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
Photo of Christine Bagarino
2 September 2021

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

Natural Feature, Botanical Garden
Map View
Field of lavenders, Furano city, Hokkaido prefecture, Japan
© amana images inc. / Alamy Stock Photo
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

Map View
Canal, Otaru City, Hokkaido Prefecture, Japan, Asia
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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

Building, Museum, Historical Landmark
Map View
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

Map View
21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, Japan
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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

Map View
Asia, Japan, Gifu prefecture, Shirakawa-go
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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

Health Spa, Natural Feature
Map View
Wide angle view of the flowing sulfurous water at the hot water field (Yubatake) at Kusatsu Onsen hot spring resort in Gunma, Japan, on a cloudy day.
© Cameron Hilker / Alamy Stock Photo
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

Buddhist Temple, Historical Landmark
Map View
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

Natural Feature
Map View
NAOSHIMA, JAPAN. JUNE 6: Yayoi Kusama's giant pumpkin sculpture in Naoshima. June 6, 2016 on Naoshima Art island, Japan.
© Anthony Shaw / Alamy Stock Photo
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

Health Spa
Map View
Dogo onsen, famous bathhouse in Matsuyama - Shikoku Japan
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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.

Yakushima rainforest, Kagoshima prefecture

Natural Feature
Map View
Anbo River in Yakushima is a very beautiful river. It can be seen from the bridge that is very high, so it can see the flow of the river from the moun
© nyoman ady sanjaya / Alamy Stock Photo

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

Natural Feature
Map View
Ishigaki Island, Okinawa, Japan
© Dennis Cox / Alamy Stock Photo
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.
These recommendations were updated on September 2, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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