Japanese Cities You Need to See Before You Die

The neon-lit Dotonbori district in Osaka is home to the Glico Running Man
The neon-lit Dotonbori district in Osaka is home to the Glico Running Man | © Sean Pavone / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Alicia Joy
Tokyo Writer2 September 2021

Japan may look small on a map, but it’s home to countless world-class cities, breathtaking sites and plenty of natural wonders. To help you find your perfect destination, here’s a rundown of the Japanese cities you need to see.

Many of the cities in this list feature on our carefully curated 12-day tour of Japan – taking you straight to the best places for full-on cultural immersion, with the hassle of planning removed.

Nagasaki

Natural Feature, Building, Museum, Memorial
Map View

Nagasaki lies on the southwest island of Kyushu. This coastal city was once Japan’s only official trading port with the outside world and was strongly influenced by its trading partners, particularly the Dutch and Portuguese. It’s home to many historic churches, and it was once the capital of Catholicism in Japan. To honour the victims of the atomic bomb attacks during World War II, the Nagasaki Peace Park, Atomic Bomb Museum, and Peace Memorial Hall were built here and attract thousands of visitors each year.

Naha

Natural Feature, Building
Map View
Okinawa, Japan at  historic Shuri Castle.
© Sean Pavone / Alamy Stock Photo
Naha is the capital of Okinawa Prefecture. It was also the historic capital of the Ryukyu Kingdom, an independent sovereign state that ruled the Okinawan islands for hundreds of years. Today, the city is home to many historic sites, including Shuri Castle, the former seat of the Ryukyu royals. With a warm, tropical climate, Naha is a great place to go for sun worshippers. Naminoue Beach lies at the south end of the city, while buses connect visitors to a number of larger beaches, including Mibaru and Manza.

Matsuyama

Natural Feature, Building
Map View
Matsuyama lies southwest, on Japan’s smallest island of Shikoku. It’s the capital of Ehime Prefecture. Here, you will be able to catch a glimpse of the rich cultural history of the region. Accessible by ropeway, the well-preserved and restored Matsuyama Castle, built in 1603, is one of the top attractions. Dogo Onsen is another must-see; this is one of the oldest onsens in Japan. The Imperial Family has visited it, and it was said to be the inspiration for the bathhouse in Ghibli’s Spirited Away(2001).

Nagoya

Building, Museum
Map View
Nagoya castle and city skyline in Japan
© Panther Media GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo
Nagoya is the third most populated city in Japan. It’s an extremely successful centre of modern industry and production, but it has also established itself as one of the cultural capitals of Japan. Nagoya is home to several important museums, including Tokugawa Art Museum, which houses 10 National Treasures. Architecture lovers will want to check out the Cultural Path, a protected area of historical buildings and structures between Nagoya Castle and the Tokugawa Art Museum.

Nara

Forest, Park, Shrine, Natural Feature
Map View
Nara, in the Kansai region, is best known for having a friendly population of native sika deer, also known as the spotted deer, which are concentrated in Nara Park but can occasionally be spotted in other areas of town. A visit to Nara isn’t complete without making your rounds through Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara, declared a Unesco World Heritage Site. These historic sites include the beautiful Kasugayama Primeval Forest, Heijo Palace, and Kasuga Shrine.

Sapporo

Architectural Landmark
Map View
Monumental Ice Sculpture Sapporo Snow Festival Hokkaido Japan
© Andrew Morse / Alamy Stock Photo

Sapporo is the capital of Hokkaido. It’s best known for the annual Sapporo Snow Festival, which fills the city with snow and impressive ice sculptures. With a cold winter and ample snowfall, it’s also a favourite winter sports destination. But Sapporo is a new, modern and metropolitan city, complete with tree-lined streets and boulevards attractive in any season.

Aomori

Natural Feature, Building
Map View
Giant illuminated lantern Nebuta lantern float in Nebuta Warasse, Aomori, Japan
© Chisanu LIENGPAN / Alamy Stock Photo
Aomori is host to one of the most popular festivals in Japan, the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri (Float Festival). This enormous summer fest includes a parade of illuminated floats and dancers chanting and inviting passers-by to watch. The city is the capital of the Tohoku region, and it played a pivotal role in recovery efforts for the 2011 earthquake, from which the area is still recovering. Aomori is a great place for visitors to base themselves before exploring other areas of the region.

Hiroshima

Memorial, Park, Stadium
Map View
Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park draws in crowds from all over the globe. The site commemorates the victims of the 1945 bombings, when it became the first city to be attacked with atomic weapons. Today, Hiroshima is a lively, vibrant city, home to a number of historical sites, gardens and parks. It is a great city for live sports and home to several national teams, including the Sanfrecce Hiroshima (football) and the Hiroshima Toyo Carp (baseball). The main stadiums are the Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium Hiroshima (yes, really) and the Hiroshima Big Arch.

Kyoto

Natural Feature, Building
Map View
Two young geisha are walking on the way to Kiyomizu-Dera temple in Kyoto. Kyoto is the capital city of Kyoto Prefecture located in the Kansai region
© Travel Wild / Alamy Stock Photo
The unofficial cultural capital of Japan, Kyoto, was also the official capital for more than 1,000 years. The city is home to a number of important cultural sites, including more than 2,000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Kyoto is the place to go to see geisha (or geiko, as they are known in Kansai) culture; the annual geisha dances held each spring are one of the city highlights. Kyoto is also known for kaiseki (elevated Japanese cuisine), ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) and historic architecture.

Osaka

Architectural Landmark
Map View

Osaka is known for having laid-back locals, delicious cuisine, and charming Kansai dialect. The city is best enjoyed in the evening when it comes alive with neon lights and late-night eateries. The expression kuidaore, or eat ’til you drop, was coined here, and thousands of tourists flock to the Osaka restaurants each year. Dotonbori is the heart of Osaka and one of its most popular attractions. The area is brimming with restaurants, shops and bright neon boards, including the Glico Running Man.

These recommendations were updated on September 2, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh. This article is an updated version of a story created by Alicia Joy

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