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While many of Japan's historic buildings and districts have been lost due to fires, earthquakes, wars and city redevelopment over the centuries, some cities and towns have managed to preserve a street block or whole district of traditional buildings for residents and tourists to enjoy today. The list below introduces some of Japan's best preserved historic city districts and towns:

Former Samurai Districts

Many Japanese cities, including Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya, have developed as castle towns, where the local feudal lord resided in the centrally located castle, and his retainers, the samurai, lived in the districts surrounding the castle.

As the highest social caste during the Edo Period, the samurai were allowed to construct elaborate residences with earthen walls and elegant homes. Among the best preserved former samurai districts are the ones of Kakunodate, Hagi and Kanazawa.

Former Castle Town

A few lanes, lined by the white walls and wooden gates of former samurai mansions are beautifully preserved in the Jokamachi district of Hagi today. Some houses are open to the public.

Nagamachi

Narrow lanes and old mansions are preserved in Nagamachi, Kanazawa's former samurai district. Kanazawa used to be the capital of the Edo Period's second wealthiest feudal domain.

Kitsuki

Kitsuki is unique for having two samurai districts on hills sandwiching a merchant district in the valley in between. They are among the most pleasantly preserved samurai districts in Japan.

Old Town

The highlight of Tsuwano's old town is the Tonomachi district where one street block of the former samurai district is particularly nicely preserved with earthen walls, historic buildings and a water canal filled with carps.

Samurai District

Some of Matsue's former samurai mansions have been preserved along the busy road north of Matsue Castle. Among them is the former residence of Lafcadio Hearn.

Samurai District

The preserved area of Usuki's samurai district is small but photogenic. Referred to as Nioza Historical Road, it is about 200 meters long.

Former Merchant Districts

In theory the lowest of the four social castes during the Edo Period, many merchants actually grew very wealthy. Like all the social castes, the merchants lived in assigned city districts. Merchant districts are characterized by shop lined streets and warehouses (kura). Among the cities with the most beautifully preserved former merchant districts are Takayama and Kurashiki.

Old Town••

The narrow streets in Takayama's old town are lined by traditional buildings, shops and sake breweries. A few former merchant homes are open to the public.

Canal Area

Numerous warehouses are preserved along a willow lined canal. Many of the warehouses have been converted into museums, souvenir stores, boutiques and cafes.

Yokaichi Old Town

A 600 meter long street lined by preserved buildings from the era when the small town of Uchiko on Shikoku gained international fame and wealth as wax producer.

Imaicho Town

Rather than just a district, Imaicho is a whole town whose machiya town house lined streets have been preserved. A couple of merchant houses are open for tourists to enter.

Naramachi

Naramachi is the former merchant district of Nara, where several traditional warehouses and residential buildings have survived. One old residence is open to the public for free.

Warehouse District

More than a dozen massive warehouses, reminiscent of the Edo Period, are preserved along Kawagoe's main street. Many of them are now housing stores and restaurants.

Sawara Town

A former transport hub for rice shipments into the capital, Sawara's historic center lies along a canal lined by a few preserved and restored traditional residences, merchant shops and warehouses from the Edo Period.

Nakamachi

Nakamachi-dori is a street lined by several nicely preserved, old buildings, including a number of warehouses. Some of them house small shops, restaurants and ryokan.

Geisha Districts

Traditional geisha districts are characterized by the wooden tea houses, in which the geisha perform during banquets. The most beautiful, traditional geisha quarters are found in Kyoto and Kanazawa:

Gion

Gion's Hanami-koji Street is lined by beautiful old buildings, tea houses and restaurants. In the evenings, you may be able to spot a geisha apprentice.

Post Towns

Post towns were built along the country's major highways, such as the Tokaido and Nakasendo, to accommodate and cater to travelers. Only a small number of former post towns have preserved their Edo Period appearance. The best among them is Tsumago in the Kiso Valley.

Tsumago••

A beautifully preserved post town along the old Nakasendo with most of the town's buildings dating back to the Edo Period, when they served as lodgings and restaurants.

Ouchijuku

Ouchijuku is a post town along the Aizu-Nishi Kaido trade route, which connected Aizu with Nikko during the Edo Period. It is located about 20 kilometers south of Aizu.

Narai

The wealthiest former post town in the Kiso Valley, Narai stretches over a whole kilometer. Unfortunately, vehicular traffic is not banned along the street.

Pilgrimage Towns

For centuries, Japan's most important temples and shrines have attracted crowds of pilgrims and tourists, resulting in street blocks, city districts and whole towns, providing visitors with lodgings, food and souvenirs.

Farming Towns

The vast majority of Japan's population in the Edo Period and before was made up of farmers who typically lived in simple, thatched roof buildings. While single old farm houses are preserved at open air museums, there are a few remote villages that have preserved an appearance of past centuries.

Miyama

Miyama is a rural town in the mountains north of Kyoto. It features over two hundred thatched roof houses scattered across its idyllic countryside. Miyama's Kayabuki no Sato village records the highest percentage of thatched roof buildings of any town in Japan.

Port Towns

Port towns have been accommodating the fishing and trading industries for centuries. Over time, some grew into large cities with major international ports, such as Yokohama or Kobe, while others remained remote, small fishing villages. A few of them have preserved an atmosphere of bygone times.

Tomonoura

Tomonoura is a picturesque port town situated at a bay in Hiroshima Prefecture facing the Seto Inland Sea. It features an endearing fishing townscape and an old town center of many photogenic alleys lined by rustic old houses. In the past, merchant ships traveling along the Seto Inland Sea would dock at Tomonoura while waiting for a favorable tide.

Ryukyu Villages

An independent kingdom for several centuries, the Ryukyu Islands became part of Japan as Okinawa Prefecture in 1879. Despite past assimilation efforts, the distinct Ryukyuan culture is proudly surviving today and has become one of Okinawa's main tourist attractions.

Taketomi Island•••

The small village consists almost entirely of traditional style, one-storied houses with red tiled roofs, stone walls, ample of lion like shiza statues and white sand roads.
Page last updated: July 2, 2012