The Most Beautiful Places in Japan, from Castles to Floating Shrines

From Tokyo to Osaka, the Land of the Rising Sun is full of destinations just waiting to dazzle the senses.

More than most any other country on Earth, Japan is a land of head-spinning juxtaposition. Millennia of history are remarkably preserved and on vivid display in forests and cities alike. Sprawling metropolises are densely packed architectural marvels where you’ll be mesmerized by a neon cityscape one moment, then turn a corner to behold an ancient temple against a sea of skyscrapers. In a country half the size of Texas, the ancient and the futuristic coexist in a present where technology lives in tandem with vast nature.

The beauty of visiting Japan is that you can truly find almost anything you’re looking for, whether you’re seeking to explore a concrete jungle or an untouched wilderness. Its relatively compact size means much of it is an easy drive or bullet train away, allowing you to hit white-sand beaches and snow-capped mountains alike. To help beautify your dreams, we've rounded up some of the most awe-inspiring sights to see around the island nation. No matter where your travels take you, you’re sure to be dazzled.

castle in the sky
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Takeda Castle, Asago, Hyogo Prefecture

Often referred to as Japan's Machu Picchu, Takeda takes the concept of “castle on a cloud” to Miyazaki levels of enchantment. It's believed to have been built in 1443 but was ultimately left abandoned by the 17th century. To catch the morning mist shrouding the castle—and the magical views that follow—bring a Thermos of coffee and set up camp before sunrise.

meoto iwa rock surrounded by morning clouds
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Meoto Iwa, Mie Prefecture

This set of sacred rock off the shores of Ise Bay represent a husband and wife (Meoto Iwa is also known as the Wedded Rocks). The rope connecting them, called a shimenawa, is ceremoniously changed three times a year. On a lucky day, it's possible to catch the sun rising between the rocks and the subtle silhouette of Mount Fuji in the distance.

bamboo forest walkway, kyoto, japan
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Sagano Bamboo Forest, Arashiyama, Kyoto Prefecture

In Japanese culture, bamboo is a symbol of strength, and it's often found near temples to ward off evil. So, it only makes sense that Kyoto, the "City of 10 Thousand Shrines," is home to a spectacular bamboo grove. Paths and bike trails weave throughout this otherworldly forest, but even the noisy rustling of tourists can't disturb the chillingly calm sound of the bamboo swaying in the wind.

crowd of tourists visiting senso-ji temple

Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo

The world’s largest city is a place of endless contradiction, yet somehow the ancient and the futuristic live in perfect harmony. That’s no more apparent than at Tokyo’s oldest temple. Founded in 645 CE—a full 1,000 years before the United StatesSenso-ji is a rare tourist attraction worth fighting the crowds to see. After passing through Kaminarimon, the entry gate with a massive lantern and throngs of selfie takers, the grounds turn into an eclectic shopping area with hundreds of stalls selling traditional Japanese souvenirs and snacks like chopsticks and mochi.

Motonosumi Inari Shrine
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Motonosumi Inari, Yamaguchi Prefecture

In Japan's native religion, Shinto, it is believed that the divine spirit dwells in all of nature. Motonosumi Inari might be one of the best places to experience this interconnectedness. Visitors ascend through 123 bright-red torii gates, which are typically found at the entrance of a shrine and symbolically mark the transition into a sacred space. At the end of the tunnel, attempt to toss coins into an offering box that sits 16 feet up on top of a torii gate. Just don't forget to make a wish, because if your coin lands, it's guaranteed to come true.

sanboin garden old village area
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Lake Kawaguchiko, Yamanashi Prefecture

Lake Kawaguchiko is easily accessible from Tokyo and a prime spot for mind-blowing views of Mount Fuji, itself one of the most omnipresent and gorgeous sights in the entire country. Early morning mist gives the mountain an ethereal vibe in this sacred, inspiring landscape.

aerial view of kabira bay
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Kabira Bay, Ishigaki Island, Okinawa Prefecture

Japan isn't all skyscrapers and mountains. Far off the mainland, the island of Okinawa offers white-sand sand beaches with crystal-clear waters, coral reefs, and some of the happiest people around. Unfortunately, Kabira Bay doesn't allow swimming or snorkeling in order to preserve its delicate ecosystem, but you can hop on a glass-bottom boat to see everything the waters have to offer.

tsutenkaku tower in shinsekai district
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Tsutenkaku Tower, Osaka

Osaka's Shinsekai (or New World) district was designed in 1912 to feel like a mix between Paris and New York. While the Tsutenkaku Tower may be an, er, ode to the Eiffel Tower, today this bustling area is fully Japanese with its bright alleyways of glowing neon signs, flashy advertisements, and floating paper lanterns.

osaka castle amongst fall foliage
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Osaka Castle, Osaka

Sitting smack-dab in the middle of the city, Osaka Castle acts as an anchor that holds down the history and tradition of ancient Japan in a surrounding sea of skyscrapers. The castle's had a tumultuous history—it burnt down in the 17th century and was attacked by Godzilla in the 1955 film Godzilla Raids Again—but has been repeatedly restored to its former glory.

biei blue pond

Biei Blue Pond, Shirogane, Hokkaido Prefecture

Way up north, in rugged Hokkaido, swirls the Biei Blue Pond, aptly named for its enchantingly blue waters whose hue changes with the seasons (or even just the wind). The pond is full of lifeless larch and silver birch trees that reflect on the surface like a turquoise mirror.

itsukushima shrine

Itsukushima Shrine, Hiroshima Prefecture

Situated on Miyajima—which literally translates to “shrine island”— Itsukushima was famously built over the water, and if you catch it at high tide, the whole complex appears to be floating. Two hundred meters offshore, the Great Torii has been warding off evil spirits since 1168.

colorful fields of shikisai-no-oka, biei town, hokkaido

Shikisai-no-oka, Hokkaido Prefecture

Arriving at Shikisai-no-oka, you might think your train was diverted and you somehow ended up in the tulip fields of the Netherlands. It's not Europe, but the colorful patchwork of dozens of varieties of flowers in the dreamy hillside village of Biei-cho would leave any monarch jealous. The park is open year-round, but you'll witness the fields at their best from April to October.

close up of a deer at nara deer park
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Nara Deer Park, Nara Prefecture

The 1,200 deer who live in Nara Park are not only considered a national treasure, but also messengers of the Shinto gods. The deer are extremely friendly and always ready for snacks that can conveniently be purchased within the grounds. This is the antithesis of the ethically dubious animal cafes of Tokyo: A place to make pals with adorable animals on their own terms.

people passing under fushimi inari temple
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Fushimi Inari, Kyoto

Japan's most popular tourist attraction is this Shinto shrine dedicated to Inari, the god of rice. Thousands of torii gates form a maze of vermillion-colored tunnels snaking their way up Mount Inari, with small shrines throughout offering places to stop, catch your breath, and be with your thoughts. Each torii gate was donated by corporations or individuals as a way to give thanks for their prosperity. It’s a long, somewhat arduous hike to the top, but if you make it you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views of Kyoto and beyond.

japanese snow monkey macaque mother and baby at jigokudani park

Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park, Nagano

Like anyone having a spa day, the monkeys of Jigokudani just don't really give a damn. The creatures can be found relaxing in the hot springs year-round, but are particularly fond of the water during the snowy winter months. Don't expect to bathe with the little guys, though. This hot spring is "monkeys-only."

view through kiyotsu gorge tunnel
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Kiyotsu Gorge, Niigata Prefecture

One of Japan’s Three Great Gorges, this V-shaped canyon in Jōshin'etsu-kōgen National Park is surrounded by towering cliffs that offer up some of the very best fall foliage views in the country. The natural beauty is complemented by architectural wonder thanks to the Tunnel of Light, a 750-meter walkway that was restored to help visitors stay safe when the gorge’s trails were deemed too dangerous.

three gassho-style houses in shirakawa-go village, gifu japan

Shirakawa-go, Gifu Prefecture

Japan’s most beautiful small town is dotted with gingerbread-style A-frame that, at first glance, make it look more like a Bavarian village than a rural Japanese community. Those thatched-roof Gassho-zukuri buildings surrounded by the densely forested Japanese Alps earned Shirakawa-go a UNESCO designation, and visiting during winter sees the whole place aglow amid the vast white wilderness.

seianto-ji temple pagoda

Kumano Kodo, Wakayama Prefecture

Japan’s heavily forested lands are ideal for hardcore hikers and hobbyists alike, but the Kumano Kodo is definitely geared toward the former. This massive network of pilgrimage trails on the Ki Peninsula is home to hot springs, small towns, and many shrines, though the most breathtaking sight is arguably the three-story Seiganto-ji temple, which overlooks the huge plunge of iconic Nachi Falls.

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Tanner Saunders is a contributor for Thrillist who would rather be a hot spring monkey.