Top 10 Cultural Experiences in Japan

It’s no secret that there’s an abundance of fascinating places to visit in Japan. But as you plan your trip, don’t overlook the all-important question: what do I want to do?

Japan is a bucket lister’s paradise, a place where traditional and modern culture mix to create something incomparable. There are experiences here that can’t be had anywhere else, so don’t come in unprepared, or you might miss out. Here’s our list of the top 10 cultural experiences to seek out in Japan.

10. Find the themed cafe of your dreams

You might turn your nose up at tacky themed cafes, but Japan’s are in a different league altogether. There’s a cafe or restaurant for every niche interest, and some that will simply make you wonder, “why?” Maybe you want to pet cats or hold owls, eat while surrounded by your favorite anime characters, be served by girls in maid uniforms, or dine in a prison cell. Whatever it is, you’ll get all that and a meal in Japan.

Top 5 Cafes in Tokyo

The Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku is one of Tokyo’s most notorious themed cafes.

9. Don a kimono

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.

Top 10 Cultural Experiences in Japan: Don a Kimono

Most popular tourist districts will have rental shops where you can hire a kimono for a day.

8. Sleep in a shrine

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 but comfortable room, and sometimes eating shojin ryori (vegetarian cuisine eaten by monks) and attending early morning prayers. Koyasan is a popular destination for those hoping to have a spiritual sleepover, and temple lodgings can also be found around Kyoto and Nara.

Top 10 cultural experiences in Japan: Stay in a shrine

Don’t miss the chance to experience an overnight temple stay at “shukubo” or Buddhist lodgings.

7. Attend a fan convention

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, held annually in August and December in Odaiba, and its focus sets it apart from other countries’ anime cons: fans and amateurs deal self-published comics, or dojinshi. You’ll be the first to check out the up-and-coming talent.

Top 10 Cultural Experiences in Japan: Attend an anime convention

Cosplay in Japan is alive and well with subculture youths coming out to showcase their costumes on the weekends in places like Harajuku (Tokyo) and Amerika-mura (Osaka).

6. Watch a sumo match

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.

Top 10 cultural experiences in Japan: watch sumo

Photo by: Hatch.m There are various ways to experience sumo while you’re here; attending the grand tournament, which travels to Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and Fukuoka, is popular, or you can get up close and personal with a morning training session at a sumo stable.

5. Join a tea ceremony

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, and you will 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.

Top 10 cultural experiences in Japan: tea ceremony

It’s easy for visitors to arrange a traditional Japanese tea ceremony experience – tours, local cultural centers and your accommodation can provide information.

4. Stay at a ryokan

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. Though they’re pricey, the service is among the best you’ll ever receive.

Top 10 cultural experiences: Stay at a ryokan

Staying at a ryokan is the best way to experience Japan’s famed “omotenashi” or hospitality. Stuff yourself with a traditional multi-course meal before luxuriating in a hot spring while the attentive staff prepare your room for bedtime. Sigh.

3. Have a hanami

If you’re lucky enough to be in Japan when the cherry blossoms are in bloom, hanami is a must. Made up of the words 花 (hana, flower) and見 (mi, viewing), it’s actually a very 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.

Top 10 cultural experiences in Japan: Have a hanami

Cherry blossom season is a spectacular time to be in Japan. It’s not hard to join in on the fun as the whole country goes mad for sakura.

2. Participate in a festival

Who doesn’t love a good matsuri? Food on sticks, colorful shows, hot summer nights. But you haven’t felt matsuri spirit really coursing through your veins until you join the parade. The Nebuta in Aomori City is one of the easiest major festivals to get involved in; though the festival has organized teams of musicians and float-bearers, the spectacle 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.

Top 10 cultural experiences in Japan: Join a matsuri

Japanese matsuri are as colorful and diverse as the country itself. No matter what time you’re in Japan, there’s bound to be a festival going on somewhere.

1. Bathe in an onsen

With all Japan has to offer, it clearly attracts people with an endless variety of interests. But no matter who you are and what you get up to during the day, the best way to start or end it is with a soak in the hot springs. Onsen are communal baths with natural spring water. 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.

Top 10 cultural experiences in Japan: Onsen

Photo by: Everybody in Japan loves onsen – especially the monkeys.