Godlike mountains, remote islands, and ancient castles are among Japan’s World Heritage Sites. While you may never have heard of a UNESCO World Heritage Site before visiting Japan, the distinction is a highly revered one.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) awards the title to locations around the world with “outstanding universal value.” The list is basically a holy grail of travel destinations from natural wonders to those with cultural significance.
Here are the 23 UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Japan.
During the 17th century, a third of the world’s silver was produced in the small town of Omori. The mines were closed down in the 1920s but the surrounding area, dubbed “Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine and its Cultural Landscape” was registered with UNESCO in 2007.
Take a relaxing stroll down Omori street past merchant houses from the 1500s that have been converted into cozy cafes. Visiting the perfectly preserved streets and narrow pathway of Ryugenji Mabu Mineshaft will transport you back to Japan’s bygone era of simpler times.
You’ve definitely seen the red torii gate of Itsukushima Shrine floating angelically on the ocean if you’ve ever Googled images of Japan. The shrine is located on the tiny island of Miyajima, a 10-minute ferry ride away from the mainland of southern Hiroshima Prefecture.
Snap a perfect picture of the grand torii at high tide when it appears to be floating, or walk right up and touch it during low tide. With its hypnotic otherworldly atmosphere at dusk, it’s no wonder the gate is considered the pathway between the human and spirit realm.
Mount Fuji is the unquestionable symbol of Japan whether you’re brave enough to try climbing the 3,776-meter tall mountain, or just lucky enough to catch a glimpse of it while riding the bullet train. The most scenic vantage points to admire the snow-capped mountain from afar are Lake Kawaguchi or the Chureito Pagoda in Yamanashi Prefecture.
The Gate of Hell awaits you in Ueno, at the National Museum of Western Art. The museum is a monument to European masterpieces throughout the ages and features work by legendary French sculptor Auguste Rodin. Fall in love with classics from the 14th through the 20th century by Monet, Delacroix, and Vincent Van Gogh. It’s a unique slice of Europe, right in the heart of Tokyo.
Take a journey back to your roots on Yakushima island in southern Kagoshima Prefecture. The mysterious remote island is known for its expansive cedar forests that have been undisturbed for thousands of years. It’s home to Jomonsugi, a 7,200-year-old Japanese cedar tree with gnarly alien-esque roots. It’s one of the oldest trees in the world.
The misty moss-covered island was also the inspiration for Studio Ghibli’s renowned film, Princess Mononoke. Hike through mystic forests or bathe in oceanside hot springs as you soak up the energy of the forest gods surrounding you.
Nara city has eight World Heritage sites: Todai-ji Temple, Kofuku-ji Temple, Yakushi-ji Temple, Kasuga Taisha, Gango-ji Temple, Toshodai-ji Temple, Heijo Palace, and Mount Kasuga Primeval Forest. These eight cultural assets are collectively classified as the “Monuments of Ancient Nara.” Feed the sacred deer — who won’t hesitate to chase you down for food — as you discover all the historical relics of the ancient capital.
Many travelers know Kyoto as Japan’s goldmine of historic temples and shrines but probably aren’t familiar with Nikko. Don’t sleep on this quiet — and less crowded — city an hours’ day trip north of Tokyo.
Toshogu Shrine, Nikko’s star attraction, is actually a complex of 55 shrines and includes the tomb of Tokugawa Shogunate leader Tokugawa Ieyasu. Enjoy the colorful ornate structures against the lush forest backdrop of this postcard-perfect city.
The farmhouses of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama villages take visitors deep into the mountains of central Japan. The houses’ thick, gassho-zukuri roofs were designed to withstand heavy snowfall during winter, allowing it to slide off easily.
Gassho means to press your hands together in prayer, which is exactly what the roofs look like. Stay overnight in one of the old houses surrounded by rice fields or join a soba noodle-making workshop!
Picture hills covered by vast jungles and unspoiled beaches with uninterrupted views of the Pacific Ocean. Though these remote islands are technically part of Tokyo, it’ll take you a 24-hour boat ride to reach them.
Ogasawara is actually a group of 30 subtropical islands, but only two — Chichi-jima and Haha-jima — are actually inhabited. Swim with dolphins or enjoy snorkeling and scuba diving year-round at this paradise getaway.
This huge cluster of tombs just south of Osaka city consists of 49 burial mounds built during the Kofun period (about 300 to 538 AD) for the ruling class. The most impressive is the mausoleum of Emperor Nintoku with its unique keyhole shape, surrounded by a huge moat. At 600 meters wide (almost 2000 feet), it’s Japan’s biggest burial mound and one of the biggest in the world! This is the newest heritage site, being granted the UNESCO distinction in July 2019.
Built in 1872, the Tomioka Silk Mill was the first of its kind in Japan and played a vital role in Japan’s international trade business during the Meiji period. At that time, Japanese silk was a major trade commodity that helped the country’s textile industry prosper. The mill has been well preserved since it closed in the ‘80s and a few of its main buildings are now open for tours. Just in case you’ve ever been curious about how your favorite silky bed sheets are made.
Journey to the far northeastern wilderness of Hokkaido’s Shiretoko Peninsula for this National Park flourishing with biodiversity. The area is home to several species of endangered and threatened migratory birds, strange plants that you won’t find anywhere else, and salmonid species. In the indigenous Ainu language, Shiretoko means “the end of the earth,” a fitting name for what feels like visiting another planet — one without industrialization and human interruption.
The story of ancient Japan is embedded in the countless temples, castles, and tea houses lining the streets of Kyoto city. From golden and silver glam twins Kinkaku-ji and Ginkaku-ji to the awe-inspiring Kiyomizudera, there are over a dozen heritage sites spread across Kyoto and neighboring cities. You have to taste the best matcha in Japan in Kyoto’s Uji city, whose Byodoin Temple is another UNESCO site. It’s the temple on the back of the ¥10 coin!
Bombings during World War II and the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 couldn’t shake Himeji Castle — it’s been standing defiantly for 400 years. The resilient white fortress is nicknamed “The White Heron Castle” as it resembles a graceful bird taking flight. Even more badass is that it was a film set for a James Bond movie! Explore its six floors, with traditional tatami rooms and weapon displays, or take a boat ride around the castle moat. On weekends you may even get to meet a samurai.
If you hadn’t already noticed, UNESCO has a thing for the world’s biggest, baddest, and oldest. Horyu-ji Temple joins that list, with the oldest wooden structures in the world. The temple’s 46-acre grounds are divided into Eastern and Western precincts separated by an impressive collection of Buddhist artifacts and treasures. The Eastern Precinct is where you’ll find the old wooden structures — the towering five-storied pagoda, Main Hall, and Central Gate.
As relics of Japan’s iron, steel, and coal industries during the Meiji-era, this collection of manufacturing sites spans eight prefectures from Kagoshima to Saga. Japan was the first Asian country to industrialize in a bid to keep up with America and Europe towards the end of the Edo period. The sites include the long-abandoned Gunkanjima Island, which was the inspiration behind the villain’s hideout in the 2012 Bond film Skyfall.
Other highlights are the industrial complex around Senganen Garden, ruins of the Miike Coal Mines in Kumamoto, and Hagi City in Yamaguchi Prefecture which is considered the birthplace of the Meiji Restoration. While the mostly-forgotten ruins have become hubs for urban explorers looking for creepy Instagram shots, they are an important part of Japan’s development as a country.
Practitioners of Christianity were persecuted when the religion was outlawed in Japan during the Edo-period until about 1873. To escape death, many of them fled to the isolated areas of southwestern Japan, mainly the Goto Islands and Amakusa Island. Unveil the dark history of these “hidden Christians” at these gothic churches, and enjoy the intimate beaches while you’re at it.
Okinoshima Island off the northwestern coast of Kyushu is considered so holy that visitors are strictly prohibited. Only priests who tend to the island’s Munakata Shrine are allowed to step foot on its shores. Along with two sister shrines in Fukuoka’s Munakata city, the trio is known as Munakata Taisha — the head of thousands of Munakata shrines across Japan. Enshrined here are the daughters of the sun goddess Amaterasu, the most important Shinto deity in Japan. The ancient rituals practiced here have remained largely unchanged for centuries.
Seeing the remnants of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II with your own eyes is chilling. Still, history is important and no trip to the city of Hiroshima is complete without visiting the A-Bomb Dome and Peace Memorial Park. Formerly the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, the skeletons of the dome remind us of the harrowing tragedies of war. It’s the only structure remaining in the city predating the atomic bomb blast of 1945.
The Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Route is a network of walking trails in the Kansai region connecting some of the most sacred spots in Japan. The trails have been used by religious pilgrims traveling between Ise Jingu, the three Kumano Shrines, and Mount Koya for over 1000 years. You’ll walk away reborn after traversing the mountainous terrain and communing with the spirits of old.
Prior to Japanese occupation in 1609, Okinawa was its own nation known as the Ryukyu Kingdom. The castles of the former kingdom were designated as heritage sites to protect the unique history and culture of the native people.
There are a total of nine castles and related sites including Shuri Castle which was home to the kingdom’s royal family. While the distinctively red castle is the only one in Okinawa that has been reconstructed, a visit to the other castle ruins will give you a greater appreciation for this often forgotten ethnic group.
Hiraizumi in Iwate was once a prosperous city with growing political power that rivaled Kyoto during the Heian-era. The city is home to five temples and gardens that are considered physical manifestations of the tranquil land Buddhists aspire to reach after death in Pure Land Buddhism. They include Chuson-ji Temple, Motsu-ji Temple, Mount Kinkeisan, Muryoko-in Ruins, and Kanjizaio-in Ruins. Chuson-ji Temple is the most famous, featuring a grand hall covered in gold similar to Kyoto’s Kinkaku-ji.
This extensive mountain range stretches along the border between Akita and Aomori prefectures. A variety of hiking trails of various difficulties will take you through forests, around lakes, and over waterfalls. The Anmon Falls, a collection of three waterfalls as tall as 42 meters (137 feet), is the main attraction. Visit Juniko (the twelve lakes) for endless camping and fishing opportunities plus a mysterious pond whose striking blue color looks as if it’s been artificially dyed.
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