5 cities to visit in Japan

Do you need a few tips on what to see and do on your trip around Japan? We have written just about that topic right here, so you know what cities you shouldn't miss in Japan. We have already writing about what places to explore in Tōkyō, so the Japanese capital is not included in this guide.

Top 5 Japanese cities

In my opinion, Japan is a country which should be visited at least once in life, and there is something for everyone here. Japan is a fusion between traditional and high tech and everything in between, and here you'll find everything from robot cafés and colourful commercials in neon to bamboo groves and ancient temples and shrines on mountain tops. There is nowhere like Japan, but it's certainly not only Tōkyō that is worth visiting. Also in the Eastern part of Japan, Kansai, and in Hokkaido there are experiences for everyone. Anyways, here is a little guide to our top 5 cities in Japan.

kyoto, japan, traiditional street


1. Ōsaka

Japan's second biggest city with over 19 million citizens is Ōsaka. Here they speak Japanese with Ōsaka ben or Kansai ben (ben means dialect), and they speak slightly different than in Kantō, where Tōkyō is at. For example they say "meccha", which means "a lot", instead of "totemo" in standard Japanese. So perhaps one has to get used to the different and new words here. But whether you speak Kansai ben or not, there are lots of cool places when it comes to izakaya, discovering delicious restaurants, or sightseeing.

Ōsaka is perhaps best known for its beautiful castle, Ōsaka jō from the 1500's. It costs around 600¥ (around 5,5 USD) to enter the castle, but it also looks stunning from the outside. It is possible to buy a souvenir or go for a walk in the beautiful garden close to the castle, where you might be lucky enough to see the plum trees in bloom already in January or February. 

Another iconic sightseeing spot in the city is the running man in neon from 1935, Glico Man, who is made by the maker of the iconic long snack Pocky, the company Glico. The running man is standing by the famous shopping street close to the Dōtonbori river. Here you'll also find tasty streetfood, and I dare you to try watering takoyaki (a round, fried food with octopus inside) or yakisoba (fried soba with meat and veggies). Ōsaka is known for being a food paradise with many specialties. If you'd like to cook as good food as in Ōsaka, you can try our Japanese okonomiyaki recipe in real Ōsaka style.

Get an amazing view of Ōsaka from Umeda Sky Building, where you can almost see all the way to the city Kōbe. This tall building is close to Ōsakas central main station, Umeda, as well as Ōsakas Pokemon Center, and several huge shopping malls. Don't miss the 80's-like tower, Tsutenkaku Tower, and the surrounding area Shinsekai, which guarantees a nostalgic feeling. It's worth visiting the place here at night, where everything is lit in beautiful colours. Taste deep-fried kushikatsu, for which the area is famous for, at one of the small restaurants. 

On a rainy day you might rather want to visit the Cup Noodles Museum Ōsaka Ikeda to learn more about the origin and invention of the cup noodle. Here, you can also design your own cup noodle. Perhaps you'd rather want to visit the Ōsaka Aquarium Kaiyukan. It was possible at one point to see a gigant whale shark swim around in the biggest tank. It is my impression that the animals here are doing well and being taken care of compared to many Japanese zoos and aquariums, so this one is a good aquarium to support. Not far from the aquarium is the big Tempozan farriswheel and Universal Studios Japan. If you are a fan of Harry Potter, this is a must see, if you ask me. Ōsaka also offers a chance to visit the impressive Shitennōji temple, which is one of Japan's oldest.

tsutenkaku, japan

osaka castle, japan

(https://unsplash.com/photos/F238e9oGQqQ + https://unsplash.com/photos/tsUOCqrDAWQ)

2. Nara

If you wish to get away from the hectic city life of Ōsaka, you should head to the small, cosy, and traditional Japanese town of Nara (which is actually Mads' mum's hometown) for a day trip. One of the highlights for tourists in the city are the deers that walk freely around town, which are almost as normal to see here as people. The deers, sika, are according to an old Shinto legend sacred animals, and it is considered very illegal to kills the sika. You can get close to the animals and feed them sika senbei crackers, but be careful that they don't eat your food or belongings, because they are not shy. They can get almost agressive, if they don't get anything from you :-)

There are many options when it comes to to getting hold of a souvenir with Nara sikas on the way to the ancient Buddhist temple Tōdaiji temple on your way through Nara Park and the Nandaimon gate. The great Buddhist temple was constructed in the 700's just like many other buildings in town, when Nara for a while was the imperial capital of Japan. In the main building of the temple, you'll find the great Daibutsu Buddha statue, which is one of Japan's tallest bronze figures.

If you continue up the mountain Wakakusa, you'll get to the Shintō shrine Kasuga Taisha. The shrine is mostly known for its thousand stone lanterns leading to the temple. You'll also find a museum and a botanical garden on the mountain. On your way down, you should head to the beautiful pagoda, Kōfukuji temple, and go through the narrow, touristy streets of Nara town before heading to another former imperial capital, Kyōto.

nara, deer, temple


3. Kyōto

By the end of the 700's, Kyōto, which is not far from Ōsaka, became the new imperial capital of Japan. Because of all the old, well-preserved, and beautiful buildings I'd recommend staying here for more than one day. In Kyōto, it's like a new Buddhist temple or Shintō shrine pops up every time you go around the corner. 

The easiest way to get around Kyōto and visit the different sightseeing spots is by taking the bus. At the tourist information centers it is possible to buy a Bus One Day-Pass, which includes access to Kyōto's city busses for 900¥ (around 8 USD). You can read more about it here. The city is generally very tourist friendly, and the citizens of Kyōto are very proud of the history of their city as Japan's capital for centuries. Therefore, it is very easy to travel around Kyōto.

One of the most famous places in Kyōto must be the Shinto shrine Fushimi Inari Taisha with its thousand red torii gates. This tourist magnet is dedicated to the god of rice, Inari, and all the red gates have been donated by companies and individuals. If you want to visit Buddhist temples, there's the marvellous golden pavilion Kinkakuji temple. There is also a "silver temple", Ginkakuji, a zen temple with a beautiful zen garden, so be aware of the names. Close to Ginkakuji you'll find the Philosopher's Path, which turns pink in spring because of the stunning sakura. 

There are many historical buildings such as Kyōto Imperial Palace. The imperial family lived here until 1868 where the capital was moved to Tōkyō. You can book a guided tour of the great garden and go see some of the buildings. Just go to the small administrative office next to the palace (it's free). While Kyōto was still the capital, the castle Nijō was used by the Japanese shogun. You can learn more about Japan's political history at this castle, and there are many interesting stories to hear such as the one about the ninja floor!

In the eastern part of the city you'll find the beautiful Kiyomizu-dera temple, which you'll get to after walking through narrow streets with small stalls and shops. Don't miss the fantastic view over the city's roofs from the top of Mt. Ottawa. Close to this temple back in the city you'll find the old geisha machiya in the Gion area by Shirakawa. Maybe you're lucky enough to see a real geisha, or perhaps it's just one of many women who come to Gion to take pictures dressed in kimono with traditional makeup. In this area you can also try participating in a traditional tea ceremony or taste the specialties of the area in the small shops. If you move towards the city centre of Kawaramachi, you'll probably reach the around 400-year-old Nishiki Marked that sells all kinds of Japanese food and fish.

Are you more into nature, I recommend visiting the mountain Arashiyama. At the Arashiyama Monkey Park you'll be able to around a big area with wild monkeys. On the same mountain you'll find the Insta famous bamboo groove. There are different paths in and out of the groove, and one way in is through the Tenryūji temple. Yes, there is lots to see in Kyōto. 

kyoto, japan, geisha, maiko, traditional street

torii, fushimi mari taisha, shrine

(https://unsplash.com/photos/tZI6nYEwWag + https://unsplash.com/photos/xmUdzDu15pM)

4. Hiroshima

Most of us know all about the tragic history of Hiroshima, and because of the atom bomb of WW2 the city is a proud peace city today. Perhaps you know the story of the girl and the thousand paper cranes? If not, you can learn more about it at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. It only costs about 1 USD to enter, and even though there are horrible stories it is nevertheless an important visit to make. Afterwards you can go for a walk in the surrounding peace park or visit Atomic Bomb Dome, which has been left behind for all to see the remains of a building hit by an atom bomb. I have to add, that because the bomb was blown over the ground the level of radioactivity is now back to normal, and you can visit Hiroshima without having to worry about radioactivity. 

Hiroshima hasn't always been a peace city, and back in the 1500's it was a military city with castles and fortresses. Hiroshimajō is a central one of these with a moat and a belonging shrine. From the top of the reconstructed castle there is a beautiful view over Hiroshima city. When you have seen what you wanted here, you can drive through the city with the old school tram. It can be a bit tricky with the trams here, and I honestly don't remember if you have to pay before or after the ride.

If you are staying in Hiroshima for more than one day or just want to see something completely different from the above sightseeing spots, I heavily recommend a ferry ride to the island Miyajima! It will not disappoint, especially if you go during autumn when the leaves turn stunningly red. At Miyajima there are - just like in Nara - deers walking freely and many temples. There is also a beautiful, traditional, red torii gate in the water next to Itsukushima. This is a popular destination for couples to get married, and perhaps you can spot a newly wed couple here - if not, there's always lots of deer. Go for a walk around the island up to the temple Daishōin or continue to the top of Mt. Misen. On this fairly small island there is also an aquarium and a history museum.

While you are in Hiroshima or on Miyajima, I recommend trying a local snack like momiji manjū (Japanese cake shaped like a maple leaf), local oyster (for example with mochi rice cake around it) or Hiroshima style okonomiyaki

hiroshima castle, japan, sakura, cherry trees

miyajima, island, japan, torii gate

(https://unsplash.com/photos/1Qye5Rv0bNo + https://unsplash.com/photos/WNBNTbFi8pk)

5. Sapporo

We leave the main island and travel north to the island Hokkaido. Here, the "capital" of the island is Sapporo, which is Japan's fifth largest city. Way back in the day, the native people of Hokkaido was the Ainu, but since the 1800's Sapporo has been growing rapidly and is therefore a very modern city today. You can learn more about the history of the city and Ainu culture at the open-air museum Historic Village of Hokkaido

Sapporo is very popular in the winter, and there are many great ski resorts like Niseko Ski Resort, which is famous for its fantastic powder snow. From the ski resort there's great views to the beautiful volcano Mt. Yōtei. It's also worth visiting Sapporo for Sapporo Snow Festival, where giant snow- and ice sculptures are built for tourists to go around and explore. As for other snow related activities, there is ice skating and sleighing at Odori Park.

At the heart of Sapporo, the great Sapporo TV Tower stands close to the entertainment district Susukino with thousands of bars and restaurants. Sapporo is known for its amazing sea food, and one place to try it is Nijō Market in the central part of the city. Try a donburi rice bowl with all kinds of fish or uni. If you're not into fish, try another specialty of Sapporo - miso based ramen with a local Sapporo beer. If you like this beer, you might enjoy visiting the Sapporo Beer Museum where you can learn more about the beer brand from Hokkaido.

As for experiences for the whole family, there is the European looking Shiroi Koibito Park. The park is named after the small Japanese cakes, Shiroi Koibito, and in the park you'll find a free area with a café, restaurant and a shop as well as a paid area with exhibitions. Here you can ride the train or see the chocolate factory. As you can read here, there is someting for the whole family here in the northern part of Japan.

food stall, sapporo, japan, hokkaido


As for other Japanese cities that did not make it into the top five (there are just too many), we have Himeji, Hakone, Naha, Fukuoka, Nagoya, Kanazawa, and many more. There are spots around all of Japan ready to be explored - just waiting for you. I've also written about what to see in the city I used to live in, Kōbe, right here. That was all for this post. I'll be seeing you, mata nee!

Related: 12 tips for your first trip to Japan.

Merete Vangsgaard

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