When you visit Japan, where would you like to go first? The first cities that pop up in your mind are probably the classic Kyoto or the modern Tokyo, right? While these two cities are absolutely a must-see when you are visiting Japan, there are many more beautiful and attractive cities in Japan than those two. This article presents and introduces you to wonderful cities in Japan, from those in the north to those cities located in the south of Japan! Most of these cities can be reached by the superfast Shinkansen trains. Riding the so-called bullet trains is a must do when travelling in Japan. International tourists can ride these trains for an advantageous travel pass called the Japan Rail Pass. With this pass you hop on and off most of the JR trains, including the Shinkansen, for a designated period of time.
Keep that in your mind, let’s dive into the most beautiful cities in Japan!
- 1. Otaru (Hokkaido)
- 2. Aomori (Aomori)
- 3. Sendai (Miyagi)
- 4. Aizu Wakamatsu (Fukushima)
- 5. Tokyo (Tokyo)
- 6. Yokohama (Kanagawa)
- 7. Kamakura (Kanagawa)
- 8. Kyoto (Kyoto)
- 9. Kobe (Hyogo)
- 10. Himeji (Hyogo)
- 11. Kurashiki (Okayama)
- 12. Hiroshima (Hiroshima)
- 13. Hakata (Fukuoka)
- 14. Nagasaki (Nagasaki)
- 15. Naha (Okinawa)
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1. Otaru (Hokkaido)
Hokkaido, the northern land of Japan, is known as the kingdom of dairy farming, seafood and the best snow in winter. Hokkaido is the largest out of the 47 prefectures of Japan and it is home to some beautiful national parks, remote mountains but also one of the best historical cities of Japan; Otaru! A small but very beautiful harbor city is located in the central part of Hokkaido, right next to the prefectural capital Sapporo. It is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Hokkaido and can be visited on a day trip from Sapporo. A local train will take you to Otaru from Sapporo in about 30 minutes. One of the most famous tourist spots in Otaru is the beautifully preserved canal district . The river calmly flows along the streets lined with brick buildings which makes you feel as if you are in Europe! At night, the beauty of Otaru is even greater, making it a romantic place to go on dates. The city hosts a winter festival every February, The Otaru Snow Light Path Festival, during which the streets are illuminated by glittering lanterns and small snow statues are popping up everywhere.
2. Aomori (Aomori)
Aomori Prefecture is the northernmost prefecture of Honshu. The namesake capital Aomori City is one of the largest cities in the prefecture with a population of about 290,000. Aomori is known as a major producer of apples in Japan, and many varieties of apples are being grown there. One must-see place when visiting Aomori is Nebuta Museum Wa Rasse. At the museum, the lanterns used in the Nebuta Festival (a major annual festival), are always on display throughout the year. The flamboyant and glittering decorations overwhelm all who see them, and are definitely a photogenic moment. Aomori Prefecture is home to a number of stunning natural places like Oirase Gorge and the Mutsu Bay area, but also the beautiful Hirosaki Castle.
3. Sendai (Miyagi)
Continue the beautiful Sanriku coastline south, an amazing road trip, and you will reach Sendai, a large city in Miyagi Prefecture in the Tohoku region of Japan. The city is known as the City of Trees due to its many natural green plants. Sendai has a population of about 1.1 million and is full of attractive sightseeing spots. It was the city located closest to the epicentre of the Great Tohoku Earthquake in 2011, but fortunately the city was not damaged badly. Sendai is famous for Date Masamune, the great general of Miyagi Prefecture, who is still a great pride for all Sendai citizens. For this reason, there are many places in Sendai that are related to Date Masamune.
Zuihoden is a must-visit spot when you come to Sendai. It is a mausoleum built in 1636 by order of Date Masamune a year after he passed away at the age of 70. What is noteworthy is the opulence of the building. The colorful and delicate decorations will take your breath away.
4. Aizu Wakamatsu (Fukushima)
At the heart of Fukushima Prefecture, also in the Tohoku region of Japan, Aizu Wakamatsu is a historically important castle town. Encircled by mountains, Aizu Wakamatsu City, the city is known as land of the samurai and has a long and deep connection to Japan’s samurai culture. Nowadays it has a population of about 116,000 people but you won’t find any samurai around.
Aizu Wakamatsu is also known for its traditional handicraft of Aizu lacquerware with the iconic contrast of red and black, a perfect souvenir when you visit there. Tsuruga Castle is the biggest tourist attraction in Aizu Wakamatsu City. The five-story castle tower offers panoramic views of the valley in which Aizu Wakamatsu is located, exceptionally beautiful in spring when the sakura trees on the castle ground are in full bloom.
5. Tokyo (Tokyo)
Tokyo, the center of Japan, is by far Japan’s largest city and also the world’s largest city in terms of population. When you come from overseas to Japan for your travels chances are high you will first go to Tokyo. Tokyo has a very well-developed transportation network that is easy to use. If you get a JR Pass or other (multi) day passes for trains and buses, you will definitely be able to enjoy yourself for days on end. Some of Tokyo’s highlights include the traditional Asakusa, Tokyo’s highest observation deck Tokyo Skytree and the famous Shibuya Crossing.
6. Yokohama (Kanagawa)
Located just 30 minutes south from Tokyo, Yokohama is a large city in Kanagawa Prefecture. Nowadays, the population is about 3,800,000, a small port town which used to have only 600 populations became famous worldwide, and many tourist attractions are waiting for you there. Yokohama is famous for the Red Brick Warehouse, a major commercial facility which has a popular Christmas market each year. Also Yokohama is home to Japan’s largest Chinatown, Yokohama Chukagai, which also claims to be ‘the world’s best Chinese food spot outside of China. Other must visit spots in Yokohama are Sankeien Garden, the CUPNOODLES MUSEUM and the bar hopping area Nogecho.
7. Kamakura (Kanagawa)
If you want to be surrounded by the historic atmosphere, you should definitely go to Kamakura, also located in Kanagawa prefecture. Kamakura, with a population of about 172,000, is dotted with many shrines and temples where you can experience the history of Japan. Kamakura is worth a one day visit from Tokyo or Yokohama, or even a weekend trip. The temples and shrines, numerous hiking trails and the overall traditional atmosphere in combination with the easy access from Tokyo make Kamakura a very popular tourist destination. Komachi-dori street near Kamakura Station is lined with many stores selling souvenirs for Kamakura, so don’t forget to drop by!
8. Kyoto (Kyoto)
No list of the best cities in Japan would be complete without the former capital city; Kyoto. Kyoto is one of the most famous tourist destinations in Japan and for good reason. Kyoto is like an open air museum, with beautiful, interesting and/or historical spots around every corner. Luckily the country was largely spared during WW2 and so there are many attractive sightseeing spots with a long history to visit such as Kiyomizudera, the symbol of Kyoto, Kinkakuji Temple, Ginkakuji Temple, and Nijo Castle. Of course, the famous Geisha district of Gion is a must visit together with the bamboo forest in Arashiyama and the torii gates of Fushimi Inari.
9. Kobe (Hyogo)
Kobe is a fashionable city in the southern part of Hyogo Prefecture in the Kansai region of Japan. Kobe City, with a population of about 1,511,000, is known as a port city like Yokohama. It is also known as the city of Kobe beef, the best quality and most expensive wagyu beef in Japan. One of the highlights (literally) in Kobe is the night view. The city view of Kobe by night that can be seen from Hachimaki observation deck on Mt. Rokko is truly spectacular and breathtakingly beautiful.
10. Himeji (Hyogo)
Himeji is another city, located in Hyogo Prefecture in the southwestern part. The city is most famous for the impressive Himeji Castle which towers over the city and can be seen from the Shinkansen. Himeji Castle is widely considered to be the most beautiful castle in Japan and a designated UNESCO world heritage site. Himeji Castle is also known as Shirasagi-jo (White Egret Castle), since the castle is as white and beautiful as an egret. In spring, beautiful cherry blossoms bloom under the castle, and the contrast between the pink cherry blossoms and the elegant white castle delights the eyes of each visitor every year.
11. Kurashiki (Okayama)
Kurashiki, in Okayama prefecture is in the southeast of the central region of Japan, on the Seto Inland Sea. Kurashiki City is a fantastic city blessed with water and a well preserved canal district that dates back to the Edo Period. It is also regarded as the gateway city to Seto Ohashi Bridge that connects Honshu and Shikoku regions to each other. The picturesque city is famous for its small rivers lined with weeping willow trees. Boatmen take tourists on a slow tour of the historic streets of Kurashiki, a fantastic way to experience the Water City of Okayama.
12. Hiroshima (Hiroshima)
Continuing further south to Hiroshima prefecture in the Chugoku region of Japan, you will find the popular Hiroshima City. Hiroshima is known as the peace city and the location where the first atomic bomb was dropped in WW2. Beautifully located, surrounded by a mountain range and the sea, this city is worth a trip. You can learn all about the tragic event that meant the start of the end of WW2 at the Hiroshima Peace Park and see the one building that survived the atomic bomb. If you are going to visit Hiroshima, don’t miss the Shukkeien Garden, a Japanese garden with a history of more than 400 years, Hiroshima Castle and the famous floating torii gate of Miyajima.
13. Hakata (Fukuoka)
As a great northern city of Kyushu, Hakata is the largest metropolis in Fukuoka Prefecture. With a population of about 253,000, Hakata is a must-see tourist place when visiting the Kyushu region. It has an outstanding reputation as one of the best gourmet spots in Japan with many local delicacies such as Hakata Ramen, Mentaiko (spicy and salted pollock roe), and Motsunabe (giblet hotpot). The Hakata Station is lined with food stalls called yatai. A must-visit place in the land of gastronomy is Canal City Hakata, the largest shopping complex in Fukuoka. It is only a 15-minute walk from Hakata Station. There are a variety of stores, a theater, a movie theater and restaurants to enjoy all day long. The fountain in front of Canal City is a must-see, and fountain shows are sometimes held there.
14. Nagasaki (Nagasaki)
Surrounded by large and small islands in the northwestern part of Kyushu region, Nagasaki prefecture had long prospered as a trading center with the Netherlands and Portugal during the Edo period. Nagasaki was one of the two cities that were hit by the atomic bombs, together with Hiroshima. The fascinating city is located by the sea and known for its exotic cityscape. One of the most famous tourist attractions in Nagasaki is Glover Garden, built by Thomas Blake Glover, an Englishman who came to Nagasaki from Shanghai for trade purposes in 1859. It is the oldest wooden Western-style building in Japan and is designated as an Important Cultural Property. Glover Garden sits on top of a hill from where you can enjoy a panoramic view of Nagasaki City.
15. Naha (Okinawa)
In the southernmost part of Japan, the tropical islands of Okinawa are a popular weekend getaway. The main island Okinawa is the largest resort island in Japan and Naha is the largest city on the island. In Okinawa you can fully enjoy a beautiful emerald-colored, crystal-clear sea and the tropical atmosphere. One of the most popular sightseeing spots in Naha is Kokusaidori, the busiest street in Okinawa. Here you can get a variety of goods from local food to souvenirs. After being healed by the Okinawan sea, you can have a fun shopping time there.
Here we introduced 15 of the best cities to visit in Japan, from north to south. Each has its own unique culture, food and hotspots. Did you find any places that you would like to visit? Hopefully these cities will contribute to making your itinerary for your visit to Japan!
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Mao Goto is a Japanese freelancer who was born in Hayama, Kanagawa prefecture, and raised in Tokyo. Since 2016 she lives in the Taito Ward, home to a lot of Japanese culture hotspots such as Asakusa, Akihabara, and Ueno. She has been interested in the field of English education of Japan and got her Master’s degree in March, 2020. A lover of photography, travel, sweets, and cross-stitch. Contact her via Facebook.
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