Last Updated on July 15, 2021 by queenie mak
Japan is one of the best countries to travel alone for the first time. As the 9th safest country in the world, Japan has many things to do. From metropolitan cities to rural villages and places off the beaten path, there is something for everyone.
I’ve been to Japan many times and can honestly say it is one of my favourite countries. In this post, I put together a list of the best cities to visit in Japan for anyone who has never been to Japan before. I hope this list will inspire you to create your perfect Japan itinerary.
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What you need to know before visiting Japan
Before you visit take your first trip to Japan, take a look at my post on everything you need to know before going to Japan. I included a lot of travel information, including how to get around Japan and other travel tips.
Here are few quick tips for travelling to Japan on your own:
- Get an IC Card, a rechargeable smartcard that allows you to take public transportation, including trains, bus, subway, streetcars and ferries. You can use the same IC Card throughout your entire trip in Japan
- Instead of exchanging Japanese Yen (¥) at home, take cash from ATMs at convenience stores like Family Mart and 7-Eleven while you are in Japan
- Either buy a SIM card when you arrive or rent portable pocket wifi before your trip to Japan so you can stay connected at all times
- If you are travelling solo in Japan for a few weeks, consider buying a JR rail pass for 7, 14 or 21 days to save money on transportation and time
Japan: cities to visit
Wondering where to visit in Japan? I’ve travelled to Japan as a solo traveller many times, and I compiled a list of the best cities to visit in Japan for solo travellers who have never been to the country before. But the list is also useful for any travellers who want inspirations on places that they haven’t been.
So here are my 17 top cities to visit in Japan.
1. Tokyo: a first timer’s must-visit city in Japan
Tokyo is the perfect city to start your trip to Japan. As the capital city and the country’s biggest city, Tokyo has many neighbourhoods where you can explore and learn about Japanese culture and experience city life in Japan.
And if it is your first time in Tokyo, don’t miss neighbourhoods such as Shinjuku, Harajuku, Shibuya, and Omotesando, where you see all the touristy sites. And if you want to get off the beaten path, visit areas such as Kichijoji and Shimokitazawa for more of a laidback vibe.
You can get a good feel of the city if you spend about 5 days in Tokyo. It is a must-see for all types of travellers!
Best things to do in Tokyo
- Walk across the famous Shibuya Crossing, the world’s busiest intersection
- Visit many temples and shrines, including Asakusa, Gōtokuji Temple, and Nezu Shrine
- Shop at local boutique shops in Harajuku and Omotesando
- See a large-scale interactive light and art installation at teamLab Borderless
- Visit modern art museums such as 21_21 Design Sight, Mori Art Museum and Yayoi Kusama Museum
2. Hakone: traditional hot spring town
Hakone is a traditional Japanese onsen (hot spring) town in Kanagawa Prefecture. Most people will take a day trip to Hakone from Tokyo but it is worth splurging and spend a night in one of the many traditional Japanese ryokans (traditional Japanese inn with tatami-matted rooms).
Besides experiencing a natural hot spring, tour around Hakone where you can see a sulphuric volcano, cruise across a peaceful lake and hike around the rural countryside.
Best things to do in Hakone
- Experience traditional onsen accommodation by staying overnight at a Japanese ryokan
- Enjoy the art installations at the Hakone Open-air Museum
- Take the Hakone Ropeway to see the sulphuric Owakudani Valley
- Hop on the relaxing Hakone Sightseeing Cruise for a trip across Lake Ashinoko
- Hike around Lake Ashinoko and look for Hakone Shrine and Hakone Jinja Heiwa-no-Torii
3. Sapporo: gateway to the island of Hokkaido
Sapporo was once a tiny city in northern Japan. But the city grew and became famous in 1972 because of the Winter Olympics held in the city of Sapporo. Today, Sapporo is the fifth-largest city in Japan and is known for its winter attractions, beer and cuisine.
Besides skiing and other winter sports, travellers visiting northern Japan can use Sapporo as a home base and explore other parts of Hokkaido, including many different ski resorts and scenic hotspots.
And you cannot leave Sapporo without trying the local cuisine, including hairy crab, ramen, desserts made with Hokkaido milk and Sapporo Beer.
Best things to do in Sapporo
- See large-scale ice and snow sculptures at Sapporo Snow Festivals in early February
- Take a guided tour and sample beers at the Sapporo Beer Museum
- Eat fresh Hokkaido seafood at Nijo Market and Curb Market
- Go skiing at Mount Teine or Sapporo Kokusai Ski Resort
- Visit Furano and Biei Blue Pond as a day trip
4. Nagano: a winter wonderland with snow monkeys
Nagano is the perfect place to visit in Japan if you love winter sports! The resorts just outside of Nagano has excellent conditions for skiing, snowboarding and other winter activities. Some of the best places for skiing include the slopes of Hakuba, one of the Winter Olympics locations in 1998.
Another highlight of Nagano is the numerous onsens (hot springs) around the region. Notably, the hot springs in Yamanouchi are very popular with their local “residents” aka snow monkeys.
Best things to do in Nagano
- Ski or snowboard at one of the resorts just outside of Nagano City
- Visit a traditional Japanese onsen (hot spring) like Nozawa Onsen
- See snow monkeys bathe in local hot springs in Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park in Yamanouchi
- See traditional Japanese paintings at Nagano Prefectural Shinano Art Museum
- Take a day trip to see Matsumoto Castle, the oldest five-story six-floor castle in Japan
5. Takayama: explore rural countryside
If you enjoy hiking and exploring the rural countryside, then you might want to check out Takayama. The city is tucked away in the mountains in Gifu Prefecture and is the gateway to the Japanese Alps on the main island of Honshu.
Besides wandering the charming Old Town of Takayama, most visitors will visit Shirakawa-go, a UNESCO Heritage village with hundreds of thatched-roof houses. The picturesque town can be visited any time of the year but especially beautiful during winter.
And if you are visiting Takayama during the warmer months, take a hiking trip in Kamikochi, which is in the Chubu Sangaku National Park.
Best things to do in Takayama
- Wander around the historic Sanmachi Suji District in Takayama’s Old Town
- Visit the picturesque Hida no Sato, a group of thatch-roof houses
- Take a day trip to Shirakawa-go, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to see 100+ thatch-houses
- Attend Takayama Matsuri Festival on April 14/15 or October 9/10
- Hike Kamikochi and see alpine sceneries that are part of the Japanese Alps
6. Kyoto: temple hop around the old capital city
Kyoto was once the old capital of Japan and was home to several emperors. And as one of the bigger cities in Japan, Kyoto has many historical buildings and monuments including 1,600 temples!
But you don’t need to see all 1,600 temples to get a feel of the city. You can spend 2 days in Kyoto and visit a few important temples, including Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion), Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) and Kiyomizudera Temple.
And don’t leave Kyoto without seeing the famous bamboo forest and walking through hundreds of orange torii gates. And for an added bonus, you can rent a kimono or yukata in Gion and walk around the area in traditional Japanese clothing.
Best things to do in Kyoto
- Admire historical temples like Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion), Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) and Kiyomizudera Temple
- See thousands of bamboo in Arahiyama Bamboo Grove
- Walkthrough hundreds of orange torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine
- See cherry blossom in full bloom (late March to early April) at Philosopher’s Path, Maruyama Park and Kamogawa River
- Rent a kimono or yukata in Gion and see if you can spot a geisha
7. Osaka: the third-largest city with a vibrant nightlife
As the third-largest city in Japan, Osaka is one of Japan’s top-visited cities. Because of its abundance of history, vibrant nightlife and unique local cuisine, Osaka attracts millions of visitors each year!
And the city is well situated in the centre of Honshu island. Located in the Kansai Region, international travellers can fly directly into Kansai International Airport (KIX) and arrive in Osaka within an hour.
It is possible to see all the best sites in Osaka in 2 days. But if you want to stay longer, you can use Osaka as a home base for day trips to Nara, Uji, Kyoto, Himeji, and Koyasan.
Best things to do in Osaka
- See hundreds of cherry blossom trees in full bloom (late March to early April) at Osaka Castle
- Make a wish and pour water over the green moss Fudo Myo-o statue at Hozenji Temple
- See all the bright lights and signages, including the Glico Running Man in Dōtonbori in Namba
- Visit Shinsekai, an old district in Osaka with cheap eateries and entertainment
- Try a few Osaka food including takoyaki (octopus ball), okonomiyaki (savoury pancake with noodles and cabbage) and kushikatsu (deep-fried skewered food)
8. Nara: oldest Buddhist temples + friendly deers
Just outside of Kyoto and Osaka is a small quaint town called Nara. As it was the ancient capital city of Japan in 710, many Buddhist monasteries and temples were built in Nara. This is why Nara has some of Japan’s oldest and largest shrines and temples. And many of these are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
But most people visit Nara because they want to see wild deers. While you rarely see the deers in Old Nara City, you will find most of them hanging around Nara Park and other green areas on the temple grounds. And you can even buy crackers to feed the deers!
Most visitors take a day trip to Nara from Kyoto or Osaka. But if you are slow travelling through Japan, consider spending more than a day in this quaint town.
Best things to do in Nara
- Visit Tōdai-ji Temple, the world’s largest wooden building with a bronze Buddha statue
- Attend Omizutori (March 1 to 14), the oldest annual Buddhist event at Nigatsudo Hall
- Wander around Old Nara City and see local shops and residential homes
- Watch a live demonstration of the making of yomogi mochi at Nakatanidou
- Buy crackers and feed them to the friendly deers in Nara Park
9. Kobe: try the best beef in Japan
You may have heard of the world-famous Kobe beef, a type of Wagyu beef where the meat is tender and very juicy. It is from a type of Tajima black cattle raised in Hyogo Prefecture, which is where Kobe is located.
Besides trying Kobe beef in Kobe, there are many things to do in the busy port city. When you visit Kobe as a day trip from Osaka, wander around the culturally influenced districts and neighbourhoods and hike up the nearby mountains and see panoramic views of Kobe.
And if you have more time in Kobe, explore Japan’s oldest hot spring town and try the famous “Kinsen golden hot spring” where the spring water turns into a reddish-brown colour once the water touches the air.
Best things to do in Kobe
- Try a teppanyaki Kobe Beef lunch set at Steakland (cheaper at lunch)
- Visit several foreign residences in the historic Kitano-cho district
- Stroll around Kobe Harbour in the evening and see the tall and bright Kobe Port Tower
- Hike up Mount Rokko to see a panoramic view of Kobe
- Experience the famous “Kinsen golden hot spring” in Arima Onsen
10. Himeji: visit one of the top three most beautiful castles
And one of the highlights of Himeji has to be Himeji Castle. It is one of the top three most beautiful original castles in Japan. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is Himeji’s biggest attraction!
Besides, see the “white heron castle,” there are also beautiful Japanese gardens, art museums and temples hidden away in the mountains.
Himeji City is a compact city and can be visited as a day trip from Osaka. The city is only 100km west of Osaka, and if you take the Shinkansen (bullet train), you can be in the quaint city in less than half an hour.
Best things to do in Himeji
- See a view of Himeji from the top level in Himeji Castle
- Visit the traditional Japanese gardens in Koko-en Garden
- Take the Shoshazan Ropeway up to Mount Shosha and wander around the 1,000-year-old temple complex called Engyō-ji Temple
- See a large European art collection at Himeji City Museum of Art
- Try local Himeji food including menme udon (udon with raw egg) and conger eel with egg on rice
11. Naoshima: the modern contemporary Japan art island
Yayoi Kusama. Tadao Ando. James Turrell. Walter De Maria. If any of these names mean anything to you, then you must visit Japan’s best art island, Naoshima.
The small island in Kagawa Prefecture became a contemporary art centre in the 80s when Japan wanted to revolutionize the art scene and create a world-class attraction.
Today, you will find a famous polka dot art installation on the island. Yayoi Kusama’s Yellow Pumpkin became the iconic symbol for Naoshima. Some people might even call it the Naoshima Pumpkin.
Moreover, the island is full of modern architecture designed by Tadao Ando, a Japanese architect known for his modern design and concrete architecture.
As contemporary art lovers, you do not want to miss all the museums and art installations on the small island in the Seto Inland Sea. You can easily see all the art exhibits and museums on Naoshima Island in one day.
Best things to do in Naoshima
- Take photos with the famous Yellow Pumpkin and the Red Pumpkin
- See contemporary art and installations by Claude Monet, James Turrell and Walter De Maria at Chichu Art Museum
- Admire Tadao Ando’s contemporary concrete building at Lee Ufan Musem
- See permanent and temporary modern art collection at Benesse House Museum
- Get a glimpse of Tadao Ando’s ideation drawings at the Ando Museum
12. Kurashiki: a picturesque historic canal town
Kurashiki might be one of the best off the beaten path cities in Japan. Known for its picturesque canal with weeping willow trees, local distinctive architecture style, and delicious local cuisine, Kurashiki has many things to do and is a city that you should not miss!
Located in Okayama Prefecture, the charming little town was an important point along the distribution route for Japan’s most prized commodity, rice. Today, you will find many of the old rice warehouses converted into restaurants, cafes and local retail stores.
Even though Kurashiki is not as well known as other big cities in Japan, it is worth visiting especially if you enjoy the small-town charm and want to see a preserved historic town.
Best things to do in Kurashiki
- See a picturesque canal with weeping willow trees in Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter
- Hike up Tsuragatayama Hill and see an unobstructed view of Kurashiki
- Visit many temples in Kurashiki including Achi Shrine, Kanryuji Temple, and Honeji Temple
- Take note of the traditional Kurahiski houses that have an austere white-wash wall with black and white latticework patterns
- Try a blue-coloured food on Kurashiki Demin Street
13. Onomichi: gateway to Japan’s best bikeway
Onomichi is a quaint port town known for its temples, cats and cycling. Many people may not know this small town in Hiroshima Prefecture, but if you are looking for off the beaten track places in Japan, Onomich is one of the best!
While there are many things to do in Onomichi as a solo traveller, you can comfortably see everything in a day or two.
But you should set aside two days in your itinerary and cycle Japan’s best bike route, Shimanami Kaido. The 60km bikeway connects six islands in the Seto Inland Sea where you can cycle from Onomichi to Imabari. It takes a full day to cycle to Imabari and another day to cycle back to Onomichi. But if you have limited time, you can still cycle Shimanami Kaido in one day.
Best things to do in Onomichi
- See 25 temples along Onomichi Temple Walk, including Tennei-ji Temple
- Take the Senko-ji Mountain Ropeway to the top of Senko-ji Park, where you can see a view of Onomichi and cherry blossom in the spring
- Hike up Jodo-ji Mountain and see Onomichi from another angle
- Try a bowl of Onomichi ramen (soy sauce-flavoured soup stock with flat noodles) at Ramen Miyachi
- Rent a bike and bike along Japan’s best bikeway, Shimanami Kaido
14. Hiroshima: the “City of Peace”
Most travellers visit Hiroshima to see the monuments dedicated to Hiroshima’s legacy in surviving the atomic bomb during World War II. The monuments in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park are to commemorate those who were affected and to remember peace.
Besides seeing all the monuments in the “City of Peace,” Hiroshima has many things to do, including a castle, art museums, and Japanese gardens. And you can comfortably see the best attractions in Hiroshima in 2 days.
And if you are a foodie, make sure to try Hiroshima’s local cuisine, which includes oysters, conger eel, ramen and okonomiyaki.
Best things to do in Hiroshima
- Visit WWII monuments in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park including Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims, Flame of Peace, Children’s Peace Monument, and Atomic Bomb Dome.
- Admire contemporary Japanese artwork at Hiroshima Museum of Art and Hiroshima Prefectural Art Museum
- See a panoramic view of Hiroshima at Hiroshima Orizuru Tower
- Visit different miniature gardens at Shukkeien Garden
- Try local Hiroshima cuisine like Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, Hiroshima Tsukemen, oysters, and anago (eel)
15. Miyajima: best day trip from Hiroshima
If you are going to Hiroshima, then you must take a day trip to Miyajima. The small island is easily accessible from Hiroshima and you can see everything on island in one day.
The highlight of Miyajima island has to be Itsukushima Floating Torii Gate, the giant orange torii gate that seems to be floating on the water near Itsukushima Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Besides seeing the floating giant torii gate during high tide, hike up Mount Misen or take the ropeway and see a panoramic view of the Seto Inland Sea and see friendly wild deers roam around the island.
Most people will visit Miyajima and return to Hiroshima. But if you want to splurge, you can stay at one of the ryokans on Miyajima and experience Japanese hot springs in a traditional hotel.
Best things to do in Miyajima
- Admire Itsukushima Floating Torii Gate during high tide (in the morning)
- Get up close to the giant orange torii gate during low tide (late afternoon)
- Wander around Itsukushima Shrine, Momijidani Park, Daishoin Temple
- Hike up Mount Misen and see a panoramic view of the Seto Inland Sea
- Try local culinary delights such as oysters, anago meshi (conger eel), fried fishcake and momiji manju (small cake shaped in Japanese maple leaf with different fillings).
16. Fukuoka: eat your way around the city
Fukuoka is the biggest city on Kyushu Island and the 7th biggest city in Japan. And while Fukuoka has many things to do, the best highlight has to be its culinary scene.
The city is known for its Hakata Ramen or Tonkotsu Ramen. You can get a creamy pork bone broth with thin ramen noodles anywhere in the city. And since Fukuoka is udon noodle’s birthplace, you must try a bowl or two because it is oh-so-delicious!
Besides soup noodles, try other culinary delights such as motsunabe (hot pot with beef offal), mizutaki (hot pot with local jidori chicken), fresh squid sushi, mentaiko (spicy pollock roe), Hakata Amaou strawberries and wash it all down with local sake.
Most of all, try eating at one of the local open-air food stalls called yatai. There are over 150 yatai’s in Fukuoka (mostly along Nakasa River) where you can enjoy wholesome Japanese foods.
Best things to do in Fukuoka
- Try the Shiromaru Classic Hakata Ramen at Ippudo, a famous ramen restaurant in Fukuoka
- Sample other local Fukuoka delights like motsunabe, mizutaki and mentaiko
- Grab a seat at one of the yatai open-air food stalls and eat Japanese food with locals
- Visit local attractions such as Hakata Old Town, Maizuru Park, Fukuoka Asian Art Museum and Hakata Machiya Folk Museum.
- Hop on Nishitetsu Railway and spend a day in Dazaifu
17. Okinawa: a tropical paradise with white sand and crystal clear water
There are more than 150 islands in the East China Sea between Japan’s mainland and Taiwan at the south end of Japan. And one of the most famous islands is Okinawa.
Okinawa is the largest island in Okinawa Prefecture. While the island has many cultural sites and monuments, most visitors travel to Okinawa for its subtropical climate and beautiful white sand beaches with crystal blue water.
So enjoy all the water activities such as swimming, snorkelling, diving, surfing and seeing all the coral reefs in the area because Okinawa is unlike everywhere else in Japan. You’ll feel like you are in the Caribbean or Mediterranean!
Best things to do in Okinawa
- Swim in the crystal blue water and play in the white sand beaches of Okinawa
- Participate in many water sports including snorkelling and diving
- Take a scenic drive around the island of Okinawa
- See marine wildlife in the massive fish tank at Churaumi Aquarium, Japan’s largest aquarium
- Visit Shuri Castle, a royal palace when Okinawa used to be the Ryukyu Kingdom
Are you ready to visit the best cities in Japan?
Even if you are travelling in Japan alone, you can easily see all of these cities in a few weeks. It super easy to get around and safe.
I hope you find this list useful for planning your first trip to Japan, even if you are travelling in Japan alone. Let me know in the comments which cities you are interesting in visiting.