Rediscovering Japan - Visit the World Heritages | Japan Highlights Travel, for sightseeing around Tokaido

Treasures to be handed down to the future

We Japanese respect and revere nature in our everyday lives, and have nurtured its regional diversity down the ages. Nature and culture have been preserved throughout our long history. Several pieces of Japan's cultural and natural heritage have been recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as pieces of "World Heritage", irreplaceable treasures to be handed down to the future. Rediscover Japan, and be touched by ageless treasures the whole world can be proud of.

Toji (Kyoo-Gokoku-ji Temple)

Tanuki Lake

Ninna-ji Shinden

Shiraito Falls

World Heritage is the
"embodiment of history and culture"

A prerequisite for inclusion on UNESCO's World Heritage List is for somewhere or something to be considered of "outstanding universal value" from the point of view of such fields as history, the arts and academia, or for example by virtue of its natural beauty. In other words, a piece of World Heritage is an "embodiment of history and culture" which is of value to the whole world. By visiting World Heritage Sites, we get to experience the traditional crafts, ideas and wisdom of people from ages past. This leads us to a better understanding of and respect for the cultures of other countries.

What World Heritage Sites can be found along the Tokaido?

The Tokaido, which linked the two important cities of Edo (now Tokyo) and Kyoto, developed in the early Edo period. It was a vital route for the transport of culture and technology as well as people. Today, there are two wonderful World Heritage Sites, places that embody the history and culture of Japan, on the Tokaido. The first of these is the "Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto", a collection of sites of outstanding artistic value which are protected as symbols of Japanese culture. The second, "Fujisan, sacred place and source of artistic inspiration", was registered as recently as 2013.

Ryoan-ji Temple

Suyama Sengen Shrine

Visiting the World Heritage Sites of the Tokaido

See the stunning crafts of Japan in ancient Kyoto

Daigo-ji Temple

Mt. Fuji viewed from Yoshiwara in the morning

  • Kyoto

  • Mt. Fuji

Ryoan-ji Temple

Kyoto was established in 794 AD as Heiankyo, and flourished as the political, economic and cultural center of Japan for approximately 1,000 years, until the Edo period. Despite the passing of 1,200 years, the streets, events, customs, temples and architecture still retain a strong flavor of the city's long history and traditional culture. Seventeen temples that represent Kyoto's history and culture are registered on the World Heritage List as the "Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto".

Among these sites, the gardens in particular have developed as state-of-the-art expressions of the culture of each era. These gardens represented the Buddhist Land of Happiness, sometimes expressed the teachings of Zen, and also displayed the power of the feudal lord. In Kyoto, all manner of garden cultures can be seen, reflecting the changing religion and ideas of the times. The fabulous crafts that have been passed down the ages by the people of Kyoto can be seen in the many temples and shrines themselves, and also in the Buddhist statues, wall paintings and so on preserved inside them.

Daigo-ji Temple

Tenryu-ji Temple

Another charm of the city is the way it changes its face with the four seasons. According to the time of day and the season, the city takes on a completely different aspect, and not just in the special places like its gardens and temples, but also in its narrow lanes and backstreets, too. This scenery is a form of art in itself, and is exclusive to Kyoto, because only there has the nature all around been so delicately woven into everyday life.

Kyoto is the only city that can show people living today so much of the fascinating history and culture of Japan. Registered as a World Heritage Site in 1994, the "Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto" represent Kyoto itself, of which it can be said the entire city is like a World Heritage Site.

Ninna-ji Shinden

Toji (Kyoo-Gokoku-ji Temple)

Admire gardens of scenic beauty

A Japanese garden is a special place where the spirit and world of Buddhism is ever present. In particular, in Kyoto there are gardens whose like cannot be seen anywhere else, for example gardens which represent "Heaven" and gardens which represent "the Universe".

The former is a garden in the so-called "Jodo style". This style was developed in the mid-Heian period and represents the Buddhist Land of Happiness. A garden of ponds spreads out from the main hall or Buddha hall of the temple building. The latter is a garden with a dry landscape which represents the Buddhist world view and the Universe, and incorporates the teaching of the Zen sect that flourished during the Muromachi period. This style of garden does not use water, but expresses rivers and oceans using white sand, and mountains and islands by combining large and small natural stones.

Ryoan-ji Temple

Besides gardens reflecting religion and ideology, the Muromachi period also saw the construction of numerous so-called "chisen-kaiyushiki" gardens, with bridges and stepping stones, and a pond surrounding miniature hills and forests with a little stream or waterfall flowing into it. This type of garden is said to be a compilation of all Japanese gardens, because the scenery can be enjoyed from various angles while walking around the pond.

In this way, Kyoto has various types of garden, each reflecting a different era. One can enjoy a quiet conversation with nature in the midst of a rock garden, surrounded only by sand and stones. Chisen-kaiyushiki gardens harmonize Japan's ancient wave-washed beaches and the mountainous landscape derived from the Asian continent. Some of them are covered by 120 or so different species of indigenous mosses. These gardens reflect a passion for creating gardens which incorporate dynamic natural elements, and cannot fail to touch every visitor.

Daigo-ji Temple

Recommended tourist areas

The Four Seasons

Japan is a country where the year is divided into four definite seasons. Cherry blossoms bloom in spring, green abounds in summer, leaves turn red in autumn, and in winter the land is covered with a blanket of snow. The landscape changes dramatically with the changing climate, and this has given rise to various events and has played a large role in the development of Japanese culture.

Among the country's many regions, the four seasons are particularly distinct in Kyoto, surrounded as it is by mountains in all four directions. The city has a harsh environment characterized by heat and humidity in the summer and a sharp chill in the winter, but the inhabitants long ago learned to embrace these changes, and integrated the "beauty" of the four seasons into the life, events, and scenery of the city.

Take spring, for example. Kyoto is colored light pink from the end of March and into April. Cherry blossom petals and leaves are used in local confectionery during this period to celebrate the coming of spring. Also, many shrines hold a hina matsuri ("doll festival") while the cherry trees are in blossom, with special ceremonies, splendid illuminations, nagashi-bina ("floating dolls"), gagaku (old Japanese court music), and dances.

In autumn, the ancient city takes on the burning colors of red, yellow, and orange leaves. From the Heian period on, aristocrats would enjoy going out to view the beautiful autumn foliage, an activity which to this day is called "momiji-gari".
Then comes winter, and the city is covered with snow. The temple buildings blanketed with snow are a rare and beautiful sight. During this season, some cultural assets that are usually hidden from sight are opened to the public.
In this way, the city of Kyoto has evolved into an elegant and beautiful space through the skillful integration the four seasons into the lives of its inhabitants.

Toji (Kyoo-Gokoku-ji Temple)

Toji (Kyoo-Gokoku-ji Temple)

Recommended tourist areas

Beautiful wall paintings that are the pride of all Japan

If you visit a temple or castle in Kyoto, you may be struck by the luxurious decorations adorning sliding paper doors, screens and walls. These pictures, drawn on fusuma and shoji or pasted on the wall, are called "shoheki-ga".

Shoheki-ga developed along with the "shoin zukuri" architectural style which the samurai were fond of from the Muromachi period to the beginning of early modern times. Shoin-zukuri was a highly-regarded formal style, and was created mainly with the function of holding meetings and welcoming guests in mind. The style saw the development of partitions consisting of sliding paper doors called "fusuma" and "shoji", an innovation which had been somewhat lacking from the "shinden zukuri" style that had been popular among nobles up until then. Artists painted shoheki-ga on these fusuma and shoji, and on walls. The artwork was a demonstration of the position and power of its owner.

Representative of the form is the work of the Kano school. The Kano school was a group or artists who dominated Japan for a long period beginning in the mid-Muromachi. The school was founded by Masanobu Kano, who served Yoshimasa Ashikaga, the eighth shogun of the Muromachi Bakufu. Generations of Masanobu's descendants continued to serve the wielders of power of their time, such as Nobunaga Oda, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, and the Tokugawa family, as court artists, and continued producing masterpieces of the shoheki-ga form for temples, castles and the Imperial Palace.

In particular, Eitoku, a great-grandchild of Masanobu, perfected the splendid art of the gold and jasper shoheki-ga, for which he applied blue, green, red and black inks to gold leaf. "Kara-e", paintings depicting Chinese history and scenery, had been the mainstream for shoheki-ga prior to Eitoku's work, but he introduced into his paintings the beauty of the four seasons in Japan, and laid down a new artistic principle which blended the spirituality of the Chinese style with the decorativeness of traditional Yamato-e.
Besides its association with the Kano school, Kyoto has played a large role in the lives of many other artists who have come to represent Japan - artists like Tohaku Hasegawa, Jakuchu Ito, Sotatsu Tawaraya, and Korin Ogata. Their work is still much loved, and central to the beautiful spaces of Kyoto, spaces where we can contemplate former times.

Ninna-ji Shinden

Recommended tourist areas

Mt. Fuji viewed from Asagiri Highlands

Mt. Fuji was registered as the World Heritage Site "Fujisan, sacred place and source of artistic inspiration" in 2013. The site includes mountain trails, Shinto Shrines, lakes - in all 25 relics and other items of World Heritage. The mountain itself is at the center of a culture of worship unique to Japan, and its beauty has had a profound influence on the arts.

The mountain is known around the world for its beauty, but since ancient times it has also been feared as a "dwelling place of a god" because of its repeated eruptions. To calm the mountain's anger, approximately 1,200 years ago a number of Sengen Shrines began to be built in its foothills, by order of the Imperial Court of the time. In the late Heian period, Buddhism, Taoism and other faiths syncretized mountain worship directed towards Mt. Fuji, and it became a place of mountain asceticism, with climbing its slopes one of the acts of worship.

Mt. Fuji viewed from Yoshiwara in the morning

Tagonoura stone monuments with poetry expressing the view of Mt. Fuji

Fujiko became popular in the Edo period. Fujiko were schemes into which people who worshiped Mt. Fuji contributed money little by little and slowly built up their savings over time. There was a boom in such schemes and vast numbers of common folk went to climb the mountain, to the point where the saying went, "Edo is so wide it has 808 towns, and the schemes are so many there are 808 schemes."

Furthermore, artists were attracted by the solemn figure of Mt. Fuji, and expressed its beauty in literature and art. In the Manyoshu, the oldest anthology of Japanese literature, one poem reads, "The top of Mt. Fuji was covered in snow when I looked from Tagonoura." Mt. Fuji also features in such classics as "The Tale of the Bamboo-Cutter", the "Kokinwakashu" (literally, "Collection of Japanese Poems of Ancient and Modern Times") and the "Tales of Ise".

Mt. Fuji was seen as a most suitable theme for ink wash paintings in the Muromachi period, and in more recent years has featured strongly in the work of artists such as Taikan Yokoyama. However, the works which have had the most impact worldwide must surely be the ukiyo-e of the Edo period. Hokusai Katsushika's "Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” ("Fugaku Sanju Rokkei") and Hiroshige Utagawa's work of the same name (the name in Japanese, "Fuji Sanju Rokkei", differs slightly from that of the former) crossed oceans, and are said to have influenced Gogh, Monet and the other Impressionists.

Mt. Fuji was at last registered as a World Heritage Site in 2013, in recognition of its inestimable value as a source of inspiration to the arts (as seen in poetry and paintings, to give but two examples), of its cultural legacy as an object of worship, and of the natural beauty of its graceful cone.

Hokusai Katsushika Gaifu kaisei of Fugaku sanjuu rokkei (Thirty-six views of Mt. Fuji)

Sengen Shrines: Sacred gateways to the mountain

Nowadays it is common to begin an ascent of Mt. Fuji from the fifth stage, located around the timberline, but in times gone by, climbers usually set out from the first stage, way down at the foot of the mountain. Sengen Shrines can still be found at the start of some mountain trails, in the forests around the mountain's base. Down among the magnificent trees and singing birds you can experience a vital side of Mt. Fuji which is quite different from anything you will find at the summit. Why not sample the solemn atmosphere of the same Shinto shrines and forests where people of old would pray for a safe return before beginning their ascent?

Recommended tourist areas

Suyama Sengen Shrine

Shrines which tell of mountain worship

Mountain worship - the act of revering a mountain. Mt. Fuji more than any other must have seemed god-like to people of old, with its majestic, towering beauty and unpredictable eruptions into violence. The god of Mt. Fuji was enshrined at the foot of the mountain, a place from which it was possible to look up and see the mountain in all its glory. The Yamamiya Sengen Shrine, considered to be the oldest expression of Mt. Fuji worship, has no main shrine, just a place to worship the mountain from afar. Mt. Fuji can be observed through a break in the forest. The chance to see ancient relics of the worship of Mt. Fuji and mountain trails still paved with stone, used to this day in events to mark the opening of the climbing season, is not to be missed.

Recommended tourist areas

Yamamiya Sengen Shrine

Places of ascetic Fuji worship

Sometime around the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, a Buddhist mountain ascetic called Kakugyo Hasegawa, after repeated acts of austerity at the foot of Mt. Fuji, was eventually granted mystical power and went on to give aid to the common people through the power of prayer. Kakugyo is said to have preached the doctrine of Mt. Fuji worship to the common people, and to have been the father of the Fujiko schemes for saving money to make the pilgrimage to Mt. Fuji that became so popular in Edo. The Shiraito Falls and Hitoana Fujiko Remains are places which Kakugyo visited as a pilgrim and where he performed acts of water asceticism. Spots like these which afford the beauty of a waterfall or the austerity of rough lava are still very popular today as places of pilgrimage and Fuji "power spots".

Recommended tourist areas

Shiraito Falls

Take in beautiful Mt. Fuji from a distance

Viewing the grand spectacle of Mt. Fuji is guaranteed to excite anyone. In particular, the view of Mt. Fuji from "Miho no Matsubara," a scenic area with some 50,000 pine trees nestling along the sea shore, is truly breathtaking. Hiroshige Utagawa, an ukiyo-e painter, and Korin Ogata and Okyo Maruyama, great masters of Japanese-style painting, loved capturing the view from here in their work.

Recommended tourist areas

Miho-no-matsubara

updated on Jan 9, 2015