With well over 3000 important landmarks throughout Japan, you are certainly spoilt for choice when you visit. Whether you're looking for history, traditional culture or the more modern aspect, Japan has it all. The country is a seamless blend tradition, religion and modernity — often all in the same area. Take a stroll through Tokyo and you'll find century-old temples and brand new skyscrapers next to each other, and both have one thing in common: the craft of the Japanese people.
The country also has some amazing natural sites, a few of which you can find on UNESCO's World Heritage List.
Considered one of the most fascinating countries in the world, Japan is a popular holiday destination amongst both Westerners and people throughout Asia. In 2018, the 'land of the rising sun' recorded 31.2 million overseas visitors—half a million of whom were Australians.
While the country has a lot to offer in term of food, drinks and festivals, the historical monuments and other famous landmarks in Japan 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
While we can't possibly list every must-see destination, we have categorised a few of our favourites according to their historic, cultural, modern or natural appeal.
At 634 metres, Tokyo Skytree is the second tallest structure in the world and one of the most iconic Japanese landmarks. Located in the Sumida area, it first appeared in the capital's landscape in 2008 and took 4 years to complete.
A symbol of Japan's modernity, the tower 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 anywhere between $13 and $45 depending on how high you'd like to go and whether you visit midweek or during the holiday season.
If your budget allows it you might want to partake in 'Tokyo Cuisine' for lunch or dinner at the 634 Musashi Sky restaurant and enjoy a view of the capital from a height of 345 metres.
You could also pay a visit to the Tokyo Tower. At a height of 333 metres, the older sister of the Skytree was originally built to broadcast TV and radio all over the country. It will cost you $16 to access the main deck (150 metres) and $40 if you want to access the top deck (250 metres) as well.
For anime fans, the tower is also home to a theme park dedicated to the manga and anime of 'One Piece', with games, shows, restaurants and shops.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
Housing most of the local government offices and the assembly hall of the metropolitan government, the Metropolitan Government Building, known as Tokyo Tocho, is a popular tourist destination.
Standing at 243 metres high, the building has two towers, each with an observation deck at 202 metres as well as a cafe and souvenir shop. On the second floor, there is also a comprehensive tourist information centre.
Located in Shinjuku, if the weather conditions are favourable, you'll be able to see one of the most famous landmarks in Japan, Mount Fuji, as well as Tokyo Skytree, Tokyo Tower, Meiji Shrine and Tokyo Dome.
Visiting Tokyo Tocho is the best way to see Tokyo in all its glory for free.
Still in Tokyo, just outside Shibuya Station, this four-way crossing is one of the most famous places in Japan and definitely a bucket-list destination if you want to truly understand modern Japanese society.
Known as one of the busiest intersections in the world, with over 250,000 people accessing it each day, Shibuya Crossing is awash with lights, advertisements, restaurants, bars, shops and nightlife. It's also a popular place for marriage proposals.
Even if you aren't fond of crowds, it's worth a look.
Like the Shibuya Crossing, the Dotonbori area in Osaka has a vibrant atmosphere created by neon lights and signage and a huge array of eateries and bars.
The region takes it name from 17th Century merchant, Yasui Doton, whose dream to expand the Umezu River into a new waterway and trade area was cut short by his death in the Siege of Osaka. His cousins later finished his work and named the area Doton Canal. Trade flourished, as did the theatre culture.
Today, trade revolves around gastronomic delights although one original theatre, Shochiku-za, remains and still hosts opera, musicals and modern drama.
Without a doubt, Mt Fuji would classify as one of the most famous landmarks in Japan. At 3,776 metres this active volcano is climbed by over 200,000 hardy people between July and September (the summer months) every year.
If you want to experience sunrise at the top of Mt Fuji, you can catch a bus to the 5th level and start your climb from there. But, be warned, this is not an easy stroll and training is recommended along with regular rest breaks.
For those not keen to climb, there are a number of places from where you get marvellous views, including Hakone. Make sure you experience a Japanese onsen while you're there.
Jigokudani Monkey Park
Situated in a national park to the north of Nagano Prefecture, Jigokudani Monkey Park is home to the Japanese macaque, or Snow Monkey. These monkeys have lived in this natural environment and enjoyed bathing in the hot springs.
The best time to visit is during the winter months (November to March) when there is snow. Entry is $10 per person, and there are a number of public transport options (but be aware it can take some time to get there).
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Bamboo features heavily in Japanese culture—from appearing in myths to symbolise the strength of men, to being eaten in a range of dishes, and used as tools in both battle and the home.
Japanese aristocrats began visiting the grove, and other natural environments, during the 8th century and these days the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove remains a popular walking trail for its ability to instil a sense of calm and tranquillity away from the hustle and bustle of modern life.
Entry to the grove is free and a leisurely walk through the area will take around an hour—though, you'll want to spend longer there.
Historical Japanese Landmarks
The Tokyo Imperial Palace
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 Shogunate during their reign, it became the residence of the Emperor during the Meiji Period in 1868. Partially destroyed during WWII, the palace was finally restored in the 1960s. Today, it is still the official home of the Japanese Emperor, Akihito, and his family.
You could be forgiven for forgetting you are right in the middle of Tokyo when you visit the Imperial Palace.
While the palace itself is only open to visitors twice a year—the Emperor's birthday (23 December) and when the Emperor addresses the nation for New Year (2 January), the East Gardens are open to the public all year round. A relaxing (and signposted) walk will take you around the grounds of the palace, through its parks and across the Nijubashi bridge which is a popular selfie spot for Japanese and tourists alike.
The Imperial Palace of Kyoto
Known as Kyoto Gosho in Japanese, the palace in Kyoto was the residence of the Imperial Family until 1868, when the capital was moved to Edo (now Tokyo). The Imperial Palace is one of the oldest man-made structures in Japan and its foundations date back to the end of the 8th century.
Standing in the Kyoto Imperial Park on the side of the Komo River, the current Imperial Palace was reconstructed in 1855 after having been burnt down and relocated multiple times during Japan's constant upheaval at the time.
The Imperial Palace and grounds are free to visit and English speaking tours are organised by the Imperial Household Agency (who is 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 still is, in Japan's culture.
Within the Kyoto Imperial Park, you can also visit the Sento Imperial Palace. This secondary palace complex was built in 1630 for Emperor Gomizumo when he retired and continued to be used for retired Emperors until this building also burnt down in 1854. The palace itself wasn't replaced, but its gardens and tea houses remain.
The parks and surroundings of the Imperial Palace are an extremely popular recreation place amongst locals.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park
Representing 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, Japanese officials decided the area was not to be rebuilt but instead dedicated to peace and memorial buildings.
The park feature three main sites of interest :
- The Peace Memorial Museum houses permanent exhibits retracing Hiroshima's history, and the events preceding and following the destruction of the city on 6 August 1945, and the human suffering it caused.
- The Memorial Cenotaph, located near the centre of the park, is a concrete monument, sheltering the names of the 220,000 victims of the Atomic Bomb. Each year on the anniversary of the bombing, at 8:15 am, the exact time the bomb detonated, a ceremony is held and wreaths are laid at the Cenotaph.
- The A-Bomb Dome, originally the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, is the skeleton of the only building to survive the detonation of the A-Bomb and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.
The area is confronting to many but, as the Museum points out, it is necessary to know what happened to "Let all the souls here rest in peace for we shall not repeat the evil".
One of the most famous historical Japanese landmarks, the construction of Osaka-jo started in 1583 on the site of a former temple. It was not completed until 1597, only one year before the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the ruler who commissioned the castle.
The castle was destroyed at least four times between 1615 and 1945. The current buildings were restored in 1995 with the aim of returning Osaka-jo to its former splendour.
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 Battle 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 like walking in the steps of some of the greatest Japanese leaders. The museum inside the castle retraces the history of the city and the building.
The Nishinomaru Gardens are also a great spot to escape the fast pace of the surrounding city and feature over 300 sakura (cherry) trees, so is extremely popular during Hanabi (flower-viewing time).
Entry fee to the Museum and observation deck (both inside the castle) is $8 and $2.60 for Nishinomaru Garden. Entry into the surrounding park is free.
The most visited castle in Japan, this century-old landmark is considered to be the finest example of the prototypical Japanese castle. Its nickname is Shirasagi-jo, or 'white egret/heron castle', because of its stark whiteness and its shape.
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 1950s.
The advanced defence system included maze-like paths that lead to the main keep. Designed to slow down enemies, today it confuses tourists who 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 million people have visited.
Himeji Castle was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in December 1993 for its exquisite example of Edo period architecture, and is also a Japanese National Treasure.
Combination entry to the castle and the surrounding Kokoen Garden is around $14. The castle can be seen from Himeji Station and is a short 20-minute walk up a gentle hill.
Cultural and Religious Landmarks - Temples and Shrines
Iconic to Japan, the hundreds of temples, shrines and pagodas found throughout the country could easily be considered some of the most famous landmarks in Japan—thus deserving of their own entry.
Located in 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. The Shogun authorised merchants and traders to set up shops near the temple. Still very popular today, you will find many Japanese traditional artefacts next to cheap souvenirs.
Kinkaku-ji — The Golden Pavilion
If you happen to be in Kyoto for the first time (or second, or third), this beautiful temple is bound to be on your agenda.
Originally built in the 14th century, it was originally the retirement house of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. According to his last wishes, after he died the pavilion was transformed into a Buddhist 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 it. The fire not only left nothing but the charred frame of the building but also destroyed an original statue of Yoshimitsu.
However, Kinkaku-ji, along with the statue, was rebuilt in 1955. The gold leaf 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 storey of the temple features a different architectural style, opposing and complementing each other at the same time.
Entry to the Golden Pavilion and its gardens costs less than $5.
About a 90-minute walk east of the Golden Pavilion, you will find Ginkaku-Ji, The Silver Pavilion. Built by the grandson of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, it was inspired by the Golden Pavilion. While not covered in pure silver leaves, this Temple takes its name from the silver coloured sand of its zen garden. The entry fee will set you back around $7.
While both temples are quite far from each other (roughly 7 km), 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 to the history of the city and the day-to-day lives of its residents.
The Fushimi Inari Shrine
One of Japan's best known Shinto shrines and a world heritage site, Fushimi Inari Taisha is dedicated to Inari, the patron god of agriculture and business. In 711, when the shrine was founded by the Hata family, rice was a symbol of wealth and today officials from companies continue to come to pay their respects.
Fushimi Inari is famous for the tunnels of over 10,000 orange torii gates, creating a network of trails leading up the sacred Mount Inari. Each torii has been donated by an individual or company wishing to get ahead in business. They are engraved with the name of the donating company and are replaced every 10 years.
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 in 1589.
When you visit, you will also notice fox statues, thought to be Inari's messengers, throughout the shrine's grounds.
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 (fox) Udon. These are thick noodles served with abura-age (fried tofu), said to be one of the favourite food of foxes.
Once reaching the Yotsutsuji intersection, about halfway up the mountain, hikers enjoy nice views over Kyoto and can do some more exploring up the summit if they wish.
The O-Torii of Itsukushima Shrine
Located on Miyajima Island, near Hiroshima, the 'floating torii' of Itsukushima-jinja is a must-see at multiple times during the day. During high tide, the shrine and its huge torii gate are surrounded by water, however, when the tide is low, you are free to walk out to the torii gate.
Another of the famous landmarks in Japan that is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Itsukushima Shrine has a more than 1400-year-old history. It is said that the three deities of this shrine are tasked with ensuring the wellbeing of the Imperial Family, to guard the nation and to protect seafarers. As such, in early times, the island was closed to the public.
It is easy to do a day trip to Miyajima from Hiroshima, but to get the best from your experience, you'll want to stay overnight at one of the many ryokan (Japanese-style inns) on the island. Although the shrine itself is closed after sunset, overnight guests can walk along the waterfront and see the shrine and torii illuminated. Thirty-minute boat cruises are also available at these times.
For day-trippers, it is possible to walk around the entire island and go to the top of Mount Misen, if you arrive early.
It is free to walk around the outside of the shrine and down to the torii gate (at low tide) but, at less than $7 for a combined ticket, you might as well go into the shrine and the Treasure Hall as well.
One Visit is Not Enough
We've only listed a handful of the most famous landmarks in Japan and all of them are located on the main island of Honshu. However, the country has much more to offer in term of sightseeing—not only on Honshu but also on the other islands of Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and Okinawa.
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' is an experience in itself. The modernity and speed of the train make it an absolute breeze to travel from Sapporo in the northern island of Hokkaido to Kagoshima all the way south in Kyushu.
Japanese tea ceremony, sumo, sake, traditional ryokan, Japanese cuisine, the Yuki Matsuri (snow festival) in Hokkaido, the Ghibli Museum, Matsuyama Castle in Shikoku and Mount Aso and Beppu Hot Springs in Kyushu are only a handful of other Japanese treasures and wonders that one might want to experience during a visit to Japan.
Japan mountainous topography and extensive coastline are also enticing to visitors keen on hiking, skiing, and scuba diving.
Most foreigners need more than one visit to fully understand the complexity of Japanese culture, religion, traditions, history and social dynamics. There is something for everyone and fascinating adventures around every corner.
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