Japan’s incredibly rich cultural heritage and unique natural beauty is reflected in the fact that the country boasts 20 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. These are located right throughout the country, from the wild beauty of the remote Shiretoko Peninsula in the north to the ancient Ryukyu Kingdom sites in Okinawa in the south. While each of these amazing sites is uniquely rewarding to visit, we’ve drawn up a list of the top 5 UNESCO World Heritage in Japan that are perfect for first-time visitors.
1. Itsukushima Shrine
Situated on the sacred island of Miyajima, just off the coast of Hiroshima, the Itsukushima Shrine is an incredible Shinto complex that dates back to the 6th century. The vermillion buildings of the site are built across a shallow inlet and, at high-tide, they appear to float on the water. The Shrine was built over the water so that visiting pilgrims would not sully the spiritual purity of the island by setting foot on the land. The sprawling complex includes a prayer hall, a main hall and a noh theatre stage, all of which are connected by raised boardwalks over the sea.
As you arrive by ferry from the mainland, you’ll also see the iconic torii gate, ‘floating’ in the shallow waters. This imposing, 16-metre tall structure signifies your arrival on holy ground.
It’s also a curious fact that, in order to preserve the island’s spiritual purity, no deaths or births have been permitted on the island since 1878!
Miyajima Island is also home to the impressive Daisho-in Shingon Buddhist temple and by climbing the island’s highest peak, Mount Misen, you can get stunning views of the Seto Inland Sea and Hiroshima beyond.
Click here to view the official Miyajima visitors’ website, which includes detailed information on the island’s attractions.
2. Hiroshima Peace Memorial
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial or Atomic Bomb Dome is the shattered and twisted remains of what was once one of the city’s most prestigious buildings. Before World War 2, the building was used to promote local industry and was a symbol of Japan’s rapid industrialisation and technological advancement. Conspicuous in that it was one of only a handful of buildings to even partially survive the blast in 1945, the ruin now serves as a potent and evocative memorial to the 220,000 people who died who died as a result of the A-bomb attack.
The A-Bomb Dome is part of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, which occupies the area that was once the commercial and political heart of the city. The Park also contains the Hiroshima Peace Museum and numerous other facilities and monuments to help visitors understand the multi-faceted history of this tragic event.
3. Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto
The Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage site encompasses 17 related locations that are all in Kyoto or nearby. The city is widely regarded as the cultural heart of Japan and it served as the country’s capital for over a thousand years from 794 until 1868.
The magnificent properties of the World Heritage Site were constructed between the 10th and 19th centuries and are all representative of the distinctive periods in which they were built. They include 13 Buddhist temples, three Shinto shrines and one castle.
Unlike other Japanese cities, Kyoto was spared destruction by the Allies during World War 2 because of its incredible cultural wealth, and walking its historic streets is like taking a journey back in time.
For more information, check out our blog post on the Top 6 Must-See Attractions in Kyoto, the Cultural Heart of Japan.
4. Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama
The Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama UNESCO World Heritage Site consists of three mountain villages in the remote Shogawa river valley in central Japan. These isolated and unique villages were all but cut-off from the rest of the world for a long period of time and are famous for their traditional silk worm cultivation and distinctive wooden farmhouses that are built in the gassho-zukuri style. Gassho-zukuri means ‘praying hands’ style and refers to the farmhouses’ steep roofs that are designed to withstand the heavy snow that accumulates in the harsh winters.
In spite of the rapid economic and social changes that have occurred in Japan since the 1950’s, the farmhouses are said to be a material manifestation of an ancient way of life. Visitors to the site can also try traditional Japanese cultural activities, such as making washi paper and soba noodles.
5. Fujisan, Sacred Place and Source of Artistic Inspiration
The Fujisan UNESCO World Heritage Site is comprised of 25 areas of cultural interest that are clustered around Mount Fuji. As one of Japan’s ‘Three Holy Mountains’, Fuji has been a pilgrimage destination for centuries, while its awesome natural beauty has inspired generations of artists and poets. An active 3,776 metre stratovolcano, Mount Fuji’s often snow-covered cone can be seen as far away as Tokyo, 100km to the east.
The 25 sites about Mount Fuji include pilgrimage routes, crater shrines, lodging houses and natural volcanic features, such as lava tree moulds, lakes, springs and waterfalls, which are revered as sacred.
Visitors to the site can stay overnight in a traditional Japanese inn or ryokan and take in the spiritual serenity and spectacular views of this iconic wonder of nature.
Are You Ready to Discover Japan?
All the above UNESCO World Heritage Sites can be experienced on our Japan Discovered tour. Taking you through glittering, futuristic cities, serene ancient sites and lush, mountainous countryside, this fully-escorted package is specifically designed to give first-time visitors an invaluable insight into the unique and fascinating culture of Japan.