Japan continually amazes and fascinates tourists with its unique blend of cutting edge modernity and timeless tradition.
The intriguing admixture is really evident when you ride Japan’s ultra-high-tech Shinkansen train system to ancient locations included among country’s 21 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and four natural wonders.
Scattered across Japan from the southernmost location of the former Kingdom of Ryukyu’s (now Okinawa) Gusuku (Castle) to northern Hokkaido’s Shiretoko Nature Preserve, the sites include historic places, shrines and temples of varied vintages, and miraculously pristine natural wonders.
These treasured locations are all high up on Japanese tourists’ must-see lists, but some are more popular than others with foreigners because they’re easier to get to--especially by Shinkansen trains that are marvels of modern technology.
Recently added to the UNESCO list (in 2016, to be specific), the National Museum of Western Art is in central Tokyo’s Ueno Park museum and zoo complex. You might think it odd that Western Art is at the core of a Japanese World Heritage Site, but the extraordinary collection has some 4,500 works dating from the 14th to 20th centuries. Built in 1959, the museum is well worth a visit, and a Shinkansen ride is not required to get there.
The most recent addition to the list, however, is Munakata Taisha Okitsu Shrine in Fukuoka Prefecture in the southernmost part of Japan on Kyushu Island, and the Shinkansen is the way to go. The first shrine was constructed during the mid-17th century on a naturally sacred site, a small island reserved for the worship of kami (gods). The current building was constructed in 1932, but tradition looms large. Only one Shinto priest is allowed to occupy the island at any given time, and no women are allowed to set foot upon it – ever. The place is actually quite difficult to get to – despite the Shinkansen – so think of it as a pilgrimage of sorts, and decide to go only after careful consideration.
The most convenient UNESCO sites are on Honshu, Japan’s biggest island, and are more accessible. Best known and most visited are the historic monuments found in and around Kyoto, the former capital where Japanese culture flourished. Recognized by UNESCO in 1994, there are numerous designated sites exemplifying the evolution of Japanese architecture developed from stylistic and structural elements imported from China. The carefully preserved sites including Kyoto’s still populated enclave of ancient wooden residences and shops, and a magnificent castle, plus numerous temples and shrines and beautiful landscaped gardens. Each of the sites has an elaborate and fascinating history, so go with a guide, or get a really well-detailed guide book.
South of Kyoto, Nara’s historic monuments, designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1998, are even older than those in Kyoto. From 710 to 784, Nara was Japan’s ancient capital. The buildings and city planning were designed after the Chinese system, which was imported via Korea. The World Heritage Site includes the remains of the capital city, the primeval forest of the Kasugayama, and several extraordinary temples and shrines.
Also in Nara Prefecture, in the Ikaruga region, Horyu-ji Temple is another World Heritage Site. Constructed some 1400 years ago, it is known to be one of the world’s oldest wooden structures. The temple was founded by Shotuku Taishi, a prince who embraced Buddhism and introduced many aspects of Chinese culture to Japan. The Horyu-ji monuments are brilliant examples of the blending of Chinese and Japanese architectural styles. The Kondo (Golden Hall), Gaunt (Five-story Pagoda) and Yumedono Hall (Hall of Dreams) have marvelous Buddhist art, including monumental statues and murals.
The Kii Mountains, stretching through Nara, Miie and Wakayama Prefectures, have sacred pilgrimage sites that are linked by ancient pilgrimage routes to Nara and Kyoto. There are three beautiful sites representing 1000 years in the history of Japan’s religions: The steeply mountainous area of Yoshino-Omone is the sacred center of Shugen-do, the Japanese religion that integrates elements of Shinto, Buddhism and Taoism with mountain worship. Kumano Sanzan is the most important shrine of the 3,000 Kumano Jinja Shrines. The deeply forested Koya-san is where Kongobu-ji Temple, the head temple of Shingonshu Buddhist sect is located. The sites were put on the World Heritage list in 2004.
Mt. Fuji, fondly known as Fujisan, is 3.776 meters above sea level, and is the highest mountain in Japan. It is located in the heart of Japan, has always been a source of wonder for the Japanese people and of inspiration for artists and poets. Oft obscured by clouds or covered by snow, the inactive volcano can be seen up close or viewed from trains traveling to Shizouka or Yamanashi. There are also sites of religious importance at the foot of the mountain.
In Gumma Prefecture, west of Nikko, the Tomioka Sill Mill and Related Sites, dating from the 1800s, exemplify Japans transition to modern mass manufacturing, and the transformation of the nation’s economy. The factory produced high quality silk and was an important factor in the developing trade between Japan and France. It was designated aWorld Heritage Site in 2014..
Towards the south, and on the World Heritage list since 1993, Himeji-jo is one of four extant castles that date from before Japan’s Edo Period (which lasted from 1603 to 1867). The castle, called ‘Hakuro-jo’ or ‘White Heron Castle,’ combines straight lines with elegantly curving roofs and white plastered walls. The castle, which was built during a period of intense civil war, is famous for the ingenious defense systems architects devised to protect it. The castle has indeed survived--some say miraculously--many wars, including the severe bombing attacks during World War II.
The city of Hiroshima was the target for the dropping of the atomic bomb on August 6, 1945. Today, ground zero is commemorated by the Genbaku Dome, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, which is the only structure standing in the bombed area. The memorial is a distinctive neo-Baroque structure that was originally built in 1915 for use as a showroom for local Hiroshima products. Now, through its survival, it has become a symbol of overcoming the most destructive weapon ever used. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, and it is a place that evokes great feelings.
Near Hiroshima, Itsukushima Shinto Shrine, recognized by UNESCO in 1996, was first established by the Emperor Suliko during the 6th century on the Island of Itsukushima, which is located in the Seto Inland Sea. The shrine was enlarged during the 12th century by Kiyomori Taira, a high-ranking and influential aristocrat. Itsukushima Shrine is the principal shrine of 500 shrines that bear the same name. Built to harmonize with the surrounding mountains and sea, the 1400 year-old shrine is an architectural gem, with a wondrous 52.5-feet tall torii gate set in the middle of the sea.
On the western shores of Honshu, the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine and surrounding area were also very important during Japan’s period of civil war, during which warlords fought for control of this resources-rich region that supported the economies of Japan and several other Asian countries. Mining took place at Iwami Ginzan from the 16th to the 20th centuries, so the World Heritage Site shows not only the long evolution of mining technology in the area, but also illustrates the ongoing development of infrastructure to support the mines, including worker housing, protective fortifications and active ports. This fascinating place was added to the UNESCO list in 2007.
Nearer to Tokyo than to Osaka, the shrines and temples of Nikko were designated World Heritage Sites in 1999. The Shugen-do sect o Buddhists considered Nikko to be a sacred place long before the powerful Tokugawa Shogunate established its family shrine there during the 17th century. Toshogu, the Tokugawa family shrine, which has elaborate and lavishly rich decorative details, exemplifies the architectural style and superb artisanship of the Edo period. By comparison, Futarasan Shrine and Rino-ji Temple may seem modest, but they are quite exquisite standalone structures, each with a long and intriguing history. Visits to Nikko are especially popular during the fall foliage season, when the surrounding forests become a riot of glorious colors. Nikko is also famous for ontsen (hot springs) with healing properties.
The historic villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokoyama, named to the UNESCO list in 1995, are remote mountain towns far west of Nikko. They developed unique Gasho-style houses made of wood, straw and rope--and no nails! Beneath the steeply-angled thatched roofs, the residents cultured silkworms, which produced the town’s main source of revenue.
Japan’s other World Heritage Sites are, like Fukuoka’s Munakata Taisha Okitsu Shrine, remote and hard to reach. Before considering a visit, read up on Shirakami-Sanshi (White God Mountains), the town of Hiraizumi, Ogasawara Islands, Shiretoko Nature Preserve, Shiretoko-Go-Kan Lakes and Waterfalls, Yakushima Nature Preserve, and Okinawa’s Gusuku Castle. All of these sites reveal different Japanese culture and all are marvelously enriching.
If you want to travel by Shinansen or use other Japan Rail services to visit UNESCO World Heritage Sites, you can get routes, schedules and purchase tickets at www.jrailpass.com. Look for rail pass discounts, too.