Japan is home to strikingly diverse landscapes, including volcanic mountains, flat farmlands and cherry blossom-lined cities. Combine these backdrops with Japan’s Edo-period buildings, grand temples and shrines and the result is simply spectacular. Here’s our pick of the most beautiful must-visit towns and cities in Japan.
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Hida-Takayama, for old school beauty and top class sake
Hida-Takayama is nicknamed ‘Little Kyoto’ for its abundance of shrines, temples and picturesque 18th-century buildings. The town, which is known for its excellent sake, is isolated by the surrounding Hida Mountains, which overlook a scene of riverside markets, traditional shops and Japanese-style inns. San-machi Suji street is the heart of the city’s Historic District, and home to many buildings that are accessible through blue noren (fabric) curtains.
Karuizawa, the perfect outdoorsy day trip from Tokyo
Karuizawa is a charming resort town tucked beneath the imposing Mt. Asama, one of Honshū’s most active volcanoes. It’s a popular day trip from Tokyo – an hour away by high-speed train – for hiking and visiting hot springs and Yacho-no-mori (Wild Bird Forest), which is home to over 60 different bird species. Emperor Akihito met his future bride, Empress Michiko, in Karuizawa in 1957, and the town has since earned a reputation as a romantic retreat; visit in autumn for its fabulous colours.
Otaru, for freshly-caught culinary delights
Japan’s northernmost prefecture, Hokkaido, was colonised in the late 19th-century, and little Otaru became an important fishing port. Later, the terminal station of Hokkaido’s first railway line was built here. The town’s pretty canal is lined with old warehouses and, along with the rest of the prefecture, it’s one of the most famous places in Japan to enjoy fresh seafood. Although the canal area can get crowded with Japanese tourists, you’ll find quieter neighbourhoods dotted with stately herring mansions towards the centre of town. The town is particularly beautiful during the Otaru Snow Gleaming Festival in February, when the canal is lined with glowing snow lanterns.
Magome, the go-to spot for avid hikers
Magome, a post town in the Kiso Valley, between Tokyo and Kyoto, once served as an important stop-over point for Edo-period travellers making the long journey along the Nakasendo Trail. Today, the main reason to visit Magome is to hike the Magome-Tsumago Trail, a 5-mi (8-km)section of the Nakasendo Trail; this trail winds through forests and farmland and passes waterfalls, before ending in the town of Tsumago. The trail is well-marked in English and a bus travels between the two villages for those who don’t feel like walking back to Magome after completing the hike. Meanwhile, the town’s main street, a wide stone walkway lined with beautifully restored old buildings, is closed to vehicular traffic.
Kanazawa, for perfectly preserved old town charm
Kanazawa was one of the largest cities in Japan to be spared bombing raids during World War II and, as a result, many parts of its old town remain intact today. Kanazawa’s narrow streets run through old samurai and geisha districts, passing Edo-period canals, beautiful temples and modern museums. The city is perhaps best known as the home of 17th-century Kenrokuen Garden, which is widely considered to be one of the most spectacular gardens in the country. Despite its many historic attractions, Kanazawa isn’t stuck in the past – it’s a vibrant, modern town that also offers excellent shopping and dining.
Hakone, for incredible natural beauty
Located less than 100km (62mi) away from Tokyo, Hakone can be an excellent change of pace from the capital. Part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, Hakone offers a spectacular landscape of mountains, lakes and hiking trails. The highlight is Ashino-ko, a lake with fantastic views of nearby Mount Fuji and the torii gate of the Hakone-jinja, which rises from the water to create the perfect Japanese scene.
Featured in Culture Trip’s exclusive 12-day tour of Japan, Hakone is also known for its excellent onsen (hot springs), traditional Japanese inns and art museums. And although the town can be visited as a day trip from Tokyo, it’s worth spending the night.
Kagoshima, for explosions of colour in the summer night sky
With its warm climate, outgoing locals and lush vegetation, it’s easy to see why Kagoshima is a sister city to Naples. This city, which is the capital of Kagoshima Prefecture and one of Kyushu’s southernmost cities, boasts a bay looking onto Sakurajima, an active volcano that appears to rise from the waters off the coast. The view is particularly spectacular from July to August, when firework displays take place over the bay each evening. The volcano’s frequent eruptions often cover the town in a surreal coating of white ash.
Furano, for purple lavender views
Furano, a small city in the centre of Hokkaido, is known for its gently rolling farmland vistas. July is the most popular time of year to visit, when the town’s fields blossom with a sea of purple lavender. Famous Farm Tomita is at the heart of the action, selling lavender-infused products in its cafe and gift shop, including lavender ice cream. Equally beautiful are the colourful seasonal flowers that blanket the farm and surrounding landscape, which are reminiscent of Dutch tulip fields. During the winter, Furano is one of the country’s most popular downhill and cross-country skiing destinations, known for its excellent, powdery snow.
Shirakawa-go, for a fairytale village escape
This remote village, a Unesco World Heritage site, looks like something out of a fairytale, with thatched Gassho-style houses surrounded by mountainous landscapes. These houses are traditional farm buildings, which were built between the 17th century and the beginning of the 20th century. The settlement is a bit of a schlep from Tokyo by car or train – but it’s well worth a visit. Stock up on handcrafted woodwork souvenirs while you’re here and try some of the local foods, which include Hida beef croquettes and tofu sashimi.
Nikko, for mountains, waterfalls and fall foliage
Escape the energy and chaos of Tokyo with a day trip to the mountainous town of Nikko, which is just under two hours from the capital by train. This small city serves as the gateway to Nikko National Park, and has a wealth of natural wonders to explore, including numerous waterfalls, a picturesque lake and magnificent foliage in the autumn. Another big draw for visitors is Nikko’s shrines and temples – the 103 religious buildings are Unesco World Heritage-protected. Toshogu, which dates back more than 400 years, is the most famous shrine with intricate carvings.
Sendai, the place to be come cherry blossom season
Head to Sendai – around 90 minutes from Tokyo by train – for beautiful cherry blossom scenes in the spring. This coastal metropolis is nicknamed the ‘City of Trees’ for its abundance of green spaces – Tsutsujigaoka Park is one of the best cherry blossom viewing spots with more than 360 trees. Another popular park is atop Mount Aoba, where you’ll find the ruins of Aoba Castle which date back to the early 17th century. Continue your cultural tour with a stop at the Sendai City Museum, where armour, ancient ceramics and paintings are on display.
Himeji, to stare in awe at an ancient castle
Discover one of Japan’s most impressive historical sites while visiting the coastal city of Himeji, around an hour from Kyoto and Osaka by train. The centuries-old Himeji Castle, with a grand white façade visible from miles, perches above the city and comprises 83 buildings. Be sure to take a boat ride around its moat and explore the next door Kokoen Gardens, featuring koi ponds, waterfalls and plants that represent the best of Japan’s four seasons. April is one of the most popular months to visit Himeji, with more than 1,000 cherry trees surrounding the castle coming into bloom.
Nara, for the deer-dominated national park
Nara, less than an hour away from Kyoto and Osaka, is one of the country’s most culturally rich towns. It was Japan’s first permanent capital from 710 to 794CE and despite serving as the capital for just 70 years, much of the country’s art, literature and culture was developed in this time and is still associated with Japan today. This wonderfully compact town is home to eight Unesco World Heritage sites, including the Former Site of the Imperial Palace at Heijokyo and Todaiji Temple. Aside from temples, the park is known for its population of inquisitive, free-roaming deer.
Kamakura, for epic views of Fuji
This attractive coastal city, around an hour from Tokyo by train, offers a great vantage point of Japan’s most famous mountain, Mount Fuji, on a clear day. Head to the shores to catch a glimpse, while swimming and sunbathing during the hot summer months. Come autumn, you’ll see a paintbox of colours if you hike amongst the bamboo groves and surrounding forests. Many also flock to the city for its fresh seafood – including shirasu (whitebait), which is one of the most popular dishes – and ancient shrines and temples, which are a year-round attraction.
Sadie Whitelocks contributed additional reporting to this article.
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