Review: Japan’s World Heritage Sites

I’m not a bucket list type of traveler. Sure, I’ve got a general idea of the things I want to see at any given time (ie Kyoto in autumn, the summer festivals of Tohoku) but I don’t have an actual paper account of destinations I absolutely must see and there’s no real order to my choices. Some people want to hit all 47 prefectures of Japan (wouldn’t that be great!) or tick off as many castles as possible. A friend of mine living in England actually has the lofty goal of visiting all of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. I’d never really been terribly interested in that notion until I received a copy of Japan’s World Heritage Sites to review.

Let’s just say that I now have “a list”.

I love nothing more than to page through a glossy tome boasting full-page color photos of places I either know well or wish to visit in the near future. Japan’s World Heritage Sites from Tuttle Publishing hit the nail on the head on both accounts, taking me on that nostalgic journey through locations in Japan I have already visited while making me consult my calendar for free dates on which I can plan to cover the rest. Even those who prefer armchair travel will enjoy this trip through the Japanese archipelago.

UNESCOJapan has 17 World Heritage Sites but as you read through this book, you realize you are learning about three times that many actual places. Kyoto alone boasts 17 properties under its World Heritage designation and all are introduced to the reader with illuminating text, gorgeous photography and maps where appropriate. In the sections on Nara and Hiraizumi (a temple complex in northern Japan), I flipped through pages on places I didn’t even know existed, so overlooked are they on the main tourist circuit. Even with my three years in Okinawa, I still managed to miss several of the island’s UNESCO properties, including one right down the road from my old home. Clearly, THIS is the “guidebook” I should have been referencing for my explorations.

There doesn’t seem to be an order to how readers are introduced to each World Heritage Site. The layout skips around both geographically and chronologically, meaning that a location that joined the UNESCO list in 2005 might be listed before one that joined in the 1990s. However, the layout of each individual site is very clear and “user-friendly”. A small box of practical details is listed at the beginning of each entry. While some of the information can easily be gleaned from a quick search online (such as contact info and access), it’s nice to have everything listed all in one place. A lengthy description, engagingly written by Japan resident and professor John Dougill, elaborates on the site’s history and features, while crisp color photos bring the locations to life. I even found the captions to contain little nuggets of knowledge that were new to me, just the thing that this information junkie adores. Dougill, an expert on Japan with several other publications to his name, doesn’t scrimp on the details here but manages to present Japanese history and culture so that even the most casual reader won’t be confused by the legions of foreign terms (and the multitude of Tokugawa shoguns).

Japan’s World Heritage Sites is a heavy publication, so it’s unlikely you’ll be toting it in your backpack during your time in Japan. Which is a shame, really, as it is an extremely comprehensive and readable account of so many sites that deserve to be on any travel itinerary. For me, this book has been my constant companion in the evening. I curl up on my couch, choose a section to focus on, and delve into some of Japan’s most beautiful and unique destinations. This is a great addition to any Japanophile’s bookshelf .

I received a free copy of Japan’s World Heritage Sites to review; the opinions above, however, are entirely my own.

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