Top 5 Japanese Landmarks You Have to Visit

Japan is a fascinating destination, but where do you start? Matthew Rogers shows you how to kick-start your adventure with these five landmarks.

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Imperial Palace Photo © iStock/golaizola

1. Tokyo Imperial Palace and Castle

Built on the historic site of the Edo Castle, the Imperial Palace and adjoining Edo gardens in central Tokyo are steeped in history and home to the Emperor and Empress.

Entrance to the palace is restricted, but guided tours of the palace gardens are offered (in Japanese) throughout the year, except on Mondays, Fridays and on national holidays. 

The tranquil and picturesque 52-acre East Gardens is open to the public where the remains of Edo Castle can be found, so be sure to include this stop on your Tokyo itinerary.

Visit when the cherry blossoms bloom for the ultimate viewing experience.

2. Osaka Castle

Osaka-jo (Osaka Castle) on a hot summer day. Photo credit: iStock/mura

The 16th-century building is Osaka’s showpiece attraction. After strolling through the castle grounds, you’ll encounter the jaw-dropping beauty of the castle’s main tower.

Inside, a museum tells the history of the building, while an observatory 50m high offers views across the city. The castle is surrounded by moats and stone walls while 13 structures that escaped various wars are of recognized historical value to the Japanese government. 

Visit the castle in spring to admire the renowned cherry blossoms while relaxing in the castle grounds with okonomiyaki - a local delicacy.

3. Kinkaku-ji

Situated in the northwest of Kyoto, the ‘Golden Pavillion’ is one of the most spectacular sights in Japan, offering great photo opportunities all-year-round. The three-story Zen Buddhist temple overlooks a mirror pond giving you the chance to indulge in the serene atmosphere.

As you pass by the temple, you meet two other impressive buildings: Hojo, the residence of the former head priest, and Fudo Hall, a small temple that houses a statue of a Buddhist wisdom king. 

You can buy omiyage (souvenirs) here while a nearby teahouse provides drinks and ice cream. If you want to stretch your legs after, walk east about 4km to Kyoto Imperial Palace, the former residence of the Emperor of Japan.

4. Arashiyama

Cyclist going through Arashiyama. Photo credit: iStock/stockstudioX

Hidden in the western suburbs of Kyoto is a small district that you’ll fall in love with. The Bamboo Grove is Arashiyama’s most famed asset and another ‘must-see’. Droves of thick bamboo trees decorate the winding paths offering plenty of photo opportunities.

Before you reach one of nature’s beauties, visit Tenryu-ji temple, a UNESCO world heritage site, which leads up to the grove.

Time to spare? Hire a boat and row around the Hozu-gawa area to complete the ultimate Arashiyama experience.

5. Hiroshima

Hiroshima A-Dome
The A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima. Photo credit: iStock/PocholoCalapre

Another UNESCO site of grave importance to Japan is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Starting at the base of the park, you can tour the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which tells the story of the atrocities on August 6 1945 and its aftermath. Other monuments in the grounds include a cenotaph and a hall of remembrance, which offers a 360o panorama of the bombed city. 

Take a short stroll alongside the Motayasu river and you will encounter The A-Bomb Dome, the former Prefectural Industrial Promotional Hall, which remains the only building left since the disaster.

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