For my full rankings of everything I've seen in Korea and Japan you can click here.
My rating system is as follows:
5 Stars - Extremely unique, beautiful, and interesting. These are places that really stand out as highlights of my time in Asia and rival some of the best places that I have ever visited.
4 Stars – Definitely do this. May not have the whole package, as is the case with 5 stars, but these places were still extremely interesting or beautiful.
3 Stars – Highly recommended.
2 Stars – If you have the time.
1 Star – Don’t waste your time.
Let's start out with my destination rankings. This is a ranking of the big tourist destinations and I have any smaller nearby attractions listed in parentheses.
1. Kyoto - 5 Stars
I guess this probably isn't too much of a surprise, but Kyoto truly is an amazing place. You can visit temples and shrine until you drop. Fushimi Inari was my personal favorite, but there are so many good ones that you can't really go wrong. Fancy a trip to the Imperial Palace? Or perhaps you'd like to see a gold temple? Maybe a stroll through one of the countless and irresistibly peaceful gardens? You can do it all in Kyoto.
2. Hiroshima (Miyajima) - 5 Stars
Visiting the A-Bomb Dome is a very surreal experience. I can't say I've ever had a feeling quite like I did that day. Combine this with the fact that Miyajima is a short train and ferry ride away from the city and this place is most definitely a highlight of Asia. Itsukushima was my favorite historical sight in Japan and the a hike up Mt. Misen on Miyajima is a must.
3. Tokyo - 4.5 Stars
This is the biggest city in the world, but I can't say that I ever felt it was overcrowded. There are a near infinite number of things to see and do. The only thing that kept me from giving it a full 5 stars is that I didn't feel as though it was that much different from western cities, whereas Kyoto and Hiroshima are distinctly Japanese.
4. Kumamoto (Aso) - 4 Stars
Mt. Aso was amazing. And I mean AMAZING. I guess volcanoes are pretty legit. Kumamoto Castle was also a very interesting experience and Honmaru Goten, which is located within the castle, was decorated beautifully. The nightlife is pretty fun too, but it's obviously not on the scale of Tokyo.
5. Nara - 4 Stars
If you go to Kyoto and you're not completely templed out by the time you leave, you should definitely swing by Nara for a day or two. The two must-sees are Todaiji, which is the largest wooden structure in the world, and Horyuji, which is the oldest wooden structure in the world. Nara Park and Nara National Museum are also pretty cool.
6. Nagasaki (Gunkanjima) - 3.5 Stars
7. Kamakura - 3.5 Stars
This is a very nice day trip from Tokyo. It's only an hour or so from the city and most of the sites are within walking distance of each other so it can easily be done in a day. My favorite was Daibutsu, which is a gigantic statue that weighs in at 93 tons. I also really enjoyed Kenchoji and Tsurugaoka Hachimangu.
8. Osaka (Himeji) - 3.5 Stars
This probably would have been ranked higher if Himeji Castle had been open when I visited. I really wanted to see the castle, but the main keep is closed due to restoration work for the foreseeable future. I only spent one day in Osaka so I can't say too much about it, but it has some very cool architecture and the nightlife is certainly entertaining.
9. Nikko - 3 Stars
10. Fukuoka (Kokura, Dazaifu) - 3 Stars
I guess this was my least favorite area in Japan, but that says more about how good the other sites were rather than saying anything bad about Fukuoka. Fukuoka is actually a beautiful city and there are some interesting temples and shrines. Dazaifu and Kokura are also very nice places. There just wasn't any wow factor.
What about individual sights you ask? Well here are my top 5. I gave them all a 5 star rating.
1. Tokyo Sky Tree (Tokyo)
2. Mt. Aso (Aso)
3. Itsukushima (Miyajima)
This is a shrine that was built on the water because the land was deemed to be too sacred. This provides some awesome pictures at high tide. You can also walk out to the torii at low tide. I recommend visiting at high tide in the morning, hiking Mt. Misen, and then returning in the afternoon at low tide. Seeing the shrine at high tide is slightly better, so if you have to pick go with high tide.
4. Fushimi Inari (Kyoto)
This shrine is an entire mountain and consists of over 10,000 torii gates. The gates basically form tunnels along the multiple paths up the mountain. The gates are extremely dense at the bottom of the mountain and slowly thin out as you get higher up the mountain.
5. A-Bomb Dome (Hiroshima)
As I stated previously in the post, I've never experienced a feeling quite like the one I got from seeing the A-Bomb dome. It's a grim reminder of the 150,000 people who perished as a result of the atomic bomb. The dome and the museum can be extremely depressing, but I still wouldn't hesitate to recommend the sight to anyone who visits Japan.
And since I visited so many of them, I figured I'd do a list just for temples and shrines. So here are my favorite religious structures.
1. Itsukushima (Miyajima) - 5 Stars
2. Fushimi Inari (Kyoto) - 5 Stars
3. Todaiji (Nara) - 4.5 Stars
4. Shoren-in (Kyoto) - 4.5 Stars
No impressive structures to be found here. Instead, this place is home to the most relaxing garden I have ever experienced. Waterfalls, birds, meandering paths, beautiful scenery, and large open rooms in the temple itself. I would recommend visiting this place last so as to give yourself time to just sit back and relax until you've been rejuvenated by the healing powers of nature.
5. Kiyomizu-dera (Kyoto) - 4 Stars
And now just for some random thoughts about Japan.
My favorite new food was definitely okonomiyaki.
I actually didn't drink sake while I was in Japan. A little depressing.
The only place I didn't visit that I would still really like to see is Mt. Fuji.
The trains are awesome. Why does America's infrastructure suck?
Japan is incredibly expensive. But you probably already knew that.
My favorite trip (I took three) was probably my first one to Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Fukuoka, and Hiroshima.
I didn't run into any food that was too weird. I mostly just ate a lot of sushi.
My two favorite things that I've seen in Asia thus far are both in Japan (Shhhh, don't tell the Koreans).
Be careful if you go out drinking in Tokyo.
You can take it easy on trying to visit every temple in Kyoto. I visited too many.
The trains leave and arrive EXACTLY on time. You'd think Mussolini was running the country.
In general, Japanese people speak better English than Koreans.
However, there is a lot less English signage in Japan than in Korea.
Go to Japan.