view of the mountain. And of course, some wanted to climb Mt. Fuji, which sees over 300,000 climbers each year.
Takayama is a small city in the Hida mountains of Gifu Prefecture that holds on to its preserved traditional state with ancient architecture and one of Japan’s most famous festivals, Takayama Festival, which brings in crowds of tourists who line the historic streets to watch the colorful and ornate lanterns and floats.
The streets of Takayama are also famous for a variety of craft shops, tea houses, sake breweries, souvenirs, and the famous Hida Beef. Close to the town you can experience the Hida Folk Village and Gero Onsen, both of which are much lesser-known attractions for tourists but are widely known and loved by the Japanese.
A popular destination that is easily reached within two hours from Tokyo, Nikko is also a popular choice by many who are looking for a spot that offers beautiful scenery, greenery, and a glimpse into traditional Japanese history. The colorful and ornate Toshogu Shrine, various waterfalls, wild monkeys, hiking trails and the famous Lake Chuzenji at the foot of Mount Nantai are especially popular during the fall season when the fall foliage is at its peak. Temples, shrines, traditional restaurants and shops along with the beautiful landscape make for a perfect day trip from Tokyo.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Both towns made popular by the tragic atomic bombings of World War II, these towns were rebuilt and have memorial museums and peace parks that are beautiful, educational and rich in history. Hiroshima also offers a short boat ride to Miyajima (Itsukushima) Island, a beautiful island filled with relaxing deer and the famous floating torii gate. Hiroshima is also popular for Hiroshima style okonomiyaki and oysters.
Nagasaki is also a beautiful port city that has both Japanese and Western influences as it was one of the only ports open to other countries during Japan’s time of isolation. You can find memorials, settlements and even amusement parks like Huis Ten Bosch which is created to resemble a Dutch town, and the famous Gunkanjima - Battleship Island.
Kusatsu Onsen is located in Gunma prefecture and is one of the most famous hot spring resorts in Japan. Boasting that 100% natural spring water flows from its natural source as well as being the hot spring with the most volume of free-flowing water, Kusatsu water has very high acidity and has strong antibacterial and healing properties. The hot spring resort town has a variety of hotels, restaurants, shops, a shrine, and indoor and outdoor hot springs spots.
A popular hot spring destination for both Japanese and tourists, Hakone is located near Mount Fuji along Lake Ashinoko and has a string of hotels, ryokans and hot spring resorts popular throughout the year. Some of the most popular things that people enjoy doing besides soaking in the hot springs are to take the Hakone Ropeway to get great views of Mount Fuji and Owakudani Volcano, eat onsen tamago (hot spring eggs), ride the sightseeing cruise ship along the lake and walk through the Hakone Shrine, which has as an iconic torii gate at the edge of the lake where many people line up to take stunning photos.
Beppu is a city in the Japan south island of Kyushu and is known to have eight geothermal hot spots which are why it is commonly referred to as the “eight hells of Beppu.” The appeal of Beppu comes from the variety of different types of hot springs and hot baths the city contains. There are hot springs for bathing, hot springs for viewing, mud baths and even sand baths where people are buried neck-deep in piping hot sand heated by the geothermal heat of the hot springs.
The second-largest city in Japan, close to Tokyo and famous for its vibrant Chinatown which is the largest in Japan and has over 600 shops and restaurants. Yokohama also has the popular Cup Noodle Museum and Ramen Museum as well as the popular date and shopping area, Minato Mirai, which makes it a popular spot for many couples, families, and tourists from around the world.
The mountainous prefecture that first gained notoriety when it hosted the Winter Olympics in 1998 has a variety of attractions that led some people to choose this as their go-to spot in Japan. Those interested in seeing the Japanese Alps said they would like to visit the Kamikochi mountain resort area, which is a hikers paradise as there is a wide range of valleys and summits to enjoy fabulous views of the surrounding mountains. Nagano also has a variety of hot spring towns, the famous snow monkeys, ski resorts, castles, temples and remaining Olympic facilities in Nagano city that can be visited. A good mix of nature and culture makes Nagano a popular choice for those looking to go beyond Tokyo.
Kamakura City in Kanagawa Prefecture has become one of the most popular day trip destinations because of its traditional atmosphere and closeness to Tokyo. Located about an hour south of Toyko, here you can visit a coastal town filled with shrines, temples and Kamakura’s top attraction, the second-largest bronze statue of Buddha, the Great Buddha of Kamakura. With plenty of temples and shrines to visit, Kamakura also has beaches and walking trails, as well as a large shopping street called Komachi Dori, filled with restaurants, shops, and souvenirs.
Himeji Castle, located in the city of Himeji in Hyogo Prefecture, is the largest castle in Japan and one of the few original standing castles that remains unharmed by war or disaster. Designated both a national treasure and World Heritage Site, the castle which stands on a hilltop is the most visited castle in Japan and has huge complex winding corridors as well as gardens that are popular for cherry blossoming viewing.
The capital city of Ishikawa Prefecture, Kanazawa is a historical locale that has a variety of traditional and historical spots such as Nagamachi, the samurai district, where many samurai and their families once resided. Visitors can see the preserved estates and walk the narrow alleys. Fans of Geisha will also appreciate the Higashi Chaya District which houses tea houses where Geisha performed. Kanazawa Castle and the Kenrokuen Gardens are probably the most popular attractions as the gardens are classified as one of the three most beautiful landscapes in Japan.
Off the Beaten Path
Finally, here are some places that popped up from some of the respondents but are not very popular among tourists but are definitely places worth checking out if you are the type of traveler who wants to go beyond the major tourist spots.
Miyazaki Prefecture is located on the southeast side of Kyushu Island and has a warm climate year-round making it a great place to enjoy beaches, outdoor sports, and seaside activities. Filled with shrines, local festivals and Miyazaki specialties like their sake, grilled chicken and beef, Miyazaki is a nature lover’s fantasy.
A small island located in Kagawa Prefecture, the town is picturesque and artistically designed with a variety of indoor and outdoor modern art museums, sculptures and architecture. Recently the famous artist Yayoi Kusama’s yellow pumpkin sculpture sits at the edge of Port Miyanoura as one of the iconic spots of the island.
Yamagata Prefecture is located in the northeast Tohoku region of Japan along the Japan sea and is surrounded by mountains, forests, and national parks. The winter brings many tourists to enjoy the natural hot springs and skiing which have snowy hills with trees covered in snow that resemble “snow monsters” - known as juhyo.
Noto Peninsula, which is located at the top of Ishikawa Prefecture, is an isolated and scenic escape for those who are looking for a natural adventure. With few inhabitants and public transportation being sparse, the secluded area is popular for those who are hoping to drive around and enjoy the scenery and coastlines. Although natural beauty is the main draw to this area, there are temples, shrines, historic residences, and markets to explore as well.
For those looking for a beach resort town with white sandy beaches, Shirahama which literally means “white beach” is a good choice. Located in Wakayama Prefecture, this picturesque hot spring resort is great for families as there is a famous amusement park called Adventure World as well as cliff and rock formation sites and fireworks.
With all the responses of places to visit in Japan, it was clear to see that there are so many options available when deciding on a Japanese adventure. Whether you are looking for temples and shrines, hot springs and natural beauty or modern urban neighborhoods, Japan has it all.
And unlike the people who were responding to choosing only one place, you can visit as many as you can fit into your budget and schedule!
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.
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