Japan is a seriously incredible country that ticks all the boxes when visiting – historic sites? Tick. Delicious food? Tick. Efficient public transport? Tick. Quirky activities? Tick. All this and more are woven together to form a culture that is guaranteed to make anyone fall in love with Japan; leading to travellers yearning for a return trip as soon as they’ve left. We’ve compiled a list of 15 cultural things to do in Japan, which only covers a very small portion! Get stuck in – konnichiwa!
1. Zip around the country on a Shinkansen.
Technology is one of Japan’s biggest and most successful achievements, including the mind-blowingly fast Shinkansen (or bullet train). For well over 50 years, the Shinkansen rail network has carried over 10 billion passengers with a zero-track record of any passenger fatality or injury with the fastest Shinkansen reaching 300 kilometres per hour! If you’re travelling between Tokyo – Yokohama, Osaka – Kyoto, and Nagoya, we would highly recommend investing in a ticket. Don’t forget to pick up a bento box at the station before you embark – a classic purchase filled with a delicious meal to enjoy as you watch the country whiz by.
2. Relive your childhood with a go-kart tour.
Another means of transportation, albeit very different to the Shinkansen, are the famous Street Go-Karts! Don your favourite superhero onesie and hop in for a unique transport option to explore Tokyo. Drive past the hustle and bustle of the Shibuya Crossing, through the quirky suburb of Harajuku, and down the tree-lined Omotesando Avenue. Don’t forget that you will need an international drivers’ license to get behind the wheel!
3. Visit a traditional rural village.
Buried deep in the countryside between Takayama and Kanazawa is the small village of Shirakawago. Shirakawago is home to traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses which translates to ‘constructed like hands in prayer’, giving way to their steep thatched roofs that resemble the hands of Buddhist monks pressed together in prayer. Having been developed over time, these roofs are built to withstand the heaviest of snowfalls in winter. Whatever time of year you visit, make sure to walk up the hill for a panoramic view across the charming houses and its surrounds.
4. Grab a snack from a konbini.
Japan does on-the-go food and drink extremely well. With over 50,000 convenience stores (or konbini), there’s never one far away from you! The main brands are Seven Eleven, Family Mart and Lawson however all of them sell an astonishing range of food and drink. Our favourites are the perfect snack-size onigiri (triangles of rice), or if you need something more substantial, a tasty hot meal is available in minutes with microwaves onsite. Konbini also sell coffee, soft drinks and beer to quench your thirst.
5. Book yourself in for a night in a ryokan.
What better way to immerse yourself in the culture than with a night at a ryokan? The Japanese-style inn in its entirety is the experience, not just your room. Most ryokan have their own onsen (hot spring baths) to soak away the day, followed by a traditional dinner which will ultimately be the highlight of your stay. Put on your yukata (a light Japanese robe) then sit down to enjoy kaiseki ryori, a multi-course meal that is a feast for both your eyes and stomach with seasonal and local specialties artfully prepared. Finally, snuggle up for the night in a futon, a traditional style of bed placed on the tatami mat flooring of your room.
6. Get snap-happy in sakura season.
Cherry blossom (sakura) season is so popular that it even has its own name – hanami, or flower viewing. While sakura season is ultimately in Mother Nature’s hands, the pink blossoms generally begin to delight locals and tourists alike from the end of March for around 4 – 6 weeks depending on where in Japan you are. Once the cherry blossoms start to peek, the Japanese will often go to a nearby park to celebrate hanami with friends and family, a truly wonderful time of year.
7. These boots are made for walking.
If getting outdoors is your thing, get your walking shoes on and explore the beautiful landscapes of the Kumano Kodo. Similar to the Camino de Santiago in Spain, the Kumano Kodo is an ancient pilgrimage route in the Wakayama mountains, just south of Kyoto. The end goal is the Kumano Hongu Taishi shrine, the most important shrine found in the mountain ranges. While on this 4-day trek, you can stay in Japanese guest houses which makes the cultural experience all the more special.
8. Soak away the day in an onsen.
Thanks to its ongoing volcanic activity, Japan has well and truly incorporated onsen into everyday life. As the water is geothermally heated before rising to ground-level, it is believed to have healing properties that work wonders for your skin, circulation and overall health. While the initial guidelines may seem daunting at first (for example, birthday suits are compulsory!), it’s the perfect treat after a long day of exploring.
9. Immerse yourself in the world of Studio Ghibli.
Founded in 1985 by Hayao Miyazaki, the animation film studio has produced critically acclaimed movies such as ‘Spirited Away’, ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ and ‘My Neighbour Totoro’. Enter a magical world full of Ghibli animation, quirky characters, and an epic gift shop to boot at Tokyo’s Ghibli Museum.
10. Fall for some doe-eyed beauties.
Nara is well worth the one-hour trip out of Osaka. Nara Park is famous for its free-roaming deer, believed to be the messengers of the gods. Deer crackers are available to purchase so you have the chance to feed these cute animals; some of which have learnt to bow to visitors to ask to be fed! The park grounds are also home to historic temples, perfectly curated gardens, and the Nara National Museum with its 15-metre-tall Buddha statue.
11. Tempt your taste buds in okonomiyaki heaven.
While you can find this delicious savoury pancake throughout Japan, Hiroshima has a real flair for okonomiyaki…so much so that Okonomimura has been built, an entire building dedicated to multiple levels of small stalls. Historically starting out as just a snack, the moreish pancake has been developed to a full meal combining noodles, cabbage, eggs and various proteins. Take your pick of stalls and dine in with a guaranteed seat at the kitchen which is so much fun to watch. Ittadakimasu!
12. Do as the royals did.
While not quite royals, the powerful Maeda Clan called Kanazawa Castle their home in years gone by. Found in the heart of Kenrokuen Park (one of Japan’s most immaculate gardens), the park grounds used to be the gardens for the castle. With several fires over its history, parts of Kanazawa Castle have been rebuilt to its former glory and it’s fascinating to go back in time whilst exploring the castle and all its history. Don’t miss the Ishikawa-mon Gate which is still in its original form, dating back to 1788!
13. Get your slurp on.
Noodles are an absolute staple food in Japan, and their long-standing history and development means that there are many variations and ways to eat them now. There are 8 delicious types of Japanese noodles for you to wrap your chopsticks around. From curly ramen, bathed in a delicious good-for-the-soul soup; to thick and bouncy udon, enjoyed in hot soup or on its own with a dipping sauce and tempura; to shirataki, also known as konjac and incorporated into stewed dishes; we would recommend trying them all for a complete noodle education!
14. Attend a sumo tournament.
Tokyo’s Ryogoku district has been the centre of all things sumo for approximately two centuries. Not only is there the Kokugikan sumo stadium and several sumo stables, but you’ll also find a Sumo Museum and Chanko Nabe restaurants (a staple food for sumo wrestlers). Japan’s national sport is only held in key times throughout the year, so make sure your visit times in with one of the six tournaments held annually. If you miss out on a highly anticipated ticket, there’s always the option to take a guided tour through a sumo stable to see what life is like outside of the ring for the mighty wrestlers.
15. Nail a picture of Mount Fuji.
Now this cultural activity may be harder than you think – the weather is ever-changing around Japan’s national mountain which means it can be difficult to clearly see Mount Fuji on a bluebird day. The best time of year is generally around December, while the spring and summer months carry more risk. Apart from visiting the beloved mountain, summiting Fuji-san is also very popular with over 200,000 people making the climb to the top each year! Small huts can be found on the alpine route, providing refreshments, medical supplies and a place to rest for climbers. Sunrise from the summit even has its own name – goraiko – so you’ll find that many people choose to start their ascent at night.