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Ultimate Guide to Sightseeing in Japan

By Team Japan Switch | August 29th, 2022 

Whether you’re a seasoned traveler or simply in the market for the next great holiday, sightseeing in Japan should most definitely be on your bucket list. This cultural cradle is rich in fascinating history, stunning architecture, and memorable art. Add to that the culinary power trip, and a visit to Japan becomes the next big focus on your agenda.

But you’ve got to make sure you do it right. In planning the perfect Japan trip, you need to take into account several aspects. Like, when’s the best time to visit? What is a must-see? You wouldn’t want to go all the way to Japan, and miss some of the biggest attractions, right?

Well, luckily for you, we’ve got all of that covered in our Ultimate Guide to Sightseeing in Japan!

This article is a part of our extensive series on Japanese Culture and Online Japanese Lessons at Japan Switch.

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    When is the best time to go sightseeing in Japan?

    So first things first, what time of year is preferable for visiting Japan? Should you stick to traditional tourist seasons (summer-autumn), or maybe switch things up a bit?

    Well, as with most tourist destinations, you’re faced with a choice. Traveling to Japan in peak season means you’re getting nicer weather, and possibly more tourist attractions. For instance, traveling in spring will mean you catch Golden Week, which is notorious for its many activities, parades, and celebrations. On the other hand, traveling during such times will also mean facing bigger crowds, longer queues, and of course, steeper prices.

    Here are a few things to remember:

    • If you want to avoid crowds: travel to Japan in mid-January, late May through mid-July, or in September/October
    • If you want to catch the cherry blossom season: travel between late March through April
    • If you want to catch Golden Week: travel in May
    • If you want more attractions, and don’t mind the crowd (aside from cherry blossom season): travel during the Chinese New Year (early-mid February), during the Obon (mid-August), or during the Autumn Foliage (late November - early December)

    Fortunately, if you don’t want to attend a special event in Japan, and wish to get better prices and less crowds, you’ve got a wide choice. You can travel in all seasons, and enjoy the beauty of a less crowded and more affordable Japan. In winter, travel mid-January; in spring, travel early March or late May; in spring, try June to late July; and in autumn, travel September, October, and even mid-November.

    That being said, there isn’t a single “best time” to visit Japan. It’s all about figuring out your chief trip highlights. Here’s what you’re getting with each season:

    • Winter: hot springs, seafood, skiing;
    • Spring: cherry blossoms, Golden Week
    • Summer: hiking, best weather, several matsuri (traditional Japanese festivals)
    • Autumn: good temperatures, beautiful scenery

    How hot and humid is Japan's summer? How chilly is their winter?  Before you plan the perfect itinerary to go sightseeing in Japan, read our Ultimate Guide to Seasons in Japan.

    Two women walking through the streets of Japan Sightseeing in Osaka

    What is the difference between Tokyo and Osaka?

    The next big question facing travelers through Japan is should you visit Tokyo or Osaka? Crammed full of gorgeous landmarks, delicious food and a bustling nightlife, the two largest cities in Japan often compete for tourist attention. So which should you see first?

    Once again, the answer will depend on your preferences. Though we think both cities are a must-see during your visit to Japan, time and resources may force you to choose one over the other, or at least mean spending less time in one. Here are a few considerations to help you compare Tokyo and Osaka.

    Technological vs. Traditional

    Tokyo is famous for its heavy focus on technology. This is a big, bright city, submerged in neon light, and covered in screens. That means Tokyo is an ideal destination, particularly for youngsters, and tech-lovers. This also makes Tokyo a more unusual choice when it comes to sightseeing. It is probably unique in the world, in the sense that you won’t get another city that’s so heavily reliant on technology.

    On the other hand, if you’re one of those people who aren’t too techy, and who prefer a more conservative approach, Osaka might be the better choice.

    Tokyo is more touristy

    Whether you're in Japan sightseeing mode or in any other country, there are two major types of tourist:

    • The traditional tourist – likes guided tours, ticking off the must-see checklist, hitting classic tourist attractions and venues (e.g. museums, shrines, etc.);
    • The explorative tourist – prefers getting lost, exploring the city by themselves, and tends to avoid the crowded, tourist hot spots.

    Which type best suits your personality will also help you determine a choice. Where Tokyo is more tourist-y in feel, and has arguably more tourist attractions, Osaka allows for more independent exploration.

    Calm or Quiet?

    Generally speaking, Tokyo has a reputation for being a fast-paced, bustling city. On the other hand, Osaka tends towards a quieter, slower rhythm. Make no mistake, both cities are very friendly (as, indeed, are most places in Japan), and offer no shortage of attractions. It’s just that the rhythm of Tokyo may be overbearing to some, while the relative quiet of Osaka may seem duller to others.

    Fun Fact: People in Osaka actually speak in a different dialect (Osaka-ben) than people in Tokyo. This is both more fast-paced, and more casual than the Tokyo dialect. For example, where in Tokyo, you’d say arigatou (ありがとう) to thank someone, in Osaka, it’d be okini (おおきに).

    ‘Hello’ may be konnichiwa (こんにちは) in Tokyo, but you’ll want to say maido (まいど)  in Osaka. Generally, Tokyo Japanese will be easily understood in Osaka, though this might not be the case for Osaka-ben in Tokyo.

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    Attractions & Parks

    Sightseeing in Japan is an unusual blend of sacred temples and shrines, trying out interesting new foods, getting immersed in the heavy pop culture, and of course, hitting up some unique parks. What keeps people coming back to Japan is precisely this eclectic nature of most visits. With Japan, you’re getting a little bit of everything, which makes the trip a little more varied, and caters even to the most delicate of palates.

    Tokyo is well-known for its numerous landmarks, among which Tokyo Towers, the Shibuya Crossing, or Asakusa Sensoji. And whenever you get tired of the city, you can start visiting the surroundings, which often offer a quieter day trip to contrast the fast-paced Tokyo life. One big attraction for tourists is the Tokyo Disney Resort, possibly the biggest amusement park in the entirety of Japan.

    Which is not to say that Osaka isn’t a great tourist attraction in its own right. Here, we find beautiful sights, like the Osaka Castle, or the Kaiyukan Aquarium. If you’re partial to amusement parks, Osaka entices you with Universal Studios Japan. Here, you’ll find the famed Super Nintendo World, ideal for all you gaming enthusiasts.

    Food

    Last but not least, the culinary component is a big aspect to consider whilst planning your visit. Now obviously, whichever city you choose to visit, you’re in for a treat. Literally.

    Tokyo boasts some of the nicest restaurants, and most high-end food in the entirety of Japan. The city still retains many traditional treats from the Edo period, most famous among which is, of course, sushi (鮨飯). Here, you’ll also enjoy an expertly prepared dish of soba (そば) and tempura (天ぷら).

    That being said, Osaka is undeniably the better culinary experience for crazed foodies. Here, the food culture is simply much stronger than in any other Japanese city. Osaka has a strong focus on kuidaore tradition, which essentially means eating till you drop. It is the birthplace of many famous traditional dishes like Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き, a wheat pancake served with cabbage, meat, etc.), and Takoyaki (たこ焼き, a balled-up snack, consisting of batter cooked in a special pan).

    To sum it all up, our advice would be making the time to see both Tokyo and Osaka during your trip to Japan, and spending at least a few days in each city. They’ve both got a lot of different attractions to offer. 

    Side note: Getting excited for all the wonderfully delicious food in Japan is one thing, but don't expect the staff to understand a word of English! Get a head start with our Ultimate Guide to Ordering Food in Japanese!

    Is it better to start from Tokyo or Osaka?

    Since the two cities are located at opposite ends of the country (Tokyo is often referred to as the Eastern capital, while Osaka is the Western capital), many tourists organize their trip from one to the other. But is it better to arrive in Tokyo, and depart from Osaka, or vice-versa?

    Both are worthwhile options, with no major disadvantages on either choice. Basically, you’re better off checking hotel prices, and local events  to catch/avoid in either city, and plan accordingly. Also, make sure to check airline prices for both options, as that may sway the decision on its own.

    Ideally, if you’re planning on leaving Japan from Tokyo, you’d be better off starting in Osaka to eliminate the cost of one cross-country journey, and vice-versa.

    Red temple in Japan surrounded by greenery

    15 Must-Visit Spots for Sightseeing around Japan

    Since you’ll be traveling through Japan, hopefully from one end to the other, it’s helpful to know what interesting tourist spots there are. That way, you can keep an eye out for what appeals to your personal taste, and plan accordingly.

    Tip: If you’re planning a cross-country journey, try to keep it one-directional, and organize accordingly. Avoid trips back and forth between attractions, as that will waste time and money. Take out a map, and plan your trip based on attraction proximity.

    For this, we used a Osaka-Tokyo direction, but if you plan on traveling from Tokyo, simply go in reverse. For this, we’ll be arriving in Osaka, then traveling further west, returning to Osaka, then moving on towards Tokyo, and the eastern extremities.

    1. Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

    広島平和記念公園, Hiroshima Heiwa Kinen Kōen

    • Location: Hiroshima City
    • Ideal for: History lovers
    • Best time to visit: April-May (to see the cherry blossoms)
    • Cost: Free

    Some tourists choose to avoid Hiroshima and Nagasaki because of their somber past. But that’s precisely why we think you should visit them. Not only does the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park bring homage to the victims of the atomic bomb, it’s also an opportunity to reflect. Rather than remind you of the horrors of 1945, the park is a symbol of peace, and hope for a brighter future.

    2. The Island Shrine

    厳島, Itsukushima, Miyajima

    • Location: Miyajima Island (access by ferry from mainland Hiroshima)
    • Ideal for: Shinto Shrine, traditional performances
    • Best time to visit: November (beautiful foliage, warm-ish weather)
    • Cost: Depends. Entry fees ~ 600 yen; transport to island from Hiroshima ~ ¥420; cable car to top of Mt. Misen ~ ¥1,840 return.

    Most notably, the island houses the stunning Itsukushima Shrine (dedicated to the Princess daughters of the wind god Susanoo). Visit the various halls of the Shrine, or witness the beauty of sunset over the O-Torii, the Great Floating Gate.

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    3. Temple City

    奈良市, Historic Nara

    • Location: Nara Prefecture (south of Osaka)
    • Ideal for: numerous old temples (so great for history lovers/spiritual guidance)
    • Best time to visit: late fall or spring. Nara enjoys a temperate climate, so can be visited year-round, though summers ought to be avoided, as they can be quite humid.
    • Cost: under ¥2,000 (many temples are free, though may charge for special services/entry to certain shrines).

    Take a walk down the old, historic streets of Nara, also known as the Temple City, because of its Seven Great Temples. Among these, we have the Todai-ji (Great East Temple), and Kofuku-ji Temple, dating back to the 17th century. While in historic Nara, it’s also worth visiting the Great South Gate (Nandaimon), a massive two-storey structure consisting of 18 columns.

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    Visiting the beautiful white walled Osaka Castle while doing Japan sightseeing

    4. Osaka Castle

    大阪城

    • Location: Osaka City
    • Ideal for: stunning architecture, history
    • Best time to visit: fall/spring. Winter isn’t too cold for travel, however, summer gets really hot and ought to be avoided.
    • Cost: 600 yen

    There’s no shortage of beautiful sights around Osaka City, from Shinsaibashi (main street and shopping hub) to the Kaiyukan Aquarium (voted the best aquarium in Asia). But if we had to pick one single thing to see in Osaka, it would have to be the eponymous castle. 

    Built by politician and warrior Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1586 was once the largest fortress of Japan. Today, it measures an immense 42-meter-tall main tower, and spans five storeys. If you’re looking for a little spiritual kick, on the premises, you’ll also find the Hokoku Shrine and the Shitennō-ji, dating back to 59 AD.

    5. Kyoto

    京都,Historic Kyoto

    • Location: Kyoto Prefecture
    • Ideal for: rich cultural history, great for photo-ops
    • Best time to visit: October/November, Cherry Blossom Season
    • Cost: under ¥2,000 (entry and entertainment/day)

    Home to the beautiful 14th-century Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji), and 17th century Nijo Castle, the historical heart of Kyoto is not to be missed by sightseers. Whether you wish to immerse yourself in the country’s history at the Kyoto Imperial Palace (Kyoto-gosho), or take some sweet selfies in the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, put this one on your Japan sightseeing list.

    6. Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine

    伏見稲荷大社, Kyoto

    • Location: South Kyoto
    • Ideal for: spirituality, photo-ops
    • Best time to visit: October/November, Cherry Blossom Season
    • Cost: Free

    Composed of thousands of red torii gates, the Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine makes for a silent, contemplative walk up Mount Inari. You can stop to take photos by the scarlet gates, visit the shrine itself, or even hike to the top of Mt. Inari.

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    7. Atsuta Shrine

    熱田神宮, Nagoya

    • Location: Nagoya City (Aichi Prefecture)
    • Ideal for: contemplation, spirituality
    • Best time to visit: Early summer
    • Cost: Free

    Dating back to the 1st century, and dedicated to the god Atsuta no Ōkami, and the Five Great Gods of Atsuta, the shrine is the home of a legendary sword. Here,you’ll find the "grass-mowing sword" (kusanagi-no-tsurugi), one of the three bearing the Imperial insignia.

    8. Kenroku-en

    兼六園, Ishikawa

    • Location: Kanazawa, Ishikawa
    • Ideal for: nature walks, winter sports, sightseeing
    • Best time to visit: Winter
    • Cost: 310 yen

    One of the Three Great Gardens of Japan, the Kenroku-en Gardens  (literally the “Garden of the Six Sublimities”) were made and maintained by the Maeda clan, originating in the 17th century. Beautiful at any time of the year, the gardens are a must-see for any winter spirit and are a refreshing change of pace while sightseeing in Japan.

    9. Chūbu-Sangaku National Park

    中部山岳国立公園

    • Location: Chūbu region
    • Ideal for: treks, hiking, nature photography
    • Best time to visit: year-round
    • Cost: free (guided tours at extra cost)

    Situated in the center of Honshu, this national park is categorized as one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Inside and around the Hida Mountains, also referred to as the Japanese Alps, the Chūbu-Sangaku National Park is home to some of the tallest peaks in the country: Hotaka (3,190 m), and Yari (3,180 m).

    10. Jigokudani Monkey Park

    地獄谷野猿公苑, Nagano

    • Location: Yamanouchi, Nagano Prefecture
    • Ideal for: hiking, sightseeing, animal sightings
    • Best time to visit: winter
    • Cost: ¥500

    Literally translating to “Hell’s Valley”, the Jigokudani Monkey Park, as the name tells us, is home to a lot of snow monkeys, or macaques, and a lot of bubbly hot springs. Put the two together, you’ve got a pretty unusual sight, as well as one hell of a hike ahead of you.

      

     

     

     

     

    11. Mount Fuji

    富士山

    • Location: southwest of Tokyo
    • Ideal for: hiking
    • Best time to visit: July to mid-September
    • Cost: ¥1,000 (can go up to ¥7,000 with overnight accommodation in cabin, and meals)

    If we're talking about sightseeing in Japan, would any agenda really be complete without this one? At a whopping 3,776 meters, Fuji-san is tall enough to be seen from Tokoy (100 km away). You can start climbing from the base, or begin around halfway up, at the 5th Station.

    12. The Great Buddha of Kamakura

    高徳院

    • Location: Kamakura in Kanagawa Prefecture
    • Ideal for: photo-ops, sightseeing, meditation
    • Best time to visit: year-round
    • Cost: ¥200

    This immense (13 m) bronze statue of Amida Buddha allegedly dates back to the mid-1200s. Though originally built inside a small temple, the statue now exists in the open-air (ideal for meditation) after a 15th century tsunami washed away the temple.

    13. Tokyo City

    東京

    • Location: Tokyo Metropolis
    • Ideal for: sightseeing, tech fans, gaming culture
    • Best time to visit: year-round
    • Cost: up to ¥8,000

    Between a stroll through the tourist-packed Buddhist temple Sensoji, and a quieter visit to the retreat-style shrine Meiji-jingu, Tokyo City is a fantastic tourist destination. Visit the Mori Art Museum, or enjoy some unusual dining at the Robot Restaurant – if there’s one thing to be said about Tokyo, it’s sure never dull.

    14. Imperial Tokyo Palace

    皇居

    • Location: Tokyo 
    • Ideal for: culture lovers, rich history
    • Best time to visit: January 2nd (New Year’s Greeting) and February 23rd (Emperor’s Birthday)
    • Cost: Free (with reservation)

    Though the 17th century palace is only open on specific days (since it’s still in use by the Imperial family), it’s well-worth the visit. Stroll through East Higashi-Gyoen Garden, and take a trip to the Imperial days of the Edo period to better understand the heart of this wonderful, complex culture.

    15. Sapporo, Hokkaido

    札幌市

    • Location: Hokkaido Island
    • Ideal for: festivals, culinary events, sightseeing
    • Best time to visit: May and September-October
    • Cost: ¥1000

    Whether you’re looking for a rich culinary experience, or wish to explore more of the cultural history of Japan, Sapporo is the place to be. The location of numerous festivals, and of the famous aerial tramway, the city is also home to the Sapporo TV Tower and in winter, the Sapporo Snow Festival (yearly in February).

    Guided Tours for Sightseeing in Japan

    You can choose to visit these on your own, or sign up for a guided tour. As Covid-19 restrictions around the country have eased, guided tours have once more opened for business. 

    Luckily, you can pick out the tour that’s best suited to your tastes, whether it’s a 1-day sightseeing tour through Tokyo, or a day trip to Mt. Fuji. Many tourists find guided tours to be a great help, as they provide structure to their visits. They also allow you to meet new people, especially if you’re traveling alone, and thanks to your guide, give you better insight into the country’s rich culture.

    You can use websites like Viator.com to pick and choose tours for your selected cities. Alternatively, you can go to a tour operator like Go with Guide, Samurai Tours or Japan Deluxe Tours to help organize the best custom trip for you.

    Tourism in Japan and experiencing beautiful nature

    5 Places Off the Beaten Path

    We gave you the hottest tourist attractions, and now we’re ending it on an obscure note. Below, you’ll find our five favorite “hidden gem” attractions in Japan.

    1. Noboribetsu Onsen 

    登別温泉, Hokkaido

    Getting its name from the Ainu word “Nupurupetsu” (dark, cloudy river), the Noboribetsu Onsen is one of the most exciting hot springs in Japan. Enjoy a hot soak in one of the country’s most unique sceneries, surrounded by mountains, in a 10-thousand-year-old crater. 

    2. Nishinomaru Garden

    西の丸庭園

    Extremely close to Osaka Castle, this unusual garden is best visited during the cherry blossom season. Within this isolated garden, you’ll find some unique flowers, as well as some much-needed peace and respite in the heart of a big city like Osaka. This one might not land on everyone's must-see sightseeing in Japan destinations, but I promise the natural beauty and relaxed atmosphere make the trip well worthwhile. 

    3. Aokigahara Suicide Forest

    青木ヶ原

    Now this one is really not for everyone, but the infamous Aokigahara Suicide Forest, known for its abundance of trees, is sure to send some shivers down your spine. A place of dark adventures, it’s said that Aokigahara is the home of paranormal events, and of course, the site of numerous suicides.

    4. Nagoro Island

    名頃かかしの里

    Speaking of creepy, Nagoro Island should be the next stop on your list. Located in the Iya Valley in the Tokushima Prefecture, the little town is also known as “Scarecrow Island”. As is the case with many small towns, the population started shrinking some decades before, as the people started leaving to look for work elsewhere. Slowly, the island was deserted, until artist Tsukimi Ayano visited. Inspired by the eerie setting, she made over three hundred lifelike dolls, in memory of each inhabitant of the village.

    5. Risshakuji Temple

    山寺立石寺

    High up in the mountains of Yamagata City, the Risshakuji Temple is situated at the end of a climb not for the faint of heart. Getting to this hidden, isolated temple is quite the physical challenge. However, travelers say it’s well worth it, thanks to the profound peace, and unique sights from atop the mountain.

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    Final thoughts

    And there we have it! Our favorite spots across the country to make your experience sightseeing in Japan memorable, unique, and insightful into the wonderfuld world of Japanese culture. Once you decide on a place, there are, of course, many (and I mean many, many) more attractions for you to add to your list! If you're spending some time around Tokyo,  take a look at our staff recommendations for the Top 20 Things to Do in Shibuya!

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