The problem of plenty is a reality when you are in Japan, a country that has 18 World Heritage Sites. The list is likely to grow longer — there are 11 sites on the tentative list.
Let’s make life simpler by shortlisting five places that you must visit.
Daigo-ji & Ninna-ji, Kyoto
Kyoto has more than 1600 Buddhist temples and over 400 Shinto shrines. It is the also the city with the highest number of World Heritage Sites in Japan. It’s possible that Daigo-ji and Ninna-ji, both Buddhist temples, may not be at the top of your Kyoto must-dos. But anyone who likes to think and do different should not miss these.
The extensive grounds of Ninna-ji, associated with Shingon Buddhism, are full of cherry trees. That makes April the best time to visit this temple, which has a stunning five-storey pagoda.
Another five-storey pagoda is the top attraction at Daigo-ji, founded in AD 874 by a priest named Shobo. The temple was a vast complex on buildings on two levels. In the 15th century, every building on the lower level, except the pagoda, was destroyed. The grounds at Daigo-ji are a good place to enjoy both spring and autumn colours.
Hiroshima, a city scarred by memories of war, is a gateway to the small island of Miyajima. Its claim to fame is the vermilion tori (shrine gate) of Itsukushima-jinja, which seems to float on the waves at high tide. This scene has been ranked as one of the three best views in Japan.
The original structure of the shrine goes back as far as the late 6th century. What you see today is the rebuilt form, which is more than 800 years old.
To get the classic view of the tori that adorns the brochures you’ll need to visit during high tide.
On your way to/from Miyajima, pay tribute to the never-say-die spirit of Hiroshima at the Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome), also a World Heritage Site.
The first permanent capital of Japan, Nara is one of the most rewarding destinations in the island nation. Nara is second only to Kyoto as a repository of Japan’s cultural legacy. The centrepiece is Daibutsu, or Great Buddha, which rivals Mt Fuji and Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji) as Japan’s iconic sights. The Great Buddha sits in Todai-ji, a soaring temple that presides over Nara-koen, a huge park filled with many other temples, museums and gardens with teahouses. There are about 1200 deer roaming Nara-koen. They are considered messengers of the gods and enjoy the status of National Treasures.
A popular day trip from Tokyo, Nikko enshrines the glory of the Edo period (1600-1868). The town became famous when chosen as the site for the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the warlord who established the shogunate in Japan. He was laid to rest among Nikko’s towering cedars in 1617, and in 1634 his grandson commenced work on Tosho-gu, the shrine that is Nikko’s crowning glory. Most of the World Heritage Sites are strewn around Tosho-gu. These are Rinno-ji and Futarasan-jinja, both temples, and the Nemuri-neko (Sleeping Cat).
Shirakawa-go & Gokayama
These remote, mountainous districts in Central Honshu are best known for farmhouses in the thatched gassho-zukuri style. They’re rustic and lovely; against the vibrant colours of spring, draped with autumn mist, or peeking through a carpet of snow, they hold a special place in the Japanese heart. This is where you for a feel of Japan away from its temples, shrines and big cities.
Stay tuned for more updates on our upcoming Japan guidebook.