These are the 24 Most Beautiful Towns and Cities in Japan

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Jessica Dawdy

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 towns and cities in Japan.

1. Hida-Takayama, for old school beauty and top class sake

Architectural Landmark

The historic streets of Takayama, Japan, are a visual treat that transports you to a bygone era.
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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.

2. Hakone, for incredible natural beauty

Architectural Landmark

Hakone Shrine and Mt Fuji from Lake Ashi. Along the Tokaido road.
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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.

3. Shirakawa-go, for a fairytale village escape

Architectural Landmark

Traditional houses blanketed in snow in Shirakawa, Gifu, Japan
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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.

4. Nara, for the deer-dominated national park

Forest, Natural Feature, Park, Shrine

Close up of a deer encounter in the park of Nara, Japan
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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.

5. Nikko, for mountains, waterfalls and fall foliage

Architectural Landmark

Row of Jizo at Kanmangafuchi abyss, Nikko
Susann Schuster / Unsplash
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.

6. Himeji, to stare in awe at an ancient castle

Architectural Landmark

View of the castle in Himeji, Japan, framed by fully-bloomed cherry blossom
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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.

7. Kamakura, for epic views of Fuji

Buddhist Temple, Historical Landmark

Coastal skyline of the town of Kamakura, Japan
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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.

8. Otaru, for freshly-caught culinary delights

Architectural Landmark

Evening draws in peacefully on the canals of Otaru, Japan
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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.

9. Kanazawa, for perfectly preserved old town charm

Architectural Landmark

Kenroku-en gardens in the city of Kanazawa, Ishikawa, Japan
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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.

10. Karuizawa, the perfect outdoorsy day trip from Tokyo

Architectural Landmark

Starstruck by the beauty of the streets in Karuizawa, Japan, during the autumn season.
Kishor / Unsplash

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.

11. Magome, the go-to spot for avid hikers

Architectural Landmark

Pretty street in Magome, Japan
Sebastian Stulz / Unsplash

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.

12. Kagoshima, for explosions of colour in the summer night sky

Architectural Landmark

View on the Sakura-jima volcano, from Kagoshima hills, Japan
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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.

13. Furano, for purple lavender views

Ski Resort, Architectural Landmark

Colourful range of flowers at Farm Tomita, Furano, Japan
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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.

14. Sendai, the place to be come cherry blossom season

Architectural Landmark

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.

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15. Nagasaki

Natural Feature, Building, Museum, Memorial

Meganebashi Brigde, Nagasaki, Japan
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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.

16. Naha

Building, Natural Feature

Kokusai Street in Naha, Okinawa, Japan.
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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.

17. Nagoya

Building, Museum

Japanese temple at Nagoya-Shi
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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.

18. Sapporo

Architectural Landmark

People lining the streets for Sapporo ice festival, Japan
Denny Ryanto / Unsplash
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.

19. Aomori

Natural Feature, Building

Large illumination alight during Aomori Nebuta Festival, Japan
Kodai Monma / Unsplash
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.

20. Hiroshima

Yoga Studio

Hiroshima, Japan
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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.

21. Kyoto

Building, Natural Feature

Kiyozumi Dera, Kyoto, Japan
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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.

22. Osaka

Architectural Landmark

Dotonbori at Night. Osaka, Japan. December 2019.
Juliana Barquero / Unsplash

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.

23. Tokyo

Architectural Landmark

Hundreds of people crossing the roads in Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan
Jezael Melgoza / Unsplash
Tokyo is the capital of Japan and by far the most visited city in the country. There’s something for everyone in Tokyo, from ancient temples and shrines, historic gardens and estates to world-class shopping, nightlife and cuisine. Its kabuki and sumo cultures are unrivalled, and it’s here you’ll find some of the best athletic teams in the country. But Tokyo is most famous for its shopping districts and modern architecture, which are some of the best the world has to offer.

24. Matsuyama

Natural Feature, Building

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).

Sadie Whitelocks contributed additional reporting to this article.

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