Planning a trip to Japan can be overwhelming? What should you do to make the most of your limited time?
In this guide, we’re here to help you out. Heather and I spent two years living and traveling in Japan. Based on that experience, we’ve put together the following list of our favorite places to stay, eat, and see across Japan:
Our Favorite Cities and Regions
- Kyoto – Tokyo may be the capital of Japan, but Kyoto is its heart and soul. This city is full of rich history, gorgeous architecture, and unique cultural experiences.
- Kobe – A very modern, fun city with a Western vibe.
- Tokyo – Though it’s not our favorite city in Japan, you have to spend at least a couple days there when you visit. The sheer scale of it is unlike anything else.
- Hiroshima – A beautiful, peaceful city that’s full of history.
- Izu Peninsula – The Izu Peninsula is a popular place to see views of Mt. Fuji and go to the beach.
- Nagano – A popular area for skiing in the winter and for enjoying nature in the summer.
Where to Stay
- K’s House Ito Onsen – This hostel is one of our favorite places to stay in the entire world. It’s modeled after a traditional Japanese ryokan (a local, family-owned inn). As the name implies, it has an onsen, which is a natural hot spring that you can bathe in.
- Capsule hotels – A distinctly Japanese style of hotel in which you sleep in a small, enclosed bunk (capsule). Not luxurious, but very affordable.
- Internet cafes – In most countries, internet cafes are just a way to get internet access by the hour. But in addition to internet access, many Japanese internet cafes offer a place to sleep. It’s basic and not especially comfortable, but it’s a good option if you need last-minute accommodations.
- Guest House Kanalian – A lovely place to stay in the city of Yokohama.
- Hotel N.U.T.S. – A centrally located, affordable hotel in Tokyo.
- Ace Inn – Another budget-friendly place to stay in Tokyo.
- Hearton Hotel – This Kyoto hotel is reasonably priced and offers free bike rentals.
Where (and What) to Eat
- Sapporo Beer Garden – A fun place to cook your own food (mostly meats) on little cast iron grills.
- Sapporo Dominica – A place to try the signature “soup curry” of Sapporo.
- The Standing Sushi Bar – Located near Shibuya station in Tokyo, this is a great place to get mid-range sushi.
- Go to the conbini – Conbini are Japanese convenience stores, but they’re a lot nicer than the ones you’re probably used to. They’re a great place to get cheap bites to eat like onigiri (rice balls).
- Okonomiyaki – Essentially a “cabbage pancake” with the fillings of your choice, this dish is way better than it sounds. It’s a tasty thing to warm you up on a cold day, and you can find it throughout Japan.
- Takoyaki – These fried balls of dough are traditionally filled with octopus, though there are many variations available if octopus isn’t your thing.
- Yakiniku – Yakiniku means “grilled meat,” and you’ll find restaurants serving this style of food all throughout Japan. The Sapporo Beer Garden (mentioned above) is a great example.
- Ramen – If your only experience of ramen is instant ramen noodles, then you’re in for a pleasant surprise. The ramen in Japan is fresher, more complex, and available at shops across the country.
- Go to a bakery – The Japanese love French-style baked goods, and the local bakery is a great place to grab a cheap bite to eat. Trav’s favorite is a mont blanc (a sponge cake topped with creamy chestnut paste).
- Try anko and natto – If you’re on the adventurous side, be sure to give these traditional Japanese foods a taste. Anko is a red bean paste that’s commonly used as a filling for doughnuts and other pastries. Natto is a fermented soybean dish with a consistency similar to string cheese.
- Kaiten-zushi – Literally meaning “conveyor belt sushi,” this is a popular and affordable way to enjoy sushi across Japan. You sit next to a conveyor belt with plates of sushi and choose the ones you want. At the end, you’re charged based on the number of plates you get.
- Go to a traditional sushi restaurant – Sushi in Japan is so much better than anything you can get in the U.S. Traditional sushi restaurants aren’t cheap, but the experience is worth having at least once.
- Tour the Sapporo Brewery – It’s not the greatest beer in the world, but the tour is a lot of fun.
- Bike through the Gion area of Kyoto – This historic geisha district of the city is beautifully lit at night.
- Kiyomizudera – This gorgeous temple looks like a gigantic treehouse built into a mountain. One of the best places to take in views of Kyoto. Be sure to check out the shops on the walk up.
- Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine – Built to honor Inari (the Shinto god of rice), this shrine is magical to walk through.
- Arashiyama – The temples and bamboo forests in this small town were some of the most beautiful things we saw in Japan.
- Kobe Earthquake Museum – Built after the devastating 1995 earthquake in Kobe, this museum is a great place to learn how earthquakes work.
- Mt. Rokko – Taking the cable car up this mountain offers spectacular views of Kobe and the surrounding landscape.
- Himeji Castle – This 17th-century castle is one of the most iconic in Japan.
- Shibuya Crossing – This Tokyo intersection is one of the busiest street crossings in the world. The sea of people is mind-blowing.
- Yoyogi Park – You’re guaranteed to see something weird or interesting in this Tokyo park (especially if you’re there on Sunday).
- Meiji Shrine – This gorgeous shrine was built in the early 20th century to honor Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken.
- Harajuku – This area of Tokyo is great for shopping as well as people watching.
- Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum – Built to commemorate the destruction that the atomic bomb caused in Hiroshima, this museum educates people on the horror and danger of nuclear weapons.
- Go to a Japanese Soccer League match – This soccer league has stadiums all across Japan, and the tickets aren’t expensive.
- Go to a Japanese baseball game – Baseball is extremely popular in Japan, and the experience of going to a game is different than in America.
- Go to a sumo match – A sporting experience that you can only have in Japan.
- Stay at an onsen – An onsen is a Japanese hot spring and bathing facility, usually with an attached inn. They’re located all over Japan, and we highly recommend staying at one at least once.
Want to see all of our favorite Japan destinations on a map that you can access from your phone? We’ve pinned each location mentioned in this guide on the Google Map below:
Japan has so much to offer travelers, far more than we could cover in one article. But we hope this has given you some ideas for planning your Japanese adventure, and we’re excited to see what you discover!
Prefer listening to reading? Check out the accompanying podcast episode.