Timeless Treasures

Japan’s history comes alive at these remarkable sites

By: By Kenneth Shapiro

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Click here to see more photos of the wooden temples of Japan

Japan’s history has always been of interest to those in the West, whether they are readers of novels such as "Shogun" and "Memoirs of a Geisha," or movie goers taking in "The Last Samurai" and, well, "Memoirs of a Geisha." For tourists, there is no better way to experience the history of Japan (outside Tokyo and Kyoto) than through a tour of the ancient wooden temples and castles that make up many of country’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Itsukushima Shrine // (c) Scarlet Green
Itsukushima Shrine

A tour of Japan’s ancient structures should begin and end in Osaka, which is a short train ride from Kyoto and also offers several direct flights to and from the U.S.

In Osaka, the main historical sight is Osaka Castle, which was built beginning in 1496 and was destroyed and rebuilt several times over the centuries. Along with a showcase of historic artifacts and other exhibits, the castle itself provides incredible views of Osaka city from its observation deck.

Be sure to tell your clients visiting the castle to be on the lookout for a chance to dress up like a samurai or geisha and take portrait photos.

From Osaka, visitors can travel to Hiroshima for a somber lesson in the horrible events of modern history. From there, it’s a short trip by ferry to the island of Miyajima for a visit to some of the most beautiful wooden shrines in all of Japan.

The Itsukushima Shrine was first built in the sixth century. Its unique location, floating on top of the seawater, makes it a one-of-of-a-kind World Heritage Site. The beauty of the shrine is further enhanced by the O-Torii (Torii Gate), a bright orange structure that seems to rise out of the water about 200 yards in front of the main shrine.

Also on Miyajima is the Omoto Shrine, the Tahoto Pagoda and the Five-Storied Pagoda, the Daishoin Temple (with its 500 Rakan statues — with no two alike — that line the steps up to the shrine ) and more. The island also features performances of the ancient form of dance called Bugaku (check in advance for performance dates).

Himeji Castle was Japan’s first World Heritage Site, and after a visit here, it’s easy to see why. Perched high on a hill, the castle is a breathtaking multi-tiered structure featuring gray-tiled roofs on the outside and incredible craftsmanship inside.

Beginning in 1609, the castle and the surrounding area became a center of power in the region. The irony is that the castle, for all its glory, never saw any battles. Still, its importance to the history and culture of the area is significant.

Visitors to the castle are able to see examples of ancient construction techniques as well as unique spots like Okiku’s Well. As the story goes, a young woman named Okiku was killed here by her master for breaking some porcelain. Now, it’s said that on stormy evenings her mournful voice can be heard rising up from the depths of the well as she counts her dishes one at a time.

The scenic mountain area of Yoshino is famous for its cherry blossoms, but it also has several stunning ancient wooden temples and shrines, including the Mikumari Shrine, Yoshimizu Shrine and the Kinpusenji Temple. As the area’s slogan states (in somewhat strained English): "The most famous cherry blossom place in Japan, imbued with historical ambience."

The Mikumari Shrine is dedicated to the god of water. It’s simpler in style than some of the other shrines, but the mountain setting greatly adds to its atmosphere. The Yoshimizu Shrine has a colorful history, as the hideout of Yoshitsune, a "tragic hero" who had to hide himself from his powerful brother. This was also briefly the home of one of Japan’s exiled emperors.

The Kinpusenji Temple dates back to the 1500s and is an ornate and magnificent example of ancient wooden architecture. Its zaodo, or main hall, is the second largest ancient wooden structure in all of Japan, and with its traditional thatched roof — which needs to be rebuilt every 60 years — it is reportedly also the largest thatched-roof building in the world.

The city of Nara is a must-visit for history buffs. The city was once the capital of Japan, so naturally it has some of the country’s most famous buildings.

By far the most important sight in Nara is Todaiji Temple. Actually a complex of six buildings, the main temple was built in 752 and it claims to be the largest wooden building in the world. It houses the Hall of Great Buddha, with a seated Buddha statue that’s nearly 60 feet tall.

Tourists to Nara would be hard pressed to miss the amazing number of extremely friendly deer that roam the streets of the city — especially at the main tourist sights. For historic and spiritual reasons, it is against the law to hurt deer in Nara, and the city has gradually become overrun with deer that follow the tourists around hoping to eat out of their hands.

Besides the Todaiji complex, another unforgettable shrine to visit is the Kasuga Taisha Shrine, one of the oldest in Nara. Made up of bright orange pillars, the shrine features literally thousands of hanging lanterns — some dating back hundreds of years. If your clients are lucky, they’ll be in Nara one of the two times a year all of the lanterns are lit.