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Photo: Rap Dela Rea/UnsplashShirakawa-go
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Photo: Free-Photos/Pixabay
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Photo: David Mark/Pixabay
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Photo: David Klein/Unsplash Kinkakuji Temple
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Photo: paulmuenzner0/PixabayHiroshima Peace Memorial

Here are some of the best Unesco World Heritage Sites in Japan

From Okinawa to Mt Fuji, these nature and historical attractions are essential stops on any trip through Japan

By Kasey Furutani
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It’s no secret that Japan is filled with some of the most picturesque sightseeing spots in the world – we’re talking soothing bamboo forests, summer festivals and winter villages. So many of Japan’s historic sites have been damaged or destroyed in natural disasters and wars, so the ones that still remain are considered rare and therefore special.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, or Unesco, aims to preserve global cultural, historial or natural landmarks by designating them as World Heritage Sites. And Japan boasts a whopping 23 World Heritage Sites, ranging from traditional villages to Shinto and Buddhist shrines and temples, and more.

Thanks to preservation efforts, both tourists and residents can still visit these ancient sites and learn about the history of Japan. Here are some of Japan’s best Unesco World Heritage Sites, from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial to Kyoto’s ancient monuments. 

BE SAFE: Before you go, read our guide on how to go out safely, as well as the new domestic travel guidelines

 Itsukushima Shrine
 Itsukushima Shrine
Photo: Nicki Eliza Schinow/Unsplash

Itsukushima Shinto Shrine on Miyajima

Possibly the second most famous landmark in Japan after Mt Fuji, Itsukushima Shrine is known for its grand vermillion torii gate located off the coast of Miyajima Island, just a short ferry ride away from Hiroshima. Get there early in the morning to spend the whole day on Miyajima and see the shrine in both high and low tides. When the water goes out, you can walk up to the gargantuan gate.

The shrine is an example of typical Shinto architecture, which creates harmony between nature and manmade structures. Miyajima is also known for its deer population – considerably less pushy than Nara’s bowing deer – along with hiking trails and momiji sweets (small cakes designed in the shape of maple leaves). 

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park
Photo: Tomcat/Pixta

Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome)

Hiroshima’s Genbaku Dome is a tragic, yet essential part of Japan’s history. On August 16 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima, destroying everything in its path. Miraculously, the Genbaku Dome remained standing, and the city decided to keep the structure as is to honour the victims and as a reminder of the devastating consequences of war and nuclear weapons. Surrounding the dome is the Peace Memorial Park with sculptures and origami cranes dedicated to the thousands of victims lost in the bombing. The Peace Memorial Museum is also an essential visit – do remember to bring tissues. 

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Yakushima
Yakushima
Photo: veronica111886/Pixabay

Yakushima

This tiny island off the coast of Kyushu is a primeval cedar forest with hiking trails amongst lush, virgin nature. Yakusugi, incredibly old cedar trees, are dotted throughout the island. Jomonsugi, estimated to be 2,000 to 7,000 years old, lies deep within the forest; it's believed to be the oldest tree in Japan and thus giving it a special spiritual significance, too. The most popular hiking trail is Shiratani Unsuikyo: said to have inspired Studio Ghibli’s ‘Princess Mononoke’, it has a well-trodden path for hiking beginners. Keep an eye out, you might run into a forest sprite or two. 

Uji Byodo-in Temple
Uji Byodo-in Temple
Photo: PublicDomainPictures/Pixabay

Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Otsu)

Kyoto is on every Japan itinerary and rightly so; the spiritual city is filled with temples and shrines evoking a classical Japan that bustling Tokyo can never emulate. In Kyoto, you can’t miss the Golden Pavilion at Kinkakuji Temple and Ryoan-ji Temple, where visitors can relax at the Zen rock garden. It’s also worth visiting Kyoto’s neighbouring cities, Uji and Otsu, for a quieter connection with nature and traditional architecture. 

Known for the Byodoin Temple, the building on the back of the ¥10 coin, Uji is a quiet destination best in spring or autumn, when cherry blossoms bloom on the temple grounds and red maple leaves line the Uji River. Be sure to stop by a teahouse; Uji's renowned green tea can be found mixed into soba noodles and ice cream. 

On the edge of Lake Biwa, Otsu in Shiga prefecture is home to more spiritual and historical sites. It's believed that Murasaki Shikibu wrote ‘The Tale of Genji’ while staying at Ishiyama-dera, a large temple complex in the city. Don’t forget to stop by Enryakuji Temple, too – once the home of a legendary sect of Buddhist warrior monks. 

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mt fuji
mt fuji
Photo: kimura2/Pixabay

Fujisan, sacred place and source of artistic inspiration

No trip to Japan is complete without seeing Mt Fuji, whether at Yamanashi’s Lake Kawaguchiko, from the bullet train travelling from Tokyo to Kyoto, or even from the top of a building in Tokyo. Mt Fuji has inspired generations of artists including Hokusai in his ukiyo-e masterpiece ‘The Great Wave Off Kanagawa’, which is why the landmark is considered a source of artistic inspiration by Unesco.

The great mountain has a spiritual side as well: Buddhist pilgrims would pray at Sengen-jinja shrines and climb the mountain to visit the Shinto deity Asama no Okami, who is said to have lived in the crater. In summer, the mountain is open for climbing, although most hikers nowadays start from the fifth station halfway up the mountain.

Shurijo Castle Okinawa
Shurijo Castle Okinawa
Photo: Shirahan Lovers/Photo AC

Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu

The Gusuku Sites represent sacred and historical landmarks in the Ryukyu Kingdom, modern day Okinawa. The Unesco sites preserve 500 years of Ryukyu history, from the 12th to the 17th centuries, and feature nine monuments, four of them in Naha.

The most famous site, Shuri Castle, suffered tragic fire damage in 2019. However, tourists are still welcome to tour the reconstruction and other nearby Unesco sites, including the Sonohyan-utaki stone gate. South of the castle are the gardens of Shikina-en, originally a part of the royal residence, known for their mix of traditional Japanese and Chinese designs. The Tamaudun, a royal mausoleum holding the remains of the Ryukyu royal families, is a must visit for any history lover. 

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Nachi Taisha, Kumano Kodo
Nachi Taisha, Kumano Kodo
Photo: Nolan Di Meo/Unsplash

Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range

One of two pilgrimage routes designated by Unesco, the Kii Mountain Range has three sacred sites – Yoshino and Omine, Kumano Sanzan, and Koyasan. The lush greenery of the mountains makes for great hiking, and even to this day, it’s easy to feel the sense of calm behind ancient Shinto and Buddhist nature worship. The different pilgrimage routes found here are collectively referred to as the Kumano Kodo, and the modern hiking trails follow ancient paths. One of the most well-trodden routes leads to Nachi Taisha: the vermillion pagoda and the 133m Nachi no Taki waterfall in the background are your postcard-perfect reward after finishing a long hike.

Shirakawago Winter Light-Up
Shirakawago Winter Light-Up
Photo: Supparuj Taechatanont/Dreamstime

Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama

Resembling a fairytale village, the gassho-zukuri style houses of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama will make even the most jaded of travellers gasp in awe. Hidden deep in the mountains and dotted around paddy fields, these remote farmhouses have been preserved for their innovative design and slanted roofs resembling hands clasped in prayer. These distinctive features help insulate the homes in winter and keep them cool in summer. Many of the homes are now open for tours designed to showcase traditional village life; some even operate as restaurants and guesthouses.

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