From silent retreats to mountain temple stays, get in touch with your spiritual side while traveling Japan.
Japan is a nation where nature and spirituality are inseparable. It’s a place where dedicated monks embark on unfathomable feats of endurance, where mountains are worshipped as gods, and where a literal hell on earth exists.
Traveling around Japan can be fascinating not only for glitzy cities and cherry blossoms but for healing retreats to connect you with the world beyond our current state. If you’re looking to find yourself or just want to unplug from life’s stresses, plan a trip to one of these eight spiritual getaways in Japan.
In Tottori Prefecture, Mount Mitoku is a place where many people hike for a hit of adrenaline, admire rugged regional views, and, most importantly, cleanse their soul. It’s home to Japan’s “most dangerous national treasure,” the 900-meter high cliff-clinging Nageiredo Temple.
According to the mountain’s spiritual history, Buddhist monk En no Gyoja used magic to cast Nageiredo Temple into the mountain’s side during the Heian period (794-1185). Positioned precariously on a cliff, Nageiredo looks like a piece of ancient architectural ingenuity, or, yes, magic. Either way, the site has attracted religious pilgrims and hikers for centuries—for a bit of soul searching with a kick.
In Shimane, sitting peacefully on the beautifully rugged coastline along the Sea of Japan, you’ll find Izumo. This sacred pocket of Japan houses the nation’s second-most important and revered shrine, Izumo Taisha. As the shrine’s folk legend goes, 8 million Shinto gods make their annual journey from across the country to convene at Izumo Taisha on the 10th to the 17th day of the 10th lunar month (which is typically November).
During this conference of gods, the eight million-strong collective holds an annual meeting to determine the population’s fate in an event known as Kamiarizuki, the Month of the Gods.
A visit to Izumo Taisha is still worth it even if you can’t make it for the Gods’ Month. The shrine itself is massive and is nearby other fascinating attractions like the Bentenjima rocks on Inasanohama Beach.
While most associate Chiba’s historic city of Narita with its international airport, there’s a long, sacred history that runs through this city. Its proximity to Tokyo and sheer beauty make it an underrated but extremely accessible day trip destination.
Founded in 940, the Buddhist temple complex Naritasan Shinsho-ji is one of the city’s shining historical gems. Standing on the spacious grounds surrounding Naritasan is a family of impressive structures, including two pagodas and a tranquil park that blends Japanese and European styles.
A visit to the site isn’t complete without some time strolling the charming traditional omotesando (shopping street) that runs a kilometer long and is populated by locals selling unique snacks and souvenirs. PS—Narita is famous for unagi (eel), so stop by a local restaurant and have this delicacy before heading out.
A spiritual destination of a wholly different kind, Mount Osore—aka Osorezan, aka Fear Mountain—is the closest thing you’ll find to hell on earth. That’s what the locals say, at least.
Located in the remote, ax-like peninsula of Shimokita in Aomori Prefecture, it’s home to a landscape that matches its legend. Think hidden viper pits, sulfur-thick air that emanates as smoke plumes from the ground, and poisonous lakes. Oh, and there’s also a Buddhist temple.
The site was discovered by a local monk named Ennin around 1,000 years ago. Taken aback by the landscape’s likeness to the Buddhist imagery of the entrance to the next life, Ennin set up the Bodai-ji Temple in 826CE. Not far from the temple is the Sanzu River, known as the Japanese River Styx.
Visit between July 22 and 24 to meet with blind female mediums known as Itako, who have gained the ability to speak with the dead after undergoing grueling and extensive spiritual training.
The Vipassana Silent Retreat is offered entirely for free through the Dhamma Adicca Vipassana Meditation Centres in Chiba and Kyoto. During the retreat, participants take a vow of silence for ten days and spend most of their time meditation and listening to a Vipassana guru’s teachings.
It’s a reasonably popular experience that attracts folks from all walks of life looking to detox the mind and body. Blending Japanese landscapes with the 2,500-year-old Indian technique of Vipassana meditation, the silent retreat is a melange of Japanese natural zen and Indian schools of spiritual thought.
The 10-day course is available in English and Japanese and is run on entirely on a volunteer and donation basis.
Dewa Sanzan (the Three Mountains of Dewa) in northern Yamagata Prefecture is the home of Shugendo, a long-held folk religion based on mountain worship. Each of the three mountains represents a stage of the Buddhist life cycle. There’s Mount Haguro (birth), Mount Gassan (death), and Mount Yudono (rebirth), and pilgrims most often visit in that order.
The yamabushi (mountain monks) are the areas’ most fascinating figures. Yamabushi means “mountain worshipper” in English, and these monks perform incredible feats of endurance, like meditating under waterfalls, in hopes of transcending the physical world.
These days, the mountains and all their mystique are open to visitors, who can train as a yamabushi during their visit if they’re so inclined. In addition to becoming a mountain monk, visitors can also witness Shugendo’s mummified monks at several temples across the region.
Known as the home of Shintoism, Japan’s national religion, Ise is the most spiritually significant destination in all of Japan. Sitting on the Kii Peninsula coast in Mie Prefecture, Ise Jingu is made up of two major shrines that sit a few kilometers from one another.
There is a collection of over 120 smaller shrines dotted across the region. Naiku, the inner shrine, is the most sacred of all and is thought to be around 2,000 years old.
According to Japanese legend, the site was formed after the daughter of the Emperor Suinin, Yamatohime no Mikoto, set out on a mission to find the ideal destination to worship the sun goddess Amaterasu. After 20 years of searching, she stumbled upon Ise, where Amaterasu’s voice came to her, saying, “(Ise) is a secluded and pleasant land. In this land, I wish to dwell.”
Every year, six million pilgrims and visitors come to pay their respects. Every 20 years, the buildings of Ise Jingu are rebuilt in a celebration known as Sengu no Gi. The next opportunity to catch the event in action will be in 2033.
Nestled deep in the lush, misty mountains of Wakayama, Koyasan (Mount Koya) is probably Japan’s most well-known spiritual sanctuary. Rather than just one mountain, Koyasan, as it is called in Japanese, is a small town located between eight mountains.
The area was established as a spiritual destination in the 9th century by Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, after studying esoteric Buddhism in China.
Today, Koyasan is dotted with countless temples and populated by robed monks studying Shingon Buddhism and running the temple accommodations, known as shukubo. Overnight guests can experience morning meditation, recite mantras, and eat shojin ryori—vegetarian Buddhist cuisine.
The town’s most fascinating destination is Okunoin, a mystical and enigmatic forested cemetery that houses Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum. Many believe the spiritual leader still lives inside, resting in a state of eternal meditation.
While these places are all open to visitors, please keep in mind that they are still considered sacred spots. Please be respectful of the local customs and traditions during your visit.