There are plenty of reasons to visit Japan: to learn Japanese, to sample the best of Japanese cuisine (sushi, gyoza, yakitori…), or to discover all of Japan’s beautiful temples and shrines. No matter your reason, you’ll likely want to tour through some of the biggest cities of the island nation.

The population of Japan is over 126 million, compared to Australia’s 25 million. More than 90% of Japan’s population live in cities. While Australian cities are bigger than their Japanese counterparts, the population of Japanese cities is much higher than those in Australia.

Japan is a fascinating country of contrasts, combining tradition and modernity. Historic shrines and temples sit alongside contemporary architecture, flashing neon lights, and technology.

For all travellers visiting Japan, it would be helpful to know a little of the local language. Even just knowing the basics will get you a long way. Japanese people appreciate gaijins (foreigners) who make an effort to learn a bit of the native language. Particularly as the Japanese know their mother tongue can be quite difficult and is not widely spoken outside their country.

Knowing Japanese will be particularly useful on your way to and from airports, and if you happen to get lost on the busy metro or in the city.

Here we breakdown the largest cities in Japan to help you plan your trip. If you’re planning on touring around Japan and visiting many cities, it's recommended you obtain a JR rail pass before leaving your country (you cannot get one once in Japan).

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1 - Tokyo

The capital city of Japan has a population of over 9 million people. In the middle of one of the country’s main islands, Honshu, it’s located at the head of Tokyo Bay, facing the Pacific Ocean.

Formerly known as Edo, Tokyo was the capital of the Tokugawa shogunate, the feudal military government of Japan from 1600 until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

As the political and economic centre of the nation, the metropolis is also the location of the seat of the Emperor of Japan and the national government.

Tokyo has much to offer in terms of sightseeing. There’s the Imperial Palace; the Tokyo Skytree; the Tokyo Tower; the Tokyo National Museum; Toyoshu Market, a fish market famous for its tuna auctions; the Tsukiji Outer Market, and the popular districts Shibuya - with one of the busiest pedestrians crossings in the world - and Harajuku.

Just outside of Shibuya is one of my favourite neighbourhoods, Shimokitazawa, a hip cultural quarter with old-Tokyo vibes. Narrow streets are lined with vintage clothing and vinyl record stores, and craft coffee shops. 

Tokyo is also one of the best cities in the country to learn Japanese as specialised schools can be found all over the capital.

The Tokyo metro can be calm when it's not peak hour.
While the metro can be overcrowded at peak hours, it is the easiest way to get around Tokyo (by Kana Sasamoto).

2 - Yokohama

Belonging to the Greater Tokyo Area, Yokohama (meaning "Horizontal Beach"), is the second biggest municipality in Japan with 3.7 million people. It is also one of the most densely populated city in the country with more than 8,500 people per km2, compared with only 1,500 for Melbourne.

Located half an hour south of Tokyo on the Tokyo Bay, Yokohama is the capital of Kanagawa Prefecture, and with its huge seaport, is one of the major industrial hubs of Japan.

Residents of Yokohama will inform you that their city is better than Tokyo. For tourists, the line between the two cities can be somewhat blurred, but the rivalry between the two is alive and well - just like Melbourne and Sydney.

You will find a lot to do in Yokohama, such as visiting the Sankeien Garden or walking along Yamashita Park waterfront down the Osanbashi Pier. You could also check out the Shinyokohama Ramen Museum, take a tour of the Kirin Beer Factory, or go watch a baseball game at the Yokohama Stadium.

You can eat good food in Yokohama's Chinatown.
Yokohama's Chinatown is the largest of the three Chinatowns in Japan (by Ted's photos).

3 - Osaka

Coming in third place, Osaka is home to almost 2.7 million people. This major city located in the Kansai region of Honshu, sits on the mouth of the Yodo River on the Osaka Bay.

Osaka has a long history, dating back to the 6th century BC. Historically a merchant city, it was the centre of the rice trading industry during the Edo period. To this day, it is a major economic hub for the country. With a GDP of $341 billion, the metropolis rivals Paris and London for the title of the most productive metropolitan area in the world.

Despite its economic and financial focus, there is much to do in the Osaka. Shitennoji is regarded as the first Buddhist temple in Japan, built in 593 AD. There’s also Sumiyoshi Taisha shrine, founded in the 3rd century before Buddhism. You can also visit Osaka Castle, which has suffered many incidents involving fire or lighting, but underwent a full renovation in 1997 to restore it to its former Edo era glory.

Osaka is most renowned for its food scene, often described as "the Kitchen of Japan”. Local chefs have created dishes that have become Japanese classics and remain popular all over the country today, such as takoyaki, okonomiyaki, and kushikatsu.

One of the best neighbourhoods to explore is Minami, where you can walk down the famous Dotonbori street with its larger than life, mechanised, sculptural food signs and the famous Glico Running Man neon sign. There’s also the popular Shinsaibashi Shopping Arcade, and the trendy Amerikamura, the equivalent of Tokyo’s Harajuku. 

You can get a great view from the Abeno Harukas, the tallest skyscraper in Japan, or the Umeda Sky Building. You can also take advantage of a free tour of the Asahi Brewery.

If you would like to stay in Osaka to learn the language, gaijins can take Japanese lessons at the Kansai College.

Osaka Castle is a beautiful place to visit during cherry blossom season.
Osaka Castle back to its former glory after many incidents involving fire and lightning.

4 - Nagoya

Situated between Tokyo and Kyoto on the Pacific coast in the Chubu region of Honshu, Nagoya has a population of 2.3 million inhabitants, comparable to the population of Brisbane. The greater metropolitan area of Nagoya counts about 10 million people, 2 million more than the population of New South Wales.

Nagoya is renowned for its cherry blossom trees alongside the Yamazakigawa River, which bloom between March and April. Korankei is a valley outside the city famous for its autumn colours. 

Nagoya is also home to the Railway Park, the museum of Central Japan Railways (JR Central). Learn about the high speed rail and see a number of real trains on display including historic steam locomotives, world record setting experimental shinkansen bullet train, and the latest magnetic levitating trains (maglev). 

Other attractions include the Nagoya Castle; the Nagoya City Science Museum, which houses the world's biggest planetarium; and the Toyota Museums, which has its headquarters in the region around Nagoya.

In terms of food, you can try local specialities tebasaki chicken wings, the kishimen noodles, or hitsumabushi rice.

If you’re looking for some Japanese lessons nestled between two restaurants head to the Nagoya SKY Japanese Language School. Get a head start on your language skills and begin classes in Australia with Japanese classes Melbourne or tutors in Sydney.

5 - Sapporo

The capital of the island Hokkaido, Sapporo is one of Japan’s youngest major cities and thus counts a population of 1.9 million, similar to the population of Perth. This city records some of the lowest temperatures in Japan, not surprisingly considering its location, facing Vladivostock in Russia, just over the Sea of Japan. In winter, you can expect temperatures to drop to -4C while in summer, it’s rarely above 25C.

For those of you who enjoy winter sports such as skiing and snowboarding, Hokkaido and Sapporo are the place to be, with some of the best slopes in the world. Only an hour away from Sapporo, the Sapporo Kokusai Ski Resorts, features fluffy and powdery snow, 10km of slopes, and onsens - the famous traditional Japanese hot springs - at the bottom of the mountain. Skiers will be glad to rest their weary bodies in the thermal waters after a long day on the mountain.

Hokkaido is the birthplace of beer in Japan. Sapporo was the first city in the country to undertake full-scale beer brewing. Sapporo Beer, one of the oldest beer brands in Japan, has been brewed there since 1877. So you should definitely check out the Sapporo Beer Museum while you're in the municipality.

Two of the best places to learn Japanese in Sapporo and Hokkaido are the Japanese Language Institute of Sapporo and the Hokkaido Japanese Language Academy.

Local food and drink in Sapporo
Warm up after a day on the slopes in Sapporo with a bowl of steaming ramen.
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6 - Fukuoka

The only major city located on the island of Kyushu, Fukuoka has a population of more than 1.539 million.

The city features Japan’s first Zen temple, Shofukuji Temple, the Fukuoka Art Museum, a beach at Seaside Momochi waterfront, and Uminonakamichi Seaside Park, which has around 2000 cherry trees and is thus one of the municipality’s most popular spots to see them in full bloom. You can also view the cherry blossoms at the ruins of Fukuoka Castle.

Most Japanese people outside the island of Kyushu know Fukuoka for its food scene. In the 1990’s, the metropolis became renowned for its motsunabe (a beef and pork stew), attracting many tourists from across the country. The symbol of Fukuoka is its yatai (open air food stands), which are open all year long. The best place to find them is the southern end of Nakasu Island, and the most famous dish you can enjoy is hakata ramen, among others.

You will likely hear, perhaps without noticing, Hakkata-ben being spoken at the food stalls. This is a Japanese dialect spoken by many Fukuoka citizens. 

One of the yatai food stalls in Fukuoka.
Like Osaka, Fukuoka is known for its street food. (by ninja gecko).

7 - Kobe

Following closely behind Fukuoka is Kobe, with a population of 1.537 million people. This city is located in the region of the Kansai, near Kyoto.

Kobe is renowned for its incredible beef. Since 2012, the Wagyu beef has been exported worldwide and is now famous for its taste and texture. However, it comes with a price. The meat can cost up to $450 per kilo in Australia, while you will likely find it for between $30-35 per kilo directly in Japan.

Kobe is also renowned for its sake, the rice wine that is such an intrinsic part of Japan. It’s Japan’s top sake producing region courtesy of the abundance of high quality rice, spring water, favourable weather conditions, and its convenient location close to the port of Osaka. In fact, Kobe has an entire district full of sake breweries, the Nada district. Learn more about this staple alcoholic beverage at the Sawanotsuru Sake Museum.

Other than Wagyu and sake, there’s the the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, designed by leading Japanese architect Tadao Ando, and Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, the world’s longest suspension bridge. You can also take the Shin-Kobe Ropeway up to Mount Rokko, where you can get panoramic views of the Hanshin region (Kobe and Osaka). 

8 - Kyoto

The last of the Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto trio forming the Keihanshin metropolitan region of Kansai. The area of Keihanshin has almost 20 million people, just 5 million less than the population of Australia. The population of Kyoto itself comes in at 1.4 million, similar to the population of Adelaide.

As the former imperial capital, Kyoto is bursting full of historic sites to visit. Often referred to as the most beautiful city in the country, in 1994 UNESCO added 17 sites located in Kyoto - including temples, shrines, and castles - to its World Heritage List.

Some of my favourites include the Golden Pavilion Kinkaku-ji, the thousands of torii gates at the shinto shrine Fushimi Inari Taisha, and the bamboo forest at Arashiyama.

You will also find the second oldest language school reserved for foreigners in Kyoto. If you would like to learn Japanese, there’s no better place than the Dokodemo School.

The Golden Pavilion in Kyoto.
The stunning Golden Pavilion is a must-see when you're in Kyoto (- by ninja gecko).

9 - Kawasaki

Sandwiched between Tokyo and Yokohama, Kawasaki is home to 1.4 million inhabitants. This coastal city stretches alongside the Tamagawa River in Kanagawa Prefecture. Kawasaki features an open-air museum, the Nihon Minkaen, which displays 25 preserved buildings from the Edo Period, including traditional farm houses, merchant houses, samurai houses, a shrine, and a kabuki stage.

If you're a fan of manga, particularly the masterpiece Doraemon, you will want to make a detour by the Fujiko F. Fujio Museum, otherwise known as the Doraemon Museum. The museum celebrates the work of the famous artist, and is great for children and adults alike. Please note that tickets are not sold directly at the museum but rather from Japanese convenience stores (and there are limited tickets per day).

10 - Saitama

While this city with a population of 1.2 million people doesn't exactly warrant a long stay, it would make a nice day trip. Located north of Tokyo in the Kanto region, Saitama can be reached within half an hour by train from the capital.

Known as the "Little Edo", the city hosts the night festival Chichibu Yomatsuri every year. Six giant decorated floats parade through the metropolis accompanied by the Chichibu Yatai-Bayashi, a piece of music played using Japanese drums, taikos. Held on the 2nd and 3rd of December each year, the festival dates back at least 300 years and is attended by more than 200,000 people every year.

In addition, you can visit the Omiya Bonsai Village, a neighbourhood home to multiple bonsai nurseries and a bonsai art museum, as well as the Hikawa Shrine. 

And More...

The above 10 cities of Japan are just the beginning. There are further prefectures and regions that you can explore in Japan.

Many Japanese major cities suffered devastating bombing during World War II, with some important sites destroyed and lost forever. Since then, Japan has successfully rebuilt villages, towns, and cities that were damaged during the war. And, reminders of the bombardment have been replaced with monuments for peace.

Hiroshima was obliterated by the first and only Atomic bomb ever used, but has since been reborn. The Peace Memorial Museum is a symbol of its tragic past and reminds us to aspire for a better future.

Perhaps one of Japan's most iconic feature is Mount Fuji, an active volcano and the highest mountain in Japan at 3,776m. To enjoy a view of the sacred mountain, you should go to the Fuji Five Lake (Fujigoko) region at the northern foot of the mountain, or to Hakone, a nearby hot spring resort.

However, you need to ensure you have a clear day, as low hanging clouds and poor visibility may impair your view. If you're a hiker and would like to climb the conical snowcapped mountain, you can do so between July and August via several routes.

Less than a hour from Osaka and Kyoto, Nara was Japan’s first permanent capital. Like Kyoto, Nara is full of ancient shrines and temples. It is particularly famous for the wild deer that roam Nara Park.

Nara Park is the site of Tōdai-ji temple, where you can find Daibutsu, a 15m-high seated bronze Buddha, and the shinto shrine Kasuga Taisha, which dates back to 768 AD and features more than 3,000 lanterns. You could also visit Horyuji Temple, the world’s oldest surviving wooden structure. 

Art lovers should consider a trip to Naoshima, Japan’s art island. A tiny island in the Seto Inland Sea, Naoshima is renowned for its modern art museums, architecture by Tadao Ando, and sculptures, such as famous Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Yellow Pumpkin’.

The JR Pass and Shinkansen bullet trains make it easy to travel around the country, even to regional and remote villages and towns where tourism isn't that developed.

Cities in Japan: an Urban Landscape Throughout the Country

To understand why Japan is home to so many large cities, you need to consider its landscape and topography. The country has a total of 6,852 islands, but only 430 are inhabited.

Mountains cover 73% of those islands, 68% of which is woodland. This mountainous terrain explains why cities and agricultural land are largely found around the coast of the islands, where the land is flatter and easier to tame.

With over 29,000 km of coastline, the seas and oceans are one of the main resources of the nation, further explaining why the biggest cities are concentrated on the islands’ shores.

Geographic Comparison between Japan and Australia

 JapanUnited Kingdom
Total population127,231,77966,512,435
Population density per km2335271
Number of cities
with more than
200,000 inhabitants
10336
Land Area377,837 sq. km.244,110 sq. km.
Coastline29,75112,429
Forests68.5%13%
Agricultural Land13%69%

With so many large cities, don’t forget to visit the wonderful countryside Japan has to offer to get a complete experience of the nation. This is usually where you will find onsens, the relaxing traditional Japanese hot springs.

Snow monkeys bathing in Japan's hot springs.
Snow monkeys enjoying the thermal hot springs in Japan. Don't worry, you can too! (by Fabio Calascibetta)

If you're interested in visiting Japan and would like to learn more about applying for a visa, click here.

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Alison

Ali is an Australian writer, community manager and art curator living in Paris.