This bucket list is a two-part series dedicated to all travel enthusiasts in Japan.
Are you excited to be planning an epic tour across Japan in the coming months? Or perhaps you’re already an expert in one region of the country and are thinking of exploring some new areas. Either way, we hope that this article can spark some inspiration for dealing with your next bout of wanderlust.
The following list is a compilation of top travel destinations in Japan that you have to visit before you die. For the sake of brevity, we’ve decided to showcase only one stellar site for each of the 47 prefectures, with three “bonus” attractions thrown in at the very end. The mix of places consists of breathtaking scenic views, natural wonders, man-made structures, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and more. Some are famous, some are off the beaten path, but all of them are sure to leave you with a lasting impression. The list is organized by region, starting up in the north with Hokkaido Prefecture and moving south all the way to Okinawa Prefecture.
OK, are you ready for the first 25 prefectures? Let’s go exploring from the northern island of Hokkaido down to Shiga Prefecture!
1. Hokkaido Prefecture – The Hills of Biei (美瑛の丘)
While Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido boasts some of the country’s most spectacular landscapes, the town of Biei is well-known for its patchwork fields and rolling hills adorned by vivid flower fields as far as the eye can see.
2. Aomori Prefecture – Oirase Mountain Stream (奥入瀬渓流)
This 14-kilometer (8.7-mile) stretch flowing from Lake Towada boasts numerous rapids and waterfalls among a backdrop of lush moss and untouched forest. It makes for a picturesque hike any time of the year, so you’ll probably want to stop by more than once to appreciate it in different seasons!
3. Iwate Prefecture – Geibi Gorge (猊鼻渓)
Named after a large rock in the shape of a lion’s nose (in Japanese, geibi), this river gorge is straddled by tall cliffs. Visitors can leisurely enjoy a boat ride while admiring the rugged surroundings.
4. Miyagi Prefecture – Okama Crater, Zao Mountain Range (御釜, 蔵王連峰)
As if the name “Zao” alone wasn’t cool enough, this emerald-green crater lake was formed after a volcanic eruption in the 1720s, and it’s still technically active today. The surrounding area features popular skiing and hot springs resorts; travelers also come from all over the world to see its eerie juhyo “snow monsters” in the winter.
5. Akita Prefecture – Lake Tazawa (田沢湖)
Lake Tazawa is the deepest lake in Japan at 1,388 feet (423 meters). Fans of the Korean television drama Iris may also recognize the lake from its panoramic shots with the bronze statue of Tatsuko, a mythological lake goddess, near the shoreline.
6. Yamagata Prefecture – Risshakuji/Yamadera (立石寺/山寺)
Commonly known as Yamadera (“Mountain Temple”), this temple complex built alongside cliffs makes for a tranquil hike up a steep, cedar-lined path of 1,015 steps. In the summer, the buzz of cicadas pierces the air, as immortalized in a famous poem by haiku master Matsuo Basho. In fact, the sound is so synonymous to Yamadera that it was included in the Japanese government’s list of the “100 Soundscapes of Japan.”
7. Fukushima Prefecture – Goshikinuma (五色沼)
This “five-colored pond” is one of several volcanic lakes located at the foot of Mt. Bandai. Mineral deposits in the water cause the lakes’ color to shift depending on the weather; on certain days the water surface appears as an electrifying cobalt blue. Visitors can take in the scenery by renting small rowboats.
8. Ibaraki Prefecture – Ushiku Buddha (牛久大仏)
Compared to many other giant Buddha statues throughout Japan, the Ushiku statue is one of the newest, having been completed in 1993. Not only that, it’s also one of the tallest statues in the world, coming in at 390 feet (120 meters) tall. In fact, a single finger is a whopping seven meters (23 feet) long! Too bad Google Street View blurred out its face…
9. Tochigi Prefecture – Nikko Toshogu (日光東照宮)
This site enshrines Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate, which lasted from 1603 until 1867. The various shrines and temples at Nikko have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the highlights is a wooden stable carving of the three wise monkeys (“See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”). If you’re planning to visit, just be warned that the monkeys are under restoration until March 2017.
10. Gunma Prefecture – Fukiware Falls (吹割の滝)
Seven meters (23 feet) high and 30 meters (98 feet) wide, these falls are a popular sightseeing spot in Numata City. Their general shape has earned them the nickname “The Japanese Niagara Falls.” The water level is at its highest in May after the melting of the nearby snow.
11. Saitama Prefecture – Tokyo Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel (首都圏外郭放水路)
The world’s largest underground flood prevention facility (and modern-day Mines of Moria lookalike) was built 50 meters (164 feet) under the land’s surface and contains pumps which can push 200 tons of water per second into the nearby Edo River. As far as we’re concerned, now we can rest easy knowing that Godzilla or an Evangelion can’t flood Tokyo.
12. Chiba Prefecture – Mt. Nokogiri (鋸山)
Literally “Saw Mountain,” Mt. Nokogiri is located in southern Chiba on the Tokyo Bay side of the prefecture. A cable car leads to a high-altitude temple complex and a popular lookout spot known as the “View of Hell” (pictured above)!
13. Tokyo Prefecture – Mt. Takao (高尾山)
When Tokyoites need a quick escape into the natural world, Mt. Takao in Tokyo’s Hachioji is the most convenient place to go. Easily accessed by train on the JR Chuo Line or Keio Takao Line, the mountain offers numerous trails, including paved ones, for a moderate hike. Just be warned that the slope becomes very crowded during the cherry blossom and autumn foliage seasons.
14. Kanagawa Prefecture – Enoshima (江の島)
The small island of Enoshima makes for a lovely day trip from the greater Tokyo area. It’s connected to the mainland by a walkable bridge and includes a shrine, lighthouse, various seafood eateries, and on the far side, rocky tidal pools and a sea cavern to explore.
15. Niigata Prefecture – Kiyotsu Gorge (清津峡)
An officially designated Natural Monument and Place of Scenic Beauty in Tokamachi City, this gorge has a tunnel with four viewing stations and is a perfect destination for anyone wanting to be inspired by the sheer awesomeness of nature.
16. Toyama Prefecture – Kurobe Gorge (黒部峡谷)
We’re following the previous entry with another gorge, this time in the secluded mountains of Toyama Prefecture. Visitors can gaze upon stunning views of the steep ravine and the Kurobe River from open-air cars on the Kurobe Gorge Railway.
17. Ishikawa Prefecture – Kenrokuen (兼六園)
Kenrokuen is the cultural jewel of Kanazawa, and its status as one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan speaks for itself. Fun fact: the grounds, beautiful in any season, also contain the oldest fountain in Japan.
18. Fukui Prefecture – Tojinbo (東尋坊)
12月19日(月)🌥 おはようございます 今週はChristmas Week！🎄 しかも今年は三連休😄これは盛り上がっていくしかないっ！ゴゴゴ…… 皆様、年末に向けて色々と楽しいコトがあるのでは⁇暖かくして体調を崩さないようお過ご… twitter.com/i/web/status/8…—
東尋坊観光遊覧船 (@tojinboyuransen) December 18, 2016
These rugged cliffs along the Sea of Japan coastline were shaped by erosion from the crashing waves. While the cliffs were once a popular spot to commit suicide, the efforts of a retired local police officer have helped save over 500 lives since 2004.
19. Yamanashi Prefecture – Narusawa Ice Cave (鳴沢氷穴)
VR 日本の絶景 (@VR_japanview) November 21, 2016
The cave was formed in 864 by an eruption of Mt. Nagaoyama, a parasitic volcano of Mt. Fuji. The temperature inside usually stays below freezing throughout the year. Did the ice pillars here perhaps serve as inspiration for the ice caves in several of the Pokémon games?
20. Nagano Prefecture – Kanaguya at Shibu Onsen (渋温泉 金具屋)
【長野県】 渋温泉金具屋 https://t.co/ncnFTsp64I—
sususmu (@kiphyt0) December 26, 2016
This ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) is over 250 years old and is rumored to be one of the real-life models behind the bathhouse in Spirited Away. It’s part of a quaint hot springs town where visitors can soak in plenty of Edo-period architecture and atmosphere. Another famous enticement to the area? The Jigokudani Monkey Park and its famous snow monkeys!
21. Gifu Prefecture – Shirakawa-go (白川郷)
This picturesque village, often photographed during the winter months while cloaked in snow, preserves the traditional gassho-zukuri (“hands clasped in prayer style”) building technique characterized by houses with vast, sloped roofs. Along with the similar village of Gokayama in Toyama Prefecture, Shirakawa-go is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
22. Shizuoka Prefecture – Suspension Bridge of Dreams (夢の吊り橋)
静岡県 夢の吊り橋 コバルトブルーの大間ダム湖にかかる、長さ90メートル高さ8メートルの吊り橋です。橋の真ん中で若い女性が恋の成熟を祈ると夢が叶うと言われています。 https://t.co/bfYHTzSMWc—
【厳選】日本の絶景スポット (@japan_gensen) December 25, 2016
Walking the length of this bridge over the piercingly blue water is an ethereal experience in itself. It’s said that if a young woman makes a romantic wish while standing in the middle of the bridge, it will come true.
23. Aichi Prefecture – Inuyama Castle (犬山城)
犬山 犬山さん 犬山市 犬山城🐶🐶🐶🐶🐶 https://t.co/sTKe2J6Mym—
橋津さやな (@Saya3870531) December 19, 2016
While not quite as famous as some of Japan’s other castles, Inuyama Castle’s claim to fame is being one of the country’s oldest wooden castles (one of only 12 surviving since before the Edo period), having escaped largely unscathed from periods of war and natural disaster over the last few centuries. Inuyama literally means “Dog Mountain,” and is also the name of the city where the castle is located.
24. Mie Prefecture – Maruyama Senmaida (丸山千枚田)
Kumano City’s Maruyama Senmaida is one of the world’s most stunning examples of terraced rice fields cut into a hill. Farmers have cultivated the land over hundreds of years to create today’s existing 1,340 sections. The annual summer light-up event is a perfect way to experience the fields, as they become dotted with countless twinkling lights.
25. Shiga Prefecture – Kawachi Wind Cave (河内の風穴)
The narrow mouth of this naturally-formed limestone cave opens into an unfathomably spacious interior. Explorers can descend deeper to four different levels open for public access.
We bet you didn’t know that Japan was home to so many spectacular landmarks, from natural gorges to a resplendent shrine-temple complex. Check out 25 more amazing travel destinations in Japan in Part II!
Reference: Naver Matome
Featured image: Krista Rogers, Laura Bocon (edited by RocketNews24)
Special thanks to Laura Bocon and Daniel Lowe for contributing their photos to this article