With a giant statue of Buddha dating back to 1252 (Kamakura Daibutsu), it is clear that Japan is a country that has a deep and lengthy history. In fact, Japanese history dates all the way back to 4,000 BCE and includes numerous eras of cultural enrichment and development. Through these eras Japan has continued to improve upon original, unique cultural aspects developed from within, and it has also incorporated elements from outside influences. With a history as deep as Japan’s, there have been many sites that have left a mark in history books due to their importance in one way or another. Here are 10 of the best historical sites to see in Japan.
Otaru is a port city located in Hokkaido. It is a short 25 minute drive from the capital of Sapporo and includes many historical buildings, especially the Victorian-style buildings along the Otaru Canal. Otaru is reportedly one of the original settlements of the Ainu people and is evident when visiting Temiya Cave to see the ancient Ainu carvings inside. It is also felt when hiking Mt. Akaiwa which is referenced in many Ainu traditions and folk tales. Otaru became a trading port with the US and UK in 1899 due to an Imperial decree and in the 1950’s its coal industry started to decline and Sapporo became the economic center of Hokkaido.
Kakunodate is located in Akita Prefecture, and as of 2005 it merged with Tazawako and Nishiki to create Semboku. Kakunodate is famous for its well preserved samurai houses and its many, many cherry blossoms that are especially popular in the springtime when they bloom, a period known as ohanami. Affectionately referred to as “Little Kyoto of Tohoku,” Kakunodate boasts the Kakunodate Castle ruins and the Kakunodate Matsuri, which has been deemed an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property by the Japanese government.
3. Higashi Chayagai
Higashi Chayagai, also known as the “Eastern Tea House District” is located in Kanazawa. In the 1820’s it was an entertainment district for the wealthy and included geisha, music, dancing and drinking. It has been preserved and there are still two geisha houses that are open to the public to this day. Ochaya Shima includes a museum and a tea house while Kaikaro is a geisha house that is open to the public during the day for a modest fee. At night it transforms into an exclusive, private venue. Visitors can also purchase traditional gold leaf decorations that have been popular in Kanazawa for over 400 years or enjoy some delicious gold leaf decorated ice cream. Kintsuba Nakatoya is a traditional sweets shop worth checking out. Travelers can get to Higashi Chayagai by bus from Kanazawa Station.
Tsumago is a restored Edo period town located in Nagano Prefecture. It’s one of the towns of Nakasendo trails, where 69 towns connected Kyoto to Edo (known as Tokyo today), and Tsumago was the 42nd town on the route. Tsumago is home to many shrines, temples, museums and castle ruins. Though popular with tourists, this town is fully inhabited and was deemed a Nationally Designated Architectural Preservation Site by the Japanese government in 1976.
Arimatsu is located in Aichi Prefecture and was merged with Nagoya in 1964. Arimatsu is the location of the Battle of Okehazama. In this battle Oda Nobunaga, though outnumbered, was victorious, cementing himself as one of the most renowned warlords in Japanese history. Arimatsu is also the home of shibori, or traditional Japanese tie-dye.
Omihachiman is named after Hachiman, the Shinto god of war, and is located in Shiga Prefecture. Omihachiman is a preserved merchant town and the home of Lake Biwa, the largest freshwater lake in Japan. One of Omihachiman’s most famous residents was William Merrell Vories, an American architect who became a naturalized Japanese citizen prior to World War II.
Sawara is located in Chiba Prefecture. Traditional marchant houses and shops line up along Ono River. It is a well-preserved town dating back to the Edo period. It takes only 30 minutes by train from JR Narita Station, it’s a great spot to drop by when you have a layover in Narita International Airport. The best way to enjoy the area is by taking a traditional riverboat. The whole trip is about 30 minutes, have a good time on a relaxing riverboat ride in the historical towns!
Kawagoe, also known as “Little Edo,” is located in Saitama Prefecture. The nickname “Little Edo ” is derived from its many historic buildings. Kawagoe is famous for its sweet potatoes which can be purchased from food stalls on the street. Kawagoe’s “Candy Street” includes chips, coffee, beer and ice cream – all of which are available in sweet potato flavors. Confectionary Road offers shops that sell cheap, traditional candy. Another interesting street is Kurazukuri Street, a street in the traditional style and that was built to be fireproof due to the Great Fire of Kawagoe in 1893. One of Kawagoe’s most famous attractions is the Kawagoe Festival held annually in October.
Kurashiki is located in Okayama Prefecture and was where the Taira and Minamoto clans clashed. Kurashiki was then controlled by the shogunate and eventually developed into an industrial area with many factories. This industrial area is known as “Bikan” and includes wooden warehouses and no electric poles in order to preserve the traditional image. Kurashiki was the first place in Japan to open a museum of Western art. It is also connected to the Great Seto Bridge which goes over the Seto Inland Sea.
Takehara is a port city in Hiroshima Prefecture. It was a central location for the salt industry before the city was dubbed “The Little Kyoto of Aki.” It is the hometown of Masataka Taketsuru who is most well known as being the founder of the Japanese whisky industry and the Nikka Whisky brand. Nearby tourist attraction is Okunoshima,which is known as a rabbit island. You can also visit the poison gas museum on the island.
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From Hokkaido to Hiroshima, these are 10 of the best historic sites to see in Japan and they offer a little something for everyone to enjoy.
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Trevor Jones is an educator and an aspiring marketer. Originally from the United States, he moved to Tokyo in 2017. Trevor enjoys exploring new destinations and sharing his experiences. He can be found on Instagram at @tjones312