After a few research-based posts, I felt like presenting a more visual topic this time. And what better eye candy is there besides some of Japan’s most beautiful and culturally inspired places? Hence my topic: The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage. In this post, I will show you which places in Japan have been granted a world heritage status since the Japanese acceptance of the convention in 1992. Because I visited some of these places myself, I hope to share a few of my own pictures here as well (all pictures are mine, unless mentioned otherwise). Currently, the list includes 16 cultural and 4 natural sites in Japan.
To be included on the World Heritage List, sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria. – site UNESCO
Such criteria include, for example, being a representation of human creativity, an interchange of human values, a cultural tradition or a development in design, art or technology. Or, the site in question must be an outstanding example of technology, landscape or architecture that plays a significant role in human history and culture. Natural world heritage, on the other hand, should represent outstanding natural phenomena, significant biological and geological processes or the major stages in the history of our earth.
CULTURAL WORLD HERITAGE IN JAPAN
Buddhist Monuments in the Horyū-ji Area (1993)
I can’t believe I couldn’t find a decent picture of the Horyū-ji temple 法隆寺 from when I visited Nara. The main hall, entrance gate and pagoda date back to the early seventh century and are among the world’s oldest wooden buildings.
Himeji-jō 姫路城 is an excellent example of early Japanese castle architecture. It looks very sophisticated with its white walls and elegant rooftops. This fourteenth-century castle was remodeled and expanded in 1581 by the famous “unifier” Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Ōtsu Cities) (1994)
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (kinkaku-ji 金閣寺) is one of the most popular attraction in Kyoto. This gaudy piece of architecture was originally the villa of a rich statesman but was purchased by shogun Yoshimitsu and converted into a Zen Buddhist temple. In a novel of the same name by Mishima Yukio, an acolyte burns down the temple. This story was based on true events.
Other famous historic monuments in Kyoto include the Kiyomizu-dera “clear water” temple 清水寺 founded in 778. You cannot see it on the picture above, but the temple is located on a hill and therefore supported by tall pillars on one side. Not a single nail was used in the construction of the temple.
This famous stone garden is part of the Zen Buddhist Ryōan-ji temple (“Temple of the Dragon at Peace” 龍安寺). The placement of the stones is intended so that one is unable to see everything from one place.
I thought Byōdō-in 平等院 in Uji was truly a magical place. Again, this building was originally a villa and later transformed into a Buddhist temple. The central Phoenix Hall is surrounded by a pond and appears to be floating due to its reflection in the water. This hall and the phoenix statue on top of it are depicted on the 10 yen coin and the 10,000 yen bill.
Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama (1995)
I have never been to Toyama or Gifu but I would love to visit these traditional villages. Characteristic are the big houses with slanted roofs, an architectural style known as “prayer-hands construction” (gasshō-zukuri 合掌造り).
Itsukushima Shinto Shrine (1996)
Itsukushima 厳島, often called Miyajima (“shrine island” 宮島), is located not far away from the bay of Hiroshima. The key shrine on the island, Itsukushima Shrine, is particularly famous because its gate and main building are built in the sea. Looking at the picture above, you can see how far the water reaches at high tide, which gives the illusion of a floating gate.
Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome) (1996)
Also in Hiroshima you can find the Atomic Bomb Dome (genbaku dōmu 原爆ドーム) as part of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. This ruin was originally the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall and is the only building near the hypocenter that survived the atomic bombing of August 6, 1945.
Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara (1998)
Oh deer, we’re in Nara! This cutie was so kind to pose for us in front of the Tōdai-ji’s ( “Great Eastern Temple” 東大寺) Great Southern Gate (Nandaimon 南大門), reconstructed at the end of the 12th century since the original structure from the 8th century had been destroyed by a typhoon. On the gate is written “Daikegonji” (大華厳寺), an alternative name for the Tōdai-ji temple.
The main “Big Buddha” hall (Daibutsuden 大仏殿) of the Tōdai-ji is an impressive construction of wood and houses an enormous bronze statue of a sitting Buddha (picture below). The 16 m high statue was completed in 751 and literally contained almost all of the bronze available in Japan at that time.
Shrines and Temples of Nikkō (1999)
Another destination on my Japan bucket list is Nikkō (日光) in Tochigi prefecture. Futarasan-jinja 二荒山神社, Rinnō-ji 輪王寺 and Nikkō Tōshō-gū 日光東照宮 were designated as UNESCO world heritage at the end of last century. On the picture you see the main hall of Nikkō Tōshō-gū, a Shintō shrine dedicated to Japan’s first shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryūkyū (2000)
The Ryūkyū kingdom (15th – 19h century) ruled over the islands south of the main island of Japan. The remains of many gusuku (“castle” in Ryukyuan) on Okinawa such as Shuri castle 首里城 in the picture above have been listed as world heritage. Fun fact: the gate of this castle is depicted on 2,000 yen bills. Read more about its history in my blog post Money Matters.
Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range (2004)
I photographed this belfry on mount Kōya ( Kōyasan 高野山), the center of Shingon Buddhism. It belongs to the Garan (“temple” 伽藍), the main temple complex founded by Kūkai. Other sacred sites and pilgrimages include places in Yoshino, Omine and Kumano.
Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine and its Cultural Landscape (2007)
Since I did not know about this place, I was curious about the story behind this silver mine in Ōda: apparently, during the 17th century, its output accounted for one-third of all the silver in the world! The mine was active for almost four centuries until its closure in 1923. The heritage site also includes three castles that protected the mine, ports for export, transportation routes and various other sites that bear an important connection to its history.
Hiraizumi – Temples, Gardens and Archaeological Sites Representing the Buddhist Pure Land (2011)
The city of Hiraizumi 平泉 plays an important role in Japanese history as the home of the ruling Fujiwara clan during the Heian period. It developed quickly into a city of sophistication and splendor for 100 years, rivaling Kyoto as the place to be. As soon as the Fujiwara were overthrown, Hiraizumi became forgotten, but many buildings remain well-preserved even today. It is said that Hakusan Shrine 白山神社 (picture) was the structure first built in Hiraizumi in 717.
Fujisan, sacred place and source of artistic inspiration (2013)
This iconic view is so well-known that I should not need to expand further. Sakura, Fuji-san 富士山and shinkansen: Japanese scenery in a nutshell. I am, however, very much surprised that it took so long before Fuji Mountain was recognized as world heritage.
Tomioka Silk Mill and Related Sites (2014)
This mill in Gunma prefecture is Japan’s oldest modern silk factory and still in its original state today. The government established the mill in 1872 as a model factory to industrialize modern machine silk reeling imported from France.
Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining (2015)
A collection of more than 20 sites illustrate Japan’s rapid development as a modern and industrialized country in the Meiji period. An example is Thomas Glover’s house on a hill in Nagasaki, looking out over the city. Thomas Glover, a Scottish merchant, played a crucial role in the modernization of Japan by introducing Western technology.
The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier, an Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement (2016)
Besides many buildings in other places of the world, Le Corbusier designed the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo. This museum is the only work of Le Corbusier situated in the Far East.
NATURAL WORLD HERITAGE IN JAPAN
The Shirakami mountains (Shirakami sanchi 白神山地) is an immense unspoilt forest situated in Akita and Aomori prefectures. The forest is highly protected and visitors without permission cannot enter the heritage site.
Yakushima 屋久島 is an island located in the south of Kyūshū and is particularly famous for its ancient cedar forest. Some of the trees are more than thousand years old. Because of its subtropical climate and boundless rainfall, Yakushima also has plenty of waterfalls, such as Ōko no Taki you see in the picture above.
Of course, the Northern island of Hokkaidō has some natural heritage material as well. In the Shiretoko National Park (Shiretoko kokuritsu kōen 知床国立公園) you can find wildlife such as bears, foxes and deer. During wintertime, drifting sea ice can be seen from there.
Ogasawara Islands (2011)
The last world heritage site on our list is a chain of remote vulcanic islands known as the Ogasawara Islands 小笠原諸島, also called Bonin Islands. People live only on the two main islands, “father island” (Chichijima 父島) and “mother island” (Hahajima 母島). Next to beautiful beaches such as the Kominato beach and Kopepe beach, the Ogasawara Islands offer a warm climate, unexploited forests and a unique vegetation.
Have you visited one of these places? Let me know!