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Spirits of the moon, dragon kings, goblins without bodies, water imps, sun goddesses, animal spirits, an underworld for lost children, and a boy born from a peach. Japan’s wondrous and eclectic folk tales are amongst the most imaginative, charming, and sometimes terrifying, found anywhere in the world and remain deeply embedded in the country’s ancient culture and traditions. Visit Japan and you will have the chance to travel back in time to a land of monsters and magic, adventure and enchantment. We will show you where to find the locations of some of the greatest Japanese folk tales and how to get there with your JR Pass, while uncovering the stories behind these myths and legends and gaining a deeper understanding of what they mean to the people of Japan today. Get ready for an adventure of a lifetime.
Folktales of Japan
Japanese folklore and mythology dates back thousands of years and draws on influences from the country’s two main religions, Shintoism and Buddhism, as well as stories from India, China and elsewhere. In particular, Shintoism can be seen as a direct influence on the wealth and diversity of magical creatures and spirits in Japan’s folktales, for it is both an animistic and polytheistic religion in that it believes in a vast number of ‘kami’ (deities and spirits), which inhabit animals, the landscape and even objects. The Shintoshu, a Japanese mythological book regarding Shinto myths, further outlines the origin of Japanese deities from a Buddhist perspective.
However, because the nation’s folktales draw on a range of influences beyond Shinto, there are many other supernatural creatures and spirits featured in the most famous stories, including yokai (monster spirits), kappa (river-child or water sprite), tengu (heavenly dogs), yūrei (ghosts) and many more. Japanese folklore was traditionally separated into a number of distinct varieties such as ‘mukashibanashi’ (tales of long-ago), ‘namidabanashi’ (sad stories), ‘obakebanashi’ (ghost stories), ‘ongaeshibanashi’ (stories of repaying kindness), ‘tonchibanashi’ (witty stories), ‘waraibanashi’ (funny stories), and ‘yokubaribanashi’ (stories of greed).
Japanese mythology also draws on ancient historical texts such as the ‘Kojiki’ (Record of Ancient Things), which is the oldest recognized book of myths, legends, and history of Japan, the ‘Nihon shoki’, and the ‘Hotsuma Tsutae’, an epic of Japanese mythical history. Japan’s folktales and mythology were also inspired by the country’s creations myths, which focus on two prime divine beings, Izanagi and Izanami, who gave birth to the islands and created the land’s many gods and goddesses, such as Amaterasu, the powerful sun goddess of Japan.
Traditionally, there was also a strong oral tradition to Japan’s folktales, and wandering storytellers would often travel across the country, from village to village, to tell their tales with illustrations on ‘kamishibai’ paper. A great resource for those who wish to read some of the country’s most famous folktales is the recently published book Tales of Japan: Traditional Stories of Monsters and Magic. This wonderful book features new and original illustrations by Japanese artist Kotaro Chiba.
Japan has many incredible folktales, it is hard to list them all, but we’ve picked out four of the most famous:
- Momotarō – Arguably the most famous Japanese folktale, this is the quirky story of a boy born from a peach who was discovered by an old childless couple when they split the soft fruit open. Momotaro jumped out and was raised by the couple. Later, as a teenager he set off on a long and dangerous quest with a talking dog, monkey and pheasant to battle a legion of demons and claim their riches.
- Yuki-Onna – This is the tale of a ‘snow woman’ (yuki-onna) whose icy breath freezes her victims to death. In the classic tale, she comes across two woodcutters and spares one.
- Kintarō – The tale of ‘golden boy’ with great strength and the ability to talk to animals, Kintaro is usually depicted as a sumo sized child who wears only a red bib with the kanji character for gold, holding a hatchet for a weapon and carrying a fish, normally a huge carp (one of his animal friends) under his arm.
- Urashima Tarō, who visited the bottom of the sea – In this story, a fisherman who saves a sea turtle’s life is transported to an underwater kingdom where he lives with a dragon princess. However, when he returns home, he discovers three hundred years have passed and everyone he knew has gone. His true age was locked in a box by the dragon princess, but when he opens it, he ages immediately and dies.
Even outside of its folktales, Japan has a long and rich literary history and is even credited with the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji, which was written by a Japanese noblewoman in the 11th Century. Today, Japan boasts a number of well-known contemporary authors, including Kawabata Yasunari and Oe Kenzaburo, who have both won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but perhaps the most famous is Haruki Murakami, who became a global literary sensation following the worldwide success of his novel, Norwegian Wood, in 1987. You can read all about the history and tradition of Japanese literature and where to go to experience contemporary literary attractions in A Literary Tour of Japan.
Legends of Tono
For more than 100 years, the rural town of Tono in Iwate Prefecture has had a reputation as being Japan’s ‘City of Folklore’. This was largely because of the publication of a book in 1910 entitled Legends of Tono by renowned folklorist Yanagita Kunio, which brought together many of the spoken word folktales that had surrounded the village for centuries.
These stories largely focussed on a magical water sprite or imp known as a ‘kappa’, which looks like a turtle or frog and which was known to lurk around ponds, rivers and lakes. Parents would tell their children to stay away from the water because the kappa might get them.
Kappa were said to represent the dangers of the water and were sometimes threatening and mischievous, but they were also beloved. Today, there are many statues and carvings of kappa throughout Japan, but especially in Tono.
Legend has it that Jogen-ji Temple in Tono was once on fire and a kappa extinguished the flames using water from his head. You can visit Jogen-ji Temple, as well as a number of museums and other sites in Tono with a connection to its history of folklore, such as Kappabuchi, which is a small pool near the Jogen-ji Temple. This is believed to be the home of the town’s kappa, and you will often find visitors here waiting to spot one below the water. You can even hire a fishing rod with a cucumber on the end of the line (believed to be the kappa’s favourite food) which you can dangle over the water in the hope of luring one out. Adjacent to the pond is a shrine dedicated to kappa, where women pray for breast milk for their children.
As to be expected in the ‘city of folklore’, Tono has even more to offer for enthusiasts of myth and legend. Gohyaku Rakan is a series of moss-covered carvings, created to pacify the spirits of thousands of villagers who died in famines centuries ago, while the Tsuzukiishi Stone is a massive boulder said to have been placed by a legendary warrior monk called Benkai who had extraordinary strength. While in Tono, you can also visit Fukusenji Temple, a large Shingon Buddhist pagoda and shrine in the northeast of the village. Finally, no journey to the ‘city of folklore’ would be complete without a trip to Tono Folklore Village (Tono Furusato no Mura), which is a collection of traditional farmhouse buildings populated by local artisans and craftspeople. You can visit Tono by train using the Japan Rail Pass. To reach the tow from Tokyo, take the bullet train to Shin-Hanamaki Station before changing to a local train for Tono Station.
Japan’s most mysterious and magical locations
While Tono might be the ‘city of folklore’, Japan has a huge number of locations associated with its folktales and mythology. It also has many locations that are just downright mysterious and magical in their own right. We’ve put together a few of our must-see recommendations:
- Yonaguni underwater ruins
The westernmost island of Japan, Yonaguni in Okinawa, is world-famous for sunken wrecks, incredible undersea ruins and, of course, amazing sea life including hammerhead sharks. The mysterious pyramid-like underwater structures are a wonder to behold, and remain unexplained to this day. Are they man-made, or natural? You might just think you’re swimming past the lost city of Atlantis!
- Jomon Sugi: The 7,200-year-old tree
Jomon Sugi – Japan’s oldest tree and believed to be one of the ten oldest anywhere in the world – can be found in the heavily forested, atmospheric and beautiful Yakushima National Park, on the southern island of Yakushima, which is also home to the moss-covered and mysterious Shiratani Unsuikyo forest and ravine – the real-life inspiration for the landscape of Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke. This enormous cedar is believed to be an incredible 7,200 years old. To reach Yakushima, take the train from Tokyo to Kagoshima via the Tokaido, Sanyo and Kyushu Shinkansen, and then catch a high-speed boat to Yakushima. For more information on the Yakushima National Park, read Visiting Japan’s National Parks.
- Rabbit Island
Okunoshima, known as Rabbit (or Bunny) Island for its large population of the adorable furry creatures, is located in Hiroshima. To get there from JR Hiroshima Station, travel via JR Mihara Station using your JRail Pass to JR Tadanoumi Station. It’s then a short ferry ride from the station to Rabbit Island!
- Sagano Bamboo Forest
The sounds of this singing bamboo forest near Kyoto are said to be the voices of spirits. The Japanese Ministry of the Environment has named Sagano Bamboo Forest as one of the country’s most special soundscapes.
- Kiyomizu-Dera Temple
This haunting 1,200-year-old temple near Kyoto features around 200 statues of the Deity Jizo and is dedicated to parents whose children have died. Parents place a token on one of the statues as a way of honouring and protecting their deceased children.
- The Vine Bridges of Iya Valley
According to folktales, these stunning vine bridges and walkways located in the hidden Iya Valley in the Tokushima metro region were built by a mysterious band of outcasts who wanted to escape society.
- Ise Jingu Shrine
The Mie Prefecture region is home to the Grand Ise Shrine, including Ise Jingu Shrine – one of the holiest of all Shinto shrines in Japan – and also Ishigami-san – the women’s shrine. The coastal town of Toba, close to where these shrines are located, is the birthplace of Japan’s ama divers (or women of the sea) who free dive for pearls and shellfish. The origins of this tradition are associated with Japanese mythology and creation myths, as well as the history of the sun goddess Amaterasu (mentioned above). You can read about it in our Deep Dive into Japan guide.
Sacred Animals in Japan
Japan boasts some of the world’s most spectacular and unique wildlife. Thanks to the country’s diverse landscape and varying temperatures from the cold north to the subtropical south, Japan’s ecosystem has a huge amount of biodiversity. You can find out much more and exactly where to go to find your favourite animal by reading A Wildlife Tour of Japan. Much of Japan’s wildlife is sacred to the Japanese people, although some animals have a particularly colourful story surrounding them and a special place in the nation’s folktales and mythology. Here is a selection:
Essentially a ‘raccoon dog’ (although strangely it isn’t closely related to the raccoon), Tanuki occupy a special place in Japanese folklore and culture, and you can find this distinctive animal in locations across the country. Tanuki feature heavily in Japanese folklore and were considered to be mischievous but friendly shapeshifters – you will see statues of them throughout the country.
- Fox (Kitsune)
In Japanese folklore, kitsune are legendary intelligent foxes with supernatural abilities. No two kitsune are alike and they can be both wise, mischievous and dangerous. They are often portrayed as wily and cunning tricksters. Kitsune sometimes had as many as nine tails and were said to be able to shapeshift into human form. Some were Inari Ōkami, the messengers of kami (spirits and deities), while others were believed to be yokai (monster spirits).
- Sika deer
Traditionally a sacred animal in Japan, deer can be found in abundance throughout the country. For a particularly magical deer experience, try visiting Nara Park. As well as being the location of beautiful and serene temples, parks and shrines, Nara is also home to free-roaming deer – making this one of the best and most special places to visit if you would like to see deer up close. The best way to reach Nara from Tokyo using your JRail Pass is via the Shinkansen, at around 2.5 hours from Tokyo to Kyoto Station, and then about 50 minutes from there to Nara Station via the JR Nara Rapid Line.
Shapeshifting cats appear in several Japanese folktales and while you may struggle to spot a shapeshifter today, contemporary Japan has a couple of very rare cats amongst its wildlife. One of these is the Yamaneko wildcat. This mysterious and hard to find animal has been described as the ‘Loch Ness Monster’ of Japanese cats! The Yamaneko wildcat is related to (and somewhat similar-looking) to subspecies of leopard, crossed with a very slim and long domestic cat. One of the reasons it is so mysterious and hard-to-find is because there are so few left in the wild, with only 100-200 rumoured to remain in Japan.
- Blakiston’s Fish Owl
In Hokkaido, the Ainu people worshipped Blakiston’s Fish Owl as a ‘kamui’ in the Shinto tradition i.e. a god or spirit, and believed that it protected their village. Blakiston’s Fish Owl is one of the largest species in the world, and is so named because it lives entirely on a diet of fish which it catches from the water using its talons. Read more about Hokkaido and how to get there with JR Pass in our five-day Hokkaido Rail Itinerary.
- Japan’s folklore and mythology often crosses over into the spiritual. If you want to include some of the country’s beautiful shrines and temples in your itinerary, you should read A Spiritual Guide to Japan.
- If you’re unsure of Japanese customs while visiting the country to experience it’s folklore, why not read Our Guide to Japanese Etiquette? We also have separate articles about Japanese table manners, customs around visiting a Japanese home and business etiquette.
- If your folklore tour of Japan is about experiencing the country’s history and culture, you could also try staying in a Ryokan – a traditional, Japanese-style inn. Find out why they are so special and our recommendations in The Best Ryokan in Japan.
You could also spot real-life Tanuki roaming wild in Hiroshima Prefecture and even in Tokyo’s heavily populated Koenji district. Just keep your eyes peeled.