World Heritage Sites of Japan
A nation so proud of its long, illustrious history, Japan is home to more than its fair share of stunning historical sites. However, given just how much there is to explore, deciding where to visit can prove difficult. To help you out, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have designated a number of sites to be of what they consider "outstanding universal value" when it comes to historical, cultural, and natural significance, here are some of the best.
Sitting at the entrance to Nikko National Park, Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture is a town most famous for its natural beauty and World Heritage Status. The area is home to three world heritage sites in total; two shrines and one temple, all of which are connected by a stunning pathway flanked by tower cedar trees. Begin your exploration of Nikko’s World Heritage sites by visiting Futarasan Shrine. It was founded in 782 by Shodo Shonin, a monk who introduced Buddhism to Nikko.
Next up, visit Rinnoji Temple, another site founded by Shodo Shonin. This temple is particularly beautiful in autumn when the verdant red leaves frame shrine and its garden. It has been undergoing renovations for the last 13 years which are scheduled to be completed by the end of March 2019. Finally the most striking of all the buildings is Toshogu Shrine. This complex is a mausoleum for Tokugawa Ieyasu, a member of the Tokugawa Clan who ruled Japan for over 250 years. Covered in meticulously crafted intricate designs it’s possible to lose multiple hours inspecting the detailed beauty of this incredible structure.
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Nara boasts the most UNESCO World Heritage sites than any other prefecture in the country. From 710 to 784 Nara was the capital of Japan, as a result, so many of the nation’s most sacred Buddhist temples are scattered in and around this area. Many of the most popular sites are within the major metropolitan area of Nara City, like Nara Park, home to Todai-Ji Temple and the infamously cheeky local deer.
The best way to take in the area’s more extensive beauty is by embarking along the Pilgrimage Route along the Kii Mountain Range. This route will lead you by some of the most impressive Buddhist Temples and Shinto Shrines as well as stunning natural wonders like Mt Yoshino before leading into the neighboring Wakayama Prefecture.
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Just a short trip north from Nara, Kyoto is home plenty of World Heritage Sites, and while there’s a lot to pack into one trip, there are some highlights worth prioritizing. Kiyomizu-Dera Temple is one ‘don’t miss’ site, overlooking the Southern Higashiyama sightseeing district it's one of Kyoto’s most iconic landmarks. The temple's long wooden stage offers incredible views of the landscape below which transforms with the seasons.
Kinkaku-Ji Temple is another must add to the Kyoto sightseeing list. This Golden zen temple is an extravagant piece of architecture and draws swarms of tourists daily, so best to visit early in the morning. For something a little more understated, also be sure to pop by Ryoan-Ji Temple, home to one of Japan’s most famous zen gardens.
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Shirakawa Village, aka Shirakawa-go is Gifu’s shining UNESCO recognized gem. Tucked deep in the ruggedly beautiful Gifu mountainscape, this small village of ‘gassho-zukuri’ houses - some of which are over 250 years old - looks like a historical painting come to life. The artfully thatched roofs of these houses look like the hands of Buddhist monks pressed together in prayer. In a previous life, these homes were used to house residents who would use the extra ceiling space to cultivate silkworms. It’s stunning all year round, but especially so during the colder months partly submerged under piles of pillowy white snow.
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Tucked in the north-western corner of Kyushu island, Nagasaki is a pocket of Japan that boasts an incredibly fascinating history, and plenty of sites to match. Nagasaki was once home to many of the nation’s hidden Christians - known as Kakure Kirishitan - who had to remain in exile during most of the Edo Period (1603-1867) to avoid prosecution. Only in 2018 were many of these sites recognized by UNESCO, making now an excellent time to visit before it gets too popular a destination. A highlight is the Oura Cathedral located in Nagasaki, which was built towards the end of the Edo Period in 1864, making it the oldest surviving church in Japan.
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With a landscape as diverse and eclectic as its cultural influences, Okinawa is much more than just stunning beaches. It's also home to plenty of sites that are quite unlike anything else you’ll see in Japan. The most striking of all the landmarks has to be the Chinese-influenced Shuri Castle which is arguably the most iconic symbol of the Ryukyu Kingdom. This sprawling structure was used as the Imperial Palace and administrative center for the Ryukyu Kingdom which ruled the Ryukyu Islands of Japan between 1429 and 1879. Although it’s located in the center of Naha Okinawa’s main hub, it takes over an hour and a half to explore the site in depth, so put aside plenty of time to visit.
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