The capital, Tokyo, and the former imperial city, Kyoto, will be top of most visitors' itineraries, and deservedly so, but you could avoid the cities entirely and head to the mountains or smaller islands to discover an alternative side of the country, away from the most heavily beaten tourist tracks.
Tokyo: The metropolis is home to some of the world's most ambitious architecture, stylish shops, and internationally celebrated restaurants and bars - as well as glimpses of traditional Japan at scores temples, shrine, and the Imperial Palace gardens. The Shibuya district, near the tranquil Meiji-jingu (shrine) and the modish Harajuku and Aoyama districts, is the trend-setting youth shopping and entertainment paradise. Away from the hubbub of Tokyo is the spacious Ueno district where you will find Ueno Park, the largest in the city. In early April, the park turns into a paradise of delicate pale pink cherry blossoms and attracts numerous viewers.
Around Tokyo: Consider also taking in a couple of the city's surrounding attractions, in particular the historic town of Nikko, home to the amazing Toshogu Shrine complex, and Mt Fuji, Japan's best known symbol. In addition to being a favored climbing site during the months of July and August, Mt. Fuji is the center of a natural recreation zone which includes the Fuji-Go-Ko (five lakes) area to the north, which offers extensive opportunities for hiking, boating, fishing, and camping. Yokohama, Japan's second largest city, is just 30 min by rail away from Tokyo and is a bustling port city with numerous historic buildings and bustling city life.
Mt. Fuji overlooking Lake Kawaguchi
Kansai: Kansai is the western region of the main Japanese island of Honshu, known for its major cities of Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe. Kyoto, custodian of Japan's traditional culture, is home to its most refined cuisine, classy ryokan, glorious gardens, and magnificent temples and palaces. Nearby Nara is a more manageable size but no slouch when it comes to venerable monuments, notably the great bronze Buddha of Todai-ji. Not all of Kansai is so rarefied though - Osaka has an easy-going atmosphere and boisterous nightlife and further west the port of Kobe offers a gentler cosmopolitan atmosphere. Another major attraction in Kansai is located in Himeji, where the majestic Himeji Castle looms over the land. With the entire complex preserved as a national treasure, a visit here is not to be missed.
Hokkaido: Furthest to the north, Hokkaido is often the preferred skiing destination for tourists but also offers many beautiful national parks including the outstanding Daisetsu-zan Park with excellent hiking trails over mountain peaks and through soaring rock gorges. Sapporo is the aerial gateway to Hokkaido from Tokyo and Osaka and is the island's cultural, economic, and political center. The city's main thoroughfare is the flower-adorned Odori Park, where the internationally renowned Snow Festival attracts viewers every February. Hakodate, accessible by train from the main island of Honshu, is another popular tourist spot noted for its splendid night view. The star-shaped Goryokaku fortress is a principal attraction in the city along with scenic Mt. Hakodate.
Singapore's own representation in the Sapporo Snow Festival
Chubu: The Chubu region lies in the geographical center of Japan, between Kansai and Kanto (Tokyo area). where the soaring peaks of the Japan Alps overlook the Sea of Japan coast which retains much of the nation's traditional lifestyle. Japan's fourth largest city, Nagoya is an old castle town, noted as the center of Japan's porcelain industry and lacquerware, as well as other arts and handicrafts. Nagano's claim to fame was as the host for the 1998 Winter Olympics, but is also a major pilgrimage site to locals for the temple of Zenkoji. Other highlights include the mountain resort town of Kamikochi and the scenic Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, a mountain-sightseeing route winding its way through the center of the Northern Japan Alps.
Kyushu: Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four main islands, offers a milder climate and scenic countryside attractions. It is probably best known for Nagasaki, an attractive and cosmopolitan city that has overcome its terrible war-time history. Nagasaki Peace Park was laid out to commemorate the exact spot of the atomic blast on August 9, 1945. Hikers should head to Kumamoto, where Aso-san's smoldering peak dominates the world's largest caldera (a volcanic crater). Onsen enthusiasts should head to Beppu, a spa town, famous for its bubbling mud ponds and houses over 100 hot spring baths. Fukuoka, Kyushu's biggest city served by an international airport, takes pride in its eye-catching modern architecture, notably Canal City, a self-contained cinema, hotel, and shopping complex built around a semicircular strip of water.
Okinawa: Okinawa comprises more than a hundred islands stretching in a great arc from southern Kyushu to within sight of Taiwan. An independent kingdom until the early 17th century, traces of the island's distinctive culture are still present in modern times. The beautifully reconstructed royal palace dominates the capital city, Naha, but the best of the region lies on its stunning white-sand beaches and crystalline waters, particularly around the subtropical islands of Ishigaki and Iriomote.