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Tradition collides with pop culture in Tokyo, where you can reverently wander ancient temples before rocking out at a karaoke bar. Wake up before the sun to catch the lively fish auction at the Toyosu Market, then refresh with a walk beneath the cherry blossom trees that line the Sumida River. Spend some time in the beautiful East Gardens of the Imperial Palace, then brush up on your Japanese history at the Edo-Tokyo Museum. Don’t forget to eat as much sushi, udon noodles, and wagashi (Japanese sweets) as your belly can handle.
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.
Commerce keeps Nagoya’s downtown popping with life, but there’s more than just manufacturing to this industrial powerhouse. Nagoyans meet for plates of crisp-friend miso katsu; make weekend trips to nearby Shinto shrines; and count down the days to the city’s autumn Nagoya Festival.
A trip to Hiroshima is best kicked off with a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, which contains a museum, the remnants of buildings destroyed by the 1945 atomic bomb and monuments to the people killed by this nuclear attack. Understanding Hiroshima’s relatively recent devastation is key to fully appreciating its beauty and culture. Visit splendidly rebuilt historic sites like Hiroshima Castle and Shukkei-en Garden, and don’t miss the Itsukushima Shrine on the nearby island of Miyajima.
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.
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.
Nicknamed "Little Kyoto," Kanazawa's rich history and culture ranges from geisha districts to a 16th-century castle. Locals here enjoy the good life away from big-city buzz, whether they’re picking up fresh seafood at Omicho Market or strolling Kenroku-en Garden’s manicured paths.