Wondering which part of Japan to travel to next? We break down the highlights of each prefecture for you.
It’s been too long since we’ve stepped foot in the Land of the Rising Sun. To say we’ve missed the fresh sushi and sashimi, piping hot bowls of ramen, and allure of ancient castles and Shinto shrines would be an understatement. If you’ve been waiting to travel to Japan, you’ll be pleased to know it’s welcoming tourists again. Good food, shopping and sights, here we come!
Psst: do carry a mask along with you during your travels. While it isn’t compulsory to wear one, it’s recommended that you do so within indoor spaces or when taking public transport. Still contemplating if you should fly? Decide which prefectures you want to visit on your next break.
Japan travel guide: Best prefectures for food, culture and shopping
1. Best for experiencing the countryside: Saga
Leave city life and make your way to this prefecture. First up: Yoshinogari Park, an archaeological site featuring settlements that date back to the Yayoi period. There are preserved villages, pit dwellings, and over 2,000 tombs. You can explore the area and even enter the reconstructed homes. Don’t forget to visit Saga Castle, the largest wooden castle in Japan. Enjoy a relaxing respite at Takeo Onsen, a hot spring resort with three public and two private baths. When you’re done, go to the nearby Mifuneyama Rakuen, where you can marvel at seasonal blooms.
Saga is also famous for its pottery, and if that’s something you’re keen on, we know where you should go. Head to Arita and check out the porcelain park, which has a large palace exhibiting pieces made before the Edo and Meiji periods. If you want to purchase them for your home or as souvenirs, drop by the shops and galleries. Make sure you have enough space in your luggage though! Imari is another city that has plenty of porcelain wonders.
2. Best for shopping: Tokyo
Any shopaholics in the house? This one’s for you! Tokyo is a shopper’s paradise containing almost anything you’d ever want to buy. Think clothes, games, and the latest electronic products. Make a stop at Shinjuku and Shibuya, and visit myriad shops, boutiques and flagship fashion outlets. Our favourite has to be GU – a sister brand of Uniqlo that sells plenty of fashionable outfits, shoes and accessories at affordable prices. Or, get a dose of counter culture at Harajuku’s Takeshita Dori street. Think vintage fits, zany jewellery and plenty of themed cafes for you to live your anime dreams.
If you’ve got extra dollars to spend, we also recommend a trip to Ginza – Tokyo’s high-end shopping district. We’re talking branded goods, luxury furniture and renowned cosmetics to fill your luggage with. Finally, head to Akihabara! It contains plenty of electronic retailers and shops selling collectables and games.
3. Best for foodies: Osaka
Also known as Japan’s culinary capital, Osaka is a must-visit for foodies all around the world. Stuff yourselves with delicious okonomiyaki, bowls of udon, and countless sticks of yakitori. First on the list of places to visit is Tenjinbashisuji Shotengai, Japan’s longest shopping street. You’ve got to come here when you travel to Japan. There’s plenty of good street food, but we’d recommend stopping at Harukoma Sushi for thick cuts of raw fish on quality rice.
Next, head to Dotonbori and take pics by the canal before you explore its famous food street – we love how the waters reflect all of the colourful neon signages. Scarf down prime beef at Harijyu, known for its shabu shabu and sukiyaki. Those with a sweet tooth have to stop by Rikuro Ojisan for a slice of spongy, fluffy, wobbly Japanese cheesecake. So, so good. You should also make a stop at Sushi Hanazakura for an authentic omakase experience – this unassuming restaurant serves deliciously fresh niigiri, seafood and beef.
4. Best for history buffs: Kyoto
Can’t get enough of Japan’s fascinating history? Travel to Kyoto and discover gorgeous Shinto shrines and castles of old. The former capital of Japan features breathtaking architecture, cuisine and handicrafts passed down through the generations. Take part in traditional festivals (like the Aoi Matsuri) that celebrate seasons and deities. Make sure to stop at Kinkakuji Temple, an iconic landmark that features a stunning gold temple. Then, race through the famous red Torii Gates on your way to Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine. You’ll remember this from the movie Memoirs of a Geisha, or just through the billions of Instagram photos geo-tagged to the place.
You absolutely can’t miss Nijo Castle. This Unesco World Heritage site was the home of the Tokugawa shogunate – the military government of Japan that ruled for over 200 years. Catch sight of the beautiful gingko and maple trees that add colour to its lovely grounds in Autumn. Before you leave Kyoto, don’t forget to drop by the Arashiyama bamboo grove. It’ll feel like you’ve been spirited away to another plane of existence. Here, you’ll also find the Tenryu-ji Temple, complete with fine gardens and jaw-dropping mountain views.
5. Best for a dose of nature: Hokkaido
A trip to Hokkaido might make you feel like you’re not even in Japan. Its sprawling landscapes remind us of the kind you’d find in places like New Zealand and Australia. If you’re up for a bit of adventure, head to Jigokudani. This red stone crater valley was formed by a volcanic eruption 20,000 years ago (you read that right). Follow the boardwalk, observe sulphurous streams, and even dip your toes in a hot sulphur pond. If you travel to Japan in summer, we recommend taking a trip to Lake Mashu – the clearest lake in the world – for some spectacular views. But be careful, it’s believed bad luck will follow you if you can see the lake’s surface on a misty day.
Want to catch sight of stunning wildlife? Take a cruise around the Shiretoko Peninsula. Here, you’ll find orcas, eagles and even brown bears (depending on the season). Head down to Lake Akan, and you may also spy up to 150 species of birds. See if you can find the famous red-crowned crane amidst the flurry! Some say it’s a sign of good luck if you can spot this iconic bird.
6. Best for a beach escape: Okinawa
The sunny beaches and azure waters of Okinawa make it the perfect spot for a beach vacay. Taste delish Okinawan cuisine and fresh seafood on this sub-tropical escape, and spend the day snorkelling, diving and exploring its waters and vast sea life. There are plenty of tour groups that’ll take you to popular diving spots around town. Think along the lines of Ishigaki Island and Miyako Island. Want to go off-the-beaten path? Get away from the crowds at Kouri Island, and take in one of Okinawa’s most beautiful beaches complete with pristine white sand. Or head down to Zamami Island for a good hike, and try whale watching in winter.
Want to see sea creatures without getting wet? No problem. Book tickets to the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium and view majestic manta rays, giant whale sharks, and beautiful sea creatures all from behind a glass panel. Lastly, for a dose of history and culture, take a trip to Shuri Castle. It served as a palace of Ryukyu Kingdom for nearly 400 years and is a popular tourist site in Okinawa you can’t miss.
We’re so excited to travel to Japan! Be right back, we’re booking our tickets as we speak.
[This article was originally published in 2022 and updated in 2023 by Sufyan Saad.]