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Tokyo can't be judged from the outside, since those expecting ancient monuments will instead be greeted with modern drabness. The Imperial Palace, still home to the Emperor, shouldn't be missed, and the Edo-Tokyo Museum details the city's history. Sensoji Temple is the city's oldest, and the Tokyo National Museum holds the largest collection of Japanese art in the world.
Regardless of season, it's hard not to succumb to romance as you wander Kyoto's atmospheric streets, gaze at the glimmering Kinkaku-ji Pavilion, enjoy the traditional dances of the geisha or feast at restaurants over the Kamo River. Only Rome has more World Heritage Sites than the former Japanese capital. But happily unlike Rome, Kyoto maintains its calmness and romance even among throngs of summer tourists. (Editor's note: Our list was compiled before Japan's devastating earthquake of March 11, 2011. Kyoto did not sustain major damage, but we encourage all travellers to Japan to monitor travel alerts from their government.)
Home to nearly nine million and powering an economy that exceeds both Hong Kong's and Thailand's, Osaka packs quite a punch. The confident, stylish city is a shopping hub, with fabulous restaurants and nightlife. It's an ideal base for exploring the Kansai region: Kyoto's World Heritage Sites, Nara's temple and Koya-san's eerie graves are within 90 minutes by train. Top city attractions include the aquarium, Osaka Castle, Universal Studios Japan and the futuristic Floating Garden Observatory.
Thirteen hundred years ago, Nara (then Heiju-kyu) was the imperial capital of Japan. In 2010, festivities are in the works to celebrate this ancient city's anniversary. "Old Japan" is still easy to spot here, from Great Buddha Hall to traditional ryokans and the serene Isuien garden. travellers rave about walking tours of Nara, particularly in the historic Naramachi merchant area.
Nestled in the Northern Japan Alps, Hakuba is all about the winter sports. A top ski and snowboarding destination, Hakuba has plenty of snow and nearly perfect powder. Spend the day swooshing down one of the areas 200+ trails, then end with an après ski at one of the area’s cozy pubs or cafes. Local mineral hot springs make great soaking spots for weary muscles.