Meiji Jingu Shrine (Tokyo): Tokyo’s most venerable and refined Shinto shrine honors Emperor Meiji and his empress with simple yet dignified architecture surrounded by a dense forest. This is a great refuge in the heart of the city.
Sensoji Temple (Tokyo): The capital’s oldest temple is also its liveliest. Throngs of visitors and stalls selling both traditional and kitschy items lend it a festival-like atmosphere. This is the most important temple to see in Tokyo.
Kotokuin Temple (Kamakura): This temple is home to the Great Buddha, Japan’s second-largest bronze image, which was cast in the 13th century and sits outdoors against a magnificent wooded backdrop. The Buddha’s face has a wonderful expression of contentment, serenity, and compassion.
Hase Kannon Temple (Kamakura): Although this temple is famous for its 9m-tall (30-ft.) Kannon of Mercy, the largest wooden image in Japan, it’s most memorable for its thousands of small statues of Jizo, the guardian deity of children, donated by parents of miscarried, stillborn, or aborted children. It’s a rather haunting vision.
Toshogu Shrine (Nikko): Dedicated to Japan’s most powerful shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, this World Heritage Site is the nation’s most elaborate and opulent shrine, made with 2.4 million sheets of gold leaf. It’s set in a forest of cedar in a national park.
Kiyomizu Temple (Kyoto): One of Japan’s best-known temples with a structure imitated by lesser temples around the country, Kiyomizu commands an exalted spot on a steep hill with a view over Kyoto. The pathway leading to the shrine is lined with pottery and souvenir shops, and the temple grounds have open-air pavilions, where you can drink beer or eat noodles. Don’t neglect a visit to the smaller Jishu Shrine on its grounds — it’s dedicated to the god of love.
Sanjusangendo Hall (Kyoto): Japan’s longest wooden building contains the spectacular sight of more than 1,000 life-size wood-carved statues, row upon row of the thousand-handed Kannon of Mercy.
Kinkakuji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion; Kyoto): Constructed in the 14th century as a shogun’s retirement villa, this three-story pavilion shimmers in gold leaf and is topped with a bronze phoenix; it’s a beautiful sight when the sun shines and the sky’s blue.
Todaiji Temple (Nara): Japan’s largest bronze Buddha sits in the largest wooden structure in the world, making it the top attraction in this former capital. While not as impressive as the Great Buddha’s dramatic outdoor stage in Kamakura, the sheer size of Todaiji Temple and its Buddha make this a sight not to be missed if you’re in the Kansai area.
Horyuji Temple (Nara): Despite the fact that Todaiji Temple with its Great Buddha gets all the glory, true seekers of Buddhist art and history head to the sacred grounds of Horyuji Temple with its treasures and ancient buildings.
Ise Grand Shrines (Ise): Although there’s not much to see, these shrines are the most venerated Shinto shrines in all of Japan, and pilgrims have been flocking here for centuries. Amazingly, the Inner Shrine, which contains the Sacred Mirror, is razed and reconstructed on a new site every 20 years in accordance with strict rules governing purification in the Shinto religion. Follow the age-old route of former pilgrims after you visit the shrines, and stop for a meal in the nearby Okage Yokocho District.
Myoryuji Temple (Kanazawa): This is a temple of a different kind, popularly known as Ninja-dera and fun to visit because of its hidden stairways, trick doors, traps, secret chambers, and other Feudal-Era devices meant to thwart enemy intruders.
Itsukushima Shrine (Miyajima): The huge red torii (the traditional entry gate of a shrine), standing in the waters of the Seto Inland Sea, is one of the most photographed landmarks in Japan and signals the approach to this shrine. Built over the tidal flats on a gem of an island called Miyajima, it’s considered one of Japan’s most scenic spots. At night, the shrine is illuminated.
Kotohiragu Shrine (Kotohira, on Shikoku): One of Japan’s oldest and most popular shrines beckons at the top of 785 granite steps on the Yashima Plateau with great views of the Seto Inland Sea, but for most Japanese, it’s the “I made it!” that counts
Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine (Fukuoka): Established in 905 to deity the god of scholarship, this immensely popular shrine has a festive atmosphere and is popular with students wishing to pass school exams. The road leading to the shrine is lined with souvenir and craft shops; the Kyushu National Museum is an escalator ride away.