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Discover Japan's Incredible Architecture: 10 Recommendations to get you started!

One thing that I never tire of in Japan is the diverse and interesting architecture.  No matter where you go, you are likely to encounter a wide variety of structures and buildings with styles ranging from some of the most ancient in this world to some of the most cutting edge, modern designs.  Although most travelers don't head to Japan simply to admire the architecture, there is certainly something for everyone to appreciate throughout this country--so much, in fact, that trying to introduce you to it all is quite a daunting undertaking.  While I would love to offer insight on all of my favorite architectural wonders throughout Japan, I decided to spare you the encyclopedia and go with my top ten in all of Japan that represent the best Japan has to offer from ancient to modern.  

So without further ado...

1) Ancient Jomon Village


Location: Sannai-Maruyama Site, Aomori City (Aomori Prefecture)
Address: Maruyama Sannai, Aomori, Aomori Prefecture 038-0031
Year Completed:
2600 BCE (original structures)
Description: The period between 14,000 - 300 BCE is known as the Jomon period.  It is incredible to think that anything from that far back would still be standing, but sure enough, there is.  Back in 1992, the city of Aomori was excavating land to build a new baseball stadium when they stumbled onto remnants of old dwellings and what would have been a tower.  After investigation, they determined that the ruins were over 2000 years old, so they moved the baseball stadium and set about reconstructing the village as it would have looked in ancient times.  The Sanna-Maruyama Site is a fascinating place to visit to see how the engineering ingenuity of the ancient peoples of Japan.


2) Todaiji



Location: Nara Park (Nara Prefecture)
Address: 406-1 Zoshicho, Nara, Nara Prefecture 630-8211
Year Completed:
751 (original structure); 1709 (current structure)
Description: 
Although the resident of the Todaiji (the Nara Daibutsu--Big Buddha) typically steals most of the attention, the building in which he is housed is quite incredible.  The Todaiji is the largest wooden structure in the world, but amazingly, the structure that existed prior to the reconstruction in 1709 was actually 30% larger than what you see today!  The sheer magnitude of the Todaiji makes it one of the most memorable (and photogenic) buildings in all of Japan.


3) Gassho-style houses 


Location: Shirakawa-go (Gifu Prefecture)
Address: Ogimachi, Shirakawa, Ono District, Gifu Prefecture 501-5600
Year Completed:
~1600
Description:  Although historians have not been able to put an exact date on when the "Gassho" design for homes was completed, they estimate that it would have been around the advent of the Edo period in the early 1600s.  "Gassho" means to "press one's hands together in prayer," and by looking at the houses, you can see why they would earn that name.  This is perhaps the world's best and earliest example of "green" architecture, as each house is designed to stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer.  The roofs are thatched thickly enough to keep water out, but are still porous enough to allow smoke to pass through, meaning fires can be burned inside the home for heat and cooking without worrying about additional ventilation (the smoke also helped to strengthen the wood and rope lashings).  Also interesting is how all of the houses in the village are arranged in such a way to maximize the wind flow through each of the houses to help with cooling in the hot summers.  Even on the hottest summer day, the inside of these buildings remain temperate and cool.


4) Kiyomizudera


Location: Kyoto
Address: 294 Kiyomizu 1-chome, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 605-0862
Year Completed:
1633
Description: The Kiyomizu temple has been around since the 1200s, but the incredible structure you see in the photo was completed in the early 1600s.  Built without a single nail, the massive temple has become one of the symbols of Kyoto, and for good reason.  Set among the mountains, Kiyomizudera boasts an unmatched interplay between nature and man's past and present, as the temple that is nestled in the trees also offers one of the best panoramic views of the Kyoto skyline.


5) Bishamondo


Location: Near Urasa Station in Minamiuonuma City (Niigata Prefecture)
Address: 2495 Urasa, Minamiuonuma-shi, Niigata-ken 949-7302
Year Completed:
1820 (original structures completed around 1220)
Description:  This was my dark horse candidate for this list, since Urasa is not a well-known or oft-traveled destination.  Still, if you have a rail pass and intend to head out to Niigata (especially in the Winter for you skiiers/snowboarders out there), Bishamondo is one of the most moving temples I have ever visited.  The city of Minamiuonuma receives some of the heaviest snowfall in the entire world (Niigata ain't called "Snow Country" for nothing), and so the Bishamondo was constructed to be able to withstand the weight of an incredible amount of snow.  Now part of it is more representative of that than the "Mountain Gate" you see pictured above.  Like Kiyomizudera, this gate was built without a single nail and has stood for nearly 200 winters.


6) Goryokaku


Location: Hakodate (Hokkaido Prefecture)
Address: 44 Goryōkakuchō, Hakodate-shi, Hokkaidō 040-0001
Year Completed:
1855
Description:  For you military history buffs out there, this was the most fascinating example of military architecture in Japan.  Most folks like me are interested in old Japanese castles for their unique designs meant to maximize defense, but the Goryokaku in Hokkaido is incredible because it was a Japanese-designed fort using French methods. It was also employed in one of the last battles of Japan's civil war that led to the restoration of power to the Emperor.  That is a lot of history mashed into one place--especially one that is as architecturally interesting as this star-shaped fort.  Located in Hokkaido, the fortifications are now grounds for a massive park which travelers may visit, or folks can ascend the Goryokaku Tower to get an overhead view of the fort.


7) National Diet Building


Location: Tokyo (at Kokkaigijidomae station)
Address: 1 Chome-7-1 Nagatacho, Chiyoda, Tokyo 100-0014
Year Completed:
1936
Description:  At the time of completion, the building that houses the Japanese parliament was one of the most costly in terms of money and labor in all of Japan.  The ziggurat style of the main tower is iconic, and if you are able to get a tour inside the building, you can see all of the unique qualities of the building.  For example, the stone used for many of the walls was sourced from Okinawa, and the fossils of coral and other sea life are noticeably visible.  You can also see how the main assembly halls were constructed to maximize acoustics as well as to support a tangible hierarchy in its layout, from junior parliamentarians all the way up to the Emperor himself.


8) Tokyo Tower


Location: Tokyo (near Akebanebashi station)
Address: 4 Chome-2-8 Shibakoen, Minato, Tokyo 105-0011
Year Completed:
1958
Description: Most travelers are drawn to the newer, taller Tokyo Skytree these days, and it's hard to blame them since it is the world's second tallest structure behind the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.  Still, Skytree was built with the most modern technology and an abundance of resources from one of the world's top economies.  Meanwhile, the original tower, Tokyo Tower, was built in a time when Japan was still finding its feet after the nation's defeat in WWII.  Built in the 1950s, Tokyo Tower stood as the tallest structure in Asia for many years, and it was a symbol for Japan's resurrection.  The structure is still iconic -- and it is incredible to see how this tower, built some sixty years ago, still holds its own among a diverse and modern skyline.

9) Kyoto Station


Location: Kyoto
Address: 901 Higashishiokojicho, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto-fu 600-8216
Year Completed:
1997
Description: For being Tokyo's ancient capital, Kyoto Station's futurist-design makes for a fascinating juxtaposition of old and new as soon as you arrive (if by train).  The enormity of the station, with its steel beams and glass shell, left an indelible mark on me, as I'm sure it does for most visitors.  The best way to enjoy Kyoto station is from the top, as there is a free access skywalk that provides views both of the station below and the magnificent Kyoto skyline.


10) Motenashi Dome

Location: Kanazawa Station, Kanazawa (Ishikawa Prefecture)
Address: Kinoshinbomachi, Kanazawa-shi, Ishikawa-ken 920-0858
Year Completed:
2005
Description: Built using public funds to help kindle Kanazawa's resurgence among Japan's top cities, the Motenashi (Hospitality) Dome and the "Tsuzumi-mon" (Wooden Drum) gate now stand as the iconic gateway to a natural competitor to Kyoto.  The irony is not lost on me that the futurist design of the dome is similar to that of Kyoto station, but like all of the other attributes that make Kanazawa and Kyoto similar, there is enough uniqueness in it to warrant its own viewing.  The Motenashi Dome is great to see from the ground level or from above in the adjacent department store that has an observation area offering a valuable top-down view.


Where to go if you are limited on time or distance...


Understandably, many of you intrepid travelers will not be heading all over the country.  Probably, a fair share of you will stay in the Tokyo area.  Fear not, architecture fans, there are plenty of incredible examples to see in the city, and if you want a taste of other iconic buildings from bygone eras or different areas of Japan, there are places to go for that.  Here are two:

Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architecture Museum



Location: Koganei Park, Tokyo
Address: 3 Chome-3-7-1 Sakurachō, Koganei-shi, Tōkyō-to 184-0005
Description:  When Tokyo was modernizing and adding new buildings rapidly, there was a call to preserve some of the old architecture.  Since commercial ventures would not allow for them to remain in place, Japan decided just to pick up and move the buildings to Koganei Park just outside of Tokyo city center.  The Edo Tokyo Open Air Architecture Museum offers a wide array of architectural examples from pre-modern to Japan's period of industrialization.  It is a great way to see how Japan's architecture evolved over time.  You can check out the English website here for details on access, hours, and admission fee.


Tobu World Square


Location: Nikko (Tochigi Prefecture)
Address: 209-1 Kinugawaonsen Ohara, Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture 321-2593
Description:  Tobu World Square is one of my favorite places in all of Japan for its craftsmanship and ingenuity, as well as the window to the world's best man-made structures.  My wife, Kim, wrote a full article about it here, but Tobu World Square is full of miniature recreations, faithfully crafted to scale, of the world's most iconic buildings and structures.  Of course, primacy is given to the home team, and so there are a multitude of Japanese exhibits ranging from the 1964 Olympic Stadiums to Itsukushima Shrine to the Akasaka Palace.  How good are the exhibits?  Well, let's just say I've seen more than one website mistakenly use a picture from Tobu World Square instead of the real thing! For more details on Tobu World Square, check out the website here.


So there you have it...

...a short list to get you started on discovering the incredible architecture that Japan has to offer.  If you come to Japan, I say zehi, be sure to admire the incredible buildings old and new that help represent the soul of Japan!

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2 comments

Love Shirakawago! Well, all these places are pretty neat to be honest and a good mix of the old and the new!

Great article and beautiful photos mate!