The list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites includes significant historic, cultural, and natural sites worldwide that are worthy of preservation. I enjoy visiting World Heritage sites to learn more about the country I’m traveling in.
Japan has 25 World Heritage listings, some of them covering multiple locations, so there are a lot of places for lovers of history and culture to choose from. The sites cover history from prehistoric times, through the early years of Buddhism, to more recent history when the atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima. There are temples, shrines, castles, industrial complexes, whole villages, and more.
Here are some of my favorites that I’ve visited on trips to Japan over the years.
1. Toshogu Shrine
Of all the shrines and temples included in Nikko’s World Heritage listing, Toshogu Shrine is the largest and most splendid. The shrine’s vivid colors contrast with the green forest and its buildings are covered with ornate carvings — the most notable being the three monkeys that inspired the saying “See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil.” I loved the incredible details of animals, mythical creatures, and decorative flourishes that create an overall impression of opulence.
Nikko is a popular day trip from Tokyo, about 2 hours by train followed by a short bus trip up the hill to the shrine.
2. Mount Fuji
Yamanashi And Shizuoka
Mt. Fuji’s perfect volcanic cone has appeared in Japanese art for centuries. It has religious significance, with shrines dotted along the paths to the summit for the faithful to stop and pray.
When weather conditions are excellent, it’s possible to spot Mt. Fuji from Tokyo while traveling on the shinkansen train or while flying into Tokyo. The towns around Mt. Fuji have better views, and Hakone and Kawaguchiko are popular choices for a day trip from Tokyo, being only a couple of hours away by bus or train.
I prefer Kawaguchiko, which is quieter than Hakone. Staying overnight gave me enough time to see Mt. Fuji from the top of the ropeway on a lake cruise and while walking along the lake’s north shore. The views from there are excellent, and sometimes, Mt. Fuji is reflected in the water.
The traditional wooden houses of Shirakawago are known as gassho zukuri, or praying hands, because the steep pitch of the roofs resembles hands joined in prayer. The village was preserved thanks to its location deep in the mountains, and visitors can go inside some of the houses to see how people used to live and work.
While many visitors stop for just a few hours, it’s possible to stay overnight in one of the houses. I enjoyed eating dinner by an open fireplace, and after a good night’s sleep, waking up to a magical view over the rice fields.
Shirakawago is accessible via car or bus from Takayama and Kanazawa. No vehicles are allowed inside the village, so visitors need to walk up from the carpark and across a bridge.
4. Byodo-In Temple
The most well-known temples in Kyoto, such as Kiyomizudera and Kinkakuji, can get very crowded. Some other temples included in the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto World Heritage listing are much quieter, such as Byodo-in temple in nearby Uji, less than 30 minutes by train from Kyoto station.
Byodo-in’s main building, the Phoenix Hall, is about 1,000 years old and is featured on Japan’s 10-yen coin. Inside, there is a splendid gilded statue of Buddha, although there’s sometimes a queue as visits are done in small groups to preserve the interior. I loved walking around the garden, which felt very tranquil with the temple reflected in the pond.
5. Todaiji Temple
Many people visit Nara to see the sacred deer wandering the streets, but the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara are another attraction. Todaiji is the most impressive of these and its most-visited building is the Daibutsu-den, or Great Buddha Hall. It is over 300 years old and one of the largest wooden buildings in the world.
While the size of the building is impressive enough, I found entering the temple awe-inspiring. The Great Buddha gleamed in the dim light, a serene presence looking over the people below. This 50-foot-tall bronze statue is surrounded by other religious statues, making the interior a spectacular sight.
Nara can be reached in less than an hour by train from either Osaka or Kyoto.
Pro Tip: Going from the station to the temple, you are likely to encounter some sacred deer. While they are used to humans, they are still wild animals. It’s best to keep any snacks zipped away in your bag when they are nearby and be careful when holding maps or brochures. The deer have been known to eat those too!
6. Himeji Castle
Himeji Castle is Japan’s largest and it is also an original construction, not a reproduction like Osaka Castle. While visiting the grounds is free, it’s worth paying to look inside the interior of this 400-year-old building. The dark timbers have mellowed with age, and information panels describe the traditional building techniques and how the castle defenses worked.
After climbing up the steep stairs, the attendant greeted me, saying “Congratulations! You have reached the top floor.” I took a much-needed break to enjoy the panoramic view over Himeji. Back on ground level, I strolled through the very pretty Koko-en garden next door, which is an ideal spot to get good photographs of the castle.
It’s an easy day trip by train from Osaka or Kyoto.
7. Atomic Bomb Dome
The Hiroshima Peace Park is an open green space today, but it used to be a busy area where thousands lived and worked. The atomic bomb in 1945 destroyed almost everything, but the office building known as the Atomic Bomb Dome survived.
While the park, with its museum and memorials, was designed to record history and inspire peace, I found the Atomic Bomb Dome a tangible and poignant reminder of the force of the bomb. It forms a backdrop to many views from the park, a stark contrast to the spring cherry blossoms and autumn foliage.
The sightseeing loop bus from Hiroshima station stops at the Atomic Bomb Dome.
8. Itsukushima Shrine
Visitors get their first glimpse of Itsukushima’s famous torii gate as the ferry approaches Miyajima. Itsukushima Shrine is built over the water and, at high tide, the shrine and the torii appear to float on the water. At low tide, you can walk out to the torii. The shrine buildings are painted a vivid red, a striking contrast with the sea.
By staying on Miyajima, I was able to visit Itsukushima at dawn when it was tranquil and the reflections in the sea were undisturbed by the comings and goings of ferries. Because it’s so close to Hiroshima, Itsukushima can get crowded in the middle of the day.
9. Oura Church
In a country of temples and shrines, Oura Church stands out in central Nagasaki. One of the Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki region, the church was built by French missionaries in 1864. Japanese Christians who had kept their faith a secret for hundreds of years were inspired by the sight of the church to come out of hiding.
The former seminary next door has an exhibit on the history of the Catholic Church in Japan. I found this fascinating as it covers the period when Japan closed its doors to the rest of the world for centuries and, despite persecution, Catholic communities remained in remote places.
Pro Tip: What’s the difference between a shrine and a temple? A shrine is a place of worship for Japan’s Shinto religion, and it can be recognized by the torii gate at the entrance. Buddhists worship in temples, and there are statues of Buddha inside the temple and also around the grounds.