It seems every blade of grass has its own story in Japan due to the country’s rich history of intermixing faiths and cultures. Stumbling into an ordinary field could land you in the home of a deity. At the same time, you may be walking in the footprints of a famous shogun who found the spot centuries ago.
Since the Olympics is on its way to Tokyo this year, there’s no better time to make plans. Get a trip in before the entire world floods the most popular attractions. If there’s no avoiding it, no problem. Here we’ll include quite a few accessible sites not on the average itinerary.
Let’s take a look at 20 mythical sites so legendary they're worth planning a trip to Japan.
20 1,000 wishes built these gates
At the Fushimi Inari Shrine, a torii gate is donated for every wish that comes true. Tourists who take the red tunnel to its end will have traveled through the hopes and dreams of more than a thousand strangers. That makes a trip to the torii gates quite inspirational.
19 Spiritual energy flows through Takachiho Gorge
Japan Guide recounts legends of deities who descended from the heavens to enjoy Takachiho’s landscapes. One of the most stunning ones is the river that cuts through stone pillars to form the Takachiho Gorge. It must be favoritism from the gods that make its waters radiate with otherworldly charm.
18 Mount Fuji offers a sneak peek of the heavens
Viewing a field of clouds from the top of one of Japan’s most sacred mountains isn’t as hard to manage as it sounds. Mt. Fuji may be Japan’s highest mountain, but it's nowhere near the highest in the world. This view belongs to anyone willing to train for it.
17 Chinoike Jigoku provides an alternative
This picture is all umbrellas and no rain. That’s because any liquid (or human) that touches this hot spring’s surface will hardly have the time to hiss before being sucked up into that huge cloud of steam. Try one of these onsens instead if you’re hoping for a spa day.
16 Humans reunite with nature in Okunoin Cemetery
Plentiful moss flourishes on the sacred Mount Koya, and it shows no fear of manmade structures. The unsettling feelings that tend to linger in graveyards are kept at bay by this balance between nature and humankind. Most photos are taken here since they’re forbidden near the mausoleum of the founder.
15 People once leaped from Kiyomizu-Dera for wishes
We don’t recommend it. And in fact, it’s now prohibited. Back before the 19th century came around, Sharing-Kyoto says that visitors believed that if they survived the 40-foot fall, their wish would be granted. If that wish was to survive a 40-foot fall, this myth checks out.
14 Now just drink up for good fortune
Since then Kyoto residents have found an easier method of earning good fortune. Holy water runs through three channels on a much lower balcony in the same temple. Drink from a stream for success, love, or longevity. Japan Travel emphasizes sticking to just one since you’ll otherwise be considered greedy.
13 The lights never go out in Torodo Hall
Nature hasn’t been left to overtake all of Okunoin. This hall filled with glowing, golden lanterns is located on the same site. Japan-Guide states that donations are responsible for these ten thousand flickering lights. Now anyone who enters is wrapped in the warmth of Japan’s charitable citizens.
12 Beneath the floating torii gate at Itsukushima Shrine
It’s possible to visit this gate at low tide and still be impressed, but the better option is to take a boat when the Inland sea is at its peak. Dipping under the torii’s high horizontal support before bobbing towards the shrine on the other side is far more remarkable.
11 Izumo Shrine is the meeting hall of the gods
According to Japan Times, Shinto deities journey to the Izumo Shrine every year to decide the destinies of mortals. Believers flock to the area when the date arrives so that they may be blessed with good fortune. Among the shrine’s many holy buildings is Kaguro Hall which is pictured above.
10 The Spooky castle that won't be defeated
Snow-white Himeji castle sits high above the crowd on its stone perch. Japan-Guide notes that it has survived centuries of war and natural disaster, unlike its unlucky counterparts. Yet myths of a maid thrown down the well out back make it one of Japan’s most haunted places.
9 The temple Hawaii's replica takes after
The Byodo-in website confirms the temple was rebuilt in Hawaii in honor of Japanese immigrants. Expats aren’t the only ones who realize this temple’s beauty though. Anyone already in Japan can take out a 10 yen coin and they’ll find Byodo-in’s Phoenix Hall on the backside.
8 A deity dwells in Nachi Falls
That Shinto deity happens to have the Buddhist Seiganto-ji Temple as his next-door neighbor, according to JNTO. These two landmarks of contrasting faiths work well together since visitors can watch the waters rush down the mountains from the temple’s balcony. A Shinto shrine sits a short distance away from both.
7 Mist means good luck at Lake Mashu
A volcanic crater on Kamuishu was replenished by some of the clearest water in the world. However, the lake’s transparent surface is obscured by fog more than 100 days of the year, according to BBC. Legends claim that anyone who glimpses the lake uncovered is in for some bad luck.
6 Kyoto's bamboo forests create their own world
CNN reported that Kyoto’s bamboo groves had made Japan’s list of 100 soundscapes thanks to the wind that whistles through the tall stalks. In areas where the bamboo is high enough to block out the sun, visitors find themselves sealed off from the outside world by swaying tunnels of stalks.
5 Nikko Tosho-gu does opulence the Shinto way
Japan-Guide called the Yomeimon gate seen above on the right “one of Japan's most intricately decorated structures.” And that’s just the entrance. Other structures like the stunning, five-story pagoda shown on the left are yet to be seen until you make it inside the premises.
4 Mount Osore's entrance to the underworld
We can’t imagine that the caldera of an active volcano is the ideal foundation for a temple. Especially when it's believed to be the opening to the underworld, according to Japan Magazine. Tourists and locals are still more than happy to breathe in its scent of sulfur.
3 Iya Valley's vine bridge looks sturdy enough
These bridges are one of the valley’s main attractions which means it's probably pretty safe. The way these tourists are storming onto it all at once makes us hope so. The view of the undisturbed hills and bubbling streams give them a fair enough incentive to hurry across.
2 Peace and quiet are Ginkaku-ji's only residents
The scene at this temple wasn’t as tranquil when war interrupted its construction in the 15th century. Japanese Gardens details the long history of chaos that stopped its shogun architects from finishing it. Knowing the reasons behind the absence of certain aspects only makes us appreciate it more.
1 Legends are still being made in Yakushima forest
The New York Times reported that Studio Ghibli artists found inspiration for the forest in Princess Mononoke on Yakushima island. There were already many myths present in the area, but since becoming the setting for this beloved animated film, it’s also become home to modern fantasies.