20 Most Famous Cities in Japan (And What Makes Them Famous)

Japan is a country of contrasts. Here, historical palaces and sacred shrines mingle with futuristic skyscrapers. Concrete arthouses are bordered by mountains and lakes. And cherry blossom-lined parks are found within bustling cities.

This diversity becomes even more apparent when you explore famous cities in Japan.

Streets of Kyoto

Awe-inspiring landscapes, quiet solitude, ancient districts, urban wonderlands, delicious Japanese fare. You can find these and more in this selection of Japanese cities.

And while there are simply too many beautiful cities, towns, and villages in Japan, I listed the most popular ones, starting from the northern region down to the southern islands, to help you plan for your next adventure. Let’s go!

Most famous cities on Japan’s Hokkaido island

Japan is an archipelago of over 6,800 islands but it is known for (and often geographically divided into) its four main islands. Hokkaido is the northernmost, second-largest, and most unspoiled island.

This island, known for its cool summers and freezing winters, has a mountainous center that spills over into its coastal plains — the best of both worlds, if you ask me.

1. Sapporo

Shiroi koibito chocolate factory with winter snow festival light up at dusk in Sapporo City
Editorial credit: Peera_stockfoto / Shutterstock.com

Sapporo is Hokkaido’s largest city and its capital. This famous city in Japan is also one of the youngest, having only started major developments at the beginning of the Meiji Period (1868-1912).

Japan’s best winter destination, Sapporo is famous for the Sapporo Snow Festival, a showcase of massive ice and snow sculptures that attract about 2 million people each year.

The city is also known for hosting the 1972 Winter Olympics and if you’re the athletic type (or a sports history buff), you can check out the Sapporo Winter Sports Museum. This museum is a great place to see simulations of winter games like ski jumping, ice hockey, and figure skating.

But if you feel like doing the real thing instead, Sapporo has no shortage of ski resorts.

Sapporo is also recognized as the birthplace of miso ramen and Sapporo Beer (one of the most popular drinks in Japan). Plus, this city is world-renowned as a fresh seafood mecca. Foodies will definitely have a feast!

2. Furano

Furano lavender fields

While it’s also known for its majestic ski slopes and excellent, powdery snow, locals and foreigners flock to the small, picturesque city of Furano because of its lavender fields.

The majority of lavender usually blossoms from late June to early August, turning the fields into a breathtaking sea of purple. Poppies, lupins, lilies, sunflowers, and other flowers bloom around the same time, too.

There are plenty of lavender fields to explore and admire in Furano but Farm Tomita is the most popular. Seeing its flower fields with the Tokachi mountain range as the backdrop, it’s not hard to understand why this farm is busy during summer.

In winter, the city turns into snow land, and places like Furano Ski Resort offer snow activities such as skiing, snowboarding, and snow rafting.

When in Furano, don’t pass up on a chance to try local wine from the Furano Winery, best paired with the local camembert type cheese from the Furano Cheese Factory. And regardless of the season, the ice cream from Furano Ice Milk Factory is a must-try.

Most famous cities on Japan’s Honshu island

Honshu is the largest of Japan’s four main islands, which is why many of the most famous cities in Japan are found here. It is home to many of Japan’s iconic sites such as Mt. Fuji, Tokyo Skytree, Fushimi Inari Taisha, Osaka Castle, Lake Biwa, and more.

3. Tokyo

Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo

One of the most famous cities in Japan is, of course, its capital.

The largest metropolis in the world, Tokyo is home to over 38 million people and holds several world records: the oldest imperial family, the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing, the busiest train station, the tallest tower, the largest fish market, the most number of Michelin-starred restaurants, and the highest number of vending machines per capita.

Suffice it to say, greatness follows Tokyo. And it would probably take a lifetime to see everything it has to offer.

But you can at least visit its most iconic sites. Tokyo’s larger-than-life urban wonders include the Tokyo Skytree and Tokyo Tower, Shibuya Crossing, the shopping districts of Ginza and Harajuku, and the otaku and tech paradise that is Akihabara.

For a dose of history and tradition, visit any of Tokyo’s time-tested landmarks: the Senso-ji Temple, Meiji Shrine, the Imperial Palace, and Kabuki-za Theather.

Tokyo’s numerous public parks like Ueno Park, Shinjuku Gyeon, and Meguro River offer respite from the crowds and a chance to marvel at the city’s cherry blossoms.

Tokyo is also the birthplace of traditional sushi, the nigiri-zushi. You can also visit restaurants and izakayas offering local specialties like soba, shoyu ramen, tempura, unagi, and monjayaki. Or dine in at any of Tokyo’s themed cafés for a uniquely kawaii experience!

4. Kyoto

Pagoda temple in Kyoto

Kyoto is the former capital of Japan. Although Tokyo now holds that title, Kyoto is still recognized as the cultural capital and is one of the most famous cities in Japan.

A haven of traditional culture, Kyoto is home to a long list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It has around 2,000 temples and shrines, including the Kiyomizudera Temple, Kinkaku-ji or Golden Pavilion, Byodo-in, and Ryoan-ji.

But Kyoto’s most popular shrine is the Fushimi Inari Taisha, known for its thousands of orange-red torii gates. Equally majestic is the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, the seemingly endless forest of soaring bamboo trees.

Another hotspot in Kyoto is the “geisha district” of Gion. If you’re lucky, you may be able to spot a geisha (or geiko in local terms) walking along the exquisite cobbled streets.

Even if you don’t, you’ll be charmed by Gion’s wooden machiya houses, ochaya (teahouses), and traditional restaurants where you can try kaiseki ryori (multi-course Japanese haute cuisine) or shojin ryori (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine).

5. Osaka

Osaka Castle

The third-largest metropolitan area after Tokyo, Osaka is also one of the most famous cities in Japan. Here, you can enjoy a mix of unique cultural experiences, entertainment, and modern urban sights.

Osaka is known for its lively character. The city is home to the entertainment district of Dotonbori and amusement parks such as the Universal Studios and Osaka Aquarium. Clearly, this city aims to entertain both adults and kids.

For educational tours, you can visit the Museum of History and Osaka Science Museum. And to get glimpses of Osaka’s rich past, don’t miss the Sumiyosha Taisha, Shitennoji Temple, Bunraku Theater (famed for its puppet theater), the ancient Mozu Tombs, and of course, the stunning Osaka Castle.

Osaka may not feel as old-world as Kyoto but it’s got a distinct charm. From the nostalgic Shinsekai District to the bustling Minami entertainment district to the street food paradise that’s Kuromon Market, Osaka offers varied experiences for all kinds of travelers.

6. Yokohama

yokohama minatomirai

Lying south of Tokyo on the western coast of Tokyo Bay, Yokohama is one of the first ports to be opened for foreign trade in 1859. From a small fishing village, it is now the second-largest city in Japan by population.

Owing to its location and history as a port city, Yokohama is perhaps one of the Japanese cities that has been hugely influenced by foreigners. It is home to the first Chinatown, the first European-style sports venues, gas-powered street lamps, a railway station, and Japan’s first daily newspaper.

Today, Yokohama is not just a seaside cosmopolitan city but also a high-tech industrial hub. Big companies like Nissan, electronics company JVCKenwood, and video game and anime holding company Koei Tecmo have their headquarters in Yokohama.

When you’re not admiring the spectacular waterfront, sample a variety of ramen in the Cup Noodles Museum or the more nostalgic Shinyokohama Raumen Museum.

7. Nagoya

Nagoya buildings and railway

Located on the Pacific coast of central Honshu, Nagoya is one of the most famous cities in Japan. If you’re a transportation or technology geek, visiting Nagoya should be on your bucket list.

Like Yokohama, Nagoya is also a port city and the Meiji Restoration greatly impacted its economy. From its early days as a site for manufacturers of timepieces, bicycles, and sewing machines, the city is now the major industrial and transport hub of Japan, with many automotive, aviation, and robotics companies and factories headquartered in the city.

But even if you’re not into transportation and technology, Nagoya still has lots to offer. For a taste of Nagoya during the Edo period, there’s the iconic Nagoya Castle, the seat of one of the three branches of the ruling Tokugawa family.

The Tokugawa Art Museum houses the treasures amassed by this family, including samurai armor and swords, tea utensils, noh masks, and costumes.

8. Kobe

Arima Onsen in Kobe

I know what you’re thinking: beef. Yes, Kobe is famous for Kobe beef. But Kobe is so much more than the high-quality beef it produces.

Kobe, the capital of Hyogo Prefecture, is one of the largest and most famous cities in Japan. Bordered by the sea and the Rokko mountain range, it’s a picture-perfect location frequented by hikers.

Kobe was one of the cities largely struck by the 1995 Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake. Over 5,000 people were killed and tens of thousands of buildings were destroyed. The city has been completely rebuilt, however, and the traces of the event are only found in the Kobe Earthquake Memorial Museum.

Another famous spot in Kobe is the Arima Onsen, a hot spring town that lies in a natural mountain setting. Dating back over a thousand years, Arima Onsen is considered one of Japan’s oldest hot spring resorts.

9. Hiroshima

Hiroshima atomic bomb dome

Hiroshima is one of the most famous cities in Japan and the world for an unfortunate reason — it’s the first city targeted by a nuclear weapon.

The first atomic bomb detonated over a populated area in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, killing about 140,000 people by the end of the year due to the blast and its effects. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park commemorates this historical event.

Today, the city has been rebuilt and maintains its status as a “City of Peace”. And while its tragic history continues to draw tourists in, there are reasons to see Hiroshima.

The feudal Hiroshima Castle, the scenic Shukkeien Garden, the state-of-the-art Mazda Museum, and the Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki are just some of the things to watch out for in this Japanese city.

10. Nara

Deer in Nara Park

Nara became the first permanent capital of Japan in 710 and was the capital until 794. Before this, the capital used to be moved to a new location whenever a new emperor ascended to the throne.

Due to its rich past as the seat of the emperor, the city is full of historic treasures from old temples and shrines to palaces and national monuments. Some of the most popular include Todai-ji, Saidai-ji, Kofuku-ji, Kasuga Shrine, and the Heijo Palace, Japan’s former imperial residence.

Visiting Nara is experiencing the best of both Japanese culture and nature. Not only is this city abundant with heritage sites, but it’s also blessed with natural beauty.

Take the Kasugayama Primeval Forest, for instance. With logging and hunting prohibited since 841 AD, this forest remains virtually unspoiled and is home to over 175 types of flora and fauna.

However, the wild is not confined to the forest. Nara is most known for the wild but friendly deer that roam freely in the city. Holding National Treasure status and believed to be messengers of the gods, these deer are best seen in Nara Park.

11. Himeji

Himeji Castle

The imposing, brilliant white-clad, feudal period Himeji Castle is the biggest draw of Himeji, a city in Hyogo Prefecture. Widely recognized as Japan’s finest castle, Himeji Castle famously remained intact even throughout the bombing of Himeji in World War II and natural disasters like the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake.

Whether Himeji Castle survived by coincidence or through divine protection (as many Himeji residents believe), this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a thing of beauty — both for its majestic architecture and the rich history it carries.

Besides the castle, other popular spots in Himeji include the temple mountain Mt. Shosha and Kokoen Garden, a lovely Japanese-style garden next to Himeji Castle.

12. Kanazawa

higashi district in Kanazawa

Kanazawa is one of the most famous cities in Japan, primarily thanks to its historical and cultural attractions, which were spared from World War II bombing raids. In fact, in terms of cultural achievements, Kanazawa rivals Kyoto.

This city is known for its Edo period residences, beautiful temples, shrines, as well as modern museums and shopping areas. However, its highlight is Kenrokuen, one of Japan’s three most beautiful landscape gardens. The spacious garden is adjacent to the impressive Kanazawa castle.

Also worth checking out in this old castle town are two historic districts: Nagamichi, Kanazawa’s former samurai district, and the Higashi Geisha district which preserves chaya or teahouses where guests are entertained by geisha.

13. Hakone

View of Mount Fuji from Moto Hakone

Located just 100 kilometers from Tokyo, Hakone is one of the most famous cities in Japan for both the Japanese and foreigners. Despite its proximity to the bustling capital, Hakone is a rural paradise and is popular as a weekend or day trip destination.

Part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, this mountainous area is known for its natural beauty, historic sites, hiking trails, and of course, spectacular views of the iconic Mt. Fuji. The volcanic crater Lake Ashinoko and the village of Moto Hakone offer the best views of Mt. Fuji.

When in Hakone, locals recommend trying onsen (hot spring) baths at hotels, ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), or public bathhouses. If you’re a nature lover, you will also love the forest path to the Hakone Shrine and the cedar forest along the historic Tokaido road.

14. Sendai

Trees in Sendai, Japan

One of the largest and most famous cities in Japan, Sendai is a coastal metropolis that’s nicknamed the ‘City of Trees’ (Mori no Miyako) for its abundance of tree-lined streets and parks.

This city is one of the best destinations for cherry blossom viewing in spring and its temples and shrines are adorned with lovely gardens.

Sendai was the closest major city to the epicenter of the destructive 2011 Tohoku earthquake. The tsunami damaged the city’s coastal outskirts but there was no major damage in the city center. The city quickly got back up on its feet, with many tourist spots opening within a few months of the earthquake.

Today, Sendai is home to one of the country’s most famous festivals, the Tanabata Matsuri. This summer festival celebrating the crossing of the paths of two stars Altair and Vega is known for its elaborate and colorful and long streamers.

Sendai also takes pride in its local dish gyutan, which consists of pieces of thinly sliced beef tongue, grilled over charcoal. Definitely worth indulging on if you find yourself in this beautiful city.

Most famous cities in Japan’s Shikoku island

The smallest of Japan’s major islands is Shikoku, a subtropical island south of Honshu. While many foreigners skip this island, the Japanese know the charms it holds, from magnificent natural landscapes to one of the world’s longest Buddhist pilgrimages.

15. Matsuyama

Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama
Editorial credit: Sean Pavone / Shutterstock.com

Shikoku’s largest city, Matsuyama is home to one of Japan’s twelve original castles or castles that have survived the post-feudal era. Located on Mt. Katsuyama, the feudal Matsuyama Castle provides a great view of downtown Matsuyama and is a lovely cherry blossom spot, too.

Matsuyama is also famous for Dogo Onsen, one of the oldest and most popular hot springs in Japan. Even the Imperial family had frequented its beautiful bathhouses and ryokan.

The most visited bathhouse is Dogo Onsen Honkan, a wooden public bathhouse that’s said to have served as inspiration for Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away”.

The city is made more popular by “Botchan” by Natsume Soseki. This novel, published in 1906 and often read by Japanese students, describes Matsuyama during the turbulent Meiji Restoration.

What’s more, eight of the 88 temples in the Shikoku Pilgrimage are found in Matsuyama, making it even more popular with tourists.

16. Takamatsu

Ritsurin Park, Japanese traditional garden in Takamatsu, Japan

A port city on the Seto Inland Sea, Takamatsu used to be the main entry point to Shikoku. It is also the closest port to Honshu and an important point of Shikoku’s rail transit system. Because of this, it was also targeted and destroyed by bombing raids in World War II.

Now fully rebuilt, this core city is known for Ritsurin Koen, a landscape garden built by the local feudal lords in the early Edo period. The spacious garden includes several ponds, hilltops, lovely pavilions, a museum, and teahouses.

This city is also known for the Takamatsu Castle, one of the few Japanese castles built along the seaside. Another worthwhile destination is Sunport Takamatsu, a redeveloped business and shopping district not far from the castle.

Most famous cities in Japan’s Kyushu island

South of Japan is the subtropical Kyushu island, home to many historical sites, well-preserved natural treasures, and bustling modern cities. This mountainous and volcanic region is known for its hot springs and extensive forests — the perfect destination for nature lovers.

17. Fukuoka

Yatai Food Stand, Along Nakasu Riverside and street.
Editorial credit: masary78 / Shutterstock.com

Kyushu’s largest and one of the most famous cities in Japan, Fukuoka is on the southwestern edge of Japan, making it closer to Seoul than to Tokyo. Because of this, the city has been an important center of international commerce for many centuries.

Fukuoka is a product of the merger of the port city of Hakata and the former castle town and samurai land Fukuoka. Today, Hakata is mainly known as Canal City Hakata, a large shopping, dining, and entertainment complex in central Fukuoka.

A welcoming city that has a bit of everything, Fukuoka is famous for beautiful parks like the Uminonakamichi Park and Momochi Seaside Park and Shofukuji Temple, Japan’s first Zen temple.

Fukuoka also takes pride in its unique food culture that has been influenced by Korean and Chinese cuisine. The best places to try these foods are at yatai food stalls around the city.

18. Okinawa

churaumi aquarium in Okinawa

To be clear, Okinawa is the name of various territories in Japan: the southernmost and westernmost prefecture of Japan (Okinawa Prefecture), a group of islands (Okinawa Islands), and a major city (Okinawa city).

And although the city itself is worth seeing, it makes sense to talk about the whole prefecture, given its unique history and beauty.

From being a tributary state to China to being occupied by the US, Okinawa has had to endure bloody invasions throughout centuries. The most infamous is the Battle of Okinawa during World War II. There are still several US military bases on Okinawa Main Island — a source of controversy to this day.

However, tourists are guaranteed to have a grand time in Okinawa, thanks to its white-sand beaches, clear blue waters, natural parks, temples, castles, and museums.

Worth visiting are the Churaumi Aquarium, which is known as Japan’s best aquarium, the Okinawa Peace Memorial, and the cave and folk craft village of Okinawa World. If you’re raring to know more about the fascinating Okinawan culture, the theme park Ryukyu Mura is a must-visit.

19. Nagasaki

Peace statue in nagasaki

Due to its proximity to the Asian mainland, the city of Nagasaki was an important trading port for Japan. From the 16th to 19th centuries, it was Japan’s trading port for the Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese, and Koreans. It was also the main entry point for Catholic missionaries.

One of the most famous cities in Japan, Nagasaki is known as the second city in the world to be destroyed by an atomic bomb on August 9, 1945. Over the next few years, the city was slowly rebuilt. The Nagasaki Peace Park, which features remains from the explosion, a museum, the Peace Statue, and a fountain, commemorates this date.

To get up close and personal with Nagasaki’s trading history and Western influences, it’s recommended to visit the Glover House, the oldest wooden Western-style building in Japan. Dejima, a former district reserved for Dutch and Portuguese traders, is also worth seeing.

Close to the city center is the 333-meter-high Mount Inasa. The mountain’s summit can be reached by ropeway, bus, or car, and offers one of the best night views in Japan.

20. Kagoshima

Mount sakurajima in Kagoshima

Thanks to its hot climate, palm-lined streets, the gigantic Aira Caldera, and the active stratovolcano Mt. Sakurajima, Kagoshima has been nicknamed “Naples of the East”. The similarities end there though, for this city has its own distinct and rich history.

Kagoshima is known as the former seat of one of Japan’s most powerful clans, the Shimazu. One of the most striking attractions in Kagoshima, the Senganen Garden, was constructed by this clan. This beautiful garden offers exquisite views of Mt. Sakurajima and the Kagoshima Bay.

Shiroyama Park, which houses the Shiroyama Observatory, is also a great spot to appreciate the city’s natural beauty. The Reimeikan Museum, which covers Kagoshima’s history from ancient to modern times, is also nearby.

Arashiyama bamboo forest in Kyoto

And that’s a wrap! Whatever type of traveler you are — history junkie, adventure enthusiast, shopaholic, foodie, or nature seeker — there is a Japanese city for you.

Which of the most famous cities in Japan are you eager to visit? Chime in on the comments section!

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