When I visited my first world heritage site in Okinawa in 2014 (Shuri Castle) I had no idea as I walked the courtyard and toured thru the interior of the castle that this site would be destroyed by fire only a few years later.
I think it punctuates the importance of preservation and caring for each of these wonderful UNESCO sites in Japan. UNESCO is the UNITED NATIONS EDUCATIONAL, SCIENTIFIC AND CULTURAL ORGANIZATION. World Heritage Sites are designated by UNESCO for having cultural, historical, scientific, or other significance.
Japan, the land of the rising sun, has always been proud of its rich natural and cultural heritage. The country has ancient structures, monuments, high mountains, and islands that represent the diversity of topographic places. Many have become sites recognized as UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITES in Japan.
UNESCO has recognized both natural sites and human-made structures throughout Japan. Among these famous sites are Mount Fuji, the Island of Okinoshima, the Kii Mountain Range, Himeji-jo, Itsukushima Shinto Shrine, and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.
Let’s take a virtual visit to the most famous World Heritage Sites of Japan. If you are visiting Japan, make sure to put some of these cultural wonders of the past on your bucket list.
UNESCO Sites In Japan
Japan has many beautiful and unique structures all around the country that reflect its rich history. These sites are on the UNESCO list for their distinctive features, cultural meaning, and importance to the world. The organization continues to add new sites as you can see in the list below:
Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area (1993)
The Horyu-Ji area, located in Nara Prefecture, is famous for housing 48 monuments. Many wooden buildings were probably built in the late 7th or early 8th century. Thus, it makes the structures the oldest wooden building in the world.
Horyu-Ji temple is one of the ancient wooden temples. It covers an area of 14.6 hectares (36.1 Acres). The area is divided into two precincts: the Eastern precincts and the Western precincts. Horyu-Ji temple is important in the history of Japan’s religion as it signifies the introduction of Buddhism in Japan.
Fujisan, sacred place and source of artistic inspiration (2013)
Fujisan or best known as Mount Fuji is on the list of UNESCO for its beauty and sacred value among the Japanese people for thousands of years. This 3,776 meters high active volcano is located 100 kilometers southwest of the capital city.
The snow-capped mountain has been a sacred place since ancient times. You will see active shrines and pilgrimage routes running from the shores of Suruga Bay up to the summit. Fujisan is also an inspiration for artists and poets for its divine scenery.
Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu (2000)
The Gusuku Sites (Castle sites) and the related properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu belong to the Ryukyu Historic Site group. This site is located in the Okinawa Prefecture. The structures of the site are scattered in the southernmost islands and Okinawa Island.
The Ryukyu Kingdom has a history of five hundred years (12th to 17th century) as an independent realm. The ruins show the unique religious and cultural beliefs of the kingdom.
One of the structures is the Shuri Castle belonging to the royal family. The ruins faced heavy damage during World War II. After the war, the Japanese government reconstructed the castle.
Sadly Shuri was damaged again by fire, the castle burned down on October 31, 2019, and is being rebuilt once again.
Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region (2018)
The Hidden Christian Sites are located on the Kyushu Island in Nagasaki Region. The sites include ten villages, a cathedral, and ruins of the Hara Castle. They are sites of the Christian faith prohibition era of Japan.
During the 17th century, Christianity spread quickly in Japan, especially in Nagasaki. To avoid the spread of Christianity, the shogun rulers banned Christianity. The Japanese Christians then started to practice their faith secretly in hidden Christian sites of Nagasaki in the 17th to 19th century.
Himeji-jo is called the castle of the white heron for its architectural design. The castle and the surrounding building were built in the 17th century in Himeji city. The wooden structure and the white earthen walls give it a sophisticated look.
The castle was actually a military base with various defense mechanisms and traps. Himeji-jo faced an attack during World War II. The Americans bombed the city of Himeji. Although the city was turned to rubble, Himeji-jo was left standing and unharmed! The castle is open for visitors, and you may even see samurai actors on weekends.
Hiraizumi – Temples, Gardens and Archaeological Sites Representing the Buddhist Pure Land (2011)
This site covers four Buddhist temples and the sacred Mount Kinkeisan in Hiraizumi of northern Japan. Once, Hiraizumi was the administrative center of northern parts of Japan. The ruins of government offices built in the 11th and 12th centuries are still there.
The city operated based on the belief in the Pure Land of Buddha. Hiraizumi was considered to be the manifestation of the tranquil land which Buddhists wished to go after death. The places you must visit are the Motsu-ji temple, Chuson-ji temple, Mount Kinkeisan, Kanjizaio ruins, and Muryoko ruins.
Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome) (1996)
When the atomic bomb blast took place in Hiroshima, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial or the Genbaku Dome was the only building standing in the area. The building was preserved the way it was found to remind the people of the devastating effects of war.
The memorial was originally designed by architect Jan Letzel and it opened in 1915 as a Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. After the bombing, it was turned into a memorial. It is now located inside the Peace Memorial Park. Hiroshima Peace Memorial also reminds humanity of the necessity of peace and the banning of nuclear bombs.
Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji, and Otsu Cities) (1994)
Kyoto was the capital of Japan and the residence of the emperor from 794 AD to 1868. The city was designed based on the city of an ancient Chinese capital. The seventeen components of the site include temples, castles, and gardens in Kyoto, Uji, and Otsu.
One of the famous temples in Japan is Kinkaku-ji located in the Golden Pavilion of Kyoto. This three-tiered temple is covered with gold leaf. The top of the buildings has beautiful bronze statues of phoenixes. Other popular sites are Ginkaku-ji, Kiyomizudera, and the Byodoin Temple in Uji.
Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara (1998)
Situated in the center of Japan, Nara had been the capital city from 710 to 784 AD. Thus, Nara was a prosperous city full of Buddhist temples and shrines. The excavated ruins of the Imperial Palace provides a deep understanding of 8th century Japan.
The most important temple of the city is the Toda-ji temple. It houses an enormous statue of Buddha. This statue is 15 meters tall, which makes it the biggest Buddha statue in the world. Other important sites of the city are the Nara Palace Site, the Buddhist temples (the Kofuku-ji, the Yakushi-ji, the Gango-ji, and the Toshodai-ji), and the Kasuga-Taisha shrine.
Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama (1995)
The historic villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama are on this list because of their unique building style and natural setting. These two villages are located in the isolated regions of Gifu and Toyama Prefecture.
As the villages have been far from modern technology, the villagers still build the houses by following the traditional style and building techniques.
The beautiful pointed roof design is known as Gassho, which means prayer-hands. The strongly built thatched roof protects the houses from strong winds and heavy snow. Thus, the houses cope with the harsh winter environment of the villages.
Itsukushima Shinto Shrine (1996)
Itsukushima Shinto Shrine is the iconic ‘floating’ red tori gate of Japan. It is the gate to the Itsukushima Shrine of Japan, which is considered a sacred place for Shintoism. The shrine sits on the Island of Miyajima, just off the coast of Hiroshima.
The Island has had shrines since the 6th century, and the current complex of the Itsukushima shrine dates mainly to the 12 century. The shrine has been damaged and rebuilt over the centuries. However, it still resembles its original appearance. It is built upon wooden pillars elevating it above the ground so that it does not touch the mortal ground.
Iwaki Ginzan Silver Mine and its Cultural Landscape (2007)
The former silver mine Iwami Ginzan is in the mountains of Shimane Prefecture in the southwest of Honshu Island. It was Japan’s largest silver mine and produced one-third of the world’s silver. It operated for over 400 years until 1923.
Not just the mine, the tunnels, and shafts of the mine, the buildings of the town built nearby to service it, are all part of the World Heritage Site. Surprisingly, a few hundred meters of the mine tunnels are still open for tourists. Most of the tunnel was dug by hand because it was active long before the invention of explosives.
Jomon Prehistoric Sites in Northern Japan (2021)
Jomon Prehistoric Sites is the most recent addition to the World Heritage Sites in Japan. It has 17 archeological sites in Hokkaido, Aomori, Iwate, and Akita. The sites are evidence of the existence of Jomon culture in Japan.
The sites show the development of the Jomon culture’s hunter fisher gatherer society over 10,000 years before the introduction of agriculture. Some objects found from the sites like pots and figurines date back to 13,000 BC. The objects and structures of the sites reflect the spiritual culture of the Jomon people.
Mozu-Furuichi Kofun Group: Mounded Tombs of Ancient Japan (2019)
The UNESCO site of the Mounded tombs of Ancient Japan is in the south of Osaka. It is a cluster of 49 statues built in the 4th to 6th century AD before Japan was brought under a single imperial family. These tombs belonged to the ruling class people of that time.
These statues are exceptionally designed. The tombs have various shapes and sizes. Some of them look like keyholes, and they are quite large. One of them is nearly three kilometers in perimeter, which makes it one of the largest tombs in the world. The tombs display the social hierarchy system of the Kofun period.
Sacred Island of Okinoshima and Associated Sites in the Munakata Region (2017)
The Sacred Island of Okinoshima is situated 60 kilometers off the western coast of Kyushu. The Island is completely closed for centuries. Only the Shinto monks can stay there to pray and worship in the Munakata Shrine.
The Munakata Shrine on the Island and the other two Islands in Munakata City, Fukuoka, are known as the Munakata Taisha. These shrines are devoted to three Munakata deities associated with the sea. The Island of Okinoshima kept the rituals of worshiping the goddesses the same for centuries.
Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range (2004)
This UNESCO site of Japan is in the deep forest of the Kii Mountains overseeing the Pacific Ocean. It is a collection of shrines, temples, and pilgrimage trails for Shinto and Buddhist religions scattered around the peninsula in central Japan, south of Osaka.
The Japanese are always respectful to the mountains. So, the Kii Mountain is also worshiped as a sacred place. Yoshino and Omine, Kumano Sanzan, and Koyasan are three holy sites that are connected by the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trails. Some of the shrines of the site are more than 1000 years old.
Shrines and Temples of Nikko (1999)
The Shrines and Temples of Nikko are some of the most important religious locations for Shinto and Buddhist believers. Nikko is a small city located north of Tokay. It is famous for having the most profusely designed shrine known as the Toshogu shrine.
The Toshogy Shrine is a cluster of 55 shrines including the tomb of Tokugawa Shogunate. This Shinto shrine was built in 1617 as the burial place for Tokugawa Ieyasu. He was the founding father of the Tokugawa Shogunate of the Edo period. Therefore, the city is important for both the religious and cultural history of Japan.
Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining (2015)
This World Heritage Site is not just located in one area. In fact, it has twenty-three components scattered over nine separate locations of Japan. Each component is related to Japan’s late-nineteenth-century industrialization. Six of the locations are in Kyushu.
During this time, railroads, factories, coal mines, and shipyards of Japan developed rapidly. The sites of the Meiji Industrial Revolution display the process of change in Japanese history because of technology. Because of rapid industrialization, Japan became the most developed country in few decades.
The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier, an Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement (2016)
Architect Le Corbusier designed the National Museum of Western Art in Ueno Park, Tokyo. The museum has a unique design, and it is a monument for displaying European art chronologically.
The museum is a part of “The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier, an Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement”. The other sites designed by Le Corbusier are located in 16 other countries around the world. The museum exhibits both classic and modern European paintings by famous painters.
Tomioka Silk Mill and Related Sites (2014)
Tomioka Silk Mill is also a symbol of the Industrial revolution in Japan at the end of the 19th century. It stands in Gunma Prefecture, and it is one of the largest and most productive silk mills in the world.
The mill opened in 1872 and closed in 1987. Inspired by French Technology, the Japanese workers built the mill to be the largest silk mill. The mill influenced the business of Japan to trade with other countries during the Meiji period. Now, the Tomioka Silk Mill is well preserved and open for visitors.
Click the link below to see all of the current sites listed by UNESCO in Japan.
UNESCO sites in Japan. Hopefully, this list will help you choose the next world heritage site you want to visit. These important cultural heritage sites have existed for centuries if not millennia in many cases. Hopefully, with careful preservation and care, they will exist for future generations to visit, see and contemplate their importance.