See in Japan
When most Westerners think of castles, they naturally think of their own in places like England and France however, Japan, too, was a nation of castle-builders. In its feudal days, you could find multiple castles in nearly every prefecture.
Because of bombings in WWII, fires, edicts to tear down castles, etc. only twelve of Japan’s castles are considered to be originals, which have donjons that date back to the days when they were still used. Four of them are located on the island of Shikoku, two just north in the Chugoku region, two in Kansai, three in the Chubu region, and one in the northern Tohoku region. There are no original castles in Kyushu, Kanto, Hokkaido, or Okinawa.
The original castles are:
Bitchu Matsuyama Castle
(Nijo Castle is an original however, it was actually an Imperial residence rather than a castle, so it is not included on the list of originals)
Reconstructions and Ruins
Japan has many reconstructed castles, many of which receive more visitors than the originals. A reconstructed castle means that the donjon was rebuilt in modern times, but many of these still have other original structures within the castle grounds. For example, three of Nagoya Castle’s turrets are authentic. Reconstructions still offer a glimpse into the past and many, like Osaka Castle are also museums housing important artifacts. Kumamoto Castle is considered to be among the best reconstructions, because most of the structures have been reconstructed instead of just the donjon. The only reconstructed castle in Hokkaido is Matsumae Castle. Okinawa’s Shuri Castle is unique among Japan’s castles, because it is not a “Japanese” castle; it is from the Ryukyuan Kingdom and was built with the Chinese architectural style, along with some original Okinawan elements.
Ruins typically feature only the castle walls or parts of the original layout are visible. Although they lack the structures of reconstructed castles, ruins often feel more authentic without the concrete reconstructions that sometimes feel too commercial and touristy. Many ruins maintain historical significance, such as Tsuyama Castle, which was so large and impressive, it was considered to be the best in the nation. Today, the castle walls are all that remain but the area is filled with thousands of cherry blossoms. This is common among many ruins, as well as reconstructions. Takeda Castle is famed for the gorgeous view of the surrounding area from the ruins.
Japan is famous for its gardens, known for its unique aesthestics both in landscape gardens and Zen rock/sand gardens. The nation has designated an official “Top Three Gardens”, based on their beauty, size, authenticity (gardens that have not been drastically altered), and historical significance. Those gardens are Kairakuen in Mito, Kenrokuen in Kanazawa, and Korakuen in Okayama. The largest garden, and the favorite of many travelers, is actually Ritsurin Park in Takamatsu.
Rock and sand gardens can typically be found in temples, specifically those of Zen Buddhism. The most famous of these is Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto, but such temples can be found throughout Japan. Moss gardens are also popular in Japan and Koke-dera, also in Kyoto, has one of the nation’s best. Reservations are required to visit just so that they can ensure the moss is always flourishing and not trampled.
Regardless of your travel interests, it’s difficult to visit Japan without at least seeing a few shrines and temples. Buddhist and Shinto sites are the most common, although there are some noteworthy spiritual sites of other religions, as well.
Buddhism has had a profound impact on Japan ever since it was introduced in the 6th century. Like shrines, temples can be found in every city, and many different sects exist.
Some of the holiest sites are made up of large complexes on mountaintops and include Mount Koya (Japan’s most prestigious place to be buried and head temple of Shingon Buddhism), Mount Hiei (set here when Kyoto became the capital to remove Buddhism from politics, the head of the Tendai sect of Buddhism), and Mount Osore (considered to be the “Gateway to Hell”, it features many monuments and graves in a volcanic wasteland).
Many of the nations head temples are located in Kyoto, like the Honganji Temples and Chion-in Temple. Kyoto also has five of the top Zen temples named in the “Five Mountain System” (Tenryuji, Shokokuji, Kenninji, Tofukuji, and Manjuji), along with Nanzenji Temple, which sits above all the temples outside of the mountain system. Although there are “five” temples, Kyoto and Kamakura both have their own five. The Kamakura temple’s are Kenchoji, Engakuji, Jufukuji, Jochiji, and Jomyoji Temples. Eiheiji Temple is also a prominent Zen temple, although it was never part of the mountain system.
Nara’s Todaiji Temple and Kamakura’s Kotokuin Temple are famous for their large Buddhist statues. Todaiji’s is the largest in the nation, while the Kamakura Daibutsu is the second largest, meditating outside in the open air.
Horyuji Temple in Horyuji, just south of Nara, is the world’s oldest wooden structure. The beautiful Phoenix Hall in Uji is seen by most visitors to Japan on the back of the ten yen coin, if not in real-life.
Shintoism is the “native” religion of Japan, so those looking to experience things that are “wholly Japanese” should particularly enjoy them as they truly embody the Japanese aesthetic. The holiest Shinto Shrine is the Grand Ise Shrine, while the second holiest is Izumo Shrine, where the gods gather annually for a meeting. Other famous holy shrines include Itsukushima Shrine in Miyajima, Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, the Kumano Sanzan, and the Dewa Sanzan. Kyoto also has many important historic shrines, such as Shimogamo Shrine, Kamigamo Shrine, and Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto.
Japan’s introduction to Christianity came in 1549 by way of the Portuguese and Saint Francis Xavier. He established the first Christian church in Yamaguchi at Daidoji Temple, whose ruins are now part of Xavier Memorial Park and the Xavier Memorial Church was built in his honor.
When Toyotomi Hideyoshi came into power, Christianity was banned and Christians were persecuted. Nagasaki is the most famous persecution site where 26 Japanese Christians were crucified. They are saints today and you can visit the memorial for these martyrs in the city. The Shimabara Rebellion is the most famous Christian uprising in Japan, and it was this rebellion that led to the ousting of the Portuguese and Catholic practices from Japan (although Christianity had already been banned by this time), along with approximately 37,000 beheadings of Christians and peasants. In Shimabara, you can visit the ruins of Hara Castle, where the Christians gathered and were attacked, see old Portuguese tombstones, and the samurai houses, some of which were occupied by Christian samurai. Oyano’s Amakusa Shiro Memorial Hall contains videos of the Shimabara Rebellion and great displays related to Christian persecution. Less famous sites may be off the beaten path, like the Martyrdom Museum and Memorial Park for martyrs in Fujisawa. When the nation reopened, some Christians assumed that meant that they were able to practice Christianity freely and openly, so they came out after 200 years of practicing secretly. Unfortunately, it was still not legal and these Christians were brought together in various parts of the country and tortured. You can see one of these sites at Maria Cathedral in Tsuwano, built in the Otome Pass in the area where Christians were put into tiny cages and tortured.
Along with the Martyrdom Site, Nagasaki is also home to Oura Church, the oldest church left in the nation, built in 1864. Because of Nagasaki’s status for many years as one of the nation’s only ports where outsiders could come, the city is rich in Japanese Christian history, so even the museums here have artifacts and information about the Christian community.
Strangely, you can often find Christian objects in temples and shrines throughout the country. This is because many of these objects were hidden in temples and shrines back when Christianity was forbidden.
Japan has a handful of well-known Confucian Temples. As Japan’s gateway to the world for many centuries, Nagasaki’s Confucian Temple is the only Confucian temple in the world to be built by Chinese outside of China. Yushima Seido in Tokyo was a Confucian school and one of the nation’s first-ever institutes of higher education. The first integrated school in the nation, the Shizutani School in Bizen also taught based on Confucian teachings and principles. The schoolhouse itself was even modeled after Chinese architectural styles. The first public school in Okinawa was a Confucian school given to the Ryukyuan Kingdom along with the Shiseibyo Confucian Temple.
The Okinawan religion also has its own spiritual sites. Seta Utaki, a World Heritage Site, is one of the most famous. Many Okinawan spiritual ceremonies were held here. Asumui in Kongo Sekirinzan Park is a large rock formation believed to be the oldest land in the area. As a religious site, shaman used to come here to speak with the gods.
World War II Sites
The three must-visit places for World War II buffs are Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the capital of Okinawa, Naha. Okinawa is where some of the most brutal battles occurred between Japan and the United States, and the area is crawling with remnants from its dark past. The Peace Park, Prefectural Peace Museum, Himeyuri Peace Museum, and the Peace Memorial Hall are some of the best places to learn more, see artifacts, and hear accounts of the battles that took place here.
While Hiroshima and Nagasaki are important World War II sites, because the bombings of these cities led to the end of the Pacific War, the sites and museums found in these cities also speak to many as visions of a grim future, should nations continue supporting nuclear weapons programs and nuclear proliferation. These two cities are the only cities in the world that have ever been hit by nuclear bombs, and each city has its own Peace Park and Memorial Museum where visitors can get a feel for just how destructive and horrific atomic warfare truly is. For many travelers in Japan, visiting at least one of these cities is a must.
Many people are curious about the possibility of visiting Iwo Jima. Currently, the Military Historic Tours Company  has exclusive rights to conduct tours of the island.
88 Temple Pilgrimage — an arduous 1,647 km trail around the island of Shikoku
Chugoku 33 Kannon Temple Pilgrimage
Narrow Road to the Deep North — a route around northern Japan immortalized by Japan’s most famous haiku poet