There's more to Japan than just Tokyo. But where else should you be going? And what areas should you stay in?
So you’ve officially decided that you want to plan a trip to Japan – nice one! Next up, it’s time to figure out which parts of the country you want to visit. If you want to plan your trip around a specific automotive event, that’s perfect – that’s probably going to determine where you’ll be staying for at least some of your holiday. But what about the rest of the time? Well, that’s likely going to depend on where you’re flying into and the length of your stay in Japan.
Japan’s biggest international airports are in Tokyo and Osaka, so chances are you’ll be flying into either of these, or perhaps you’ll have a preference depending on the plans you’ve already made. They’re both incredible cities, which is pretty handy. One of the most common questions we see people asking is whether they should spend their whole trip in Tokyo, or if they should visit other cities too. In our opinion, the answer is YES! It’s definitely worth trying to see as much of Japan as possible while you’re there, as each city and area is so different, and will give you a completely different impression.
Even if you’re only staying in Japan for one week, you’ll still have time to visit different places. Keep reading to check out our recommendations!
First things first, know where stuff is!
If you’ve never been to Japan before, jump on Google right now and run some searches. Study the layout of the country and some of the main cities. Did you know that the Greater Tokyo Area has a population of over 38 million people? And that Japan consists of 6,852 islands in total with over a hundred active volcanoes? The four largest islands are Hokkaido (at the top), Honshu (the largest), Shikoku and Kyushu (at the bottom). Japan’s also divided up into 47 different areas called ‘prefectures’, which all contain numerous different cities, towns and villages, and capital cities which are often of the same name. For example, the capital city of Tokyo Prefecture is Tokyo, but the capital of Aichi Prefecture is Nagoya. Not pictured on this map is Okinawa, a Japanese prefecture consisting of 150 islands south of Kyushu, stretching all the way down towards Taiwan.
To give you an idea… It would take you 28 hours to drive from Fukuoka to Sapporo.
DID YOU KNOW: The kanji characters ‘日本’ that make up Japan’s name mean “sun origin”. This is why Japan is often called the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’.
The obvious choice: Tokyo.
When most people think of a Japan holiday, Tokyo naturally springs to mind as their destination. It is both Japan’s capital and its biggest city. For first time visitors to Japan, we’d definitely recommend spending time here – and if for some reason you could only spend time in one place in Japan, Tokyo would definitely be it!
Why? Well, it’s pretty damn crazy, and it’s where you’ll get the best ‘full-on’ Japan experience. Although you’ll see plenty of beautiful places and have some incredible cultural experiences in other areas of Japan, nothing quite beats the intensity of Shibuya, the weirdness of Akihabara and the extreme tourist experience you’ll have in Asakusa. Put simply, you can do the most stuff in Tokyo, and the super efficient and easy-to-navigate public transport system means you can get a LOT done in one day!
So, where do you even start in Tokyo? Because… it’s kind of GINORMOUS! To give you an idea of just how big it is, to take a train from one side of Tokyo to the other would take around two hours! There are over 50 smaller cities within Tokyo Metropolis, and you could easily spend a whole day exploring each of them! Here are our recommendations:
Where to Stay in Tokyo?
Shibuya, Harajuku and Shinjuku
As a starting point, these are some of our favourite areas in Tokyo. They’re super busy
(Shinjuku Station is the busiest train station in the world), super weird (you’ve heard of
Harajuku girls, right?) and excellent for exploring and people-watching (Shibuya is home to the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world – yes, the one from Tokyo Drift!).
NOTE. The only area we probably wouldn’t recommend staying in is Kabukicho, a red light district on the east-side of Seibu-Shinjuku Station (north of Shinjuku Station). It’s well-known that many bars and other businesses in this area are operated by the Japanese mafia (yakuza), however as long as you’re keeping to yourself and not bothering anyone, it’s still pretty safe. Maybe don’t get drunk there and try and throw a punch at someone with tattoos, just to be safe!
This area is well-known as Tokyo’s most popular nightlife district, so if you’re into partying (and shopping!) you’d likely enjoy this area. There are also lots of expats living/working in this area. Keep in mind that you’ll have to use the subway (not JR) to get here.
This is a really popular area in Tokyo with some cool history and attractions like Senso-ji temple and the Tokyo Skytree (in walking distance, across the river in Sumida), although it’s very touristy and can get very busy! There are plenty of good Airbnb options in this area too, although you’ll have to use the subway to get there (there’s no direct JR line).
Close to the three train stations (Hamamatsucho station, Daimon station and Takeshiba
station, this area has awesome transport links and some good Airbnb options here too. With easy access to the Yamanote Line, Tsukiji and the man-made islands in Tokyo Bay (like Odaiba), it’s a cool spot that’s worth looking into.
Maranouchi (Tokyo Station)
Some people might assume that the area surrounding Tokyo Station would be the ‘most
happening’ place in the city, but that’s not entirely the case. There’s some interesting stuff in this area (the Imperial Palace and underneath Tokyo Station there’s a crazy-huge shopping mall) but it’s also very commercial, being Tokyo’s financial district. It’s cool, but there are certainly other areas with a bit more character…
Hotels we’ve stayed in that we’d recommend:
Dormy Inn Premium, Shibuya – it’s a good central location in between Shibuya and Harajuku, they have rental bikes and can accommodate a rental car. It’s popular, so try book well in advance.
APA Hotel Shibuya Dogenzakaue, Shibuya – a reasonable rate for being so close to Shibuya station; the rooms in this hotel are hilariously small. But it has everything you need, and it’s handy if you’re having a night out in Shibuya.
Shinagawa Prince Hotel, Shinagawa – slightly more expensive, but it has massive rooms overlooking the city with gorgeous views (pictured in the above image) – book in the main building. It’s also a handy location for if you’re catching the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen.
Tokyu Stay Yotsuya, Yotsuya – Yotsuya is a nice, it’s a bit quieter than some of the neighbouring areas and has two train stations. This tidy hotel has big rooms and a view, plus a kitchenette – a good option for longer stays.
NOTE: We say that Tokyo is the obvious choice for most people because generally it is, and we would recommend staying in the city for at least some of your stay, as it is such an exciting and amazing place. But you do have to remember that it’s a city, so there aren’t any race tracks here and very few workshops or events are actually in central Tokyo. Most of the action goes on in other smaller cities around the edge of Tokyo, like Saitama, Yokohama and Chiba. These are still in the Greater Tokyo area, so we’d still recommend basing yourself in central Tokyo, and then planning day-trips out to these areas, although you can of course stay out there if you wish!
Food and entertainment: Osaka.
What about if you could only go to two cities in Japan? If that was the case, Osaka would be next on our to-visit list! Osaka is Japan’s third biggest city, (yet with a population of only 2.6 million in comparison to Tokyo’s whopping 13.3 million!) and it has way more of a relaxed vibe. It’s still very busy, of course, but nowhere near as crazy as Tokyo.
With strong roots in the VIP, drifting and street racing scenes, the Kansai area has an incredible car scene that’s definitely worth taking the time to discover, and there are lots of cool things to see and do in Osaka. But the most exciting part is the food! The city is famous for its cuisine, and it would be wise to save room in your stomach before going there – it’s far too easy to stuff yourself full of savoury pancakes, octopus balls and quality beef to the point that you can’t actually move anymore…
Where to stay in Osaka?
Shinsaibashi and Dotonbori
Our favourite part of Osaka has to be Shinsaibashi, an area bustling with bright nightlife, cheap food stalls and weird little side streets. There’s also a massive indoor shopping street (Shinsaibashi-suji), the Doutonbori canal and the Amerika-mura area to check out too. We’d recommend staying in this area so that you can walk around at night and soak up the vibrant atmosphere and enjoy shopping, sightseeing and of course, eating and drinking. On Friday and Saturday nights it can certainly get a bit weird, but not in a bad way!
Hotels we’ve stayed in that we’d recommend:
Cross Hotel Osaka, Shinsaibashi – central location with good transport links.
Hotel Osaka Bay Tower, Minato – worth it for the amazing views of Osaka Bay (and parking) but the rooms, although reasonably sized, are a bit outdated.
Cars, culture and more: Nagoya.
Cool vibes, cool cars, loads of cool workshops and more. Nagoya, the capital of Aichi Prefecture is a bit more industrial and features one of Japan’s biggest ports, with neighbouring city Toyota being home to the Toyota headquarters (yes, the town is named after the Toyota Motor Corporation!). Naturally this area of Japan has deep car culture connections, and its car scene is hugely diverse. With everything from classic American cars including lowriders and hot rods, to a thriving grassroots drift scene and plenty of cool old Japanese nostalgic cars, the Aichi area has it all. It’s a bit less ‘touristy’ than cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, so to get the most out of Nagoya, plan to visit an event there or meet up with some contacts that can show you around.
Where to stay in Nagoya?
The bustling downtown area of Sakae has plenty going on, plus there’s lots of restaurants and shops to check out. Put your walking shoes on and get exploring, and make sure to eat some local food while you’re at it. Nagoya, like every different city in Japan, has its own unique cuisine, so try some hitsumabushi (marinated, barbecued eel) or tebasaki (spicy chicken wings)!
Hotels we’ve stayed in that we’d recommend:
Dormy Inn Premium Nagoya Sakae – central location with car parking, transport links, small yet nice rooms.
Kyoto: The most beautiful city in Japan?
Kyoto is a smaller city, but it’s incredibly beautiful and very difficult not to fall in love with! With its many shrines and temples with manicured gardens, there’s plenty to see and do and we’d definitely recommend checking it out if you have the time. It’s only a half an hour train ride from Osaka!
Where to stay in Kyoto?
With skinny streets and traditional old wooden buildings, we’d recommend staying near the Gion area to be within walking distance of Kiyomizu-dera and Maruyama Park – during cherry blossom season this area is beyond magical, especially at night time. Enjoy a traditional multi-course kaiseki meal, and if you’re lucky, you might even spot a Geiko or Maiko (Geisha and the younger and more colourful apprentice Geisha).
Hotels we’ve stayed in that we’d recommend:
Hotel Sunline Kyoto Gion Shijyo – on the edge of Maruyama Park and just around the corner from the Gion area, this hotel has big rooms with actual windows. It’s up quite a skinny road, so not the easiest spot for parking.
The home of Mazda: peaceful Hiroshima.
Even if you’re only heading to Japan for ten days, we’d still recommend making the journey down to Hiroshima if you can. It’s only a 4-hour journey from Tokyo on the Shinkansen,however it does take longer if you’ve got a JR Pass, as you’ll have to catch a different type of train (see the note below about this). Visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum is a haunting and unforgettable experience, and as you walk along the quiet river flowing alongside the A-bomb Dome (a building that still stands as it was after the 1945 bombing), it’s hard to imagine the horror that this beautiful city once saw.
NOTE: If you’re wanting to go from Tokyo to Hiroshima using a JR Pass, you might want to consider breaking your trip up by stopping in Osaka (or somewhere else!) along the way. The JR Pass can’t be used for ‘Nozomi’ or ‘Mizuho’ trains on the Tokaido, Sanyo, and Kyushu Shinkansen lines, so you’ll have to catch a different train and then transfer at some point, which would make the overall trip take around 7 hours all-up. Just something to keep in mind!
Where to stay?
The centre of Hiroshima city is quite small, so you can either choose to stay within walking distance of Hiroshima station, or at a hotel close to the city’s central parks. If you stay by the station, there’s a free bus (for JR Pass holders) that will take you to the A-bomb dome. Click here for a timetable. Alternatively, you could stay on Miyajima Island, a popular tourist spot less than an hour away from the city. There are many traditional ryokan hotels here, but keep in mind that prices can be quite high during certain seasons.
Hotels we’ve stayed in that we’d recommend:
Hotel Sunroute Hiroshima – central location within walking distance of the Peace Park, A-bomb dome, and Hiroshima castle.
Staying near Mount Fuji.
The iconic Mount Fuji is around a 2-hour drive southwest of Tokyo, so if you’ve got time to get out of the city and check out the countryside, we couldn’t recommend this enough! The best way to get out here is by car (you can pick up a cheap rental car easily enough) so that you can enjoy the sights along the way. If you’re taking the train, check if your hotel has a shuttle service that can pick you up from the nearest station, otherwise you might have to catch a local bus.
The further out of the city you get, the more you’ll start to see the ‘other side’ of Japan that you miss out on if you only spend time in central Tokyo. Rural life here runs at a much quieter pace – think rice paddy fields, sleepy farming towns and plenty of lush greenery in the warmer seasons. This part of Japan has many natural hot springs (some hotels even have private outdoor hot tubs in their rooms) making it a popular destination for Tokyo locals to escape for a break and to rest and unwind.
PRO TIP: You could also plan your stay in one of these areas to coincide with an upcoming nearby event at Fuji Speedway or Sportsland Yamanashi! To read more about these circuits, check out our Awesome Guide #1: Japanese Race Tracks and Circuits.
Where to stay near Mt. Fuji?
Fujikawaguchiko in Yamanashi Prefecture
A good choice if you want to stay super close to Mt. Fuji. Based around the biggest of Fuji’s five lakes, Lake Kawaguchi, the town of Fujikawaguchiko is close enough to Fuji to get some spectacular views, and there are many hotels along the lakeside. A popular amusement park, Fuji-Q Highland is also nearby.
Hakone in Kanagawa Prefecture
A small resort town with Fuji views, a beautiful lake and some incredible nearby driving roads!
Atami in Shizuoka Prefecture
Another beautiful resort town with hot springs, nice views and beaches at the northern end of the Izu Peninsula. The ultimate spot for relaxation (and maybe even romance?) in Japan!
PRO TIP: If you’re really keen on getting some postcard-worthy shots of the mountain, plan to stay in the area for at least a couple of days – Fuji-san is notoriously shy, often hiding behind a thick layer of cloud. You’ll also have a much better chance of seeing Mount Fuji clearly during the colder months and in the early morning/late evening.
Drift heaven in Fukushima!
The Fukushima power plant disaster seems to be the first thing to pop into people’s minds when this area of Japan is mentioned, but what you might not know is that the Prefecture of Fukushima is really big, and while the affected areas lie on the east coast, everything further inland is completely safe, including the city of Fukushima itself. What you might also not know is that Fukushima is really, really beautiful, with some amazing roads and breathtaking natural scenery to enjoy. The main attraction in Fukushima, at least for us anyway, is Ebisu Circuit!
Where to stay in Fukushima?
The Drifter’s Lodge
Based only 1.2km from the front gate of Ebisu, the Drifter’s Lodge provides basic, low-cost
accommodation (backpacker-style) for visitors during Ebisu’s Drift Matsuri events. They book up fast, so get in early to avoid disappointment! You’ll also need a rental car to get around this area (as with the below recommendations).
A sleepy onsen resort town about a 10-minute drive from the track; there are many traditional Japanese-style ryokan here. It’s beautiful but very quiet!
For a more conventional English-friendly hotel (or if everything closer is booked out!) you could stay here, but keep in mind it’s around 40 minutes from the track.
The top and the bottom: Hokkaido to Kyushu.
If you’re wanting to do something different and check out some parts of Japan that a lot of international tourists skip out on, why not head to Hokkaido or Kyushu? Hokkaido has some amazing ski resorts and national parks – it’s the least developed of Japan’s four main islands. Kyushu, on the other hand has a partially subtropical climate and some interesting history. Both these areas also have some interesting yet not very well-known car scenes…
Where to stay in Hokkaido or Kyushu?
Niseko – snow heaven!
The most famous ski resort town in Japan, Niseko is foreigner-friendly and easily accessible due to its popularity. It’s known for its light powder snow and is a must-visit for avid skiers and snowboarders!
Fukuoka and Nagasaki
There’s a lot to explore in these areas – Fukuoka is famous for its open-air food stands serving delicious skewers of yakitori and a local dish called hakata ramen, while the port city of Nagasaki has some interesting sights too. There’s also a ‘Netherlands’ theme park complete with windmills, tulip gardens and a whole village full of old Dutch-style buildings! Weird, huh?