Few nations match Japan for unique cultural identity and traditions passed down from generation to generation, and this is reflected in its myriad of ancient heritage wonders. Step from the clamour of Japan’s ultra-modern cities, and you’re met with beautiful sites dotted with shrines, temples and castles – all offering a glimpse into the country’s incredible history.
Travel to the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ as part of an unforgettable cruise in the Far East, and you’ll have the opportunity to marvel at some of its most precious and fascinating national treasures. From Buddhist temples to Shinto Shrines, Japan is blessed with literally thousands of historic structures and sites – so the hard part is choosing which ones to explore first.
To help you experience the best in cultural sightseeing, here we offer a guide on where to see Japan’s best shrines, temples and castles.
Needing little by way of an introduction, Tokyo is the beating heart of Japan, a vast city of incomprehensible pace and vibrancy. But look carefully beyond its towering skyline, and traces of the city’s rich history remain – including several authentic castles, temples and shrines.
One of Tokyo’s most beloved heritage sites is Meiji Jingu, a Shinto shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji, who ruled Japan for 45 years until his death in 1912. The shrine was built in 1915 and remains unchanged, which is impressive given that it lies at the heart of one of the world’s busiest cities. For a break away from the hustle and bustle, this is the place.
Counteracting Tokyo’s ultra-modern cityscape is Kyoto, easily one of the world’s most culturally rich cities. This is the Japan of your imagination; think ancient Shinto shrines, traditional Buddhist temples and exquisite lotus gardens. Kyoto, alone is home to over 2,000 astonishing heritage sites, so you’re bound to stumble upon at least a handful during your visit.
One of the most iconic heritage sites in Kyoto is Fushimi Inari-taisha, a Shinto shrine dedicated to Inari, the god of rice. With its vibrant red torii gates and collection of ornate shrines, this is easily one of Japan’s most recognisable ancient landmarks, as well as one of its oldest, with some elements of the site dating back to the 8th century.
Located on Japan’s Honshu Island, Kanazawa is a wonderful old city renowned for its beautifully-preserved Edo-era districts. Though not one of Japan’s most well-known cities, Kanazawa is laden with fine heritage sites, making it well worth your time if you find yourself in the Ishikawa Prefecture.
One of the reasons visitors make the effort to visit Kanazawa is to see Kenrokuen Garden, one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan. There are few places on Earth more tranquil than this enchanting private garden, and it’s also directly adjacent to Kanazawa Castle, a 15th-century traditional castle which served as the seat of Maeda clan for 14 generations.
Returning to more well-known territory; welcome to Osaka, a cosmopolitan city that’s revered for its delicious street food and vibrant nightlife. The city lies just 30 miles from Kyoto, and its wonderful heritage sights and bustling Namba district make it a must-visit on your tour of Japan.
While colourful food and traditional shopfronts may lure you to the Namba district, you must make time to visit Osaka Castle. Built in the 15th century, this vast structure, with its ornate turrets, towers and ancient fortifications, is now considered one of Japan’s most famous landmarks, largely thanks to its role in reunifying the country during the Azuchi-Momoyama period of the 16th century.
If you want to take an excursion away from Japan’s cities, we’d wholeheartedly recommend Miyajima Island. A stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site located close to Hiroshima, the island is home to the legendary Itsukushima Shrine – a 6th-century Shinto shrine that’s widely considered one of the most sacred sites in all of Japan.
While access to the shrine itself is dictated by the tide, Miyajima is worth visiting if only to capture the sight of Itsukushima’s famous red torii gate floating above the water. This is likely one of Japan’s most photographed panoramas – and for very good reason.
Keen to stray from Japan’s beaten path? Take a train ride to Onomichi, a port town in the country’s history-laden Hiroshima Prefecture. Belying its small stature, Onomichi is home to a stunning collection of historic shrines and temples, of which there are so many that locals have devised a Temple Walk, which showcases the best to curious travellers.
The Onomichi Temple Walk connects 25 temples over an easy 1.5-mile route, with the average tour typically taking around two hours depending on how long you spend at each. One of the highlights of the walk is Senkoji, whose adjacent park offers excellent views over the town below.
If only for the tangible peace and tranquillity of its enchanting woodlands, Mount Koya is a must for those seeking an authentic experience of Japan’s remarkable heritage. Located southeast of Osaka, Mount Koya is the name given to a huge temple settlement in the Kii Mountain Range – a site world-renowned as the historic seat of the Shingon school of Buddhism.
From Kobo Daishi’s (founder of Shingon Buddhism) mausoleum to the ethereal Okunoin Cemetery, Mount Koya is a unique and sacred heritage destination, blessed with over a 100 monasteries, pagodas and temples. It’s also one of the best places in Japan to stay in a Buddhist shukubo – a traditional temple lodging that offers a real evening to remember.
Once the capital of Japan, the ancient city of Nara brims with history and culture, and much of its cityscape is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site on account of its inimitable historic legacy. Being just 25 miles from Kyoto, the city is easily reachable, and its historic highlights promise a day of enriching and immersive sightseeing.
Start by marvelling at the incredible Todaiji Temple. Built in the 8th century, this is the world’s largest wooden building, and its grand scale is necessary, as it houses Japan’s largest Buddha, Daibutsu. We’d also recommend visiting Horyuji, formerly one of the powerful Seven Great Temples, which became Japan’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.
Has our pick of Japan’s famous heritage sites whetted your appetite for a trip to this wonderful country? Explore our collection of cruises to the Far East or call our team on 0808 274 6777 to start planning your trip to Japan today.