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One of the most daunting things about any international trip is deciding where to go once you get to that country. If you’re coming to Japan, you’re probably flying into Tokyo, staying here for a bit, and then taking advantage of your JR Rail Pass to travel the country.
But where are you going? And why? Sure, see some temples and shrines. Or a castle. Or a giant Buddha. Or an art museum. Which one, though? In what city? Do you even know what prefecture that’s in?
TripAdvisor has saved you some time poring through guidebooks and watching NHK specials to bring you 30 of the most popular sightseeing spots in Japan as voted by foreign tourists just like yourselves (2014 June). Here is a run-down of the list, from #30 to #1, with a brief description and reviews.
30. Shinsaibashi (Osaka)www.cbre-propertysearch.jp
Shinsaibashi is the main street of Osaka as well as the central shopping hub. Here, you can find everything from giant brand-name stores (including the self-proclaimed largest Puma store in the world) to tiny, cramped shops selling anything from ceramics to secondhand dolls to clothes. Amerika-mura, or the “American village,” is also considered part of Shinsaibashi and is Kansai’s equivalent of Takeshita-dori in Harajuku – otherwise known as the mecca of youth.
“Even without a destination, just wandering around is fun: You really feel like there’s everything complete from high-class brands to variety shops. Just looking around is fun, but if you come here, at any rate, it’s shopping.” – mikiwu1006 from Okinawa
29. Nishiki Market (Kyoto)www.plaholi.com
The Nishiki Market (or Nishiki Ichiba) is a very long street with 100+ shops and restaurants. Most of the shops have to do with food – selling produce, fish, meat or cookware. You can also get free samples here, which may be the best part about it if you’re just wandering through.
“Looking around is great, and eating and walking is great: This is a place to take a peek at Kyoto’s food culture. In the narrow alleyway, different shops crowd together. Lots of delicious-looking food is being sold, and just wandering around looking at everything is fun. Depending on the shop, you can eat there, and even though it’s a little rude you can eat and walk while looking every which way. During the New Year’s there are so many people it’s hard to walk.” – sutori-mu from Tokyo
28. Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry & Technology (Nagoya)sizukanonikki.blog.fc2.com
This museum was founded by the Toyota Group and doesn’t have the focus on cars that you think it does: instead, it exhibits the history and development of the automatic loom.
“Definitely amazed with the history of Toyota. You would not have thought that they started as a weaving company. The dream of Sakichi Toyoda is clearly displayed in the museum. From his early years to his best work. They also show the history of Toyota Motors. Visitors would enjoy visiting the museum because it is very interactive.” – Pj_rtd
27. Video Game Bar Space Station(Osaka)www.tripadvisor.jp
Space Station Osaka is exactly what it says in the title: it’s a video game bar with retro systems, like the Nintendo 64 and the Famicom, hooked up throughout the place.
“This was our first visit to Osaka, and we found all of the bars to be really charming and accommodating. You don’t have to be great at video games to enjoy a drink here; I freely admit my companions and I are awful at video games, but they do try and help you find something you’re good at. Sadly for us there’s nothing we’re good at.
Otherwise, the bartender was so friendly and helpful. And, luckily for us, it was Hanukkah and they had bagels. Cool theme, friendly service and bagels! Oh, the drinks were nice, too. If you’re in Osaka, you should definitely check out this bar.” – therealmissrita from the US
26. Kaiyukan (Osaka)www.kaiyukan.com
The Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan was voted best aquarium in Asia by TripAdvisor users and is also ranked as the 13th best aquarium in the world. Its aim is to recreate the natural environment of the surrounding ocean and contains several interactive and world-leading exhibits.
“If you plan on spending some time in Osaka, please pay this Aquarium a visit. It was a couple of metro stations away from city center. The Aquarium is ginormous in size. Variety of aquatic species found. So fun and yet so relaxing at the same time. It’s for all ages. I find it took away some of the stress we had as tourists always on our feet and travelling from one place to another. We got to just enjoy this at our own pace and see another side of Japan. The huge aquarium in the middle of the building is many floors high, and the it was easy to navigate through.” – Trisha_Andrea from Canada
Check here for the tickets to Kaiyukan Aquarium.
25. Sensoji (Tokyo)Photo by Fon-tina on Flickr
Sensoji is the most important Buddhist temple in the Japan and is one of the top tourist sites in the country. It is located in the heart of Asakusa.
“I come here every year for the first temple visit of the new year! I went on January 3rd. There were lots of people bustling in the Nakamise, and there were lots of stores where you could get food to eat while walking around. After I visited the temple, lots of stalls were set up and it got even more fun. The buttered potato I had was so delicious~~. [sic]” – yukams from Tokyo
Check here for the Asakusa Private Walking Tour.
24. Shibuya Center Gai (Tokyo)Photo by kirainet on Flickr
The Center Gai is a street in Udagawacho in the Shibuya district of Tokyo. It is basically, as the name suggests, the “center” of Shibuya, and contains lots of shops, restaurants, bars and clubs. It is reached immediately after crossing the “scramble crossing,” or the busy pedestrian crosswalk Shibuya is known for.
“What a sight at night! So I visited the main Tokyo city centre of Shibuya at day and it was pretty good seeing the crossing and town but not quite what i expected, I then returned on the night time and it was a whole different world it was amazing, lights and signs everywhere with the streets crowded with people it was an amazing atmosphere!” – Stephen B from England
23. Dotonbori (Osaka)ja.wikipedia.org
Dotonbori is one of the main entertainment, food and shopping areas of Osaka that runs along the Dotonbori canal. It is often known as the place where the Glico Running Man sign is displayed.
“A tourist trap of the very best kind: When in Osaka, do what the locals AND the tourists do – go to the Dotonburi district. We found ourselves there on a daily basis, either as a convenient “walk – through” or as a destination in itself. Of course, this area is loaded with tiny bars and restaurants, especially at night but during the daytime, be sure to include a visit to the Standard Bookstore, a treasure trove of books, magazines, clothing, music with a café downstairs.” – MelbourneMeg_12 from Australia
22. Nara Park (Nara)find-travel.jp
Nara Park is home to the famous Todai-ji temple with a giant Buddha. However, it is also known for the thousands of deer that just wander freely around the grounds.
“Nice walk between Nara JR and Nara Park: There are a number of interesting shops along the approach road to Nara Park, which makes the 20 minutes walk quite pleasurable. The Park itself is not scenic in winter, but still there is a nice pagoda for good pictures, and the deers do roam freely. They even come in and out of the park and cross the street like pedestrians.” – beacon from Hong Kong
21. Jigokudani Monkey Park (Nagano)Photo by dugspr — Home for Good on Flickr
“Jigokudani” means “Hell’s Valley,” but the only hellish thing about this park is the steam and bubbles of boiling water coming out of the ground due to the hot springs (onsen). (Don’t worry, it’s not dangerous, unless the water ices over – then be careful.) Otherwise, if you think you’ll be seeing monkeys here, you’re right: Japanese macaques, or snow monkeys, just hang out in the onsen during the winter days and go home to the forest after nightfall.
“Magical experience: Hiked in on a snowy day. Pleasant, flat, hike on well-packed snowy trail. Note that you can rent rubber boots and other outdoor gear at the trailhead. About 30-40 hike min with kids. It was somewhat crowded but we were all transfixed by the ‘human-like’ behaviour of the monkeys. You can get really close and take great photos. There is a small visitor center right there – this was nice for warming up and getting the kids some hot chocolate. Some reports mentioned the area being dirty, but with the winterscape everything looked very picturesque. [sic]” – Sbrewgan from Malaysia
20. Meiji-jingu (Tokyo)Photo by Gary0801 on Flickr
Meiji-jingu, or Meiji Shrine, is located in the heart of Tokyo near the busy Harajuku district, and is known as one of the best “escapes” in the city due to its peaceful and isolated forest-like feel. It is dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken.
“Favorite place in Tokyo: I loved this shrine as it is set in a little forest and you have to walk through the stillness to get there. A little oasis of calm against the crazy fun of Tokyo. The shrine itself was beautiful and I was lucky to see two weddings while I was there – one in the traditional colours and one in white. Really a must see…..” – Antcav18 from London
19. Mori Art Museum (Tokyo)doctor-hoorn.way-nifty.com
The Mori Art Museum is a contemporary art museum that showcases traveling/temporary exhibits. It is located inside the Roppongi Hills complex, at the top of the Mori Tower.
“Art that feels close to you: The Mori Art Museum’s exhibits are mostly contemporary. Even though it’s located within the Roppongi Art Triangle, it feels like it’s the easiest one to go to. Included in the ticket price is a Tokyo city view (from the Roppongi Hills viewing platform), so after you appreciate the art it’s also good to see a beautiful night view.” – m1zuk1 from Tokyo
18. Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum (Nagasaki)www.asahiya-net.com
This museum, like its counterpart in Hiroshima, aims to preserve the memory of the victims of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki by Allied forces on August 9, 1945. It also details the history of nuclear weapons, facts of their use and the impact they have had and will continue to have. Part of the museum is the Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims, which is the site where the bomb was dropped.
“A place to learn from human tragedy: A somber place to reflect upon a ugly period of human behavior, to see a first hand account of what happened to the people on the other side of the war. In any war, there were no winners or losers, but human suffering. They did a good job of portraying a landmark teaching the next generations about what could and would happen to them if lessons were not remembered and learned. I commend all the Japanese teachers bringing their students, pupils here to ponder, to absorb, and to learn something they could not have done insides a classroom.” – TravelMakesMeHumble from the US
17. Nijo Castle (Kyoto)mery.jp
Nijo Castle in Kyoto consists of the Ninomaru Palace and the ruins of the Honmaru Palace. It is designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
“We went to the Castle this afternoon and spent around two hours at the castle complex. We thought it was very good overall, and with a few minor improvements it would’ve been an excellent place to visit.
We loved the highly manicured gardens and ponds with their rock formations and waterfalls. Some of the castle’s architecture externally was simply breathtaking but the interior of the main palace was rather sparse as there were lots of renovation works being undertaken at the time. Not to say it wasn’t interesting by any stretch. Also the lack of any information in English did detract from our overall experience during our visit. I think in hindsight we would’ve really benefited from hiring the English audio guide.
Overall this was absolutely worth a visit especially to break up the number of shrines the typical Kyoto tourist visits.” – Ross P
16. Robot Restaurant (Tokyo)r.gnavi.co.jp
The Robot Restaurant in Tokyo is located in the somewhat seedy area of Shinjuku’s Kabukicho. Rather than having robots serve you and hang around while you eat, the attraction of the kitschy Robot Restaurant is that busty robots (operated by ladies in bikinis) battle each other while you sit in the audience.
“Random: The robot show is one not to be missed! It was the most random crazy thing we saw in Tokoyo and was quite entertaining. There isn’t much of a story line but the lights, dancing, and music keep you engaged. I rated the value slightly lower because we paid ¥7000 and didn’t get a bento box. Lonely Planet said the show was ¥4000 which would have been perfect for the value.” – Amy T from the US
15. Kenroku-en (Ishikawa)kyuukeisimashou.at.webry.info
The Kenroku-en gardens in Ishikawa are one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan that dates back to the 1600s. It was made and kept by the Maeda clan.
“Consistently amazing: I actually live in Kanazawa and have visited Kenrokuen all throughout the year, and no matter the time of year, it’s a beautiful visit. My most recent visit was in winter, so all the trees had Yukizuri, which are like branch support ropes that are beautiful in the snow. This place is a must see no matter what time of year you visit Kanazawa.” – Chris S
14. Arashiyama Monkey Park Iwatayama (Kyoto)basseyboost.com
This monkey park is located on Arashiyama and is exactly what it sounds like: a park full of monkeys (Japanese macaques). You can feed the monkeys, though they are wild.
“Worth the hike: Really enjoyed the Monkey Park – it was particularly nice to get out of the city and into some nature. It is very reasonably priced. It wasn’t busy when we were there (around 3:30pm on a December weekday) – the views of Kyoto were spectacular and the monkeys were very entertaining. Make sure you also go to the nearby Bamboo Grove – it was illuminated from 5pm when we were there, which was beautiful.” – Karen S from Australia
13. Sanjusangen-do (Kyoto)Photo by rafm0913 on Flickr
Sangusangen-do is an active Buddhist temple in Kyoto. Its name literally translates to “hall with thirty-three spaces between columns,” which is exactly how the hall was built. Inside, you can see a thousand statues of the housed deity, the Thousand-Armed Kannon, most of which date from the 13th century.
“My favorite attraction in Kyoto – literally 100 Buddhas: We visited the House of a Thousand Buddhas after the much too touristy Fushimi Irani. This was much better than Fushimi Inari. Highly recommend. Kannon, one thousand standing statues of Kannon and one gigantic seated statue in the center of the temple. Statues made of Japanese cypress from 12 and 13th centuries.” – marienjnj from the US
12. Matsumoto Castle (Nagano)Photo by ianmcburnie on Flickr
Matsumoto Castle is one of Japan’s main historic castles and is sometimes called the “Crow Castle” because of its black color.
“A highlight: Matsumoto castle is one of those places that really makes your jaw drop when you see it. Big, bold and stunningly beautiful on a blue sky day. My 6 year old son really enjoyed it, and hearing about how the ‘ninjas’ would defend it with arrows and guns. There is a good display of weapons inside. Make sure you dress warmly and wear extra socks in winter as it was cold inside. But well worth it. if you are like me, you will take a LOT of photos. Don’t forget to go back at night and see it lit up.” – AlexisGlenn from Australia
11. Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium (Okinawa)Photo by Greg Miles on Flickr
The Churaumi Aquarium – which is named for “chura,” or the Okinawan word for “beautiful/graceful,” and “umi,” the Japanese word for “ocean” – is part of the Ocean Expo Park in Okinawa. It was once the largest aquarium in the world, until 2005.
“Best aquarium in Japan: Great location, beautiful design, stunning central tank. The drive up from south/central Okinawa is a chance to see local attractions, experience authentic food and demonstrate your knowledge of Japanese driving laws. Once on site, the extensive parking, wide open design and neighboring beach park will provide half a day or more of fun for any family.” – HokkaidoG from Hokkaido
10. Narita-san Shinsho-ji (Chiba)www1.odn.ne.jp
Shinsho-ji, which dates back to 940, is a Buddhist temple on Mt. Narita (within the vicinity of Narita International Airport). It is comprised of several buildings and grounds, and is one of the most well-known temples in the Kanto area.
“Nice temple close to airport: This temple is not particularly spectacular- there are many spectacular temples in Japan- but it is very close to the airport. Great for long layovers, or when your flight gets canceled and the next one isn’t for 24 hours (as happened with us). Simply take the train out and go for a walk. It has beautiful grounds, serene architecture, and typical temple stands and shops around the area.” – C0rnmuffin from the US
9. Hakone Open-Air Museum (Hakone, Kanagawa)Photo by Bob Owen on Flickr
This is Japan’s first open-air museum, located in the lush, nature-filled area of Hakone. It contains over one thousand pieces of art.
“Art in a park: If you are ever anywhere near the Hakone Open-Air Museum of Art, grab the chance to visit. The setting is stunning with mountains all round it and the artworks are always interesting and often superb. They include two large works on which children can climb and play, a tower of stained glass with a spiral staircase up the inside (called Symphonic Sculpture), a hot-spring footbath, a Picasso building, works by Henry Moore and Antony Gormley and many other well-known artists. We spent an entire afternoon there and only left because they were closing. As others have noted, you need to allow lots of time to appreciate this fabulous museum.” – JudoK from England
8. Shinjuku Gyoen (Tokyo)Photo by kirainet on Flickr
Shinjuku Gyoen is another one of Tokyo’s famed “escapes” as it is a large garden in the middle of one of the busiest areas of the city. During the Edo period, it was a private residence, but it has come under the control of the Ministry of the Environment. It contains French, English and Japanese garden sections.
“Lovely oasis in the middle of Tokyo: This large park is a quiet retreat surrounded by a busy city of 4 million people. A small admission charge allows one to wander through several different garden themes, over bridges, and around a small lake. Some areas are more wild. Others are very manicured. There is a large grassy area where families can stretch out on blankets and enjoy the peaceful setting. A lovely place to recharge.” – bjfast from Canada
7. Kiyomizu-dera (Kyoto)Photo by Jaime Pérez on Flickr
Kiyomizu-dera is one of the must-see temples in Kyoto and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is easily recognized by its large veranda, which overlooks the mountain the temple stands on. The trees are most brilliant during the fall foliage season.
“Great complex: Despite ongoing renovations and rather cold winter, we had such a good time here. We strolled down the tea pot alley with many interesting shops and restaurants on the way up to the temple. Once we are at the temple, huge crowds even in winter, but we stil were able to enjoy the breathtaking view from the balcony and appreciated this great structure. This is a must visit in Kyoto.” – Hendrik0711 from Indonesia
6. Mt. Koya (Wakayama)Photo by Christopher Chan on Flickr
Mt. Koya, or Koya-san, is a collection of mountains in Wakayama that is known as the headquarters of the Koyasan (Mt. Koya) Shingon sect of Buddhism. The area is home to several sacred sites, including a pilgrimage route up the range.
“A wonderful mix of the beautiful and the eerie. I could walk around in here for hours.
Surrounded by 100 year old cedar trees and consisting of over 200,000 tombs and monuments for the deceased. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever experienced and would not hesitate to recommend and go back to visit again.
I was lucky enough to go on a night walking tour run by a monk and one of the temples, if you get this opportunity then definitely go! It was informative and interesting and he had a good sense of humour.” – Rhiannon K from Australia
5. Todai-ji (Nara)Photo by wallyg on Flickr
Todai-ji is a well-known Buddhist temple complex and is also the headquarters of the Kegon school of Buddhism. Its main hall contains the world’s largest wooden Buddha statue. As with many places in Nara, wild deer can be seen walking around the grounds.
“It’s the largest wooden temple in the world. Its style can be dated back to the Tang dynasty in China. Looking at the giant Buddha makes people feel peaceful. Although the ticket costs a few hundred yens. It’s still a must-see in Nara. Personally speaking, it’s one of the spots which can represent Nara.” – tomespirit from Taiwan
4. Kinkaku-ji (Kyoto)Photo by Christian Junker – AHKGAP on Flickr
Kinkaku-ji, or the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, is perhaps one of the most well-known temples in the world. It is a Zen Buddhist temple that is mostly covered in gold leaf and is surrounded by a garden from the Muromachi era, which is when Japanese garden designs flourished.
“The beauty of Kinkaku-ji is something that will move you. During the fall foliage season, the contrast between the autumn colors and Kinkaku-ji is so stunningly beautiful it will stay with you forever. It makes me think I want to come here again and again.” – yzpic from Tokyo
3. Itsukushima-jinja (Miyajima, Hiroshima)Photo by nophoto.nolife on Flickr
Itsukushima-jinja is a UNESCO World Heritage site and, though it contains actual shrine grounds, is most famous in Japan and throughout the world for its large red torii gate, which stands on the shore and appears to float during high tide.
“A fairly standard shrine in many ways, but the interesting part about this one is being able to see the tide coming and going from the wooden raised platforms on which the shrine is built. There is a large area from which you get a perfect view across the bay to the “floating” torii gate and there is always a queue for people getting their picture in front of the view! There are also many really interesting bronze statues dotted around, and the usual charms and votive tablets are available.” – JenLGH from Tokyo
2. Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (Hiroshima)www.kubikikanko.com
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, like its Nagasaki counterpart, aims to preserve the memory of the victims of the atomic bomb that Allied forces dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The museum places a strong emphasis on the elimination of all nuclear weapons and international peace.
“It made me think a lot: This is a place you absolutely have to go to reflect on the war. For those who have never thought about the war before, I think this place will be what makes them begin to think about it. You should go at least once. You will think, from the bottom of your heart, that war is a heartbreaking thing.” – yo-pe-pa
1. Fushimi Inari-taisha (Kyoto)Photo by Loïc Lagarde on Flickr
Fushimi Inari-taisha in Kyoto is the head shrine of Inari, the Shinto kami (god) represented by foxes. The shrine can be accessed by going up a mountain through paths covered by torii gates. These paths have been featured in several movies, television series, and anime, including the film Memoirs of a Geisha.
“Beautiful Inari: This is an iconic shrine seen on many travel posters and is a must see if you’re in Kyoto. Beautiful vermillion timber archways snake up the mountainside. There’s little shops at the bottom selling souvenirs, food and drinks, you can spend the whole day here. Will definitely go back.” – Linda B from Australia