Dark Tourism in Japan
Vacationing in Japan doesn’t always have to be about anime, robots, quirky cafés, or religious sites. Dark tourism is a growing trend in Japan, with many tourists seeking something different away from the crowds.
Fortunately for fans of dark tourism, Japan boasts many destinations where you can discover the country’s somber sites, ranging from war crimes to natural disasters to grim legends and even more recent tragedies. If you’re a fan unusual places and dark stories, then check out our list of the best places for dark tourism in Japan. Here is our official trigger warning for dark topics up ahead – now let’s get going!
Aokigahara is one of the most famous destinations for dark tourism in Japan. The large forest is located in Yamanashi Prefecture at the foot of Mt. Fuji, making a visit to this solemn forest easy to combine with a trip to the mountain. The forest was formed around 864 AD, when several volcanic eruptions caused its striking porous soil structure. It now covers an area of 30 square kilometers.
This particular forest is most notorious for its reputation as a place where many people go to commit suicide. In ancient times, some believe that ubasute was practiced here, which was the abandoning of elder family members to die. However, the Kodansha Illustrated Encyclopedia of Japan claims that ubasute is actually just folklore and was never a common custom.
In more recent times, the forest has been the chosen spot for numerous suicides and suicide attempts. Police records show that there were 247 suicide attempts in the forest in 2010 alone. Officials have since stopped publicizing such numbers in hopes of minimizing the forest’s association with such tragedy. Regardless, Aokigahara is said today to be haunted by the yūrei (ghosts) of those who have died there.
In 2007, the National Police Agency in Japan revised its categorization of motives for suicide in hopes of better understanding why people choose to take their own lives. They found that the leading cause was “health issues” which may include both physical and mental health challenges. Walking through Aokigahara, you may see strings or cords stretched through areas of the forest. Suicidial left them behind, as they wanted to be able to find their way back out of the forest in case they changed their mind. You may also see tents, photos, flowers, and clothes left behind for the deceased.
Nowadays, forest workers and volunteers search the forest for suicidal people in hopes of preventing more death. There are also several signs throughout the forest with the suicide crisis hotline number and with pleas for people to think of their loved ones before considering taking their own life.
Stay on the trails at all times when visiting Aokigahara. Be respectful towards nature and other people. You may leave notes with positive messages in order to encourage those hopeless people.
On the edge of the forest is the Narusawa Ice Cave, a lava tube that is almost 140 meters long and about 21 meters deep. The Fuji eruption of 864 created the cave. Temperatures vary between -2 °C and 3 °C throughout the year, allowing stalactites made of ice to form. This is a pretty magnificent showing of nature’s beauty if you find yourself in this area of the forest.
This temple in Tokyo, very close to Tokyo Tower, is a very unique and gloomy place. The temple’s garden is home to jizō statues, which represent children lost due to miscarriages, abortions, or stillbirths. The statues are here to help with the grieving process. Clothing and toys adorn many of the statues. You may also place offerings here so that their souls can pass safely into the afterlife.
Hashima is one of the most popular destinations for dark tourism in Japan. The island is barely one square kilometer in size and lies just off the coast of Nagasaki. It is also known as Gunkanjima (“Warship Island”) because of its shape. It once had the highest population density in the world, but has since been completely abandoned for more than 40 years.
Until 1941, forced laborers from Korea, as well as other prisoners, were forced to mine coal from the island’s undersea mine. Ten-story apartment complexes were built to house the workers, along with schools, restaurants, and gambling halls. By 1950, nearly 6,000 people lived here – until the coal ran out, and the mine was closed. Since then, the buildings have been decaying and stand overgrown with plants.
Nowadays, you can reach the island only with an organized tour. Pay attention to the weather, though, because there won’t be any tours if it rains.
Chinoike Jigoku, which means “Pool of Bloody Hell” in Japanese, is one of nine hot springs in Beppu. This one is the “black sheep” among them because of its unique, deep red color caused by the iron oxide at the bottom of the pond. At 78 °C, it is scalding – far too hot for bathing.
In the early 8th century, a map of this area described it as having been the site where Sukunabikona (a Japanese deity) was able to heal from being sick. Several centuries later, this area is said to have been used to heal samurais who were wounded in the war against the Mongolian army.
Chinoike Jigoku is right at home in the realm of dark tourism. Its bloodlike color is reminiscent of the gates of hell, according to Buddhist belief. Furthermore, some say that the “Pool of Bloody Hell” was used in ancient times to torture and kill people by boiling them to death. Although this is not a hot spring you can relax in, you can buy some creams and lotions made from its mineral-rich mud.
Mimizuka (“Ears Hill”) commemorates Japan’s war crimes against Korea and is located in a quiet residential area in Kyoto. Here, you will find a stone memorial set atop a grassy hill where the severed noses and ears of approximately 38,000 Koreans lay buried.
During the 16th century war with Korea, Japanese fighters would bring back the heads of their enemies as proof of their victories. However, as the death tolls rose, the transport of so many heads was too difficult, and they began to take ears and noses instead. Mimizuka now serves as a reminder of the truly gruesome history of the Japanese colonial period, far removed from the tourist crowds of Kyoto.
The world’s largest underground drainage system is in the city of Kasukabe in Saitama Prefecture. Officially called the Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel, this enormous underground facility gives the eerie feeling of an other-wordly dystopia. The Japanese government built it between 1992 and 2009 to help protect Tokyo from major flooding.
The tunnel extends over 100 kilometers, but its most impressive feature is the 59 mighty pillars that support the five 65-meter-high caverns. They are reminiscent of the architecture of a cathedral. You can take a tour through the caverns during dry season, but only if you’re not afraid of heights!
If ghost towns are more your thing, then you will love the Matsuo Mine. Workers of Matsuo’s sulfur and iron mine lived in this town in Iwate Prefecture. Nearly 13,600 workers once lived in the concrete housing complex, considered luxurious at the time because of its central heating and flushable toilets. Similar to Hashima, there were schools, a hospital, and a movie theater. Some people even called it “paradise above the clouds.” Clouds made of sulfur fog, that is.
The Matsuo Mine ceased operations in 1969, leaving behind a ghost town. The decaying buildings make for a post-apocalyptic atmosphere. Not many tourists know of this place, mainly due to the obscuring mountains and the fog.
Japan’s aging population and rural exodus has made it difficult for the declining village of Nagoro in Tokushima Prefecture to survive. But, thanks to a local artist, Nagoro is now a popular spot for dark tourism in Japan.
Ayano Tsukimi retired to her native village of Nagoro, where she found herself having to cope with the gradual death of the aging residents. After making a scarecrow to represent her late father, she had an epiphany. She began making life-size dolls that represented the villagers who had passed. After a decade, there are about 350 of these dolls all over the village.
If you’re looking for an uncanny experience you won’t be able to get out of your head anytime soon, then Nagoro is the place for you.
Lucky Dragon and Atomic Tuna Memorial
When thinking of nuclear disasters, Hiroshima and Nagasaki immediately come to mind. These cities have a lot to offer in terms of dark tourism, but we’ll tell you about another place that most people have forgotten about or have never even heard of.
On March 1, 1954, the crew of the fishing vessel Daigo Fukuryū Maru (“Lucky Dragon No. 5”) noticed some subtle snowfall in the tropical North Pacific. However, the alleged snow falling for over three hours was warm to the touch. The following night, they became ill. The snow wasn’t actually snow, but nuclear fallout. An experimental U.S. detonation on Bikini Atoll was to blame – a detonation 1,000 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. All the people onboard the vessel suffered from acute radiation syndrome (ARS), and the chief radioman of the boat even lost his life due to the radiation several months later.
The ship was quarantined upon its return and eventually scrapped in a Tokyo landfill. In the 1980s, the landfill was used to make an artificial island with a park called Yumenoshima (“Dream Island”). Local residents decided to display the shipwreck in a museum. Along with the museum, a plaque at the Tsukiji market commemorates the 450 tons of contaminated tuna from the ship.
We conclude our tour with one of the largest active volcanoes in the world. Mt. Aso in Kumamoto Prefecture is one of the world’s largest calderas, reaching 1,592 meters high. Its crater has a circumference of about 120 kilometers and includes five mountains, with Mt. Nakadake being the most active area. On the summit of Mt. Nakadake you can take an aerial cableway car to get close to the crater lake. You musn’t get close to the volcano, especially if it’s particularly active. Its last eruption happened as recently as 2021.
Every year at the Aso Fire Festival, people set the hillside ablaze in order to keep the grasses around the hillside healthy.
The town of Aso is located right on the caldera, and the Aso hot springs and geothermal power plant draw energy from the volcano. There are concrete bunkers near the crater in cases of an emergency, but their functionality is questionable.
The crater is often inaccessible due to toxic volcanic gases, bad weather, and volcanic activity, so try to stay informed on the conditions if you decide to travel there.
As you can see from our list, dark tourism in Japan is quite popular. There is so much more to say about it! If you’re a fan of dark destinations, sinister stories, and macabre myths, then visit one or two of these places yourself. From sad misfortunes to wartime atrocities, you will learn more about Japan’s society and history wherever you go. So what are you waiting for? A unique, heart-stopping trip is waiting for you!
If you want to reach some of these further away destinations on your trip to Japan, we recommend the Japan Rail Pass.