Where to go in Japan

When working out where to go in Japan, you first need to get your head around the fact that it has four main islands, all easily accessible by train or road. Honshu is the largest, with the capital Tokyo as its heart. The northernmost is Hokkaido, with the winter sports city of Sapporo a wonderful spot to visit any time of year. Shikoku is the smallest but sweetest, if walking trails and hot springs are your thing, and Kyushu is the southernmost, subtropical hotspot. Which are most peopleís thing.
1. Hakone
2. Hiroshima
3. Itsukushima
4. Kanazawa
5. Kurashiki
6. Kyoto
7. Matsumoto
8. Nagano
9. Nara
10. Nikko
11. Shikoku
12. Tokyo
Hakone

1. Hakone

Hakone is the mountainous region west of Tokyo, accessible by bullet train to Odawara. A trip into the mountains is so easy in Japan, with a cable car up soaring over the blue waters of Lake Ashi, to the volcanic crater of Owakudani and, on a clear day, views to Mount Fuji. Hakone is the place to take an onsen hot spring bath too.
Hiroshima

2. Hiroshima

A city with a tragic past but vibrant present. Totally obliterated by the 1945 atomic bomb, and 70,000 of its residents killed, its reconstruction into the merry metropolis that it is today became a symbol of Japan's post-war pacifism. Indeed, it is still central to the campaign to ban nuclear arms. There is a lot to take in here, but visits to the A-Bomb dome, Peace Park and Museum are extremely thought provoking.
Itsukushima

3. Itsukushima

Officially Itsukushima, this island and national park, is more well known as Miyajima, and is an hourís ferry ride from Hiroshima. Miyajima means Ďshrine islandí, with the Itsukushima Shrine at its core. Spend a night in a ryokan and watch the last day trippers go back, leaving you to enjoy the walking paths through maple and cherry with no one but the resident deer.
Kanazawa

4. Kanazawa

Pilgrims of Japanese gardens come here for the horticultural hedonism of Kenrokuen, one of Japanís top three gardens. Located in the Hokuriku region, on Honshuís west coast, it is going to pack out with visitors in 2015 when the bullet train finally comes here from Tokyo, bringing visitors to see the beautifully preserved Nagamachi samurai district and the Ninja Temple.
Kurashiki

5. Kurashiki

Unscathed by WW2 damage, this old canal town has the charm of Amsterdam, and definitely a town to cycle around too. Like Holland, you can head into the surrounding countryside by bike, through paddy rather than flower fields, past temples rather than windmills. And the historic Bikan district has cafes and shops in converted storehouses and mills to enjoy, albeit selling different wares than Amsterdamís.
Kyoto

6. Kyoto

Because itís the ancient capital, you expect to walk into a world of samurais and sentos. But Kyoto is a contemporary metropolis, grown organically out of a world of imperial palaces, fourteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as the Golden Temple of Kinkakuji and the historic district of Gion, with old wooden buildings squeezed into narrow streets, many now teahouses and restaurants. Kyoto is pure cultural chic.
Matsumoto

7. Matsumoto

Matsumoto is home to one of Japanís most famous castles, the Ukiyo-e Museum which has the worldís largest collection of the traditional art of woodblock prints and has hiking and biking delights on its doorstep. The scene of monkeys coming down from the icy mountains to warm up in the nearby Yudanaka hot spring baths is like something out of a Japanese fantasy graphic novel. But itís real.
Nagano

8. Nagano

The winter capital, host of the Winter Olympics in 1998 and main town serving the Joshin'etsukogen National Park. Combine the physical therapy of mountain air with spiritual solace, staying at the famous Zenko-ji Buddhist temple. This is a place to spend a couple of days, immerse yourself in mountain village culture, and take in the stunning landscape of this Hilda Mountain Range, aka the Northern Japanese Alps.
Nara

9. Nara

A cultural gem often upstaged by Kyoto, despite having the highest number of buildings designated National Treasures in Japan. The ancient capital of the Kensai region, its beautiful central park is a suitable home for Daibutsu, the largest Buddha statue in Japan, located in one of the largest wooden buildings in the world too. The Nara Museum of Buddhist art is also a transcendental treat.
Nikko

10. Nikko

Gateway to Nikko National Park and home to three historic temples of Toshogu, Rinnoji, and Futarasan. Toshogu is most famous for its carving of the Three Wise Monkeys, so merchandising abounds. As one of Japanís most sacred sites, Nikko can get very crowded, also drawn to its somewhat contrasting theme parks. But get away from it all on the hiking trails of the Nikko National Park.
Shikoku

11. Shikoku

The smallest of Japan's four main islands, with that exquisite combination of natural and cultural heritage complementing each other. Such as the Iyadani valleys, and along the Yoshinogawa River, with forested and coastal trails to traipse along by day, and wonderful rural hot springs to soak in at night. Such as Dogo, the Japanís oldest spa resort dating from the 8th century. It is adjoined to Honshu by road.
Tokyo

12. Tokyo

Needs little introduction, as Japanís capital, with one of the largest urban populations in the world. Take it all in from above, with fab views from the landmark Skytree, or watch life go by in Hamarikyu Gardens city park. Culture vultures will fly straight to the imperial gardens of Chiyoda, or the boutique shops and markets of Asakusa. Suckers for a shopping spree head to Ginza and Ikebukuro.

Our top Japan Holiday

Japan small group holiday, Japan unmasked

Japan small group holiday, Japan unmasked

Whistlestop Japan highlights with an expert tour leader

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Japan sample itineraries

Itinerary 1

14 day Japanese culture itinerary: Tokyo > Nagano > Matsumoto > Takayama > Kanazawa > Hiroshima > Kurashiki > Kyoto > Yokohama > Tokyo

Itinerary 2

14 day walking holiday: Tokyo > Nikko > Nikko National Park > Dewa Sanzan > Kakunodate > Tono Valley > Tokyo

Itinerary 3

16 day Shikoku Island and Kyoto holiday: Osaka > Kyoto > Shikoku Island > Tokushima > Iya Valley > Kochi > Uwajima > Matsuyama > Kotohira > Takamatsu > Naoshima Island > Osaka

Travel times in Japan

The following times give you a rough idea of the travel times between the main attractions in Japan:

    Tokyo – Kyoto: 2 hours 18 mins by fast train Tokyo – Nagasaki: 7 hours 14 mins by fast train Tokyo – Nikko: 3 hours by car Hiroshima – Itsukushima (Miyajima) Island: 1 hour by ferry Osaka – Yakushima: 1 hour 20 mins by air Kobe – Naruto, Shikoku Island: 2 hours 15 mins by car Osaka – Sapporo: 21 hours by sleeper train Twilight Express
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: coniferconifer] [Hakone: Guilhem Vellut] [Hiroshima: DXR] [Itsukushima: Richard Fisher] [Kanazawa: Japanexperterna.se] [Kurashiki: cotaro70s] [Kyoto: Andreas Dress] [Matsumoto: Steven Diaz] [Nagano: Christoph Rupprecht] [Nara: Mstyslav Chernov] [Nikko: katsuuu 44] [Shikoku: KimonBerlin] [Tokyo: Monica Silva] [Travel times in Japan: BradBeattie†]
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