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10 Unforgettable UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Japan

Updated on September 28, 2012
Horyuji Temple in Nara, Japan
Horyuji Temple in Nara, Japan | Source
Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, Japan
Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, Japan | Source

Japan, a country with a long and colorful history, has several natural and cultural areas that are designated as World Heritage Sites by the UNESCO or the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

These sites are of “outstanding universal value” for they have impacted not just Japan’s culture and history but also that of the world.

Most of these sites are of global religious importance, like the Shinto shrines and the Buddhist Temples.

Others played a major role in world history, like the Hiroshima Genbaku Dome.

Still some were either important to Japanese culture, like the Himeji Castle, or the global environment, like Yakushima and Shiretoko.

Below is list of the ten unforgettable UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Japan that are a must-see for all local and foreign travelers in Japan.

1. Ancient Structures in Kyoto

The ancient capital of Japan from 794 to 1868, the city of Kyoto was the emperor’s residence.

As such, many temples, shrines, towns, and districts of great historical value were built there.

These include the Nijo Castle, Kyoto Imperial Palace, Kiyomizudera, Higashiyama, Sanjusangendo, Ginkakuji, Gion, Kinkakuji, Shugakuin Villa, Sanzenin Temple, Ryoanji Temple, Kokedera, Katsura Villa, and Arashiyama.

So historic and beautiful has Kyoto been that the United States spared it during the countless raids of Japan in World War II.

Thus, many of the old and significant structures do survive until today in Kyoto.

Because of its countless beautiful spots, Kyoto is arguably the most popular of all the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Japan.

2. Ancient Structures in Nara

Adjacent to Kyoto is another UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Nara, Japan’s first capital, is full of historic places, particularly Buddhist temples.

Some of the largest and most notable Buddhist temples found in Nara are the Todaiji Temple, Horyuji Temple, Yakushiji Temple, and Toshodaiji Temple.

The Heijo Palace, the former site of the emperor’s ancient residence, is also found in Nara.

3. Himeji Castle

Regarded both as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Japan’s national treasure, the Himeji Castle is the most magnificent of only a handful of ancient castles that survive in Japan today.

This castle has endured several natural disasters and man-made assaults.

Thus, much of its original feudal-style features and designs can still be seen.

4. Hiroshima Genbaku Dome

Likewise called the A-Bomb Dome or the Atomic Bomb Dome, the Hiroshima Genbaku Dome was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for it is a grim reminder of the World War II bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

The bombing of Hiroshima is thus far the largest bombing against a civilian population, with over 200,000 people dying either because of the initial blast when the atomic bomb was detonated at 8:15 a.m. of that fateful day or because of the radiation brought about by the atomic bomb.

The Hiroshima Genbaku Dome used to serve as Hiroshima’s Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, an area where people worked to promote the city’s various industries.

Today, it is an upsetting symbol of human tragedy.

5. Horyuji Temple

One of Japan’s oldest Buddhist temples is Nara’s Horyuji Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is said to have been founded by no less than Prince Shotoku, known as the founder of Buddhism in Japan.

Horyuji Temple is built on wood.

Some of its notable structures include a five-level pagoda, a main gate, and a main hall.

These structures are dated as early as the 7th century.

6. Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine and its Cultural Structures

An area mined for 400 years beginning in the 16th century for its generous silver deposits, the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Oda City, Shimane Prefecture.

The area exhibits original shafts used during the old mining period.

Also found there are a handful of Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, historic residences, and castle ruins.

7. Sacred and Historic Structures at Kii Mountain Range

An ancient pilgrimage route lies in the dense forests of the Kii Mountain Range.

This route nestles sacred pilgrimage sites that have been visited by Japanese people for many generations.

These people either express their religious devotions or seek for holy intercession.

The sacred world heritage sites can be found in the mountainous regions of Koyasan, Kumano, Omine, and Yoshino.

8. Shiretoko

A place of outstanding value to global and local biodiversity and ecosystem, Shiretoko in Hokkaido is one of the most breathtaking and well-kept national parks in Japan.

It is home to a large number of flora and fauna, which include brown bears and foxes.

In winter, one can view drift ice from this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

9. Shrines and Temples of Nikko

A center of Shintoism and Buddhism in Japan, Nikko has many structures that are known for their intricate designs and complex features.

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is also the location of the nationally important Toshogu Shrine, the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, unifier of Japan and founder of the Tokugawa shogunate.

In this historic area, visitors can also see beautiful lakes, waterfalls, and hot springs.

10. Yakushima

World-famous for its ancient cedar trees that are as aged as 7,000 years old, Yakushima is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Kagoshima Prefecture, Kyushu.

It is a subtropical island with dense forest and abundant rainfall.

People visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site to commune with nature or simply marvel at Japan’s beautiful forests.

Copyright © 2012 Kerlyn Bautista

All Rights Reserved

Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range

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