8 Cities to Visit While Studying Abroad in Japan

by Kendal Kelly

If you plan to go to study abroad in Japan be sure to make the most of your time there by making your own list of must-see destinations. Some locations are known for local festivals that take place during a certain time of year, so be sure to do your research beforehand. During the popular Golden week in Japan, most major spots will be flooded with tourists, both from Japan and abroad, so try to plan your travels for less hectic times, unless you like getting caught up in a large crowd. Below are just eight of Japan’s countless sightseeing destinations you should visit during your time studying in Japan..

Kendal sporting traditional clothing for a Japanese festival.
Kendal sporting traditional clothing for a Japanese festival.


The city that hosted the 1972 Winter Olympic Games, is now known for its annual Snow Festival, held every February. Massive snow and ice sculptures line the streets, and visitors from all over Japan and the world make the trek to view these temporary pieces of art. The city is also home to the popular Sapporo Brewing Company. Be sure to visit the Brewery’s famous beer hall, where you can dine on BBQ and sample the various flavors of Sapporo brew. And don’t forget to pick up a box of the famous Shiroi Koibito (white lover) cookies as omiyage (souvenirs) for your friends and fellow study abroad students, or you’ll be sure to elicit some disappointed faces upon your return.

Aomori City

The capital city of Aomori prefecture, Aomori City, is typically a quiet town and doesn’t boast much in the way of attractions for visitors. This all changes for one week every summer, when the popular Nebuta Festival takes over the streets of the city. Aomori’s residents create massive floats that are illuminated and carried throughout the city, while dancers wearing the traditional haneto costume dance and shout out “rasserā” for hours at a time. Everyone, young and old, (including tourists and students studying abroad in Japan) are invited to participate in this raucous festival, so long as they don the traditional haneto garb.


Most people immediately think of the expensive beef when they hear about the city of Kobe. However, this beautiful harbor town is also home to Arima Onsen, one of Japan’s most famous destinations for anyone seeking to soak themselves in a natural hot spring. If you can plan your travels to Kobe in December (maybe after your study abroad program concludes), be sure to take in the beautiful lights of the Kobe Luminarie. This light festival is held every year to commemorate the lives lost in the Great Hanshin Earthquake.


Another popular city in Japan’s Kansai region is Nara, home to the famous deer that roam freely in Nara Park. Local merchants sell the popular shika sembei so you can feed the deer. Although they are tame, watch your belongings, as these curious and hungry creatures have been known to take a nip at unsuspecting tourists looking for a snack. You also can’t miss a visit to Todai-ji during your study abroad program in Japan; it is the temple that is home to the world’s largest bronze Buddha, referred to as the Diabutsu. After gazing at the Buddha, you can attempt to crawl through a pillar located in the back of the temple that is the same size of the Buddha’s nostril. If you can make it through the hole, legend says you will achieve enlightenment in your next life. It’s worth a shot!


One of the most haunting destinations that you can visit while studying in Japan is the Hiroshima Peace Park, a memorial to the lives lost in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The park was built in the 1950s, surrounding the ruins of what was once the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, one of the only buildings to remain standing after the bomb was dropped. Today Hiroshima welcomes over a million visitors that come to pay remembrance by visiting the many peace memorials and museums dedicated to documenting the history of the WWII and its impact on modern day Japan.


Almost its own world apart from the rest of Japan, Okinawa boasts a culture and dialect that displays influences from China and Thailand. This small collection of islands is home to several U.S. military bases, so there is a rather large American population and subsequent influence. The world famous Churaumi Aquarium is a popular destination for both locals and tourists, with its impressive collection of sea creatures, including whale sharks and manta rays. Be careful while you explore the natural beauty of Okinawa, and avoid getting a bite from the venomous habu snake! A local Okinawan drink, awamori, is popularly sold with these snakes preserved in the bottle. Although a bit macabre, many visitors leave the islands with a bottle of this alcohol as a souvenir for friends back home (and it is sure to be a surprising gift for your parents when you return home from your study abroad trip).


If you find yourself studying in Kyoto, you may be overwhelmed by all the sights this ancient city has to offer. The famous Kiyomizudera temple, Sanjusangendo Hall, and Kinkakuji are all popular spots for both Japanese and foreign tourists. Kyoto’s winding and narrow streets can make you feel as though you’ve been transported back into another time. However, if you can tear yourself away from the city center and take a quick train ride to the Fushimi Inari Shrine, you’ll be greeted with a sight that looks straight out of another world. The trails winding up the Inari Mountain are lined with thousands of tori gates, making for a picturesque hike that offers excellent city views at the top. For anyone too intimidated by the daunting Mt. Fuji trek, this two hour hike might be a good substitute.


Of course no stay in Japan is complete without a trip to Tokyo, especially if you aren’t studying in Tokyo for the duration of your program. But if you’re willing to go towards the city outskirts, the adorable Ghibli Museum awaits you. This museum hosts both permanent and special exhibits paying homage to animation, particularly the work of the studio. For any anime fan, this is a destination that cannot be missed. Thankfully, despite the recent announcement that Studio Ghibli will be shuttering further production, the museum will remain intact for their countless fans to visit for years to come.

When thinking of famous destinations in Japan, visions of the majestic Mt. Fuji immediately appear in most traveler’s heads. Countless hikers have made the trip to the top of this active volcano, which is Japan’s highest peak, and just a short trip outside of Tokyo. The mountain paths are only open to hikers in the summer months, as it is typically too cold to climb throughout the rest of the year. Even in the summer, most hikers will start off in t-shirts, ending their climb with full winter gear. The hike up Fuji-san, while completed by many, is no easy task, so if an eight hour hike seems too daunting for you, stick to a less arduous vacation destination.

For any true lover of sushi, a trip to Tokyo without a stop at the Tsukiji Fish Market would be a sin. While only licensed retailers are eligible to participate in the morning’s fish auctions, which start at the wee hours of the day, tourists typically are allowed to watch, although the market will occasionally ban tourists when crowd control becomes too troublesome. Tourists can wander around the vendors and a few sushi bars to sample the daily catch.

The real key to successful travel in Japan during your study abroad program is to research! Japan offers such varied destinations from ranging from quiet and relaxing onsen getaways to challenging outdoor adventures, anyone can find their perfect destination.