With more than 3000 important landmarks throughout Japan, from modern cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto, and beautiful scenery like Mount Fuji, to the historic village of Shirakawa-go, the famous Fushimi Inari shrine, and Naoshima art island, the country has blended together history, tradition, religion and modernity.
Often you will find century-old temples and brand-new skyscrapers staring at each other in the same area. The country also has some amazing natural sites, a few of them even being on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Visiting historical monuments and landmarks will help you understand how Japan's culture has emerged.
- Visiting Japan will help visitors understand its culture, religion, traditions, history and social dynamics.
- As Japan's capital city, Tokyo offers a complete travel destination for both, traditional and modern style, including historical buildings, skyscrapers, and shopping districts.
- Kyoto has well-preserved examples of traditional Japanese architecture, and it beautifully highlights the country's culture and religious traditions.
- A number of other features, like holy shrines and art institutions, are also worth a visit.
- Twenty-two of Japan's historic buildings, temples, and natural areas have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
1. The Imperial Palace in Tokyo
Tokyo Imperial Palace is situated in the center of Tokyo, a 10-minute walk from Tokyo Station. It is located on the site of the original Edo Castle, which was established during the Meiji period. The palace is surrounded by a water-filled moat and tree covered grounds.
The Imperial Palace East Garden, Kokyo Gaien, and Kitanomaru Garden are all open to the public for free. The inner grounds are only open to the public on January 2nd (New Year's Greeting) and December 23rd (Emperor's Birthday).
2. Sensoji Temple
The Sensoji Temple, also known as Asakusa Kannon, is Tokyo's most sacred and spectacular Buddhist temple. The legend behind the creation of the temple starts in 628 AD when two fishermen pulled a gold statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, from the Sumida River. Consequently, a shrine was built in that location to honor Kannon, and later in 645 a temple was added.
When approaching the main temple, travelers will first enter through the Kaminarimon Gate that is flanked by two guardian statues of Fujin and Raijin. Then you will walk through Nakamisedori, an alley filled with small shops selling traditional wares and souvenirs.
After walking through the Hozomon Gate, you will see the incense burning area which is typically full of people lighting incense and wafting the smoke over them as they worship. Finally, you will see the main hall which is the most famous building and includes several large famous art pieces that were painted directly onto the ceiling inside.
3. Meiji Shrine
The Meiji Shrine is the most important Shinto shrine in Tokyo and is dedicated to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken. To get to the shrine, visitors must first travel down a wide road that is shaded by beautiful cedar trees and under a huge tori gate. Once you reach the grounds, you will then see the Treasure Museum Annex which holds an exhibit of the royal couple's belongings.
Then move on to the Nai-en garden, which was once the favorite place of the imperial couple. The main shrine area is past the entrance to Nai-en. The simple shrine buildings are made of unadorned aging wood with a gracefully curved Shinto-style roof. There are many stalls selling charms and prophecies located around the outer courtyard.
The Meiji Shrine is the most popular place to visit in Japan during the New Year holiday when millions of people go there to worship and hang good-luck charms for the year ahead. The shrine is located next to Harajuku Station and adjacent to Yoyogi Park.
4. Ueno Park
Ueno Park is a large public park located next to Ueno Station that was originally built on land that belonged to the Kaneiji Temple. The Shinobazu Pond, located on the southwestern end of the park, is an annual stop for many migrating birds.
As a popular sightseeing destination, this park has been featured in many woodblock prints and short stories. Ueno Park has more than 1,000 cherry trees lining its central pathway, making it one of the most popular spots to see the blooming cherry blossoms in late March.
Many museums and temples are clustered here around the park including the Ueno Zoo and the Tokyo National Museum which is located in a compound in the northeast corner of the park and displays some of Japan's best art.
Other nearby museums include the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum, the National Museum of Western Art, the National Science Museum, the Shitamachi Museum, and the Ueno Royal Museum.
5. Shibuya Crossing
Shibuya Crossing is located at a major commercial and business center. It houses the two busiest railway stations, Shinjuku Station and Shibuya Station, which handle an average of over 2.4 million passengers each day. This makes it the busiest crossing in the world.
Three huge television screens, mounted on the buildings facing the intersection, flash all day, while the rest of the area is covered with lights and advertisements, making this area also known as fashion center and major nightlife area in Japan.
6. Tokyo Skytree
The Tokyo Skytree is a broadcasting tower in Sumida Ward, eastern Tokyo. With 634m in height, it is the tallest structure in Japan and the second tallest in the world. A large shopping complex with an aquarium is located at its base.
The highlights of Tokyo Skytree are two observation decks, which are located at 350m and 450m, also a spiraling corridor on 451m which offers spectacular views out over Tokyo. It is open every day from 9AM to 10PM; ticket prices for foreigners start from ￥3000, or around US$27.
7. The Great Buddha (Daibutsu) in Kamakura
The Great Buddha of Kamakura is a monumental outdoor bronze statue of Amida Buddha, with 11.3 meters of height. It was built in 1252 and located at the Kotokuin Temple in Kamakura.
The statue has remaind there even after the temple building was destroyed by a tsunami in 1492, and only traces of gold-leaf remain around the ears. This famous icon of Japan is also a designated National Treasure and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is open every day from 8AM to 5.30PM.
8. Mount Fuji and the Five Lakes
The Fuji Five Lake (Fujigoko) region lies at the northern base of Mount Fuji, about 1000m above sea level, around lakes Kawaguchiko, Saiko, Yamanakako, Shojiko and Motosuko. It is one of the best places to view Mount Fuji from a close distance.
Among the lakes, Lake Kawaguchiko is the easiest to access and offers outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, fishing and snow sports. In this area, you can easily find ryokan, the traditional Japanese inns, and hot springs.
9. Historic Village of Shirakawa-go
Shirakawa-go consists of three historic mountain villages in the remote Shogawa River valley, stretching across the border of Gifu and Toyama Prefectures in central Japan. Ogimachi and Ainokura are the well-known villages in Shirakawa-go.
These villages are well known for their clusters of farmhouses with slanted roofs, resembling the shape of praying hands. They are designed in gassh-zukuri style to easily shed snow from their roofs. Shirakawa village is renowned as one of Japan's UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
10. Jigokudani Monkey Park
The Jigokudani Monkey Park is located in the valley of Yokoyu River, in the northern part of Nagano prefecture. The park was established as a conservation area in 1964, inhabited by Japanese Macaques, which are also known as Snow Monkeys.
It offers visitors the unique experience of seeing wild monkeys bathing in a natural hot spring. Although the park is open all year round, the bathing monkeys are particularly photogenic when the area is covered in snow.
11. Gion Machiya and Ishibei-koji Lane
Experience Gion, Kyoto's most famous entertainment district and the center of its traditional arts which are found in a traditional Kyoto wooden townhouse (machiya)! The machiya rooms are long and narrow, with a beautiful enclosed courtyard garden and traditional Japanese-style decor with tatami mat floors.
Take a walk along the Ishibei-koji Lane, Kyoto's most atmospheric pedestrian walkway, which is surrounded by stone and wooden walls of traditional restaurants and inns, and lit up by Japanese lanterns at night.
12. Kinkaku-ji: The Golden Pavilion
The Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji, is a Zen temple in northern Kyoto. The top two floors are completely covered in glittering gold leaf and therefore dazzle admirers of the pavilion, as it shimmers in the sunlight over its mirroring pond.
The garden is an extraordinary example of a Japanese strolling garden of the Muromachi period. A path leads around the pond, offering great views to take beautiful pictures of the temple. Kinkaku-ji is designated as a National Special Historic Site and a World Heritage Site.
13. Kiyomizudera Temple
The Kiyomizudera Temple (which translates to the Pure Water Temple) is one of the most celebrated temples in Kyoto and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For over a thousand years, pilgrims have climbed the slope to pray to the statue of Kannon inside and drink from the temple's sacred spring.
The main hall of the temple has a veranda that offers wonderful views of Kyoto. Here you can also enjoy a beautiful view of the numerous cherry and maple trees on the grounds below while taking in the incredible architecture of the Main Hall and Veranda that were both built without nails or any kind of joiners.
To visit the temple itself, travelers will need to walk to the pagoda located across the ravine. On the temple's north side stands the Jishu Shrine which is dedicated to the deity of love and matchmaking. Here couples can purchase love charms.
After your visit when you head back down the slope, you will pass quaint old lanes where many shops sell a variety of local products including pottery, ceramics, tableware, handicrafts, bamboo umbrellas, paper lanterns, traditional footwear, and sweets.
14. The Philosopher's Walk
Following a cherry-tree lined canal that meanders through the scenic Higashiyama district, the Philosopher's Walk is one of Kyoto's most-loved attractions. While the Philosopher's Walk is beautiful year-round, it is especially striking in spring when hundreds of cherry trees bloom with their pale pink blossoms. The path is also a popular stop in the autumn during the maple season when all the leaves turn bright orange and red.
This walkway through central Kyoto is named after the philosophy professor, Nishida Kitaro, who used to take his daily stroll along the path. The Philosopher's Walk starts from Ginkakuji and ends at the Kumano-Nyakuoji Shrine where it connects with roads that lead to the Nanzenji Temple.
Cafes, craft shops, restaurants, and boutiques are scattered along the route, providing good places for visitors to explore all types of souvenirs, snacks, and even matcha green tea flavored ice cream. Another must-try is the famous hot Yudofu dish which is served with a flavorful dipping sauce on the side.
15. Fushimi Inari
Fushimi Inari is an important Shinto shrine in Southern Kyoto. It is famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates, which straddle a network of trails behind its main buildings. The trails lead into the wooded forest of the sacred Mount Inari, which stands at 233 meters and belongs to the shrine grounds.
Most visitors come to explore the mountain trails and the shrine buildings. To hike up to the summit of the mountain and back takes about 2-3 hours.
16. Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
The Arashiyama bamboo grove is known for its rich bamboo stalks, located in the Arashiyama Mountains, a pleasant touristy district in the western outskirts of Kyoto. The grove runs from outside the north gate of Tenryuji Temple to just below Okochi Sanso.
The paths cutting through the bamboo grove are perfect for a nice walk or bicycle ride. Many small shops, restaurants and other attractions are found nearby. Apart from that, the Togetsukyo Bridge is also one of Arashiyama's famous landmarks.
17. Himeji Castle
Himeji Castle lies at a strategic point along the western approach to the former capital city of Kyoto. It is known as the White Heron Castle, due to its elegant and white appearance. The first fortifications built on the site were completed in the 1400s.
The castle is considered Japan's most spectacular castle for its imposing size and beauty, it is recognized as a National Treasure and a World Heritage Site. Most visitors to Himeji Castle enter the castle via the Otemon Gate.
18. The A-Bomb Dome at Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima
Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park is one of the most prominent features of the city. The A-Bomb Dome, also known as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, served as a location to promote Hiroshima's industries.
Before the bomb, the area was the political and commercial heart of the city. When the bomb exploded, it was one of the few buildings to remain standing, and it remains so today. Being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the A-Bomb Dome is a tangible link to Hiroshima's unique past.
19. The Floating Torii of Itsukushima Shrine
One of Japan's most prominent shrine gates is the Floating Torii at the entrance of Itsukushima Shrine. It is standing solitary and majestic during high tide, on the island of Itsukushima, in Hiroshima Prefecture.
Itsukushima Shrine is dedicated to the three daughters of the Shinto God of seas and storms, and the sun goddess who is also the deity of the Imperial household. The shrine complex is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and became one of Japan's National Treasures.
Naoshima is an island town in Japan's Seto Inland Sea. It's known for its art museums. Built into the hillside, the Chichu Art Museum offers Claude Monet's series of paintings of water lilies. The Benesse House Museum shows contemporary sculptures and installations.
The Art House Project is a collection of architectural art pieces. Also, the iconic yellow pumpkin sculptures of an avant-garde octogenarian artist, Yayoi Kusama, are exhibited at the Miyanoura Port. This truly is an impressive sight and serves as the icon for Naoshima itself.
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