A massive list of the most fascinating places, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and tourists highlights in Japan
Are you looking for the top Japan highlights? Places so unique you can barely believe they are real?
Then I got good news for you: Japan is full of them. Sometimes it even feels like there’s a stunning tourist highlight around every corner. In this Japan travel guide, I put together a list of the top spots you really need to visit at least once in your lifetime. A lot of them are featured in my sample Japan itinerary, so check it out as well.
Anyways, here are my top Japan highlights:
1. A temple covered in pure gold
A temple covered in gold-leaf. Few highlights in Japan gain more attention than Kinkaku-Ji in Kyoto. And to be sure, I doubt there is a more photographed building in Japan. Read all about it here.
2. The oldest wooden building in the world
The spectacular Hōryū-ji (法隆寺) is home to the oldest wooden building in the world. The famous temple is believed to be built around 607 AD and some of the original timbers from that time are still supporting the halls and pagodas. For me, one of the best reasons to visit Nara, so don’t forget to read my guide! I also wrote a detailed list of the 10 best temples in Nara, in case you are looking for some further inspiration.
3. The 4th tallest statue in the world
Between 1991 and 2008 Japan held the title of the world’s tallest statue in the world. Both the Ushikaku Daibutsu and the Sendai Daikannon are 100 meters (330 ft) tall and quite impressive.
There are quite a lot of famous statues in Japan, and I urge you to visit at least one of them. For me, the highlight was certainly the Great Buddha of Kamakura. I wrote about it here.
4. The biggest wooden temple in the world
The Todai-Ji is one of the biggest wooden structures in the world and home of the world’s largest bronze statue of Buddha. An impressive structure you do not want to miss on your trip to Japan! The temple burned down – what you see now is a 17th-century reconstruction 30% smaller (!!!) than the original from the 8th century. Inside, you’ll find one of the biggest bronze Buddhas in the world as well!
As you will be moving around quite a bit, I recommend you to get a JR Pass for unlimited train rides. Here’s how to get to Nara from Kyoto.
5. A garden made of stone
Have you heard of Zen yet? Zen is a Buddhist tradition that is a bit more austere than other Buddhist schools, and it is particularly popular in Japan. You should definitely visit one of their temples. Most of them feature a rock garden. The most famous of them all: Ryōan-ji in Kyoto!
It sounds a bit peculiar at first, but once you immerse yourself in the clean lines of such a dry landscape garden, you will quickly come to appreciate the serenity of the moment! As there are more famous rock gardens in Kyoto, I urge you to check out my detailed Kyoto guide.
6. A temple with a 4 kilometers long tunnel of red gates
You’ve probably seen this one before. A lone red corridor? You are dead wrong! The Fushimi Inari-Shrine in Kyoto covers a whole hill with more than 10,000 such red gates! (read more about Fushimi Inari Shrine here). The place is just so unique and so unbelievable. Definitely deserves to be called one of the top Japan highlights!
7. The biggest (and strongest) wrestlers in the world
Have you heard about Sumo? Well, who hasn’t really. The national sport of Japan is one of many sports highlights you need to see. Here is my guide to watching a Sumo match (and how to get tickets).
8. The longest wooden bridge in the world
Japan is home to a lot of famous bridges. They come in all shapes, lengths, and materials. The longest wooden bridge in the world is the by far the Horai Bridge – 897,4 meters to be quite precise. As Horai is maybe not the prettiest bridge, you might want to check out the Kintai Bridge in Yamaguchi instead.
Or how about the Shinkyo Bridge in Nikko. You can read my guide to Nikko here. The bridge is actually part of a shrine, which is why it is red.
9. One of the oldest surviving music traditions in the world
I don’t know about you, but I love classical music. But while symphonies by Bach, Mozart or Beethoven are barely 300 years old or younger, Japan has a music tradition more than 1,200 years old.
Gagaku was introduced from China and became popular in the 8th century. And here is the thing: Gagaku is still being performed in its original form today! It’s highly structured court music that does sound a “tiny” bit odd (here’s a video). In 2009, the UNESCO declared it an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
10. The most beautiful islands in Asia
Japan has some beautiful islands scattered around its archipelago: But probably none is more beautiful than Miyajima. The ancient pilgrimage site is also a unique national park with free-ranging and friendly deer. Is it the most beautiful island? Well, I wrote a detailed guide to Miyajima, so check it out and tell me then!
11. Aquarium with the largest water capacity in the world
Japanese people love fish. But they don’t just eat them (although they eat a lot!). In Osaka, you get the chance to visit the Aquarium with the largest water capacity in the world: The Kaiyukan. If you are planning to visit Osaka (and you should), check out my guide!
12. Subway station with the most guests in the world
Tokyo’s subway is crazy. It truly is. During rush hour it truly feels like one giant anthill. Ayase station is said to be the busiest of them all with over 490,000 guests per day. And to give you a good impression. The Tozai Line transports 1.6 million passengers….. per day! To put things into perspective: That’s every inhabitant of Phoenix, Arizona on the subway – and that is just one line out of many!
Tokyo’s subway stations are sometimes so large that they would be called a city anywhere else. You can, quite literally, spend a whole day in the underground warrens of Tokyo main station. It is just so big. And actually, I recommend you to go, as there are a lot of good restaurants and shops there. Unlike in the western world, subway or railway stations are quite an important spot in Japan. So, don’t skip them.
13. The (2nd) longest railway tunnel in the world
The Japanese railway system is incredible. A network of highspeed trains (Shinkansen) connects all the major cities. And they are never late, depart every hour or less, are computer operated, and the list goes on. Despite all those earthquakes, there was never even a single major incident.
Perhaps it comes as no big surprise, that the longest railway tunnel in the world can be found in Japan. Definitely consider getting a Japan Rail Pass and explore the country by train – faster, cheaper, and safer than by car, bus or plane!
Up until 2016, when the Gotthard Base tunnel opened, the Seikan Tunnel under the Tsugaru Strait was the longest railway tunnel in the world. Still, 53.85 kilometers are still quite the feat!
14. The oldest living being in the world
If you ever walked in one of Japan’s ancient cedar groves, you’ll know that they are a beyond then special place. You’ll find such sacred groves around most Shinto temples, but there is one place you really have to keep in mind: Yakushima.
The small island in the far south of Japan is home to the oldest living tree in the world the so-called Jōmon Sugi (縄文杉) Cryptomeria tree is estimated to be between 2,170 and 7,200 years old.
15. The oldest hotel(s) in the world
We Europeans pride ourselves on some of the finest and oldest hotels in the world, but they are all nothing compared to their Japanese counterparts. Due to a unique political system during the “medieval times”, local feudal lords and Samurai were forced to visit the ruling Shogun quite often.
Thus, fine guesthouses were founded all over the country. Quite a few of them remain. The oldest of the lot is the Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan, which was founded in 705 AD and remains open until today. One of my favorite hotels in the world, the Tawaraya Ryokan in Kyoto, is also more than 300 years old. So, definitely consider staying at such a historic place on your visit!
16. The largest tomb in the world
Did you know? Egypt may have the pyramids, but there are actually bigger tombs in Japans. The so-called kofun tombs are gigantic burial mounds sitting in artificial lakes. You’ll find them especially in the area of Osaka and Nara.
They haven’t really been on the tourist radar so far (I never understood why), but the UNESCO finally declared the Mozu Tombs a World Heritage site in 2019. The moat alone is 840 meters long and was probably built around the 5th century AD.
Note: You cannot go inside the tombs, but the nearby Sakai City Museum will be able to provide further details.
17. More than 10,000 hot springs
Everyone will have heard of the many earthquakes in Japan. But the high level of volcanic activity has also a positive side. You’ll find beautiful hot springs in every town and village. Probably no other country has such a sophisticated bathing culture. (read my review of the best onsen in Japan).
Which means you should definitely check out an Onsen (the Japanese word for hot spring). Beppu, on the most southern main island of Japan, has the most of them. Head there, to be amazed.
18. A temple with 1,001 Buddhist statues
One of the most amazing tourist highlights in Kyoto is certainly the Sanjūsangen-dō. Inside the main hall of the Buddhist temple, you’ll find sheer endless rows of 1,001 standing Thousand-armed Kannon statues. This place makes you speechless!
19. More Chanel shops than in Paris
Japanese people are addicted to fashion. Seriously! I don’t think there is a single railway station in Tokyo without at least one Gucci or Louis Vuitton shop in it. A railway station! And when you head over to the Ginza, you’ll don’t see shops – the biggest fashion labels in the world occupy whole skyscrapers. It is just so crazy, really.
20. Probably more than 100,000 gardens
The Japanese go crazy on horticulture. I’ve never seen such breath-taking gardens before! I doubt anyone ever counted all the gardens in Japan, but you’ll find one basically around every corner. Even private mansions will often have a manicured corner of perfection. Here are some famous gardens to put on your list:
- Kenroku-en (Kanazawa)
- Koraku-en (Okayama)
- Kairaku-en (Mito)
- Katsura Imperial Villa (Kyoto; my personal favorite)
Other Japan highlights you might want to check out
Japan is famous for its ancient culture. Tea ceremony, Kabuki, Noh-theater, archery, and quite a lot of other ancient traditions come to mind. Sample as many as you can, because all of them are truly unique and will blow your mind. You also might want to get a hardcover travel guide (check out my list of the best Japan travel books) as wi-fi is sometimes a bit problematic.
One thing, you should definitely try to get in contact with is the Geisha culture. The best place to do so is in Kyoto. Since some misconceptions exist concerning geishas, check out this article on the secret world of geisha-parties from an insider’s perspective.
Above all, you should also consider visiting the natural highlights in Japan. Okinawa in the far south (read my guide) or Hokkaido in the far north are both home to stunning nature.