Every country is unique in its own way, but Japan is particularly special with its exceptional culture, food, history and identity. If you really want to let Japan get under your skin, try some (or all!) of these unique experiences as part of your visit to Japan.
1. Attend a festival:
Every culture has festivals, but there are none quite like those celebrated in Japan. Whatever time of year you visit there will be cultural festivals (matsuri), parades and events celebrating everything from seasonal snow to special shrines.
Some of the top festivals in Japan are the Gion Matsuri (mid July), the Tenjin Matsuri (July 25), the Buddhist Obon (mid August) and the Chichibu Yomatsuri (December 2-3). They each feature 20-metre-high festival floats (dashi) that are the highlight of lavish, lengthy processions. The Tenjin Matsuri even takes to the river with decorated boats as well as the street procession. From huge paper lanterns that light up the night sky to Chinese dragons, street food stands (yatai), portable shrines (mikoshi), music and ceremonial dancers, Japan’s festivals will be a thrilling highlight of your trip.
2. Visit an Onsen town:
Natural hot springs can be found throughout Japan and are known as onsen. Different areas have particular minerals but they all offer a relaxing and therapeutic experience. You’ll find indoor and outdoor onsens; some may be developed into sophisticated parks while others are simply public bath houses. They may be mixed or single gender. There is an etiquette, so check out the dos and don’ts of onsen bathing before you go.
Many onsens are in beautiful natural settings in forested valleys or at the foot of mountains. Manza Onsen is 1800 metres above sea level and offer a steaming open-air mineral bath surrounded by snow! One of the easiest to reach from Tokyo is Hakone Onsen, surrounded by forest on the shores of Lake Ashinolo. For a more unusual experience, hike up the warm mountain stream to reach the Kamuiwakkayu Falls which dispenses steaming spring water into a natural basin below.
3. Find a themed café of your dreams:
Japan’s themed cafés encompass the whole works – from dressing up in costume to themed décor and food. Whatever your fantasy, there’s a themed café in Japan that’s tailor-made for you. There are cafés celebrating cats, dogs, birds, owls, rabbits and even reptiles at the Yokohama Subtropical Teahouse. Surround yourself with birds, share a meal with dogs, handle iguanas or nibble veggies with rabbits.
Other themed cafés include Tokyo’s Moomin Bakery Café where you can converse with giant stuffed animals, or a Maid Café or Butler’s Café. Other themes are as diverse as the Vampire Café, the Alice in Wonderland Café where you can escape down the rabbithole, at least for an hour or so. Or you can even try the Owl Cafe experience in which you can have a close encounter with an owl. Which themed cafés serve the best coffee, however, is quite another matter!
4. Sleep in a shrine:
Japan is full with ancient shrines, usually in Zen Buddhist Temples. Pilgrims have historically found rest at religious institutions and that has now been extended to Shukubo Temple lodgings. Guests are welcomed to these bed and breakfast offerings and are expected to sleep on a futon with little in the way of furniture beyond a cushion and a low table. You’ll need a decent set of PJs as everyone sleeps in one room and shares a giant communal bathroom. Still up for it? Designed as an escape from worldly stress, at least for a night, temple shrine accommodation is not for everyone.
5. Watch a sumo match:
One final must-do while visiting Japan is attending a professional Sumo match at a local arena. These wrestling tournaments consist of a series of short bouts of posturing and body locking in a cultural display of strength. The best place to see a Sumo match is at the Ryogoku Kokugikan Tournament or Kokonoe Sumo Stable, both in Tokyo, but you will need to book tickets in advance.
All these cultural experiences bring a new appreciation of Japan’s culture, so go ahead and enjoy!