Japan is on many people’s bucket lists, and rightly so! As soon as you step foot on one of its 6,852 islands, you’ll be submerged into the unique mix of ancient traditions and modern technology that defines Japan. It’s a country you can easily spend months exploring, so where should you start if you only have a few weeks?
Well, a popular travel itinerary is to start in Tokyo and take a bullet train to visit the neighboring cities of Kyoto and Osaka, before turning back towards Tokyo with a stop near Mount Fuji on the way back. And for a first time in Japan, these are definitely the top four main places you should make sure to visit. Tokyo will be your enormous, loud, bright and crazy entry into Japanese culture, whereas Kyoto and Osaka offer countless temples and Mount Fuji is an absolute must-see. I could write a book and show you well over 1,000 photos of these four amazing places!
There is however sooo much more to Japan, and even just to the central part of the country. In 2018 I spent three weeks traveling around Japan’s central and most populous island; Honshu. Here’s my list of 15 places you’ll miss if you stick to the main itinerary described above, which are absolutely worth visiting! A map at the end shows you where exactly they all are.
More temples, castles & a massive buddha
En route from Tokyo to Kyoto, you’ll pass by Japan’s fourth largest city Nagoya. Despite this city being substantially larger in size than Kyoto, it’s often skipped by tourists. You won’t need much time in this city to see its main highlights, but paying a visit to Nagoya Castle is definitely worth a stop.
A little further to the North, in the center of the Alpine town of Matsumoto, lies Matsumoto Castle. Another impressive castle worth checking out, even if only from the outside!
North from Tokyo, near the mountain town of Nikko, lies the impressive Nikko Temple Complex. Surrounded by trees possibly as old as the temples themselves, this temple complex is absolutely impressive! My personal favorite was the fierce devil statue 😉
What weighs 4 million kilos, has 10 meter long ears and can be climbed? This massive 120 meter tall buddha in the town of Ushiku known as Ushiku Daibutsu does! I didn’t actually climb or even pay entrance to see the buddha from up close, but it’s arguably even more impressive from a little further.
Throughout Japan, you’ll find pagodas in many sizes, but the most famous and most Instagrammable of them all is the Chureito Pagoda. Famous for its unmatchable backdrop of Mount Fuji, Emirates Airlines even used a picture of this amazing spot to remind me of how many days were left until my departure to Japan once we had booked. Top tip: the view is pretty much straight south, so don’t go here in the middle of the day to avoid difficult light.
This one is a bit of a combo with the first spot in the next category, Nachi Falls. The Hiro Shrine is located perfectly to get the Nachi Falls and its amazingly green mountain landscape as a backdrop!
Like I said, the Nachi Falls near the Hiro Shrine are definitely an extra place to visit in the Natural Beauty category. The photo says it all, right?
Just Southwest of Mount Fuji and not too far from the rice fields that are about to come up, lie the Shiraito Falls. The memory of this wall of waterfalls is one that I really cherish; sitting on a rock near the water for I don’t know how long, thinking about I don’t know what, watching the water fall and the ducks rock on the small waves.
If you’re going to Shiraito Falls, you might as well drive the half hour to the picturesque rice fields Obuchi Sasaba. In good weather, you’ll supposedly get amazing views of Mount Fuji. Unfortunately for me, we actually visited during one of the many many moments that Mount Fuji is hidden away behind clouds. Luckily though, a tour group showed up and the guide came prepared with a canvas of a picture of what the view should look like.
A 45-minute drive from Nikko – that I mentioned before in the list – you can start a short but demanding hike up from the parking lot at the end of the 250 road. Once you reach the top, there’s Hangetsuyama Observation Deck that gives you a pretty amazing view over Lake Chuzenji and one of Mount Fuji’s little brothers, Mount Nantai. It was a bit browner than in the photos you’ll see on Google, at least when we were there in spring.
If you’re visiting Japan in spring, make sure to visit some of the country’s many flower parks! The Japanese go crazy over the blossoms and colorful flowers, a craze which seems to peak during the Golden Week. As we were there in late April / early May, it was pretty much the perfect time for the flowers to be in full bloom.
The name says it clearly; Hitachi Seaside Park is located on Japan’s eastern coastline. The rolling hills fill with blue flowers in peak season, as well as flocks of tourists from all over the world. The best views however don’t include the ocean… Still, it’s a picturesque place worth a visit!
Another park with some impressive flower features and even an unbelievably large blossom tree in the center of it all, is the Ashikaga Flower Park. Again, lots of tourists find this park in peak season, but it’s worth it if you set your mind to this. Oh, and when you’re there, try to spot some of the hilariously useless warning signs, such as the one indicating a 20cm slope.
The third and final flower park on this list is Nabana No Sato Flower Park. This one is particularly special in winter, from mid-October to early May, as there are light installations that make the park worth visiting at night-time for an amazing spectacle. There’s even a slightly incomprehensible light show that includes a Mount Fuji replica and a bear of some kind. I Guess you’ll have to go there to try and understand it for yourself, haha.
Other truly Japanese experiences
As a bit of a left over category, there are two truly Japanese experiences that I never would have wanted to miss. The first is one that we have actually posted on our Instagram about before, and that has earned a place on our map of hidden gems. Every year, the Hamamatsu Kite Festival sets teams from every neighborhood in Hamamatsu up against each other to try and kite-fight their way to victory during the day. In the evening, a parade full of music, light and dancing crosses through the city center. An absolutely unforgettable experience, worth working into your Japan travel plan for sure!
You’ll probably go to Toyosu Fish Market when you’re in Tokyo, the more modern version of what once was Tsukiji Fish Market. Back in 2018, we still visited the Tsukiji Market a few months before it closed, but chose not to try and get into the auction, as we heard it’s a bit of a hassle. Instead, we visited another Seafood Market in the tiny town of Kii-Katsuura, JF Katsuura Seafood Market. There, we were the only tourists watching the 7AM auction, with fishermen showing off their catch to the picky buyers. They use hooks to inspect the quality of the tuna, and load the ones they buy into the back of their tiny pickup vans. To be honest, this morning followed a rather interesting and late night of eating and drinking in an Izakaya with some local welders, which meant the smell of tuna wasn’t really a welcome one, but that didn’t make the experience any less impressive.
Curious to see where any or all of these locations are? The map below shows you where you’ll find them! Which one do you think you’ll add to your Japan itinerary?