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12 Beautiful Places to Visit in Japan

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If you’ve landed on this guide then let’s start by making one thing clear: Japan is an absolutely beautiful country. We spent 3 weeks exploring the country, and I swear every block we walked down was beautiful. So if you’re feeling overwhelmed about where to visit, just know that you can’t really go wrong. With that being said, I’ve compiled a list of 12 beautiful places to visit in Japan for your next adventure. 

Prepare for your trip to Japan

Before we dive into the article, here are some of the most popular tours in Japan if you are in a rush:

Popular tours in Japan

Kamikochi

It was a no-brainer for me that Kamikochi would be on the top of this list. Kamikochi is a beautiful mountainous area in the northern part of the Japanese alps. Kamikochi is a nature lover’s dream. You’ll find sharp mountain peaks, striking blue lakes and endless hiking trails for all fitness levels.

When you arrive you’ll find a small welcome area with snacks and drinks, as well as the famous Kappa Bridge (a beautiful red bridge). This is the starting point for many of the popular hikes in the park. 

During the warmer months there are a number of popular multi-day hikes. For these hikes there is an option to camp or book a mountain hut. There are also a number of hotels. 

I highly recommend checking out Harayu onsen village for a post-hike soak in a local onsen. It is just a short 15 minute drive down the hill, with a bus station right in front. 

A beautiful fall morning in Kamikochi
A beautiful fall morning in Kamikochi

Things to know before visiting Kamikochi

  • There is no entrance fee to enter the park area
  • The park is open from mid-April to mid-November, however not all trails and huts are open throughout that entire period 
  • You can store your large luggage for 500 yen ($3.33) per day. This is a great option if you are visiting as a day trip before continuing on to a new destination. 

How to get to Kamikochi

We visited Kamikochi from Matusomoto, before continuing on to Takayama. Both provide easy direct bus access. From Matsumoto to Kamikochi the bus takes 1.5 hours, with a 5:30am bus available. There are frequent buses from Kamikochi to Takayama, with a duration of about 1 hour. Your JR Pass won’t be valid for getting to Kamikochi, as the buses are operated by private companies.

There are also direct bus options from Tokyo, but expect a longer journey. There are late night buses that depart from Tokyo around 11pm and arrive in Kamikochi around 5:30am. They depart back to Tokyo around 3:30pm. It is a similar distance from Kyoto. 

Five Shrines of Togakushi

If you’re planning a trip to Japan, I highly recommend a day trip to hike the trail of the Five Shrines of Togakushi. Located 1 hour from Nagano, Japan, the shrine area is the perfect place for enjoying Japan’s trails. Buses depart from either the main station in Nagano or by Zenkōji Temple, and take around 1 hour. 

There are multiple bus stops by the various shrines. You can walk between all 5 shrines, as we did, or simply get dropped at the one you plan to visit. We started at the Togakushi Hokosha and finished by the path to Togakushi Okusha.

If you are choosing between the upper and lower shrine area, I highly recommend the upper shrines. It is believed that the path to the upper shrines is lined with trees that are over 900 years old. 

Path to upper Togakushi shrines
Path to upper Togakushi shrines
Beautiful hiking trail between the 5 shrines
Beautiful hiking trail between the 5 shrines

The 5 shrines of Togakushi are:

  • Togakushi Hōkō-sha
  • Hino-miko-sha
  • Togakushi Chū-sha
  • Togakushi Oku-sha
  • Kuzuryu-sha

We visited in the fall (late-October) and the foliage was perfect. Unlike the more popular destinations, the crowds were minimal along the trail. While there were quite a few locals at the upper shrines, we only saw a handful of tourists all day. 

Things to know before visiting: 

  • This trail is accessible year-round. If you’re visiting in the winter, make sure to dress appropriately as the trail may be slippery.
  • Make sure to grab fresh soba noodles before or after your hike right next to the Togakushi Hokosha stop. Restaurant is 戸隠・手打ちそば つる家 on Google Maps. 

Where to stay:

If you’re planning to visit the five shrines of Togakushi, I recommend staying in Nagano. This beautiful city is just an hour bus ride from the shrines.

Matsumoto 

If I’m being honest, I had never even heard of Matsumoto before we visited, but I fell in love with the city the moment we arrived. It is an amazing, year-round destination. It’s claim to fame is Matsumotojo, one of Japan’s most beautiful castles (pictured below).

It is a medium-sized city that is easy to navigate with great access to hiking trails, such as Kamikochi.

Things to do in Matsumoto

  • Matsumotojo (Matsuomoto Castle) – the grounds are free to visit, however there is an entrance fee to enter the castle
  • Take a day trip to a wasabi farm to try the famous wasabi ice cream
  • Head to the hiking trails of Kamikochi
  • Grab a matcha latte at Storehouse Cafe & Bar
  • Enjoy a hot bowl of ramen at Mensho Sakura
  • Try a traditional izakaya meal at Hikage (make a reservation ahead of time)

Where to stay

We stayed at a hostel in Matsumoto and absolutely loved it. It was clean, quiet, and a beautiful space. It felt more like staying in a beautiful cafe, than in a hostel. Walking distance from everything, I couldn’t recommend more.

Check rates and availability

Matsumoto Castle on a sunny day
Matsumoto Castle on a sunny day

Takayama

Takayama is a beautiful mountain town in the Hida region known for a charming, historic Old Town, sake, and Hida beef. Take a short stroll through Takayama’s Edo-period style Old Town and you’ll easily find just that. 

Takayama is also a great jumping off point for a day trip to Kamikochi, which is only 1 hour away by bus. It is an amazing place to hike and camp. If you’re looking to explore something a bit closer, you can check out Hida Folk Village (Hida no Sato) instead. This is an open-air museum showcasing the historic homes of the Edo period.

Because dining options are limited, it is super important to make reservations for both lunch and dinner. We really struggled to find any availability for 2 without reservations. 

Peak foliage in Takayama, Japan
Peak foliage in Takayama, Japan

Here are some delicious food spots in Takayama to add to your list: 

  • cha-no-me cafe for matcha
  • akariya for hida beef
  • tenaga ashinaga for ramen
  • hida kotte ushi for hida beef sushi

Things to know before visiting Takayama:

  • 1-2 nights is enough time 
  • It’s a great base for day trips to Kamikochi and Shirakawago
  • Make dinner reservations in advance 
  • Don’t miss the morning market 

Where to stay:

We stayed at K’s House in Takayama, a budget hotel with private rooms. It was conveniently located just 1 block from the train station, and walking distance from all of the best things to do in Takayama.

Check rates and availability

Takayama, Japan
Takayama, Japan
Make sure to enjoy the local treats
Make sure to enjoy the local treats

Mt Kurama 

I’m honestly shocked that more people aren’t talking about this beautiful shrine area. Mt Kurama is a mountain and shrine area located just a short 25 min train ride north of Kyoto, and yet we only saw a handful of other tourists when we visited. 

Mount Kurama is considered a sacred mountain with great spiritual significance, especially in Japanese folklore and religious traditions.

You can hike along a mountain pass and visit a number of beautiful shrines along the way. It’s the perfect half day 2 hour hike from Kyoto. The majority of the path is well maintained with stone steps.

The main attraction is Kurama-dera Temple, which is located near the top of the mountain, offering incredible views. 

To shorten the hike, you have the option to take a cable car part of the way up the mountain.

Things to know before visiting: 

  • Can take the train to either Kurama Station, transferring at Demachiyanagi Station, or Kibuneguchi Station
  • There a many traditional onsen baths in the area of Mt Kumara 

Where to stay

Most people visiting Mt Kurama do so as a day trip from Kyoto. Here are a few recommended hotels in Kyoto:

Mt Kumara Shrine Hike
Mt Kumara Shrine Hike
Beautiful details along the shrine walk
Beautiful details along the shrine walk

Uji 

Easily one of my favorite places in Japan is the beautiful Uji,  the historic home of matcha tea, aka my dream come true. If you know me then you know that I love matcha. I’ve drank it almost every morning for over 5 years. So of course I jumped at the chance to visit a beautiful city only 30 minutes from Kyoto that specializes in matcha.

We signed up for a matcha making class at Fukujuen Uji. This is a great place to learn about and interact with matcha. We booked the “making matcha with a stone mill” experience. The experience takes about 45 minutes and costs 1,650 yen (~$11 USD).

To get to Uji from Kyoto you can take either the JR line or Keihan line directly to Uji. The train ride is only about 30 minutes. 

Here are the most popular things to do in Uij:

  • Try matcha flavored everything (ramen, gyozas, ice cream)
  • Make your own matcha
  • Buy high-quality matcha for great price (I love Masuda Chaho)
  • Visit the beautiful Byodo-in Temple (the temple on the 10 yen coin) and museum

Where to stay

If you want to spend the night in Uji, here are a few top-rated places:

Matcha making class in Uji, Japan
Matcha making class in Uji, Japan
Byodoin Temple
Byodoin Temple

Nara 

 I’m sure this spot is already on your list, but for a good reason! Nara is one of the most beautiful places to visit in Japan! The deer are super cute, and most importantly you can get literally the best mochi ever along the main road.

How to get to Nara

You can reach Nara from Kyoto in just 45 minutes. There is a rapid train on the JR line covering this route. If you do not have a JR pass, you can also take the Nara Line and transfer to the Keihan Line. This may make more sense depending on where in the city you are staying.

Things to do in Nara

  • Feed (and bow to) the deer of Nara
  • Try the famous mochi at Nakatanidou
  • Grab lunch at Kasuya Nara Sanjo
  • Visit Kofuku-ji, a famous Buddhist temple
  • Enjoy the Kasuga Taisha
The many deer of Nara, Japan
The many deer of Nara, Japan
 The famous mochi of Nakatanidou
The famous mochi of Nakatanidou

Ohara (Sanzen-in Temple)

If you’ve visiting Kyoto, Japan, you need to take a day trip to Ohara. Just a short bus ride from Kyoto and you’ll be at one of Japan’s best hidden gems. You’ll find tons of restaurants and shops, and the beautiful Sanzen-in Temple. I highly recommend enjoying a matcha ceremony here.

How to get to Ohara

From Kyoto you can take bus 17 all the way to Ohara. If you’re starting from Kyoto Station you can also take the subway to Kokusaikaikan station, and then bus 19 to Ohara.

To reach Sanzen-in Temple from the bus stop, you’ll just need to follow a short uphill forest path. You’ll find tons of shops and food stands along the path.

Things to know before visiting

  • There is a cost of 700 yen to visit Sanzen-in Temple. It is an extra 600 yen ($3.95) per person for a matcha ceremony. 
  • If you enjoy hiking, there are beautiful trails from here that lead all the way to Mt Kurama shrine trails
Enjoying a traditional tea ceremony
Enjoying a traditional tea ceremony
Sanzen-in Temple
Sanzen-in Temple

Kanazawa

Kanazawa took me by surprise in the absolute best way. The city is beautifully split by its modern touches and historic neighborhoods — filled with cultural significance.

Must-do activities in Kanazawa:

  • Wander the grounds of Kenrokuen – one of the most beautiful gardens in Japan
  • Explore Higashi Chaya and Nishi Chaya – Kanazawa’s geisha districts
  • Visit an authentic geisha house and enjoy a traditional tea ceremony
  • Go thrifting
  • Try local food at Omicho Market – make sure to put your name in at Mori Mori Sushi
  • Try matcha flavored ice cream
  • Visit Kanazawa Castle
Kanazawa gardens - one of the most beautiful places in Japan
Kenrokuen- one of the most beautiful places in Japan
Enjoying a matcha ice cream in Kanazawa
Enjoying a matcha ice cream in Kanazawa

Tsumago

The beautiful town of Tsumago is located along the Nakasendo trail in the Kiso Valley, Japan. Tsumago is one of the best preserved and untouched post towns in Japan, maintaining the feel of the Edo Period. It truly feels like stepping back in history.

The area offers a peek into the past alongside beautiful hiking trails up the Nakasendo trail. The most famous stretch is the 9 km road between Tsumago and its neighbor, Magome. 

Make sure to enjoy a hot bowl of soba noodles and a seasonal soft cream. 

Things to know before visiting

  • No cars are allowed in Tsumago
  • Local lodging is available, but options are limited. Book in advance if you plan to overnight.
  • Most visitor experience Tsumago as a day trip (I visited from Matsumoto)

How to get to Tsumago

Tsumago is accessible from Nagiso train station on the JR Line from a number of major cities. From the station it is just a 10 minute bus ride. Buses are infrequent so make sure to time your train travel appropriately. 

Tsumago, Japan
Tsumago, Japan
Preserved Edo-period style homes
Preserved Edo-period style homes

Kyoto

Kyoto was easily one of my favorite cities that we visited throughout our three week trip in Japan. I love that it is a big city, yet you can find so many quiet peaceful areas and some amazing hiking nearby. It is undeniably busy (and packed with tourists), but I loved it anyway!

Things to do in Kyoto

  • Spend a morning at the famous Fushimi Inari Taisha
  • Visit Eikando temple
  • Take a stroll down Philosopher’s Path
  • Visit Kiyomizu-dera at sunset
  • Visit Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Temple)
  • Eat dinner along Pontocho
  • Take a day trip to Uji for a matcha making workshop

Where to stay in Kyoto

Because Kyoto is so busy, I’d recommend not staying directly in the city center. We stayed north of the city center, close to Heian Shrine. It is the perfect Kyoto base in my opinion.

Here are a few top-rated hotels in the area:

Kyoto, Japan
Kyoto, Japan
Sunset in Kyoto from Kiyomizu-dera
Sunset in Kyoto from Kiyomizu-dera

Tokyo

If you’re visiting Japan then I’m sure Japan’s capital is already on your list, but I still wanted to show some love for Tokyo. Despite a population of over 37 million people, Tokyo manages to maintain a beautiful sense of order, a rhythm in the way the masses interact as they go about their days. 

For me, Tokyo is really the perfect example of all the way Japan does things right, from efficient dining to timely public transportation. 

Best things to do in Tokyo

  • Enjoy street food in Asakusa
  • Visit Senso-ji temple
  • Experience the Tokyo Skytree
  • Try conveyor belt sushi (and stand up sushi)
  • Cross at the famous Shibuya Crossing
  • Drink unlimited sake at Sake Market
  • Watch live jazz at Jazz Spot Intro

Visiting Asia? Here are some other guides to check out:

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