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5 Recommended World Heritage Sites in Japan With Historical Importance

The UNESCO World Heritage Sites are a collection of cultural and natural properties that are important to mankind as a whole and ought to be preserved for future generations. This article will introduce five of Japan’s 23 (as of 2020) registered World Heritage Sites.

1. Shiretoko (Hokkaido)

Shiretoko, known as Japan's last frontier, is a peninsula in eastern Hokkaido that juts out into the Sea of Okhotsk.
Due to the unique food chains that result from close interactions between land and marine ecosystems, and because many rare species live and winter here, it was designated as a Natural World Heritage Site in 2005.

The peninsula boasts plenty of beautiful sights of untouched nature! For example, there are the Shiretoko Hakkei ("eight views of Shiretoko"), which are eight photogenic sights of natural beauty that are popular among tourists.
In particular, there is Oshinkoshin Falls, which is among Shiretoko's best waterfalls. The stream of water parts in two before cascading down, giving it the nickname "Futami Falls," meaning "beautiful pair."
Head to the observation deck atop the waterfall, and you can take in the majestic sight of the Sea of Okhotsk and Shiretoko mountain range!
The waterfall is illuminated between late February and early March every winter. The sparkling lights floating into the night sky create a wondrous image!

Shiretoko may be noteworthy for its natural beauty, but it's also been settled by humans since ancient times. Indeed, the town of Sharicho, in the western half of the Shiretoko Peninsula, has the third-largest number of confirmed archaeological remains among all Hokkaido towns.

1. Shiretoko (Hokkaido)

Onnebetsumura, Shari-cho, Shari-gun, Hokkaido

2. Tomioka Silk Mill and Related Sites (Gunma)

Registered in 2014, this Cultural Heritage Site is made up of the Tomioka Silk Mill, which played a significant role in the development of Japan’s silk industry, and three other locations that led to innovation in silkworm-raising techniques. Together, this group of buildings played a decisive role in revolutionizing sericulture and silk-reeling, allowing for the mass-production of high-quality silk thread (threads taken directly from cocoons, without being processed) and their availability to the general public.
The first attraction, the Tomioka Silk Mill, was Japan’s first major silk mill, built in 1872 using technology imported from France.
The major installations such as the cocoon storehouse and reeling factory, which were made with the “timber-framed brick construction” method that blended Japanese and Western technologies, still maintain the same appearance from when they were constructed. The East Cocoon Warehouse and reeling factory, designated as National Treasures, are open for visitors, so check them out when you have the chance!

2. Tomioka Silk Mill and Related Sites (Gunma)

1-1, Tomioka, Tomioka-shi, Gunma

3. Ogasawara Islands (Tokyo)

The Ogasawara Islands, a collection of 30 islands of various sizes located 1,000 km south-to-southeast from Tokyo in the Pacific Ocean, were registered as a Natural World Heritage Site in 2011. Since appearing 50 million years ago, these islands have never been attached to any other landmass, generating a very unique ecosystem.

At the Ogasawara Islands, you can find a variety of unique animal and plant species such as a meguro (Bonin white-eye) birds and Muninhime tsubaki (Schima mertensiana, an evergreen similar to the camellia). Go hiking or trekking in the subtropical forests and mountains, still in their primeval states, and enjoy watching the island's distinctive plant and animal life.
Also, because almost all of the islands are within a subtropical climate, it's warm enough year-round for marine sports! The crystal-clear seas make this a prime destination for activities like snorkeling and diving.

3. Ogasawara Islands (Tokyo)

Ogasawara-cho, Tokyo

4. Shoka Sonjuku Academy (Yamaguchi), Part of the “Sites of Japan's Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining”

The “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution” is a Cultural Heritage Site that consists of component sites that were important to the rapid development of Japan’s coal-mining, steelmaking, and shipbuilding industries from the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate through the Meiji Era (from about 1850 to 1910), due to technologies imported from various Western countries. Japan was the first example of a country outside of Europe and the Americas to industrialize—and over a short period of time at that. These sites were deemed to be important to understanding the country’s modernization and were jointly registered as a World Heritage Site in 2015.

The 23 sites that make up the World Heritage Site are spread across 11 cities in 8 prefectures, but in particular, the Hagi Reverberatory Furnace, Hagi Castle Town, and Shoka Sonjuku Academy, all in Yamaguchi Prefecture, are known as the starting point of Japan’s modernization.
The Shoka Sonjuku, which was opened by Yoshida Shoin, a samurai of the Choshu Domain (present-day Yamaguchi Prefecture), took a leading role in the industrial revolution, and many of the great minds who would contribute to Japan’s modernization studied here.
Shoin’s teachings played a crucial role in Japan’s ability to conduct its industrial revolution over such a short time.
If the students at Shoko Sonjuku had not been able to study under Shoin, Japan as a country may have ended up following a different path, which attests to the enormity of Shoin’s impact on modern Japan.


Shoin-jinja Shrine, where Shoin Yoshida is honored

4. Shoka Sonjuku Academy (Yamaguchi), Part of the “Sites of Japan's Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining”

1537, Chinto, Hagi-shi, Yamaguchi

5. Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area (Nara)

The Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area was Japan’s first World Cultural Heritage Site, registered in 1993. These are the oldest group of Buddhist monuments in Japan, and they heavily influenced the following 1300 years of development in Buddhist architecture.
The site is composed of the 47 structures within Horyu-ji Temple as well as the three-story pagoda at Hokki-ji Temple.

In Horyu-ji’s Sai-in section, the kondo (Main Hall), five-story pagoda, chumon (Middle Gate), and corridors all date back to the late 7th and early 8th centuries and are among the oldest extant wooden buildings. These structures are remnants of the earliest period of Buddhist architecture, of a sort that cannot even be found in mainland China or the Korean Peninsula, and thus possess immense importance.

At Horyu-ji you can find many National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties, making it a must-visit spot for anyone interested in Japanese culture and history.
Indeed, fans of Japanese history might find themselves returning again and again, each time noticing something new!


The three-story pagoda of Hokki-ji Temple

5. Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area (Nara)

1-1, Horyuji Sannai, Ikaruga-cho, Ikoma-gun, Nara

The World Heritage Sites located in Japan are a collection of places that are crucial to understanding Japan’s origins, history, and culture. Read up on your history before visiting these heritage sites, and you’ll find you’ll be able to appreciate them much more!

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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