Japanese History: ten of the best historical sites, museums and attractions in Japan.

Japanese history, ancient and modern, is infinitely fascinating - keep reading for info on ten of the best spots to check-out when in the country.

Photo Credit: Jeff Love via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Jeff Love via Flickr cc

There is only so much you can fit into a single trip. There’s no getting around the fact that no matter how early you get up, how well you plan or how fast you walk, you can’t see everything a country has to offer in one go. Japan is no exception. It is the Land of the Rising Sun but, unfortunately, the sun also has to set at some point. The problem a traveler faces then is what to prioritise on his or her trip, and with a plethora of things to see and do, this is no easy task. To make your life easier we’ve compiled a list of the top historical attractions nationwide, no trip being complete without delving into the countries past to see what it reveals about the present. 


Japanese History: Top Ten 

Japan’s long and complex history is undeniably fascinating, with something that appeals to all. Our inner adolescent can be satiated by looking into the history of the samurai class with it’s glorious rise and crushing fall. Those intrigued by contemporary Japan’s seemingly incongruous blend of ancient customs and forward-looking internationalism can find answers by investigating the nations isolationism and subsequent opening to the world. Whilst those of you with more esoteric interests are also well covered by a range of special-interest attractions. The following ten sites, museums and attractions offer an introduction to Japanese history that covers the ancient and the modern, the well-trodden and the less so, for a broad introduction to the history of the nation and it’s people. 

1: Kamakura

Photo Credit: Brian... via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Bryan… via Flickr cc

South of Tokyo sits the ancient capital of Kamakura, a small city with an important place in Japanese history. Though a settlement in that area existed since ancient times, Kamakura’s rise to prominence dates from the start of the period that took the city’s name. The Kamakura period was officially established in 1192 by the first shogun (military leader), Minamoto no Yoritomo, an event that signals to historians the beginnings of Japanese feudalism as well as the emergence of the samurai class. 

As a result of the city’s national prominence in this period (lasting until 1333 with the reestablishment of Imperial rule), visiting the city today is an excellent way to get a feel for those times. The Kamakura period is of particular note as the era in which Buddhism flourished, having been embraced by the Kamakura government and it’s samurai warriors, making it’s various temples both early and impressive examples of the art-form. 

Hasedera Temple is perhaps the best-loved of Kamakura’s temples, featuring the imposing 10 meter tall statue of Kannon, the eleven-headed goddess of Mercy in it’s gran Kannon-do Hall. The temple complex also features a small museum (for a token fee) and is situated in beautifully landscaped gardens along a wooded hillside. 

The Great Buddah of Kamakura is also a must-see. A huge bronze statue of Ammida Buddah located in the grounds of the Kotokuin Temple is a brilliant spectacle and with an entrance fee of just 200 yen it won’t upset your budget. 

The temples and statues of Kamakura (not to mention the beach) are what keep tourists flocking to the city. Yet for those wanting to get off the tourist trail a little, the Yagura Tombs are a treat.  The tombs are essentially a samurai graveyard located in the hills adjacent to the city, which can only be reached on foot. To access the start of the hiking trail take the number 30/31 bus from the no. 3 bus stop at Kamakura station. Get off at Midorigaoka-iriguchi and from here the start of the trail should be easy to find. 

Getting there: (from Tokyo) The JR Yokosuka Line and JR Shonan Shinjuku Line connect Tokyo directly to Kamakura Station and both cost just 920 yen and take under an hour. Alternatively, Odakyu Railway offer the Enoshima Kamakura Free Pass, giving users a round-trip, unlimited use ticket between Shinjuku and Kamakura for just 1470 yen. 

2: Samurai Museum, Tokyo

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Continuing the samurai theme, head to Tokyo’s Kabukicho district in Shinjuku to find the samurai museum. Nestled amongst the bright lights, love-hotels and dazzled tourists is this small but lovingly curated museum that feels oddly at home in it’s irregular surroundings. Though the entrance fee of 1,500 yen is pretty steep and the museum small by the standards of those in Ueno for example, this museum caters for the Japanophile and curious visitor alike and is packed to the rafters with a mixture of authentic and replica samurai gear of all description. 

What might come as a surprise to some is that the history of the samurai spans a phenomenal 800 years, time in which the image and role of the samurai changed dramatically, from elite warriors, through conscripted peasants to unemployed and marauding (nb. this may to be a complete history). The museum does an excellent job of communicating this long and varied history, breaking misconceptions propagated by a culture industry obsessed with a one-dimensional version of the warrior. This is not to say however that the museum is at all dull or overly academic, to the contrary, it gives a visitor a great introduction to samurai history without getting bogged down in unnecessary detail. After all, what could be more exciting than being allowed to handle all manner of swords or try on body armor and helmets (some of which, I was assured by the owner, are real). 

Getting there: Head to Shinjuku Station’s East Exit, from there, follow the throng of people downhill and across the main road, from here you will spot TOHO cinema Shinjuku (look for the giant godzilla). From the cinema’s north-east corner head right, the museum is on the corner of a small street opposite a Lawsons. 


3: Shinjuku, Tokyo

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You’ve probably heard of Shinjuku. Today it’s home to the world’s busiest train station and is one of Tokyo’s go-to shopping, entertainment and night-life districts. What you may not know is that Shinjuku has a rich modern history as the home of Japanese counter-culture and political radicalism – Tokyo’s answer to New York’s Greenwich Village or Paris’s Latin Quarter. Through the 60s and early 70s Shinjuku was a hive of the alternative – beatniks and political dissidents filling the streets, the air humming with protest song and all manner of protest and art taking place in the open and behind closed doors, culminating ultimately in the riots of 68′ and 69′, sparked by anti-Vietnam war demonstrations. This much overlooked fact about Shinjuku makes it a great spot to check out for anyone with even a passing interest in the various currents of counter-culture birthed in the 1960s across the globe.

Urban redevelopment has changed the character of Shinjuku markedly in recent times, egged on by moralistic perceptions of the area as dirty and dangerous. This makes rediscovering the areas recent past a challenge, but one well worth undertaking. To begin your exploration head to the Shinjuku Station’s West Exit. This is the former site of myriad gatherings, street performance and protest which today has sadly been bent out of all recognition. Many of the 60s regulars were ran out by the police or arrested but the spirit of the times is carried today by Seiko Oki, a veteran of the scene, who continues to hold a demonstration at the location every Saturday.

Not far from here is Ni-chome, Tokyo’s gay and lesbian district. Though Japan has never had any explicit anti-homosexual laws (as in the UK and many other places), homosexuality is largely ignored, explaining the relatively small scale of this huge city’s gay district. Despite this, or perhaps in spite of this, the area, best visited after dark, is a great place to hang out. With perhaps as many as 400 bars and clubs, you won’t go thirsty; though finding a seat may be a slight challenge, with most bars holding less than a dozen customers at one time. Matchbaco on the edge of the district, close to Shinjuku Gyoen, comes highly recommended. This art-space is a relatively new venture, but is host to some of Tokyo’s most exciting art-world talent and open to all.  

A short walk from Matchbaco is Mosakusha, half-bookstore, half-library of all things things related to the counterculture. The small but overflowing shop stocks books, pamphlets, newsletters, relating to all ideological currents and movements. This is a great place to spend time browsing, providing an insight into the fluctuations of Japanese politics from the 60s onward. If all that reading tires your eyes, the next stop on your alternative tour of Shinjuku should be Cafe Lavanderia, a collectively run cafe owned by a writer and critic who also runs the gallery upstairs. The cafe is a great meeting place and also doubles as a venue, hosting bands and artists regularly, just drop into the cafe during the day to find out the schedule.

Getting there: For Ni-chome, the easiest route is to follow the underground Metro Promenade to Exit C8, which bring you out at the edge of the area. 

4: Tokyo Architecture  

Photo Credit: MIKI Yoshihito via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: MIKI Yoshihito via Flickr cc

A city’s past-lives and it’s present are best expressed through it’s architecture. So what better way to learn about Japan’s history than an architecture themed tour of it’s capital. A great place to begin is the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum, an interactive outdoor exhibition of historic buildings and styles located at the western edge of the city proper. The museum houses buildings, both restored and preserved, dating from the Edo period to the early Showa period (roughly 1600 to 1940) in materials and styles now a rare sight on the streets of the living city. This is an excellent way to get a taste of the countries past, with most buildings allowing visitors to venture inside and get an additional insight into the lifestyles of the buildings past inhabitants. 

For those of a modernist sensibility, the various buildings of the Metabolist school dotted around the city are a wonder. Metabolism as an architectural style was birthed in the post-war period by a number of Japanese architects interested in the possibilities of mega-structures and ideas surrounding organic biological growth. Though only a small percent of the buildings designed by the leading architects of this movement were ever built, those that were remain curiously impressive, though neglectful upkeep has left many in a poor state. The best examples of Metabolism in Tokyo are the Nakagin Capsule Tower and the Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Tower, both located in the Ginza area. Tokyo is a futuristic city, but these buildings, both over four decades old, take futurism to a new level and can only be seen to be believed. For a further modernist treat, head to Ueno park, where the Le Corbusier designed National Museum of Western Art stands. The famous French architects only Japanese building, set in the lush surrounds of the park, is a delight for design fans and is worth the entrance fee purely to gape at the equally majestic interior. 

Getting there: For the Open Air Museum, take the Seibu-Shinjuku Line to Hana-Koganei Station (270 yen) or head to Musashi-Koganei Station on the Chuo Line (310yen) – both stations feature maps of the surrounding area which will point you in the direction of the park. For the Nakagin Tower, head to Shimbashi Station and take the East Exit, walk straight until you reach a major crossroads with elevated walkways, head up to the walkways and the tower should become visible. For the Museum of Western Art simply head to Ueno station, the parks main entrance is clearly signposted and from here the museum is on your right. For the Shizuoka tower, again head to Shimbashi Station, walk north until you see the Hakuhinkan Theatre, the tower is on the corner of the adjoining street. 

5: Nikko

Photo Credit: Arian Zwegers via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Arian Zwegers via Flickr cc

The small town of Nikko has adopted the slogan “Nikko is Nippon”, an expression of the common sentiment that Nikko is the quintessential Japanese destination. Certainly, the town, hidden in the mountains, is a great place to get a feel of Japan past, with it’s abundance of temples and shrines. To start your trip head to the Toshogu shrine, the town’s premier attraction and final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate which presided over Japan for 250 years. The shrine is lavishly beautiful, showcasing intricate wood carvings and pagodas aplenty, mixing the traditional styles of both the Buddhist and Shinto traditions. 

Rinnoji Temple should be your next stop, housing the Sanbutsodo building built to represent the ‘three divine manifestations of Nikko’: the horse-headed Buddha, the Amida Buddha and the Thousand-headed Buddha – a very impressive sight. In front of Sanbutsodo is the Hobutsuden, an excellent small museum with an entry fee of just 100 yen. The town of Nikko as a whole is a great place to relax and absorb Japanese history and is simple to navigate on foot.

Getting there: The most cost-effective way of getting to Nikko is on a Tobu train from the Tobu station in Asakusa. From Asakusa Station take Exit 4 and the station should be visible. A one way ticket to Nikko Station costs 1340 yen and takes around 2 hours. 

6: Yasukini Shrine, Tokyo

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Another shrine to add to our list, this one a little more controversial that the rest though. Yasakuni, a Shinto shrine, is dedicated to those who died in war under the rule of the Japanese Emperor from 1867-1951. The shrine’s notoriety stems from its enshrining of convicted war criminals and it’s museum’s nationalist bent. The shrine’s international controversy has been furthered in recent years through well-publicised visits by prominent members of the Japanese Diet, moves heavily criticised by representatives of China, South Korea and Taiwan. Though with no context the shrine would be interesting of itself, the controversy it has sparked makes it much more so, allowing visitors an insight into the complex issues surrounding modern Japanese politics and it’s struggle with nationalism. 

On the site of the shrine also sits The Yushukan, a military museum covering all conflicts from the beginning of the Meiji Restoration to the conclusion of the Pacific War. The museum houses a decent collection of artifacts; from planes, trains and tanks to uniforms and letters and is often relatively quiet, allowing a visitor to takes ones time. However, the museums quite obvious bent towards nationalism, apologism and revisionism is plain to see and is often uncomfortable reading. This though, makes the museum quite fascinating, especially for those interested in political issues and ideology. 

Getting there: Head for Kudanshita Station on the Shinjuku, Hanzomon and Tozai Lines. Once out of the station, walk west along the main road, the shrine will be on your right. 

7: Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

Photo Credit: Sean via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Sean via Flickr cc

The horrific events of 1945 inevitably loom large over Hiroshima as a whole with remembrance is at the heart of this, the focal point for this being the Memorial Park. Designed by Kenzo Tange, a former practitioner in the Metabolist school mentioned earlier, the park sits on the site cleared by the bombs impact, formally the city’s main commercial district. It’s purpose is as a memorial to the victims foremost, but also aims to act as a center for learning about the use of nuclear weapons more generally and to promote international cooperation and peace. 

The centerpiece of the park is the A-Bomb Dome, the skeletal remains of the building closest to the center of the blast that remained somewhat intact. The reality of the event is driven home by this building, now representing the horror of that time and a commitment to never see it happen again. In 1996, it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, also within the park, is another must. 53 million people have visited the museum since it’s opening in 1955 and its not hard to see why. The building itself is split between two wings. The newer East wing is primarily dedicated to documenting the pre-war, war-time and post-war lives of the people of Hiroshima and offers additional information on nuclear technology in general and the struggle for international peace. The West wing concentrates it’s energies on the damage done by the bomb, explained using realia exposed to the blast and information on the lingering radiation omitted. The museum can’t be recommended enough, no visit to the city being complete without a lesson in the brutality of war. 

Getting there: From Hiroshima Station, take tram line 2 or 6 to Genbaku-Domu Mae Station.

8: Kyoto International Manga Museum

Photo Credit: Chester via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Chester via Flickr cc

What draws many to Japan is not it’s ancient history but it’s modern culture, one of nation’s defining features and biggest exports. Manga, Japanese comic books, are central to this and no exploration of the history of the island would be complete without at least a cursory look at this phenomenon. There exists no better way to do this than by visiting the International Manga Museum in Kyoto. 

Containing an estimated 300,000 examples of the art-form, as well as useful information on it’s historical development, the museum is a very rounded and entertaining activity for an afternoon. Set in a former elementary school, a walk around is a fully interactive experience, with any of it’s collection free to browse or sit and read, as well as regular hands-on illustration demonstrations and classes. Though Japanese skills would be a plus, the museum has an ever-expanding translated section and regardless, much enjoyment can be had through the images alone. 

Getting there: Head to Karasuma-Oike Subway Station 5-minutes from Kyoto Station.

9: Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology 

Photo Credit: Bong Grit via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Bong Grit via Flickr cc

Another of Japan’s biggest exports has been it’s technology – brands like Nintendo, Toshiba and Sony being household names worldwide. Top of this list is Toyota, the car manufacturer that in many ways symbolizes Japan’s ascension to international economic prominence. The Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology, otherwise referred to as the Toyota Tecno Museum, is a proud monument to the company, it’s founder and technological progress as a whole. The vast complex details the companies journey from a small-time manufacturer of weaving machines to it’s contemporary position as an automobile industry monolith. Non car-lovers needn’t worry, the information on offer is broad in scope, situating the history of the company within a wider history of Japan’s development as a nation. The museum culminates in a great hall showcasing the many products of Toyota, the part of the museum most geared toward the car mega-fans but entertaining to everyone else nonetheless. 

Getting there: A 3-minute walk from Sako Station on the Nagoya Line, or for the subway, the museum is a 10-minute walk from Kamejima Station on the Higashiyama Line.

10: Expo ’70 Commemorative Park, Osaka

Photo Credit: cotaro70s via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: cotaro70s via Flickr cc

Expo ’70 in Osaka is considered by many to be the last of the great World’s Fairs, a tradition dating from the first fair held in London’s long-gone Crystal Palace. The events were envisaged as showcases for international advances in technology, architecture and culture, with each nation building its own pavilion to be marveled at by visitors. As said, Expo ’70 is regularly referenced as the last of the great fairs, the significance and popularity of the tradition fading after this. Though many of the buildings from the event have now disappeared, the park is still drenched in it’s memory, and a great place to spend a day pondering this. 

The park is a grand 264 hectares and a mere 30 minutes from central Osaka. The park’s crowning glory is the looming Tower of the Sun, a 70 meter tall structure designed by artist Taro Okamoto. The tower has 3 faces looking out over the surrounding area, giving the whole park a unique, almost eerie, feeling. Don’t let this get in the way of your exploration of the rest of the park however. Among the enjoyable but standard park fare (swan boats etc), find the National Museum of Ethnology, a leading place to expand your knowledge of ethnology through film, images and sound, with an engaging focus on the quotidian aspects of life such as food, agriculture and craft. 

And finally, don’t forget to exploit the park’s peace and quiet, easily forgotten with so much history and culture on offer.   

Getting there: Adjacent to Bampaku Kinen-koen Station on the Osaka monorail. 

Jack Heslehurst

Jack Heslehurst

Tokyo-based writer and editor, originally from the UK, with a special interest in politics, history and travel.

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