11 Cultural Experiences You Must Try in Japan
As an island nation that was isolated for much of its history, Japanese culture has evolved into a unique culture that fascinates many. Steeped in history and tradition, Japan has reared many customs and experiences that will offer unique insight into Japanese culture. Since there are many ways that visitors can experience this unique culture when they come to Japan, this article will cover 11 must-try activities that’ll let you thoroughly experience Japan’s unique culture.
Jul 22 2020 (Jan 22 2021)
1. Stroll Through Historic Townscapes Wearing a Kimono
No article of clothing says Japan like the kimono does. In fact, kimono is considered the national dress of the country. Since kimono is Japan's most traditional garment, it represents a fundamental piece of Japanese culture and identity. Wearing one would be an excellent experience that would allow you to get in touch with Japanese culture and feel the charm of old-time Japan.
Hopping into a kimono will allow you not only to enjoy truly authentic Japanese culture, but also to take some great photos around historic landmarks found in major cities.
In Tokyo, Asakusa is particularly popular for kimono-wearing experiences due to its many traditional buildings and historic atmosphere. In the Kansai area, Kyoto is perhaps the most popular location to wear traditional Japanese clothing. Check out the 10 best spots to wear a kimono in Kyoto.
If you want to learn more about the history and culture surrounding kimono, check out our article: Yukata vs Kimono, The Secret Culture Behind The Japanese National Dress.
2. Relax and Soak the Day Away in an Onsen
Japan hosts more than 3,000 "onsen" (hot springs) so bathing in hot springs has become an indispensable part of Japanese culture. Many Japanese flock to onsen to get out of the big city, relax, enjoy the health and beauty benefits of the minerals and warm water, or simply to spend time with friends or family. All types of hot springs can be found in Japan, from off-the-beaten-path springs to elegant, top-dollar resorts.
If you're visiting the Kanto area, Shizuoka is particularly renowned for the quality of its onsen and is just a short day trip from Tokyo. Another great onsen spot is Hakone, which boasts lots of high-end hot spring resorts. Of course, you can find onsen right in the big cities, too: Tokyo has a large number of hot springs. Popular bathing locations can be found in Kansai as well. For example Kinosaki or Kyoto are recommended for their top-rated onsen.
While hot spring etiquette is common knowledge for many Japanese, overseas visitors may be unfamiliar with it. Be sure to check an onsen's website in advance if you're thinking about visiting. And if the site is in Japanese, here's an article on proper onsen etiquette. If you're worried about tattoos, also be sure to read our article on etiquette regarding tattoos. For those uncomfortable bathing in front of strangers, don't fret! We have a list of onsen that allow guests to enter in bathing suits, so that anyone can enjoy this relaxing bit of Japanese culture!
3. Celebrate the Japanese Way with a Traditional Matsuri
Japan hosts such a wide-range of "matsuri" (traditional festivals) that in the summer months a matsuri can be found in nearly any neighborhood in almost every city on a given day. Floats, dancers, and musicians playing traditional instruments parade through the streets in a fun, lively environment that makes for a great time and even better photos. Be warned, though: the streets can become absolutely jam-packed. Still, if you can make your way to a festival you'll be treated with a highly unique Japanese experience featuring celebrations and traditions that have endured for centuries and that will allow you to get a taste of authentic Japanese culture.
As if celebrating weren't enough, another great part about matsuri is all the food! Streets are lined with stalls selling all sorts of yummy treats. If you visit a matsuri, be sure to sample all the great food!
Beyond traditional matsuri, fireworks festivals are also highly popular in Japan. In Tokyo, the Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival is most popular, while the Yodogawa Fireworks Festival in Osaka is also sure to give you some real bang for your buck. For other ideas, check out our 15 recommended fireworks festivals here!
Other popular and downright wacky festivals in Japan can also be enjoyed, like the snow festival in Hokkaido or the log-riding matsuri in Nagano. For more festival ideas, check out our article on 10 of Japan's most popular festivals.
4. Welcome the Changing of the Seasons With Hanami and Momijigari
Hanami Festivals and Sakura Viewing
In the spring, "hanami" (flower-viewing) is extremely popular. Visitors flock to parks to enjoy a picnic with friends and loved ones beneath the newly bloomed "sakura" (cherry blossoms). This time of the year is particularly significant for Japanese culture, because it signifies new beginnings and rebirth. Visitors who attend a hanami festival will be greeted with gorgeous views of pink cherry blossoms and a lively festival environment, creating a long-lasting memory of their time in Japan.
For some of the most Japanese scenery possible, be sure to visit Kyoto. The abundance of traditional architecture coupled with countless sakura make for some of the country's most beautiful views. Here are 10 best spots in Kyoto to see the cherry blossoms. And if you prefer a quieter atmosphere to enjoy sakura, we also have 8 secret cherry blossom spots that only locals know about.
Of course, both Tokyo and Osaka are also home to plenty of gorgeous locations for enjoying the pink, springtime blooms. For sakura sites that lie well beyond the metropolitan skylines, check out our article on the 20 best locations outside of the major cities.
If you do decide to visit a hanami festival to enjoy this unique part of Japanese culture and the beautiful flowers, be sure to read about and follow proper etiquette!
Momijigari and Autumn Colors
Fall is a great time to get out and appreciate Japan's breathtaking nature. "Momijigari" (leaf viewing) is a highly popular Japanese tradition where travelers flock to all corners of the nation to lay their eyes upon the beautiful and bright fall colors. Enjoying these colorful views, often coupled with traditional buildings, temples, and shrines, will surely make for an excellent memory and some great photos!
Tokyo is home to many parks that are painted in a variety of gorgeous oranges, reds, and yellows in the fall. Here's our list of the best places in Tokyo to see the changing leaves. The Kansai area, particularly Osaka and Nara, is well-known for its multi-colored beauty this time of year. If you're wondering where you should go, we've written an article detailing the best locations in Kansai for fall leaves, as well as an article about the best momijigari locations within Kyoto.
For more ideas on seeing fall foliage, why not peruse our article about the top 8 locations for fall colors in Japan?
5. Enjoy Resting and Relaxing at a Traditional Ryokan
A "ryokan" is a traditional Japanese inn. While they developed along major highways in Japan's past, ryokan are now seen as places to get away from the hustle and bustle of life for some relaxation.
Ryokan are the perfect place to stay, not only to experience the incredible Japanese hospitality at its maximum, but also to enjoy bits of Japanese culture and customs. You will have the chance to see up close some amazing traditional Japanese architecture, sleep in a traditional room with a tatami floor, wear a typical "yukata" (a garment similar to kimono), and have traditional Japanese meals for breakfast and dinner. Plus, many ryokan are attached or located very near to an onsen where you can enjoy an invigorating hot spring bath.
If this sounds like the proper getaway for you, be sure to read through our list of 16 highly recommended ryokan among travelers in Japan. You can find gorgeous ryokan in major cities like Tokyo and Osaka as well, or even stay at a ryokan with impressive views of Mt. Fuji.
6. Enjoy the Stunning Nature Around Mt. Fuji
Mt. Fuji is without a doubt one of the most recognizable symbols of Japan. It features heavily in many aspects of Japanese culture, especially in the visual arts. The large, conical volcano rises up in Shizuoka and Yamanashi prefectures and is visible from miles away in every direction. While it is only open for climbing between July and September, its year-round beauty and omnipresence make it a spectacle that can be enjoyed in any season, especially from these eight views.
One of the most popular ways to climb the mountain is to set out at night with the goal of reaching the summit just before sunrise. Watching the sun crest the horizon and illuminate the world below from Japan's highest point is a truly awe-inspiring sight.
If climbing the mountain isn't for you, there are still day tours from Tokyo that will let you appreciate the natural splendor of Mt. Fuji, its five surrounding lakes, and other fun locations including some natural springs and even a pirate ship!
7. Enjoy Your Favorite Characters and Goods at Themed Cafes
Japan boasts a wide variety of themed cafes, restaurants, and other venues. While many visitors are aware of cat and other petting cafes, all sorts of themed cafes and restaurants can be found in Tokyo and other major cities. From anime and gaming staples like Gundam, Final Fantasy,Pokemon or "kawaii" (cute) culture like maid cafes, to some downright bizarre restaurants, there's sure to be a themed cafe for you to enjoy during your trip and experience a newer side of Japanese culture.
One highlight of visiting such locations is feeling like you can actually interact and be around your favorite character, series, or brand. Whether it's a food and drink menu centered around a game or anime's characters and story, or whether it's the hospitality and treatment shown by the maids as you step into a completely kawaii world, the time you spend at a theme cafe will certainly be unforgettable!
One last perk of these themed destinations is being able to purchase goods that you can't find anywhere else! Store-exclusive novelties and other items found at themed cafes make for excellent souvenirs.
8. Experience the Height of Hospitality at a Japanese Tea Ceremony
The Japanese have refined the tea ceremony tradition over the centuries into something truly unique. A Japanese tea ceremony features precision, accuracy, and a strictly defined set of rules and etiquette regarding the preparation and enjoying of one's tea and snacks. Taking part in such an experience will allow participants to appreciate the effort and care that goes into traditional Japanese hospitality all while enjoying delicious, healthy matcha tea alongside traditional sweets.
The tradition emphasizes hospitality on the part of the host and comfort on the part of the guest, a highly important aspect of Japanese culture. Your host will typically be wearing formal clothing and will teach you every step of the performance from the proper sitting position to how to pour, receive, and sip your tea. Enjoying a healthy drink and traditional snack will allow you to take your mind off the stress and strains of daily life and enjoy a few moments of zen.
Read our article for information on Japanese tea ceremony and some recommended locations in Kyoto.
9. Enjoy a Zen Night in a Temple
Many larger temples throughout Japan allow you to stay overnight at a nearby facility. These "shukubo" (temple lodging sites) accommodate various people and experiences for guests to interact with and enjoy. Have you ever wondered about the diet of a Buddhist monk or how is the daily routine at a Japanese temple? Thanks to this Japanese-culture experience you can enjoy the traditional vegetarian cuisine that makes up a monk's diet. You may even join the monks in learning and memorizing the sutras (Buddhist holy scriptures). Finally, center your mind and body by taking part in meditation practice with monks fellow pilgrims alike.
These locations offer lodging and accommodation for visitors and pilgrims alike. Still, it is important to remember that a shukubo is no ordinary hotel. As it is part of the temple complex, proper rules and manners must be abided. Be sure to look at your lodging's rules beforehand.
Mt. Koya, which is relatively close to Kyoto and Osaka, is without a doubt the premier spot in Japan for an overnight temple experience. Located on a holy mountain that is the birthplace of one of Buddhism's largest denominations, few sites can compare to the religious significance of the temples there.
For more details about staying at a temple, read our article on eight recommended shukubo lodging sites throughout Japan.
10. Cheer on a Heated Bout Between Sumo Wrestlers
Sumo is one of many traditional Japanese sports. Large men grapple with one another in a fixed circle with the goal of toppling their opponent or pushing them out of the ring. While sumo can of course be viewed on TV, the best way to view any sport is up close and personal.
For those who want to know more about sumo history and experience the epicenter of sumo itself, a trip to the Ryogoku district in Tokyo is an absolute must. Sumo stadiums, sumo stables, and more can all be enjoyed here. Be sure to also feast upon some "chanko nabe," a hotpot dish that is one of the mainstays in a sumo wrestler's diet. Kokugikan, which hosts one of the premier sumo tournaments in the country, is also found in Ryogoku, so be sure to drop by.
For more information on how to enjoy this powerful bit of Japanese culture, check out our article on 8 Ways to Enjoy the Sumo Experience in Japan.
11. Discover Traditional Japanese Crafts and Make Your Very Own Souvenir
Sure, you can buy souvenirs at any shop in popular tourist areas. But how often do you actually get to make your own souvenir when traveling?
Japan is a nation that boasts a number of highly popular crafts, many of which have existed for centuries. Often they can be made relatively cheaply and will give you an absolutely unforgettable souvenir. Plus, it's an easy and fun way to bring a bit of Japanese culture back home with you. Traditional crafts like "daruma" (traditional dolls and talisman of good luck) "maneki neko" (a Japanese cat figurine believed to bring good luck to the owner) to utensils such as pottery and chopsticks can be made when you visit Japan. Check out our article here for more information on what makes a Japanese craft "traditional."
Ceramics have a long, enduring tradition in the Japanese art world. Many regions of Japan are home to their own unique style of pottery, and if you find yourself in the Kanto area there are a variety of locations where you can go to make your own. Such an experience would be absolutely unforgettable and let visitors appreciate both Japanese art and see firsthand how available resources impacted Japanese culture.
Enjoy Your Time in Japan and Experience Traditional Japanese Culture
Whether meditating at a temple, feasting upon themed foods, ascending Mt. Fuji, or strolling through the city in a kimono, the cultural experiences listed here will give any visitor a greater insight into Japanese culture and customs. We hope you can take the time to experience the country at a deeper level and come away with a greater appreciation and interest in Japan and Japanese culture. We know you'll love trying any (or all!) of the cultural experiences listed here!
If you want to give feedback on any of our articles, you have an idea that you'd really like to see come to life, or you just have a question on Japan, hit us up on our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram!
Title photo: supawat bursuk, Richie Chan, Dpongvit, KPG Payless 2 / Shutterstock.com
The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.