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Tokyo can't be judged from the outside, since those expecting ancient monuments will instead be greeted with modern drabness. The Imperial Palace, still home to the Emperor, shouldn't be missed, and the Edo-Tokyo Museum details the city's history. Sensoji Temple is the city's oldest, and the Tokyo National Museum holds the largest collection of Japanese art in the world.
Regardless of season, it's hard not to succumb to romance as you wander Kyoto's atmospheric streets, gaze at the glimmering Kinkaku-ji Pavilion, enjoy the traditional dances of the geisha or feast at restaurants over the Kamo River. Only Rome has more World Heritage Sites than the former Japanese capital. But happily unlike Rome, Kyoto maintains its calmness and romance even among throngs of summer tourists. (Editor's note: Our list was compiled before Japan's devastating earthquake of March 11, 2011. Kyoto did not sustain major damage, but we encourage all travellers to Japan to monitor travel alerts from their government.)
Home to nearly nine million and powering an economy that exceeds both Hong Kong's and Thailand's, Osaka packs quite a punch. The confident, stylish city is a shopping hub, with fabulous restaurants and nightlife. It's an ideal base for exploring the Kansai region: Kyoto's World Heritage Sites, Nara's temple and Koya-san's eerie graves are within 90 minutes by train. Top city attractions include the aquarium, Osaka Castle, Universal Studios Japan and the futuristic Floating Garden Observatory.
Probably best known for its eponymous beer, Sapporo—the capital of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island—has maintained the youthful and open atmosphere of the 1972 Olympic Winter Games, drawing international visitors for its annual Snow Festival and its world-famous ramen. Those seeking out the full diversity of Japanese cuisine will want to visit: a city with a ramen-inspired theme park is one that embraces and pampers foodies.
Fukuoka is a gourmet paradise... "providing you're not vegetarian," say travellers on our Fukuoka forum! It's right on Genkai Sea, and the seafood is fresh and abundant. So is Fukuoka-style ramen, which you can find at the city's famous yatai (outdoor stalls) as well as modern restaurants. Walk off your meal at Ohori Park and the nearby Fukuoka Castle ruins.
Nestled in the mountains, Hakone's trains, trails, and gondolas showcase the breathtaking vistas of Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, including close views of Mt. Fuji. The sulfurous steam from the region's volcanic activity fuels natural hot springs, the centerpieces of the many spas and resorts.
Go from the 13th century to the 21st in one day in Naha. Its ancient Ryukyu Kingdom centrepiece, Shuri Castle, has been restored and is the city's top tourist attraction. Meanwhile, on Kokusai-dori (International Boulevard), the pace never lets up as locals and tourists hop from restaurants to bars to nightclubs.
Yokohama is easily accessible from Tokyo, but there’s enough to see and do here that it’s worth more than a day trip. Visit Minato Marai 21, a popular, modern neighborhood with great shopping and tons of restaurant options. TripAdvisor travelers also recommend stopping at Big Wharf (Osanbashi Pier), a uniquely shaped pier with spectacular views.
Nestled in the Northern Japan Alps, Hakuba is all about the winter sports. A top ski and snowboarding destination, Hakuba has plenty of snow and nearly perfect powder. Spend the day swooshing down one of the areas 200+ trails, then end with an après ski at one of the area’s cozy pubs or cafes. Local mineral hot springs make great soaking spots for weary muscles.