When foreigners go to Japan, Tokyo tops their list of places to see. Seven of the 10 most-visited destinations in the country are in the capital, according to the Japan National Tourist Organization.
This makes it easy for visitors to check the top spots off their must-see lists without leaving Tokyo, a sprawling city encompassing nearly every important aspect of Japanese life (except nature; "man-made" is the buzzword here). To get to the other spots on the top-10 list, a quick shinkansen (bullet train) ride is all that's required, and that's an experience itself, as the trains run at speeds of about 200 miles per hour.
Whether you choose to stay inside Tokyo's city limits or leave them, however, the complete tourism experience in Japan involves an equal mix of modern and traditional — easy to accomplish in the city and beyond.
Wherever you go, you can expect the locals to be friendly due to a government tourism-promotion campaign, Yokoso Japan (Welcome to Japan), through which the Japanese government is aiming to increase the number of international visitors to 10 million by 2010 (the country had 6 million foreign tourists in 2007). The tourism agency has spent the last five years trying to convince foreigners that the famously closed society is welcoming.
The No. 1 place tourists visit is Shinjuku, a massive, crowded skyscraper district within Tokyo. Built beginning in the '70s, Shinjuku keeps adding new and bigger towers, and its commuter rail station is the transit system's busiest, with nearly 2 million passengers a day.
Shinjuku has three main components: offices, shopping and nightlife. The shopping consists of a flotilla of chic department stores, mainly branches of the stores you'll find in Ginza or elsewhere. At night, many tourists head for Shinjuku's Park Hyatt, the hotel made famous in the film "Lost in Translation", to have a drink at the penthouse New York Bar and take in the city-wide views. The Kabukicho district is also a popular hangout, thanks to its many bars and lounges.
Tokyo's next most-visited area is the famous Ginza neighborhood, a shopping mecca that's home to the fanciest stores, Japanese and foreign alike. Weighing in at No. 4 on the most-visited list, Ginza is where you'll find all the luxury brands from around the world, many in custom-designed boutiques.
Shoppers throng the streets as they meander from Chanel to Mikimoto (for world-renowned pearls); you'll also find them stopping for lunch in the department store cafés. When you're done at Fendi and Gucci, follow their example and stop at the basement food halls in one of the department stores (every department store, all over town, has one). It's fun to pick up a picnic lunch from the myriad prepared-food vendors, but remember, it's considered rude to eat standing up in Japan.
Also on the top-destination list, within Tokyo are Shibuya and Harajuku, the twin centers of teen culture and the places to see what the hip kids are wearing these days. But there are also more traditional attractions that shouldn't be skipped, such as the museums, zoo and Asakusa, an old-style temple district.
Beyond the busy capital
When tourists leave Tokyo, they tend to go for the traditional cities often found on the covers of the guidebooks, Osaka and Kyoto, and with good reason. Former capital Kyoto, in particular, is known worldwide as one of the most beautiful places in Japan, and it's the place to absorb the maximum amount of architectural beauty, culture and history in the shortest amount of time. Some visitors pick Kyoto over Tokyo entirely, spending their visit among the ancient temples and serene Zen meditation gardens.
Osaka has its advantages as well, as it's home to Osaka Castle, one of the country's most famous attractions, rich in the country's history. About 40 minutes away is Himeji Castle, a World Heritage Site built from the 14th to 17th centuries. Also check out nearby Kobe, location of the devastating 1995 earthquake — and also hometown of the famous beef.
A better bet, however, is to combine a visit to Kyoto and Osaka, as they're only about an hour apart by train. That will give you the best picture of urban Japan, both the old and the new.
In fact, that's the hallmark of any visit to Japan. Rich in history yet obsessed with the modern and the new, it's key to absorb equal amounts of both to fully experience Japanese culture. It's up to you whether or not to take that tourism plan beyond Tokyo — but you really don't have to if you don't want to.