top of page

Japan: UNESCO World Heritage Sites of the Meiji Industrial Revolution

Planning a trip to Japan but hoping to avoid the beaten track? Here's just the guide for you!

Nearly all visitors to Japan are interested in checking out the major cities, like Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo, and with good reason. But with the 2020 Olympics in the not-too-distant future, you might want the chance to explore parts of this beautiful country the average traveler sadly misses. Enter: Sites of Japan's Meiji Industrial Revolution.

Why Meiji Industrial Revolution?

Japan is unique in many fascinating ways. Japanese culture and customs, food and tradition are all reasons to visit Japan, but one of the most interesting points about the country is, arguably, the speed and nature of their industrial revolution. Prior to industrialisation, little had changed in Japan for hundreds of years. Under the Tokugawa shogunate, Japan had a strict isolationist foreign policy. This meant that relations and trade with other countries were severely limited, nearly all foreigners were barred from entering Japan, and common Japanese people were kept from leaving the country.

In just over 50 years, Japan transformed completely into a full-blown industrial economy, with railroads, infrastructure, and booming technology.

From the mid 1800s, using old Western textbooks and copying models of Western ships, Japan began their Industrial Revolution, predominately through trial and error. Foreign technology was adapted to best suit Japan's needs and social traditions, and home-grown knowledge and experience lead to this boom. Perhaps the most fascinating point is that Japan achieved all of this entirely on their own terms; they are the first non-Western country to industrialise --free of colonial or external economic pressure-- through self-determined strategy, entirely on their own terms.

23 unique sites exist as a testament to this historic achievement, and together they form a UNESCO World Heritage site called, "Sites of Japan's Meiji Industrial Revolution." Below is a guide to some of the areas. (photo by: @tukki_11to17)

5) Kamaishi

Iwate prefecture is not an area well-travelled by many foreign tourists, which is a shame because there are so many incredible things to see and do.

In Kamaishi you'll find Hashino Iron Mining and Smelting Site, Japan's oldest remains of a Western-style blast furnace. In its heyday, the Hashino Iron Mining and Smelting Site employed 1000 workers and used a giant waterwheel to power the blast furnaces.


In the mid 19th-century, under the constraints of the isolationist policy, the blast furnaces were built with architectural drawings of medieval blast furnaces, an old Dutch manual, and good old fashioned trial and error. The efforts were a success, and for the first time in Japan's history, a consistent method of making iron began. Today, all that remain of the site is the remains of the granite foundations of the original furnaces.

Location: 50 minute drive from Kamaishi Station, or 35 minute drive from JR Tono Station

Contact: +81-19-322-8846

Be sure to also check out the Hashino Iron Mining and Smelting Information Center (TEL +81-193-22-5835 ) and the Iron and Steel History Museum (TEL +81-19-324-2211). (Photo by @mado_625) ( Photo by @48kb)

4) Kagoshima

There is so much to see and do in Kagoshima that it will get its own article. In the meantime, let's talk about the Shuseikan Project.

Follow the course of the Shimadzu family over 800 years and see how the international relations they forged led to the development of industrialisation in modern Japan. Be sure not to miss these sites!

The Old Kagoshima Foreign Engineer's Residence

Built in 1867, this is where British engineers who contracted their imported technology were invited to stay. Underground, the building also contains ruins of the first steam-engine powered spinning plant in Japan. You should also check out the visitor's centre here to make the most of your visit!

Location: 20 minute drive from JR Kagoshima-Chuo Station, or 50 minute drive from the airport

Contact: +81-99-247-1511

Sekiyoshi Sluice

Sekiyoshi Sluice Gate of Yoshino Leat

Ruins of the sluice gate that controlled the water supply for the Shuseikan Project. A sluice (from Dutch, "sluis") is a water channel that is controlled at its head by a gate. Built in 1852, this sluice powered the mill wheel and is still used for irrigation today. (photos by @dc_dy)

Location: 30 minute drive from JR Kagoshima-Chuo Station

Contact: +81-99-227-1940)

Shuseikan Reverberatory Furnace Ruins

Using a dutch manual, and through trial and error, Japan was able to build 11 fully functioning reverberatory furnaces by the 1850s. The ruins here are 1 of the 3 remaining originals.

Location: 20 minute drive from JR Kagoshima-Chuo Station, or 50 minute drive from the airport

Contact: +81-99-247-3401

Former Shuseikan Machinery Factory

The earliest existing Western-style factory building was completed in 1865. It processed metals and repaired steam engines using machines imported from the Netherlands.

Location: 20 minute drive from JR Kagoshima-Chuo Station, or 50 minute drive from the airport

Contact: +81-99-247-1511

Terayama Charcoal Kiln

Constructed in 1858 out of traditional solid stone masonry, this charcoal kiln remains, astonishingly, wholly intact. Created to produce high-calorific white charcoal, it was built to compensate for the coal shortage to the Shuseikan project.

Location: 45 minute drive from JR Kagoshima-Chuo Station

Contact: +81-99-227-1940

3) Arao/Omuta

What's really interesting about Miike Coal Mine and Port is these sites, though they are quite close to one another, are located between two cities and prefectures (states). And while Manda Pit is in Kumamoto prefecture, it lies very close to the border of Fukuoka prefecture; so close that on your visit, you can actually stand on the border, with a foot in each prefecture! Be sure not to miss these sites:

Manda Pit

Miyanohara Pit

Beautiful red-brick Meiji industrial buildings, juxtaposed with metallic machinery are the focal points of both Miyanohara and Manda Pits. Both locales house original machinery, and feature steal head framed shafts (pictured in introduction). In the early 1900's, Miyanhara Pit boasted the most up-to-date and powerful pumping facilities in the world.

Location: 10 minute drive from Omuta Station

Contact: +81-94-441-2750

Manda Pit Like Miyanohara, Manda Pit's red brick buildings are a beautiful stand out feature. In 1910, Manda Pit boasted the technical culmination of imported British steam-pumping, winding, and ventilation machinery. (photo by @kumamotototheworld)

Location: 10 minute drive from JR Arao Station, or 1 min walk from Mandako-mae bus stop

Contact: +81-96-857-9155

Miike Coal Railway

Coal production and distribution transformed the rural Japanese landscape into a modern one, but a mass-distribution system of coal needed railways and electricity. Miike Coal Railway linked pit to port, and helped facilitate quick, constant movement of bulk amounts of coal.

Location: 10 minute drive from JR Aarao Station, or 1 min walk from Mandako mae bus stop

Contact: +81-96-857-9155

Sunset at Miike Port

Miike Port

Miike Port was built as a modern electrified coal export for the Mine. Its, "humming bird" design incorporated a long jetty to keep the chanel free of sediment from the shallow Ariake Sea. It featured a large outer harbour and inner basin, with hydraulic lock gates that maintained the water level for the large ships, helping them to be mechanically loaded no matter the tide. (photo by @omutaboy1961 )

Location: 10 minute drive from Omuta Station

Contact: +81-94-441-2750

2) Nagasaki

Like Kagoshima, there is so much to see and do in Nagasaki that you can look out for another entry on the area on its own. Be sure to visit:

Glover House

Glover House and Office

Scottish merchant Thomas B. Glover was a key figure in the industrialisation of Japan, supplying ships, machinery, and weapons. Built in 1863, Glover House and Office are a fusion of British colonial and traditional Japanese architecture. The grounds overlook the beautiful Nagasaki Harbour, and the home stands as the oldest surviving wooden Western-style house in Japan. (Photo by )

Location: 8 minute walk from Ishibashi tram stop

Contact: +81-95-822-8223

Gunkanjima Digital Museum

With interactive exhibits, including model rooms, videos, and a chance to take part in Virtual Reality exploration of the Island, you can learn the history of Gunkanjima or Hashima Coal Mine Island. English audio guide available.

Location: 3 minute walk from O-Urakaigandori Station

Contact: +81-95-895-5000

For more info on the museum, check out their official website:

1) Gunkanjima

Gunkanjima silhouette

About 15km from the city of Nagasaki, you'll find Hashima Coal Mining Island, or Gunkanjima, ("Battleship Island").

Once the most densely populated locale in the world, the artificial island has been abandoned since 1974, and is perhaps most famous today for its haunting, empty concrete buildings, undisturbed except by nature.

Hashima got its famous nickname, Gunkanjima, from the shape of its silhouette, which looks like a battleship (photo by @adventure.with.ana)

Japan's first reinforced high-rise concrete building

Coal was discovered in the area in 1810, and small-scale mining began. But in 1890, the island was acquired by Mitsubishi, and Japan's first major large-scale undersea coal expedition began. Its successful production caused the island to grow in both size (over 35% expansion) and population (up to 5,300 inhabitants in the 1960's, about nine times greater population density than Tokyo around the same time). In 1916, in order to house the many people living on this small island, Japan's first reinforced high-rise concrete apartment building was constructed, and still stands today (photo by @never_stop_exploriiing ).

These days, the island remains a hot topic, as a concise definition of neither the length of time, nor the nature of the labour that was done there, particularly by Koreans, has been agreed upon by all parties. For further information, see links below.1

Location: Only accessible via Gunkanjima Landing Cruise Tour from Nagasaki Port, 40 minute boat ride.

Contact: +81-95-829-1314

Former Office and Miner's Bathhouse

These are just a few of the locations that together comprise a singular World Heritage Site that is testimony to Japan's rapid industrialisation. In total, there are 23 spots located across 11 cities and 8 prefectures. If you are planning a trip to Japan and want to be among the first foreign tourists to see fascinating historical spots, Sites of Japan's Meiji Industrial Revolution, Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining is the right destination for you!

For more on these and other Meiji historic sites, be sure to check out the official website:

1a. "Japan sites get world heritage status after forced labour acknowledgement"

1b. "Japan to publicize testimony denying that Koreans were forced to work ‘under harsh conditions’ at UNESCO-listed ‘Battleship Island’"

You Might Also Like:
bottom of page