Japan may not be terribly large, but there’s enough historic, natural and contemporary sights to keep you busy for months on end. Most visitors hit Tokyo and Kyoto, the capitals past and present, but the further you get from the beaten track, the more rewarding the experience. These itineraries head all over Japan’s varied landscapes, and give at least an idea of what this fascinating country is all about.
You could easily spend a couple of weeks winding your way up Honshū’s northern tip, full of rich heritage and timeless agricultural scenes, before making your way over into the unspoilt, wild landscape of Hokkaido, Japan’s most northernmost island which bursts with natural phenomena and wildlife.
Stroll the tree-lined streets of the city and take day-trips to the Yamadera temple complex and the scenic bay of Matsushima.
Spend a few days hiking up this extinct volcano along the pilgrims route taken by the Yamabushi ascetic mountain hermits.
3 Tōno Valley
Cycle through the rural landscape of this flat valley and envelop yourself in the mysterious folk tales embedded in the region’s ancient shrines and rock carvings.
Stop in at Honshū’s northernmost city and take excursions to the eerie landscape of Shimokita Hantō, populated by wandering souls, and Towada-ko, for a hike around a volcanic lake.
5 Noboribetsu Onsen
Explore the smoking, sulphurous volcanic landscape before a relaxing soak back at the inn and the delights of ryokan cuisine.
Step back in time and marvel at the imposing Meiji-era public buildings and luxurious homes built on the profits of the herring industry.
From the ultimate summer evenings to or snow sculptures in February, a visit to Hokkaidō’s bustling capital is a must.
8 Daisetsu-zan National Park
Excellent skiing in winter, cherry blossoms in spring, endless fields of summer flowers or magnificent autumn colours – this national park has it all.
Hitting most of Japan’s main sights, this itinerary loosely follows the old Tōkaidō route that linked Tokyo with Kyoto, then moves further west to within a short ferry ride of the Korean peninsula.
Japan’s wonderful capital needs no introduction – the only question is what to do with your time there, which will never be quite enough.
2 Mount Fuji
This emblematic volcanic cone, just west of Tokyo, is climbable through the summer, but visible from the Shinkansen trains all year round.
Contrary to the expectations of many visitors, Japan’s vaunted ancient ex-capital is actually a large, modern city, albeit one brimming with compelling historical gems.
Just south of Kyoto, Nara is a far more natural-feeling place – witness the deer merrily grazing around the temples and shrines.
Take a detour from the mainland route to this small island, home to swathes of fantastic modern art.
The name of this city is etched quite firmly into the world’s conscience. Dark tourism it may be, but the gutted Hypocenter is a stark reminder of those tragic times.
Way out west, this is perhaps the friendliest city in the land – its characteristic yatai stalls make perfect places in which to bond with ramen-slurping locals over a few glasses of sake.
Japan boasts thirteen cultural and four natural World Heritage Sites; focusing your visit on the country’s ancient wonders alone could keep you well occupied for a good ten days or more.
One of Japan’s most relaxed cities, where a clutch of dreamy temples lurk in the mountainous forests around the fabulously preposterous Heritage-listed Tōshō-gū complex.
2 Shirakawa-gō and Gokayama
The lovingly preserved villages of Shirakawa-gō and Gokayama, with their distinctive A-frame houses, give a glimpse of Japanese rural life centuries ago.
Having functioned as capital for around one millennium, it’s no surprise that over two dozen places in Kyoto have been protected as World Heritage sites; whatever you do, don’t miss the phenomenal Kiyomizu-dera temple.
Close to Hiroshima, this is one of Japan’s most famed attractions – a vermillion-red torii rising elegantly from the sea.
This historic city has eight sites showcasing the early development of Buddhism, as well as a Shintō shrine, a primeval forest, a park and a palace.
6 Shuri Castle
If you make it as far as Okinawa, don’t miss this castle, a fantastic relic of the Ryūkyū Kingdom that once ruled this gorgeous island chain.
Shikoku is the least visited of Japan’s four main islands, but it is well worth making the trip here. The following itinerary could be done in two weeks, at a push, or at a more leisurely pace over three.
1 Inland Sea journey
Naoshima and the exciting art islands offer captivating modern art and friendly people.
This amiable city has one of Japan’s most beautiful gardens and dozens of sanuki udon restaurants serving tasty thick white noodles.
The city of the energetic Awa Odori dance festival also has a historic bunraku puppet theatre.
Thanks to big waves and warm Pacific currents, Shikoku’s eastern coast is a great place to come if you’re on the lookout for excellent surfing spots.
5 Iya Valley
One of the country’s most hidden regions, with rustic mountain villages and the atmosphere of an older, slower Japan.
The hometown of Sakamoto Ryōma, one of Japan’s most revered samurai heroes, the densely populated city of Kōchi has a lively night food market.
Visit a sex museum and watch a bloodless bullfighting match in this quiet, unassuming town.
Check out the magnificent ancient castle and historic hot spring of Dōgo Onsen in Shikoku’s largest city.
You could forget Tokyo and Kyoto entirely and still get a pretty accurate impression of Japan by visiting its third-largest island, home to active volcanoes, great food, friendly locals and hot springs aplenty.
This is one of Japan’s foremost hot-spring resorts. A small, pleasingly retro place where steam billows from the streets; there are even a couple of onsens hiding away in the forested hills above town.
Start your trip in the island’s main city, where you can expect tasty meals, boisterous nightlife and a thoroughly enjoyable vibe.
Like Hiroshima, this city has rebounded with phenomenal gusto from the atomic blasts that left the place in tatters. Head on a trip to intriguing Battleship Island – a Bond-villain set so otherworldly that it didn’t even need to be touched up for the film.
This giant volcanic crater, with sulphurous steam still shooting out from the peaks at its centre, is an easily accessible place in which to get a handle on rural Japan.
Interested in seeing a volcano explode? Sakurajima erupts several times a day, just across the bay from this unique city.
The inspiration behind certain Studio Ghibli cartoons, the richly forested highlands on this pristine island feature trees so old, nobody has yet been able to verify their age.