One of the most fascinating aspects of the Land of the Rising Sun is its sheer breadth of culture and architecture that has emerged over its long history. Across the country there are thousands of shrines, temples, and castles which date back hundreds of years, and are often located against picturesque landscapes. All year round, travellers make pilgrimages to the various stunning sites that the country has to offer as a way of learning about Japanese culture and history. Here’s our pick of 10 which make for essential viewing.
1. Meiji Jingu
Meiji Jingu is a sacred shrine to Emperor Meiji, modern Japan’s first emperor following the fall of the Samurais, and his wife, Empress Shoken. Made up of three sections, Meiji Jingu consists of a series of shrine buildings, inner and outer gardens, and a Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery. Visitors can enter the Meiji Jingu through two of Japan’s largest gates, or ‘tori’, which date back over 1,700 years and bear the imperial seal.
Visiting Meiji Jingu is a very peaceful experience and one imbued with a great sense of the Japanese culture, particularly when traditional tea ceremonies or one of the many wedding ceremonies held there takes place. It’s an experience in great contrast to the rest of the buzzing city of Tokyo where Meiji Jingu resides.
2. Yasukuni Shrine
The Yasukuni Shrine was originally established in 1869 by the first emperor of modern Japan, Emperor Meiji, in honour of those who fought and died for the country.
Approximately 2,500,000 names are enshrined at Yasukuni, amongst them the casualties of wars since 1853, including the Boshin War, the Seinan War, the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars, World War I, the Manchurian Incident, the China Incident, and World War Two, known in Japan as the Greater East Asian War. The Yasukuni Shrine is part of a six hectare precinct and the shrine itself is surrounded by statues and commemorations to other victims such as war widows, kamikaze pilots, and animals.
3. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial, also known as the A-Bomb Dome or the Genbaku Dome, in Hiroshima, Japan, was the only building in the city which survived following the first ever explosion of an atomic bomb. On 6 August 1945, US forces dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. It was the first ever use of the ‘A-bomb’.
Originally constructed in 1915, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial building is a domed structure which served as an office building for businesses as well as the Japanese government during the war. Today, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial building forms part of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park which also includes a museum. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
4. Sensoji Temple
The Sensoji Temple is a Buddhist temple in Tokyo in Japan. Whilst the original structure of the Sensoji Temple is thought to have been built in 628 AD, making it the oldest one of its kind in the city, most of this burned down during World War Two. The current temple was rebuilt following the war.
Sensoji Temple is dedicated to Kannon-Bosatsu, the goddess of mercy, whose statue is housed here, although it is not on display. Legend says that the original Sensoji Temple was founded after this statue was caught by two fishermen in 628 AD. Today, the Sensoji Temple is one of Tokyo’s most popular attractions.
5. The Edo Tokyo Museum
The Edo Tokyo Museum in Tokyo in Japan chronicles the history of the city, which was originally known as Edo. Split into three sections, one devoted to Edo, another to Tokyo, and the last named the ‘Comprehensive History Zone’, the Edo Tokyo Museum has over 2,500 artefacts and objects charting the history of Edo and Tokyo, from social aspects to the political and the economic.
English routes run through the museum and it offers a great insight into Tokyo and Japan’s history. One of its more popular exhibits is its reconstruction of the original Nihonbashi Bridge, through which one enters the Edo Tokyo Museum.
6. Tokyo National Museum
The Tokyo National Museum (Tokyo Kokuritsu Hakubutsukan) houses national treasures from Japan and around the Far East and Asia.
Its archaeological finds range from Japanese artwork and archaeological pieces to artefacts from Egypt and India. It also has a collection known as the Horyuji Treasures, made up of over 300 pieces of Buddhist art. The exhibits at the Tokyo National Museum are arranged by category.
Kiyomizudera or Kiyomizu-dera is a famous UNESCO-listed Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan. The first temple of Kiyomizudera was founded in 780 AD during the Heian period and designated an imperial temple in 805 AD, although much of this was destroyed and rebuilt in the 1630s, including the Main Hall. The Main Hall at Kiyomizudera is renowned for hanging over a steep cliff.
Each part of Kiyomizudera is dedicated to a different Buddhist deity. The oldest surviving parts of Kiyomizudera date back to the seventeenth century and include the Niomon Gate and the Unatodome stable.
8. The Nagasaki Peace Park
The Nagasaki Peace Park commemorates the atomic bombing of this Japanese city by American forces in World War Two. This occurred on 9 August 1945, three days after the bombing of Hiroshima. Approximately 74,000 people were killed and 30% of the city was devastated, with many more suffering the effects of radiation poising many decades later.
Today, the Nagasaki Peace Park houses several monuments relating to this event, including one marking the site of the bomb’s hypocentre.
The largest wooden building in the world, the temple of Todai-ji, or ‘Great Eastern Temple’, is the Japanese headquarters of the Kegon school of Buddhism. Located in the capital Nara, the main buildings of the Todai-ji temple complex were constructed between 745 and 752 BC under Emperor Shōmu, a devout Buddhist, marking the adoption of Buddhism as state religion.
Today, Todai-ji is home to many precious cultural treasures linked to the temple, whilst also remaining a place of Buddhist rituals such as the Shuni-e. You can walk around the main hall of the Daubutsu-den, reconstructed to half of its original size, and beyond into the central park of Nara, looking out onto the beautiful Wakakusayama hills. Many people visit to see the giant bronze Buddha, over two-hundred and fifty tons in weight. There is also a museum by the main gateway, displaying intricately crafted religious treasures.
10. Osaka Castle
Located in Chūō-ku, Osaka, Japan, Osaka Castle is one of the country’s most famous landmarks. The construction of the castle started in 1583 on the former site of the Ishiyama Honganji Temple, which had been destroyed thirteen years earlier. As the largest castle in Japan at the time, the general Hideyoshi Toyotomi intended for Osaka Castle to become the centre of a new, unified Japan.
Today, the castle is five stories high and is a hugely popular site and historical museum. On each floor of the castle are a wide variety of artefacts detailing the extensive history of Osaka and the castle itself. Make sure to visit the top floor for a view of the city, as well as the beautiful surrounding park which is full of cherry trees, and even offers boat rides along the moat.