What is the most famous and popular historical buildings in Japan? ①


Japan’s appeal for travelers barely (ほとんど~ない)  requires explaining. Between the stunning (素敵な、魅力的な、素晴らしい) scenery (風景、景色), world-class food and unfathomably (深遠に) polite, friendly people, it’s a wonder (驚き) anyone returns from a pilgrimage (巡礼の旅)  to Nippon at all. The list of reasons to visit Japan is pretty much endless – the unique Japanese culture, centuries-old Japanese traditions, and arts. 

But one of the best excuses (弁解、理由) to pack your bags and jump on the next plane to Tokyo is the country’s incredibly (信じられないほど、非常に) diverse  (多様な、別種の) and innovative (革新的な) array (勢揃い、整列、配列) of architecture (建築、建物). Japan is filled with hundreds of examples of architecture both modern and historical that are impressive in one way or another (それぞれ、何らかの方法で、何とかして). 


Japan has an interesting variety (様々な、変化に富む)  of buildings that exhibit (表す) different architectural forms from humble (地味な、粗末な、控えめな) farm houses to grand imperial palaces (壮大な宮殿). Architectural styles have evolved (進化する) from pre-historic (有史以前の) to modern times. Early native designs were exposed (さらされる) to strong influences (影響) from the Asian mainland, imported styles were subsequently (その後) adapted to suit local tastes. 

Buildings were traditionally built in wood – in part because of the abundance (多量、裕福) of timber (材木) and due to the material‘s (材料) relatively (比較的、相対的) good resistance (抵抗) to earthquakes. Unfortunately, many buildings were lost through the years to natural disasters, the humid climate, fires and wars. Efforts have been made to preserve some monumental buildings including temples, shrines, palaces and castles, of which many are very old and require periodic (定期の) renovations (修復). 


Early Japan

Pre-historic Japanese architecture had a tribal (部族の) feel (感じ、雰囲気) and included unique burial (埋葬) mounds (土手、山、塚、古墳) and wooden structures with thatched (ふきわら) roofs. The Jomon Period lasted (続いた) from around 14000 BC to 300 BC. The inhabitants (住民) of Japan at that time were mainly gatherers (採集民), fishers and hunters. 

Dwellings (すみか) were built directly over an earth floor with a wood foundation and a thatched straw roof. Inside the house, the floor may have been hollowed in (中で空洞の), which is why Jomon Period houses are often called “pit dwellings” (穴住居). The Sannai Maruyama Archaeological (考古学の) Site in Aomori prefecture is one of the best places to see an entire (全体の、無傷の、壊れていない、完全な) village of Jomon Period houses. Some local history museums also exhibit Jomon dwellings.


Sannai Maruyama Archaeological Site in Aomori Prefecture


Following the Jomon Period, the Yayoi Period lasted from around 300 BC to 300 AD. The period is characterized (特徴づける) by the start of widespread rice farming, resulting in the appearance of permanent settlements (定住) with bigger populations. Communities became organized in villages as a whole, with areas demarcated (境界を定められた) for granaries (穀倉), storehouses (倉庫) and living quarters (居所).

Houses, especially the granaries, were built on stilts (竹馬) to keep away mice. Structures such as village fences and watch towers appeared. The Yoshinogari Historical Park in Saga Prefecture is an excellent place to see a Yayoi Period settlement.


The Yoshinogari Historical Park in Saga Prefecture


Beginning in the Nara Period (710-794), designs were influenced by Chinese Buddhist architecture and took a great leap (跳躍) forward. By the Heian Period (794-1185), Japanese architecture begins to show unique characteristics that display a sophisticated (洗練された、複雑化した、精巧な) sense of aesthetics (美学) and unique carpentry (大工仕事) techniques that enabled (可能にする) the country to build some of the world’s largest wooden structures.






Fushimi Inari Taisha (in Kyoto Prefecture)

In ancient times, Shinto (神道) ceremonies were held outdoors at temporarily (一時的に) demarcated (境界を定められた) sites without buildings. Later, temporary structures were used which eventually (結局、ついに、やがて) got replaced by permanent shrine buildings housing the deity (神). Early shrine buildings predate (前に来る) the introduction of Buddhism and reflect (反映する) native Japanese architecture styles.

Among the earliest shrine architecture styles are the Shinmei style (神明造り) as represented by (~に見受けられる) the Ise Shrines whose halls resemble (似ている) ancient storehouses, and the Taisha style (大社造り) as represented by the Izumo Shrine whose buildings resemble ancient residences. 


Ise Shrines ( Ise Jingū )

The Ise Grand Shrine, located in the city of Ise, Mie Prefecture of Japan, is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the sun goddess “Amaterasu”. Ise Jingū is a shrine complex composed of a large number of Shinto shrines centered on two main shrines, Naikū (内宮) and Gekū (外宮).


Izumo Shrine (Izumo Taisha)

Izumo-taisha is one of the most ancient and important Shinto shrines in Japan. No record gives the date of establishment. Located in Izumo, Shimane Prefecture.



Furthermore (さらに), there is the Sumiyoshi style (住吉造り) as represented by the Sumiyoshi Shrine in Osaka which is also considered to be close to a natively Japanese shrine architecture style.



Sumiyoshi-taisha (住吉大社), also known as Sumiyoshi Grand Shrine, is a Shinto shrine in Osaka Prefecture, Japan. It is the main shrine of all the Sumiyoshi shrines in Japan. However, the oldest shrine that enshrines the Sumiyoshi sanjin (three gods), the three Sumiyoshi kami (god), is the Sumiyoshi shrine in Hakata, Fukuoka Prefecture.



The arrival of Buddhism in the 6th century brought along strong architectural influences from the mainland. Kasuga Shrine and Usa Shrine are among two early shrine construction prototypes (原型、模型)  which already show more distinct (明確な) foreign elements. 


Kasuga-taisha (in Nara Prefecture)

There are about 1,000 Kasuga-taisha in Japan. The main one is in Nara Prefecture.


Usa shrine ( Usa Jingū )

Usa Jingū is in Ōita Prefecture. (the early 8th century)


Towards (~へ向かって) the Edo Period (1603-1868), shrines became increasingly ornate (華麗な) as exemplified (例示する) by the most spectacular (華々しい、壮観な) of them all, Nikko Toshogu Shrine, which was built in the 17th century.


Yomeimon of Toshogu Shrine in Nikko



Over the centuries, many shrine buildings were lost to fire or other disasters. Thus, even though many shrines may have been founded more than a millennium ago (1000年前), the oldest extant (現存の)shrine buildings are about a thousand years old, while the majority of them are just a few centuries old. Furthermore, several major shrines used to follow a unique custom of periodic (定期の) rebuilding for symbolic (象徴的な) purification (浄化、精製). 

Today, the Ise Shrines still follow this custom every twenty years, while some other major shrines undergo (経験する) periodic renovations instead.


Katsuogi roof decorations at Ise Shrine



Itsukushima Shrine is a Shinto Shrine on the island of Itsukushima (popularly known as Miyajima), best known for its “floating” torii gate. It is in the city of Hiroshima Prefecture and one of Japan’s most popular tourist attractions. The shrine complex is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Itsukushima Shrine






Temples came along with the import of Buddhism from China around the 6th century. At first, temples resembled those in China closely in features (特徴), such as having wide courtyards (中庭) and symmetrical (対象形の) layouts. Some of the oldest surviving temple buildings exhibiting these features can be found in Nara Prefecture, in particular at Hōryū-ji (the world’s oldest wooden structure).


Hōryū-ji is one of the powerful temples (completed in 607)


Tōdai-ji (the world’s largest wooden structure), Yakushi-ji and Kofuku-ji, Asukadera, located about 25 kilometers south of Nara city, is considered the oldest Buddhist institution (施設) in Japan.


Tōdai-ji (completed in early 8th century)



As time passed, temples were increasingly designed to suit local tastes. Newly introduced sects from the mainland contributed to new temple architecture styles. Temples began to exhibit less symmetrical features, and many started to incorporate (合体させる、組み入れる) gardens in their compounds (合成物).

Temples were also founded in more remote (遠い、人里離れた) places and in the mountains, which had more varied (多様な) layouts owing (起因して) to complex topographies (地形). Like shrines, temples buildings were also lost over time, and the ones that exist across the country today are mostly a few centuries old.



Sanju sangendo, also known as Renge-ouin, is a temple in Kyoto that’s known for its 1001 human-sized statues of the Goddess Kannon. A temple from the 12th century that’s 120 meters long. The longest wooden structure in Japan.


Sanju sangendo Temple



Kinkaku-ji is a small temple that’s a rare example of a gilded (金メッキされた) structure in Japan. Its audacious (大胆な) golden exterior somehow (どうにか、どういうわけか、何とかして) works with the aesthetics (美学) of its garden and it’s considered one of the most photogenic spots in Japan.  



Kinkaku-ji, officially named Rokuon-ji, is a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan. It is one of the most popular buildings in Japan, attracting a large number of visitors annually.




Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺) is an independent Buddhist temple in Kyoto. The temple is part of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage site.




Sensō-ji is an ancient Buddhist temple located in Asakusa, Tokyo. It is Tokyo’s oldest temple, and one of its most significant. Adjacent to the temple is a five-story pagoda, Shinto shrine, the Asakusa Shrine,  as well as many shops with traditional goods in the Nakamise-dōri. 


Chuson-ji Konjikidou in Iwate Prefecture (completed in 1124)






Imperial Palace (in Tokyo)

Imperial palaces are the seat of the Emperor. In the past, a new palace was built with the relocation of the capital every time a new emperor ascended (登る、上がる) to the throne (王座). In 710, the first permanent capital was set up in Nara, and thus (だから、従って) the first permanent palace, the Heijo Palace was built. The palace’s former site is open to tourists today and exhibits a few rebuilt structures.


Imperial Palace (in Tokyo)


The imperial capital was later moved to Kyoto where it remained for over a thousand years until 1868. Along with the Kyoto Imperial Palace, several imperial villas still exist, exhibiting a grand (壮大な、華やかな、雄大な) and dignified (威厳のある、高貴な), yet not overly (過度に、非常に) ostentatious (仰々しい) style. 


Kyoto Imperial Palace


The Kyoto Palace, Sento Imperial Palace (仙洞御所), Katsura Villa (桂離宮) and Shugakuin Villa (修学院離宮)  are open to the public today. Furthermore, some temples such as Kyoto’s Ninna-ji (仁和寺) and Daikaku-ji (大覚寺) utilize (利用する) former palace buildings.