Best UNESCO sites in Japan – our insider Top 5

Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto

Japan is a heaven for travellers looking for UNESCO World Heritage sites. 25 sites in Japan belong to the UNESCO list of indispensable culture or nature. And some of these “sites” consist of a dozen individual temples or attractions! Over the years we have explored most of them. And while we enjoy visiting these sites in general, we also have our favourites. The following is a personal list of what we think are the five best UNESCO sites in Japan. In this post we also give some useful tips on how  much time you will need and how you get there.

Shiretoko Peninsula – awe-inspiring and one of the best UNESCO sites in Japan

Beautiful landscape on the Shiretoko Peninsula, a UNESCO site in Japan

Thinking about the top five UNESCO sites in Japan, we both immediately thought of the Shiretoko Nature protection area. Shiretoko is a rugged peninsula on Hokkaido, in the far north of Japan. Bordering on the Sea of Okhotsk, where drift ice floats about in winter and wild animals roam the woods in summer, the Shiretoko Peninsula has harsh weather conditions. Apart from a few fishing villages, the area is barely populated.

Shiretoko would be quite far off and isolated were it not for the visitors drawn to the natural beauty of the place. The designation as a UNESCO Natural World Heritage site is due to the abundance of wildlife both onshore and offshore. Brown bears live on the mountain ridge, and in the sea, there are whales and dolphins. With a bit of luck and at the right time of the year, visitors can also see several rare and threatened species, such as certain sea lions, fish owls, and the huge Steller’s Sea Eagle.

Brown bear in the Shiretoko Hanto Five Lakes UNESCO area in Japan

We have visited Shiretoko a few times. On our first visit, it was still possible to hike up in a hot-spring fed waterfall and bathe in natural warm pools higher up the mountain! There are numerous hiking treks in the area, from shorter one hour loops up to more strenuous two-day hikes. On any hike it is advisable to carry tinkling bear bells and be careful with food. 

Even today, getting to the Shiretoko Peninsula can be a rather tedious journey. Plan for a day from anywhere in Hokkaido, or two days from Tokyo, just for the journey, and stay for at least a full day.

Gunkanjima – industrial heritage and a lost place in the South of Japan

Ruined high-rises on Gunkanjima / Hashima, a tiny island off Nagasaki

Gunkanjima a.k.a. Hashima is a very small island off the coast of Nagasaki. Actually, it is more of a rock than an island, and there’s not even a water source on the island. However, since there were subterranean coal mines accessible from the island of Hashima, the Mitsubishi Corporation used the island as its base. And from the 1940s onwards, thousands of miners and their families lived there. The living conditions were extremely cramped, as people lived in multi-storeyed concrete buildings without their own bathrooms. Since water had to be carried in and was so scarce, most people had to use the common baths (sento) instead. From a distance, the densely populated island with its high-rise buildings resembled a battleship. That is where the nickname Gunkanjima – battleship – stems from. The island is included in the UNESCO World Heritage list of industrial heritage sites in Southern Japan.

The UNESCO site of Gunkanjima looks like a battleship

Today you can do boat trips to visit the island, and coming from the sea, the island does indeed resemble a large military ship. Most tours do land on Gunkanjima, but because of safety concerns you may not walk freely among the old houses. Still, we think it is one of the most spectacular and best UNESCO sites in Japan.

Boat trips start from Nagasaki several times a day, but only if the sea is not too rough. Take note that Nagasaki is in the far south of Japan and you will need a day to get there from Tokyo or Kyoto.

Shirakawa-go –a traditional village hidden away in the mountains

morning mist in Shirakawa-go

As tour leaders we regularly visit the tiny village of Shirakawa-go in the Japanese Alps with tour groups. Not so long ago the village of Shirakawa-go was a totally secluded and quite inaccessible village. Surrounded by high mountains and suffering from snow up to 10 meters or so each winter, Shirakawa-go had retained a very traditional village structure and building tradition: The houses have very steep thatched roofs. That way, the snow will slide off the roof better. In fact, they have doors on the second floor of the houses in case the snow piles up too high!

Traditional thatched houses in the Shirakawa-Gokayama UNESCO World Heritage site in Japan

Meanwhile a newly constructed highway crossing the mountains is passing by the village, so it is much easier to reach in our days. So, during the day, Shirakawa-go is quite popular with tourists visiting the UNESCO sites in Japan. Nevertheless, it is still a unique experience. And it is possible to stay overnight in these traditional wooden houses with the steep roofs! After the day visitors have left, the village of Shirakawa-go gets quiet again.

You will need to spend at least two days in the mountains to visit Shirakawa-go. The easiest way to go there is by bus (1 hour) from the small town of Takayama. The villages of Gokayama and Ainokura also belong to the UNESCO site.

Kyoto – a massive cluster of UNESCO site temples and shrines in Japan

Shinto shrine maiden at the Kyoto Kamigamo Shrine

Kyoto is the ancient capital and the heart of Japan. Almost every traveller to Japan will visit Kyoto, and of course some of the sights are on the UNESCO World Heritage list. But beware: the UNESCO World Heritage site of Kyoto consists of 19 individual sites! All of them are breath-taking and worth visiting. In fact, you can spend a week or so just looking at the UNESCO World Heritage sites, and then some more on other interesting places in Kyoto.

Massive numbers of visitors at the Kinkakuji in Kyoto - one of the top UNESCO sites in Japan

The most-visited UNESCO site in Kyoto is probably the Kinkakuji, or Golden Pavilion. And rightly so for it is indeed covered in gold – 5 layers of gold foil, 20 kg in total! The small 15th-century pavilion burned down in the 1950s, however. What you see today is a reconstruction, thus, but it is still amazing and photogenic.

The UNESCO sites of Kyoto are all easily visited by public transport. Base yourself in Kyoto for a few days and visit two or three of the top sites every day.

And of course, there are a lot of off-the beaten path highlights to explore in Kyoto.

Nikko – the most pompous and spectacular cultural sightseeing in Japan

Nikko with its decorated gates is the most famous UNESCO site in Japan

Another top sightseeing spot in Japan that a lot of Japan travellers visit is Nikko. This is a mountain village where the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu stands. Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate that lasted 250 years, is one of the most famous rulers of Japan.

There is a saying in Japan that Nikko is “kekko”, that is, fantastic. And indeed, the Toshogu Mausoleum in Nikko is probably the most lavishly decorated sightseeing spot in Japan. The mighty Tokugawa dynasty forced every other leader in the country to contribute financially and with work force to the mausoleum. And all that effort shows. Even today, the sheer amount of decorative surfaces is astounding. You can spend hours just looking at all those carvings and details. Among them are the famous “three monkeys” that do not hear, speak, or see any evil.

Three monkeys at the Nikko Toshogu

Moreover, the mausoleum stands in an area of more than 400-year-old mighty trees. And the National Park beyond the mausoleum is a great area for hikes and day trips.

Nikko is a few hours by train away from Tokyo and easily doable as a day trip.

We were not sponsored in any way to write this blog post and paid all expenses ourselves.

Never miss a new post! Get notifications about new posts straight into your inbox!

Save this post for later:


  1. Japan certainly does have an interesting mix of UNESCO sites. Many highlight more about history than the architecture like we normally find. We visited Kyoto when we were in Japan. But sadly I must admit I did not know about the other 4 UNESCO sites you highlighted. It would have been nice to take the train from Tokyo and visit Nikko. Definitely a “kekko” site!

    1. Dear Linda, Kyoto is for sure worth a visit. And the UNESCO sites there are overrun by tourists for a reason. Even if there are many, many people – the Golden Pavillion and the Ryoanji Temple are highlights of a Japan trip.

  2. I think you chose such a great variety of different ones. It seems like there are so many good choices! If I had to pick one to visit, it would definitely be Shirakawa-go as it seems really historic and quaint.

  3. When I look at most of these sites, they don’t scream “Japan” to me. And I like that. The Shiretoko Nature protection area looks fascinating, I had no ideas that there were wild bears roaming around the natural areas of Japan. I have heard before of the Gunkanjima island, but back then, there wasn’t any way to get there, unless you would pay a fisherman, privately. I would love to stay overnight in one of those unique houses in Shirakawa-go. I hope the site will maintain its special character even with the arrival of tourists now, due to become more accessible to reach.

    1. Dear Joanna, there is so much more to explore in Japan than typical Kyoto and Osaka. If you ever get the chance to stay overnight in a traditional house I would recommend Ainokura over Shirakawa-go.

  4. I wish I knew about the Shiretoko Peninsula. This nature preserve looks spectacular and worth a visit. I have seen the Kyoto shrines and was very impressed. Now i wish for another visit to this special country to revisit sites and discover new ones like this!

    1. Dear Adele, most visitors in Japan stick to the so-called “Golden Route” between Tokyo and Kyoto, but there is so much to discover in Japan.

  5. We were in Japan few years ago and I was so amazed how many Unesco sites they had in Kyoto alone. Unfortunately we were not even able to visit them all in during our short stay there. It was interesting to read about the other sites, such as Shiretoko for example, that I had never heard of before. There is truly so much to see in Japan.

  6. I have traveled around Japan for three weeks using the JR pass but been to only one from your list of top 5 sites – Kyoto – Golden Temple! I thought I visited off-beat places like Shikoku, Asahikawa and Mount Aso – but looks like there is so much more to explore. I would love to visit Shirakawa-go and Nikko in my next visit. Thanks for a lovely blog!

    1. Dear Jan, Shikoku is off-beat for sure. Mount Aso seems to be on everybodys list lately. I have been there several times myself as a tour guide. Unofortunately the weather up there is quite often not good…

  7. My ultimate travel goal has always been Japan! The five sites you highlighted will not be overlooked if I travel here. They’re all lovely locations! However, if I had to choose only two places to visit, it would be Kyoto and Nikko.

    1. Dear Maria, Kyoto and Nikko are the two UNESCO sites on the list that can easily be visited on a shorter trip to Japan. But still, they offer some of the most impressive sights in Japan!

  8. I didn’t realize that Kyoto World Heritage Site consists of 19 sites. No wonder you need more than two days in Kyoto, or a week like you said. Not to mention how to beat the crowds. But sometimes I wonder what are the key factors of a place to be claimed as a Unesco site. I would like to visit Shirakawa-go and compares it with a village in Flores, Indonesia. Both have a thatched roof, villagers live there for generations, and visitors can spend a night in the traditional house, too. It is located up in the mountain, you can only reach it by hiking, and it looks more traditional than Shirakawa-go. I just wonder.

    1. Dear Umiko, I am sure that the houses in Indonesia you mentioned are more rural than Shirakawa-go. As we wrote, Shirakawa became quite touristy with the newly build highway. I would love to stay in a traditional house in Indonesia.

  9. These top UNESCO heritage sites in Japan are worth visiting and each one of them are unique.The Shiretoko peninsula with its thriving and rare wildlife, the bizarre island heritage site of Gunkanjima resembling a ship, the golden pavilion at Kinkakuji to the grand mausoleum of Tokugawa at Nikko famous for its lavish architecture really make these places worth visiting. And the wooden houses with thatched roofs at Shirakawa Go are so inviting to stay.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *