As we begin to explore all things Year of the Dragon moving into 2024, why not embrace the theme when planning next year’s day trips and weekend getaways? The nine spots below are heavy on dragon history and symbolism.
From shrines to boat racing, these places across Japan approach the mythical beast in varying ways, so get ready to expand your knowledge of ryuu (Chinese and Japanese dragons). Read on for our list of the most fascinating dragon-centric areas and events to visit over the next twelve months.
Kuzuryu Shrine Shingu (Kanagawa)
According to legend, Lake Ashi was once home to a fearsome nine-headed dragon that terrorized locals. In the eighth century, the founder of the nearby Hakone Shrine visited the lake and freed villagers from the dragon’s terror. Changing its ways in the face of the monk’s piety, the dragon transformed into a protector of the area. In celebration of 2000’s Year of the Dragon, Kuzuryu Shrine Shingu was constructed next to Hakone Shrine and houses both the deified dragon and the monk who defeated it.
Located about 30 minutes on foot from Hakone Shrine, Kuzuryu Shrine Hongu enshrines the same deities yet requires more walking time to visit. Every June, a festival is held to commemorate the myth, while many people also visit the shrines year round to pray for luck in romantic relationships.
Tatsuki Shrine (Aichi)
During the construction of Okazaki Castle in the mid-16th century, a story tells of the arrival of a dragon offering protection in exchange for enshrinement at the site. However, the dragon disappears as the castle’s well suddenly spouts water into the air. About a century later, after the dragon was enshrined in the structure, the future shogun and one of the Great Unifiers of Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu, was born in the castle. The myth continues that the skies are filled with dark clouds, and a golden dragon appears to whip the winds up into a fury.
Today, the dragon and Ieyasu call nearby Tatsuki Shrine home, and people often visit the shrine for good fortune and easy childbirth. Check out the legendary well and the large dragon carving on the shrine’s ceiling, which is said to grant good luck!
Three Dragon Gates of Tokyo (Masashi Inari Shrine, Koenji Temple and Shinagawa Shrine)
While Tokyo is home to over 1400 shrines, three stand out for their torii gates sporting dragon motifs: Masashi Inari Shrine, Koenji Temple and Shinagawa Shrine. Regardless of the shrine, torii gates are a gateway between the human and divine worlds. As a result, there are appropriate ways to pass through the gates, including walking to one side instead of the middle, which is reserved for deities.
These three sites are unique in their intricate carvings of dragons climbing up one side and down the other. It is believed that touching the ascending dragon can bring good luck.
Maibashi Inari Shrine
The Dragon Route (Chubu and Hokuriku regions)
Organized by local governments and several tourism bureaus in Central Japan, the Dragon Route cuts five distinct trails through the Chubu and Hokuriku regions. When viewed from north to south, these routes mimic a dragon rising up through the country, with the Noto Peninsula resembling its head. History buffs will love the Auspicious Course, which showcases plenty of shrines and temples, while nature lovers should check out the Ancient Dragon and Enrichment Courses for all things beautiful in the land and sea.
Shoppers need to leave space for the crafts and souvenirs along the Amusement Course, and people looking for rest and relaxation won’t be disappointed with the Grace and Beauty Course. Take the tour via the official bus routes or drive it yourself and explore at your own pace.
Along with Matsushima and Miyajima, Kyoto’s Amanohashidate is one of Japan’s Three Most Famous Views. This 3.6-kilometer land bridge is populated by over 7,000 pine trees and runs through Miyazu Bay in the northern part of the prefecture. According to some legends, the bridge serves as a ladder connecting our world with the divine. While there are many vantage points to enjoy this sight, we recommend the Amanohashidate View Land Spot to the north.
From here, visitors are encouraged to view the strip of land while facing away from it, bending over and looking through your legs. This perspective changes Amanohashidate into the shape of a dragon rising into the sky. A seasonal bonus awaits those who make the trip in winter when the green beast turns snow-white.
Naha Hari (Okinawa)
Also known as dragon boat racing, hari has a long history in Okinawa, dating back to the time of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Introduced to the islands via China about 600 years ago, these races are dedicated to the god of the sea with a prayer for safe voyages and bountiful catches. While many parts of Okinawa hold the races on the fourth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar, Naha opts for Golden Week to encourage higher turnouts from locals and tourists alike. Dressed in traditional attire, teams of about a dozen race to the finish line in boats beautifully painted in dragon motifs.
Nikko Toshogu (Tochigi)
Constructed in 1617 and developed over the following decades, Nikko Toshogu famously houses the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu. In addition to the numerous National Treasures, this UNESCO World Heritage Site also contains a great number of dragons throughout the complex. From the snaking dragon claiming ownership of the water fountain near Rinno-ji, a 1,200-year-old Buddhist Temple, to the Roaring Dragon drawn on the main hall’s ceiling, this destination will have plenty to keep dragon lovers busy. For a keepsake, pick up some dragon-themed souvenirs, such as omamori (protective amulets) and incense.