Beyond the big names: Choosing between Japan’s major cities

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Ever since the economic “miracle” of the post-war years, Japan has been synonymous with cities. Big ones. You probably have an idea of what to expect from Tokyo and Kyoto, but beyond the big names, how well do you know your Hiroshima from your Hakone?

Each Japanese city is unique in its own way. Shaped over centuries by its individual climate, geography and history, each one has its own individual customs, its own regional dishes, and its own inimitable atmosphere. You might look at a picture of a Nagasaki street and think it looks a bit like downtown Sendai, but spend a few days there and you’d never mistake one for the other.

It’s hard to grasp these differences without having been there yourself, but luckily we’ve done it for you. Nine of Japan’s top cities: how they feel, who’ll love them, and what makes them special.

Tokyo: The Big One

In a nutshell: The most densely populated city on Earth needs little introduction. It’s likely your journey will begin and end here, but is Tokyo for you?

Aerial shot of people on buildings and street in Shibuya
The famous Shibuya crossing

Who is it great for? Everyone! It has more Michelin stars than any other city in the world. It has endless interactive museums and green spaces. It has some of the best nightlife, shopping, art and architecture in the world, all seamlessly connected by a well-oiled public transport system. Each of its 23 wards has its own particular atmosphere, so you can skip from achingly hip to gleamingly commercial in no time, dipping into peaceful temples and tranquil gardens along the way. As far as we’re concerned, Tokyo might be the greatest city on Earth.

Buildings lit up at night with crowds on the streets
The neon lights of Shinjuku

Who won’t love it? If you can’t do crowds, you won’t love Tokyo. To avoid the busier districts and the crowded subway would be to miss out on the real Tokyo experience, and though there are serene spaces and chilled-out districts, it’s not what Tokyo is all about.

What does it link to? Tokyo is the hub of Japan, so where you go next is truly up to you!

Kyoto: The Capital of Culture

In a nutshell: The former imperial capital is an unmatched treasure trove of temples, shrines, gardens and palaces.

Wooden temple surrounded by trees
Ginkakuji in early autumn

Who’ll love it? Anyone with the slightest interest in Japanese history — and a healthy appetite for temples and shrines. Kyoto is home to the lion’s share of Japan’s most revered historic sites, but it’s also the heart of Japan’s intangible cultural heritage — including refined kaiseki cuisine the mysterious “floating world” of the geisha. For us, what’s really incredible about Kyoto is how much more there is beyond the top twenty sites. With 1,600 temples and shrines to choose from, that leaves about 1,580 which are all but ignored by tourists — often just footsteps from the busiest spots, and just as spectacular.

Stone bridge in front of temple in autumn
Eikandō, in eastern Kyoto

Who won’t love it? If you’re expecting to step back in time to the Japan of yesteryear, you won’t find that experience in Kyoto. This is a vibrant, happening city, so be prepared to look for its treasures beneath the concrete, glass and steel. It’s also not the best of cities for young children, as temple-heavy day tours a bit much for kids, but you could always stay in family-friendly Osaka and do it as a day trip.

What does it link to? Kyoto is a great launchpad for exploring the Kansai region, home to buzzing Osaka, historic Nara, and the pilgrimage trails and mountain temples of the Kumano Kodo.

Osaka: The Gourmand’s Paradise / The Hot-Headed Hedonist

In a nutshell: The port city of Osaka was Japan’s foremost commercial centre for centuries, lending it a laid-back raffishness that’s missing from Tokyo and Kyoto — and a fun-loving culture built on making money and spending it.

Canal with walkways and colorful buildings in Osaka
Sunset over Dotonbori

Who’ll love it? It may not have the headliners of Kyoto and Tokyo, but Osaka is packed full of things to see and do — from its reconstructed samurai castle to its world-beating street-food scene. Like Tokyo, its diverse districts can feel like a dozen cities in one, but the general atmosphere is slower, friendlier and altogether more casual. It’s full of activities for families, it’s fabulous for pop culture vultures, and if you want to spend an evening bar-hopping and snack-sampling, there’s simply nowhere better.

Lively street with crowds walking around
Osaka at night

Who won’t love it? “Must-see” sights are thin on the ground here; it’s more about the lifestyle — and that lifestyle is big, brash, and unmistakably Osakan. If you prefer the serenity of a temple garden to a night on the town, you’ll probably be more at home in Kyoto.

What does it link to? Like Kyoto, Osaka is perfectly placed to explore the Kansai region. You could base yourself here and visit Kyoto on a day trip, or you could head into the mountains for a temple stay in Mount Koya.

Hakone: The Fuji-Peeper’s Playground

In a nutshell: If you want to be in with a chance of seeing Mount Fuji, there are few better places than Hakone — though you’ll still need a healthy dose of luck!

Lake in the foreground, with Fuji in the background
Hakone Shrine, on Lake Ashi

Who’ll love it? If you’re staying in Tokyo and pushed for time, Hakone is a wonderful way to get a glimpse of the glory of the Japanese countryside. When the weather complies, it has the best Fuji views around — and when it doesn’t, there are all sorts of activities to keep you busy. Boil black eggs in a bubbling hot spring, visit one of the finest outdoor art galleries in the world, ride the ropeway past Mount Fuji, and round it off with a stay in a beautiful, traditional inn. For families with energetic kids, the wealth of outdoor activities and novel local transport (from cable-cars to funicular trains and pirate ships) are particularly good fun.

Lone person standing on the traditional gate of Hakone Shrine
There’s more to Hakone than meets the eye

Who won’t love it? If you’re looking for a true national park experience in real, rural Japan — the kind of place where people still live in thatched farmhouses and wood-panelled cottages — you won’t find it here. Hakone’s scenery is stunning, but there’s no denying that it’s tourist-orientated. For lots of people, that’s part of the fun. It’s also not the best choice for serious hikers, since most of its forest trails are only signposted in Japanese.

What does it link to? Hakone is extremely easy to get to, and makes a great stop on the bullet train ride between Tokyo and Kyoto.

Kanazawa: The Goldilocks City 

In a nutshell: We like to call Kanazawa the Goldilocks city, because it’s just right in every single way.

Beautiful autumn colours reflected on pond in the park.
Kenrokuen, one of Japan’s three Great Gardens

Who’ll love it? If you’re unencumbered by top-ten-list ambitions, if you love traditional crafts and historical architecture, if you enjoy a night out but you like a city that’s walkable, you’ll love Kanazawa. Kanazawa has the perfect combination of old and new, balancing beautiful landscaped gardens and samurai districts with the cutting-edge 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art and hipster coffee shops. Its downtown is lively and fun without being overwhelming. It’s a centre for all sorts of traditional crafts, from gold leaf to silk dyeing. Its wood-panelled tea district rivals Kyoto’s Gion for atmosphere and authenticity. It’s simply the best of all worlds in every possible way.

Traditional wooden buildings with people walking along the street
Higashichaya, the geisha district

Who won’t love it? It’s hard for us to imagine anyone who wouldn’t, but if you love to revel in the sensory overload of a megalopolis like Tokyo, perhaps Kanazawa will feel a little tame. It’s also possible that Kanazawa won’t fit into your itinerary — especially if you’re already planning visits to Tokyo and Kyoto, and you want to squeeze in some countryside, too. In that case, there’s always next time!

What does it link to? Kanazawa feels rather off the beaten track, but it’s actually very easy to get to from Tokyo or Kyoto on the bullet train, and it’s a great base for exploring little-visited destinations such as the Noto Peninsula, Eihei-ji Temple, and the stunning alpine village of Shirakawago.

Nagasaki: The Cosmopolitan Sophisticate

In a nutshell: Nagasaki is synonymous with the A-bomb in the Western imagination, but it’s the city’s eclectic trading history and European links that have shaped its culture and character.

Flowers in front of statue with blue skies in the background
The Peace Statue at the Nagasaki Peace Park

Who’ll love it? For history buffs, Nagasaki is a fascinating counterpoint to the samurai heritage of Tokyo and the imperial elegance of Kyoto. For centuries, this was the only place in Japan where foreign trade was allowed, and its eclectic past has lent Nagasaki an unmistakably cosmopolitan air — while its lovely oceanside surroundings and balmy climate give it a laid-back, beach-town vibe.

Buildings on hills in a cloudy day in Nagasaki
The city is surrounded by gentle hills

Who won’t love it? If you’re after traditional Japan, you won’t find it here: think Portuguese churches and Dutch merchant houses instead of samurai castles and wood-panelled geisha districts.

What does it link to? Nagasaki lies at the far southwestern tip of Japan, and makes a great base from which to explore Kyushu Island’s hot spring towns, volcanoes, and the World Heritage mining-island-cum-Bond-lair: Gunkanjima.

Hiroshima & Miyajima: The City of Two Halves

In a nutshell: Come to Hiroshima for its war history; stay for its incredible food and the beautiful island of Miyajima.

Sunset in Hiroshima with the ruins of the A-bomb Dome in the foreground
The A-Bomb Dome

Who’ll love it? Hiroshima is a remarkably versatile destination, with something for almost anyone. You might think that the city famous for being torn apart by the A-bomb would feel depressing, but Hiroshima has achieved a wonderful balance between respect for the past and celebration of the present. The excellent Peace Park and Museum are a must, but there’s so much more to it than that. Balancing out the vibrancy of the modern city is deeply traditional Miyajima Island, 15 minutes’ ferry ride across the bay, famous for its friendly deer and beautiful World Heritage Shrine. Then there’s the food — delicious okonomiyaki (savoury noodle-based pancakes), amazing sake, and the best oysters in Japan.

Silhouette of the torii gates in the island of Miyajima
Sunset over Miyajima’s famous torii gate

Who won’t love it? Most people are surprised by how much they enjoy Hiroshima, but if you find war history a bit heavy for a holiday, it might be best to give it a miss. There are other places, like Kanazawa, which can provide a similar mix of modernity and tradition.

What does it link to? Hiroshima is easily reached by the bullet train, and can even be done as a day trip from Kyoto or Osaka. It’s also a great base for day trips to places like Fukuoka (for sumo in November), Okunoshima (Rabbit Island), and Okayama.

Sendai: The Up-and-Comer

In a nutshell: Laid-back Sendai is the gateway to Japan’s wild and wonderful north, and retains an authentic, small-town vibe despite being a bustling modern hub.

Sunny wide view of Sendai City
Sendai City – Blue Flash/Pixta

Who’ll love it? Sendai has a bit of the same “Goldilocks” charm that makes Kanazawa so appealing: not too big to be manageable; not too small to have a great night out — it feels close to the countryside, and yet still has plenty of the buzz you’d expect from a lively, up-and-coming city. If you’re into samurai history, it’s fantastic: this was once the seat of the powerful Date (“dah-tay”) clan, and though the city was levelled in WWII, you can still see thousands of relics in the excellent City Museum. You can even travel back 400 years with a virtual reality tour of Aoba Castle!

Who won’t love it? A visit to Sendai is about experiencing everyday life in the city and getting out into the surrounding countryside, so if you don’t plan on exploring the Tohoku region in general then it’s probably not going to top your list.

What does it link to? Just 2.5 hours from Tokyo on the bullet train, Sendai is a great jumping-off point for the wider Tohoku region, full of spectacular mountain temples (Yamadera) and stunning coastal views (Matsushima Bay).

Autumn colours on mountain temple with hikers on its paths
Yamadera is among the best hidden gems of Tohoku – Sean Pavone/Pixta

Takayama: The Crafty One

In a nutshell: A beautifully preserved historical district filled with craft workshops and sake breweries put Takayama on the map — but for us, it’s the surrounding countryside that’s the real treat.

City with snowed roofs surrounded by mountains
Takayama is surrounded by snow-capped mountains in winter

Who’ll love it? If you’re keen to experience traditional life in the heart of the Japanese Alps, Takayama is a great place to start. Beyond its preserved town centre you’ll find a wealth of fantastic hiking trails, and we love touring the countryside by bike — pedalling through strawberry farms and paddy fields, stopping off in traditional towns, and ducking into Japanese delis for local-style snacks. The food is fabulous (Hida beef rivals its Kobe cousin for melt-in-the-mouth deliciousness), and there’s simply nowhere better in Japan for picking up authentic, hand-made souvenirs.

Traditional wooden buildings on empty street
Takayama’s old quarter – gandhi/Pixta

Who won’t love it? Takayama is not the quaint little alpine town it appears to be from a cursory Google image search. It’s a medium-sized city, and you’ll need to pass through a few bland, concrete suburbs to reach its picture-perfect centre. If quaint is what you’re after, stay in Hida Furukawa — just 15 minutes away on the train.

What does it link to? Takayama is a great base for day trips throughout the Hida alpine region, including the World Heritage village of Shirawakawago, the hot-spring town of Hirayu Onsen, and Kamikochi, possibly the most beautiful hiking destination in Japan.

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