Best Places To Visit In Japan For First Timers: Things To Do

Deciding on the best places to visit in Japan for first-timers is often an overwhelming task.

Having lived in Japan for over 2 years, this list will feature the best cities to go to, as well as the best time to visit Japan with a few example itineraries at the end of the article that you could follow when coming to Japan for the first time.

We will highlight the cities worth visiting, list some popular tourist attractions, how long you should stay in each city, and what time of the year is the best to visit and why.

Without further ado, here are the best places to visit in Japan for first-timers.

Tokyo (3-5 days)

Tokyo Sakura in Nakameguro

It goes without saying that if this is your first time visiting Japan, you’d need to see Japan’s capital as there are tons of things to do here.

If you are planning on traveling to Japan, start your journey in Tokyo. You can easily spend quite a few days in Tokyo but there is no need to do overdo it. The highlights of the modern city of Tokyo can be done in about 3-4 days, and 2 extra days if you want to do DisneySea and Disneyland.

If you’ve booked your trip longer than this, then you can always take a couple of day trips out of the busy city and explore areas like Enoshima or Yokohama.

When To Visit Tokyo

The best time to visit Tokyo is at the end of March or early April. During this time you will be able to enjoy viewing the cherry blossoms which only blossom for a few days so timing your trip is very important if you don’t want to miss it.

Alternatively, visiting in October/November is perfect as it is not as hot as September and you get to enjoy the Japanese autumn leaves.

Tokyo Main Tourist Attractions

In a future list we will go into more details about all the best things to do in Tokyo, but for now, see the below top activities in Tokyo.

Tokyo SkyTree (Observation deck + shopping)

Tokyo Skytree observation deck near Asakusa

Tokyo SkyTree is the world’s largest tower standing tall at 634 meters high. It is also the second tallest building in the world after Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

The Tokyo SkyTree has an amazing observation deck that lets you overlook the stunning concrete jungle. You can also dine at the top and enjoy the sights at night.

Inside the Tokyo Skytree tower is a huge mall where you can find all sorts of goodies and souvenirs to bring back home.

If you want to get a nice view of the city (at a cost) and enjoy shopping, then make your way here and spend a few hours exploring.

Asakusa Sensō-ji (Temple)

Asakusa Sensou-ji

If this is your first trip to Japan, you must make your way to Asakusa. It’s easily possible to explore Asakusa and visit the SkyTree tower previously mentioned as they are within walking distance of each other.

Asakusa is one of the most popular sightseeing spots in Tokyo and seeing the Sensō-ji temple will be one of the highlights of your trip.

Every year on the third weekend of May they hold a massive festival in Asakusa called the Sanja Matsuri which translates to “Three Shrine Festival” so if you want to learn about Japanese culture and are planning a trip around that time, then this is a must-see event in Tokyo.

Tokyo Imperial Palace (Imperial residence and beautiful gardens + tours)

Tokyo Imperial Palace and busy business district

On your first Japan trip, you must make time to visit the Imperial Palace of Tokyo. You’ll be able to take stunning pictures of historic architecture mixed with the modern architecture of the business district next to the palace.

The Tokyo Imperial Palace closes quite early (usually around 2:45 PM) so be sure to head here first thing in the morning if you want to go inside the palace grounds.

Tsukiji Market (Fish market)

Tsukiji Fish Market outer area

Tsukiji fish market is world known for its early morning fish auctions. Though I wouldn’t recommend waking up at 3 AM to witness the auctions, I would recommend going here at around 10 AM to grab a deliciously fresh sushi breakfast.

The auction itself is an interesting experience but the incredible country has so much more to offer that you could be doing instead.

Edo-Tokyo Museum

Edo-Tokyo Museum

The Edo-Tokyo Museum is one of the most interesting places that I’ve been to in Tokyo where I can easily spend a few hours exploring the rich history of Japan.

Focusing on the Edo period, the Edo-Tokyo Museum is a must-see for culture geeks that want to be absorbed more into Japanese culture.

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buildings (Observation Deck)

best observation deck in Tokyo - Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buildings

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buildings is a hidden gem in Tokyo that is the perfect observation deck to enjoy the city for free.

Many first-timers think that Tokyo Tower has the best views but the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buildings is one of best places to visit in Japan for first-timers who want to see the city from above. It’s not only easy to get to, but it’s also free.

Tokyo Tower (Observation Deck)

Tokyo Tower observation deck

Widely popular by tourists, Tokyo Tower is an observation deck where you can admire the beauty at cost. Personally, I would recommend visiting the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buildings instead as they are more conveniently located and completely free. You’ll get equally stunning views of the city there.

Akihabara (Arcades, Maid Cafes, and Anime)

Akiba/Akihabara in Tokyo

Anime fans and gamers will have already heard of Akihabara and it is one of the best places to visit in Japan for first-timers. You’ll find tons of cool arcades in the region as well as many retro gaming consoles, toys, and more.

The area is also very famous for maid cafes. The whole maid cafe experience can be very awkward and pricey but it’s definitely worth experiencing at least once.

If you decide to visit a maid cafe, just get yourself a drink and enjoy the experience. The food is expensive and tasteless (although it looks cute).

Yoyogi Park (Park + Temple)

Yoyogi Park in Tokyo

Yoyogi Park is a great place to visit to relax, witness a traditional Japanese wedding, or see the Meiji Jingu shrine.

If you come during a hot summer’s day be sure to buy a few drinks and snacks at a nearby Konbini (convenience store) and follow the crowd into the park where you can relax on the grass and have a few drinks.

Japanese people tend to be very social, so you might even make a few friends if you speak to them.

Harajuku Takeshita Street (Interesting experience)

Harajuku Takeshita Street

Located directly next to Yoyogi park is the world-famous Takeshita Street. Usually, this street is jam-packed with people and has a bunch of quirky vintage stores, cosplay shops, youth fashion stores, and food stalls that serve delicious Japanese sweets.

You’re likely to find a lot of people here dressed in quirky clothing that is not usually seen in the western world. Highly recommended!

Tokyo Disneyland + Tokyo DisneySea (Theme park)

Tokyo DisneySea in winter

DisneySea is an exclusive Japan-only park by Disney and worth visiting if you have never been to a Disney park before or love Disney in general. You can do 1 park in a day so it is recommended that you overnight close to or at the park if you want to explore both.

Visiting Disneyland + DisneySea is completely optional and you won’t be missing out too much if you have already been to any other Disney park before.

Kyoto (3-4 Days)

Kyoto cat mural

Kyoto is the most beautiful city in Japan with tons of rich history, beautiful scenery, and delicious Japanese cuisine.

It is highly recommended that you jump on a shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo and make your way to Kyoto as the sights here are not to be missed.

Within the city of Kyoto, you’ll find a bunch of really cool temples and shrines to visit, however, if you’ve seen enough shrines for one trip then you should check out the Kyoto Imperial Palace.

Kyoto is also the home of Nintendo and a few UNESCO World Heritage Sites that you must not miss out on.

I wouldn’t recommend staying in Kyoto for longer than 3 or 4 days as the city is much smaller and Tokyo and all the sights can be done within a few days. There are however some must-see tourist sights nearby that we will list below.

Best Time To Visit Kyoto

Similar to Tokyo, you’d want to be here in late March/early April to enjoy the cherry blossom season which is generally very short.

Kyoto is one of the most beautiful places to enjoy cherry blossoms so if you can time your trip right, you’ll have stunning pictures to show off to your friends and family.

Alternatively, October/November is also a good time as the Japanese Autumn leaves are equally stunning to see and take pictures of.

Kyoto Main Tourist Attractions

Kyoto Station (Food)

Kyoto Station stairs

Although this isn’t really a tourist attraction, it is worth exploring on your way in or out of the city. Kyoto Station is insanely huge and you’ll find some cool light shows on the staircase at night.

If you come here at dinner time, be sure to head up the stairs to the top 2 floors (follow the people) then head to the left and go inside to find a bunch of different ramen restaurants.

Kyoto Imperial Palace (Sightseeing)

Kyoto Imperial Palace gardens

The Kyoto Imperial Palace has one of the most beautiful gardens in Japan and first-time visitors don’t want to miss out on seeing and learning about this city.

You can get to the Kyoto Imperial Palace quite easily, whether it’s by train, on foot, or by bike.

Nijō Castle (Sightseeing)

Nijou Castle Kyoto

Nijō Castle is just a few blocks away from the Imperial Palace, so if you already made your way to the palace then head to the Nijō Castle next.

The castle is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Kyoto and you’ll see why when you see it. The beautiful gardens and the design of the castle will give you a real feel of Japan’s rich history.

Nishiki Market (Shopping)

Nishiki Market in Japan

There are a few markets like Nishiki Market in Japan in various cities but if you are in the area, why not explore this one?

At Nishiki Market, you’ll find a bunch of foods that you never knew existed but you’ll also find gift shops where you can buy souvenirs and other Japanese goodies.

If you love Japanese sweets or have yet to try them, scout out one of the many shops that sell Japanese sweets and give it a try.

Gion (Shrine + Sightseeing)

Gion Park in Spring

Gion is Kyoto’s geisha district and is one of the best places to visit in Japan during cherry blossom season.

The whole area of Gion is the perfect place to take pictures and you will often see newlywed couples taking wedding pictures here.

Toji (Temple)

Toji in Kyoto

You have probably seen a wooden pagoda like this one before on travel guides about Japan. When you get up close with one though it feels completely different. Make a quick stop here and go on to your next destination.

Bamboo Forest Muko City (Sightseeing)

Bamboo forest in Muko City, Kyoto

The Bamboo Forest in Muko City is creepy and beautiful at the same time. Compared to the bamboo forest listed below, this one is completely empty.

Walkthrough the bamboo forest and take some beautiful pictures on your way. There is also a different bamboo forest listed below.

Arashiyama (Sightseeing)

Arashiyama with a bamboo forest

Arashiyama is the more popular bamboo forest in Kyoto and there is a very large and beautiful bridge to admire. Browse some shops, grab some snacks, sit by the river with the locals, and relax for a while.

Atashiyama is beautiful during autumn time as the entire mountain view is completely red with autumn leaves.

Fushimi Inari Taisha (Shrine + Interesting experience)

Fushimi Inari Taisha near Kyoto

Fushimi Inari Taisha is one of the best places to go in Kyoto as you will see hundreds of traditional Japanese gates on your way to the top of the mountain.

Near the top, you’ll also get an incredible view of the city (especially at night) so it is worth coming here on your first trip to Japan.

Osaka (3-4 days)

Osaka Festivities

Osaka is a fantastic city to visit and one of the best places to visit in Japan for first-timers. I would however recommend you come here on a Friday and stay throughout the weekend as Osaka nightlife is where the fun is.

There are plenty of very cheap hotels in Osaka that are super conveniently located. If you are traveling with friends then you must come to Osaka from Friday until Sunday.

If you booked a little bit longer than 3 or 4 days then it is highly recommended to do a few day trips out of the main city which we will highlight down below.

Most international flights leave from Osaka as well as Tokyo so if you can, try to book a flight that arrives in Tokyo and then departs in Osaka so you don’t need to travel back to Tokyo after visiting Osaka.

Best Time To Visit Osaka

Osaka is the party capital of Japan and one of the best places to visit in Japan for first-timers so it is highly recommended that you spend time here from Friday until Sunday. Friday and Saturday nights are great nights to have a few drinks and mingle with locals.

Visiting Osaka is great in Spring or Autumn as it’s not too hot and not too cold.

Osaka Main Tourist Attractions

Osaka Castle (Sightseeing)

Osaka Castle

Osaka Castle is conveniently located in the city and easy to get to. Of all places to visit in Osaka, the castle is the first thing you should see.

The castle has been burnt down a few times in the past so there is not much left of the original structure, but it is still a very interesting place to visit.

Dotonbori (Food + Interesting Experience)

Famous tourist destination: Dotonbori

Dotonbori is widely popular and always incredibly crowded. You can eat various street food here including Takoyaki (octopus balls) which is an Osaka favorite.

This area is great to just walk around and explore. There are several bars, arcades, and restaurants nearby that you can enjoy.

Tsutenkaku (Observation Deck + Food/Drinks)

Tsutenkaku in Osaka city

You can either walk to Tsutenkaku or take a subway/taxi to get there faster but it is one of those unforgettable places to visit in Osaka.

If you are in this region you can either sit around at one of the many bars and enjoy food and drinks, or you could relax at the huge onsen (hot springs) called Spa World. There is also a park nearby with a zoo.

Osaka Tenmangu Shrine (Shrine)

Osaka Tenmangu Shrine must-see attraction in Osaka

The Osaka Tenmangu Shrine is yet another must-see shrine in Japan, especially if you are visiting Japan in July.

In July they host the Tenjin Matsuri at this shrine which is one of Japan’s biggest festivals so if you are in Japan during this time then make your way to the Osaka Tenmangu Shrine.

Universal Studios Japan (Theme Park)

Universal Studios Japan

USJ (Universal Studios Japan) in Osaka is only recommended if you have extra time or really enjoy visiting theme parks like Universal Studios.

Like any other Universal Studios park, it’s kind of the same so only really go here if you have spare time.

Mino’o Falls

Hidden gem in Osaka - Minoo Falls

Mino’o Falls is a hidden gem in Osaka where you can hike up a mountain to enjoy taking pictures at a nice waterfall. While hiking you might encounter interesting insects and monkeys jumping around in the tree.

On your way to the waterfall, there is also an insect museum which is pretty cool to see.

Nara Park (Day Trip with bowing deer)

Nara Deer Park near Osaka

Nara is one of the best places to visit in Japan for first-timers. If you are already somewhat familiar with Japanese culture then you would know that they often bow to each other. In Nara, even the wild deer have the Japanese culture engraved into them as they also bow to you when they want food.

Nara is also home to 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites so there are tons of things to do in Nara.

Kobe (Day Trip)

Kobe Day Trip from Osaka

Kobe is relatively close to Osaka so you can jump on a regular train and get there quite quickly. The city is quite nice and there are a few interesting things to see but it’s not worth overnighting.

If you decide to go to Kobe, just be wary as most restaurants will market their beef as being “Kobe Beef” because you are in the city of Kobe.

Real Kobe beef is expensive so be sure to check reviews online first if you want to try real Kobe beef for the first time.

Japan Travel Itinerary

Below you’ll find a few different examples of Japan itineraries that you could follow if you are visiting Japan for the first time.

10-day Japan Itinerary Example

10 days is quite short but you can achieve a lot in 10 days so see the below recommended 10-day itinerary for Japan.

  • Day 1-3: Tokyo
  • Day 4-6: Kyoto
  • Day 7: Nara Park
  • Day 8-10: Osaka (try to time this so you can enjoy the Friday/Saturday nightlife)

Alternatively, you can start in Osaka and make your way to Tokyo.

12-day Japan Itinerary Example 1 (Hiroshima)

12 days will give you a little extra freedom to explore just a little bit more. Visiting Hiroshima is a very unique experience as you will get to see some remnants from the war. You’ll be on an action-packed schedule but here is an example itinerary you should follow.

  • Day 1-3: Tokyo
  • Day 4-6: Kyoto
  • Day 7: Nara Park
  • Day 8-10: Osaka (try to time this so you are here at least Friday and Saturday)
  • Day 11-12: Hiroshima

12-day Japan Itinerary Example 2 (Mount Fuji)

Seeing Mount Fuji is incredible so this itinerary includes visiting Mount Fuji. Like all the previous Japan itineraries, check to see if you can book a flight back to your home country from your last stop.

  • Day 1-3: Tokyo
  • Day 4-5: Hakone or Fujikawaguchiko (Mount Fuji views)
  • Day 6-8: Kyoto
  • Day 9: Nara Park
  • Day 10-12: Osaka

14-day Japan Itinerary Example (Tropical Islands)

14 days is quite a long time to go to Japan for first-timers as at this point you might start missing your own local food or start feeling tired from exploring so much. However, if you really want to visit for 14 days then why not see some tropical islands.

  • Day 1-3: Tokyo
  • Day 4-6: Kyoto
  • Day 7: Nara Park
  • Day 8-10: Osaka
  • Day 11-14: Okinawa

This concludes the list of best places to visit in Japan for for first-timers. In the future, we will add some Japan Travel Tips to the site to help you along your way.

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Article by Kyle

Digital nomad since 2010. I spend my time traveling around the world learning about new cultures and languages. I've lived in 4 continents and still have a lot left to explore!