Whether it's an onsen, cosplay, or sumo, there's an experience waiting for you in Japan.
Japan is a bucket lister’s paradise. It’s a place where traditional and modern culture mix to create something incomparable. There are experiences here unlike anywhere else, but if you come unprepared, you might miss out. Here’s our list of the top 10 cultural experiences to seek out in Japan.
You might turn your nose up at tacky themed cafes, but the ones in Japan are in a different league altogether. There’s a cafe or restaurant for every niche interest and some that will simply make you wonder, “but why tho?” Maybe you want to pet cats or hold owls, eat while surrounded by your favorite anime characters, be served by girls in maid uniforms in Akihabara, or dine in a prison cell. Whatever it is, you’ll get all that and a meal in Japan.
Do keep in mind, however, the controversies surrounding owl and other animal-themed cafes. Some people do consider them to be inhumane, but it’s entirely up to you whether to visit. If you’re concerned about animal welfare, there are alternative cafes that also run as shelters such as Neco Republic and Cat Guardian in Otsuka.
These elegant pieces of traditional clothing are often passed down through the generations of a family, and new garments cost tens of thousands of yen. Even yukata, the cheaper summer version, can get expensive when you factor in all the accessories. Luckily for tourists, more and more rental shops are popping up in traditional districts like Gion in Kyoto and Asakusa in Tokyo. These stores offer one-day or overnight rental for men and women, giving you just enough time to snap some keepsake photos around town.
Experience what it’s like to live as a monk by staying overnight at a shrine or temple. This usually involves staying in a minimalist tatami room, eating shojin ryori (vegetarian Buddhist cuisine), and attending early morning prayers. Koyasan (Mount Koya) in Wakayama is a popular destination for those looking for a spiritual experience, but temple lodgings can also be found around Kyoto and Nara.
If you’re a fan of anime and manga, why not attend a convention in the place where it all started? The zealous passion of Japanese fans is unmatched, and conventions are the apex of fan culture. Comiket is the largest comic market, held annually in August and December in Odaiba, and is focused on amateurs deal self-published comics, or dojinshi. Here, you’ll be the first to check out the up-and-coming talent.
One of Japan’s oldest sports, sumo is a martial art unlike any other. Consider observing a match even if you aren’t a sports fan, for sumo’s origins are entwined with Shintoism, and even today the matches are accompanied by traditional ceremonies. Tournaments are held in multiple locations throughout the year. In Tokyo, you can catch them at the Ryogoku Kokugikan in January, May, and September.
The tea ceremony is about much more than drinking a cup of tea—it’s a ritual laden with secret meaning. The ceremony is a microcosm of traditional Japanese aesthetics and ideals, making it one of the best ways to experience Japanese culture. An experienced host will guide you through each step, as you sample a traditional sweet and one or more kinds of tea. Kyoto and Kanazawa are popular spots to experience a tea ceremony, and English speaking hosts are available.
From capsule hotels to manga cafes, there are a lot of interesting places to spend a night in Japan. But when it comes to experiencing the pinnacle of Japanese hospitality, ryokan are unbeatable. A stay at these traditional inns usually includes a multi-course dinner and a comfortable futon. Some of the most popular destinations for ryokan in Japan are Beppu in Oita and Hakone in Kanagawa. Though they can sometimes be pricey, the level of Japanese hospitality you get at a ryokan is unmatched.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Japan when the cherry blossoms are in bloom, hanami is a must. Enjoy this simple act of setting up a picnic blanket or tarp under the cherry trees, and appreciating the view with your friends (and usually a few drinks). Locals and tourists alike flock to top blossom spots like Mount Yoshino and Himeji Castle, but hanami can be enjoyed anywhere. It’s more about who you’re with than where you are.
Who doesn’t love a good matsuri (festival)? Food on sticks, colorful shows, hot summer nights. You haven’t really felt the matsuri spirit coursing through your veins until you actually join a parade, though! The Aomori Nebuta Festival is one of the easiest major events to get involved in. The festival has organized teams of musicians and float-bearers but also relies heavily on volunteer haneto dancers who jump and shout in front of the floats. Bon festivals are another fun way to join in, as there is usually a circle dance where everyone can follow along.
No matter what you get up to in Japan, the best way to relax after a long day of traveling is soaking in a hot spring. Onsen are communal baths with natural spring water where visitors bathe naked. Don’t knock it til you try it! Some like Nyuto Onsen in Akita Prefecture are hidden away in the mountains offering total seclusion. The waters are said to contain healing properties—and even if they didn’t, relaxing in the peaceful baths with your friends and family is healing enough all on its own. If you’re shy about getting naked, don’t worry, most onsen are separated by gender.