The islands of Japan are places of diverse beauty, from stunning mountain peaks and lush green forests to long miles of seashore. There are many places to go in Japan to appreciate its history and cultural heritage. These places tell the stories of the people who have lived here for centuries.
Sankeien Gardens in Yokohama, Japan
A stroll through the beautiful Japanese landscape of Sankeien Garden is a journey into Japanese history. The garden was built by a wealthy silk merchant on Negishi Bay, south of Tokyo, and it opened to the public more than 100 years ago. Winding paths lead past a serene pond and over footbridges that span flowing streams. Lush foliage and seasonal blooms enhance the sense of tranquility that is part of traditional Japanese gardens.
Scattered across the grounds are historic buildings that represent different times and stories from Japanese history. Homes include the original owner’s sprawling home, with interconnected tatami rooms; an ancient gassho, or thatched-roof cottage; and a daimyo, the elegant residence of a feudal lord. Several tea houses celebrate the ritual of the Japanese tea ceremony. On a hilltop perches a three-story, 15th-century pagoda from the old Tomyoji Temple in Kyoto.
Tomioka Silk Mill: History of the Japanese Industry
Japan’s first modern silk mill opened in 1872 as a model factory meant to help Japanese industry compete internationally. The Tomioka Silk Mill and related facilities are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The well-preserved destination on the Kabura River in Gunma Prefecture includes an enormous silk reeling mill, warehouses for silkworm cocoons, a luxurious manager’s residence, and the dormitories of mostly-female workers.
Through demonstrations, displays, preserved machinery, and a video, visitors learn how important silk production was in Japan’s economy and history. They can see what modernization meant for many of the people employed in that industry.
Kitamaebune Ship Museum shows Japanese Travel and Trade
In a land of many islands, the merchants who plied the seas between cities created cultural as well as economic connections. Flimsy but highly-valued kitamae-bune ships sailed the Sea of Japan from the mid-1700s until about 1900. The work was dangerous but so financially rewarding that many sailors dreamed of purchasing their own ships to carry rice, fish, paper, textiles, and other consumer cargo.
Explore the legacy of these traveling shopping centers at the Kitamaebune Ship Museum in the fishing village of Hashitate, Ishikawa Prefecture (north of Kyoto). The museum was once the mansion of a prosperous shipbuilder. Today it displays navigational tools, ship models, and other historical artifacts that bring to life the seafaring merchant experience.
Shonai Rice Museum and Sankyo Soko Storehouses
The Shonai plain, outside Sakata in Yamagata Prefecture, has long been a rice-cultivating region, which made the city an important port. Explore this history by visiting the Shonai Rice Museum and Sankyo Soko Rice Storehouses in Sakata. Here, beautifully-constructed warehouses built in the 1890s stand on a waterfront district just off the Sea of Japan.
Some of the buildings remain in use for rice storage. Visitors can wander among vacant storerooms and along a protective row of shade trees and observe how these trees kept the rice dry and cool. Remaining buildings now house the rice museum and other attractions, such as restaurants and craft stores. The rice museum (which has some English-language signage) tells the local story of rice cultivation. Visitors can learn about the daily lives of workers, including women who hauled enormous bags of rice on their backs.
Shrines and Temples of Nikko
A trio of shrines and temples in the city of Nikko form part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Toshogu Shrine is a sprawling complex of extravagantly decorated buildings that date to the 1600s. These buildings surround the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, famous for ushering in an era of more than 250 years of peace and stability. Especially notable are intricate and brightly-painted carvings and intertwined elements of both Shinto and Buddhist culture.
Founded in the 8th century by Buddhist monks, Rinnoji Temple and Futarasan-jinja Shrine pay homage to the beautiful mountains around them. The former is still a training site for Tendai Buddhist monks and is famous for its beautiful gilded carvings. The latter is of a simpler design and scale. These attractions herald the gateway to the spectacular sights of Nikko National Park.
Travelers to the island of Hokkaido in northern Japan can experience the rugged homeland of the indigenous Ainu people and learn their stories. The origins of the Ainu are deep and obscure. They speak a language distinct from all others. For hundreds if not thousands of years, they have fished and traded in this remote, mountainous area, especially along the Ishikari River.
While their historical territory extended beyond Hokkaido, today many Ainu descendants live in the Kamikawa region of the island. Many places and rivers still have Ainu names. The Ainu community celebrates and preserves its own legacy at Kawamura Kaneto Ainu Memorial Hall. Visitors can explore Ainu handicrafts and music and see photographs from the past. The Asahikawa City Museum also shares the Ainu story with life-size exhibits that tell the stories of their past.
Explore Your Own Japanese Heritage
Even if you can’t visit places to go in Japan, you can still learn about your own Japanese ancestors right in your own home. The FamilySearch Family Tree is the world’s largest combined family tree, where people from all over the world contribute family memories and document their genealogy. Explore and preserve your own Japanese family history in the free FamilySearch Family Tree.
Source: Family Search