A Quick Guide to the Top 10 UNESCO World

Wonderguide by

Paul A

Top10 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Japan

Japan is a country with a rich bounty of natural and cultural treasures, from remote islands and towering mountain peaks to shrines, temples and centuries-old castles. The choice of places to visit is seemingly endless, but here is a handy ready-made itinerary for you.

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1. Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto

For more than 1,000 years starting from the eight century, Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan. Among the legacies of those glory times are the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, a collection of temples, shrines and one castle that are spread across 17 sites in Kyoto, Uji and Otsu cities. Step back in time with a visit to ancient properties from different periods of history that showcase the development of Japanese architecture and gardens. The highlights include:

Image - Kamowakeikazuchi Shrine Okumiya
Kamowakeikazuchi Shrine Okumiya
Paul:One of Japan's oldest shrines, a seventh-century sanctuary dedicated to Kamo Wake-ikazuchi, the god of thunder.
Image - Nijō Castle
Nijō Castle
Paul:An early 17th-century complex that was built as a residence for Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period.
Image - Enryakuji
Paul:This eighth-century monastery and temple complex sits on Mount Hiei in Ōtsu, overlooking Kyoto.
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2. Ogasawara Islands

Dazzling blue oceans packed with marine life, jungle-covered hills and gorgeous beaches, the Ogasawara Islands is a natural paradise of exceptional beauty lying approximately 1,000 kilometres south of Tokyo. This cluster of tropical and subtropical islands is also known as the Galapagos of the East owing to their remoteness which has led to the evolution of many rare plant and animal species endemic to the area. They include dozens of native land snail species. Of the more than 30 islands spread across 8,000 hectares only two are inhabited, Chichijima and Hahajima. Consequently, this is a wonderful destination to enjoy outdoor pursuits. Embark on a guided tour of forests filled with rare plants and animals, head out to sea on a whale and dolphin expedition, venture under the waves on a scuba diving trip and thrill to a range of other oceanic activities such as sea kayaking, surfing, windsurfing, bodyboarding and snorkelling. There are no airports on the Ogasawara Islands, so the only way to get there is by boat, a 24-hour ferry ride from Takeshiba Passenger Ship Terminal in Tokyo to Futami Port on Chichijima.

Image - Ogasawara

3. Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range, Wakayama/Nara/Mie Prefecture

Surrounded by dense forest vegetation in the Kii Mountain Range are three sacred sites that are connected by a network of pilgrimage routes to the ancient capital cities of Nara and Kyoto. This vast natural area, which encompasses mountains, rivers, waterfalls and a rugged coastline, was considered a sacred dwelling place of the gods. Each of the sites features shrines, some of which date back to the ninth century. The three sacred sites are:

Image - Okunoin Cemetery
Okunoin Cemetery
Paul:Kumano Sanzan is a vast Buddhist complex of more than 100 temples including Okunoin Temple, the mausoleum of Kukai, a revered Japanese Buddhist monk from the eighth and ninth centuries.
Image - Koyasan
Paul:A sacred, mountaintop village that dates back to the early ninth century.
Image - Yoshino
Paul:A sacred mountain in the Nara prefecture.
Image - Mount Ōmine
Mount Ōmine
Paul:Another sacred mountain in the Nara prefecture.

4. The Shrines and Temples of Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture

Spread across an expansive landscape of lush green forests on the slope of a mountain is the Shrines and Temples of Nikko. This complex houses more than one hundred religious buildings including many from the 17th century. They are located within two Shinto shrines (The Tôshôgû and The Futarasan-jinja) and one Buddhist temple (The Rinnô-ji). Hike through the forests to explore this network of ancient temple buildings for their architectural beauty, intricate carvings and artefacts. Highlights include:

Image - Nikko Futarasan jinja
Nikko Futarasan jinja
Paul:Established in the eighth century and dedicated to the mountain gods of Nikko.
Image - Nikkozan Rinnoji Temple
Nikkozan Rinnoji Temple
Paul:Also dates back to the eighth century. This important place of worship holds three Buddha images that represent Nikko's three sacred mountains.
Image - Shinkyo Bridge
Shinkyo Bridge
Paul:The 28-metre long wooden lacquered bridge that spans the Daiya River and serves as the sacred entrance to Nikko.
Image - 久能山東照宮
Paul:The Kunozan Toshogu Shrine is a compound of early 17th-century buildings that is the final resting place of Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu, a powerful shogun and one of Japan's most significant historical figures.

5. Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region, Nagasaki Prefecture and Kumamoto Prefecture

From the early 17th century until 1873 Christianity was banned in Japan because of concerns about its increasing power and influence. To avoid persecution many Christians went underground and were known as hidden Christians. This UNESCO World Heritage Site encompasses beautiful churches and other Christian sites in the north-western part of Kyushu island where devotees practiced their faith in secret. Among the places to visit are:

Image - Ōura Church
Ōura Church
Paul:Ōura  Cathedral is also known as the Basilica of the Twenty-Six Holy Martyrs of Japan. This late 19th-century Roman Catholic minor basilica is on a hill facing the Port of Nagasaki.
Image - Kashiragashima Church
Kashiragashima Church
Paul:A sandstone church on Goto Island, constructed in 1919.
Image - Shitsu Catholic Church
Shitsu Catholic Church
Paul:Shitsu Church was built by Father de Rotz in 1882 to undertake missionary work for hidden Christians.
Image - Remains of Hara Castle
Remains of Hara Castle
Paul:The ruins of a clifftop castle where thousands of hidden Christians were attacked and killed during the Shimabara-Amakusa Rebellion, an uprising of Japanese Roman Catholics.

6. Yakushima, Kagoshima Prefecture

This tiny and enchanting island was the country's first UNESCO World Heritage Site, a picture-perfect destination of seemingly untouched beaches, ancient forests with 1,000-year-old trees, an abundance of waterfalls and one of Japan's largest turtle nesting sites. It is a destination filled with natural wonder, just 60 kilometres off the tip of Kagoshima, Yakushima. Explore forests of ancient cedar trees and hike to the middle of the island to see Jomon Sugi, a tree that's thought to be 7,000 years old. Swim in the crystal-clear sea, photograph some of the island’s accessible waterfalls such as the 88-metre Okonotaki Falls and go on a turtle-watching eco-tour to see endangered loggerhead and green turtles.

Image - Jōmon Sugi
Jōmon Sugi
Paul:A 7000 thousand year old tree!

7. Hiroshima Peace Memorial, Hiroshima Prefecture

Attempting to bring World War II to an end, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. This was the world's first nuclear attack and it killed thousands of people and wiped out most of the city. The only structure left standing in the area where the bomb exploded was the Genabaku Dome, a 1914 building that housed local government offices and is now known as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. While Hiroshima has long since been rebuilt, the dome has been preserved in the same state as immediately after the bombing. It serves as a reminder of the destructive power of weapons of mass destruction and as a symbol of hope for world peace.

8. Itsukushima Shinto Shrine, Hiroshima Prefecture

This national treasure is one of the most spectacular shrines in Japan and one of its most popular tourist attractions. The complex consists of a series of grand red-painted buildings that jut out into the sea giving the appearance of floating on water. Arguably the most famous structure is the dramatic 'floating' torii gate, the boundary between the spirit and the human worlds. The current shrine dates back to the 12th century and is dedicated to several deities, but it's thought this has been a place of worship since the sixth century. In addition to the architectural treasures, the shrine is also home to 32 volumes of scriptures of the Lotus Sutra and the Heart Sutra that were hand-copied by members of the Taira, a major Japanese clan of samurai.

9. Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area, Nara Prefecture

The 48 monuments that make up the Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area are masterpieces of wooden architecture and among the oldest surviving wooden structures in the world. With some dating back to the seventh and eighth centuries, these landmark properties are the earliest Buddhist monuments in Japan, constructed not long after the arrival of the religion in the country. The historical buildings are spread across two temple sites, Horyu-ji temple and Hokki-ji temple. Among the notable highlights are the five-story Horyuji Pagoda and the Kondo, or main hall at the Horyu-ji Temple.

Image - Hōryū-ji

10. The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier, an Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement, Tokyo

Le Corbusier was an influential Swiss-French architect who was one of the pioneers of modern architecture. He designed buildings across the Americas, Europe, Japan and India and 17 of them from seven countries are part of the UNESCO World Heritage list. This includes his single building in Japan, the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo. According to experts, it was a major influence on post-war Japanese architecture. Study the modular design details of this concrete building then step inside to browse collections of paintings and sculptures from the 14th century to the 20th century.

Wonderguide map

  1. Kamowakeikazuchi Shrine Okumiya
  2. Nijō Castle
  3. Enryakuji
  4. Ogasawara
  5. Okunoin Cemetery
  6. Koyasan
  7. Yoshino
  8. Mount Ōmine
  9. Nikko Futarasan jinja
  10. Nikkozan Rinnoji Temple
  11. Shinkyo Bridge
  12. 久能山東照宮
  13. Ōura Church
  14. Kashiragashima Church
  15. Shitsu Catholic Church
  16. Remains of Hara Castle
  17. Yakushima Island
  18. Jōmon Sugi
  19. Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
  20. Itsukushima Shrine
  21. Hōryū-ji
  22. National Museum of Western Art

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