10 places in Japan that need to be on your itinerary

The weird and wonderful country that will satisfy anyone’s travel tastes

Japan is truly something different. The land of the rising sun is a place where tradition and technology have learned to coexist peacefully. There is an incredible divide between the gigantic metropolitan cities with their shimmering skyscrapers and constant energy, and the sleepy rural villages, picturesque mountains, natural hot springs and diverse wildlife.

Being a country that always had conservative immigration policies, Japan has developed a truly unique way of being, starting from art and architecture, and including culture, culinary scene and societal norms that are completely different from the rest of the world.

Although Japan seems like the place that has everything and can cater to everyone’s needs, it can be a bit daunting with so much choice. But don’t you worry, Smart Lemur is here to help. Check out our top list of the most amazing places that absolutely need to be on your travel itinerary.

1. Tokyo

Tokyo is the hip and modern side of Japan. The bustling capital city offers amazing eateries, extravagant shopping centres and other strange and unusual attractions you would not find anywhere else. Emerge yourself in its gastronomical paradise, as Tokyo is known as one of the best foodie destinations in the world.

Being such a large and densely populated metropolitan city, it is no surprise that tourists are amazed by the sheer amount of people around them. To get a good perspective of the population, Tokyo’s famous pedestrian crossing by Shibuya Station is a sight to behold. Roughly 2.8 million people cross the street at some point of the day. Get a bird’s eye view and watch the world go by.

2. Kyoto

If Tokyo is the energetic and modern side of Japan, Kyoto is the opposite. With its traditional architecture, colourful Geishas, peaceful monasteries and lush bamboo forests, it stands out as the place you would visit to get a glimpse of what Japan used to look like. Fushimi Inari Shrine is probably the most iconic place in Kyoto. It is the main shrine dedicated to the rice god Inari and is most famous for the thousands of red gates that lead to the shrine’s entrance. The gates were donated as an offering by individuals and companies. The larger the gate, the larger the donation made to the shrine. It takes about an hour to walk with many vendors and restaurants along the way. Complete your visit with a treat of kaiseki-ryōri, a multi-course banquet of seasonal delicacies that you can try at the 400-year-old restaurant Nakamura-rō in Gion.

3. Hiroshima

Hiroshima is the main city of its region with a population of over a million inhabitants. Sadly, the city is known by most because of the tragic Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings during the 2nd World War. Although most of the city was destroyed, Hiroshima was quick to rebuild. Historical monuments such as the Hiroshima Castle and Shukkeien Gardens were reconstructed and a memorial park took shape in the middle of the city to commemorate the victims. A less known attraction of Hiroshima are the floating gates of the Itsukushima Shrine. The gates are constructed on the coast of the Miyajima island and look like they are floating during high tide.

4. Nikko

Nikko is a temple town a few hours away from Tokyo. It is a great destination to get away from the hustle and bustle of the capital city and enjoy the intricate and lavish temples surrounded by old cedar woods. The main attraction of the town is definitely the Toshogu Shrine, where the legendary Tokugawa Ieyasu, the creator of the last feudal Japan’s military government, Tokugawa shogunate, is enshrined. Nikko also has plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy, including hiking trails, lakes, waterfalls and hot springs. If you’re after a true medieval experience, the town even has a theme park called Edo wonderland dedicated to recreate Japan’s Edo era.

5. Nara

The city of Nara seems to be like many other temple cities in Japan. It has ancient Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, but this is not the city’s main attraction. This city is most famous for its thousands of deer. Although the deer are considered wild, thousands of them roam the city streets and have grown accustomed to people so much that they actively approach humans for food and even let people pet them. This has become such a tourist draw that vendors started selling special crackers to feed the deer. According to the legend, a white deer carried a Japanese deity from the North of Japan all the way to Nara and since then, all deer in Nara were given divine status. Although no one thinks that Nara deer are divine anymore, they have learned a unique trick that proves to be very charming: if you bow to the deer, they will bow back to you. Even the deer are polite in Japan!

6. Hokkaido

Hokkaido is the northernmost island of Japan. It is the least developed and has the harshest climate out of the four main islands of Japan. It’s most famous for its pristine nature and delicious seafood. Hokkaido’s untouched nature draws outdoor enthusiasts, and winters here see an influx of skiers and snowboarders, while the warmer months attract hikers, cyclists and campers. Great way to explore the island is to start at a larger city - Sapporo or Hakodate - and work your way out into the more remote places of the island.

7. Osaka

Osaka is an economic powerhouse only rivaled by Tokyo. In the late 15th century Osaka was the center of the nation’s government and almost became the nation’s capital city, but after a shift in power, Edo was named the capital city (today’s Tokyo). Historically Osaka’s people pride themselves on being down to earth, less formal and more open in comparison to people living in Tokyo. Being a busy place, one of the most attractive Osaka’s spots is the Dotonbori nightlife district. It’s best visited at night to get the full experience of the neon lights, delicious street food and traditional performances.

8. Mt. Fuji

Mount Fuji is one of the main symbols of Japan and arguably one of the best-known mountains in the world. It stands at 3776 meters tall and is Japan’s highest mountain. Mount Fuji’s symmetry, whitecap summit and volcanic activity have made it the focus of art works and even worship throughout the years. The north side of the mountain is surrounded by five lakes that are known for their resorts, outdoor activities and hot springs. Although there are many attractions around Mount Fuji, it’s also nice just to find a good spot and admire Mount Fuji itself. Being such a tall mountain, it can be seen from far away.

9. Nagasaki

Nagasaki is one of Japan's port cities that are closest to the Asian mainland. It has played a strategically and economically important role throughout the years with its 5km of natural sea port. Nagasaki has about half a million of inhabitants and is the second city tragically known for the atomic bombings of World War II.

Nagasaki is also home to the Battleship Island. It’s an island that served as a coal mine until 1974 and had over 5,000 residents crammed in 480 meters long, 150 meters wide island. At one point it was the most densely populated place on earth. The shortage of space meant that all buildings had to be tall and the island started to resemble a battleship. The name of the island - "Gunkanjima" - actually means "battleship island" in Japanese. After the coal mine was closed, the residents had to move out and the island is now full of ghostly dilapidated buildings that look like they are going to collapse any minute. Tourists have the opportunity to visit this erie island to get a better perspective of what it was like to live in such a densely populated place.

10. Okinawa island

Okinawa is a very remote cluster of islands in the south of Japan. It is actually closer to Taiwan than it is to the rest of Japan.

It is known as the place where people live the longest lives on earth. Japanese people in general live longer than any other nation, and Okinawa inhabitants live longer than average Japanese: on average, women live till 90 and men till 84 years of age. It is said that people live so long here due to their low-carb diets, happy, relaxed lifestyle, communal living and lots of movement, including the mastery of the fighting arts.

The largest island of this prefecture, Okinawa Haro, has some truly magnificent urban areas in the middle of the island and some natural wonders in the less populated areas south and north of the island. The island is home to Sefa Utaki, a sacred site of the Okinawan religion, the Hiji waterfall in the north of the island.

Japan is a magnificent place, from its ultra modern cities to small temple towns and beautiful nature. The people are polite and friendly, making them perfect hosts for any traveler wanting to experience Japan - either for the very first time or as a loyal return visitor that just can’t resist the charms of this unique, enchanting country.