COVID claustrophobia is getting to all of us. It’s still going to be a while before we can safely hop on a plane, but in the meantime, a virtual tour is the next best thing. Discover Japan’s highlights, including world-class museums and UNESCO World Heritage sites, and prime yourself for the adventures you can have when restrictions ease.
Temples and Shrines
Go on a spiritual pilgrimage to two legendary World Heritage sites, revered for their impressive architecture and picturesque natural settings.
Nara Prefecture – Todaiji Temple
Visit Todaiji Temple in Nara Prefecture from your armchair through this 360-degree virtual tour. The temple is one of Japan’s grandest, with beautiful architecture and expansive grounds. The temple was commissioned in the 8th century and served as the head temple for the Buddhist faith in Japan. Todaiji plays a major role in Japanese history and is a popular attraction for anyone exploring Japan’s ancient capital of Nara.
The virtual tour begins at the Great South Gate, an imposing wooden structure guarded by the fearsome “Ni-o (Two Kings) of Todaiji.” Follow the pathway to the Daibutsu-den, a giant hall that is one of the world's largest wooden structures. The scale of the hall is impressive despite being rebuilt two-thirds smaller in the Edo period (1603–1867). The hall houses an enormous statue of Buddha that dates to 752. Scroll left and right to see other Buddhist artworks including two golden bodhisattva sculptures and a heavenly guardian.
You can explore much of the spacious temple precincts on your virtual visit, and the high-quality images give you an excellent idea of the scale and beauty of Todaiji. However, something you can’t experience on the tour is Nara’s famous deer. When you visit in person, expect to meet wild deer roaming the grounds. They are regarded in Japan as messengers of the gods, and there are many in and around Nara Park.
Hiroshima Prefecture – Miyajima and Itsukushima-jinja Shrine
Virtually visit an island that was once considered so sacred that people weren’t permitted to live there. Miyajima, near Hiroshima City, is a revered Shinto site best known for its UNESCO World Heritage-listed Itsukushima-jinja Shrine and iconic torii gate. The gate, which appears to float on the water, is just one part of the impressive shrine complex you can explore on your virtual tour.
Begin with a bird’s eye view of the shrine grounds and zoom in on the section you want to see. Make sure to drag the map to find the “floating” gate, which is set off from the main shrine buildings. Each section is accompanied by a short English blurb and high-quality panoramic images. The site’s location is a large part of the appeal. Lofty Mt. Misen overlooks it, and some of the vermillion-lacquered shrine buildings sit on stilts in the Seto Inland Sea. You can get a closer view of all of these on the tour.
The Shrine complex is undergoing restoration work in advance of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics, which are now due to be held in 2021.
Freely explore a stunning underground Natural Monument and an idyllic traditional village – without the crowds.
Gifu Prefecture – Shirakawa-go
Take a virtual stroll through one of Japan’s most charming traditional villages. Shirakawa-go, in the mountains in the remote Shogawakyo Valley, has more gassho-zukuri farmhouses than anywhere else in Japan. The name gassho-zukuri, meaning “praying hands,” comes from the distinctive shape of their steep thatched roofs.
The remarkable 19th-century houses, built without nails, are considered a feat of Japanese architecture. They were built to quickly shed snow and provided a large attic space for cultivating silkworms. This picturesque village is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site, and many of the houses now function as museums.
The 360-degree virtual tour lets you wander among the houses and paddy fields in different seasons, which are lush and green in summer and thick with snow in winter. Let the tour whet your appetite for a real-life visit, when you can see the village lit up at night and bathe in the nearby onsen.
Okayama Prefecture – Makido Cave
Makido Cave is 450-meter-long limestone cavern formed over thousands of years by a steady drip of water. Thanks to this virtual tour, you can descend into the fantastical cave without even leaving your home.
Begin at the cave entrance before heading down to a world of stalactites, underground lakes, and dramatic rock formations. Virtually wander across bright red bridges and look out for interesting rock shapes, including a tall stack that resembles a five-story pagoda, and the “silver curtain”—a plunging wall of rock. The cave is illuminated, and you can opt to view the cave’s interior lit in different colors.
Visit in person and you can enjoy refreshing, year-round 15-degree temperatures. And one thing you can’t get from the virtual tour is the good luck you receive by throwing a coin in the spring pond.
Get an all-access pass to both the past and the future. Take a 3D walkthrough of two world-class exhibitions that explore where we’ve come from and where we’re going.
Tokyo – National Museum of Nature and Science
©Virtual Reality Innovation Organization
Japan’s National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo’s Ueno Park has opened its virtual doors to allow you to view a selection of its more than 25,000 exhibits in front of your computer screen. The wide-ranging exhibits cover everything from nature, history and people to some of Japan’s latest advances in technology.
The 3D virtual tour offers unlimited access to the museum’s artifacts in both the Global Pavillion and the Japan Pavillion with a user-friendly interface. Click and move around the museum’s multiple floors and view dinosaur skeletons, taxidermic animals, nature and organisms of the Japanese islands and a floor dedicated to progress in science and technology.
When you visit the museum in person, be sure to try out the hands-on experiments with light, magnetism and electricity.
Tokyo – Mori Art Museum
You could visit Mori Art Museum on every trip you ever make to Tokyo, and it would never be the same twice. This beautifully curated contemporary art museum in the heart of Tokyo has an astounding line-up of exhibitions. Its current show, “Future and the Arts: AI, Robotics, Cities, Life – How Humanity Will Live Tomorrow”, is a fitting exhibit for those wondering what the future holds.
Their 3D Walkthrough—available only until June 30th, 2020—transports you to the museum, allowing you to “wander” through the galleries and linger to read the signage, which is all in both English and Japanese. The current exhibition features more than 100 projects and works in categories including “New Possibilities of Cities,” “Lifestyle and Design Innovations,” and “Society and Humans in Transformation.” Contemplate how cities, human lifestyles, and society are likely to be transformed through cutting-edge developments in science and technology, including AI, biotechnology, robotics, and AR (augmented reality), as well as art, design, and architecture. This glimpse of what the future may hold might renew your hope for it.
When you visit in person, check out Mori Art Museum’s latest exhibitions and visit Tokyo City View, an observation deck overlooking the city. You’ll need a separate ticket, but the views are worth it.
We can’t travel now, but these six virtual tours should inspire you to plan your Japan itinerary for when we can. For more inspiration, visit https://www.japan.travel/experiences-in-japan/en/.
About the author
Kristopher Spencer is an American writer based in Bangkok, Thailand. His trips to Japan have always left him wanting more and writing about the Land of the Rising Sun now is providing plenty of inspiration for his post-pandemic travel itinerary. An avid photographer, Kristopher recommends Japan’s bright, bustling cityscapes and stunning natural vistas alike for all shutterbugs and social media connoisseurs.