Japan has an impressive amount of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and if you’re looking for an alternative way to explore the country, this just might be it.
Dotted across the country, from the shores of Hokkaido to the islands of Okinawa, Japan has 21 sites deemed worthy of the title—and all are worth exploring. If you’re keen to see the traditional side of Japan, this is a great way to see some of the more historical aspects of the country, as well as some natural wonders. A two-week Japan Rail Pass is all you need to see almost all of the sites without breaking the bank, although there were some we had to leave out. This itinerary sticks to mainland Japan, but that’s all the more reason to come back again and see the rest!
Considering the full price of a 14-day rail pass can seem quite high at ¥46,390 per adult, you may be keen to know you’re getting your money’s worth. Well, you definitely are with this trip, no doubt about that. Since train travel in Japan is the same price whether it’s booked one hour or 3 months in advance, it’s easy to see how much you would save. If you fork out the ¥46,390 for the pass, and add on the extra ¥7,560 that isn’t covered by the pass on this trip (from buses to Shirakawago and private train lines) you’re left with a total travel cost of ¥53,560. If we add up the entire journey though (and we have) without the magical JR Pass, this holiday would cost you the grand sum of ¥121,120. That’s a saving of over ¥50,000 that you can spend on hotels, personalized chopsticks and the odd cup of matcha.
The Japan World Heritage Sites Itinerary
Tokyo | Hiraizumi | Nikko | Tomioka | Kanazawa | Shirakawago | Kyoto | Odashi | Hiroshima | Miyajima | Himeji | Osaka | Nara | Nachi | Kawaguchiko
There are 21 Japan World Heritage Sites, and as much as we would like to, it just wasn’t possible to fit them all in. The 7 sites left out are:
- Shirakami Sanchi in (Aomori and Akita)
- Yakushima (Kagoshima)
- Gusuku Sites in the Kingdom of Ryuku (Okinawa)
- Shiretoko (Hokkaido)
- Ogasawara Islands (Tokyo)
- sites of the Meiji Industrial Revolutions (Kyushu/Yamaguchi)
- sacred island of Okinoshima (Fukuoka)
When you get back to Tokyo: (or before you leave) make sure you visit the architectural work of Le Corbusier—there are examples in 17 countries and Japan’s is the National Museum of Western Art. That will bring you up to a healthy total of 14 sites!
Day 1: Tokyo – Hiraizumi | Sites representing the Buddhist Pure Land in Hiraizumi
Leave Tokyo Station at 8:48am – arrive at Hiraizumi 11:38am | 2 trains | Full ¥12,620 fare covered by JR Pass
Designated a World Heritage Site in 2011, Hiraizumi’s temples, gardens and archaeological sites are believed to represent the Buddhist Holy Land and were designed in an attempt to create an ideal world. Chuson-ji was founded in 850 and a full complex was built on the site including a treasure pagoda and a golden hall over two-and-a-half centuries later. Another spot that can’t be missed is the temple garden of Motsu-ji, once home to over 40 halls and pagodas, the garden is centered around Ozumigaike Lake. While there were originally four temple complexes with gardens, two remain buried—but grouped with Mount Kinkeisan and a notable 12th-century temple, there is still plenty to see.
Day 2: Hiraizumi – Nikko | Shrines and temples of Nikko
Leave Hiraizumi at 7:14am – arrive at Nikko 10:21am | 4 trains | Full ¥11,020 fare covered by JR pass
Best Value Flights To Tokyo
A sacred site well known to sightseers and historians alike, Nikko has an amazing collection of architectural masterpieces located in stunning natural surroundings. With a single complex made of over 100 buildings including two shrines and a temple, the site is spread across the mountainside and closely associated with the great Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. There are three main areas: Futarasan-jinja shrine, Tohsogu Shrine and Rinno-ji Temple.
Day 3: Nikko – Jishutomioka | Tomioka Silk Mill
Leave Nikko st 8:56am – arrive at Joshutomioka at 12pm | 4 trains | ¥8,460 covered by JR Pass | +790 yen
Only a 10-to-15-minute walk from Jishutomioka Station, the famed Tomioka Silk Mill was Japan’s first mass-production silk mill, based on practices from France. It was also the first industrial site in Japan to gain the protected status and is becoming a popular tourist attraction. Chosen as the site for the first mill due to ideal surroundings for silk cocoon production and coal supplies nearby, the area of Tomioka was quiet and unassuming. French workers came to Japan to instruct locals on how to use the modern machinery and it operated successfully for 115 years. The buildings have been well cared for ever since though, with the iconic red-brick fronts well recognized throughout the country. You can visit the silk-reeling mill, workers’ quarters and the main museum located in the East Cocoon Warehouse.
We suggest you travel back to Takasaki and stay overnight, perhaps visiting the famous Shorinzan Darumaji Temple, home to the famous Daruma dolls, if you have time. +790 yen
Day 4: Takasaki – Kanazawa | Kanazawa (Not a World Heritage Site, but lovely)
Leave Takasaki at 7:50am – arrive at Kanazawa at 11.02am | 1 train | Full ¥11,780 fare covered by JR Pass
Kanazawa may not be a World Heritage Site, but it’s too nice to pass through without spending some time exploring. Once home to the second-most powerful clan in Japan—the Maeda Clan—it grew to become a town of great influence and was saved from air raids in WWII. Thanks to this, you can now stroll through the preserved samurai district and see the Chaya entertainment districts too. Be sure to visit Kenrokuen, one of the best three landscape gardens in Japan, explore the ninja temple and experience the history of gold in the city—possibly by eating some gold-leaf ice cream!
Day 5 | Kanazawa – Shirakawago | Villages of Shirakawago & Gokayama
Catch the 8:50am Bus – arrive at Shirakawago at 9:25am | Not covered by JR Pass | +¥3,700 return
Catch the bus from the East Gate of Kanazawa train station and arrive bright eyed and bushy tailed at 9:25am. Designated as World Heritage Sites, the areas of Shirakawago and Gokayama are comprised of three towns: Ogimachi, Ainokura and Suganuma as they are the only remaining examples of the famed steep-roof houses in the whole of Japan.The picturesque houses, designed to withstand weight snow drifts and aid in the production of mulberry leaves and silk worms, are named after their similarity to hand in prayer. The Gassho-zukuri farmhouses are still used in Ogimachi, although there are some museums too. Head to the Shiroyama viewpoint to see the town from above and beware of the bears! Across the river is an open-air museum with houses moved from all over the area for their own protection. Return to Kanazawa that evening to spend the night.
This is probably the most costly part of your journey, as the buses are not covered by the JR Pass. It is ¥3,700 round trip, but it is the exception on this itinerary, and one worth making!
Day 6 | Kanazawa – Kyoto | Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto
Leave Kanazawa at 8:05am – arrive in Kyoto at 10:11am | 1 train | Full ¥6,700 fare covered by JR Pass
Kyoto is one of the only spots dedicated with 2 days worth of sightseeing, as there is simply so much to see! Officially, the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto” include areas in Kyoto City as well as nearby Uji and Otsu cities too. Depending on whether you want to squeeze Kyoto into a single day and explore Uji too, is up to you—either way, you’ll certainly see some incredible sights. Kyoto is best known for the Golden Pavilion, red torii gates of Fushimi Inari Taisha and of course the stunning bamboo forests of Arashiyama. If you plan to spend the full two days in Kyoto, we suggest you spend the first day exploring the west side of the city, using our handy itinerary designed for just the occasion!
Day 7 | Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto continued
If you’re planning to enjoy Kyoto for a second day, take a look at our guide to the east side of town, taking you from the bustling Nishiki Market, through the streets of Higashiyama and down towards Kiyomizudera and Fushimi Inari Taisha. It’s a full day of walking but there’s so much to see and so many side streets to explore, you won’t notice the holes in your shoes until you reach the end!
If you decided to head to Uji for the day, we have the perfect guide. Home to green tea and that famous temple you might recognize from the 10-yen coin as well as the Tales of Genji, there’s plenty to learn in Uji.
Day 8 | Kyoto – Odashi | Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine
Leave Kyoto at 7:20am – arrive in Odashi at 12:50pm | 3 trains | Full ¥12,570 fare covered by JR Pass
With an early start but a long train journey to nap on (just don’t miss your stop!), Day 8 will be spent exploring the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine, a historic site in Shimane Prefecture. Discovered early in the 16th century, the mine was active for nearly 400 years and led to the economic development of Japan and Southeast Asia—as well as prompting the mass production of silver and gold in Japan. Only restored as part of a locally-driven project over the last 50 years, it is now heavily wooded and was awarded its status in 2011. The site contains fortresses, shrines, old transport routes and three port towns where the ore was shipped from: Tomogaura, Okidomari and Yunotsu. Visit the latter for a soak in the famous onsen or take a stroll through the traditional streets of Omori Town. You can catch a bus from Oda to the mine which takes 25 minutes and costs ¥650 one-way, this is not covered by the rail pass.
Spend the night in Odashi, or get the train to Izumoshi (40 minutes) and spend the night there.
Day 9 | Odashi – Hiroshima | Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome)
Leave Odashi at 7:09am – arrive in Hiroshima at 10:52am | 2 trains | Full ¥9,660 fare covered by JR Pass
Hiroshima is a name known world wide, and the World Heritage Site here is one of the most iconic images of the country. The Atomic Bomb Dome, preserved as a reminder of the horrors the city suffered, is a place of hope, peace and remembrance today. Located in the beautiful Memorial Park, a short walk from the museums, it makes for a reflective day of learning and exploring, as well as enjoying the beautiful park that surrounds the area. We have a full day guide for seeing the city as well as some great places to eat the local dish of okonomiyaki!
Day 10 | Hiroshima – Miyajima | Itsukushima Shinto Shrine
Leave Hiroshima at 9am – arrive in Miyajima 10am | 1 train, 1 boat | Full ¥1,180 return fare covered on JR Pass
The island of Miyajima is too stunning to miss, whether it’s a World Heritage Site or not (but luckily it is). The specific site is the Itsukushima Shrine, a stunning red creation that floats above the sea and is home to one of the most iconic sights in Japan: the floating torii gate. Chosen in 1168 to be the site of the clan family shrine by Tairo no Kiyomori, the most powerful man in Japan, it had been worshiped for centuries as a holy site. Some of the features that have enabled its survival throughout the thousands of rising tides include stone lanterns used to weigh it down and you can still see the original fire ponds in the bed of the bay.
In a day you can visit the shrine both at low and high tide as well as having plenty of time to visit the rest of the great attractions on the island, including Daishoin Temple and Mount Misen’s hiking trails. You can either spend the night at one of the traditional ryokan (traditional inn) on the island or return to Hiroshima for the evening. Be aware that two ferry companies operate, with one accepting JR passes and one not—be sure you have checked the correct leaving times. (Although it is only ¥180).
Day 11 | Hiroshima – Himeji – Osaka | Himeji Castle
Leave Hiroshima at 8:13am – arrive in Himeji at 10:32am | 1 train | Full ¥0 fare covered on JR Pass
Nicknamed the White Heron Castle due to its elegant white appearance, Himeji Castle was designated a World Heritage Site in 1993. Having avoided damage from fires and earthquakes, the castle is one of Japan’s 12 original castles. It underwent a full renovation and opened its doors to the public in 2015, and has always been one of the most popular spots for cherry blossom in the country. The current structure was completed in the early 17th century, with over 80 buildings and beautiful gardens within the complex grounds. You can explore a certain amount without paying, but a small fee is required to enter past the Hishi Gate and into the castle itself.
Leave Himeji at 16:26 – Arrive in Osaka at 17:28 | 1 train | Full ¥1,490 fare covered on JR Pass
Day 12 | Osaka – Nara | Buddhist Monuments of Horyuji & Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara
Leave Osaka at 08:28 – arrive in Nara at 09.18 | 1 train | Full ¥800 fare covered on JR Pass
With one day trip to Nara you can knock two World Heritage Sites off your list: the Buddhist Monuments in the Horyuji area and the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara. Horyuji is accessible either by bus (1 hour, ¥760 or train(12 minutes on the Yamatoji Line, ¥220, then a 20-minute walk) from Nara Station. There, you can see one of the country’s oldest temples, founded in 607 and separated into two main areas: the East and West precincts. The former houses the world’s oldest surviving wooden structures: a 5-story pagoda, main hall and the central gate, while the latter holds the Hall of Visions. Nara itself has a wider collection of sites to visit: the Nara Palace archaeological site, the five Buddhist temples including Todai-ji, the Kasuga-Taisha Shinto shrine and the Kasugayama Primeval Forest. Check out our day guide to visiting Nara for all the details!
Day 13 | Nara – Nachi – Tokyo | Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range
Leave Nara at 8:37 – arrive in Nachi at 13:30 | 3 trains | Full ¥7,340 fare covered on JR Pass
Nara to Nachi is a pretty simple, albeit longer journey taking 293 minutes. Once you arrive, you can see one of the most famous waterfalls in Japan, surrounded by Kii Mountain Range. The Heritage Site actually includes a large area, with three main sites linked with pilgrimage routes to Nara and Kyoto. The area reflects the fusion of Shinto and Buddhist worship and is visited by over 15 million annually. You can hike the trails, admire the mountains and visit some of the holy sites, as well as seeing others on their pilgrimage.
Option 1: Leave on Day 13, arrive in Tokyo morning of Day 14
To be back in time for one extra day in Tokyo with a JR pass, catch the 17:33 Kinokuni Line from Nachi to Koza, then get on the Kuroshio 34 Ltd Exp to Shin-Osaka and hop on the Kyoto local line, and you’ll be in Osaka for 22:15. There you’ll have time for a late dinner and stretch your legs before catching the 00:34 Sunrise Seto to Tokyo—you ‘ll arrive in Tokyo bright and early with a day left on your pass. The Nobi Nobi cars on this train have no extra charge and include your own tatami sleeping mat for the night. Be warned though: tickets sell out for these trains, so if you plan to use one, reserve it as soon as you land in Japan. It cannot be booked from outside the country, so make your way to a JR information desk for more details asap.)
Leave Nachi at 17:33 – arrive in Tokyo at 7:08 the next day | 4 trains | Full ¥18,870 fare covered by JR Pass
Option 2: Stay in Nachi, leaving evening of day 14 (No Fuji travel covered)
If you would rather explore Nachi for longer, you can stay overnight and catch the 16:04 on the following day to Kiitanabe, change for Shin-Osaka and from there catch the Kodama bullet train to Himeji. That means you can catch the Sunrise Seto at 23:33—so within the last scrape of your rail pass’s 14th day (it arrives after midnight in Osaka unfortunately).
Leave Nachi at 16:04 – arrive in Tokyo at 7:08 the next day | 4 trains |Full ¥22,400 fare covered by JR Pass
Day 14: Tokyo – Kawaguchiko | Mount Fuji
Leave Tokyo at 9:05am – arrive in Kawaguchiko at 12:08pm | 2 trains | ¥2,980 return covered by JR Pass | +¥2,280 return fare
If you opted to arrive back in Tokyo bright and early from the Sunrise Seto, you can head to Kawaguchiko from Tokyo Station (possibly having a shower or onsen soak somewhere in between hopefully). You can catch a JR train down to Otsuki, but from there must ride the Fujikyu Railway which is not covered on the JR Pass. This means you’ll be paying ¥2,280 overall for this day outside of the rail pass amount. Fuji is the most famous spot in the whole of Japan, and any trip would not be complete without seeing or climbing it. It was given World Heritage status as a sacred place and source of artistic inspiration. It’s the perfect way to end your trip to Japan and will leave you with great memories too!