“A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.” ~ Ghandi.
So you’ve decided you want to travel to Japan – it’s about to change your life! Between scouting out destinations to add to your Japan itinerary, it can feel overwhelming trying to incorporate Japan cultural experiences, too. No need to worry, you’re about to learn exactly what they are and how to find them!
It’s no secret that Japan is usually referred to as the “land of contrasts” and it’s easy to see why. Where else can you ride on a traditional rickshaw from centuries ago and travel at 300km/h on a bullet train in the same day?
It’s the notion of these fascinating, unique Japanese experiences that have been excessively luring travellers to the country in recent years. From 19 million in 2015 to an estimated 40 million in 2020, the number was set to double in only 5 years!
If you’re anything like me and enjoy being an invisible tourist by immersing yourself in the local culture of a destination, you’re going to be spoilt for choice. Drawing on knowledge gained from my multiple trips to Japan, I’ve put together this comprehensive guide to help you make the most of your trip. Read on for more!
This guide to Japanese cultural experiences will cover:
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Immersive Japan cultural experiences you need to try
Whether you prefer to discover the beauty of tradition, hope to be blown away by modern marvels or desire a mixture of both during your visit, I’ve broken down all the Japan cultural activities into categories to make your selection process easier.
After all, we each have different tastes and interests, so what may suit one tourist may not suit another.
Ideally, I’d recommend selecting at least one experience from each category to ensure you enjoy the many different facets of Japanese culture. Let’s dive in!
Accommodation experiences in Japan
While this isn’t ideal for claustrophobes, staying in a capsule hotel in Japan will be an experience to remember! Making the most efficient use of space in crowded cities like Tokyo and Osaka, you can expect to see corridors with 3 levels of capsules – top, middle and bottom.
These pods are equipped with a TV, door shade, and bedding. Once you’re inside that’s all the space can fit, really! Capsule hotels are a great budget option if you don’t mind sharing a common bathroom and storing your luggage in a separate area. Find capsule hotels in Tokyo or Osaka here.
Where else but Japan could you be checked into a hotel by a dinosaur robot or spend the night in a Hello Kitty room? Mix things up and stay in a themed hotel during your Japan trip! Love hotels have an interesting reputation, watch over Shinjuku with Godzilla or have sweet dreams amongst chocolates in the Lotte Hotel!
To fully appreciate omotenashi (Japanese hospitality), you really can’t miss out on staying in a ryokan (Japanese inn).
Step back in time by donning a yukata to enjoy a full kaiseki dinner, a multiple course meal created with fresh local produce. Each dish is immaculately presented on small decorative crockery brought to your room. Find out what it’s like to sleep on a futon on a tatami floor! The next morning, indulge in a full Japanese breakfast to start your day. Find ryokans in Japan here.
Walk in the footsteps of pilgrims from centuries ago by staying in shukubo style accommodation. This is the name for temple stay accommodation in Japan, and is an enjoyable experience to appreciate spirituality.
I stayed in a shukubo in Nagano, just steps away from Zozo-ji, one of the most important and few remaining pilgrimage sites for Zen Buddhism. In the shadow of Mt Fuji, Kakurinbo Buddhist Temple comes very highly recommended, as does Eko-in Temple in Koyasan (Mt Koya).
Much like ryokan, minshuku are traditional family run B&B’s and also offer the full kaiseki experience. In Takayama I stayed in this fantastic minshuku where meals were served in a common area and guests had the opportunity to enjoy onsen (hot spring) on site!
Foodie experiences in Japan
There’s no denying the aspect of Japanese culture many tourists most look forward to is the food! Whether it’s delicious street eats, mouthwatering wagyu or succulent sushi prepared by Michelin-star chefs, Japan has something to literally suit all tastes!
Gain an appreciation of Japanese culture through food by embarking on one (or more) of these foodie experiences in Japan:
- Join a Shibuya ramen tasting tour of 6 mini bowls with a local ramen expert (read my review and what to expect here).
- Go on a bar hopping tour to find hidden spots only locals know about (I did this in both Tokyo and Kyoto – so much fun!)
- Eat your way through a street food tour in old town Tokyo, hidden street food spots in Shibuya, Asakusa, Kyoto, Osaka or Hiroshima and learn about the significance of the food to locals.
- Discover how Japan’s national beverage is made on a sake brewery tour in Kyoto.
- Visit the world’s largest seafood market and enjoy sampling fresh fish on a Tsukiji Fish Market tour.
- Learn a new recipe in cooking classes with locals (read my full review for a ramen cooking class in Kyoto).
- Create an edible-looking souvenir by making sampuru (replica food) at a top factory in Tokyo or in Gujo Hachiman. (Read how I did it in my review of making a fake Japanese food souvenir bowl of ramen).
- Experience something unique at a kaiseki lunch or dinner with a geisha, or even a tea ceremony and wagashi-making class after a food tour in Yanaka – read my review here!
TIP: If you’re vegan or vegetarian, you may find dining out a bit more difficult in Japan than in Western countries. Many sauces contain fish, eggs or allergens. However, vegetarian/vegan foodie tours are beginning to pop up to cater to foreigners! I’ve personally undertaken multiple in Japan that can be customised and reviewed them in my guide to the best food tours in Tokyo to help you choose.
Traditional experiences in Japan
When it comes to understanding Japanese culture during your trip, you can’t pass up the importance of traditional experiences. Japan has managed to preserve many beautiful traditions, some dating back centuries (or even more).
The most popular traditional experiences in Japan are:
- Join a Japanese tea ceremony – Learn about the art of green tea. I did this in Kyoto (read about my traditional Kyoto tea ceremony and my Tokyo tea ceremony, which was more informal). I was so mesmerised by the geisha, they were so graceful and explained the meanings and symbolism behind their gestures, utensils and more – very worthwhile and informative. Or take part in a combined tea ceremony, calligraphy and higashi dessert making class in Miyajima, book in advance here.
- Wear a kimono – This is possible in many locations throughout Japan, especially in old post towns. And for folks concerned about cultural appropriation – don’t be. Japanese people love seeing visitors embracing their culture and traditions! Book your kimono experience in advance for Tokyo here, for Kyoto here, or get the full maiko (geisha in training) photoshoot experience here.
- Watch a sumo match – Sumo tournaments are held in Tokyo and Osaka. These only happen a few times a year and may not coincide with your visit. Not to worry, it’s possible to watch their daily morning practice with a local guide.
- Enjoy a Kabuki performance – You can go to a Kabuki show in Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka. Kabuki is a traditional style of Japanese performance including beautiful costumes, makeup, singing and dancing. In 2008, Kabuki was granted UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage status due to its long history and significance in Japanese culture. Learn more and buy Kabuki tickets here.
- Learn about Japanese culture from a geisha at an ancient shrine in Tokyo. That’s right, you don’t need to go all the way to Kyoto! Enjoy drinking matcha tea, enjoy a geisha performance, learn a traditional dance, try Japanese calligraphy, wear a kimono and learn how to fold a special origami piece all from the geisha herself. Read my full Tokyo geisha experience here.
- Step back in time at Edo Wonderland – Learn more about what life was like during the Edo period (1603 – 1868). While Japan was closed off from the outside world, it flourished internally and displayed its prosperity through architecture. There are various performances throughout the day, my personal favourite being the oiran procession! More info in my detailed guide to day trips from Tokyo or buy Edo Wonderland tickets here.
- Experience life in the Japanese Alps – While Shirakawa-go is a popular (and overcrowded) tourist favourite, if you prefer exploring off the beaten path, Hida no Sato (Hida Folk Village) is the perfect alternative. Learn about traditional local toys, visit each of the beautifully-preserved farmhouses, get involved in a seasonal festival and more, all the details in my travel guide to visiting Hida no Sato.
- Traditional Japanese dinner and breakfast at a ryokan – Speaking of the Japanese Alps, Takayama is the perfect place to experience omotenashi of a ryokan with a kaiseki dinner (more on this down the page). The multiple small dishes are like miniature artworks! In my Takayama itinerary, I share where I stayed and what you can expect.
Some more ideas for traditional experiences in Japan are:
- Become a ninja for a day in Askausa, Tokyo and learn their special tricks. Book in advance here.
- Ride in a rickshaw in Asakusa, Tokyo, and enjoy a different perspective of Senso-ji and the surrounding area. Book in advance here.
- Enjoy the art of Ikebana – Flower arranging in a minimalist way that dates back well over 1,000 years.
- Learn Shūji – Calligraphy artistic writing with paintbrush and black ink.
- Take part in Tojiki – Ceramic and pottery making in the traditional way. Highly valued skill combined with art to reflect the time (and actually dates back to 10,000 BC in Japan!)
- Have fun with Origami – Paper folding into different animals, shapes, flowers and so on, without any adhesives to hold it together. The art of origami was introduced to Japan from China in the 6th century and was tied to Shinto rituals.
- Experience a Kaiseki dinner – a multiple course traditional meal consisting of small dishes made from local produce and ingredients. Can be experienced in ryokan and dishes are beautifully presented, almost too good to eat!
- Make your own Kumano brush in Hiroshima, a traditional Japanese calligraphy brush. I’ve seen videos of this process in action, and it’s so fascinating! Book in advance here.
- Make your own customised notebook using washi paper from a local print studio in Kyoto. Book in advance here.
- Make your own daruma doll in Kurashiki, book in advance here. Daruma dolls are one of the most popular Japanese souvenirs!
Modern cultural experiences in Japan
In my detailed guide to planning a trip to Japan, I recommend my readers enjoy a mixture of traditional and modern experiences during their trip. Note that some of these experiences that relied heavily on tourism may not have survived since the events of 2020, so be sure to look them up before your trip to confirm:
- See giant robots, especially the larger-than-life moving Gundam in Yokohama. Or go into sensory overload at the Robot Restaurant, one of my personal favourites (hopefully to reopening in 2023).
- Lose track of time being blown away by the ingenuity of teamLab Planets (book here) (note: teamLab Borderless will be reopening in Toranomon Hills in 2023).
- Have a blast at LegoLand Discovery Centre in Tokyo, where all your favourite landmarks of Japan are in miniature Lego form! Buy advance Toyko tickets here, or Osaka tickets here.
- Spend a day at Universal Studios Japan in Osaka, where you can enjoy SuperMario and Harry Potter Worlds! Buy advance tickets here.
- Receive a dose of adrenalin at Fuji Q Highland, where you can enjoy a theme park with Mt Fuji as a gorgeous backdrop. Buy advance tickets here.
- Sail around Tokyo Bay on a dinner cruise to witness stunning views across the city at night, including the colourfully illuminated Rainbow Bridge, Tokyo Tower and Tokyo SkyTree. Book in advance here.
- Geek out on an Otaku tour around Akihabara and Nakano Broadway to hunt down all things manga, anime, games, and Japanese pop culture. Book in advance here.
- Visit a themed café. Maids, monsters, ninjas, dungeons, prisons and more! Animal cafés are popular with visitors (such as cats, owls and hedgehogs), however I personally have not visited and would not recommend them. If this is something you’re considering, I kindly urge you to do a little research into the animals’ welfare. Owls and hedgehogs are nocturnal but made to stay awake and be handled by people all day, and the owls are chained to a branch.
- Tick off a night doing karaoke. Sing your heart out in a karaoke booth with a group (or with locals you befriended!)
- Experience Harajuku pop culture.This is one of the trendy Tokyo neighbourhoods and is fun for spotting kawaii (cute) items.
- Ride on a bullet train. Chances are if you’re heading out of Tokyo to other major cities, you’ll have the pleasure of experiencing a shinkansen – capable of speeds up to 300km/h!
Religious & spiritual Japan experiences
Although many Japanese people will claim they are not overly religious, spirituality plays a large role in morality. Immerse yourself in the following experiences to learn how you can bring more meaning into your everyday life:
- Visit a temple or shrine. As I explain in my guide to things Japan is famous for, they are easily confused and NOT the same thing! Temples are places of worship for followers of Buddhism, whereas shrines are for Shinto prayers and rituals.
TIP: The most popular temples in Japan are Senso-ji in Tokyo, Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto and Todai-ji in Nara, while shrines are Meiji-jingu in Tokyo, Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto, Itsukushima Shrine in Miyajima, and Toshogu Shrine in Nikko. Although I recommend visiting the lesser-known temples and shrines you may happen to stumble across too, as each is special in its own way.
- Sleep in temple stay accommodation – I did this in Nagano and highly recommend it!
- Take a Zen meditation class in Kyoto and learn from the masters.
- Hike the Kumano Kodo trail, a 70 kilometre ancient pilgrimage path through the elevated mountains of Wakayama.
TIP: If your visit doesn’t coincide with a festival, you may wish to visit Yatai Kaikan in Takayama. This exhibition hall houses several giant floats from the famed Takayama Matsuri on rotation throughout the year. It helps you appreciate just how tall the floats really are! It’s one of my favourite things to do in Takayama.
Important festivals & special events in Japan
There is always an event or special holiday to look forward to throughout the year in Japan. If you’re lucky, you may be able to experience a matsuri (festival). They are many centuries old and usually associated with a major local shrine.
The most notable are the Yuki Matsuri/Sapporo Snow Festival in Hokkaido (winter), Kanda Matsuri in Tokyo (late spring), Gion Matsuri in Kyoto (summer), Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori (summer) and Takayama Matsuri (spring & autumn).
For other special events, keep an eye out for symbolism during your visit so you know what it means:
- January: New Year, Coming of Age ceremonies for those who turned 20.
- March: Hina Matsuri (Doll’s Festival) to pray for happiness and growth of girls. You may see beautiful traditional Japanese dolls on display.
- May: Children’s Day to pray for happiness and growth of boys. Celebrated with carp streamers flying outdoors.
- July: Tanabata (Star Festival) where people write wishes on coloured paper cards and tie to bamboo leaves.
- August: Tsukimi (Moon Viewing) a night to show appreciation to the full moon.
For a full list of festivals and events in Japan, take a look here to see if any will coincide with your visit.
Nature experiences in Japan
The appreciation of nature is a massive part of Japanese culture. In my guide to beautiful Japanese words, I explain the meaning behind shinrin yoku (forest bathing), where it’s believed that immersing oneself in nature has healing properties for our minds and bodies.
Unlike my homeland of Australia, Japan has four very distinct seasons whereby the surrounding natural landscapes transition accordingly. Again, there is always something new to get excited about!
Some popular nature experiences in Japan for locals and visitors alike include:
- Enjoying hanami (cherry blossom viewing). Find out the best time to visit Japan for cherry blossoms, or learn how to avoid crowds and what to pack in my guide to spring in Japan.
- Enjoying koyo (autumn foliage). Some of the best places to experience firey autumn colours in Japan are Nikko, Kyoto, Miyajima, and at Lake Kawaguchi framing Mt Fuji.
- Bathe in an onsen (hot spring). Soaking in the minerals of these natural springs are believed to have healing properties. Don’t forget – the correct Japanese etiquette is to wear your birthday suit! Here are some ideas for the best onsen in Japan.
- Hike to Mt Fuji’s summit, Japan’s most sacred peak. This is only possible during the summer months and usually involves a night’s sleep on the mountain.
- Admire the beauty of Japanese gardens, the top 3 in the country being Kenroku-en in Kanazawa, Koraku-en in Okayama and Kairaku-en in Mito.
- Go snorkelling in Okinawa. Lap up a tropical climate and crystal blue waters in the “Hawaii of Japan.” Book in advance here.
- Soak in the gorgeous scenery and enjoy numerous hikes around Kamikochi (part of the Japanese Alps).
- Embark on a scenic boat ride. There are so many places to do this! Some of my suggestions are during spring beneath the cherry blossoms in Kawagoe, under weeping willows on the canal of Kurashiki, alongside waterfalls in Takachiho Gorge, along an ancient river of Arashiyama in Kyoto, or in Tokyo’s swan paddle boats at Inokashira or Ueno parks.
- Wander through lush green bamboo groves in Arashiyama, Kyoto (or find a less-crowded alternative in my guide to Kyoto’s hidden gems!)
- Experience a hot sand bath in Beppu, Oita.
- Marvel at the Tottori sand dunes, they’ve existed for over 100,000 years.
- Witness steam spewing from an active volcano such as Sakurajima in Kagoshima or Mt Aso in Kyushu.
- Watch cheeky snow monkeys at Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park in Nagano. Don’t worry if your visit is not during winter, the monkeys are there year-round! This is one of the things no one tells you about the snow monkey park.
- See snow walls 20 metres high along the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route (summer only).
- Go chasing waterfalls such as Nachi Falls in Kumano or Kegon Waterfall in Nikko.
- Explore limestone caves, underground streams and waterfalls at Ryusendo Cave, Iwate.
Concluding my ideas for Japanese cultural activities
Japan is rich in culture and tradition, and now you know just exactly how much! Out of this lengthy list, which of these is your favourite cultural experience you hope to try during your Japan trip? Did I miss any? Let me know in the comments below.
For more inspiration, check my complete Japan travel blog where I have incorporated many of these cultural experiences into my Japan itineraries and travel guides, as well as travel tips, where to buy the Japan Rail Pass, how to learn Japanese for travel, the best Japan travel books and much more. Take a look once you’re done here for everything you need to know before you go.
Want to “blend in” even more in Japan, or anywhere in the world? I’ve shared my unique strategy and personal blueprint to help you plan the perfect trip in my #1 Amazon New Release book, be sure to check it out!
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Until next time,
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