5 Awe-Inspiring Itineraries Through Japan 

UPDATED: May 7, 2024
PUBLISHED: May 10, 2024
boat on a river in Japan next to a cherry blossom tree

As a travel journalist, it’s easy to get lost in the beauty of the world, from the Caribbean’s cerulean sea, to the pulsating music and cultural traditions of Brazil. Still, few places in the world have left an impact on me quite like Japan.

The first time I landed in the country in 2017, I was enamored by Tokyo’s glowing skyscrapers, Kyoto’s quiet kissatens (cafes) and countryside hills blanketed in electric shades of orange and fuschia that flashed like neon lights aboard the country’s famous bullet train. And though the bustling streets and quiet corners of the country are reason enough for a visit, it’s the culture of excellence upheld in Japan, from a simple exchange with a store clerk, to a carefully crafted omakase experience, that always inspires me the most. Every task, whether large or small, is worthy of respect and consideration. This intentional approach is inspired by a number of Japanese philosophies. 

Ikigai is a concept that encourages finding one’s purpose and passion in order to live a life of joy. In Héctor García’s book, Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, more than 100 elderly residents in Okinawa, Japan, shared that the key to their long life was rooted in finding something worth living for—hobbies that gave them purpose and community. Additionally, the Japanese philosophy of kaizen encourages constant improvement in both professional and personal facets of life. This approach is one of many reasons that Japan remains a global powerhouse in education, technology and economic success. 

It’s easy to feel this sense of purpose and drive, even as a tourist, which often equates to simply receiving some of the best customer service in the world—as well as kindness. A friend of mine once lost her wallet in Kyoto, and the staff at the guest home she was staying in went into full action to help her locate it, as though it were their own loss. I encourage any traveler with an interest to go east to Japan and to experience this warmth firsthand. The world-class culinary scene and natural wonders don’t hurt either. To get you started, here are a few of the best places to visit in Japan. 

The 5 best places to visit in Japan


The launching point for my deep love for Japan, Tokyo is a city steeped in history, exhilarating quirkiness, unforgettable dining experiences and skyline views that never get old. To witness some of those views, check into The Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho, a Luxury Collection Hotel, which lends views to a network of twinkling skyscrapers from its two-story atrium entrance. 

You could easily spend a week in Tokyo and still not scratch the surface of its many offerings, but there are a few quintessential experiences that are not to be missed, especially for first-time visitors. 

The beauty of much of the city rests in discoveries rather than planned points of interest. Roam the streets and take your pick at a number of vending machines, easily noticeable on corners and offering everything from super caffeinated drinks to cake in a can. Step into a kissaten (tea and coffeehouse) for a taste of well-crafted beans whipped into works of art. My favorite cafe is Café de l’Ambre in the Ginza neighborhood. The shop has been open since 1948 and offers an intimate peek into the heart of kaizen—as baristas here prepare drinks with a type of meticulousness that is almost surgical. Grab a seat at the wooden bar and take your pick of Mexican beans harvested in 1972 or a café oeuf, a hot coffee fortified with the addition of raw egg yolk that gives it a lovely foamed top. 

Parks abound in Tokyo, with favorites that include Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden and its sprawling lawns and stunning blooms during cherry blossom season. A favorite retreat when I visit that is often filled with fewer tourists, is Yoyogi Park, close enough to the bustling streets of Shibuya, but still a world of its own. Here, families walk dogs and runners find shaded paths for a good cardio adventure. 

Nearby sits one of my favorite hotels in the city, the recently opened Trunk (hotel) Yoyogi Park. Views from the boutique hotel’s rooftop on balmy summer afternoons and springtime blooms are a sight to behold. And, speaking of spring, that’s a great time to grab a bento box for a picnic and take in the awe-inspiring cherry blossoms that envelop the park. The hotel is also walking distance from the famous Shibuya Crossing—considered one of the world’ busiest intersections, with some 3,000 people crossing it at the same time. 

Head to Akihabara for a thriving anime and video game scene. The neon-lit storefronts here at night are particularly exciting to see. At Tsukiji Market, roam the narrow alleyways for your pick of buttery slices of some of the freshest tuna in the world, or try a sweet and savory tamagoyaki (rolled omelet). For shopping and a peek into the rebellious fashion styles that formed a subculture in the city, head to the Harajuku neighborhood. Bibliophiles will find contentment at Daikanyama T-Site, an architectural wonder filled with books, music and magazines, as well as a chic on-site cafe. 

It’s impossible to narrow down every incredible food experience in Tokyo; only France can boast more Michelin star restaurants than Japan. Of course, ramen options are plentiful—and even available in vending machines. One of my favorite options is the silky, truffle infused chicken ramen at Kagari in Ginza. The Mandarin Oriental Hotel also has an incredible pizza omakase experience that includes multiple slices of pizza that celebrate the seasonal produce of the country. 

For some nightlife fun, head to Golden Gai: a network of alleyway bars, some of which date back to World War II. For incomparable views of the city and an international crowd, step into Park Hyatt’s New York Bar, located on the 52nd floor and well-known because of the movie Lost In Translation. Each night, a live jazz band performs while onlookers enjoy wagyu burgers and martinis. Reservations are not taken, so prepare to queue if you’re not a hotel guest. The wait though, for those views alone, is definitely worth it. 


Worlds away from Tokyo in both feel and location, Beppu sits in Japan’s southwestern region of Kyushu—famous for its dramatic mountain peaks, subtropical forests and foods that include rich pork-based ramens and citrus fruits like satsuma mandarins and yuzu lemon. 

The island had been on my list for some time, as it’s also a wellness hub for people who seek experiences in the region’s famous hot springs, called onsens. These bubbling pools make Beppu home to the most hot spring resorts in Japan, known to have health benefits in its mineral rich waters that help relieve muscle tension and improve blood circulation. You can find these springs all around the region, on mountainsides, beside lakes and even in alleyways. I spent much of my time enjoying them at ANA InterContinental Beppu Resort and Spa, which offers cityscape views and a cascading mountainside onsen retreat that’s worth a visit for the views alone. 

Another popular onsen is the white sulfur springs of Okumyoban Sanso. Don’t miss the Hells of Beppu, where, as the name would indicate, no dipping is allowed. The collection of seven hot springs include waters over 100 degrees Celsius that sprout in colors of turquoise and brown. There’s a gift shop and cafe on-site, where you can try an onsen tamago: an egg that’s been steamed by the hot spring heat. 

How to get there: A two-hour flight from Tokyo will land you at Oita Airport, where you can then take a train or shuttle to arrive in Beppu in about 45 minutes. By train, you can take the Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kokura Station and transfer to the Sonic limited express train for Beppu.


Known to be a wonderland for cherry blossoms and geisha culture, Kyoto also contains a vibrant artist hub, incredible vintage shopping and a number of UNESCO World Heritage sites to visit. For a hotel stay on a quiet side of the city, consider Suiran, a Luxury Collection Hotel, located alongside the Hozu River and an ideal home base to watch hillsides come into full bloom. 

Nearby, streets are lined with various ice cream shops and a number of other sweets and savory snacks to sample as you walk. One of Kyoto’s most popular landmarks, Fushimi Inari Taisha, is lined with glowing orange torii gates and a trail that leads to a wooded forest. Another popular landmark is the Buddhist shrine of Kinakuji-ji, also referred to as the Golden Pavilion because its top two floors are covered in gold. For a quieter Zen temple, consider Zuihō-in, which also has a peaceful garden where you can sit and unwind. Though filled with tourists, the Bamboo Grove in Arashiyama is a can’t-miss experience. The stalks that tower above in this forest are truly breathtaking to behold. Best of all, it’s free to enter. 

For a taste of Japanese street food and vintage shopping, head to Kobo-san and Tenjin-san, the two largest outdoor markets in Kyoto. For dinner, Nanzenji Harada is a memorable experience of flavors utilized in their purest form. The chef doesn’t use any seasoning, only bonito flakes and dashi, so the flavors of the food really shine through.

How to get there: Located 500 kilometers south of Tokyo, Kyoto can be reached via Shinkansen (bullet train) in about two hours and 15 minutes. A flight takes approximately an hour from Tokyo. 


A popular day trip option from Tokyo, Nikkō is located in the northwestern part of Tochigi prefecture. Travelers are drawn to this region in particular for its mountainous range, Nantai, which is set ablaze with color during spring’s foliage bloom. Hikers will be inspired by the number of pathways waiting to be explored, including Nikkō National Park, which includes Shiobara Valley’s deep river gorge and woodlands, and the lush Nasu Heisei-no-Mori Forest Trail. 

Nikkō is also home to some of Japan’s most magnificent shrines and temples, many UNESCO World Heritage site shrines and temples, including the carvings of sleeping cats and elephants at Toshogu Shrine and the lanterns of Futarasan-jinja Shrine.

My check-in at The Ritz Carlton, Nikko also came with a number of wellness and nearby excursions, including stargazing and rafting on nearby Lake Chuzenji. In the winter, guests can even try snow cycling and snowshoe hiking. In the mornings, meditation in their garden is an inspiring way to set the intention for the day. 

How to get there: The Shinkansen is the most efficient way to get to Nikko, and the ride takes just under two hours. 


Though I’ve yet to visit Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island has remained on my travel wish list for years now—so much so that I even have an itinerary. I’ll start in the capital city of Sapporo, known around the world for its beer. Also known for seasonal events that include an annual Snow Festival in the winter and blooming cherry blossoms at Maruyama Park in the spring, you’ll be entertained no matter what time of year you visit. 

And then there’s the food. Hokkaido is the birthplace of three different types of ramen, including the butter and sweet corn Sapporo variation. Curry soup is also very popular, as well as Hokkaido milk—the star ingredient that gives a velvety flavor to the region’s ice cream. 

About two hours from Sapporo, Shiguchi hotel in Niseko is an architectural stunner that consists of a collection of farmhouses in a forested haven. Minimalist rooms feature a private onsen, and an on-site library and impressive art collection give guests plenty of opportunity to unwind and be inspired. 

As one of the most popular ski areas in the world, Niseko is also home to five properties—including the luxurious Higashiyama Niseko Village, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve—as well as ski trails with access to 2,191 acres of skiable terrain, 70 runs and 29 lifts and gondolas. A private members club called Mandala also recently launched in the village. 

For other areas to consider, day trips people often take in Hokkaido include Furano, known for its rolling fields of lavender, and Otaru, a harbor city that offers fresh sushi and a beautifully preserved canal area. 

How to get there: The most picturesque option to Hokkaido will be the Shinkansen. From Tokyo, the journey takes around four and a half hours. If you’d prefer to get there quicker, a flight is just one and a half hours to Sapporo from Tokyo.

Photo by Sean Pavone/Shutterstock.com