Japan is a place of great natural beauty and a long proud history. There are many amazing Natural World Heritage Sites that explore both aspects of this amazing country.

Natural World Heritage Sites are some of the most amazing places in the world. They have been designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as places of particular significance. They are places of extraordinary and unique natural beauty. Many often have substantial historical significance to the local culture as well. Their designation has been put in place to promote both protection of these locations as well as international awareness.

Flowers in Yakushima, Kagoshima Prefecture. Photo Credit: Kimon Berlin at Flickr.

There are four Natural World Heritage Sites in Japan. They are all places with amazing ecosystems and are home to several endangered species. There are also the marks of Japanese history on all of them going back very far. Every one of them is unique and well worth the effort required to visit.

1) Ogasawara Islands (Bonin Islands)

Chichijima, Ogasawara Islands. Photo Credit: shilo2006 at Flickr.

There are over 30 islands that are included in the Natural World Heritage Site. It is located to the south of the Japanese mainland, about a 1000 kilometers away from Tokyo. Only two islands are inhabited, so the subtropical forest that dominates the Ogasawara Islands is largely a wilderness area and are a part of the Ogasawara National Park.  This site is home to 195 endangered species and a critically endangered bat called the Bonin Flying Fox.

The immense amount of biodiversity in and around these islands is why it’s been designated as a Natural World Heritage Site. Many biologists have studied the ecosystems of the islands to gain a better understanding of evolutionary processes in plant species Asia.

These islands were the location of many of the fiercest battles of World War II. The most famous of the battles in the Ogasawara Islands was the Battle of Iwo Jima. If you’re a history buff and would like to visit Iwo Jima, the only way to access the island is with Military Historical Tours.

Minamijima Island. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Many consider the most beautiful part of the islands to be Minamijima, where you can see an amazing natural arch over a bright blue lagoon, as well as numerous species of beach birds and seabirds. You can also go hiking without too much preparation since there are a lot of well-maintained trails throughout the islands. Water activities like scuba diving and sport fishing are also popular. Depending on the time of year, you can also go on whale watching tours.

This site is only accessible by a ferry which moves very slowly when the weather is bad. There are a number of restaurants and hotels available on the two inhabited islands.

2) Shiretoko

Shiretoko Goko in Shiretoko Peninsula, Hokkaido. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Shiretoko Peninsula was designated as a Natural World Heritage site because it is the southernmost point where sea ice usually forms in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s located in the north of Japan and is on the easternmost point of the island of Hokkaido. Numerous whales can be found near the Peninsula. You can even spot them from the shore occasionally! On land, you can find sika deer and Ussuri brown bears, as well as seals lounging on the beaches.

Volcanoes run the length of the Peninsula, meaning that there are numerous hot springs in the area. Many are often accompanied by hotels and other facilities. In addition, there are five small lakes known as Shiretoko Goko. By visiting these mind-boggling lakes, you can enjoy the beautiful surroundings to the fullest.

A portion of the Peninsula has been designated as Shiretoko National Park and entry is forbidden.

3) Shirakami-Sanchi

Mountains in the distance, Shirakami-Sanchi in Tohoku. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Shirakami-Sanchi was designated as a Natural World History Site because it is a nearly pristine wilderness. It is located to the northwest of Japan in the Tohoku region of northern Honshū. Here you can find the remains of the once-great beech forest that once dominated northern Japan. Some of the animals that call this area home include the Japanese Serow, Japanese black bear, and the Japanese macaque.

This is a place of trackless wilderness unlike any other on Earth. It often sees snow and is in many ways a relic of the ancient world. No logging has occurred within the site proper and it is incredibly well preserved.  It is used as a place to research the effects of climate change as well as a window into the way the Japanese islands were several thousand years ago.

In order to enter the actual area of the Natural World Heritage Site, you need permission from Japanese Forest Management. However, the bordering national parks, Akaishi KeiryūAnmon no Taki Prefectural Natural Park and Tsugaru Quasi-National Park, are more easily accessible.

You can climb the highest peak in the area, Shirakami-dake, quite easily, since it is not designated as a part of the Natural World Heritage Site. There are several visitor-friendly facilities on the slope. The Shadow Gate Falls (Anmon no taki), a beautiful triple waterfall, are easily accessible on foot and located in Akaishi KeiryūAnmon no Taki Prefectural Natural Park.

4) Yakushima

Unsoiled nature of the Shiratani Unsuikyo. Photo Credit: Kimon Berlin at Flickr.

Yakushima was designated as a Natural World Heritage site because it is the largest nesting ground for the endangered loggerhead sea turtle in the world.  It also contains a unique temperate ancient forest that has remained the same for thousands of years.

Yakushima is an island to the east of mainland Japan. There are numerous coral reefs near the island. Shiratani Unsuikyo and Jomonsugi are considered the one of the main highlights in Yakushima.

The island has been settled since at least the 6th century. As such, there are several thousand people living on the island and it is fairly easy to get there. You can take a hydrofoil ferry, a slower ferry, or fly. There are several hot springs on the island.

Does this photograph reminds you of Princess Mononoke? Photo Credit: Casey Yee at Flickr.

The highlight of Yakushima is the stunning, pristine forest. Taking a hike through it is a beautiful and amazing experience. There are numerous waterfalls in the forest. One, Okko-no-taki, is often rated as the best in Japan. If you get away from human inhabitation, you will probably see sika deer and monkeys in abundance.

If you visit from the end of May to August, you can occasionally see sea turtle coming in to lay their eggs at night. There are several laws about how to do this and it’s wise to use an ecotourism agency if you want to see turtles.