Where can history lovers go to experience the Japan of their imaginations? What are the most historic places to visit across Japan? Find out here.
Ready to step back in time? Japan is steeped in ancient history and thankfully much of the country’s wondrous past is still present today (no pun intended). From the samurai and castles of Feudal Japan to the golden age of the Heian and the innovations of the later Edo period, the development of Buddhism and Shintoism over the centuries, to its modern day UNESCO World Heritage sites, Japan’s fascinating history is as rich as it is varied. If visiting ancient Japan has been a lifelong dream then you’re in luck. While Japan has a reputation for being futuristic, it has also worked hard to preserve its proud history. In this blog, we’ll recommend our top ten locations to experience Japan’s ancient history, explain how to get there by train with the JR Pass, and. Welcome to the Japan of your imagination.
Top 10 History Destinations in Japan
1. Grand Ise Shrine
Known as the spiritual home of the Japanese people, Ise Grand Shrine (or Ise Jingu) dates back almost 2,000 years and remains the most important and culturally significant shrine in all of Japan. If you’re fascinated by Japan’s spiritual history and the beauty of its shrines and temples, then Ise Grand Shrine should be at the very top of your list. The shrine is the home of the sun goddess Amaterasu, Japan’s supreme deity, and the location of the Sacred Mirror of the Emperor. One of the most fascinating facts about Ise Grand Shrine is that every 20 years, the inner and outer shrines as well as the Uji Bridge, are taken down and completely rebuilt in keeping with Shinto beliefs of rebirth and renewal. Ise Grand Shrine is not just spiritually and culturally important to Japan, it is also one of the most beautiful shrines you could ever hope to visit.
Ise Grand Shrine is known as Ise Jingu because ‘Jingu’ is the highest classification of Shinto shrines. Shinto is one of the two main spiritual belief systems in Japan, the other being Buddhism. As a basic rule, shrines like Ise Grand Shrine are related to Shinto, while temples belong to Buddhism. You can find out much more about both belief systems in our Spiritual Guide to Japan. Unlike Buddhism, Shinto originated in Japan and is deeply woven into the fabric of Japanese culture and history. The Shinto religion involves the worship of multiple gods or spirits known as kami, who are said to inhabit all things. Purity is the big focus of Shinto and there are different rituals that involve the cleansing of worshippers. Since Shinto has evolved organically and has no single origin or sacred text, practices vary depending on the kami and the region of Japan in which they take place. You’ll be pleased to know that Ise Grand Shrine is easily accessible from across Japan using the Japan Rail Pass. From either Tokyo, Kyoto, or Osaka take the JR Tokaido Shinkansen bullet train to Nagoya and transfer at Iseshi Station. From Nagoya you can take a JR train or Kintetsu train to Ise City. For more information on shrines and our top five list (which includes Ise Grand Shrine) read our guide to Five Important Shrines To Visit in Japan. And for more on the history of Ise Grand Shrine, read our detailed guide, Everything You Need to Know About Visiting Ise Grand Shrine.
2. Kumano Sanzan Temples
Both Ise Grand Shrine and our next choice, the Kumano Sanzan temples, are located in the Kii Peninsula, which is south of Osaka. This makes the region a wonderful destination for history lovers. The three grand shrines of the Kumano region are collectively known as the Kumano Sanzan temples. They consist of the Kumano Hongū Taisha, Kumano Nachi Taisha, and Kumano Hayatama Taisha, these Shinto shrines are incredibly sacred and a common pilgrimage destination. Hidden away in the forests near the southern end of the peninsula, the three shrines are connected by the ancient pilgrimage trails of the Kumano Kodo. This means that visiting the Kumano Sanzan isn’t just for those interested in Japan’s spiritual side, it’s also perfect if you want the country’s natural side. You even have the chance to witness one of Japan’s most breathtaking waterfalls, Nachi-no-taki, when you stop at Nachi Taisha shrine. Amazingly, the Kumano Sanzan Temples and Ise Grand Shrine are not the only historic attractions in the Kii Peninsula. You’ll also find the historic and beautiful Buddhist monastery complex at Mt.Koya. Known as Kōyasan Shingon and located 800 metres above sea level, this is a unique and spiritual destination. One of the most important temples here is Danjo Garan, which has been a centre of religious teaching since the 9th century. If you’re lucky you might even spot some current students walking around in their yellow robes. Sights to see there include the recently-renovated Chūmon gate and the bright red Konpon Daitō pagoda.
Another major temple is the Oku-no-in sanctuary, home to a cemetery of 200,000 tombs and the mausoleum of Kōbō Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism. There in the forest you’ll find many stupas covered in moss and an air of tranquillity and reverence. Koya-san is also the beginning and end of the Shikoku Pilgrimage, which features 88 temples and shrines and can take three months to complete on foot. Even if you don’t have time for all 88, you can book a Shukubo (a ‘temple stay’) in Koya-san (which has more than 100 temples to choose from, many with their own onsen and zen gardens for maximum relaxation). Temples such as Eko-in and Muryoko-in are 1,000 years old and allow guests to meditate, practice calligraphy, take part in morning chanting and other rituals, and much more. It’s possible to stay for weeks to fully immerse yourself in the spiritual life. Read our Itinerary Tip: Koya-San for more information and travel recommendations.
While Nara in the Kansai region may attract lots of headlines for its free roaming deer, it’s also an incredibly historic destination. Nara is relatively small and makes for the perfect day trip from Kyoto or Osaka with the JR Pass. Most of its historic attractions, as well as its famous deer, are also located within the 660 hectare Nara City Park, which makes it easy to navigate.
Start with a visit to the Heijo Palace site, which is a remnant from the time when Nara was the Capital of Japan and is now a World Heritage site. From here, go to the city centre for a visit to Kohfukuji and its three story pagoda. This is one of the most famous pagodas in Japan. Next, it is only a five-minute walk to the Nara National Museum, which houses a magnificent collection of Buddhist art and historic national treasures. After lunch head east through the deer park to the Kasuga Taisha Shrine, known for the many stone lanterns donated by worshippers, a profound atmosphere of calm can be felt. After visiting the shrine, take a walk through the forest and soak in the peaceful atmosphere surrounding the place.
The last and most famous of our recommendations is Tōdai-ji - the crown jewel of Nara. This Buddhist temple complex houses the Great Buddha and its guardians. Even though it was completed in 752 A.D., it remains as one of the national masterworks of Japan.
Japan is home to a very special island whose forests produce ancient, long-lived trees known as sugi. Incredibly, this island, Yakushima, is home to one of the oldest trees in the world - Jomon Sugi - which may be an incredible 7,400 years old. Talk about history! Yakushima is a small, almost round island in the East China Sea, just south of the Kyushu mainland. It is home to the breathtaking Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its wondrous, unspoilt landscape, ancient trees, and endangered wildlife. It’s also known to be the real-life inspiration for Studio Ghibli’s animated film, Princess Mononoke. More than 1,000 acres of dense forest, atmospheric mist, lime-green moss, babbling streams, ancient, gnarled wood, and snaking vines, Shiratani is hauntingly beautiful and perhaps more than anywhere else in the country, truly brings to life Japan’s belief in the natural world as a gateway to the spirit realm and the domain of kami and gods.
Yakushima’s semi-tropical waters are filled with tropical fish and corals while its beaches attract endangered loggerhead turtles to lay their eggs in the summer months. The rest of this 200 square mile island is extremely mountainous and heavily forested. These fairy-tale forests, the most famous of which can be found in Shiratani Unsuikyo ravine, are home to Japanese cedar trees known as Yakusagi. The island is also dotted with geothermal hot springs (onsen), meaning that you can relax in a hot bath after climbing and hiking around this incredible landscape. You can reach the island from Kagoshima on the Kyushu mainland via two daily ferries, one docking at the port town of Miyanoura and the other at Anbo. To reach Kagoshima using the JRailPass, travel from Osaka or Hiroshima with the Sanyo Shinkansen to Hakata Station and then transfer to the Kyushu Shinkansen to arrive at Kagoshima Chuo Station, the city’s main station. Once you’ve reached Yakushima via ferry, there is a huge amount to see and do, from Princess Mononoke’s forest to finding one of the world’s oldest trees. As we’ve mentioned, there are also hot springs (onsen) to relax in and the island is famous for its climbing and walking trails. You can also go nature spotting and then return to one of the port towns or beaches for some local seafood.
As we mentioned above, Yakushima is also home to a remarkable species of long-lived, cedar-like trees called cryptomeria japonica, which are endemic to Japan and more commonly known as sugi. Yaku sugi are at least 1,000 years old while jomon sugi are more than 2,000. In fact, there is a famous Jomon Sugi on Yakushima that may be as old as 7,400 years old – making it one of the oldest on the planet. There is a specific walking trail to reach Jomon Sugi and it is 6.7 miles – so definitely not for the faint of heart. Seeing such an amazing living entity with your own eyes would truly be the mark of the holiday of a lifetime however and it is yet another reason why Yakushima is such a special destination. For more, read our guide Visit Yakushima: Adventure Awaits in the Real-Life Forest from Princess Mononoke.
5. Himeji Castle
One of Japan’s most beautiful and historic castles, Himeji Castle is well worth a visit. Together with the castle garden, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and national treasure of the highest rank. Because of its brilliant white exterior and resemblance to a heron taking flight, the castle bears the name “White Heron Castle” (Shirasagi-jō).
The history and identity of Himeji city has long revolved around its castle, which has its origin in 1333, when the first fort on mount Himeji was built. A little over two centuries later in 1581, the fort was turned into a castle. In the following decades, Himeji castle was steadily expanded upon, creating an extensive castle complex with advanced defensive systems, which ended up being the largest castle in Japan. Unlike other castles in Japan, Himeji castle stood the test of time and was never destroyed by war or natural disaster, it survived fire bombs during WWII and the great Hanshin earthquake in 1995. In 2010 Himeji castle underwent a massive restoration project that took over 5 years and re-opened to the public in 2015. Today Himeji castle remains open to the public on most days and is an excellent example of prototypical Japanese castle architecture, feudal defence works and overall cultural significance.
The gentle and historic city of Kanazawa may well be one of the most fascinating places in Japan that you’ve never heard of. Located on the north coast of Honshu in the Ishikawa Prefecture, Kanazawa was once a rival to Kyoto and Tokyo and yet it’s mostly unknown nowadays to those hoping to explore Japan. The city survived WWII nearly untouched, meaning many of the best places to visit in Kanazawa are both blessed with a long history and are extremely picturesque.
To transport yourself back several hundred years into the Edo period, make your way to the district of Higashi Chaya. This is Kanazawa’s geisha neighbourhood, and the homes and buildings here have been expertly preserved. Beyond its pretty scenery, Higashi Chaya also flaunts many local teahouses where you can experience the local teahouse culture. In some teahouses it’s even possible to witness a geisha performance involving traditional dances and songs, something that is normally reserved for very select audiences. Kanazawa actually has not one but three districts like this one - Higashi Chaya, which we’ve already mentioned, Nishi Chaya, and Kazue Machi. Nagamachi, the city’s samurai town is also 100% worth a visit for history lovers.
Kanazawa is actually quite an easy place to get to, with great connections with major cities like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. Whether you have the Osaka-Tokyo Hokuriku Arch Pass or the Japan Rail Pass, Kanazawa is only 2-3 hours away by train. If you’re travelling from Tokyo, you can take the JR Hokuriku Shinkansen, while the Limited Express Thunderbird connects Osaka and Kyoto with Kanazawa.
Known as the ‘Samurai City’, it’s hard not to be intrigued by the historic city of Aizuwakamatsu. The city in the Fukushima Prefecture earned the name because it was one of the last places in Japan to give up the feudal culture of samurai and shogun during the Meiji Restoration in the 19th century. That warrior history has been carefully preserved in Aizuwakamatsu, with many of the best places to visit in Aizuwakamatsu related to this heritage. When visiting Aizuwakamatsu, one place you don’t want to miss is the Aizu Bukeyashiki, a traditional samurai residence. During the Edo Period, this residential complex was home to some of the most important samurai in the region. Even though it was destroyed during the Boshin War, this historical landmark was faithfully rebuilt to look as it once did. There are 38 rooms to explore in the complex that together help paint a picture of life for the samurai who resided here. Despite being quite a distance from the most popular tourist destinations in Japan, you won’t find it hard to reach Aizuwakamatsu with the Japan Rail Pass. Travelling from Tokyo, take the Tohoku Shinkansen to Koriyama, where you then change to the Ban-Etsusai Line for Aizuwakamatsu. Both legs are covered under the JR Pass so you shouldn’t have any worries getting there.
8. Narai and the Nakasendo Way
A beautiful and historic post town, Narai in Nagano Prefecture is one of the best-preserved of the Edo period towns on the famous Nakasendo Trail. This Edo period walking trail connects modern day Tokyo (formerly known as Edo) with Kyoto and includes a wealth of stunning scenery along the way. The Nakasendo was created during the Edo period as one of five official routes for Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu to control the country. It was travelled by lords, merchants, pilgrims, monks, samurai and more, including the famous haiku master Matsuo Basho.
The five routes, including the Nakasendo, were restored from pre-existing highways and pathways that dated back more than a thousand years by edicts introduced by the Shogun in 1602. As it took several days to complete the 332-mile Nakasendo trail, the route included a number of Juku (rest stations) post towns for travellers to stay overnight. Originally, there were a total of 69 of these post towns along the route - Narai, which we mentioned above is just one of them. While modern roads and railways eventually reduced the political importance of the Nakasendo, the trail exists today as a scenic journey into Japan’s feudal past. The most historic sections that remain, particularly those in Gifu Prefecture and Nagano Prefecture’s Kiso Valley, are where you’ll find some of Japan’s most charming and picturesque former post towns such as the aforementioned Narai, Tsumago, and Magome. Read our guide to Walking the Nakasendo Trail for more.
Known as the cultural heart of Japan, Kyoto is packed full of incredible history. The only downside is that Kyoto is so famous for its historic buildings, cultural treasures, shrines, and temples, that it is extremely popular with international visitors. It is, however, 100% worth it to see the beauty and history of Kyoto with your own eyes. Kyoto was the capital of Japan from the 8th Century to 1868 and the city embodies more than 1,000 years of history. Arguably the city’s most famous and historic districts are Gion, which is famous for its geisha district, and Pontocho, which was the birthplace of Kabuki. We’d recommend visiting both and have put together a guide to Kyoto After Dark: An Evening Stroll through Pontocho and Gion.
Kyoto is also home to some of Japan’s best shrines and temples. In fact, it boasts more than 1,600 temples which can make it hard to know where to start. Thankfully, we’ve done the hard work for you by putting together a list of our best temple recommendations when visiting Kyoto. Our list includes Kinkaku-ji Temple, Kiyomizudera Temple, Saiho-ji Temple, Kennin-ji Temple, Tofuku-ji Temple, Nanzen-ji Temple, Ginkaku-ji Temple, and Ryoan-ji Temple. Perhaps the most iconic temple in Kyoto is the “Golden Pavilion” of Kinkaku-ji - this iconic building has been the postcard of the city for many years. While Kinkaku-ji was founded in 1397, the temple had to be rebuilt in 1955 after a devastating fire. Despite that, it is one of many temples on this list that make up the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Also vying for top spot among Kyoto’s temples is Kiyomizudera and its magnificent verandah. Kiyomizudera is found on Mt. Kiyomizu and overlooks the city. The original temple dates back to 798 although what you’ll see now is the version that was rebuilt in 1633. The temple’s name translates as “Pure Water Temple” and comes from the pure waters flowing over the Otowa Waterfall close by. But it’s really the immense wooden stage, said to have been built without a single nail, that is the star attraction here. For more temple recommendations read our blog post on the Best Buddhist Temples in Kyoto to Visit.
Kyoto is also famous for its Shinto shrines of course. The most famous and most important being Fushimi Inari Taisha, whose vermillion red torii gates were featured in the 2005 film ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’. Fushimi Inari Taisha was founded in 711, which makes it one of the oldest shrines in Kyoto. It was originally located on Inariyama hill, in the southwest of the city, before being relocated to its present and permanent home by the Hata family in 816. A century later, in 942, it was given the highest rank among Shinto shrines, and in 1499, after the beautiful and ornate main shrine structure was built, Japan designed Fushimi Inari Taisha as an Important Cultural Property. The origin of Fushimi Inari Taisha is steeped in legend. The story goes that a rice cake was fired into the air and turned into a swan which flew to the peak of Mt. Inari. Rice began to grow on the mountain top and the spot became the head shrine for Inari Okami, the Japanese god of rice, sake, and prosperity, and the patron of businesses, merchants and manufacturers. Today, thousands of people from across Japan, and millions of visitors from around the world, come to pray for fruitful harvests, business success, and other blessings. It is particularly popular for New Year prayers in Japan – one of the most important dates in the calendar. You can find out more about this in our guide to Celebrating New Year in Japan. And of course, many international visitors come to see the famous Senbon Torii – the thousands of vermilion red gates in dense rows leading to the Torii gate hiking trail. Each one bears the name of a person or business carved in black who donated the gate to receive good luck and fortune. For more, read our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine.
10. Edo Tokyo Museum
For a different kind of historic experience, you can also visit the Edo Tokyo Museum in Tokyo to learn what life was like living in this incredible city through past centuries. From the Japan medieval era, when Tokyo was called Edo (up to 1869), to recent decades. The museum vividly retells and illustrates the lives of people from different walks of life, from the Samurai in Edo to the post-war salaryman. The museum exhibition starts with the founding of Edo by the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, in 1603. By the early 18th century, Edo had become one of the largest population centres in the world, similar to cities like Paris and London, with over a million inhabitants. At the same time, culture flourished and many of the arts, events, and cultural products Japan is world-famous for today have their origins in Edo-Tokyo. Think of kabuki theatre, ukiyo-e woodblock printing and festivals like the Sanja Matsuri found their origin or at least shape as we know them today in early Edo. In the 19th century, Edo was booming, with a quickly growing population and as well culturally, it was only a matter of time before the rest of the world took notice. It is in this time that Edo first saw international contacts and influence. That contact ultimately led to the Meiji Restoration in 1868, many cities and regions were renamed, and it is here that Edo became known as Tokyo. It is here that Tokyo began its path to the modern metropolis we know today. Incredibly, the Edo-Tokyo Museum features more than 800.000 pieces of art and history on display, grouped in 22 stages.
The Edo-Tokyo Museum can be reached on foot from JR Ryogoku station within 3-5 minutes, with is located on the JR Sobu line which runs through central Tokyo towards Chiba and stops at important stations like Shinjuku (JR) and Akihabara and is covered by the Japan Rail Pass. From Tokyo station take the JR Yamanote line to Akihabara station, and then transfer to the JR Sobu line. Directions to the museum are well posted within the station.
If you’re the history loving type then we suspect you might also be interested in Japan’s other cultural offerings (of which there are many!). Japan is a country of art and culture, from the classical to the contemporary. Here are a few bonus suggestions that would sit well alongside a history tour of Japan.
- Interested in Japan’s literary history? Take A Literary Tour of Japan to find out everything you need to know about Japan’s greatest authors past and present.
- How about getting hands on yourself? Experience part of Japan’s culture by reading How To Learn The Art of Calligraphy?
- Those interested in art and culture should definitely check out our guide to Naoshima Art Island - a small island in the Seto inland sea between Okayama and the main island of Shikoku that’s famous for both its modern indoor and outdoor art.
- Closely related (and featuring some crossover with our list above) are Japan’s modern-day UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Naturally, Japan has some of the very best in the world and we’ve put together an article about the best of the best and how to get to each one with the JR Pass. For more, read Japan World Heritage Sites to Visit with the JR Pass.