How I Visited 10 UNESCO Sites in 3 Weeks in Japan


Theme parks, football stadiums, beaches, pub crawls, bungee jumps, cruises, museums, stately homes, strip clubs, rodeos, shipwrecks, game reserves, hikes or Michelin Starred restaurants.

Everyone has their own personal pillars that they plan a trip around.

For me, that immovable stanchion is UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Why?

There just seems something old-wordly and mystical about them to me. Places that are of ‘universal value’ and are ‘protected for the future of mankind’ – that’s some serious PR whichever way you cut it.

And the variety is such that there are examples that intersect with many of the initial list (though admittedly, I am yet to find a UNESCO listed strip club), making for a trip filled with a mélange of experiences.

So when it came to planning our three-week itinerary for Japan, UNESCO sites were, as they always are, the first pins on the map, which everything else got based around.

And, thanks to a very understanding family, I managed to get to ten of them in the time we were there.

Here’s how I did it.

OUR JAPAN CREDENTIALS

The Reeves Roamed for 25 days through Japan, taking notes as we went. Our route was based on our typically thorough research, though we also found some surprises along the way. We only write about places we’ve actually been, so you can be confident that the details are first-hand.

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Ben Reeve
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Japan UNESCO Sites Map

From Tokyo

There are four UNESCO sites within a two-hour journey of Tokyo, with another (Shirakawa-Go) about four hours away from Japan’s capital.

1. National Museum of Western Art

STATS:
🗺️ Location: 10/10
Rating: 3/10
Time Needed: 5 mins (viewing)/1 hrs (visit)

a brulaist building, the national musuem of western art tokyo

First up, was an easy one, though The Museum of Western Art is actually easy to miss if you’re not meticulous with your research.

That’s because it’s not included on some lists of the UNESCO sites of Japan, owing to the fact it’s part of a 17 site listing that spans seven countries (India, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, France, Argentina and Japan).

Added in 2016, these sites were all designed by Swiss-French architect Charles Jeanneret (known as Le Corbusier), and are seen as outstanding examples of Modernist architecture, which was at its peak in the early 20th century.

The Museum is easily accessible, as it’s located in Ueno Park in Tokyo, so it’s easy to tick off, though (unless you’ve got a passion for architecture), it’s fairly easily forgotten.

A big, blocky building, if I hadn’t had a specific reason for visiting, I would have walked right past without giving it a second thought.

Entry to both the grounds and museum is free, and worth investing an hour or so inside, where we were surprised to find works by Rodin, Picasso and Monet.

2. Shrines & Temples of Nikko

STATS:
🗺️ Location: 6/10
Rating: 9/10
Time Needed: Full day (3.5 hours in Nikko)

a red japanese style bridge over a gorge

This is when things started to get really exciting.

The first of multiple days in Japan when I left the family behind to head off on a day trip. My UNESCO list would be significantly shorter if I didn’t have such an accepting family – though, if I’m honest, they do seem surprisingly happy to be away from me for a while.

Around 150km from Tokyo, it was a five-hour round-trip, but every single minute of travel was worth it to see this stunning old city in the mountains.

Founded in the 8th century by a Buddhist Monk called Shodu, Nikko is on the UNESCO list because (and I quote) ‘the temples are a reflection of architectural and artistic genius; this aspect is reinforced by the harmonious integration of the buildings in a forest and a natural site laid out by people.

That’s right. Artistic genius, in the mountains.

Add to that, mysterious disappearing statues, huge old torii gates, the most extravagantly carved gate in Japan, and more mossy dankness than Mirkwood.

To say I enjoyed my day would be a dramatic understatement.

READ NEXT: Taking a Day Trip To Nikko

3. Fujisan

STATS:
🗺️ Location: 6/10
Rating: 10/10
Time Needed: Full day (minimum)

an image of mount fuji with lake in front

Ahh, Fuji, you beautiful bastard.

Yes, you think you’ve seen this big old triangle lump thousands of times in photos but, believe me, unless you’ve seen it for real, you’ve got no idea (queue my inner Robin Williams).

Awe-inspiring, breathtaking, magical – these are just some of the words that don’t do Mount Fuji justice.

It topped my list of best places we visited in Japan for a reason, it’s otherworldly – popping out above buildings and bridges, behind lakes and fields, feeling a little like a CGI backdrop, as you just can’t believe it’s actually real.

Whilst my post-Japan visits to the chiropractor are probably due to the rapid onset of my fourth decade on earth, I’m chalking up at least some of that neck pain to hours staring up at Mount Fuji, trying to commit every angle to memory, with my worrisome mind warning me I might not get the chance to see it again.

If you only have time to visit Fuji on a day-trip (like I did), I can heartily recommend getting out to Lake Kawaguchi, I passed some of the happiest hours of our trip wandering the shores of the lake, visiting temples and taking photos.

*I technically visited Fuji on the second-to-last day of our trip when we returned to Tokyo, but thought it was easier for the flow of this article to include it as the third one.

From Kyoto

There are a further three UNESCO sites accessible from Kyoto, though technically all the other sites on this list could be visited from Kyoto too if you aren’t planning to switch to Osaka.

4. Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto

STATS:
🗺️ Location: 10/10
Rating: 9/10
Time Needed: Two or three days

most instagrammable places in kyoto

Kyoto is essentially one big UNESCO site, and even the bits that aren’t, such as Gion and Higashiyama feel like they should be.

There are 17 sites around the city that form the UNESCO listing, and if you’ve made the effort to visit Kyoto, chances are you’ll end up at at least one.

We made it to five of them in total.

Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion) doesn’t pretend to be anything other than spectacular, and utterly delivers, Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Pavilion) was serene and, despite the name, not actually silver, Kiyomizu-dera has incredible views across Kyoto from its huge wooden platform, Nijo-ji is as tradional-a Japanese castle as you can get and Tenryu-ji is overshadowed by its more Instagrammable neighbour, the bamboo forest – but it more than worth the entrance fee.

5. Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara

STATS:
🗺️ Location: 7/10
Rating: 10/10
Time Needed: Full day

huge gate at nara japan
The gate which I initially though was the largest wooden structure in the world. You can see why!

It’s unlike me to not meticulously research a place before visiting, but with Nara, I’m glad I didn’t because it meant the big reveal was an almost spiritual moment for me (I mean that quite literally, as I’ll explain later).

Nara might be more famous for the politeness of its deer, and whilst this kept the Gracie occupied for most of the day, our main reason for heading out here (of course) was to get to UNESCO site number five of the trip.

Simple, no more research than that needed, right?

There are seven individual monuments that make up this 1998 listed site, with four of them accessible from Nara Park, which is the main tourist attraction, and where the trains come in to.

Gango-ji, is small and a bit of a walk, Kasuga-Taisha was interesting and photogenic (especially the inside dark area with the lanterns), Kofuku-ji was impressive, but under construction when we went, which leaves the utterly awe-striking Todai-ji.

I knew that Nara had the largest wooden building in the world, but I hadn’t actually looked up a photo (I’ve left it off this post too, so you can make a choice if you want to discover it), so on the walk up to Todai-ji, I initially thought the large gate was the building being referred to.

And then – BANG!

It seems strange to say the world’s largest wooden structure is hidden, but the way the path leads, means that Todai-ji doesn’t peak out until after the ticket gates (probably sound planning on their part!). And when it does, oh boy.

It’s magnificent.

The Roman Amphitheatre in Pula, Hagar Qim on Malta, Angkor Wat in Cambodia – all places I’ve stopped and stared at with a disconnected feeling that they’re almost not real. Whack Todai-ji on that list too.

The size is almost impossible to comprehend, especially when inside, where the 15-metre-high bronze Buddha (also the largest on earth) dominates the space.

It was in here that I felt a weird sense of calm, one which I’m not sure if it was ‘spiritual’ as such, or just the effects of awe. Awe is defined as ‘the feeling we get in the presence of something vast that challenges our understanding of the world’. Yep, I think that was it.

6. Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area

STATS:
🗺️ Location: 5/10
Rating: 6/10
Time Needed: Full day (minimum)

horyu ji near nara japan

Horyu-ji is considered the cradle of Japanese Buddhism, and home to the oldest wooden structures on earth.

I coupled it with our day-trip to Nara, splitting away from the family on the train ride back. Horyu-ji is only about 15-minutes by train from Nara on the JR Line, and from there about a further 20-minute walk.

Unfortunately for me, I didn’t get the full Horyu-ji experience.

I arrived just as they were closing for the day, and just as the heavens opened with a fine, misty rain that soaks everything in a no time.

Despite this, I enjoyed my short time here, partly because I had it almost completely to myself, and partly because I got to see the sun set over the ancient buildings.

I definitely didn’t do this place justice, and would love to come back and spend more time here, but I would definitely recommend trying to build a stop off into your Kyoto, Nara or Osaka itinerary.

From Osaka

There is one site (Mozu Tombs) which is in Osaka itself, but the rest of these I visited on a day-trip down to Hiroshima. It’s also possible to get to the Kii Mountain Range sites from Osaka, but I didn’t manage to on this trip.

The day-trip was intense – this was my itinerary:

  • 0750 train from Shin-Osaka Station
  • 0835 arrived at Himeji and explored castle
  • 1015 train to Hiroshima
  • 1206 arrived at Hiroshima
  • 1245 got to Miyajima Island via a tram and ferry
  • 1400 left Miyajima Island
  • 1445 got off train at Yakogawa Station and walked up the river
  • 1505 got to Hiroshima Peace Dome
  • 1610 left museum
  • 1649 got the train back to Osaka
  • 1813 arrived back in Osaka

To be clear, I know this isn’t a great way to travel.

I had to move at real pace to get to all three UNESCO sites, and ended the day shattered after nearly 24,000 steps.

However, the memories I have of the day – such as the sunrise over Himeji Castle, or FaceTiming my Dad whilst standing on a bridge overlooking the Hiroshima Peace Dome, will live with me forever.

Would I have preferred to spend more time at each of these places to experience more of them? Of course, I would!

But would I give up the memories? No.

I don’t regret the day one bit, it was great, but if you attempt to do the same thing, you’ll need some stamina.

7. Himeji Castle

STATS:
🗺️ Location: 5/10
Rating: 8/10
Time Needed: Two hours (just for the castle)

himeji castle

I don’t claim to be an expert on Japanese castles, but based on everything I’ve read, Himeji is a special one.

Most of its brothers, sisters and cousins have an unfortunate habit of catching fire or falling down (wars and earthquakes will do that to you), meaning there are only 12 ‘original’ castles left on Japan’s island, with Himeji widely celebrated as the best of them.

Also known as Hakuro-jo, or White Heron Castle, never has a name been more fitting, with it gracefully perching on top of its hill, looking down at the surrounding town.

I got to Himeji for the gates opening at 9am on a Sunday, which meant only a small group with me, and spent an hour exploring the multiple wooden floors, via some very steep staircases.

I would also have loved to see the Kokoen Gardens which are beside the Castle, but I had a big day ahead, and didn’t want to get behind this early. Ok, maybe I do have some regrets from the day!

8. Itsukushima Shinto Shrine

STATS:
🗺️ Location: 3/10
Rating: 5/10
Time Needed: Two hours

how i visited 10 unesco sites in 3 weeks in japan itsukushima shrine

Is this the most iconic photo in Japan? If not, it must be pretty close.

If you’ve been wondering what it is, it’s the torii gate of Itsukushima Shrine, which has been a place of worship and pilgrimage for over 1,500 years, and is one of the most important Shinto Shrines.

It certainly felt like a place of pilgrimage today, but more for tripod-wielding influencers than for religious followers. Given it was lunchtime on a warm Sunday, this shouldn’t have been a surprise to me, but this was my only chance to get here, so I stood in the queues, shuffled my way around the creaky wooden innards of the temples, made a choice to avoid the 20-minute wait for the best photo location, and then headed back to the ferry as quickly as I could.

I’m sure there is much more to Miyajama Island that I discovered, but I knew today was going to be a hurry and, in this instance at least, it was a good excuse to escape the crowds.

9. Hiroshima Peace Memorial

STATS:
🗺️ Location: 4/10
Rating: 6/10
Time Needed: Two hours

hiroshima peace memorial taken over the river

I’ve been to some pretty challenging places while travelling (Tuol Sleng in Cambodia and the UXO Museum in Laos immediately come to mind), but this is the first time I’ve been somewhere this confronting since I’ve been a parent.

I decided to get off the train at Yokogawa Station, so I could experience the walk to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial on my own terms and at my own pace. It was a beautiful stroll in the mid-afternoon sun, with the trees appropriately skeletal, having completed their autumnal shed. My initial views of the wire dome were from the far side of the river, with the building, which, due to its empty interior, reminded me of one of those firefighter training centres, contrasted against the backdrop of the modern city.

I’ve travelled a lot with my Dad, and if he isn’t with me, my first instinct is to share new places like this with him, so I sat on the bridge overlooking the dome and gave him a call. He couldn’t quite believe where I was, and started to look up some of the history of the place – how the nuclear bomb that destroyed the city exploded almost directly overhead, that it was one of few buildings in the city that survived, and how there was lots of debate over the past 80 years on whether it should be preserved or torn down, before becoming a UNESCO site in 1996.

After finishing the call, I walked through the gardens surrounding the Genbaku Dome and up to the Peace Memorial Museum, where I switched from being a child to a parent. I wasn’t expecting this museum to be anything other than distressing, but what I hadn’t expected is how hard it hits when you’re hearing stories of, and looking into the eyes of other people’s children. There is a protection instinct that I didn’t have before Grace was born, that kicked in hard here, and I cried pretty much the whole way through the museum. We don’t choose where or when we’re born, but those children, in the wrong city, on the wrong day, were either wiped out, horrifically burned or witnessed things no child ever should have to.

After a long journey back to Osaka, I gave my little family the biggest of hugs.

10. Mozu Mounded Tombs

STATS:
🗺️ Location: 7/10
Rating: 2/10
Time Needed: 30 minutes

mozu tombs japan

Of the 10 UNESCO sites I visited in Japan, Mozu-Furuichi Kofungun is the most recent addition to the list (in 2019), and it felt like it was still finding its feet as a tourist destination.

I headed to Mikunigaoka Station in the south of Osaka, to the largest of the tombs – Nintoku Imperial Tomb, dating to the mid 5th century. This is thought to be the last resting place of the Japanese Emperor of the same name.

I got off at the station in the bottom right-hand corner of the photo above, thinking I’d be straight into amazing views of the 800m long main tomb, but all I could see was a canal and trees. On the left of the photo above, you can see the point I reached, a small viewing area, but nothing gave me any idea of the scale of this place.

entrance to mozu tombs in japan
This is the closest you can currently get to the largest Mozu Tomb, Nintoku Imperial Tomb

Authorities are clearly making progress with this site, as a visitor centre opened in 2021, which gives a detailed history of the tombs, and includes aerial photos. This gave me a chance to appreciate how impressive the Mozu Tombs actually are, but more investment and work is needed to make the sites more accessible.

There are 49 of these mysterious keyhole tombs, (the largest of which is the third-biggest burial mound on earth), in a 4km area, but with no access to the burial mounds themselves, and no viewing platform, even the most generous of UNESCO site lovers would struggle to say they’re worth the trip at the moment.

I enjoyed researching these tombs more than the actual visit, but I’m still glad I went, as I would not have realised their size and importance without doing so. I look forward to reading how they progress the sites in the future, to better tell the story and give visitors a better view.

Sites I Didn’t Get To

There are a further three sites that are realistic to get to on this route.

Tomioka Silk Mill (From Tokyo)

I very nearly took a day-trip out to Tomioka, but I just couldn’t justify another day away from the family.

What’s so special about a bunch of old silk-spinning machinery, you might wonder? It’s the story, folks. This isn’t just a tale of silk; it’s a saga of Japan’s leap into the modern era, all while wearing a fabulous, shiny silk robe. The fusion of Japanese dedication and French technological wizardry here produced a silk so fine, it put Tomioka on the map as the silk capital of the world.

Opened in 1872, this place isn’t just a mill; it’s where Japan flexed its industrial muscles and said, “Hey world, look what we can do.”

It would be top of my list of accessible UNESCO sites to visit if we head back to Tokyo in the future, so watch this space for updates!

Shirakawa-Go (From Tokyo or Kyoto)

Shirakawa-go, the elusive jewel of the Japanese Alps, a place that danced just beyond my reach on this particular journey. Located in a valley that whispers tales of old Japan, this UNESCO site is famed for its traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses, whose steep thatched roofs resemble the hands of monks pressed together in prayer. It’s a sight to behold and, sadly, one I missed.

Whether travelling from Tokyo or Kyoto, it’s a bit of an odyssey – with multiple trains, followed by a bus to get to the mountains – so it takes some dedication required to witness these architectural marvels. But the effort is part of the charm, offering a serene escape into a landscape that feels untouched by time.

Why does Shirakawa-go command such awe? From whay I’ve read, imagine a village frozen in time, where snow blankets curved rooftops designed to withstand the weight of heavy winters, and traditional houses stand as guardians of history. This isn’t just a place; it’s a portal to a past where harmony with nature wasn’t just an ideal but a necessity.

And so, while my own feet have yet to tread the paths of Shirakawa-go, I would love to hear from some people who have – feel free to share your stories in the comments at the bottom of this post.

Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range (From Osaka)

Last on the list of places that could be added to a list of UNESCO sites from Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka is the Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range.

There are many locations that make up this UNESCO site – here are a few of the easiest to aim for:

  • Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Routes. For a slice of the pilgrimage experience without the full commitment, aim for the Nakahechi route of the Kumano Kodo. Starting from Osaka, you can catch a train to Kii-Tanabe and then hop on a local bus to the trailheads. This route leads you to the Kumano Hongu Taisha, one of the three grand shrines of Kumano. It’s a manageable day trip or a stunning overnight stay..
  • Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine and Nachi Waterfall. Accessible via a train ride to Kii-Katsuura from Osaka, Nachi Taisha has its backdrop against Japan’s tallest waterfall.
  • Mount Koya (Koyasan). A bit closer to Osaka, Mount Koya is accessible by train and a cable car, and offers a unique chance to stay in a temple lodging, immerse in monk-led meditation sessions, and explore over 100 temples.

BEFORE YOU GO

If you’re interested in UNESCO sites in general, all my posts about them are listed here and my personal list of sites visited is here.

If you want to read more about Japan, then check out our full guide.

If you’ve found this guide useful, and used it to help plan your trip, then share your experiences in the comments below.

the reeves family picture

AUTHOR – BEN REEVE

Reeves Roam, is a first-hand travel blog. The Reeves have lived in the UK, South Africa and Australia and have travelled extensively in Europe and Southeast Asia.

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Thanks – Ben, Becca and Gracie

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EllieMay89
1 month ago

Has anyone been to the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto? Planning my trip and wondering how much time to set aside for it. Cheers!

TravelBugBernie
1 month ago
Reply to  EllieMay89

EllieMay89, Kyoto is amazing! Give it at least 2 days to soak in the history. You won’t regret it!

JapnFanatic
29 days ago
Reply to  EllieMay89

I stayed for 3 days and still missed some bits. Depends on how deep you wanna go.

HistoryBuff76
1 month ago

Interesting article, Ben Reeve. Just a note, the Fujisan listing is not only about the mountain itself but also includes the nearby temples and the cultural practices associated with it. Might be worth expanding on.

nomadic_neil
1 month ago

Himeji Castle’s architecture is a masterpiece. Going early in the morning to avoid crowds and catch that soft light for photos is a game changer. Definitely a highlight of my Japan trip!

xXSamuraiXx
29 days ago

Imagine going to the Itsukushima Shrine and not finding a secret dojo under it. Video games have lied to me, lol.