One of the most common questions I get is “What are the best cities to visit in Japan?” (apart from the usual suspects). Many travelers are surprised to learn that there are as many urban wonderlands in Japan as there are natural ones, even if Takayama isn’t quite as cosmopolitan as Tokyo, for example, and although Kochi doesn’t have near as many temples as Kyoto.
The fact is that many of the best cities in Japan are small and poorly-known—or at least they were, until now. Are you ready to add a few more lines to your Japan bucket list?
How I Found My Way Off Japan’s Beaten Path
I’ve visited Japan almost more times than I can count, in addition to the fact that I lived in Kyoto for six months to study Japanese. Although I could’ve gone back there (and to Tokyo, Hiroshima, Osaka and the rest of the usual suspects) a dozen times, it quickly became clear that the more time I spend in Japan, the more prudent it would be to explore Japan off the beaten path.
Digging deep into Japan’s nooks and crannies—I’ve now visited all 47 prefectures, has taken literal years. If you’ve only visited Japan a couple of times and are hoping to intimately get to know the country, this could entail a lot more time and effort, maybe more than you’re prepared to expand. That’s why this list is valuable—think of it as a short cut to becoming a Japan travel expert.
The Best Cities to Visit in Japan (Besides Tokyo)
When it comes to Kyushu, it seems that Nagasaki city gets all the love, and not just because of its post-World War II ubiquity. For me, however, the most dynamic city in Kyushu is Fukuoka, the island’s largest and also the closest one to Honshu. Whether you stick to city-center attractions like the ruins of Fukuoka Castle, make a day trip to Nanzo-in Temple or take advantage of convenient Hakata Station, Fukuoka is a fantastic choice if you’re looking for where to go in Japan besides Tokyo and Kyoto.
Some people are surprised I list Hokkaido’s Hakodate among the best cities Japan has to offer, but mainly because they’ve never heard of it. That’s a shame since Hakodate, which is less than an hour from Honshu via the newly-opened Hokkaido Shinkansen, has so much to offer, even when compared directly to other underrated cities in Japan. Discover Japan’s lesser-told history at the star-shaped Goryokaku Fort, dine on “dancing” squid at Hakodate Morning Market or enjoy one of the world’s best night views from Mt. Hakodate.
It might seem somewhat disingenuous for me to list Himeji among the best cities in Japan, since I mostly value it for a single attraction: Himeji Castle, which is possible the most beautiful castle in Japan. On the other hand, Himeji is easily accessible—located in Hyogo prefecture, it’s around an hour from Osaka by bullet train—which means that it’s perhaps the most fulfilling half-day trip from the Kansai region, particularly if you can see the castle flanked by cherry blossoms. It’s among my top Osaka day trips, in fact.
Sometimes known as the “Kyoto of the North” for its ostensible Geisha district, Kanazawa is so much more than a plan B for Japan’s evergreen Plan A city. I love starting at Kenroku-en (one of Japan’s top three gardens), then making my way through Kanazawa Castle up to the riverside Kazue-machi and Higashi Chaya districts, then proceeding via foodie paradise Omicho Market down to Nagamachi Samurai district and the Myouryu-ji Ninja temple.
When people think of the best Japanese cities in the south, their minds rarely wonder off Honshu, and if they do it’s to aforementioned Kyushu. This is a shame, since underrated Shikoku is not only a paradise for nature lovers, but boasts some of Japan’s most interesting small- and medium-sized cities. The first one of note is Kochi, which boasts impressive Kochi Castle, lively Hirome Market and mysterious Chikurin-ji Temple, whose garden is filled with statues that honor the memories of stillborn babies.
Another Shikoku city you shouldn’t miss is Matsuyama, located on the north shore of the island—Kochi, by comparison, sits along the southern coast. I’ll leave it up to you whether Matsuyama’s castle is “better” than Kochi’s (it definitely offers a superior view), but one advantage of choosing Matsuyama over Kochi is nearby Dogo Onsen, one of the most beautiful public bath houses in all of Japan, and among the top underrated places in Japan in general. If you have time, adding both of these places to your list of Japan cities to visit is the best option.
I absolutely adore Nagasaki—and not just because it’s an obvious alternative to popular Hiroshima. Indeed, Nagasaki is so much more than its most famous tragedy. From the historic Oura Cathedral in the southern part of the city, to interesting Dejima island, to tasty Chinatown and the glittering view you take in from Mt. Inasa, Nagasaki more than justifies the circuitous route to get there (it’s one of Japan’s only major cities not on a Shinkansen line).
It’s probably surprising to see the capital of Okinawa listed among the most popular cities in Japan, considering how few travelers make it to the chain of islands at all. But Naha shocked me in the best possible way—and not just because it was the only place in Okinawa I ever saw the sun. Whether you enjoy the panorama from Shuri Castle, marvel at whale sharks in Churaumi Aquarium or eat taco rice along Kokusai Street, Naha is among the best underrated Japanese cities, and is definitely worth a visit.
Sendai is a city it took me a long time to explore in earnest, although I passed through (it’s the gateway to Japan’s Tohoku region” many times. However, whether following the legend of Samurai lord Date Masamune from the ruins of Aoba Castle down to Zuiho-ji temple, or taking day trips to scenic Matsushima Bay or for an exhilarating hike up Yamadera temple, one thing is for sure: Sendai is so much more than a transit point.
Takayama, in Gifu prefecture a few hours north and west of Tokyo by train, rounds out this list of cities to visit in Japan. Quaint and understated, Takayama’s all about subtle beauty, from the way Nakabashi Bridge looks flanked by spring sakura and autumn leaves, to the historical houses of Sanmachi, to the nearby village of Shirakawa-go, which is one of the most beautiful destinations in all of Japan. TIP: Takayama makes a great onward destination from Matsumoto and the Nakasendo Way.
Mie, for various reasons, is one of Japan’s least-visited prefectures, in addition to being one its most beautiful. Part of the reason for this is how poorly connected it is: There is no airport here, nor are there any remotely high-speed trains. Indeed, getting to Toba (a city as famous for the age-old ama pearl diving tradition as it is for fresh-grilled oysters) requires passing through the cities of Ise and Matsusaka, which could’ve just as easily gotten a spot on this list.
Did you know that Japan is home to its very own desert? Well, kind of. Although the Tottori Sand Dunes don’t meet the topographical definition of desert, they definitely appear to be more appropriate to the Middle East than to central Japan’s San’in region. In addition to the dunes themselves, the underrated city of Tottori is your gateway to the prefecture of the same name, from towering Mt. Daisen to eclectic Sakaiminato port.
How Long Should You Spend in Japan?
Obviously, if you were to string together all the best cities to visit in Japan besides Tokyo that I’ve mentioned in this piece, it would require you to spend close to a month in Japan. Well, assuming you wanted to see them all in one trip. Personally, I find that 1-2 week trips in Japanese regions (such as San’in and Tohoku), taken over a year or two or three, allow for much more organic (and, ultimately, fulfilling) discovery of Japan.
So I guess what I would say is that if it’s your first time in Japan, spending 3-4 weeks (which will allow you to explore the “Tourist Trail,” plus spend a great deal of time off it) is probably a good length of time to spend in Japan. However, if you’re committed to really getting to know Japan—this is the travel equivalent of a long-term relationship—slow and steady must be your strategy to win the proverbial race.
Other FAQ About Cities in Japan Besides Tokyo
What are the 5 most popular cities in Japan?
For tourists, the five most popular cities in Japan are Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima, plus one of the following cities: Fukuoka, Sapporo or Nagano. I equivocate a bit with #5 on the list because while almost all tourists visit the first four, the last is in flux depending on the type of traveler. Most winter sports travelers visit either Nagano or Sapporo; Fukuoka is popular choice for more evergreen travelers, particularly those from within Asia.
Which is the most beautiful city in Japan?
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I have a soft spot in my heart for Kyoto—Japan’s former capital and my former home. Among underrated Japanese cities, I find Kyushu’s Nagasaki, Kanazawa along the sea of Japan and the southern Hokkaido city of Hakodate to be especially beautiful.
What are cool cities in Japan?
Coolness in Japan is somewhat relative. However, I find Fukuoka (for its legendary ramen), Tottori (for its strange sand dunes) and Sendai (for the extent to which it serves as a gateway to Japan’s underrated Tohoku region) to be among the coolest Japanese cities, as far as I’m concerned.
The Bottom Line
These might not be the best cities to visit in Japan (besides Tokyo) based on famous attractions or high visitor numbers, but they’ve been among the highlights of my nine (and counting!) visits to the country. Whether you add one or two to each of your Japan trips, or build an entire itinerary around them, visiting even a few of these underrated Japanese cities will broaden and deepen your knowledge of—and your love for—the Land of the Rising Sun. Want to ensure your next Japan adventure is one for the record books, no matter where you end up going? Hire me to plan your trip—and let me sweat the details!