UNESCO World Heritage sites in Japan
Here is a list of UNESCO World Heritage sites in Japan and the year they were inscribed to the UNESCO list. Japan accepted the convention on 30 June 1992. With the addition of the Tomioka Silk Mill in 2014, Japan has 18 sites on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area of Nara (1993)
Parts of Horyuji Temple are the oldest surviving wooden structures in the world - these include the 32m-high five-storey pagoda, the main hall built from 28 massive wooden pillars and the central gate.
Buddhism's journey to Japan during the middle of the 6th century AD, following its transformation in China, was by way of Korea. The sites in Nara were built during the period immediately after the arrival of Buddhism into Japan.
Horyuji Temple is possibly the oldest existing temple in Japan and was founded in 607 by Prince Shotoku. Horyuji Temple is the headquarters of the Shotoku sect of Japanese Buddhism. The pagoda was dismantled during World War II for protection but was reassembled after the end of hostilities.
Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu (Okinawa) (2000)
The ruins of the former kings of the Ryukyu Islands (Shuri-jo) are located on a hill to the north-east of the capital of Okinawa, Naha.
The castle was the seat of power for the Ryukyu kings from the early 15-century to 1879 when Okinawa was absorbed into Japan.
Unfortunately the site was almost completely destroyed in the fighting in World War II and many of the present buildings are post-war reconstructions.
Himeji-jo (Himeji Castle) (1993)
Himeji Castle is generally considered the most beautiful of all the samurai castles constructed in Japan.
The original site dates from the 14th century and the existing castle was built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1580 and enlarged 30 years later by Ikeda Terumasa.
Himeji Castle consists of a five-storey donjon (keep), three smaller donjons and is surrounded by concentric walls and moats - the castle is known as Shirasagijo or Hakurojo (Egret Castle). The extensive grounds of Himeji Castle would have contained barracks, stabling, and residences for the lord of the castle's samurai.
Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome) (1996)
Previously the Industrial Promotion Hall constructed in 1914, the building, at the hypocenter of the blast, partially survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, and serves as a reminder of the world's first atomic attack. Every year on the anniversary of the attack on August 6 remembrance services are held on the site.
The building is flood-lit at night and is set in a small park on the east bank of the Motoyasu river opposite the Peace Memorial Park.
Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Otsu Cities) (1994)
The Gion geisha quarter, Nijo Castle, Heian shrine, Kiyomizudera, Nanzenji, Ginkakuji & Kinkakuji temples, Katsura and Shugakkuin palace, Kyoto is a treasure trove of hundreds of historic temples, shrines, gardens and palaces. Japan's capital from 794 to 1868.
When international designers create Japanese influenced architecture or gardens, they too are referencing the role of Kyoto in the evolution of those designs. The World Heritage Sites (WHS) appropriately lists many structures dating from the Heian Period (794-1192), a period of four centuries that has left a remarkable legacy in terms of shrines and temples in the city.
Now a modern, built-up city of 1.5 million inhabitants, Kyoto still remains a center of traditional Japanese art and crafts, culture and cuisine. Designed on a distinctive grid pattern (modeled on the ancient Chinese capital of Xian) and set in a picturesque basin surrounded by wooded hills, Kyoto is easily accessible from Tokyo or Osaka by train. South east of Kyoto, Uji, famous for its green tea, is home to two World Heritage Sites: Byodo-in Temple and Ujigami Shrine.
Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara (1998)
Pre-dating Kyoto as Japan's capital from 710 to 784 and considered the fount of Japanese Buddhism, Nara can be seen as the source of the culture that Kyoto was to later refine. Nara is another must-see for any visitor to Japan interested in the origins of traditional Japanese culture.
Early Nara was built to a grand plan to be a capital for Empress Gemmei. Breaking with the Shinto decree, based on rites of purification, that required the capital to be moved on the death of each emperor, Nara was founded with the aim that it would be a permanent capital.
Nara Park, Todaiji Temple (the world's largest wooden structure), Shoso-in Hall, Kofukuji Temple (five-story pagoda located in Nara Park), Kasuga Taisha Shrine, Gangoji Temple, Horyuji Temple, Yakushuji Temple, Nara Palace and many more sites are situated within this small and pleasant city.
Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama (1995)
These remote villages in central Japan are noted for their vast A-frame shaped thatched farm houses, set in idyllic forested valleys.
The buildings at Shirakawa-go and Gokayama are constructed in the gassho-zukuri style (praying hands) - as the steep 60 degree slope of the roofs - designed to withstand heavy snowfall are reminiscent of hands clasped in prayer.
The villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama are accessible from Nagoya (3 - 4 hours), Takayama and Kanazawa by bus.
Itsukushima Shinto Shrine, Miyajima, Hiroshima (1996)
The Itsukushima 'floating shrine' is a vermilion Shinto torii gate standing in the shallow waters off Miyajima island just outside Hiroshima.
A shrine supposedly was located at the site from the 6th century but the present form dates from the 12th century. The view of the gate is one of Japan's most representative scenes. In this ancient and inspiring Shinto holy place, the first shrine was constructed in the 6th century, and the backdrop of mountains with their seasonally colourful forests and the foreground of the Inland Sea provide the site with an extended view upwards and outwards. Itsukushima is ideally suited for the human reverence of the natural world.
Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range (2004)
Yoshino is where the main temple of the Shugen sect of Buddhism is located. Koyasan is the home of the original Shingon sect of esoteric Buddhism. Koyasan, south of Nara city, is the still active monastic centre and is associated with the priest Kukai (known after his death as Kobo Daishi); Kukai and his followers began construction at Koyasan in 816 having received permission from Saga, the 52nd Emperor of Japan.
The total area consists of 495 hectares of historic sites and 11,370 hectares set aside as a natural buffer zone.
Shrines and Temples of Nikko (1999)
Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu's grand, elaborately decorated mausoleum - the Toshogu - was built in the forested mountains of Nikko in the mid 17th century.
Other buildings in the complex include the Futarasan Shrine and the Rinnoji Buddhist temple. The whole site reveals the immense power and wealth of the Tokugawa dynasty and the surrounding area is beautiful throughout the year, especially in autumn.
The temples and shrines of Nikko have been sacred for centuries, and part of their visual appeal is not only their stunning Edo Period architecture and decoration, but also their harmonious landscaped setting on a hillside within mature Cryptomeria forest (planted early in the 17th century) reflecting Shinto veneration of sacred mountains and forests.
Nikko is accesible from Tokyo by train. There are regular trains to Nikko on the Tobu-Nikko Line from Asakusa Station (1 hour 50 mins). Slightly slower (depending on changing time), but cheaper if you have a Japan Rail Pass, is shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo Station to Utsunomiya (50 mins), then change for a regular JR train to Nikko (45 mins).
Shirakami-Sanchi in Akita Prefecture is a 321-acre virgin forest of Siebold's beech trees that once grew throughout northern Japan.
The Shirakami Mountains, consisting of deep valleys, steep, forested mountain flanks, ridges and summits, rise to over 1,200 m and form an important water catchment area in northernmost Honshu.
The largely trackless forest is home to black bears, monkeys, the serow (mountain goat) and many species of birds including rare eagles and hawks.
21% of the island of Yakushima is considered to be World Heritage territory and 96% of that area is made up of natural forest.
Located where the Palaearctic and Oriental realms meet or overlap, Yakushima supports a range of vegetational bands at different elevations that range from subtropical near the shores through cool temperate conifer forests at mid elevations and up to the sub-alpine zone.
Yakushima itself contains several endangered species of plants and animals. The islands Yaku-sugi trees are huge, natural cedars that are unique to the island.
With a backdrop of lush green mountains, sparkling blue water, and rare flowers and animals, especially monkeys, Yakushima is an incredible place to spend a few days.
The Shiretoko Peninsula at the north eastern end of Hokkaido, jutting out into the Okhotsk Sea, is a natural habitat for rare plant and animal life including Steller's sea lions, and is home to the world's highest recorded number of brown bears.
The Shiretoko Peninsula is 65 km long and 25 km wide with a number of quiescent volcanoes and hot springs.
The Shiretoko Peninsula is a remote wilderness with few roads, the northern tip is accesible solely by boat or on lengthy trekking expeditions. In winter it is possible to join a trip on the Aurora ice-breaker ship to view the drift ice in the Sea of Okhotsk.
In the Japanese context, Shiretoko Peninsula presents an unrivaled example of surviving terrestrial and marine ecosystems where they interact.
Abashiri has the nearest airport (Memanbetsu) with flights to Tokyo, Sapporo, Fukuoka, Nagoya and Osaka. There are JR trains from Abashiri to Asahikawa and direct buses to Sapporo.
Read more about Abashiri Drift Ice
Iwami Ginzan (2007)
The Iwami Ginzan silver mines in Shimane Prefecture in south west Honshu produced over a quarter of all the world's silver in the 16th and 17th centuries and were a major source of income for the Tokugawa Shogunate. Much of the silver from Iwami Ginzan found its way overseas and was used to pay for coveted Chinese silks brought by foreign merchants to Nagasaki.
Over 200 temples existed in the area to provide to the workers and their dependents in the mines, mostly administering funeral rites as a silver miner's life was brutally short at that time. Many of the wooden buildings in the town of Omori have been restored and some of the narrow shafts are now open to the public.
Also included are old roads to the Shimane coast and the three traditional port towns of Okidomari, Tomogaura and Yunotsu, from where the silver was loaded on to boats for shipping.
Ogasarawa Islands (2011)
The Ogasawara Islands (aka Bonin Islands), a chain of about 30 tropical islands located about 1,000km south of Tokyo have been dubbed the "Galapagos of Asia" as they are home to 57 rare species including the black-footed albatross and the Bonin Flying Fox.
The islands have never been connected to a continent and the flora and fauna have undergone a unique evolution. The Ogasarawa Islands are home to about 2,500 human inhabitants and were occupied by the US after World War II until 1968.
The Ogasarawa Islands are reached only by a 25+ hour ferry journey from Tokyo. The islands also attract visiting Humpback and Sperm whales and are an excellent place for whale watching.
Hiraizumi in Iwate Prefecture in the Tohoku area of northern Japan, above Sendai, boasts a number of beautiful temples and gardens constructed in the 12th century, when the town rivaled Kyoto in wealth and elegance and its rulers strived to create a Buddhist Pure Land.
Chusonji Temple, with its beautiful Konjikido golden hall, Motsuji Temple, the former garden of Kanjizaio-in Temple and the ruins of Muryoko-in Temple and Kinkeisan are all included on the UNESCO list.
Hiraizumi was ruled and patronized by the powerful Oshu Fujiwara clan, who attempted to create a Jodo Buddhist Heaven on Earth clan before their violent overthrow by the Minamoto clan.
Mt Fuji (2013)
Mt Fuji, Japan's iconic, conical shaped mountain was added to the UNESCO list as a Cultural Heritage site in June 2013.
The 3,776m tall mountain which can be seen from parts of Tokyo on a very clear day has inspired artists and poets throughout Japan's history.
Many thousands of people climb Mt Fuji each year, with many hoping to see the sun rise from the summit, but the ascent is an arduous task, so please come prepared with warm clothes, a torch and lots of fluids.
Tomioka Silk Mill (2014)
The Tomioka Silk Mill and associated buildings in Gunma Prefecture, close to Tokyo, was established in 1872 with machinery and know-how imported from France, which was a major export market for Japanese silk at the beginning of the Meiji Period, along with Italy.
The four sites in Tomioka include an experimental farm for rearing silkworms, a cold storage building for their eggs; the mill for spinning the raw silk, and a school for the study of sericulture.
Sites of Japan's Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining (2015)
Japan's rapid industrialization in the fields of shipbuilding, steel production and coal mining, after its opening to the west in the Meiji Period (1868-1912), is recognized in 23 sites on eleven properties in south western Japan added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2015.
The properties include the Former Kagoshima Foreign Engineer's Residence in Kagoshima, structures in Sengan-en and the Shoko Shuseikan Museum also in Kagoshima, Gunkanjima, a coal mine on Hashima known as Battleship Island off the coast of Nagasaki, as well as other industrial architecture such as the Nirayama Reverbatory Furnaces at Izunokuni, Mietsu Naval Dock in Saga Prefecture, the Mitsubishi Senshokaku Guest House in Nagasaki, Miyanohara Pit in Omuta, the mine in Manda in Arao, Miike Port, Misumi West Port and various structures in the industrial city of Kitakyushu.
Japan reached an agreement with South Korea before the UNESCO listing that acknowledged that some of the sites had used forced labourers from Korea before and during World War II.
Okinoshima, located between Japan and Korea, off the coast of Kyushu, has long been a place of cultural exchange between Japan, Korea and China. Okitsu Shrine on the island dates from the Edo Period and is a place of worship for the safety of seafarers. Artefacts such as gold rings from Korea, glassware from Iran and Chinese mirrors have been found on the island. Visitors to Okinoshima are limited to 200 people per year - all male. Those visiting the island have to partake in purification rituals which include bathing naked in the sea.