Japan is well known as a nation of longstanding culture. Its rich history plays across its modern landscape in both its structures and its people. Fittingly, Japan is home to twenty of the more than 1,000 World Heritage Sites as described by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
UNESCO World Heritage Sites are deemed such due to their “outstanding universal value” in the fields of science, history, or culture, and are “important to the collective interests of humanity.” The sites are considered cultural property and are legally protected by international treaties.
These sites fall into two categories: cultural and natural locations. Why not immerse yourself in one of these sites on your next Japanese vacation? Check out our complete listing of UNESCO sites to discover which sites resonate with you personally.
Japan Cultural Heritage Sites
1. National Museum of Western Art
Listed in 2016, this museum is located in Ueno Park, Tokyo. It is renowned for its architecture by Le Corbusier.
2. Meiji Industrial Revolution Sites
Listed in 2015, the Industrial Revolution Sites are located in eight of Japan’s prefectures, highlighting Japan’s rise to become an industrial power.
3. Tomioka Silk Mill and Related Sites
Listed in 2014, Tomioka was the first silk mill to employ modern machinery, and was important to the industrialization of Japan.
4. Mount Fuji
Listed in 2013, Mount Fuji (Fujisan) in Yamanashi is a symbol of Japan itself and is considered culturally and spiritually inspiring.
5. Historic Monuments and Sites of Hiraizumi
Representing the Buddhist “Pure Land,” these archaeological areas, temples, and gardens of Iwate were listed in 2011.
6. Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine and Cultural Landscape
This site in Shimane was listed in 2007. The mine was established in 1526 and operated for more than 400 years.
7. Pilgrimage Routes and Sacred Sites of the Kii Mountain Range
Listed in 2004, this site is located near Nara. Three sites sacred to the Buddhist and Shinto religions can be reached using the Pilgrimage Route.
8. Gusuku Sites and Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu
Located on the island of Okinawa, this site was listed in 2000. The extravagantly decorated castle was once a bustling hive of economic and cultural activity.
9. Shrines and Temples of Nikko
Listed in 1999, Nikko is home to a Buddhist temple and two Shinto shrines – Rino-ji, Toshogu, and Futarasan. See our Nikko travel guide for more information.
10. Monuments of Ancient Nara
Listed in 1998, Nara was the capital of Japan from 710 to 784 C.E. The eight components of this site include the Nara Palace and Yajushi-ji.
11. Itsukushima Shrine
Located in popularly known as Miyajima island, near Hiroshima, this shrine was listed as a heritage site in 1996. The area has been important to Shintoism since the twelfth century. It is famous for its tori gate that seems to float upon the sea.
12. Hiroshima Genbaku Dome
Also called the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, this site was listed in 1996. The dome is the only structure to have survived the atomic bombing of the city in 1945. The memorial is intended to remind the world of the importance of peace. Learn more by visiting our Hiroshima travel guide.
13. Shirakawa-go and Gokayma
Listed in 1995, the historic villages of Toyama contain houses that are 400 years old. The farmhouse architecture includes Gassho zukuri thatched roofs.
14. Monuments of Ancient Kyoto
Listed in 1994, seventeen structures make up this Heritage Site, including Kinkaku-ji, Byodo-in, and Kiyomizu-dera. Kyoto was founded in 794 C.E., and the historic sites date from the 900’s to the 1600’s. See our Kyoto travel guide for more information.
15. Himeji Castle
Listed in 1993, Himeji Castle in Hyogo is a stately example of seventeenth century architecture. The castle recently underwent extensive renovations to restore it to its former glory. Learn more by visiting out Himeji Castle travel guide.
16. Horyu-ji Temple
Listed in 1993, the Horyu-ji temple complex in Nara includes forty-eight Buddhist Monuments and two temples, Hokki-ji and Horyu-ji. The ancient structures – thought to be the oldest wooden architecture in the world – date to the introduction of Buddhism in Japan in the seventh century.
17. Okinoshima and Associated Sites in the Munakata Region
“Located 60 kilometers off the western coast of Kyushu island, the island of Okinoshima is an exceptional example of the tradition of worship of a sacred island,” says UNESCO. The archaeological sites are practically intact and provide a chronological insight on how the rituals performed there changed from the 4th to the 9th centuries.
Japan Natural Heritage Sites
1. Ogasawara Islands
Thirty islands of Ogasawara were listed in 2011. Located off the coast of Tokyo, the islands are home to 195 bird species considered endangered of extinction.
2. Shiretoko National Park
Located in Hokkaido, this site was listed in 2005. This ecological treasure of northern Japan is home to numerous bird species listed as “threatened.” It is also a national park.
3. Shirakami Sanchi
Listed in 1993, this area is among the last virgin beach forests – forests that are untouched and unaltered by man – to be found in Asia, home to the rare Siebold’s beech tree. It is located in Aomori and Akita.
Listed in 1993, Yakushima Island is located off the coast of Kyushu. It is home to a unique natural ecosystem, including yaku-sagi cedar trees, some of which are over 1,000 years old.
Nearly a dozen additional Japanese sites are on UNESCO’s “Tentative List,” awaiting future induction as World Heritage Sites. How many sites from this growing list have you visited? Check out our destinations category to learn more.