Arts & Design Culture Travel Guide

10 Best Cultural Experiences in Japan

Thinking of visiting Japan? Want to explore the unique cultural experiences that Japan has to offer? Japan is one of the most beautiful countries to visit in the world with many awe-inspiring attractions and landscape.

If you are looking to experience the deeper Japan, you should get some ideas by reading this page. As a result, you can plan accordingly and get the most out of your travel adventures.

You can discover many cultural experiences, which will give you an insight into Japanese culture. For example, you may join in a tea ceremony while participating in a festival or watch a kabuki performance at a traditional Japanese theatre.

By wearing a Kimono, you can take a walk out on the street of an old town of Japan. That’s going to be a fascinating idea. And yes, many tourists are interested in this cultural experience.

If you go to Sensoji temple in Asakusa area of Tokyo city, you will see many tourists roam around the temple grounds wearing beautiful kimono. Always remember that no journey to Japan is complete without experiencing one of the following cultural experiences in Japan:

1. Wear a Kimono or Yukata

These women are on the way to the shrine wearing kimono. Photo Credit: sese_87 at Flickr.

Are you fascinated by Japanese culture? Ever wanted to wear a kimono? Time has arrived to make your dreams come true. Enjoying a walk out on the street or visiting temple and shrine by wearing a beautiful kimono is perhaps one of the best memories one can have in a lifetime.

In the past, Kimono used to be the everyday dress for women throughout Japan, but now they are worn only for special occasions, like weddings, coming of age ceremony and funerals. There are kimono robes for men too. Surprised?!

Usually, Yukata (bathing clothes) are worn in the summer months. Japanese people celebrate a list of popular summer festivals ever year and watching glittering firework shows wearing yukata is a tradition here. Locals wear Yukata while participating in a bon-odori or awa-odori dance festival as well.

A couple out on the street wearing summer Yukata. Photo Credit: mrhayata at Flickr.

Whether you are in Tokyo or Kyoto, finding a kimono rental shop is not daunting. In fact, you can find kimono rental shops almost everywhere in Japan.

Locate a kimono rental shop nearby an interesting attraction (Google obviously find it out for you) and immerse yourself in Japanese culture! Wear a kimono and then find a perfect spot to photograph yourself.

Whenever I visit Sensoji Temple, located in Asakusa, for a prayer, I see many tourists stroll around the temple area wearing colorful kimono. They also take a short walk in Nakamise Dori, a bustling old shopping street lined with shops that starts at Kaminarimon and leads to Sensoji temple.

2. Stay at a Ryokan

Edo Sakura is not an old Ryokan, but still it’s considered one of the best ryokans in Tokyo.

Staying at a ryokan is a traditional Japanese cultural experience. Spend at least one night at a Japanese inn and you will know why this should be on your bucket list.

You won’t just experience a cozy stay there but also see some elements that are common at a ryokan, such as tatami mats, sliding doors made out of rice paper, wooden tables, futon, sitting cushions and so on.

In Japan, not all ryokan come with onsen (hot spring baths). If you happen to stay a night at a ryokan with onsen facility, then it will be an unforgettable experience.

Besides, your dinner will be served in your room with kaiseki ryori, a traditional meal consisting of small dishes like rice, tofu, miso soup, vegetables, grilled fish, sashimi and so many more.

To make a reservation at the Edo Sakura, please click here.

3. Watch a Sumo Match

Sumo Wrestlers at Grand Sumo Tournament in Tokyo. Photo Credit: Aussie Assault at Flickr.

Sumo is arguably Japan’s national sport. The best way to see a sumo match is to attend a sumo tournament. Click here to see sumo grand tournament calendar.

Watching a sumo match is an experience not to be missed in Japan. Some of you will miss these tournaments but it does not mean that you will not be able to experience sumo wrestlers. You can visit a sumo stable instead and witness a morning practice session.

Various travel companies in Japan offer this kind of tours, which are reasonable and worth the money. However, try to plan your Japan trip which will include a day dedicated only for watching a sumo match at a certain place during a sumo tournament.

4. Sleep in a Temple

A guest room at Ekoin Temple, Koyasan. Photo Credit: DocChewbacca at Flickr.

Many tourists want to stay overnight at a temple in Japan, which in fact is an ideal way to experience Japanese Buddhist traditions. Are you interested in this temple lodging (shukubo) idea? Temple lodgings provide traditional Japanese-style rooms featuring tatami mat floors and sliding doors with shared toilets and sinks.

Temple lodging is an exclusive cultural experience which is not just for sleeping but also to understand the simple life style of Buddhist monks, the vegetarian meals (shojin ryori) that they eat, be able participate in morning prayers with them and the chance of doing Buddhist meditation.

The best place to experience a night at a temple for foreigners is Koyasan (Mount Koya), a famous Buddhist pilgrimage destination that offers more than 50 temples where shukubo can be experienced. Advance reservation is highly recommended.

You should spend your leisure time walking around the holy temple town of Koyasan and explore some its must-see landmarks, such as Okunoin Temple, one of the sacred places in Japan.

If you think that Koyasan is too far to reach from Kyoto and looking for an alternative, I would recommend you to experience shukubo at Ninnaji temple, a World Heritage Site in Kyoto.

5. Join a Tea Ceremony

The Japanese tea ceremony is called Sado or Chado in Japanese. Photo Credit: mrhayata at Flickr.

Sado, the Japanese tea ceremony literally means “way of tea.” Along with kado and ikebana, it is one of the three classical arts of Japanese refinement.

Originated in China and then brought to Japan by a Buddhist monk, Myoan Eisei, the ceremony developed into a distinct Japanese form combining native culture.

The tea ceremony usually takes place in a traditional tearoom with tatami floor, where the tea master wears a kimono and prepares green tea (matcha) for guests.

The tools used by the master to prepare green tea are cleaned in front of the guests. It’s also important to inform you that before entering the teahouse (chashitsu), you need to purify yourself at a stone basin by washing your hands and rinsing your mouth.

By joining a tea ceremony in Japan, you can learn manners and etiquette of the different forms of the tea ceremony as well as enjoy the hospitality of the host.

The best place in Japan to experience this kind of authentic Japanese tea tradition is Kyoto, famous for producing the best green tea in Japan, has many teahouses where you can experience a tea ceremony and witness how everything is done smoothly by a tea master or geisha.

6. Participate in a Festival

Tokushima Awa Odori is the most famous dance festival in Japan. Photo Credit: Rosino at Flickr.

Japanese festivals are an integral part of Japanese culture and most of them are based on the beautiful four season of Japan. Festivals in Japan can give you endless pleasure and everlasting memories.

A lot of summer festivals are held in the summer across the country, such as Gion matsuri, Tokushima Awa Odori, Sendai Tanabata Matsuri, Aomori Nebuta Matsuri, Fukagawa Hachiman Festival, Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival, Hokkaido Shrine Festival, Hokuryu Sunflower Festival, to name a few.

Every year in spring, plum and cherry blossom festivals take place at several spots throughout Japan, making each area as lively as possible with highlighting beautiful blossoms, food stands, and easy walking trails to enjoy the beautiful surroundings.

During a plum blossom festival (baikasai), you can even experience a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.

Fukagawa Hachiman Festival is one of the three major festivals Edo. Photo Credit: Yuki Shimazu at Flickr.

If you happen to travel in Tokyo in summer (July), make sure you experience at least one hanabi (firework festival), especially Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival, one of Japan’s oldest and most famous firework displays.

In Kyoto, locals celebrate the country’s one of the famous summer festivals, Gion matsuri, that dates back to 869, featuring breathtaking procession of floats. This one month event offers visitors to see two grand processions, both taking place on July 17 and July 24 respectively.

Japan is a year-round destination where different types of festivals are celebrated every season. If this is what you want to believe in then you will be more than excited to know that autumn and winter seasons also fascinate you with many breathtaking festivals to explore.

Held in February, Sapporo snow festival in Sapporo city on Hokkaido Island is considered the most popular winter festival in Japan.

7. Bathe in an Onsen

A perfect onsen bath of Shuhokaku Kogetsu, Yamanashi.

My best onsen experience in Japan is hardly to explain as the country has many hot spring spots. I just cannot choose the best one! Some are quite famous; while some are lesser-known but every onsen experience will definitely tell you a different story.

No matter what you are looking for, a bathing experience in an onsen, (especially outdoor hot spring) in Japan is always relaxing and memorable.

Whenever anyone asks my advice on where to go for their onsen trip around Tokyo, I consistently recommend some ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) with amazing views of Mount Fuji.

Shuhokaku Kogetsu is one of best ryokan in Lake Kawaguchi area, featuring outdoor hot spring bath with lake and Mount Fuji views. The property is about a 10-minute drive from Kawaguchiko Train Station.

Noboribetsu, Hokkaido’s famous hot spring town is my favorite onsen destination in Japan, offering eleven different kinds of thermal waters. Be sure to stay overnight at Daiichi Takimotokan and enjoy the onsen that this property owns.

You can learn the onsen manners and etiquette here.

8. Have a Hanami

Ueda Castle is one of the best hanami spots in Nagano, Japan. Photo Credit: Kimon Berlin at Flickr.

Hanami refers flower viewing or cherry blossom viewing, a springtime tradition for Japanese people. This cultural experience can only be witnessed in spring when cherry flowers start to bloom in abundance.

Learn how to hanami in Japan and find out some of the common ways to enjoy the atmosphere to the fullest. When hanami arrives, people plan on picnicking underneath beautiful cherry trees filled with blossom to observe the beauty of sakura. People out there eat food of various types, drink sake, and admire the beauty of cherry blossoms.

You can find many popular hanami spots across the country. Sometimes it’s hard to pick one though you will have to choose one that can make your hanami adventure awfully pleasant. One of my favorite hanami spots in Tokyo is Shinjuku Gyoen, a family-friendly cherry blossom spot in Shinjuku area of Tokyo city.

This park in spring is very popular among tourists and locals alike because it’s considered one of Tokyo’s biggest parks with spacious lawns, walking paths, and the number of sakura varieties it possesses, including early and late blooming cherry trees.

9. Attend Ikebana Classes

Ikebana. Photo Credit: Takashi Tomooka at Flickr.

Ikebana simply means arrangement of flowering plants, leaves, and stems in a vase or container. It’s one of the finest arts of Japan. The most well-known Japanese schools of Ikebana are the Ikenobo, Sogetsu, and Ohara schools.

There are different styles of floral arrangements, and the most common type is called Rikka (standing flowers).

Introduced by a Japanese Buddhist monk, Ikenobo Senkei, in the 15th century, Rikka was developed as a Buddhist expression of the beauty of nature.

To learn the basic techniques of Ikebana, you have to attend a class where you will be guided by a skilled ikebana teacher. This ikebana school in Tokyo might be the one where you want to pay a visit to.

10. Discover Japanese Cuisine

Shojin ryori, a type of Japanese Buddhist cuisine, which is a perfect vegetarian meal in Japan.

There are many ways to experience Japanese cuisine in Japan. You can visit restaurants, izakaya (Japanese style casual bar), convenience stores, food carts (yatai), dessert shops, and morning markets. You can also discover Japan’s best food with a local host through a private food tour. Besides, this can be done by visiting a food festival like this one here.

Food is everywhere in Japan! The country’s diverse cuisines often will make you believe that food can be a great reason to return here over and over again.

Each food trip of yours could be an epic journey. To experience something unique, you can learn to make different kinds of traditional Japanese dishes from a highly-skilled Japanese chef.

Miso ramen, Otaru city, Hokkaido. Ramen is popular in Hokkaido. Photo Credit: bryan at Flickr.

Sushi making classes are very popular among tourists. Some are also interested in making delicious ramen and wagashi (Japanese sweet). Even vegan cooking classes are also available. Many food tours in Tokyo and other major touristic areas in Japan offer visitors a wide range of foods to discover.

Sapporo Autumn Fest is considered Japan’s best and biggest food festival. It is held in early September to late September in Odori Park, Sapporo city, Hokkaido.

If you are a lover of wine or beer, this food festival is a must-see spot for you. Sapporo Autumn Fest has something for all tastes. You can drink and eat the best regional foods of the Hokkaido region.

Of course, no culinary experience in Japan would be complete without indulging in some Sake/Amazake (non-alcoholic sake)! Don’t forget to try it.

In conclusion, Japan is always awesome! Are you missing something from the list above? Maybe you are.

I want to share some other popular Japanese cultural experiences with you, they are: watching a kabuki performance, hands on origami classes, Calligraphy lessons, Kendo experience, and sleeping in a capsule hotel. Try all these if you do have some extra time. Good luck!