This is the only Japan travel guide you’ll ever need

A traveller’s guide to the best things to do in Japan, including the everyday essentials you need to know about and how to navigate the prefectures while you’re there.

The Land of the Rising Sun has become a holiday hotspot for Australian travellers. Rich in history, culture and tradition – yet at the forefront of cutting-edge technology – Japan is a destination where the past and future collide to create a unique present. The landscapes across the nine regions are diverse and beautiful; some are mountainous and blanketed in snow, while others are warm and green with cherry blossom-filled parks. From the bustling neon jungle of Tokyo to the machiya-lined streets of Kyoto and the poignant history of Hiroshima, Japan is a country of depth and colour where the sights, sounds, flavours and experiences keep travellers coming back for more. This is the ultimate Japan travel guide to the best things to do in Japan. 

Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo, Japan.
Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo, Japan. © Unsplash/ Denys Nevozhai

Japan travel facts

Currency: Japanese yen ¥
Language: Japanese
Religion: Shinto and Buddhism
Capital: Tokyo
Emergency numbers: fire, ambulance and rescue: 119 Police: 110
Time zone: Japan Standard Time (GMT+9) Canberra, Australia is one hour ahead of Tokyo, Japan
Visa: Australian travellers entering Japan for tourism, business or transit for a duration of less than 90 days do not require a visa to enter Japan.
Peak season: spring (from March to May) and autumn (from September to November)
Low season: winter (from December to February)
Cherry blossom season: late March to early April 

Women wearing kimonos in Kyoto, Japan
Kyoto, Japan. © Unsplash / Sorasak

What is Japan famous for? 

Japan is an East Asian island country speculated to be more than 1400 years old. While official records date back to around 400 AD, some historical legends propose that the country was founded around 600 BC. The Land of the Rising Sun has a colourful past filled with ninjas, samurai, geisha and sumo; castles, temples, teahouses and onsen. Today, Japan is known for its cutting-edge technology, Shinkansen (bullet trains) and thriving metropolises. History and tradition take a backseat to J-pop, anime, Hello Kitty, Nintendo, the neon lights of Tokyo, and its infamous scramble crossing. Japan is a country like no other. 

Learn more:
The best hotels in Japan
The best food in Japan
A guide to cherry blossom season in Japan
Why there’s no such thing as an ‘off-season’ in Japan
Where to experience a traditional ryokan

Cherry blossoms in Ueno Park in Tokyo, Japan
Ueno Park, Tokyo. © Unsplash/Yu Kato

 Where is Japan, and how do I get there? 

Situated in the Pacific Ocean to the east of China and the Korean Peninsula, Japan is an island nation within easy reach of Australia. A direct flight from Sydney, Australia to Tokyo, Japan takes less than 11 hours. Airlines that operate direct flights from Australia to Japan include Qantas, Japan Airlines, All Nippon Airways, Virgin Australia, and Jetstar Australia. However, more airlines operate routes from Australia to Japan with one or more stopovers. 

Cherry blossoms at Osaka Castle
Osaka Castle. © Unsplash/Nomadic Julien & Yusheng Deng

A guide to the islands, regions and prefectures of Japan

Japan is comprised of four main islands: Honshū, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku, plus countless smaller islets. The capital of Tokyo is located on Honshu, as are Yokohama (the nation’s second-biggest city), Osaka and Kyoto. 

However, Japan itself is divided into eight regions: Hokkaido, Tohoku, Kanto, Chubu, Kinki, Chugoku, Shikoku, and Kyushu-Okinawa. Each region contains one or more prefectures, of which there are 47 in total across the country. Each prefecture is governed by an individual body known as kenchō

Kenrokuen Gardens in Autumn
Kenrokuen Garden in Autumn © Kanazawa City

Kantō

Described as one of the most urbanised and industrialised areas of Japan, the Kantō region holds the country’s two biggest cities – Tokyo and Yokohama – within its seven prefectures: Tokyo Metropolis, Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama, Gunma, Tochigi and Ibaraki. Carved out of the eastern section of Honshū, the region has hot summers and icy winters, green lowlands and national parks, and areas of popular hot springs resorts. Within Kantō, you’ll find the coastal town of Kamakura and its huge Buddha, less than an hour from Tokyo; the crystal-clear waters of Nikkō; the red maple trees of Tochigi; and the Kairaku-en Garden, one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan. There are direct flights from Australia to Tokyo, and the Shinkansen trains connect Tokyo to neighbouring prefectures. 

Things to do in Kantō
Road trips in Japan’s Kanto region
A guide to Tokyo’s trendiest neighbourhoods
Things to do in Tokyo
New hotels in Tokyo
Outdoor adventures near Tokyo
What to do in Tokyo during summer
The best cherry blossom spots in and around Tokyo
Day trip from Tokyo to Enoshima
Five of the best spots to enjoy autumn in Nikko
Tokyo to Nikko itinerary for springtime holidays

Kinki (Kansai)

From the traditional architecture and temples of Kyoto to the food streets of Osaka and the deer of Nara, Kinki, also known as Kansai, is the cultural epicentre of Japan. The Kansai is comprised of seven prefectures: Kyoto, Nara, Shiga, Wakayama, Mie, Osaka and Hyogo. Situated in the south of Honshū, the region is connected to Tokyo by Shinkansen and Limited Express trains, with direct flights from Australia arriving and departing from Kansai International Airport and Osaka International Airport (Itami). The Kinki region is a major destination for tourists who flock to Kyoto to see the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kiyomizu-dera, Yasaka Pagoda and geisha. However, venture further and you’ll find a hot springs resort, castle ruins and the harbour city of Kobe in Hyogo; the former castle town of Ueno and its ninja history in Mie; and the rural city of Koka in Shiga. 

Things to do in Kansai
The complete travel guide to Osaka
9 of the best Kyoto districts for sightseeing, food and culture
A guide to visiting the Kansai’s northern prefectures

dotonbori at night in Osaka
© Adobe Stock/Arcady

Kyushu-Okinawa

Of the eight prefectures that comprise Kyushu-Okinawa, seven are on the main island of Kyushu, while Okinawa prefecture stands alone on the Ryukyu Islands. Kyushu is the third-largest island of Japan, located towards the south-west of Honshū, divided into Fukuoka, Kagoshima, Kumamoto, Miyazaki, Nagasaki, Ōita and Saga. Mountainous terrain and natural environments cover much of the landmass, while the eastern part of the island around the city of Beppu is renowned for its hot springs and onsen resort towns. 

Fukuoka is the largest city, connected to Tokyo by the Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansen, which takes around five hours one way on the direct Nozomi trains. Saga is home to Yoshinogari Park, the nation’s best Yayoi Period archaeological site, and Yutoku Inari Shrine, one of Japan’s top three shrines. Nagasaki is where you’ll find the Dutch-themed amusement park Huis Ten Bosch and the Shimabara Peninsula’s active volcano, while Kagoshima boasts a subtropical rainforest and a volcanic mountain range. Visit Miyazaki’s mountain town, Takachiho, for a dose of local mythology, or Yufuin in Oita to relax in hot springs. 

Things to do in Kyushu-Okinawa
A guide to visiting Okinawa
Unzen Onsen: one of Japan’s best national parks 

a concrete bridge under a mountain in © Adobe Stock
Fukuoka © Adobe Stock

Hokkaido

Hokkaido is the northernmost of Japan’s four islands and is famous for its wilderness, snow and seafood. Hokkaido has just one eponymous prefecture and is a popular winter destination due to its powder-soft snowfall and top-rated ski resorts such as Niseko, Rusutsu and Furano. The main city, Sapporo, has a reputation for its namesake beer, ramen and the annual Sapporo Snow Festival. The island has a wealth of hiking trails and natural hot springs in its numerous national parks and is home to the indigenous Ainu people of Lake Akan. Hokkaido is accessible by plane from all major Japanese airports, including New Chitose Airport near Sapporo. A direct flight from Tokyo takes 90 minutes. 

Things to do in Hokkaido
A visitor’s guide to Hokkaido

Hakodate, Hokkaido
Hakodate, Hokkaido © Adobe Stock

Tohoku

Comprised of six prefectures in the north of Honshu: Aomori, Akita, Iwate, Yamagata, Miyagi, and Fukushima, Tohoku is more developed than Hokkaido, though its traditions have been preserved. Lush countryside, mountains, lakes and hot springs define the region, which is known to have severe winters. Sendai is the largest city in Tohoku and the capital of Miyagi Prefecture. Visit the Tohoku region to engage in outdoor activities such as hiking and rafting in summer, or skiing in the winter. 

You’ll find ski fields and onsen in Yamagata; resort towns and historical attractions in Miyagi; rugged landscapes, culture and folklore in Iwate. There’s a samurai district in Akita; close to Tokyo, visitors can find onsen, sake, cherry blossoms and ski slopes in Fukushima; then discover primeval forests, apples, rice field art, craft sake and seafood in Aomori. Tohoku is served by shinkansen from Tokyo and Hokkaido to Aomori and Akita. 

Things to do in Tohoku
Things to do in Aomori, Japan

 Chūbu

Nine prefectures cluster together in the heart of Honshū to form the Chūbu region, a mountainous and rugged area home to Japan’s tallest mountains, including Mount Fuji and the Japanese Alps. There are castles, feudal-period villages, hot springs and ski slopes sprinkled throughout the prefectures of Aichi, Fukui, Gifu, Ishikawa, Nagano, Niigata, Shizuoka, Toyama, and Yamanashi. Aichi has the most temples of any prefecture in Japan and is home to the National Treasure-listed Inuyama Castle, while Fukui hosts Japan’s oldest castle, Maruoka Castle and one of the world’s best dinosaur museums, the Fukui Dinosaur Museum. Visitors can find the World Heritage-listed Shirakawa-go Village in Gifu; Kanazawa Castle and Kenrokuen Garden (one of the country’s top three) in Ishikawa; feudal villages and the ski slopes of Hakuba in Nagano; a winter sports wonderland in Niigata; and the coastlines of the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka. The region is well served by JR Shinkansen and Limited Express trains from Tokyo. 

Things to do in Chūbu
Get a taste of the real Japan in Nagano and Kanazawa
A guide to skiing Japan’s Hakuba Valley

Inuyama Castle and garden in Japan
Inuyama Castle © Adobe Stock/Navintar

Chūgoku

Characterised by natural beauty, hiking trails and historical significance, Chūgoku is a five-prefecture region in the westernmost part of Honshū. Home to Hiroshima and the gateway to Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, Chūgoku has seaside townships, island-hopping, cycling tracks and Japan’s famous floating shrine. Made up of the prefectures Hiroshima, Yamaguchi, Shimane, Tottori and Okayama, Chūgoku can be explored by following the Sanyo Shinkansen line west towards Kyushu and Shikoku. Hiroshima is the major metropolis within the Chūgoku region, where you’ll find the Peace Memorial Museum, Atomic Bomb Dome, Hiroshima Castle and Shukkein Garden. Further afield in Hiroshima prefecture, you’ll find the shrine and floating torii gate of Miyajima and the port town of Onomichi. Yamaguchi is famous for its karst plateau, limestone caves and Hagi castle town; see dunes and mountains in Tottori; and find Japan’s oldest shrine in Shimane. Australians can reach Hiroshima International Airport with one connection or more, or get the four-hour train from Tokyo to Hiroshima. 

Things to do in Chūgoku
A first-timer’s guide to Setouchi
A beginner’s guide to island-hopping the Seto Inland Sea
How to cycle the famous Shimanami Kaido trail
Discover the gateway to Setouchi at Hiroshima Airport

Bomb memorial in Hiroshima, Setouchi
Hiroshima © Adobe Stock

Shikoku

Shikoku is Japan’s fourth-largest island and is made up of four prefectures: Kagawa, Ehime, Kochi and Tokushima. Rural landscapes, culture and pilgrimage trails are the key attractions of the region, with the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage the most famous. Shikoku offers visitors a glimpse into a more traditional Japan, from Kagawa’s famous udon to Kochi’s historic castle and the Dogo Onsen that inspired Studio Ghibli in Ehime. Matsuyama is the largest city in the region and is accessible via Shinkansen from Tokyo and Osaka to Okayama, followed by a two-and-a-half-hour journey via JR train to Matsuyama Station. Visit Tokushima for its dance festival, experience old-world Japan in Ozu, explore the islands of Naoshima and Shodoshima, or brave the vine bridges of Iya Valley. 

Things to do in Shikoku
Visit the cat islands of Japan

Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama
Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama © Adobe Stock/Tokyo Studio

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