With more than 3000 important landmarks throughout Japan, the country has, with time, blended traditions, religions and modernity. Often found in the same area, century-old temples and brand new skyscrapers stare at each other. Both have on thing in common: the craft of Japanese people.
The country also has some amazing natural sites, a few of them even being on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Being one of the most fascinating countries in the world, many Westerners choose this destination for holidays but even in Asia, Japan is a very popular destination. Half of the 30 million tourists visiting the country every year come from South Korea and China.
While the country has a lot to offer in term of food, drinks and festivals, its historical monuments and landmarks will help you understand how such a culture has emerged.
“Japan is the most intoxicating place for me. The Japanese culture fascinates me: the food, the dress, the manners and the traditions. It’s the travel experience that has moved me the most.” – Roman Coppola
Here are the ones you absolutely shouldn’t miss when going to Japan:
Many cities in Japan have, at one point, been the home of the imperial court. However one of the most grandiose and well preserved of those Imperial Palaces is located in the capital city of Tokyo.
Built by the Tokugawa during their reign, it only became the residence of the Emperor during the Meiji Period in 1868.
Partially destroyed during WWII, the palace was restored in the 1960’s.
It is still the official home of the Japanese Emperor, Akihito, and his family.
You can only visit the Palace itself 2 days a year, on the 23rd of December, the birthday of the Emperor and on the 2nd of January when the Emperor addresses the nation for New Year. Nevertheless, you can walk around the grounds of the Palace through its parks and cross the Nijubashi bridge which is a popular selfie spot for Japanese and tourists alike.
The Tokyo Imperial Palace in the heart of the city is a must-see (by Luke Zeme Photography).
Today’s second tallest structure in the World, the Tokyo Skytree, in the Sumida area, first appeared in the capital’s landscape in 2008 and took 4 years to complete.
This tower, symbol of Japan’s modernity, includes more than 300 shops and restaurants, an aquarium and a planetarium.
Busy all year long, you might want to book your ticket up the tower in advance. Going up Tokyo Skytree will cost you between £7 and £30 depending on how high you’d like to go.
If your budget allows it you might want to have lunch or dinner at the 634-Musahi restaurant and enjoy a view of the capital at 345m of altitude.
And if you are not afraid of height you could also pay a visit to the Tokyo Tower. The older sister of the Skytree, the Tokyo Tower, 333m high, was originally built to broadcast TV and radio all over the country. The main deck overlook the city at 150m high and a second deck stands at 250m. It will cost you ¥900 (£6) to access the Main deck and ¥2,800 if you want to access both.
For all the One Piece manga fans out there, note that the tower is also home to a museum entirely dedicated to the manga and anime with games, shows, restaurants and shops.
The huge Skytree tower is the tallest building in Japan (by hans-johnson).
Standing at 243m high, the twin towers is where most of the local government offices are and his the equivalent of London’s City Hall.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, referred to as Tocho by the locals, also features 2 observation decks, one in each of the towers, at 202m of altitude. The good thing about those is that they are free to access.
Just head to Shinjuku, the area of Tokyo it stands on and go up the elevators to enjoy one of the highest vantage points of the city. On a clear day, you will have a breathtaking view of Mount Fuji.
Most tourists visit the observation deck during the daytime, but know that it remains open until 11 pm (latest admission at 10.30pm), so why not head up there after dinner for an astonishing view of the city’s nightscape.
The centre of the Tokyo Prefecture administration, the twin towers can’t be missed ( by David McKelvey).
Located in the area of Asakusa, the oldest Buddhist temple of the capital, the Senjo-ji Kannon Temple is dedicated to Kannon Bosatsu, one of the major Bodhisattva of the Buddhist religion.
This temple is the most widely visited spiritual site in the world, with more than 30 million people visiting it every year.
When you are there do not forget to visit the Nakamise Dori street which is said to date all the back to the Tokugawa era when the population of then Edo grew increasingly numerous. The Shogun authorised merchants and traders to set up shops near the temple. Still very popular today, you will find there many Japanese traditional articles next to cheap souvenirs.
The Senjo-ji Temple in the heart of Tokyo visited by more than 30 million people every year (by manual.cacheiro).
If you happen to be in Kyoto for the first time, this historical monument has to be on your agenda.
Originally built in the 14th century, it first was the retirement house of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. After he died, and according to his last wishes, the Pavilion was transformed into a Zen temple, a function it still holds today.
The Temple was burned and rebuilt numerous times, the last of which was in July 1950, when a mentally ill monk set fire to the Temple. Only leaving the charred frame of the building the fire also destroyed an original status of Yoshimitsu.
However, the Pavilion was rebuilt in 1955, including the lost statue of its original owner. The gold leaves covering the second floor of the building is said to be an addition to the old design but is not uncommon to the Muromachi Period during which the Temple was erected.
Each story of the Temple features a different architecture style, opposing and complementing each other at the same time.
Visiting the Temple will cost you ¥400 (less than £3)
About 90min walk east of the Golden Pavilion you will find the Ginkaku-Ji, The Silver Pavilion, built by the grandson of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and inspired by the Golden Pavillion. While not covered in pure silver leaves, this Temple takes its name from the silver colour sand of its zen garden. The entry fee for will set you back a small ¥500 (less than £3.50).
While both temples are quite far away (roughly 7km), it happens that the Kyoto Imperial Palace stands right in the middle. If you’re not afraid of a bit of walking, strolling through the streets of Kyoto will give you much more insight as to the history of the city and the day-to-day lives of its residents.
The Golden Pavilion Temple in the heart of the former Imperial city of Kyoto.
One of the oldest man-made structure of Japan, the Imperial Palace foundations date back to the end of the 8th century.
Standing in the Kyoto Imperial Park on the side of the Komo River, the residence of the Imperial family until 1868, Kyoto Gosho as it is known by Japanese, is the last reconstruction of the Imperial Palace.
Indeed this one was burnt down, destroyed, moved around and rebuild many times during the tumultuous history of the country. The last reconstruction dates back to 1855 shortly before the Imperial capital was moved to Edo, the current Tokyo.
Today’s Imperial grounds are free to visit and English speaking tours are organised by the Imperial Household Agency (in charge of all matters relevant to the Imperial family possessions) several times a day. Though none of the building can actually be entered, it is definitely worth a visit as it will help you understand how important the Imperial family was, and remains today, in Japan’s culture.
The parks and surroundings of the Palace are just as nice to visit and are the perfect spot for a midday picnic before you head to the Silver Pavilion.
Enjoy the garden of the Imperial Palace of Kyoto ( by Ray in Manila).
One of the important Shinto sites of Japan, this shrine is dedicated to Fushimi Inari, the Shinto god of rice. Rice was the base of the Japanese economy at the time and the goddess was adopted by merchants and manufacturers as patron of business.
You will notice fox statues all over the shrine’s grounds, the animal thought to be Inari’s messengers.
This shrine is famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates, outlying a network of trails leading up the mountain.
Those trails lead up the sacred Mount Inari standing at 233m. Each of the vermilion gate along the trail has been donated by an individual or a company and each of them is engraved with the name of the donator and date of the donation.
One of the most imposing torii is the one standing right in front of the main building. Called the Romon gate, it was donated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of the great unifier of Japan, in 1589.
The hike up and down the mountain will take you 2 to 3 hours and is dotted with smaller shrines along the way. A few restaurants can be found beside the path, offering locally themed dishes such as Kitsune Udon (“Fox udon”), thick noodles served with aburaage (fried tofu), which is said to be one of the favourite food of foxes.
Once reaching the Yotsutsuji intersection, about halfway up the mountain, hikers will enjoy nice views over Kyoto and can do some more exploring up the summit if they wish so.
The shrine features in many movies, including Memoirs of a Geisha.
The famous Shinto shrine has thousands of the sacred torii gates ( by Traveller_40).
Reminiscence of the darkest hours of Japanese History, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park stands on the former political and commercial heart of the city. A few years after the A-Bomb was dropped by the Americans, Japanese officials decided that the area was not to be rebuilt but instead dedicated to peace and memorial buildings.
Even if you are not looking to visit it, it is very unlikely if you are in Hiroshima that you won’t stumble upon this large park in the centre of the city.
The park feature 3 main sites of interest :
This memorial, full of history, will make one reflect on the darkest hour of modern times but as the Museum points out, it is necessary to know what happened there to “Let all the souls here rest in peace for we shall not repeat the evil”.
The Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima and the A-Bomb dome seen through the Cenotaph (by Richard Cassan).
One of Japan most famous landmark, this historical monument whose construction started in 1583 on the site of a former temple, was completed in 1597, only one year before its ruler, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, died.
The castle was destroyed at least four times between 1615 and 1945. The current buildings are the work of a 1995 restoration which aimed to give the castle its former splendour back.
The history of the castle is as eventful as the history of Japan. Once the headquarters of one of the most powerful clan of the nation, the Toyotomi; the clan was completely wiped out 15 years after the Batlle of Sekigahara, which saw the victory of the rival clan, the Tokugawa.
The Tokugawa clan ordered the reconstruction of the castle in 1620 after they had burned it to the ground in 1615. However, they assigned the cumbersome task to rival samurai clans, hoping that the burden and cost of the work would prevent them to rise up again.
The castle was burned down again, this time by Imperial loyalist in 1868. The Emperor and the Meiji government ordered its restoration and the castle became part of the Osaka Army Arsenal, a function it held until it was bombed by the U.S. in 1945.
Stepping into the castle is walking down the steps of some of the greatest Japanese leaders. The Museum inside the castle will retrace all the history of the city and the building.
The Castle’s gardens are also a great spot to escape the fast pace of the surrounding city and feature many sakura (cherry) trees.
Entry fee to the Castle Tower is ¥600 (£4) and the Nishinomaru Garden’s is ¥200 (£1.4).
The Castle of Osaka during cherry blossom season (by acreyes).
This town located in the Kansai region, in the Hyōgo Prefecture, is not as famous as its eastern neighbours of Kyoto and Osaka and it would probably be forgotten by tourists altogether if it was not for its bright white coloured castle. The most visited castle in all Japan, this century-old landmark is considered to be the finest example of the prototypical Japanese castle.
Dating all the way back to the 14th century, the castle received extensive additions through the next couple of centuries.
Himeji castle miraculously survived revolutions, bombings and even the great Hanshin earthquake of 1995, though some of the building required extensive repair work in the 1950’s.
The advanced defence system included maze-like paths that lead to the main keep. Designed to slow down enemy samurais, today it usually confused tourists that easily get lost in the castle’s alleys.
With many legends surrounding its construction, the castle is part of Japanese folklore and since its last restoration work was completed in 2015, more than 10 millions people visited it.
A very popular spot during cherry blossom season, the parks of the Castle can get so crowded during the Golden Week (main holiday week in Japan) than visitors may have to wait several hours to access the Castle’s grounds.
The popularity of this historical monument might explain that it is amongst the most expensive we have listed so far with an entree fee for the Castle and the surrounding Kokoen Garden of ¥1040 (about £7), which is definitely worth it.
Himeji Castle and blossoming sakura trees (by reggiepen).
We’ve only listed 10 of the most popular sites to visit in Japan and all of them are located on the main island of Honshu but the country has much more to offer in term of sightseeing.
Many more temples and shrines are spread all over the country. Smaller Shinto shrines called Hokora are often located in towns and villages and tended by the local residents who visit them to honour small Shinto deities.
Using your Japan Rail Pass will make it easy to go from onsen towns with their hot springs to larger cities and the main tourist attractions. The Shinkansen “bullet train” itself is an experience. The modernity and speed of the train make it an absolute breeze to travel from Sapporo all the way north in Hokkaido to Kagoshima all the way south of the Kyushu islands.
Japanese tea ceremony, sake, traditional ryokans, Japanese cuisine, the snow monkeys of Hokkaido, the Ghibli Museum, Mount Fuji, the Itsukushima Shrine or sumo wrestling are only a handful of other Japanese treasures and wonders that one might want to experiment during a visit of Japan.
Japan mountainous topography and extensive coastline will also allow any visitor to relish in hiking, skiing, and scuba diving.
It will take any foreigner more than one trip to fully understand the complexity of Japanese culture, religion, traditions, History and social dynamics, making this country some of the most fascinating on Earth.
For information on visas for Japan, click here.