A Guide to the 25 UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Japan
Any visitor to Japan knows that the islands hold a wealth of natural and manmade wonders. Many of these have been recognized over the years by UNESCO, and to date, there are 20 cultural UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Japan, and 5 natural UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Currently, there are 5 sites on the tentative list, so the number is sure to increase over the coming years! If you are planning a trip to Japan, but are not sure where to go, then you can’t go wrong by visiting one of the following fascinating and stunning sites, all offering insights into Japan’s unique historical, cultural, and natural heritage.
Dec 14 2021 (May 19 2022)
Cultural UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Japan
1. Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area (1993)
Home to the oldest surviving wooden buildings in the world, Nara Prefecture’s Horyu-ji Temple is an impressive complex of ancient architectural wonders. There are 48 Buddhist monuments in the Horyu-ji area, in 2 temple sites, Horyu-ji and Hokki-ji. The monuments date back to the late 7th or early 8th century, shortly after the introduction of Buddhism in Japan. Many artifacts and national treasures can be found amongst the structures. The five-storied pagoda, Central Gate, and Main Hall are particularly noteworthy. For more see here.
Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area Website: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/660
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2. Himeji-jo (1993)
Himeji-jo is highly regarded as a masterpiece of 17th century castle architecture in Japan. Constructed primarily in wood, its white plastered walls and elegant architectural forms earned it the nickname “Shirasagi-jo,” or White Heron Castle. Surviving earthquakes and bombing raids, the castle has stood on its moat-surrounded perch for over 400 years. Visitors can walk through the grounds of one of Japan’s original castles, explore its impressive main keep, and climb the keep to the top floor for a unique view of Himeji City. Himeji Castle is also extremely famous for its gorgeous 1,000 cherry trees that beautifully bloom in the castle’s grounds every spring. Those who want to admire the castle from an unusual point of view can even take a tranquil boat ride along the moat of the castle.
Himeji-jo Website: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/661
3. Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji, and Otsu Cities) (1994)
Kyoto functioned as the Imperial capital of Japan from 794 until the 19th Century Meiji Restoration shifted the capital to Edo, now known as Tokyo. As the cultural centre of Japan for over 1000 years, Kyoto is the place to come to discover Japan’s fascinating history and some of the best examples of its architectural wonders. The UNESCO World Heritage listing consists of 17 components, including the gold-clad Kinkakuji Temple, the majestic Kiyomizudera Temple, and the elegantly decorated Nijo Castle. At these Unesco World Heritage Sites, visitors can experience the charms of Japan’s ancient temples and shrines, take in the classical beauty of Japanese architecture, have a zen moment in some of the country’s most majestic traditional gardens, as well as get a taste of local delicacies such as the popular Uji matcha tea.
Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji, and Otsu Cities) Website: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/688
4. Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama (1995)
The historic villages of Shirakawa and Gokayama are famed for their steeply-pitched thatched roofs, called “gassho-zukuri.” Designed to withstand intense snowfall, the distinctive architectural style is unique to this region of Japan. Nestled deep in a remote mountainous region, the villages were cut off from the rest of the country for long periods in their history, so the villagers were necessarily self-sufficient. Many of the houses are preserved. Some have been converted into museums to educate visitors on the history of the villages, some others are used as traditional accommodations for visitors. See here for more.
Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama Website: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/734
5. Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome) (1996)
The Genbaku Dome (Atomic Bomb Dome) is the only structure that remained after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima City on 6th August 1945. Symbolizing the destructive power of the atomic bomb, it stands as an essential reminder of the devastation that occurred here and of the importance of world peace. Located inside Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park, the Atomic Bomb Dome represents a great starting point for a journey through all the peace memorial facilities. Visitors can gain a deeper understanding of the events of August 6 at the Peace Memorial Museum, take the opportunity to strike the park's Peace Bell representing a unified world without borders, or commemorate the thousands of innocent children involved in the atomic bombing at the Children's Peace Monument.
Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome) Website: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/775/
6. Itsukushima Shinto Shrine (1996)
One of the most iconic shrines in Japan, Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima Prefecture is best known for its mystical "torii" gate built over the sea, which appears to float during high tide. Founded in the 12th century by the influential military leader Taira no Kiyomori, Itsukushima Shrine has long been an important center for Shintoism. Located on Itsukushima Island, also called Miyajima (shrine island,) the shrine and its floating red torii gate in the Seto Inland Sea have become world-famous symbols of Japan. Once you've crossed the sea aboard one of the many ferries that depart from Hiroshima, you'll get to explore the vermillion lacquered building of Itsukushima Shrine, meet the many deer that freely roam around the island, savor local delicacies such as "momiji manju" (maple-leaf-shaped cake filled with sweet bean paste or other fillings) and even walk to the giant torii during low tide. For more travel inspiration see here.
7. Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara (1998)
The cultural riches of Japan’s ancient capital city Nara have been recognised with no fewer than 8 UNESCO World Heritage sites. The temples of Todai-ji, Kofuku-ji, Toshodai-ji, Gango-ji, and Yakushi-ji are joined by the Kasuga Taisha Shrine, the Heijo Palace and the Mount Kasuga Primeval Forest. Collectively known as the “Monuments of Ancient Nara”, the whole city exudes historical charm, giving visitors the chance to feel like they are stepping back in time. In addition, you can enjoy the unique experience of feeding the many deer that roam freely around the city and Nara Park.
Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara Website: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/870
8. Shrines and Temples of Nikko (1999)
Closely associated with the history of the Tokugawa Shoguns, the shrines and temples of Nikko have long been a sacred place in Japan. Enriched by their beautiful natural surroundings, the architectural wonders of the Toshogu Shrine Complex attract many visitors, awed by the intricate carving and exquisite gold leaf detailing. While Toshogu Shrine is the best known of Nikko’s wonders, the UNESCO World Heritage listing also contains a further Shinto shrine, Futarasan Shrine, and the Buddhist temple Rinno-ji. Many of the buildings were constructed in the 17th century, and are marvels of preservation and restoration, as well as architectural skill.
Shrines and Temples of Nikko Website: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/913
9. Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu (2000)
The unique culture of the Kingdom of Ryukyu is preserved in this group of sites and monuments, which together represent roughly 500 years of history on Okinawa Island. Before Japanese annexation in 1879, Okinawa was its own nation, with a specific history separate from the rest of Japan. The Kingdom of Ryukyu was the interchanging point of economic and cultural exchange between East Asia and Southeast Asia, which helps to explain the distinctive, colorful architecture. In total, there are 9 castles and related sites making up the UNESCO World Heritage listing, including the Ryukyu royal family's second residence Shikinaen Royal Garden, the panoramic Nakagusuku Castle, and the most sacred spot site of the indigenous Okinawan religion Sefa Utaki.
Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu Website: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/972
10. Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range (2004)
Deep in the densely forested Kii Peninsula lie a network of pilgrimage routes connecting 3 of Japan’s most sacred sites; the Kumano Taisha Shrines, Mount Koya, and Ise Jingu. Over 300 kilometers of paths meander along jagged coastlines and across treacherous mountain paths, collectively known as the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Routes. Finding spirituality in nature itself, as well as the shrines constructed here, the area has been a draw for pilgrims for centuries. It has also become a popular destination for tourists and non-religious visitors, as a walk along one of the many paths will reveal some of the most splendid and majestic natural sites Japan has to offer, as well as beautiful examples of traditional religious architecture. For a full guide see here.
Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range Website: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1142
11. Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine and Its Cultural Landscape (2007)
Since its discovery in 1526, the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine was in action for over 400 years. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Japan became the top producer of silver in the world, and for a time in the 17th century, a third of the silver produced in the world came from the town of Omori in Shimane Prefecture. This production contributed to the economic development of the area and promoted cultural interactions between the people of Omori and the countries they were trading with. Despite closing in the 1920s, the mine still continues to add value to the area, as it was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007, bringing in tourists interested in the remarkable history of the mine. A number of old merchant houses remain in the town, some converted into eateries, and a visit to the Ryugenji Mabu Mineshaft reproduces the atmosphere of the past.
Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine and Its Cultural Landscape Website: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1246
12. Hiraizumi – Temples, Gardens and Archaeological Sites Representing the Buddhist Pure Land (2011)
Hiraizumi was established in the 12th century, as a political center in northern Japan. For a time in the Heian Period, its power rivaled that of the capital Kyoto. The temples and gardens that make up the site of Hiraizumi were created based on the ideals of Pure Land Buddhism which aims to realize the Buddhist paradise in this life through the observance of Buddhist laws. At this UNESCO World Heritage site visitors get to immerse in aspirational gardens and temples such as the famous Chusonji Temple which represents the culmination of the decorative beauty of the Pure Land faith with its golden ornamentation representing the "immeasurable light" of the Pure Land and the garden at Motsuji Temple which recreates the idea of the Pure Land by amply incorporating unadorned natural scenery centered around a large pond. See here for more.
Hiraizumi – Temples, Gardens and Archaeological Sites Representing the Buddhist Pure Land Website: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1277
13. Fujisan, Sacred Place and Source of Artistic Inspiration (2013)
Revered for centuries, Mount Fuji is an iconic and world-renowned symbol of Japan. Traditionally a source of inspiration for many artists, particularly masters of the ukiyo-e woodblock print in the Edo Period (1603-1868,) the perfect contours and elegant snow-capped peak of this enormous volcano continues to attract scores of pilgrims, artists, and tourists today. Many sites on the mountain are considered sacred, including fascinating and beautiful natural and volcanic features. For many visitors, climbing Fujisan’s 3776 meters is the ultimate Japanese experience. For more travel ideas see here.
Fujisan, Sacred Place and Source of Artistic Inspiration Website: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1418
14. Tomioka Silk Mill and Related Sites (2014)
Established in 1872 by the Meiji government, the Tomioka Silk Mill was the first modern silk mill in Japan to use western technology and machinery. The high-quality silk produced here was exported around the world. As a result, the mill played an important role in the modernization and industrialization of Japan, as well as taking on a leading role in fostering international trade relations. Located in Gunma Prefecture, there are four sites on the UNESCO World Heritage listing, all related to the production of raw silk. They have been well preserved after they closed in the 1980s, so visitors get to explore and discover about silk production in those years and see up close the reeling machines used in the 1980s by touring the exhibitions displayed in the silk reeling mill and the east warehouse.
Tomioka Silk Mill and Related Sites Website: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1449
15. Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining (2015)
Many of Japan’s UNESCO World Heritage sites consist of examples of ancient religious architecture, but in this case, UNESCO has chosen to focus on relics of Japan’s modern history. The rapid industrialisation of Japan during the Meiji Era saw many industries spring up, the majority of which in the southwest of Japan. The listing consists of 23 sites across 8 prefectures, from Kagoshima to Saga, and includes the fascinating abandoned island and former coal mine of Gunkanjima (Battleship Island.) They are an important part of the story of the country’s development, offering an interesting insight into Japan's incredible and rapid transition to a modern country.
Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining Website: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1484
16. The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier, an Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement (2016)
The UNESCO World Heritage listing includes 17 sites chosen to represent the architectural master’s work across 7 countries, including Japan. As Le Corbusier sought to find architectural solutions to the challenges brought about by contemporary living, within the emerging framework of modernism, he experimented with different forms which have stood the test of time. The only Japanese entry is The National Museum of Western Art, in Ueno, Tokyo that is also the premier public art gallery in Japan specializing in Western art. The building's design, structural members, architectural details, and furnishings were all based on the "modulor" which is Le Corbusier's unique system of measurements invented to make architecture fitting to human measurements and proportions conform to the human shape. The construction of the museum in 1959 was a symbolic gesture of the resumption of diplomatic connections between Japan and France after WWII.
The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier, an Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement Website: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1321
17. Sacred Island of Okinoshima and Associated Sites in the Munakata Region (2017)
The island of Okinoshima is considered so sacred that visitors are highly restricted, with only priests tending to the shrine being allowed access. As such, the island’s rituals and traditions of worship have remained undisturbed by outside influence, developing organically since the 4th century. The island is worishipped at the ancient Munakata Grand Shrine which comprises three different shrines. Okitsu-miya Shrine is located on Okinoshima Island itself and therefore it is not open to the public. Visitors can explore the main of these shrines called Hetsu-miya Shrine which is easily accesible as it located on the main island of Kyushu. After a short ferry ride, visitors can also set foot on Oshima Island where the third shrine, Nakatsu-miya Shrine, is located. Here, you can also pay homage to the island from afar at the Okitsu-miya Yohaisho which serves as a worship hall.
Sacred Island of Okinoshima and Associated Sites in the Munakata Region Website: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1535
18. Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region (2018)
A less well known but deeply revealing aspect of Japan’s history can be found on the northwestern part of Kyushu Island. The UNESCO World Heritage site here consists of 12 components, all providing evidence of the era of prohibition of the Christian faith in Japan, and the rebuilding of these communities after the lifting of the prohibition in 1873. 10 villages, 1 castle, and 1 cathedral are included, all dating between the 17th and 19th centuries. The necessity of worshiping in secret for so many years has shaped the development of these sites, which provide a fascinating insight into a darker side of Japan’s history. For more inspiration see here.
Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region Website: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1495
19. Mozu-Furuichi Kofun Group: Mounded Tombs of Ancient Japan (2019)
On a plateau above the Osaka Plain consists a cluster of 49 “kofun,” or burial mounds. Together they make up the richest representation of the culture of the Kofun period in Japan from the 3rd to 6th centuries. A recent addition to the UNESCO World Heritage list, the differing sizes and designs of the burial mounds reflect differing social classes and are evidence of sophisticated construction techniques. The grandest of the burial mounds is 600 meters wide and contains the mausoleum of Emperor Nintoku. It is notable for its distinctive keyhole shape and large moat. Visitors can tour the area following the 2.8 kilometers walkaway surrounding the tomb of Emperor Nintoku or visit the Osaka Prefectural Chikatsu Asuka Museum to admire earthware and terra cotta figures found in the kofun. Sakai City Hall Observatory also offers a unique panoramic view of the area. Read more about this UNESCO World Heritage Site here.
Mozu-Furuichi Kofun Group: Mounded Tombs of Ancient Japan Website: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1593
20. Jomon Prehistoric Sites in Northern Japan (2021)
One of the most recent additions to the UNESCO World Heritage list in Japan consists of 17 archaeological sites in southern Hokkaido and northern Tohoku, added in 2021. Crossing a range of landscapes, these sites reflect the unique spirituality and culture of the Jomon period (15,000 B.C. to 300 B.C.) in Japan and its development over 10,000 years ago. The best known site is the Sannai Maruyama Archeological Site, which provides evidence of the development of the hunter-fisher-gatherer society that flourished in the area. Here, visitors can enter the reconstructions and see some of the excavation sites around the grounds. At the site's Jomon Jiyukan, you can also find exhibits displaying objects excavated from the area and explanations about the villagers who lived here during the Jomon Period. Don't miss the chance to try on Jomon period clothing, use tools of the era, and try your hand at Jomon art-making experiences.
Jomon Prehistoric Sites in Northern Japan Website: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1632
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Natural UNESCO World Heritage Sites
21. Shirakami-Sanchi (1993)
Shirakami Sanchi is the largest remaining virgin beech forest in Asia. This breathtaking mountain range has covered parts of Northern Japan for 12,000 years. It is almost untouched and undisturbed by development, making it exceptionally rare and pristine. The forest is home to a great number of species, including the black bear and 87 species of bird. The main attraction of Shirakami Sanchi is the network of scenic hiking trails that lead visitors through forests, waterfalls, mountain peaks, and lakes providing a serene immersion in nature. Some of the most popular hikes include the trail that leads to Anmon Falls and the Juniko (Twelve Lakes) area, with its series of small lakes and ponds. For other adventurous travel ideas in the region see here.
Shirakami-Sanchi Website: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/663
22. Yakushima (1993)
Since 1993, Yakushima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is justly recognized for its staggering natural riches, with trees dating for thousands of years peacefully coexisting in the biodiverse island ecosystem. A 7,200-year-old cedar tree known as Jomonsugi is located amongst the gnarly forests here and can be reached by adventurous travelers by hiking for around 6 hours through the forest. Another of the highlights is the Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine, which stretches through the island’s thick woodland. An inspiration for Studio Ghibli's movie "Princess Mononoke," the moss-covered rocks, ferns, and ancient trees create a mystical, otherworldly landscape best discovered at a slow pace on one of the many hikes available in the area. See here for more.
Yakushima Website: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/662
23. Shiretoko (2005)
At the northeastern tip of Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido lies Shiretoko, a spectacular and biodiverse natural park that is home to numerous threatened migratory birds. Untouched by development, the area’s ecosystem has been allowed to thrive and evolve without interruption. Not only is the scenic view of the deep green forests and the blue ocean extraordinary, but visitors can also enjoy some superb natural sights such as the drifting sea ice phenomenon, as well as board one of the sightseeing boat cruises to spot some of Shiretoko's wildlife. Another great way to soak in Shiretoko's great nature is to visit the Shiretoko Five Lakes which allow visitors superb views of the surrounding wilderness. For more see here.
Shiretoko Website: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1193
24. Ogasawara Islands (2011)
Only accessible via a 24-hour ferry ride from Tokyo, the very isolation of the Ogasawara Islands has contributed to their unique ecosystems and natural wonders. Many different species thrive here, including 195 endangered bird species. The UNESCO World Heritage listing consists of a group of more than 30 subtropical islands, of which only 2, Chichijima and Hahajima, are inhabited. Hike amongst the many native plants found only here, or go for a swim in the marine-life-rich ocean. Snorkeling and scuba diving are popular activities, and you might even get the chance to swim with sea turtles and dolphins.
Ogasawara Islands Website: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1362
25. Amami-Oshima Island, Tokunoshima Island, Northern part of Okinawa Island, and Iriomote Island (2021)
A series of subtropical rainforests across Japan's southernmost islands is the focus of this UNESCO World Heritage site. The high biodiversity and many threatened endemic species found here require protection and preservation in order for their continued prosperity. Amongst the many endemic species found here are the endangered Amami Rabbit and Ryukyu long-haired Rat. While the UNESCO listing focuses on the uninhabited regions of rainforest, the islands are also popular with tourists, drawn to their pristine coastlines, beautiful scenery, and coral reefs. For travel inspiration see here.
Amami-Oshima Island, Tokunoshima Island, Northern part of Okinawa Island, and Iriomote Island Website: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1574
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Note Down Japan's Amazing UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Japan's UNESCO World Heritage sights offer a unique chance to discover some fundamental elements of Japanese culture and immerse in ancient sites of great historical relevance, so be sure to check them out next time you are in Japan!
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.