There's probably no better country in the world at balancing the old with the new than the nation of Japan, and its ability to mix the traditional with the cutting-edge has allowed the country to remain as one of the world's most intriguing and popular travel destinations.
And while the mega-metropolis of Tokyo is an icon that has been mused over in countless movies and literary works, there is a lot more to the Land of the Rising Sun than its famed capital city. From its snowy northernmost provinces to its tropical isles in the south, the island nation is one that deserves to be discovered in full. So study the guide below, and make sure to venture out into something different on your next Japan trip:
Kyoto is a must-see that needs no introduction; if Tokyo embodies everything that is modern in Japan, Kyoto showcases its beautiful traditional past in all its glory. Once the capital of the nation, it also housed the emperor's royal residences until 1868 and is still home to a large collection of classical temples. Wind through the orange torii gates of Fushimi Inari-Taisha, spot a geisha in Gion District, and appreciate the serenity of Arashiyama's bamboo forest. No one who has gone to Kyoto has ever regretted it – that's a fact.
Quite far removed from Japan's central hub, Hokkaido is actually an island, not a city – but all the cities in this northernmost region of Japan are equally famous for its produce, dairy and mountains. Winter melons and milk in particular are globally-renowned local specialties, and the fresh seafood here is also top-notch. Stunning natural beauty surrounds you everywhere no matter where you choose, from bustling Sapporo and ski-perfect Furano to the stunning neon lakes of Biei.
Most famous for its unbeatable views of Mount Fuji and its proximity to Lake Ashi, Hakone is easily-accessible from Tokyo central, making it a popular retreat from the hustle and bustle of city life. The Hakone hot springs and onsen bath houses are unparalleled, essentially making Hakone a famous resort town. For first-time bathers, check out Tenzan Tohji-kyo.
A historic town wedged in the Hida Mountains (aka "Japanese Alps"), Takayama is most famous for its colorfu biannual Takayama Festival. Tradition is well-preserved here, with the best sake and hida-gyu beef in Japan originating from this region's rich natural resources. Case in point: the Miyagawa River running through Takayama provides some of the clearest waters around, perfect for spirit-making. Make sure to roam the 16th-century Sanmachi Suji district, where you’ll find well-preserved inns, shops and taverns.
A small island only 30 minutes away from the city of Hiroshima by ferry, the idyllic town of Miyajima – aka Itsukushima – is inhabited by plenty of friendly deer, and is home to the iconic 'floating' torii Itsukushima gate. At sunset, crowds congregate on the islands shores to watch the tide rise, and the sun set – a truly breathtaking sight found nowhere else. Edible specialities here include oysters, eel, and maple pastries.
Located in Kagawa District, Naoshima is famous for its high concentration of modern art museums, architectural attractions, and sculptures. Often called "Japan's hidden island of surreal art," Yayoi Kusama's pumpkin statues adorn its beaches, while the Benesse hotel and museum is also home to renowned artwork by Gerhard Richter, Richard Long, David Hockney, and many more.
Beach holidays, subtropical temperatures, and Ryuku culture define the Okinawa archipelago. The 150 southern islands in this district are not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Japan, but its coral reefs and WWII islands are a must-see. The Yaeyama Islands are a particularly famous sub-district of Okinawa, and boast the bluest waters ever.
Another previous capital city, Nara used to be the ancient hub of 8th century Japan, before that honor was bestowed on Kyoto. Just 25 miles from Tokyo, it is home to more friendly deer and many, many UNESCO heritage temples. The Shinto shrine of Kasuga Taisha is one of its best sights, and is decorated with more than 3,000 paper lanterns. Don't forget to follow up with a visit to the Naramachi Historical District.
Not a picturesque city by any means, industrial Fukuoka makes up for its lack of beauty with its wonderful eats. The home town of the original tonkotsu ramen, the large urban center is well-known for its ubiquitous yatai food carts. One of Japan's ten biggest cities, Fukuoka serves as a great alternative to Tokyo if you're still looking for that metropolitan vibe. Pro tip: visit in July and catch the stunning Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival.
If you are heading to Tokyo, the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku is a must-see: