By Jim Ferri

Whether it’s the pop culture you encounter on the streets of Tokyo or the ancient one you experience in Kyoto, you quickly realize Japan is a country of astonishing disparities. So much, in fact, that you can find it both weird and wonderful at the same time.

a geisha in Japan

From Japan’s neon-painted cities to its mountain-dappled countryside, it’s a unique place that’s easily accessible from just about anywhere in the world. It’s also a country that’s relatively easy to travel about since its famous bullet trains, among the fastest in the world, link major population areas.

Surprisingly, Japan can be less expensive to visit than many other major destinations. If you’re on a budget, for example, you’ll find that public transportation is often convenient, safe, and cost-effective, although the 100 or so railway lines in Tokyo alone can prove a bit daunting.

Always popular with travelers, Japan will likely become even more so following the Olympic games that will take place there in 2020. (Even now there’s a mini-hotel boom going on in the country.)

But whether you go to Japan before, during, or after the games you’ll find the country fascinating. To help you in your planning, consider these ten popular places that have been intriguing travelers for centuries.

people in a rain storm in Japan


Japan’s capital city, with its mixture of traditional and modern urban life, is the most popular tourist destination in the country. Sensoji Temple is one of its iconic historical sites, and the Imperial Palace provides a traditional and royal air. The city’s Ginza, the equivalent of New York’s Madison Avenue, is world famous, as is the Harajuku Japanese-teen street fashion that influences international fashion industry. While you’ll find plenty of authentic Japanese dining in Tokyo, you’ll also find top-quality international restaurants as well, since Tokyoites have a discriminating palate for top quality international cuisines such as Italian, Chinese, French, etc. Sushi restaurants are plentiful in the outer market of the famous Tsukiji Fishmarket.

woman walking down a lane at night in Japan


According to the Japan National Tourism Organization, the ancient capital of Kyoto is the most popular destination for foreign visitors to Japan. It’s a city that embodies all that people think of regarding Japanese tradition including centuries-old temples, ryokans (Japanese traditional style inn), teahouses, geisha, etc., all maintained in the authentic tradition of the city. The cityscape is also well maintained, and there are many cultural workshops in which visitors can participate.

a giant statue of Buddha in Japan


While the name may not be very familiar to American tourists, this is the prefecture where Yokohama (Tokyo’s neighboring city) and Kamakura (a historic city along the coast) are located. With a huge Buddha statue, Kamakura is an attractive and accessible destination for those who stay in Tokyo (just an hour or so away by train), and travelers come to stroll between temples along the calm beaches. Hakone, where people go for hot springs, ryokan, and the magnificent view of Mt. Fuji, is also in the Kanagawa prefecture.

a castle at night in Japan


As the second largest city and a major business travel destination, Osaka is the home of several major international companies. But in addition to business, Osakan culture is also heavily focused on food. In fact, some lovers of Japanese cuisine view Osaka is the capital of affordable dining spree! Outside of the urban centers, pockets of tranquility are tucked away in the countryside.

colorful road patterns in Japan


Just east of Tokyo, Chiba is where Japan’s gateway Narita International Airport is located. The city of Narita, close to the airport, is sometimes visited by international travelers as a “quick taste” of Japan during a layover. The Tokyo Disney Resort is also in Chiba, just cross the border with Tokyo. The Tokyo Motor Show usually takes place in Makuhari Messe, one of the largest and popular convention centers in the country.

Atsuta Shrine, Aichi / photo: Bryan/Flickr


In addition to being the home of Toyota Motors, Aichi is known for traditional manufacturing and thus attracts many business travelers. Midway between Tokyo and Osaka, is Nagoya, a major location for business conferences that also attracts visitors with its castle, museum, and gardens.

monks walking past red posts in Japan


Nara is the very first capital of the country even before Kyoto. Although the Nara era was less than 80 years long, the city is the birthplace of the fundamentals of Japanese tradition. In spite of an obvious Chinese influence in architecture, UNESCO designated Nara’s landmarks and designated them as World Heritage Sites.

young woman holding a candle in a paper bag in Japan


World-renowned because of the atomic bomb, Hiroshima today is known as the global peace center. The Peace Memorial Museum, located right next to the dome that was the only structure to survive at ground zero (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site), is a must-see for visitors here. The city also has another World Heritage Site: Itsukushima Shrine of Miyajima Island, one of the postcard icons of Japan.

an aquarum in Japan


Okinawa, a group of islands stretching southward from Japan, is the country’s equivalent of Hawaii. The islands have a unique indigenous culture and are popular for their sub-tropical climate, beautiful beaches, some of the world’s best diving spots and its incredible Churaumi Aquarium.

a castle on a hill in Japan


The greatest attraction for tourists to Hyogo prefecture is Himeji Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most impressive castles in all of Japan if not all of Asia. Close to Osaka the prefecture is also home to the city of Kobe, considered by some to be one of Japan’s most attractive cities, despite being leveled by a massive earthquake in 1995.