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8 Places You Must Visit in Japan

Japan was not very high on my list of priorities, but luckily it was right at the top of my husband's bucket list. So when we planned our first trip to Asia, we both compromised a little and we tailored an itinerary that included both Japan and SE Asia. But even after buying the flights to Tokyo, my expectations didn't skyrocket. I was mostly enthusiastic about eating sushi and visiting a cat cafe than anything else. So there was plenty of room to be surprised.


The truth is, after 3 weeks in Japan, I was sold. Strike that. I was actually sold after the first few hours in Tokyo once I starting getting over jetlag.

The scenarios revealing in front of me were so different from everything I had previously experienced and so unbelievable, that I gave in and only days into our trip, I already knew Japan was the most amazing country I've ever been too and probably I'll ever go to. Its culture is so uniquely beautiful, the customs so incredible and the people so civilized, that it almost makes my eyes water.

During our trip to Japan, we used a JR Pass, and this gave us great mobility and flexibility when it came to exploring different parts of the country. It also made the formalities swifter, as we avoided the queues in front of the ticket offices.

But what we both liked best about this travel style was that all in all, we didn't need much planning ahead and we could allow spontaneity to take over from time to time. So we ended up exploring quite a few places in Kanto, Chubu and Kinki regions in central Japan. Here are only the ones we consider a definite must see.


BEST PLACES TO VISIT IN JAPAN



Tokyo



Tokyo grew on me in unexpected ways, to the point that I now refer to it as my favorite city in the whole world. Of course, this is highly subjective, but as I think anyone who visited this mad city would agree, Tokyo is a different world altogether.

You'll probably either love it or hate it, but there's little space in between for this place to leave you cold. What makes Tokyo so special in my eyes is simple: the people.

Don't expect either futuristic nor beautiful architecture. But with over 13 million people walking its streets every day, the capital of Japan definitely has a soul and multiple personalities. Best places to see my point proven right are a stop at Shibuya and a stroll through Yoyogi Park on a Sunday.

For a comprehensive list of attractions, we wrote an article about our favorite places in Tokyo.

Where to stay in Tokyo:

Ryokan Asakusa Mikawaya Honten - a budget-friendly Japanese inn located in the traditional area of Asakusa. They have Japanese style rooms, ideal for cultural immersion.

Tokyu Stay Shinjuku - newly opened mid-range hotel in Tokyo's commercial district. Great location and free WiFi.


Kyoto



Kyoto is the most Zen city I know. And while most buildings and even the people here keep a low profile, from time to time it's impossible not to be surprised by a pretty lady in kimono crossing your path or the worship places that dot the city.

Kyoto has more temples and shrines than any other place in Japan. Seeing them all would be a tremendous task as one would need to spend months on end here doing nothing but sightseeing. What's even more surprising, is that not only the large or popular temples and shrines are an eye candy, but the quiet and hidden ones too.

However, my favorite attractions in Kyoto remain the Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine and the Golden Pavilion, but if you are in search of a bit of peace and quiet in the middle of nature, don't miss the famous Arashiyama bamboo forest, on the outskirts of Kyoto, either.

Where to stay in Kyoto:

Kyoto Guesthouse Lantern - budget accommodation in Gion, the most charming geisha neighborhood in the world. Traditional facilities with a small Japanese garden.

Hotel Granvia Kyoto - located above the JR Kyoto station, which makes it ideal for exploring both Kyoto and the nearby area. Amazing breakfast, beautiful rooms and friendly staff. We personally stayed here and we can't recommend it enough.


Nikko



Nikko National Park is home to some of the most lavishly decorated temples and shrines in Japan and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Far from the tempered traditional Japanese architectural style, the buildings here are gilded and adorned in excess. It is a beautiful and unique sight.

The paths connecting the temples are framed by a forest of giant cedar trees, no less impressive than the man-made structures.

The whole complex can be seen in approximately 3 hours, but it takes a 2-hour train ride from Tokyo and a pretty long walk from the station to the park. And that's more than 5 wasted hours, without even counting the time you need to get from the hotel to the JR station.

So in all honesty, joining a Nikko National Park day tour from Tokyo is the most comfortable way to visit these gorgeous temples. You will not only have a knowledgeable guide to keep you entertained and explain you all the awesomeness you'll be witnessing, but you will also enjoy the benefits of a courtesy hotel pick up and an air-conditioned coach.


Nara



Nara was once the capital of Japan and, therefore, remains a very interesting place to visit. It can be easily reached by JR from either Osaka or Kyoto in just under 1 hour. However, Nara is interesting enough to spend the night.

The shrines and temples of Nara are included on the UNESCO Heritage Sites list, and though there's plenty to see and do here, all the attractions are pretty much grouped together and walking from one to another is extremely pleasant and entertaining.

Everything is encompassed inside the Nara Park and intriguing Japanese elements can be found every step of the way plus over 1,200 sika deer roam freely all over the place and visitors can even buy them crackers and feed them. This is a must visit place especially if you travel with kids or are an animal lover yourself.

We published more photos from Nara here.

Where to stay in Nara:

Guest Villa Houou - a gorgeous villa situated in the middle of a traditional Japanese garden. The hotel has a hot spring bath and organises karaoke nights for total cultural immersion.


Kamakura



Kamakura, also called the Eastern Kyoto of Japan for the great number of temples, is a quiet little residential town just 1-hour train ride from Tokyo. For that, Kamakura can make a very pleasant and relaxing day trip away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo.

Its most famous sight is the Great Buddha (Daibutsu) at Kotoku-in, the second largest bronze Buddha in Japan. But there are many Zen temples and Shinto shrine to be discovered  here and one day might not even be enough to explore them all.

However, if you get tired of temple and shrine hopping, I highly recommend you join a Japanese cooking class, so apart from the photos, you also take home with you the knowledge of how to cook traditional Japanese food. Why do I recommend this cooking class? Because you will learn washoku, an approach to achieving nutritional balance and aesthetic harmony at the table, which is a Japanese culinary philosophy that has been added to the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list.

Now, if you are rather in the mood to get a taste of the beautiful landscapes and serene religious monuments of Kamakura, sip green tea overlooking a rock garden and enjoy a delicious Japanese lunch without the hands-on culinary experience, this Kamakura day trip from Tokyo is just perfect.


Magome



Magome-juku was the forty-third of the sixty-nine stations of the ancient road that connected Kyoto and Edo (today's Tokyo) during the Edo period.

Nowadays it consists of a beautifully restored row of wooden houses along the former post road. Most houses were built in the mid-18th century by common people and therefore are nothing grant, just extremely interesting. They host shops, restaurants and little exhibition rooms, which makes a day trip to Magome both a relaxing and educative one.

In my opinion, Magome is a cute open air museum stripped of the joys of daily life, lined along a pedestrian-only cobblestone street, which makes it quite unusual and unique. Also, only a 3-hour hike away, there is the post town of Tsumago, and if you have time, the hike and the town in itself are worth the trouble.


Takayama



Nowadays Takayama is famous for its well-preserved old town dating back to the Edo period. One doesn't visit Takayama seeking religious enlightenment, but rather a certain enlightenment related with design and architecture.

The old wooden houses hosting souvenir shops, restaurants, and sake breweries are painfully charming, and walking along the little pedestrian streets is like stepping back in time. There is a wealth of detail related to the daily life and Japanese traditions to be discovered here. It's like the time stood still.

Some of the houses are even open to the public, exhibiting local crafts and arts, providing a window into understanding the lives of the local merchants. Also not to miss, not far from the town center, is the Hida Folk Museum.

Where to stay in Takayama:

Auberge Hidanomori - a warm and pleasant home away from home situated in a stunning traditional Japanese house with all the facilities of a modern hotel.


Matsumoto Castle



For us, Matsumoto Castle, also known as the 'Crow Castle', was the most beautiful castle we visited in Japan. Situated a 2-hours and a half train ride from Tokyo, it's black and white facade are of an unspeakable elegance.

The town of Matsumoto doesn't stand out in any other way, but even so, the castle in itself it's well worth the trip.

Visiting Matsumoto Castle is an interesting experience, to say the least. Expect to have to take off your shoes at the entrance, steep and slippery stairs, low ceilings and dark interiors. Matsumoto Castle is one of the four castles designated as 'National Treasures of Japan' and the oldest castle donjon remaining in Japan.

Matsumoto Castle was one of our 3 favorite day-trips from Tokyo.


USEFUL INFORMATION



Where to stay in Japan:

When it comes to accommodation, I usually use and recommend Booking.com. But for Japan, I can't help but recommend Agoda, the leading accommodation site in Asia, with discounts up to 80% off and more properties to choose from than any other website.

How to move around Japan:

The best way to travel around Japan is by using a Japan Rail Pass, a very convenient and economical way to see the country. For train route ideas and city guides, you can check out the Japan by Rail book.

Further readings:

Before you go to Japan we highly recommend you read the following books for a better understanding of the Japanese culture and lifestyle:

A Geek in Japan (our favorite book on Japan!)
Cool Japan (a guide to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Tohoku written from a unique Japanese perspective)
Japan: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture (learn how to blend in by understanding the weird, wonderful and downright odd Japanese customs).

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this article are affiliate links. If you buy via them, I will get some coffee money at no additional cost to you. Thank you for helping me stay awake!

51 comments:

  1. I think it really depends on one's taste and interests.
    I've been to all 47 prefectures in Japan and have seen a lot and on my personal "Top 8 List" I wouldn't have any of the places you named.

    However, all of them are without a doubt great spots and should be visited!
    I love Matsumoto Castle. Among the 100+ Japanese castles I've visited it's probably in my Top 10! :)

    Kyoto and Tokyo are just the standard "must-see" spots, but for a reason, so first-time visitors can't go wrong choosing them.

    I like Nara a lot, too, especially Mount Yoshino and the area around Asuka (e.g. Hasedera).

    P.S.: I love the first photo with the cute rabbits!! ^___^

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    1. Now I'm intrigued! :) What have I missed? Which places would be on your top 8 list?

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    2. Like zoomingjapan i have had the good fortune of seeing a lot of the country in my time (10 years) in Japan. Lived in Matsumoto, the castle is fantastic particularly during the O-hanami season. Plus Matsumoto has a great vibe, something about it makes it feel looser, more relaxed than most of the rest of Japan. On that note I'd also suggest Fukuoka, specifically the night scene with the rows and rows of 'yatai' set up along the river. This is a great way to see the locals in action in a unique way.

      I wonder if you didn't get much further north than Nikko - because most people don't. In a way this is a bonus as it keeps the tourist crowds down in places like Yamadera, Hiraizumi and even Matsushima, one of Japan's 'Most Beautiful 3 Sites.' Akita has some of the best beaches I've seen in all of Japan (though i never made it to Okinawa).

      Closer to Tokyo are the mountains of Gifu and Nagano; Yatsu-ga-dake in eastern Nagano Prefecture has a great two-day hiking route but amazing hikes are everywhere in Japan. A stop in Hiroshima and the Atomic Bomb Museum and Park is heart-stopping; similar goes for Nagasaki which also boasts a rather unique and interesting trading history. Shikoku's Iya-dani is a beautiful if understated mountain region. And if it's baseball season go see a game! You'll be amazed. Trust me.

      Glad you made it to Japan. Hope you can make it back because there really is a lot more than any of us could gad on about in a blog post.

      Cheers,
      Kevin

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    3. I'm with zoomingjapan & Kevin. Tokyo has 2 things worth a see: Imperial Gardens & Atsakusa (sp?). Otherwise, it's just a centralized "sleeping place" for great day-trips. And, PLEASE, stop with the "selfies" & walking in front of people trying to take PRISTINE pictures of beauty - natural or man-made!!!!

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  2. Great post. I like how you've listed a number of great sites around Japan that should be visited, instead of focusing just on the couple that most people know. Some great ideas for a future trip!

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  3. I am planning on going to Tokyo next spring and I was actually wondering what I should see in the surrounding areas. So thanks for the Matsumoto Castle tip!

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    1. You're welcome. Matsumoto is amazing. I'm sure it won't disappoint.

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  4. Replies
    1. I know, I know! :) Hopefully next time. Fingers crossed ;)

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  5. Tokyo has long been on my list of places I'd like to live for awhile...sounds like such an amazing place from everyone I've ever heard of who has been. Trying to see if I can't put it into my plans for the next few years!

    THanks for sharing!

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    Replies
    1. Sounds wonderful! I would love to spend a longer period of time in Tokyo myself. Oh well, maybe some day ;)

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  6. Those castles are so damn good. I think they might even beat European castles for coolness. Blasphemy? Maybe.

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    1. Errr, they are certainly different. I think it's a matter of taste. I would prefer visiting a luxuriously decorated European interior any day. But the exteriors are a totally different matter. Unfortunately, the Japanese didn't bother much with the design and most castles look similar.

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  7. Honestly, Japan is one of the most beautiful places in the world; and it's not just because of the striking attractions. It's because of the fact that they have managed to preserve these bits of their past to support the colorful present and future they have. No wonder Japan has always been a strong nation!

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    1. You are perfectly right. Not many nations, if any, preserved their traditions in quite the same way, while also living a modern lifestyle.

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  8. I'm with your husband on this one: Japan's definitely on my list. Maybe not top of it, but definitely there. And these spots are a definite starting point. I liked the rapid-fire list of them too. Nice photos.

    But I'd have loved to have seen some more of the interactions... I haven't met very many Japanese people as a teacher in Taiwan, so I'm very curious about what you had to say about them. You started to go into it during the Tokyo experience, and I'd love to hear more about your impressions. Can you refer me to any other posts that go into it a bit more?

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    1. Japan is definitely an amazing country to visit. So different and charming. About the people, what can I say, even going to the supermarket for rice is an awesome experience. So polite, so shy, so tidy, so modern and traditional at the same time. You have to visit Japan to believe it :)

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  9. Nice read! I like the post. It is informative.

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  10. Hey, someone else that made the trip out to Matsumoto-jo! A solid list here, for a three week trip. Did you make it to Osaka at all? I'm living there at the moment and everyone I talk to usually prefers either Osaka or Tokyo; I'd be interested to hear your opinion!

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    1. Hey! We visited Osaka, but didn't get to explore it all that much. We visited the castle, of course, and the shopping arcades, but unfortunately it didn't impress us as much as Tokyo did. Anyways, I hear Osaka is the food capital of Japan, so we would definitely love to go back and indulge ourselves :)

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  11. Hi, I'm currently in tokyo..do u mind telling me what's the place on the first picture with those toy cats ? I really want to get one haha, thank you ! best regards , Mo

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    1. Hi Mo, the first pic was taken in Takayama. Tokyo has lots of cute souvenir cats, but honestly, these rabbits(?) we've seen only in Takayama. Takayama is packed with souvenir shops and if your schedule permits, I definitely recommend a visit. It's easy to break the bank there. The gifts are so unique! :smile:

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  12. Japan is full of wonder and the land of the rising sun!!

    I love Japan for its huge tech industry, culture & amazing gardens. Nikko is favorite destination for travell, I like its beautiful shrines & natural beauty.

    thanks sharing this great article!!

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  13. Nikko, Nara and Kamakura are great picks.
    My favorite was the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto. More than a decade has passed since, but I still remember the experience vividly.
    Tokyo can be great, if you know where to go... Akihabara, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ginza, Harajuku...

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  14. Nice pictures. It's really inspiring, i want to go to Japan, especially Tokyo

    Thanks for this great information

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  15. I've never been to Japan, but this is a very convincing sales talk. Thank you.

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  16. Hi-I am in Tokyo soon-also Kyoto. What would you say is a good area to stay in, in Kyoto pls? And if I have 4 extra days to spend in one other Japanese city, where would you recommend that isn't 2-3 hours away from Kyoto and also from Tokyo by train? :)

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  17. Tokyo is a capital of Japan and the largest metropolitan area in the world. The main attractions of Tokyo are Edo-Tokyo Museum, Imperial Palace East Garden, Tosho-gu, Imperial Palace, Tokyo National Museum, Hakone Kowakien Yunessun, Meiji Shrine, Nezu Musuem, Backstreet shops of Tsukiji, Kamakura Great Buddha, Kegon Falls, Senso-ji Complex, Tokyo Disneyland, Bridgestone Museum of Art, etc.

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  18. hi, I'm sheren, just wonder in your first photo, the cute rabbits, where is it actually? are they easily found in any stores in Japan or only a specific outlet selling these cute creatures? Coz I love them lots, they are so cute, hope to pay them a visit this coming may as I will be flying to OSAKA.

    TQVM.

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    1. Hi Sheren,
      We spotted the cute rabbits in a shop in Takayama. Not sure their are easily found in other places in Japan though, however, they have lots of cute stuff to buy, so I'm sure you'll find plenty of souvenirs :)

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  19. What camera did you use to take these pictures? I'm going to Japan next year and I want to make sure I take perfect pictures to capture the moments! Currently my camera phone has a delayed reaction time (I'll press the button and it'll take a couple of seconds to capture, by then animals ect would've moved), does your camera do that or is it an instant picture? Thanks!

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    1. We used a Canon 600D and a 18-270mm Tamron lens.

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  20. Thank for sharing me about 8 Places You Must Visit in Japan ! In this list i like Matsumoto Castle so much because it has the best view.

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  21. Hi I live in Bangladesh. I m newlly married. I want to visit Japan. It will our honeymoon trip.
    Can u please tell me that wich are the best place in tokyo.

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    Replies
    1. Congratulations! For best places to visit in Tokyo we already wrote an article here - http://www.travelocafe.com/2013/01/japan-highlights-top-10-places-to-visit-in-tokyo.html Enjoy!

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  22. Hello, I am planning on a 2 week vacation to Japan in September.. Tokyo is where I will go first, but where else should I go?. Was thinking Kyoto and Osaka.. I like anything and everything.. I just want to see as much as possible.. Thank you, Sean

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    1. Hi Sean,

      All of the above mentioned places are great. We were not personally that impressed with Osaka, but Tokyo and Kyoto are definitely two great cities to start with. Enjoy Japan!

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  23. Thanks for sharing this wonderful info, I love Japan and visited there number of times. The places which I like most in Japan are Magome,Kamakura, Nara and Matsumoto Castle.

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  24. Great post! Japan is so damn cool! I can't wait to go there one day.

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  25. Hi

    Thanks for this wonderful post.
    Can all these places be covered in a span of 3 weekends. Or if I'm correctly wondering, I would fall short of time?
    In that case which among the above can I put on the priority list .
    Appreciate your help.

    Warm Regards,
    Ani

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    Replies
    1. Yes, you can see all these places in 3 weeks. We only stayed 3 weeks in Japan ourselves, and we managed to visit the above places and more. Apart from Tokyo and Kyoto, all the other places can be seen in 1 or 2 days each.

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  26. I like alll the places you mentiomned and i agree you REALLY need to see Okinawa, They have the most beautiful gardens. I like the japanese culture and absolutely love going there. As an otaku i can go to japan and cosplay. I can express myself without the judgment and weird looks i get here in america, and canada, and lots of other places. hahaha.
    The point is i love this reveiw. I hope you get to see Okinawa next time. Fingers crossed!

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  27. We were there from 3rd Otober to 16th october,2014 and covered Tokyo,Kyoto,Osaka and Sendai.We stayed at Hotel sunlite shinjuku in Shinagawa station.Mostly everything was covered by the JR Rail pass.We also bought Suica card to use at subways and at convinient stores.We saw Asakusa temple,Sumo stadium,tokyo cruise,skytree,Imperial palace in Tokyo.but liked Kyoto very much including the hotel royal and spa in Kyoto.We covered 3 shrines by taking a bus tour and managed to go to Imperial castle and Nijo castle by our own by subway.Went to Osaka by JR train for a day and travelled to Sendai by JR train and there we had been to Matsushima island and stayed at Hotel Kanyo,the japanese ryokans.Saw Ishinomaki manga museum on our way.It has been a great experience and would like to go again and again.

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  28. Top 10 Cool Places You Are Not Allowed to Visit

    http://toptenstuff.in/cool-places-not-allowed-to-visit/

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  29. I really enjoyed this post and I'm hoping the OH will come round as Japan's not top of his list to see either! Thanks for sharing really great

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  30. You really need to check out Japan in the snow - it's absolutely magical.
    Check out some great snowy hotspring photos:
    http://naivedom.com/blog/travel/japan/jozankei/frozen-jozankei/

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  31. Would you recommend to stay 2 days in Nagoya ? do you think that will be enough ? Thank you

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    1. I believe 2 days in Nagoya is quite enough. But only include it in your itinerary if you've already seen the places on this list or others that you really want to see. We were not that impressed with Nagoya and we actually visited during one of their festivals.

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  32. I'm thinking of the rail pass as well. You said you could cut queues. But on the website it says you have to make reservations. How did it work for you?

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