From the bizarre and peculiar, to the intriguing, beautiful and mind-blowing, there are many words to describe Japan but boring is definitely not one of them.
No matter if it’s your first time to Japan or you have visited several times before, there’s always a new layer to uncover. From diving into the country’s rich heritage and expanding your wardrobe on a shopping spree, to eating your heart out on Japanese food or getting a glimpse of its weird and quirky side, the East Asian country offers a diversity that will make travellers vow to return. In addition to being an outdoor lover’s paradise, Japan is also incredibly easy to get around, thanks to its efficient public transport system (hello Shinkansen bullet train!) and expansive infrastructure. To celebrate the country’s uniqueness, we’ve rounded up eight special Japan activities to inspire a trip to this extraordinary destination.
Dive into the Food Scene
One cannot talk about Japan without mentioning the nation’s world-famous food. From sushi and sashimi to ramen and soba noodles, Japanese cuisine is one of the most loved around the world. Underlying its culinary tradition is the ancient concept of the “rule of five”. According to this set of rules, a meal should please the five senses, represent five colours, offer all five tastes, include five preparation techniques, and have diners reflect on five attitudes. The result is not only a varied and balanced meal, but also a mindful dining experience – potentially one of the reasons that the Japanese diet is often listed among the secrets to the population’s high life expectancy rate (over two million of Japan’s people are over the age of 90.)
To explore the local food scene, it’s best to just dive right in – pick up some yaki-soba (stir-fried noodles) at a market, pair your sake with a variety of small dishes at an izakaya (Japanese pub) or experiment with some of the ubiquitous vending machines. However, if you want to take it a step further and learn about the background and preparation of individual dishes whilst devouring a range of delicious samples, a food tour might be the perfect match for your taste buds. From Kyoto, travel to a local farm in the countryside and take part in a Mochi rice cake making workshop or widen your Japanese culinary knowledge by adding a Bento cooking class to your Japan activities. For something a bit stronger, explore Takayama’s famous sake scene and learn the traditional brewing techniques of the country’s beloved alcoholic rice drink by visiting different breweries.
Explore Japan’s Great Outdoors
With 70 percent of the country’s land being covered by mountains, Japan offers active travellers a wide array of trekking opportunities. Whether you want to climb mystical Mount Fuji, Japan’s highest summit, explore the Hida mountain range of the Japanese Alps and its well-preserved villages or hike along the serene Azusa River through the spectacular Kamikochi countryside, the options are vast and varied, and cater to hikers of all levels. Whilst the warmer months are ideal for trekking adventures, the abundant winter snow turns the mountainous scenery into a skiing paradise.
Travellers looking for an adrenaline rush should include white water rafting on the Yoshino River in their Japan activities; cutting through the stunning Koboke Gorge, it’s a thrilling adventure in one of the country’s greatest outdoor destinations. An equally scenic experience, although less extreme, is kayaking around Itsukushima’s sacred waters. Consisting of several islands, the Japanese archipelago is also home to some amazing dive spot too; topping the list are the breathtaking Kerama Islands, boasting colourful underwater life and crystal clear waters.
Regardless of your musical ability, taking a Taiko drumming lesson is a fun and unique experience to add to your list of activities in Japan. Originally used in warfare and at religious ceremonies, the traditional Japanese drums have beaten their way into the arts and are nowadays considered a musical art form. Most characteristically is the dynamic playing style, which includes energetic movements and engages the entire body; professional performers undergo intense physical exercise regimes in addition to music and dance training. Feel the rhythm and try your hand at playing this unique instrument on your next trip to Japan.
Soak in a Traditional Onsen
Taking a bath in one of the numerous natural hot springs, scattered across the country, is a favourite Japan activity for international and local tourists alike. The ancient tradition of soaking in the hot, mineral-rich waters is not only relaxing but believed to have many therapeutic effects, ranging from stress relief to soothing aches and pains. Whilst there are different ways to experience Onsens – be sure to familiarise yourself with the etiquette before your trip – many are found as part of a Ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. Typically featuring tatami floors, futon beds and beautiful yukata robes, staying at a Ryokan is a fantastic way to experience the traditional Japanese lifestyle.
Adhere to the Local Dress Code
When in Japan, it’s your chance to try on a real kimono! Ranging in styles, the traditional full-length robes are worn by both men and women alike and the go-to outfit for special occasions. Whilst the price for a full set can reach up to several thousand dollars, there’re plenty of rental shops offering the opportunity of a kimono-wearing experience. Browse through a wide array of exquisitely crafted robes and let the experts help you get dressed and styled; the art of putting on one of the intricate pieces of clothing is complicated and sometimes even requires several helping hands.
Experience Tokyo’s Subcultures
If you want to step up the costume game, get inspired by the spectacular outfits of Tokyo’s unique pop cultures on a walk through the city’s buzzing Harajuku district. Lined with vintage stores, quirky shops and fancy boutiques, the fashion mecca is known for attracting myriads of people, clad in extravagant and eccentric clothing. From rockabilly and cosplay to gothic lolitas, you’ll encounter plenty of interesting people, particularly on a Sunday afternoon. Manga fans should also head to Akihabara district. Known as “Electric Town”, it’s famous for its neon-lit streets, anime and comic shops as well as the bizarre maid cafes.
Find Your Zen
There’s many ways to practice mindfulness in Japan and one of the most effective activities to quiet the mind and channel your inner Zen is to take part in a zazen mediation session led by a monk. Originally from China, the essence of Zen Buddhism is to find one’s true nature without intervention of the intellect. At its heart lies the practice of zazen – seated meditation – which aims to clear the mind and train awareness.
Alternatively, find some peace and tranquility in the country’s numerous Zen gardens. Usually found at temples, common features of these “Japanese rock gardens” are raked sand, carefully placed rocks, and a minimal amount of plants. This design is meant to have a relaxing effect on the mind and create an ideal environment for mediation. Let your mind wander as you stroll through the gardens, soaking up the serene atmosphere and being mindful of the intricate details.
Follow the Way of Tea
Offered at many hotels, ryokans or tea houses, a truly special activity in Japan is to experience a traditional tea ceremony. Known as 'chanoyu', the ancient cultural ritual of preparing and serving matcha is influenced by the Zen philosophy. Nowadays a popular hobby, with people taking classes or joining clubs at schools, it takes years to perfect the art of serving tea. The process requires putting one’s full attention at the present moment; all movements and gestures are choreographed following specific aesthetics. One of the key principles of a tea ceremony is the concept of 'wabi-sabi': the beauty of the imperfect and temporary.
We hope these eight unique activities in Japan have sparked your desire to visit this extraordinary country. Whether you’re looking for an active adventure, cultural journey or discovery of the weird and wonderful, reach out to Buffalo Tours to help you plan your tailor-made Japan trip.