Few performing arts traditions can compare to the uniquely beautiful spectacle that is Kabuki. Actors slowly move in stylized poses, linger over every word of their lines, and suddenly burst into flamboyant choreography. Costume and makeup changes happen right before your eyes, while hidden singers and musicians lull you into a fantastical world. You can watch Kabuki performances in theaters like Kabuki-za in Tokyo or Minami-za in Kyoto. Both theaters provide translators for non-Japanese speakers and offer single-act tickets for guests who can’t watch the entire 3 to 4-hour performance.
You can’t leave Japan without trying on a kimono! Choose between getting dolled up like a Geisha in an expensive kimono, or trying a simple rental that you can wear all day. Plenty of rental shops also offer everything from undergarments to accessories, and the staff can even style your hair. Best of all, the shops will safeguard your street clothes while you strut around town in your stunning kimono!
The mysterious ninja mercenaries of Japan’s history have fascinated people for centuries. Today, you can still experience the life of a ninja at places like the Kid’s Ninja Village in Nagano City, where entire families can maneuver through obstacle courses designed to teach you Ninjitsu. Or, explore the Koka Ninja Mansion in Kansai. 300 years ago, this fascinating house was designed with scores of traps and secret passages. If you want a fully immersive experience, check out the Nikko Edomura theme park to dress in Edo-period clothes and walk among actors who reenact scenes of everyday 18th century life.
The present form of this traditional sport developed during the Edo period as a means to please Shinto deities. Large men in loincloths do their best to knock down or push their opponent out of bounds. Matches are over in a matter of seconds, and the 15-day sumo tournaments only happen six times a year: January, May, and September in Tokyo, March in Osaka, July in Nagoya, and November in Fukuoka.
The samurai of ancient times no longer exist, but the teachings of the samurai remain in Japanese culture today. At Osaka Castle, you can browse authentic samurai armor, try on a replica helmet, and even have your picture taken. At Shinjuku’s Samurai Museum, you can learn all about the Bushido code, take a sword fighting class, or watch experts give a choreographed demonstration of a swordfight. Samurai were and still are highly regarded in Japanese culture. In fact, many samurai districts (like Kitsuki Samurai District), have been preserved so you can still walk the old streets and see the world of the samurai for yourself.
Typically, you can only schedule a meeting with a Geisha through third parties—like our well-connected staff at All Japan Tours. Geisha are trained experts in traditional Japanese arts, conversation, and entertainment. The Geisha will converse with you over a meal, teach traditional Japanese games, or give a dance or music performance. Throughout the entire meeting, she will create an atmosphere that makes each guest feel welcomed and special.
Maiko are Geisha-in-training who must take classes and work part-time jobs. Typically, many Maiko perform tea ceremonies. In a Japanese tea ceremony, the Maiko makes green tea from matcha powder using techniques developed by ancient Buddhist monks. The ceremony itself is almost as beautiful as your Maiko teacher!
In a meditation class, you’ll learn to breathe into a relaxed state—a much-welcomed experience if you have a hectic itinerary. One of the best places to experience a Zen Meditation class is at Mt. Koya, one of Japan’s most important religious sites for pilgrims. In such a class, a priest will guide you on your journey to mindfulness and relaxation.
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn, and you can find them scattered all over the country. A night in a ryokan often involves wearing pajama-like kimono, eating a meal in your room, and sleeping on soft futons placed on tatami (woven bamboo mat) floors—but don’t wear your shoes or slippers on the tatami! After your meal, take a bath in the hot spring Onsen!
Bathing in a natural hot spring isn’t just a typical Japanese experience; it’s the best way to relax after a long day on a tour! Many people might feel hesitant to try this since you must enter a public bath in the nude, but please don’t let this hold you back! Baths are usually separated by gender, and you can use a small towel to strategically cover yourself. These hot, natural spring waters offer so many benefits. They fill your pores with minerals that can reduce inflammation, and best of all, their warmth helps revive your weary soul.
At a Ryokan, you can often enjoy a Kaiseki (Japanese multi-course meal), but you don’t have to stay in an inn to eat one. Kaiseki includes an appetizer, sashimi (raw fish), a simmered dish, a grilled dish, a steamed course, and additional foods at the chef’s discretion. Individual plates are small and carefully balanced for nutrition, color, and taste. Don’t refuse a dish when the servers bring it to you! Sending a dish back without trying at least one small bite is considered rude and embarrassing for the chef, no matter how full you are.
Ramen is originally a Chinese dish, but the Japanese have developed a distinct style over the centuries. Certain regions of Japan have especially delicious varieties, like miso ramen in Hokkaido and salt ramen in Kyushu. If slurping food is rude in your culture, try not to be disturbed in a ramen shop. In Japan, slurping the noodles helps you fully taste the dish’s umami flavor.
We can’t get through this list without discussing Japan’s most famous dish: sushi. You can find sushi shops anywhere in Japan, but Japanese people particularly love sushi made from fish caught in cold climates like the waters near Hokkaido and Aomori. Don’t dip your sushi rice-first into the soy sauce! Chefs take great care to season the rice with vinegar. Instead, dip your sushi fish-first to avoid insulting the chef.
When you eat authentic Japanese sushi, you might become inspired to learn how to make sushi yourself! In a sushi-making class, your teacher is a trained sushi chef who will show you how get the best cuts and how to press your nigiri sushi into perfect, bite-size pieces. Best of all, you’ll have a full meal to enjoy after class!
Note: In Japan it’s more common to eat nigiri-style sushi rather than sushi rolls.
In Japanese culture, going out for drinks means having a meal, too. At an Izakaya (Japanese pub) you pay a flat fee to drink as many alcoholic or soft drinks as you like per hour. Most Izakaya sell food by individual plates, but some offer all-you-can-eat deals as well. The food at an Izakaya is usually bite-sized, and dishes are designed for sharing. However, you can choose from a wide variety of vegetables, meat, rice, and desserts to make a full meal. If you have small children or minors in your group, you can still bring them along—Izakaya are for everyone to have fun!
Note: Some Izakaya have private rooms where you must take off your shoes before entering. Be careful to look out for this!
Wagyu is the word for top-grade Japanese beef. The most famous wagyu variety is Kobe Beef. Wagyu cattle farmers give their cows the highest quality of care in stress-free environments. There are several ways to prepare wagyu, like grilling, boiling, or serving it raw. The meat is so soft that it seems to melt in your mouth—even before you bite into it!
Note: Imported wagyu, like American wagyu, doesn’t follow the same strict grading system as in Japan! Even if you’ve had wagyu in your home country, you’ll find the taste and texture of authentic, Japanese wagyu very different!
After a few days in Japan, you’ll start to notice just how much Japanese people love department stores. They’re usually built into train stations in big cities, and everywhere you look on the street, you’ll see someone carrying a name-brand shopping bag. Even if you’re not a fashionista (or you just don’t care to shop for the same brands as the ones in your home country), don’t skip the department stores—especially the basements. Department store basements almost always have deli-style shops called depachika. You can get lunch, souvenir snacks, or just try free samples as you walk by each counter. Eating at a depachika is a great way to get to know your Japanese food preferences!
Shochu is Japanese potato wine, and its popularity among foreign tourists has risen in recent years. Shochu is much stronger than sake and contains 25%-60% alcohol. You can drink shochu on the rocks, in a cocktail like oolonghai (oolong tea and shochu), or buy a shochu cooler (chuhai) that’s mixed with soda or juice from a convenience store.
What is known in the West as “sake” is actually called Nihonshu in Japanese. “Sake” is just the general word for alcohol. Sake is rice wine that contains about 15% alcohol and is served warm or chilled. You can sip sake at any Izakaya or bar. Or, go to a distillery to see how sake is made and try tasting it after your tour. One of the most popular places to see a sake distillery is the Fushimi Sake District in Kyoto. Nearly 40 distilleries have been built around this area’s clean, flowing water.
If you’re coming to Japan in February, you have to see the Sapporo Snow Festival. This is a one-of-a-kind experience where artists carve ice sculptures and build massive statues out of snow. Odori Park is home to the snow festival’s main attraction, but it’s worthwhile to see the smaller Susukino site too. In Odori Park, building-sized statues and ice sculptures that double as entertainment stages run almost 10 blocks from the Sapporo TV Tower to the court house. Festival events include ski jump competitions, traditional dance performances, and Japanese Idol concerts.
Summer is the season for most festivals in Japan, but the northeastern Tohoku region is known for having the “3 Great Summer Festivals”—so called due to their large scale and popularity. Locals celebrate the Akita Kanto Festival (August 3rd-August 6th) with a display of bamboo poles that reach 12 meters (40 feet) and hold up to 46 glowing, paper lanterns. The Aomori Nebuta Festival (August 2nd-7th) attracts millions of spectators every year and features a parade of colorful, gigantic lantern floats. During the Sendai Tanabata Festival (August 6th-8th), paper streamers and decorations shaped like everything from colorful characters to trash cans sprawl out over the area.
There are two famous festivals in Takayama—the Takayama Sanno Spring Festival in April, and the Takayama Hachiman Autumn Festival in October. During both festivals, 1,000 participants take part in a parade straight out of the 15th century. The start of the parade features dancers and musicians who perform the shishimai (lion dance). At the end of the parade, over 10 yatai (giant floats) are pulled through the streets. Most interestingly, the yatai are decorated with giant wind-up marionettes that move with unbelievable dexterity.
In Kyoto, the Gion Summer Festival (Gion Matsuri) lasts for the entire month of July. The main event (Yamaboko Junko) happens on July 17th when a grand procession of floats rumbles through the streets. The floats can reach 25 meters (82 feet) high and weigh up to 12 tons! The Gion Summer Festival originated in the 9th century, so don’t miss out on celebrating this grand and storied tradition!
The Aoi Festival (Aoi Matsuri) is one of the most famous festivals of Kyoto. It’s celebrated every year on May 15th, and it recreates a classic, Shinto-style procession. 500 people dressed in Heian-era clothing walk or ride on horseback from the Kyoto Imperial Palace to the two Kamo Shrines (Kamigamo and Shimogamo Shrine). The participants carry offerings like flowers, scrolls, and hollyhock leaves. The most important person of the parade—the High Priestess—rides in a palanquin in the back of the procession. The parade is a solemn event, but the celebrations outside of Kamigamo Shrine include dance and musical performances, as well as horseback archery.
The Awa Odori Dance Festival is the largest of its kind in Japan. It originated in Tokushima and has slowly spread to other parts of the country. Still, the best place to see the festivities is in Tokushima from August 12th to the 15th. This dance festival has been celebrated for the past 400 years, and people of all ages are invited to join in the fun. The streets are filled with live music, taiko drums, and dancers wearing traditional clothing and hats.
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