What is a world heritage site?
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, has been working with countries around the world through the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage to recognize World Heritage Sites and protect them for posterity. This international treaty was made in 1972. World Heritage Sites are natural and/or cultural sites considered to be of ‘Outstanding Universal Value, which have been mentioned on the World Heritage List by the World Heritage Committee. These sites or buildings are thought to represent unique examples of the world’s culture and/or natural heritage. UNESCO focuses on bringing together distinctive, irreplaceable, and diverse areas of the world as part of the global heritage, a common good that belongs to every human regardless of nationality. Below mentioned are 10 of the UNESCO world heritage sites in Japan.
1. Horyuji Temple
Horyuji is one of Japan’s oldest temples which was founded in 607 by Prince Shotoku. This temple contained the world’s oldest surviving wooden structure and was designated a world heritage site in 1993. The temple grounds are separated into two main precincts: the Western and the Eastern Precinct. The Western Precinct, enclosed by roofed corridors, is the home to the world’s oldest surviving wooden structure: The main hall (Kondo), the central gate (Chumphon), and a five-story pagoda. These were built in the Asuka Period (538-710) and have not suffered any destruction ever since, although these structures have undergone multiple renovations over the centuries.
2. Himeji Castle
Himeji Castle is considered Japan’s most spectacular castle for its size and beauty. This castle is also called White Heron Castle because of its classic, white appearance. Himeji is one of a dozen castles in the country that has survived the centuries in its original forms. The castle recently underwent a major renovation that lasted several years and was fully re-opened to the public in 2015. The complex today is over 400 years old and was completed in 1609. It is made up of over eighty buildings spread across multiple baileys and is connected by a series of gates and winding paths. Himeji Castle was registered as a world heritage site in 1993.
3. Itsukushima Shrine
The centuries-old Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island is known worldwide for its famous “floating” tori gate. Taira no Kiyomori, the most powerful man in Japan during the end of the Heian Period, selected Miyajima Island as the site of his clan’s family shrine and built this shrine. The shrine and the torii gate are special for being built over water which looks like they are floating on the water at high tide. The shrine complex consists of many buildings, including the main hall, a prayer hall, and a Noh theater stage, which is connected by boardwalks and is supported by pillars above the sea. Itsukushima Shrine was recognized as a world heritage site in 1996.
4. Hiroshima Genbaku Dome
The A-Bomb Dome also called the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, is the only remains of the former Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. This building served to promote Hiroshima’s industries. When the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945, ruining and burning down most of the city, this building was one of the few that remained standing. Today, it is one of the most recognizable sites included in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, which spans over 120,000 square meters. The Park mainly consists of a museum and the A-bomb dome. Between these two structures is the Cenotaph for the A-Bomb Victims. This is an Arched Tomb for those who died because of the bomb, either due to radiation exposure or because of the initial blast. Atomic Bomb Dome was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1996.
5. National Museum of Western Art
The National Museum of Western Art is located in Ueno Park, Tokyo, and is the only building designed by the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier in Japan. This museum was established in 1959, and in 2016 it was registered as one of the parts of “the Architectural Works of Le Corbusier, an Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement”, along with six other countries. It is one of the most popular art museums in Tokyo, which features both permanent and temporary exhibitions of western art. In 2016 UNESCO registered 17 works by Le Corbusier as world heritage sites, including the National Museum of Western Art.
6. Chusonji Temple
The UNESCO World Heritage Site situated in Hiraizumi between Ichinoseki and Oshu was founded by a Buddhist monk named Ennin in 850, known for studying Buddhism around Japan and recording travelogue. In the 12th century, Lord Kiyohara of the Fujiwara clan took up a large-scale construction project to expand the temple complex in memory of the lives lost during previous wars. The temple complex expanded to contain 40 halls and pagodas, and 300 residences for monks. Only the Konjikido temple and a storehouse for religious sutras survived a massive fire in the 1300s. The Konjikido Hall, which is also known as the Golden Hall, was founded in 1124. This temple is compared to Kinkakuji, the world-famous golden pavilion in Kyoto. It features various forms of art and culture from the period it was constructed, such as lacquer work, pearl inlays, and metalwork. Chusonji Temple was named a world heritage site in 2011.
7. Tomioka Silk Mill
Tomioka Silk Mill was established as the first modern model silk reeling factory in Tomioka city, Japan in 1872, which significantly contributed to the modernization and development of the country. The mill was built as a model factory by the Japanese government with the necessary help of French specialists to improve the quality of silk produced in Japan through the use of modern machines. Tomioka Silk Mill received World Heritage status in 2014 for its important role in making Japanese silk a major, international trade commodity. Tomioka town was chosen as the site for the silk mill for many reasons like the availability of land to build a large factory complex, good transportation infrastructure for sending the silk to Yokohama Port, its closeness to natural cold storage facilities where silkworm eggs could be stored, abundant fresh water needed in raw silk production, and availability of coal in the region.
8. Iwami Ginzan
Iwami Ginzan is a historic silver mine situated in the mountains of Oda City, Shimane Prefecture. It is the most prominent silver mine in Japan’s history and was built in the early 16th century and remained in business for over 400 years. The main attractions in this area are divided into three areas. The Silver Mine area consists of the mine shafts and ruins from the area’s mining period along with a few shrines and temples. The Omori Town area includes historical residences, museums, and more temples and shrines. The final area consists of the onsen town of Yunotsu and nearby port towns. The revitalization of Iwami Ginzan’s historic sites began over 50 years ago as a local movement. Eventually gaining national support, the area was named a World Heritage Site in 2007.
9. Shirakawago & Gokayama
The Shirakawago and neighboring Gokayama regions of Japan line the Shogawa River in the mountains that span from Gifu to Toyama Prefectures. These regions were declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1995 and they are known for their traditional Gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some of which are over 250 years old. Gassho-Zukuri is a traditional architectural style developed over many generations. It refers to houses with a steep thatched roof designed to protect the houses from a large amount of heavy snowfall as the village is situated in a mountainous area. These roofs are made without nails and the large attic space is used for cultivating silkworms.
10. Kiyomizudera Temple
Kiyomizudera (pure water temple) is one of the most celebrated temples of Japan which was founded in 780 on the site of the Otowa Waterfall of Kyoto. The temple was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1994. Kiyomizudera is famous for its wooden stage that juts out from its main hall which is 13 meters above the hillside. The stage offers incredible views of numerous cherry and maple trees below as well as the city of Kyoto in the distance. The wooden stage was constructed along with the main hall without the use of nails and houses the temple’s primary object of worship, a small statue of the eleven-faced, thousand-armed Kannon. Other structures in the temple complex consist of the Jishu Shrine, a shrine dedicated to the deity of love and matchmaking, the Otawa waterfall, which is located at the base of Kiyomizudera’s main hall where three channels of water fall into a pond and are said to have wish-granting powers of visitors can catch and drink the water, the Okunoin Hall, which resembles the main hall on a smaller scale, and the three-storied Koyasu Pagoda, a visit to which is said to bring about easy and safe childbirth.
- Jim Haw (2013). The UNESCO World Heritage Site Selection Process. [online]. (Last updated: 10 June 2013). Available at: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/expeditions/the-unesco-world-heritage-site-selection-process/ [Accessed on 17 August 2022]
- VisitWorldHeritage (2022). What is World Heritage? [online]. Available at: https://visitworldheritage.com/en/heritage [Accessed on 17 August 2022]
- HistoricEnvironmentScotland. What is a World Heritage Site? [online]. Available at: https://www.historicenvironment.scot/advice-and-support/listing-scheduling-and-designations/world-heritage-sites/what-is-a-world-heritage-site/ [Accessed on 17 August 2022]
- Dayna Hannah (2019). 19 UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITES IN JAPAN THAT WE LOVE. [online]. Available at: https://alljapantours.com/japan/travel/where-to-go/unesco-world-heritage-sites/ [Accessed on 18 August 2022]
- Japan-guide. Japan’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. [online]. (Last updated on 24 July 2022). Available at: https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2251.html [Accessed on 18 August 2022]
- Japan Wonder Travel Blog. (2015). 25 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Japan. [online]. (Last updated on 23 June 2022). Available at: https://blog.japanwondertravel.com/unesco-world-heritage-sites-in-japan-20500 [Accessed on 18 August 2022]
- Kanpai (2000-2022). Kiyomizu-Dera The great water temple in Kyoto. [online]. (Last updated on 22 December 2021). Available at: https://www.kanpai-japan.com/kyoto/kiyomizudera. [Accessed on 18 August 2022]
- Japan Travel. Chusonji Temple. [online]. Available at: https://www.japan.travel/en/spot/1803/ [Accessed on 18 August 2022]
- Travel.Gaijinpot. Chuson-Ji Temple. [online]. Available at: https://travel.gaijinpot.com/chuson-ji-temple/ [Accessed on 18 August 2022]
- ChrisTravelBlog (2009-2022). JAPAN- Horyu-ji day trip from Osaka/Kyoto: world’s oldest wooden structures. [online]. Available at: https://www.christravelblog.com/japan-horyu-ji-day-trip-from-osaka-kyoto-worlds-oldest-wooden-structures/ [Accessed on 18 August 2022]