Steve is a travel writer living in Niigata, Japan. He has previously resided in Yokohama and Tokyo, and has traveled the land extensively.
A good way to start planning your Japan trip is by getting to know where everyone goes! To help with this, here are the five most visited prefectures in Japan, along with a short guide on why they’re so popular and what to expect. Use this list as a jumping-off point for your next Japan itinerary!
1. Tokyo Metropolis
While not technically a prefecture, the Tokyo Metropolis area has all the same powers as one, but with a special status due to its huge population. As Japan’s entertainment hub and capital, Tokyo as the number one destination for travelers is not surprising. Pioneering fashion trends, producing the bulk of national television and film, and acting as Japan’s gateway to the world cements it as the country's modern heart and soul.
After residing in the city for over 3 years, I found Tokyo to have a harmonious balance that rarely became overwhelming or claustrophobic. Hundreds of stunning parks dot the city, as well as plenty of peaceful cafes and other places to relax. Of course, if you’re after excitement, nightlife districts Shibuya and Roppongi are abuzz with fashionistas who make painting the town red look like an art-form.
Despite this, not everything is great in this seemingly perfect city. Wards, particularly those in the north and east, are dense and heavily concreted. Noise pollution, as well as regular pollution, while not nearly as bad as you’d expect, are still big problems. Popular districts like Shinjuku and Roppongi have a nasty vibe and are filled with scammers and sketchy businesses. However, when compared with cities like Los Angeles or New York, these latter problems are so trivial it’s almost laughable, and the city still remains as one of the safest and most livable in the world.
My personal favorite spots in Tokyo include the trendy streets of Naka-Meguro, the huge botanical park in Shinjuku Gyo-en, and the hot gourmet scene of Shimokitazawa.
Over 66 million people visited Tokyo in 2018.
Osaka is adored by international and Japanese tourists alike looking to indulge in its rich gourmet culture. Food is a big deal in Osaka, and, unlike Tokyo, it prides itself on no-frills hearty street food. This attitude reflects its residents, who are notorious in Japan for being the opposite of a stereotypical Japanese person. Loud, funny, friendly, and perhaps sometimes a bit rude but without meaning to be, Osakans are a different breed. Their accent is amazing, being easy to understand, but with eccentric flourishes that lend itself towards great stand-up comedy. They are also proud of their prefecture, and won’t accept any indication that Tokyo, or even neighboring Kyoto, is better.
Despite the respectable pride of its citizens, while wandering the streets of Osaka during my short visit, the realities of the city became apparent. Osaka feels like an empty shell of what was once a thriving economic powerhouse. The Shin-sekai area is, in my opinion, the best way to see this first-hand. This tourist town, which was built during an economic boom, is packed with lights, entertainment, and workers, yet has an unnerving emptiness to it. It feels as if no one wants to be there anymore. If you can draw your eyes from the flashing facade of lights, you'll notice dirty alleyways, sketchy residents, and run-down infrastructure.
Despite this, Osaka is still a great city for the energetic traveler to use as a base for daytrips, including to Himeji Castle, Nara City, and Kobe, and the people and food will be sure to delight!
Over 39 million people visited Osaka Prefecture in 2018.
Japan’s most northern prefecture and largest by area, the island of Hokkaido is visited by those looking to ski, hike, and enjoy the snow. The prefecture’s ski resorts are second to none, and its lengthy ski season continues for almost 5 months!
During my short week on the island, I found Hokkaido’s brightest gem to be the port city of Hakodate. The entire city is photogenic, with wide streets, quaint trams, and a breathtaking mountain backdrop. Despite being well-versed in sushi, the varieties and sizes of seafood on the menu at the city's morning market stunned me. For those looking to try fresh salmon-roe or sea urchin, Hakodate is a must-stop!
After Hakodate, I would recommend the central towns of Furano and Biei. Between the green rolling hills and the hearty and authentic western food, I couldn't believe I was still in Japan! If you're sick of Japan's lack of eatable cheese, head to the Furano Cheese Factory for some dairy-related education and a LOT of free samples!
Overall, Hokkaido is an escape from the rest of Japan. Gone are the boundless rice fields, narrow roads, densely-packed apartments, and general lack of space that characterizes the mainland. Hokkaido is open, free, and clean. However, its brutal winter would make most think twice before relocating, with average temperatures dropping below freezing almost everyday. It is also a difficult land to traverse, and with huge distances between each city, I found my week on the island mainly consisting of endless train and bus rides.
Over 35 million people visited Hokkaido in 2018.
Another escape from the regular sights and sounds of Japan, the islands that make up Okinawa Prefecture are a paradise of breathtaking beaches, lush rainforests, and unique cultures. Once completely separate from Japan, Okinawa's distinct culture was formed through the influence of surrounding countries combined with a unique local civilization that bloomed over the centuries. Now, Okinawa is a popular hotspot with both Japanese and international tourists after a holiday of resort relaxation and snorkeling adventure. While pricey compared with other tropical islands from nearby countries, its destination as a Japanese prefecture makes travel easy and safe.
Being in the tropics, Okinawa offers a haven from bone-chilling Japanese winters. It is common for Japanese residents to book a few days at a resort during midwinter to recover before returning to their freezing cities. However, its harsh rainy season, which is the earliest and one of the worst in Japan, makes visiting undesirable during the summer months.
Okinawan cuisine is also a must-try for the Japanese-food enthusiast looking for the final frontier. Unique tropical twists exist on almost every staple Japanese dish, including soba and tempura, as well as some vegetables and ingredients rarely seen outside the islands.
I am yet to make the journey to Okinawa myself, but have developed a love of their cuisine through tastings on mainland Japan and hope to make the trip soon!
Over 26 million people visited Okinawa in 2018.
A surprising entry, Chiba is a largely unnoticed prefecture with a small population of 6 million. While there is plenty to do, it lacks the reputation that other prefectures on this list boast.
Instead, it has Tokyo Disneyland and Disney Sea.
That’s right, these extravagant theme parks beloved by millions and specifically named to be in Tokyo are actually in Chiba. The two mega-attractions bring in thousands of tourists to Chiba each week, boosting tourist numbers dramatically. Further adding to this is Narita International Airport, located right in Chiba’s heart, which saw over 30 million passengers in 2017. Many opt to stay the night in a hotel close to the airport, which again amplifies the prefecture's popularity. This is what I suspect explains Chiba's high place on the list.
Chiba itself is known to be a highly industrial area dominated by views of cargo ships and factories. However, with dozens of first-rate beaches and sprawling inland nature, it is perhaps an unpolished gem just waiting to be discovered. Despite living only a few hours away, I have only made the trip to Chiba twice. Once to visit Disney Sea, and the other to check out Egawa Beach. This unique beach has an extremely low bank and high tide, meaning that shallow water continues for what seems like forever. Its tide often breaches the coastline, and the image of nearby power poles standing in water has become famous across Japan. This beach can be reached from Chiba City via train and a 15-minute taxi ride from Kisarazu Station.
Over 25 million people visited Chiba in 2018.
Statistics used for this article can be found here. (Note: The page is in Japanese.)
© 2020 Steve Csorgo