A lot of visitors to Japan use their JR Passes to zoom straight from Tokyo to Kyoto, wanting (not unreasonably) to explore the country's top two destinations. However, there are plenty of interesting places in between that can be visited as a day trip from one or the other, or are worth stopping off at for a night or two.
So taking the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo and Shinagawa and heading west, we come in order to:
Japan's second largest city, Yokohama is more compact and more spacious than Tokyo, with an easygoing, cosmopolitan atmosphere. Highlights are lively Chinatown and the fashionable Minato Mirai district, where you'll find an excellent art museum and Landmark Tower, the country's second tallest skyscraper.
A pleasant little castle town, Odawara is also the gateway to the scenic resort of Hakone, with its hot-spring guesthouses and hotels, views of Mount Fuji, and touristy pirate ships plying the handsome lake.
Tokyo's seaside getaway at the head of the Izu Peninsula, Atami is also known for its hot springs, but has plenty of other points of interest. There's the striking MOA Museum of Art and charming Sawada Seiko Museum, the beautiful old traditional villa Kiunkaku and architectural gem Hyuga Villa, and a hilltop castle with a view that's prompted rather ambitious comparisons with Naples.
Charming and relaxed, this 'City of Water' has a deceptive number of interesting sights. Chief among these are the Clematis Garden, a cluster of museums, shops and restaurants in the hills north of the town, and Mishima Taisha, an impressive Shinto shrine.
While the city centre doesn't boast many landmark sights, bustling Shizuoka is a pleasant city to sample everyday Japanese life; it also makes a good base to explore scenic Nihondaira and other nearby spots, such as the beautifully set Prefectural Museum of Art. If you're here at the start of November, the annual Street Performance World Cup is a wonderfully fun event.
Small and peaceful Kakegawa's main attraction is its historical castle, and the nearby Ninomaru Art Museum, palace and residence. If you're traveling with kids, the Kacho-En bird park is a fun place to take them for an afternoon.
Also home to a castle, Hamamatsu is a thriving city with plenty of sights and nightlife. Take in the view from the ACT City skyscraper, head out of town to fantasy forest shopping village Nukumori-no-Mori or the charming Akino Fuku Art Museum, go shopping at May One or Zaza City, then hit the town for a night out.
It's not overburdened with sights, to be honest, but Toyohashi makes for a pleasant half-day stop-off. There's a leafy park that's home to the city's art museum, and the nearby City Hall has a 13th-floor observatory with a good view of the area.
Japan's fourth largest city, Nagoya really should be regarded as a major destination in its own right. The city's castle, Atsuta-jingu shrine, Toganji and Osu Kannon temples and Shirotori Garden are the pick of its many sights, while Sakae is a vibrant shopping and nightlife district to rival anything in Tokyo or Osaka.
This is where to get off to visit scenic Lake Biwa, Japan's largest, with a whole variety of things to enjoy. You can relax on the beach, visit a small island, do some bird-watching, or just cruise around on a big pleasure boat.