"We are not asking him where the treasure is hidden! We're not even asking him whether there is any treasure or not! I'm not sure, but...everybody set out to sea, risking their lives to search for it!! If you ask this old man anything about it here and now...then I'll quit being a pirate! I don't want to go on a boring adventure like that!!"
Dragon Ball: Goku spent a good while trying to catch Corin before finding out that catching him was the training; the "magic water" was just that: water. Master Roshi, on the other had, spent a lot longer trying to catch Corin (and finding out the truth).
In Sakura Wars, Sakura Shinguuji receives a scroll purporting to carry the secrets of her family's sword-fighting style. It turns out to be blank. She spends a good long while looking for secret writing before figuring out it means she needs to look within herself for the secrets.
In Negima!, Negi and the "Baka Rangers" (the five worst students in his class) go looking for a magic book that will make them smarter in time for final exams. In order to get the book, a giant statue quizzes them on translating English words into Japanese. Then they get stuck in a lower level of the library, and pass the time by studying. Then the giant statue shows up again, and chases them up a stairway barred by review questions. Then they end up throwing the book away to make the group light enough to take the only elevator to the surface. And in the end, the whole thing turned out to be a Secret Test of Character designed by the headmaster.
Looking at the themes and morals of One Piece, it is highly likely that the series is going to end on this note.
Luffy himself believes strongly in this, to the point that he absolutely refuses to listen to any information about the titular treasure when the opportunity arises or else he will quit being a pirate - because he does not want to have a boring adventure.
Word of God on the matter is it won't end on one of these and One Piece actually IS something.
Kung Fu Panda had the Dragon Scroll: after much build-up the scroll turns out to be blank, shiny paper. Later, the eponymous Panda realizes it's a mirror, and learns the lesson. (In a twist on the usual trope, the Master who gives him permission to take the scroll had no idea the scroll was blank, because his master, Oogway, never told him what was on the scroll, either.)
Films — Live-Action
Circle of Iron. The protagonist Cord goes on a quest for the Book of All Knowledge. When he finally finds it, he opens it and discovers... a mirror.
And then laughed at the monks who guarded the Book when they practically begged him to tell them what was in it - they were forbidden to look, after all.
The Wizard of Oz: The Wizard himself has a ton of these: he gives the characters worthless trinkets to symbolize the heart, brains and courage that they've earned in their quest to find him.
A more metaphorical read on the same concept: Dorothy uses the ruby slippers to get back to Earth; she's always had the power, but it took the events of the story to teach her the true value of her Kansas home.
In The Neverending Story Atreyu is outraged that the Empress knew how she could be cured all along yet still sent him on his harrowing quest. She explains that he needed to carry out the quest so a human child, Bastian, would follow him.
The Last Dragon starts with Leroy Green's master telling him there is no more he can teach him. "Bruce Leroy" insists on learning more. His master gives him a dragon-shaped amulet and tells him to seek out a master of "The Final Level" in Chinatown. Throughout the film, Leroy protects his friends, family, girlfriend and neighbourhood from villains, and unlocks "the glow", but returns to his master in shame, never finding the hidden master of Chinatown. Whereupon his master informs him he learned everything he needed to in his struggles, and the amulet was merely a belt buckle.
Subverted in National Treasure. When they enter the fake treasure room, Ben's group starts into this to him. Then they find the real treasure.
The Indiana Jones movies play with this trope. While there usually is an actual treasure, the central journey of each of the movies generally involves Indy reaching some deeper understanding about himself or the nature of the treasure over the process of finding it; he often doesn't end up with the actual treasure but comes away from the adventure a better person regardless.
Similar to the National Treasure example, The Mummy 1999 ends with the protagonists heading home, Evie and Rick having found love with each other and Johnathan bitching that they ended up empty-handed... only for it to turn out that, unbeknownst to them, the saddlebags of their camels had been stuffed with gold that another character had meant to steal.
In The Alchemist, Santiago goes through the whole book just to find out that the treasure spent the whole book looking for was buried right under his location from page 1.
In The Tales of Beedle the Bard, The Fountain of Fair Fortune turns out to be exactly this. The trials that the heroes had to suffer through only forced them to recognize their own gifts and talents, or move on past their own heartache, or rely on each other. It works.
The former Trope Namer is the Mirror of Llunet from The Prydain Chronicles, which (similar to the Time Magazine cover), was basically a mirror. After Taran's journey, it showed him exactly as he was: his faults, his strengths, and how much he's grown. It was a revelation that made him Take a Level in Badass.
Marauders of Gor had the tomb of a great hero, which turned out to contain nothing but an arrow. The protagonists realize that the arrow means they need to step up and become heroes themselves.
Similar to Kung Fu Panda, Little Vampire Learns Kung Fu has one of Little Vampire's human friends learning kung fu from a supernatural teacher so that they can reach the top of a temple and read a scroll that will tell them how to be a true master. The scroll ended up reading "If you were able to reach here, you already have learned all the kung fu you need to be a master."
Geraldine Harris' ''Seven Citadels' series plays this trope mostly straight; after an arduous quest by the main characters to acquire seven keys to unlock the prophesied savior, the hero unlocks and enters the cave of the savior, only to see his own face reflected in the mirror that is the only thing there. Toyed with by the fact that he has been religiously forbidden to see his own face (until now), so it takes him a moment to realize who that face is... and then the wife of his god shows up to hammer the point home in case he couldn't figure it out himself.
The Redwall book Loamhedge had a few of the main cast go on a journey to find a cure for another main character's paraplegia. After a long arduous journey (where one of them nearly dies from thirst and two others do die in battle), they discover that there's nothing there but a poem, and that the main character they did the quest for learned to walk on her own. On the bright side, all three of the younger members of the questing group were immature, rude, and spoiled, and they came back from the journey much more matured. Two of them grow up to be the Abbess and Recorder respectively.
In The Stormlight Archive, part of the Badass Creed of the Knights Radiant is "Journey Before Destination". Their philosophy is that this idea applies to one's entire life, and it's how you got to the end that matters.
In Robert Bloch's story "The Hell-Bound Train," protagonist Martin makes a Deal with the Devil that the Devil can have his soul if he, Martin, has the power to stop time when he reaches the moment of perfect happiness. Because Martin is always convinced that he could be happier, he never uses that power during his lifetime. After his death, he acknowledges this trope and uses his power to stop time aboard the hell-bound train so he can enjoy an endless journey with "all the jolly crew" of the damned.
Day of the Dissonance by Alan Dean Foster has the apprentice making a lonnnnng journey to find medicine for the very ill mentor. The apprentice is not amused by the lesson, but does understand it. Extra: The apprentice, Jon-Tom, is a UCLA law student pulled into the magical world, which are the setting for 8 books, called the Spellsinger Series. This is the third. The medicine is aspirin, which Jon-Tom had with him in his college backpack at the mentor's house when the wizard first started feeling poorly.
A pervasive trait of the Xanth series. It's almost a formula: the protagonist(s) leave their home because some personal problem, visit the Magician of knowledge for a solution, and is sent wandering the land, picking up companions and having adventures. In the end, they find what they were sent out for, but realize that they no longer want or need it, because the journey has changed them - they've outgrown their old childish need, or realized that there are bigger problems to deal with, or the love they were hoping to win is shallow compared to the companion they've been journeying with.
Invoked in Discworld: Granny Weatherwax orders a sick man to make a pilgrimage to a remote pond every day for a month to appease the water spirits. It turns out she was just making him take a walk every day to improve his health.
In the novelisation of Fire Warrior, the main character's commanding officer eventually tells him that when confronted with the harshness and brutality of the Crapsack World they exist in, he realised that the vaunted 'Greater Good' all Tau strive towards simply doesn't exist. However, he then stresses that it is still worth pursuing those ideals because in striving towards them, the Tau can become more virtuous as a race.
Subverted on Glee when Mr. Schuester tries to teach the Glee Club this when they place last in regionals. They do appreciate the journey, but it still sucks.
Appears as something of a Broken Aesop in Star Trek: Voyager's final episode, where the characters talk about how the journey is more important than the destination... then risk their lives in order to skip the rest of their journey and get to their destination. (This dissonance is the result of minds changing during the writing process — originally, Voyager's crew didn't get to "have [their] cake and eat it too", and they chose to sacrifice their shortcut home to deal a crippling blow to the Borg.)
Many teams on The Amazing Race will say that being on the show and getting to play the game was more important than actually winning it.
"One Tin Soldier": "Now the valley cried with anger, 'Mount your horses, draw your swords!' And they killed the mountain people, so they won their just reward. Now they stood beside the treasure, on the mountain dark and red. Turned the stone and looked beneath it; PEACE ON EARTH was all it said."
Linkin Park's In The End- "Because from the start to the end no matter what I pretend / The journey is more important than the end or the start". (From the song's rap remix.)
During Aqua's quest in Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, she ends up with Peter Pan and his Lost Boys on a quest for treasure. Eventually, it turns out that the treasure map simply led them all on a circle around Neverland to the same space they started—at which point Peter points out that the supposed treasure didn't matter, what did matter was that the boys pushed themselves to overcome obstacles in order to get to it.
In the first Street Fighter Alpha Akuma's ending is a rather bitter version of this. He has reached the end of his journey to become the absolute best, but upon reaching his goal, he finds himself feeling empty. The final quote of that ending is "For some it's the path not the goal."
Journey, as implied by the title itself, has this as its major theme. Especially apparent in the ending.
8-Bit Theater mentions this trope. Then, of course, it mocks it as meaningless.
Oglaf parodies this trope here. Warning: NOT SAFE FOR WORK.
Played with in the episode "Fourth Grade". It's apparently played straight when, as part of Ms. Choksondik's training to teach the fourth graders of South Park, she goes inside The Tree of Insight, only to find nothing there. Though at first disappointed, she realizes that it means she already has what she needs to reach the kids. It's then subverted, as Mr. Garrison goes in after her and does find a physical representation of his "gay side."
Subverted again in the episode "Something Wall-Mart This Way Comes". The boys are told that in order to destroy Wall-Mart, they have to find and destroy its heart. Stan and Kyle make their way to the TV section (where the heart is said to reside) and encounter the Anthropomorphic Personification of Wall-Mart itself, who directs them to a small door. They open the door and find a mirror, which Wall-Mart says is "the heart" of Wall-Mart, i.e. the consumers. Stan and Kyle, however, take the instructions to "destroy the heart" literally, and smash the mirror, causing the building to implode.
Parodied, like many things, in The Simpsons. In an alternate future with Lisa as president, Homer decides to run around the grounds of the White House in search of Lincoln's gold. He eventually finds a chest, with a note saying that his gold is in the heart of every American. Homer isn't amused.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (2002) had this and Magic Feather as the origin of King Grayskull. Grayskull seeks the power to defeat Hordak, and is told by a seer to give up his sword and journey to find a new magic sword. When he does, he finds the seer, who returns Grayskull's sword and tells Grayskull he always had the power, he just needed the trip to focus his abilities.
An episode of Teen Titans focuses in Robin trying to find a Master to teach him kung fu so that he can defeat the episode's bad guy, who's also trying to reach said Master by using Robin to bypass the mountain of challenges. By the end of the episode, Robin manages to defeat the bad guy before finding the Master, who is the old woman he met before.
In an episode of The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy, Mandy goes on a journey to get her nerve back after it's stolen by Billy. The nerve rejects her and she walks away, only to realize that going on such a risky adventure and facing all the challenges that came with it meant that she still had her nerve to begin with. She then promptly gives her old nerve a "Reason You Suck" Speech.
This now happens with people who earn Ph.D.s and other terminal graduate degrees. In the modern era, research and employment opportunities both change at such a rapid rate today that the information a newly minted Ph.D. has acquired over several formidable years of academic study is often out of date before the diploma has even been printed up — what matters to other researchers and to employers are the skills and background the Ph.D. has acquired from the academic journey as these are what enable the individual with a Ph.D. to handle and investigate the studies in his or her doctoral field.
In other words, the most intellectually (and professionally) successful Ph.D. is not someone who is questing to take possession of a doctorate but instead someone who is on a journey to become a doctor of philosophy.