Top 10 Best Things to Do in Japan: Must-Do Cultural Experiences for Visitors

Ryokan

 

モテナス代表
モテナス代表

Experience Japan’s culture with our top 10 must-do activities. From tea ceremonies and flower arrangements to hot spring baths and vibrant festivals, discover the best things to do in Japan. Dive into sushi making, sake tasting, and other experiences to embrace the essence of Japanese culture.

Discovering the Charm of Japanese Culture

Cherry blossom in Japan

Japan is a country where ancient traditions blend seamlessly with modern innovation. For foreign visitors, exploring Japan’s cultural experiences offers an enriching journey into the heart of its heritage. Have you ever thought, “I want to know more about Japanese culture, but where should I start?” This article highlights the top 10 cultural experiences to deepen your understanding of Japan’s unique traditions and practices.

Traditional Japanese Arts and Crafts

Tea Ceremony (茶道, Sado)

Sado

The Japanese tea ceremony, sado, is a ritualistic practice deeply rooted in Zen Buddhism. It involves the preparation and consumption of matcha, a powdered green tea. The ceremony emphasizes mindfulness, aesthetics, and the appreciation of the present moment. Traditional tea houses in Kyoto offer the chance to learn the intricate steps of tea preparation and the cultural significance behind each gesture.

For a unique experience, you can visit:
Tea Ceremony Ju-An at Jotokuji Temple
Camellia Tea Ceremony near Kiyomizudera Temple

The tea ceremony is more than just drinking tea; it is a spiritual and philosophical experience. It embodies the principles of harmony (wa), respect (kei), purity (sei), and tranquility (jaku). Each step of the ceremony, from the preparation of the tea to the cleaning of the utensils, is performed with precise movements and a meditative calm. The setting, often a simple and serene tea room, enhances the feeling of peace and introspection. Participants are encouraged to appreciate the beauty of imperfection and the transient nature of life.

Ikebana (生け花, Japanese Flower Arrangement)

Ikebana

Ikebana, the art of Japanese flower arrangement, extends beyond just a decorative practice; it is a disciplined art form where nature and humanity come together. Unlike Western floral arrangements that emphasize multicolored blooms, ikebana highlights the linear aspects of plant material, creating harmony and balance. Workshops and classes throughout Japan offer visitors the chance to create their own arrangements and understand the philosophy behind this elegant art.

You can join classes at:
Ohara School of Ikebana
Sogetsu Kaikan

Ikebana is firmly established in the philosophy of simplicity and minimalism. It focuses on the delicate balance of elements and the natural beauty of each flower and branch. Practitioners of ikebana often find a sense of peace and fulfillment in the act of arranging flowers, as it allows them to express their creativity while observing and appreciating the natural world. Each arrangement is a reflection of the artist’s inner state and the harmony they find within themselves.

Calligraphy (書道, Shodo)

Japanese calligraphy, shodo, is the artistic practice of writing characters with a brush and ink. It is a form of expression that requires concentration, discipline, and a deep connection with the written word. Taking up the calligraphy brush and dedicating yourself to each stroke creates a quiet moment for self-reflection. Workshops in cities like Tokyo and Kyoto offer instruction from skilled calligraphers on writing your favorite kanji characters.

You can try classes at:
Shodo Japan
Kyoto Calligraphy Experience

Shodo encompasses more than just writing; it is a way of capturing the spirit of the characters on paper. Each stroke is deliberate and full of meaning. The brushwork requires not only skill but also a deep understanding of the form and flow of each character. Practicing calligraphy can be a meditative process, helping to calm the mind and focus the thoughts. It is a discipline that teaches patience, precision, and a respect for tradition.

Unique Cultural Traditions

Onsen (温泉, Hot Springs) Experience

Onsen

Japan’s hot springs, known as onsen, offer a rejuvenating cultural experience. These natural geothermal baths are found throughout the country, often in picturesque settings. Bathing in an onsen is not only relaxing but also a cultural practice that emphasizes purification and relaxation. As you soak in the warm waters, your tired body and mind unwind, almost as if you are reborn. Popular onsen destinations include Hakone, Beppu, and the hot spring towns of Hokkaido.

For a luxurious experience, visit:
Hoshinoya Tokyo
Hakone Kowakien Ten-Yu

Onsen culture is deeply embedded in Japanese life, offering a unique way to connect with nature and oneself. The minerals in the water are believed to have healing properties, helping to relieve stress, muscle pain, and skin conditions. Many onsen resorts are located in scenic areas, providing stunning views that enhance the overall experience. The tradition of onsen bathing also includes specific etiquettes, such as washing thoroughly before entering the baths and maintaining a quiet atmosphere to ensure a peaceful environment for all guests. Whether soaking in an outdoor bath surrounded by snow-capped mountains or relaxing in a private indoor bath, the onsen experience is a perfect way to unwind and rejuvenate.

Staying in a Ryokan (旅館, Traditional Japanese Inn)

Ryokan

A stay in a ryokan provides a quintessential Japanese experience. These traditional inns feature tatami (traditional Japanese floor mats made of woven straw) -matted rooms, futon bedding, and communal baths. Guests are treated to kaiseki, a multi-course dinner that highlights seasonal ingredients and meticulous preparation. The hospitality in a ryokan warmly embraces you, offering a heartfelt welcome that feels almost like returning home.. Wrapped in a futon, you might think, “I haven’t had such comfortable sleep in ages…” Ryokans in areas such as Kyoto, Kanazawa, and the Japanese Alps offer an authentic glimpse into Japanese hospitality and culture.

Recommended ryokans for foreigners include:

Kiyomizu-koji Saka-hotel Kyoto

Ryokan Asunaro

Staying in a ryokan is a unique cultural experience that allows you to live like the Japanese did centuries ago. The traditional architecture, sliding shoji doors (traditional Japanese sliding doors with wooden frames and translucent paper), and minimalist design create a serene environment that promotes relaxation and contemplation. The kaiseki meal is an art form in itself, with each dish carefully prepared and presented to reflect the season and local ingredients. The communal baths, often sourced from natural hot springs, provide a place for socializing and unwinding. The ryokan staff, trained in the art of omotenashi (Japanese hospitality), ensure that every guest feels special and well-cared for.

Participating in a Matsuri (祭り, Festival)

Matsuri

Japanese festivals, or matsuri, are vibrant celebrations that often include processions, traditional music, dance, and food stalls. Each region has its own unique festivals, such as the Gion Matsuri in Kyoto, the Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori, and the Tenjin Matsuri in Osaka. Participating in a matsuri allows visitors to witness the communal spirit and cultural heritage of Japan firsthand. In the midst of the festivities, dancing and laughing with locals, visitors create unforgettable memories.

To make the most of these experiences, check out:
– Japanese Festivals (Matsuri) – Japan Guide

Matsuri are more than just events; they are a time for communities to come together and celebrate their shared traditions and beliefs. Each festival has its own unique customs and rituals, often rooted in Shinto or Buddhist practices. The atmosphere is electric, with colorful floats, energetic performances, and lively crowds. Traditional foods, such as yakitori, takoyaki, and kakigori, are available at food stalls, adding to the festive ambiance. Participating in a matsuri provides a deep sense of connection to the local culture and community.

Culinary Adventures

Sushi Making Class

Sushi

Sushi is one of Japan’s most famous culinary exports. Taking a sushi-making class offers visitors a hands-on experience in crafting this iconic dish. Under the guidance of experienced chefs, participants learn to prepare and roll sushi, selecting the freshest ingredients and mastering techniques such as nigiri and maki. When you taste the sushi you’ve made yourself, you’ll not only experience an amazing flavor but also a special sense of accomplishment. You’ll be pleasantly surprised and delighted by how delicious it is. These classes are widely available in cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto.

Consider classes at:
Tokyo Sushi Academy

Learning to make sushi is not just about mastering techniques; it is also about understanding the importance of ingredients and the balance of flavors. Sushi chefs spend years perfecting their craft, from selecting the best fish at the market to preparing the perfect rice. During a sushi-making class, participants gain insights into these meticulous processes and the cultural significance of sushi in Japanese cuisine.

Exploring Japanese Street Food

Takoyaki

Japanese street food is an essential part of the culinary landscape, offering a variety of flavors and textures. Popular street foods include takoyaki (ball-shaped octopus snacks), okonomiyaki (savory pancakes), and taiyaki (fish-shaped pastries filled with sweet red bean paste). Night markets and food streets in places like Osaka’s Dotonbori and Tokyo’s Tsukiji Outer Market provide a lively and delicious exploration of local cuisine. Takoyaki is known for its crispy exterior, gooey interior, and tender octopus, often surprising and delighting first-time visitors.

To explore these foods with local guides, try tours from:
Arigato Japan Food Tours

Exploring street food is a delightful adventure that introduces you to the vibrant and diverse culinary traditions of Japan. Each region has its own specialties, reflecting local ingredients and culinary practices. Street food vendors often have years of experience, perfecting their recipes and techniques. Sampling these dishes offers a taste of Japan’s rich food culture and the opportunity to experience the bustling atmosphere of local markets and festivals.

Tasting Sake (日本酒, Japanese Rice Wine)

Japanese sake

Sake, a traditional Japanese rice wine, is an integral part of Japanese culture and cuisine. Sake-tasting experiences allow visitors to sample a variety of sake types, from dry to sweet, and learn about the brewing process. Sake breweries and tasting tours are available in regions such as Niigata, known for its high-quality rice, and Kyoto, with its rich sake-making history. As you savor the rich flavors and aromas of sake, you’ll sense the natural elements and exquisite craftsmanship. You’ll be mesmerized by the richness of the aroma of sake.

Recommended experiences include:
Kyoto Insider Sake Experience
Sake Tasting Tokyo

Sake brewing is a complex and meticulous process that involves selecting the right rice, polishing it to remove the outer layers, fermenting it with koji mold, and carefully controlling the temperature and fermentation time. Each step requires precision and expertise, resulting in a beverage that reflects the dedication and skill of the brewers.

Kaiseki Dining Experience

Kaiseki

Kaiseki is a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner that emphasizes seasonality, freshness, and presentation. Each course is meticulously prepared and artistically presented, reflecting the chef’s skills and the natural beauty of the ingredients. Dining at a kaiseki restaurant provides a deep appreciation of Japanese culinary artistry and the cultural importance of food. Touching upon the care and beauty in each dish, you experience the joy and wonder of eating. Renowned kaiseki restaurants can be found in Kyoto, Tokyo, and Kanazawa.

Consider dining at:
Kikunoi
Narisawa

Embracing the Essence of Japan

Japanese garden

Exploring Japan’s cultural experiences offers an unparalleled journey into the heart of its traditions and practices. From participating in a serene tea ceremony to feeling the vibrant energy of a matsuri, each experience provides a unique insight into the Japanese way of life. These top 10 cultural experiences are not just activities but gateways to understanding the depth and richness of Japan’s heritage. For foreign visitors, engaging in these cultural practices will leave lasting memories and a profound appreciation for the beauty and complexity of Japanese culture.

By immersing yourself in these traditions, you can transcend the role of a tourist and become a participant in the living tapestry of Japanese culture. The quiet meditation in a calligraphy class or the communal joy of a festival offers meaningful and enriching perspectives on Japan. You’ll feel deeply touched by the experiences as you realize how moving it is to touch the heart of Japanese culture.