Japan, known as the endless discovery country for travelers, live up to its tagline with 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites pack into this relatively small size. The sites range from historical to nature and to cultural.
Truly pack with all the wonders of the world from natural to man-made, you can be sure to be to be wow by the many tourist attractions here. If you are those who want to tick off the list of world heritage sites, Japan is one of the best places to start.
Here is the list of Japan’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites:
Japan’s Cultural Heritage Sites
Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area
One of the National Treasure of Japan, this area includes a variety of buildings found in Horyu-ji and Hokki-ji in Ikaruga, Nara Prefecture, Japan. The structures inscribed within the Buddhist monuments area are some of the oldest surviving wooden buildings in the world, dating back to 7th century. These structures illustrate the adaptation from Chinese Buddhist architecture to Japanese culture, reflecting the introduction of Buddhism to Japan from China.
Fujisan, sacred place and source of artist inspiration
Mount Fuji, although a natural phenomenon, had instead been designated as a cultural site instead due to it being a symbol and icon that had inspired many artists, poets and pilgrims for centuries. This symmetrically beautiful mountain had been featured in arts dated back to the 11th century and had made a deep impact on Western art. The inscribed property for this includes 25 sites that reflect the essence of the entire Fujisan sacred landscape, inclusive of Mount Fuji.
Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu
These groups of sites and monuments are the testaments of the hundred years of Ryukyuan history (12-17th century). There are ruins of castles, elevated and sacred sites that mark the evidence of social structure over that period. They stand as the testimony to the survival of ancient religion to the modern age. Ryukyu islands had given rise to a unique culture after served as years of economic and cultural interchange between Southeast Asia, China, Korea and Japan. The sacred sites are an exceptional example of an indigenous form of nature and ancestor worship that still survives to this modern age of new religions.
One of the finest surviving example of a 17th-century Japanese castle architecture, Himeji-jo is worthy of the award. Comprises of 83 buildings of highly developed systems of defence and ingenious protections fashioned from the beginning of the Shogun period and stood as a testament to the powerful symbol of feudalism in Japan. The appealing construction of woodwork that fusion aesthetic and elegance with practicality is a masterpiece.
Hiraizumi – Temples, Gardens and Archaeological Sites Representing the Buddhist Pure Land
Hiraizumi consists of five sites including the sacred Mount Kinkeisan, gardens, water and surrounding landscape that is part of the realm based on Pure Land Buddhism, which had spread to Japan in the 8th century. It represents the pure land of Buddha that people seek to be after death and also the peace of mind in this life. With the combination of Pure Land Buddhism concept with Japan’s own unique twist, this planning and garden design is one to marvel with.
Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome)
This structure was the only thing that is left standing after the first atomic bomb exploded in 1945. The people of Japan, including those of the city Hiroshima, took the effort to preserve the state of this dome after the bombing. Now it is a powerful symbol of the most destructive force ever created and used by humankind. At the same time it stood for world peace and against all nuclear weapons. in 1910, the Hiroshima Prefectural Assembly build the Hiroshima Commercial Exhibition Hall to promote the industrial production in the area.
Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Otsu Cities)
Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan from 794 AD to the 19th century, leaving it with generous markings of the past grandeur. It is the center of the Japanese culture for more than 1000 years, thus you will find Japanese wooden and religious architecture, Japanese art gardens and other unique features of the aesthetic and finesse of Japan here. The Japanese garden design in between 8-17th centuries played a major role in solidifying Japan’s culture and had after that made a mark to the rest of the world. Besides, again with the introduction of Buddhism from China, there were marking of influences and two of the most famous imperial temples to behold is the To-ji and Sai-ji. Also Kyoto are filled with many symbols of the aristocratic society of the Heian period that had dominated for four centuries.
Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara
For a short while from 710-784, Nara was the capital of Japan. Here is wehre the foundation and framework of the government was consolidated and Nara started of prospering as the head of Japanese culture. The historic monuments here are such as the Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and the remains of the great Imperial Palace. With enough imagination you can vividly picture the life of the Japanese capital in the 8th century, the period of political and cultural change in Japan.
Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama
These villages are special as they are located in the mountainous region and was cut off from the rest of the world for a long period of time. The houses here are made in Gassho-style and people live on cultivation of mulberry trees and rearing silkworms. These Gassho houses are large with steep thatched roofs are the only one of their kind in Japan. The people kept to their traditional way of life, despite economic upheavals. These villages are an example of traditional human settlements blending and adapted perfectly into new economic changes in Japan for the past half-century.
Itsukushima Shinto Shrine
Itsukushima Island, located in the Seto inland sea, is a holy place of Shintoism since the earliest time. The first shrine here can be dated back to the 6th century while the present shrine is of around 12th century. All of the shrines are arranged harmoniously, showing great artistic and technical skill. The inspiring design of these shrines plays on the contrast of colors and forms between mountains and seas, combining human and nature creativity beautifully. Popularly known as Miyajima for its “floating” torii in the middle of the sea that you can see it on a bed of mud during low tide.
Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine and its Cultural Landscape
At the southwest of Honshu island, there is a cluster of mountains that rise to 600m with deep river valley cutting among it. These valleys feature the archaeological remains of the large-scale mining of the 16-20th centuries. It is also the route that transports the silver ore to the coastal towns. The mining area now built around with wood fortresses, shrines and other means to aid in transport. Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine stood as a symbol of exchanging values between East and West via large-scale production of silver. though now that the silver is exhausted, the entire ensemble still remains as a remarkable proof of development in relation to silver mining.
Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range
The Kii Mountain range is set overlooking the Pacific Ocean and it contains three sacred sites – Yoshino and Omine, Kumano Sanzan and Koyasan. These sites are linked by the pilgrimage routes to the ancient capital cities of Nara and Kyoto, reflecting Shintoism and ancient traditions of nature worship to Buddhism. The sites and the surrounding landscape are well preserved with an abundance of streams, rivers and waterfalls. Annually there are up to 15 million visitors coming here to hike and for ritual purposes. Each of these sites contains a shrine that dated back to 9th century.
Shrines and Temples of Nikko
The shrines and Temples of Nikko had been the testament of sacred sites blending into natural surroundings for centuries. The architecture and decorative masterpieces are impeccable. They are closely associated with the history of the Tokugawa Shoguns of the Edo period. The architects and decorators of those time are ingenious and creative as it is shown by the way the shrines and temples are build in perfect harmony with nature. They are the bold example of how man and nature can live in harmony.
Japan’s Natural Heritage Sites
One of the natural sites of Japan, Ogasawa islands consist of a cluster of 30 islands. The islands have a myriad of landscapes that are bursting with all sorts of species from the Bonin Flying Fox, a critically endangered bat to 195 endangered bird species. You can also find 441 native plant taxa here that supports numerous marine life. The ecosystem of this place is the major marking of the evolutionary process of plants from the whole of Asia. Today, only two of these islands are inhabited – Chichijima and Hahajima.
Another natural site, Shirakami-Sanchi lies in the mountains of northern Honshu. These sites does not have tracks and are the last of the virgin mountains of Japan, which is rich with Siebold’s beech trees. Species found here are also the black bear, the serow, 97 species of birds and 500 plant species. . The entire area cover one-third of the Shirakami mountains where the summit peak at 1,200m with many streams running through it.
Located in the northeast of Hokkaido, Shiretoko is the northernmost island of Japan. The site includes the land from the central part of peninsula (the tip – Shiretoko Cape) and the surrounding sea. It stood as a home to the interaction of marine and terrestrial ecosystem, largely influenced by the seasonal sea ice. There are a number of important terrestrial and marine species here, some endangered, like the Blackiston’s fish owl and the Viola Kitaminana plant. This site is also important for the migratory birds and a number of marine mammals like Steller’s sea lion.
Last of the natural sites among the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Japan, Yakushima is located at the interior of Yaku Island. It is the cross between the Palaearctic and oriental biotic regions. It is rich with flora of about 1,900 species including the famous ancient cedar trees and also contains the remnant of a warm-temperate ancient forest. As part of the Ryukyu archipelago, Yakushima is just off the southernmost tip of Kyushu by 60 km. The highest mountain here peak at 2,000m with several other high peaks surrounding it. They are extremely steep and are made mostly of bedrock granite with sandstone at the foot of the mountain areas.
With 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites awarded, Japan is indeed a place with many hidden gems. Travel to Japan and visit some of these sites of wonders that covers from history to culture to religion to nature and best of all, the harmonious blend of all these together. Japan indeed has a unique culture and charm that exudes even into the surrounding architectures and natures that are well preserved.
Photo credits from top: Mith Huang, Sandro Mathys, Shig ISO, Andy Pedraza, kanegen, xiquinhosilva, nborun, TANAKA Juuyoh, Greg Palmer, JoshBerglund19, Otota DANA, Xiaojun Deng, ilaria, OgasawaraEnglishClub, 8 og, Hajime NAKANO and Kabacchi