Must-Visit Places in Japan, as Recommended by Locals

The rows of white cherry blossom trees along the banks of the Tamagawa River make for a picture-perfect day out
The rows of white cherry blossom trees along the banks of the Tamagawa River make for a picture-perfect day out | © Moonie's World Photography / Alamy Stock Photo
Christine Bagarino

Japan is one of the top destinations in the world, with cultural marvels including Unesco World Heritage sites in Kyoto and beyond, to world-class shopping in Tokyo. But if you really want the inside scoop on where to visit, take a look at our round-up of the best places to see, as recommended by locals.

Want to get the inside track on where to visit in Japan? You can’t go wrong with a local guide at your side on our epic 12-day tour of the country – packed with thrilling day trips and culture-embracing activities.

The lavender fields of Furano, Hokkaido prefecture

When many people think of Hokkaido, they think of the Sapporo Snow Festival and the meters of deep powdery snow that falls on this northernmost prefecture of Japan every winter. But summertime can be a fantastic time to visit Hokkaido and escape the stifling humidity that pervades the rest of the country. The endless lavender fields of Furano make for a peaceful nature walk that will have you never wanting to go home.

Otaru Canal, Hokkaido prefecture

About 30 minutes by train from the prefectural capital Sapporo is the town of Otaru, home to the Otaru Canal. A water route that was used to support shipping in decades past, the canal is no longer in use but has been preserved as an historic site. The charming waterway lined with brick warehouses is just one of several attractions in Otaru, which include a German-style brewery and a music box museum.

The preserved samurai district Kakunodate, Akita prefecture

This former castle town in Akita may no longer have a castle, but Kakunodate does have one of the best-preserved samurai districts in all of Japan. Rent a traditional kimono for an unforgettable step into the past, particularly during spring when the town is awash in the pink petals of cherry blossom trees.

21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa

While the city of Kanazawa offers many attractions, the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art is easily the most highly underrated among foreign travellers to Japan. The museum building alone is an architectural masterpiece, a round glass structure that invites visitors in from all sides to roam, play and explore. The museum houses a mixture of free and paid exhibits, including Argentinian artist Leandro Erlich’s revered installation Swimming Pool.

Shirakawa village, Gifu prefecture

This quiet, secluded village at the foot of Mount Haku in the Gifu prefecture is famous for traditional cottages with pointed thatch roofs. The area experiences some of the heaviest snowfall in Japan, which creates an arresting scene in the winter.

Kusatsu Onsen, Gunma prefecture

Among locals, Kusatsu Onsen is one of the top three most famous hot spring resorts in Japan. This town in the Gunma prefecture has streets lined with quaint shops and restaurants, traditional bathhouses, and ryokan inns. At the centre of town is the yubatake, the hot spring field from which the town’s restorative waters gush forth.

Koyasan spiritual retreat, Wakayama prefecture

Unplug from the modern world at this spiritual retreat atop Mount Koya in Wakayama prefecture. Koyasan is the home of Shingon Buddhism in Japan, and around 50 of the 100 or so temples on Mount Koya offer temple stays, known as shokubo, where you can stay overnight, observe morning services and daily prayers, and practise Ajikan meditation and the hand-copying of Buddhist sutras. Many of the temples offer wifi and Western-style toilets.

Naoshima island, Kagawa prefecture

The remote island of Naoshima in the Seto Inland Sea is home to an incredible array of contemporary art. Just a few thousand people live on the island, but many more visitors come every year to see the collection housed on Naoshima, which includes works from both international and Japanese artists, as well as traditional buildings converted into art installations.

Dogo Onsen, Ehime prefecture

The oldest bath house in Japan, Dogo Onsen is located in the Ehime prefecture on the island of Shikoku. Most Japanese people know it from the 1906 novel Botchan – required reading for primary school – which takes place in the town around Dogo Onsen. The historic bath house was also the inspiration for the public bath featured in the Studio Ghibli animated feature Spirited Away.

Nakasu food stalls, Fukuoka prefecture

Fukuoka is home to some of the best street food in Japan, centred around the Nakasu waterfront district. Enjoy skewers of grilled chicken, steaming hot pot, and bowls of hakata pork bone ramen while rubbing elbows with the friendly locals.

Yakushima rainforest, Kagoshima prefecture

The Yakushima rainforest, on a small island off the Kagoshima coast, is a place of unspoilt natural beauty. With moss-covered rocks, 1ooo-year-old cedar trees, and an abundance of rivers, gorges and waterfalls, Yakushima is a must for lovers of the outdoors. However, it is one of the wettest places in the world, so don’t forget your rainproof gear.

Ishigaki, Okinawa prefecture

Ishigaki is where the locals go when they want a taste of paradise. You can expect to find white sand beaches, clear water for snorkelling, and a taste of ancient Ryukyu culture, rulers over the Okinawa archipelago for centuries before it became a part of Japan. However, be sure to book your tickets early, as flights to Ishigaki often sell out due to popular local demand.

Culture Trips launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes places and communities so special.

Our immersive trips, led by Local Insiders, are once-in-a-lifetime experiences and an invitation to travel the world with like-minded explorers. Our Travel Experts are on hand to help you make perfect memories. All our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

All our travel guides are curated by the Culture Trip team working in tandem with local experts. From unique experiences to essential tips on how to make the most of your future travels, we’ve got you covered.

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