If you’re someone who’s excited by the prospect of new cultural experiences, then odds are, Japan is one of the first places on your travel bucket list, and rightly so.
The land of the rising sun, as it’s known, is a land of stark contrasts, a place that marries the values of a sepia-toned traditional past with a hypermodern, neon-soaked future. There truly is no place quite like Japan, so if you get the chance to spend time exploring it, you should snatch it with both hands and aim to take in as much as you can while you’re there.
From Osaka to Tokyo, let’s walk through some of Japan’s most vibrant and fascinating places to visit, shining a light on what makes each location so special.
Osaka: A foodie’s dream
We begin our journey in Osaka, one of Japan’s three largest cities, located in the Kansai region of the country’s largest island, Honshu. As a hub of commerce and food trade since the Edo era, the city has developed strong culinary roots, earning it the nickname “Tenka no Daidokoro”, meaning “The Nation’s Kitchen”. So, if you’ve only got time to do one thing in Osaka, sampling the local cuisine should definitely be it.
To get the full Osaka experience, your best bet is to head to the Dōtonbori district. There, you’ll be able to walk along the area’s famous canal and immerse yourself in the atmosphere of Osaka’s liveliest hotspot. All the while, you can avail yourself of some of the mouth-watering street food for which Osaka has become so well-known. While visiting, be sure to try “Takoyaki”, a delicious savory snack consisting of balls of fried batter stuffed with minced octopus. If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, some vendors even sell gluten-free and vegan versions.
For an even more authentic experience, don’t miss the famous Kuromon Ichiba Market, where splendors of Japanese cuisine, both traditional and modern, abound.
Nara: A haven for nature lovers
Hop on a train from Osaka, and in less than an hour you’ll find yourself in the picturesque city of Nara. This city was once the capital of Japan for a brief time in the 8th century AD and is steeped in history and culture. It is known for its natural cultural sites, such as Isuien Garden, and Tōdai-ji temple, which houses an enormous 15-meter-tall bronze Buddha statue.
With a population of around 360,000, Nara is a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Japan’s larger cities, like Osaka. Rather, it is a far more provincial and tranquil place and is famed for the harmony with which its people co-exist with the local wildlife. Amazingly, the city is home to well over a thousand deer, all of whom are free to roam, leading to some occasionally magical and often hilarious moments for visitors.
Be sure to visit Nara Park to spend some time with the city’s majestic mascots. If you have time, it’s also worth walking up the nearby Mount Wakakusayama to enjoy stunning views of the local landscape.
Kyoto: An insta-paradise
Another short trip by bus or train will take you to Kyoto, AKA ‘The City of Flowers’. This location is known for its stunning beauty, with temples, teahouses, and pristine gardens across the city.
Perhaps the most striking of all is the famed Fushimi Inari Shrine. With its iconic vermillion torii gates, this landmark is eminently instagrammable, while at the same time remaining authentically spiritual in a way that is so distinctly and uniquely Japanese. It’s an absolute must-visit for any traveler.
For an otherworldly experience, head to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, in the Arashiyama district. Here, you’ll find an entire forest made of bamboo, with some stalks stretching as high as 50 meters into the sky. Not only is it a unique visual marvel, but the swaying of the bamboo in the wind also creates a stunning soundscape unlike anything you’ll encounter almost anywhere else.
For another quintessentially Japanese experience, visit Kyoto’s historic Gion district. Here, you’ll see traditional Geishas, of whom there remain only around a thousand, traversing the streets between the traditional teahouses, giving this place an incredibly timeless feel.
Tokyo: The quintessential metropolis
Our last stop is Tokyo. As one of the world’s most populous megacities, this place needs no introduction, and there are a host of sights, sounds, and flavors to experience, regardless of your taste. Needless to say, it’s impossible to see all of what Tokyo has to offer in a day, week, month, or even a year, but you can start by exploring some of the city’s most iconic areas.
Hit up Shinjuku to see jaw-dropping skyscrapers and explore one of the world’s most vibrant urban entertainment districts. Here, you can explore a wealth of shops, theatres, and restaurants, and visit some uniquely Japanese net cafes to see how locals are using the Internet in Japan. What’s more, this area has some of the best nightlife Japan has to offer, including some incredible karaoke and izakaya bars.
To experience some of Tokyo’s famously colorful culture, head to Harajuku. The shops here are strewn with trendy boutiques and vintage clothing shops, and the streets are mobbed with the city’s fashionable youth. If you love alternative and hipster culture, Harajuku is not to be missed.
Finally, to get the true inner-city Tokyo experience, you need to visit Shibuya and cross the iconic Shibuya crossing, accessible via the Hachikō exit at Shibuya station. It is estimated that around 2,000 people traverse his famous piece of asphalt every couple of minutes, so things can get pretty hectic, but it will be a moment you’ll never forget.
Starting your journey across Japan
Japan is one of the most fascinating places to visit in Asia, and its beauty lies in the captivating juxtapositions of old and new, rural and urban, natural and artificial. Of course, in a country with such a rich culture and history, the possibilities for adventure are virtually limitless, but hitting these four locations is a great way to begin.
Now that you know where to start, all that’s left is to book your travel. Before you do, though, here’s a pro tip: try using a Japan VPN to search for cheaper fares – it could save you a lot of money! Happy traveling!