15 Cultural Experiences You must have on Your Solo Trip to Japan
Japan is a paradise where the traditional and modern come together to create an incomparable experience. Japan has the honour of flaunting a character and essence that is distinct only to Japan.
Steeped in history and tradition, Japan has many customs that give you an insight into the beautiful country. If you plan a trip to this beautiful country, be sure to celebrate Japan’s rich culture and past. These experiences are unlike anything you have ever experienced before. So, let me give you a list of the top 15 cultural experiences you must have when in Japan:
1. Pretend to be a Geisha
Most of us are familiar with Japanese cultures through their films. At least that was the case for me. And the ‘Memoirs of a geisha’ acquired a special place in my heart. Since then, I have always yearned for Japan and seeing real geishas up close. But when I visited Japan, I realised I could do one better.
Kyoto is a slice of old Japan filled with ancient temples, imperial palaces, and castles. This city is also the best place in Japan for the geisha experience. Though Japan and geisha are synonymous, today, only a handful remain. And so, spotting a geisha makes it all the more exciting. There are two ways you can spot geishas in Kyoto. You either pay for performance. This way is expensive, but it is bound to blow your mind. Or you can walk along the Pontocho Alley or Gion at around dusk on a weekend or a holiday, and you may be lucky to see women robed in their silk kimonos.
But if you ask me, your geisha experience in Kyoto is incomplete without dressing up one to get the feel. If you are up for it, do visit MAICA, where you can not only dress up in silky kimonos and paint your face but also go around famous spots in the city dressed as a geisha. They give you two options. You can either dress up like a geiko (a full-fledged geisha) or a maiko (an apprentice). Opt for the ‘Gion evening walk’ package, and be sure to take back lots of geisha memories along with plenty of photos. To know more, read my blog on 13 things to do alone in Japan.
2. Stay at a traditional ryokan
From futuristic-looking capsule hotels to themed hotels, Japan has come up with many creative places to sleep. But if you are looking for an authentic experience, spend a night at a ryokan.
Earlier ryokans were constructed along the highways as a place to rest for local travellers. But now, there are plenty of ryokans that are found all over the country. Staying at a ryokan is one of the best ways to experience traditional Japanese hospitality, complete with traditional delicious cuisine and a hot bath.
When you enter a ryokan, you will feel like you are leaving behind reality. You have to open your shoes before you enter the main building and you are then also asked to don traditional clothes for that authentic experience.
3. Experience sumo wrestling
If there is something every person who is not from the country itself associates with the country, it has to be sumo wrestlers. One of Japan’s oldest sport, I was extremely excited about this on my first visit to Japan. I can say visiting the sumo tournament was one of the best decisions of my life (and I am pretty bad at making decisions). I don’t know why I thought it would be like WWE, but it was far from it. It was almost like a sombre and orderly fight where each sumo wrestler is trying to topple their opponent out of the designated ring.
If you want to learn more about the art of sumo wrestling, be sure to visit the Ryogoku district in Tokyo, where you can see sumo stadiums, sumo stables (where sumo wrestlers practice). You can even gorge on some delicious “chankonabe,” a hot pot dish that is a sumo wrestler’s favourite.
4. Tea ceremony
Japan boasts of many traditions that don’t exist in other parts of the world. One such tradition is the tea ceremony. Trust only people from Japan to make a proper tradition out the simple task of drinking tea.
The Japanese tea ceremony is called sado, which means “way of tea.” The ceremony is almost like a ceremony at the temple. Before you enter, you are required to cleanse yourself. Which means you have to wash your hands and rinse your mouth at a stone basin. Once you are in, you will have to sit on the floor in a traditional seating arrangement on a tatami floor while the tea master, dressed in a kimono, prepares the steaming matcha for you. Fancy a cuppa, anyone? Read my blog on 10 must-have food in Japan for more insight into Japanese cuisine.
5. Watch a Bunraku show
Just like much other traditional art of Japan, Bunraku, or a puppet theatre, is a flourishing art. Born in the golden age of Osaka, Bunraku should be on your list when visiting the city.
While we may see art form with puppets all around the world, very few have perfected it like Japan. In this form of theatre, the story is communicated through loud rhythmic chanting and music. The best part about Bunraku is that you don’t have to know the language to enjoy the art.
The puppeteer is dressed in all black, not to steer the attention away from the show. The puppets are huge and made of wood, and like everything in Japan, they are brightly coloured too. To know more about Osaka, read my blogs: 20 non-touristy things to do in Osaka and Ultimate Osaka travel guide.
6. Learn to be a samurai
Though Samurais are a thing of the past, it is never too late to act like one in Japan. On your trip to Osaka, you can have the full experience of dressing up like one and even learning to wield a sword like a samurai from proper trainers. The lessons are in English so following the orders will not be a problem at all. They teach you how to stand with the proper stance, how to yield and retrieve your sword, and you can also be a part of a fight sequence complete with sound effects and all. How cool is that for a souvenir for yourself?
But if you think that sword fighting will be dangerous for first-timers, don’t worry. Every safety measure is taken. For an authentic samurai, experience check this out.
7. Spend a night in a temple
When we choose to leave for a solo female trip, it becomes a journey to discover oneself and to be away from the madding crowd in tranquility. For that very reason, you should look to spend a night or two at a temple in Japan.
Many larger temples throughout the country allow you to stay overnight at their facility or a shukubo nearby. You get to immerse yourself into the whole culture, complete with the monks’ meals and hear the priests’ chants. I particularly loved how time slowed down here. A temple gong tells you to get up in the morning and attend the prayers where you can meditate while the head monk chants. In the busy reality, these are the moments that give you peace of mind.
8. Learn how to cook authentic food
In Japan, everything in life is celebrated. Just like the tea ceremony, food in Japan is also cooked and served in an orderly manner. If you are in Osaka, you should sign up for a cooking class at Washoku Home Cooking Machiko. This is not just any class, I assure you.
Here you get an authentic Japanese experience of how delicious food is made in the country in a traditional Japanese home. The hostess or the machiko dressed in a traditional attire welcomes you and takes you to the kitchen. Remember to take your shoes off when you enter, as is the custom in all Japanese homes.
Don’t worry if you are like me and you suck at cooking. This is more about enjoying the experience and less about whipping up delicious food. Roll out sushis in the traditional way on a sushi mat, and then the machiko proceeds to show you how to plate it beautifully. At the end of preparation, you sit cross-legged on the floor, and the table is laid out beautifully for you to enjoy the delicacies.
9. Take a dip in an onsen
Trust Japan to turn their volcanic hot springs into a work of art. Onsens in Japan are hot springs, and there are over 3000 of them dotted all over the country. Many resorts and ryokans are also based around these natural hot springs, or you can opt for an independent onsen as well.
I think the onsens are the best place to give your body a break with the hot mineral-laden water and a way to shed those inhibitions. You are not allowed to wear any clothing at an onsen, and while that may seem daunting at first, you will soon get over it. Also, they are mostly gender-specific, and so you will only have women around you. It’s also perfectly clean because you are required to wash thoroughly before entering an onsen.
This is a performance many miss out on their trip to Japan, but I would highly recommend this. A lot like the Bunraku but with actual people instead of puppets, Kabuki is outlandish costumes, dramatic stunts, bold and completely over the top makeup, and lots of colour. The stage in Kabuki is gallant, too, with trap doors and everything.
The best place to enjoy Kabuki in Japan would be the Kabuki-za theatre in Tokyo, where you get a headset with English translations. The kabuki performance is usually divided into two-three segments per day, and each segment is again broken up into acts. Though tickets are usually sold per segment, at Kabuki-za, you can buy tickets for an act. Also, read my blog on 20 non-touristy things to do in Tokyo.
11. Make your own souvenir
It’s a no brainer that when you travel, you bring back not only memories but also souvenirs. One such prominent souvenir that is famous in Japan is the daruma dolls, which is considered a sign of good luck and prosperity. It is tapered at the top and heavily weighted at the bottom, and so when you push the doll, it always comes back to its original position signifying balance.
While carrying daruma dolls as a souvenir is a good idea, what makes it better is the opportunity to carve your own at a workshop. And not only the dolls, but you can also even make ceramic crockeries. Well, as an amateur, none of your creations will probably resemble anything, but even the misshaped mass of blob you make will hold more memories for you than anything can buy.
Many pottery classes are held all over Japan. Though I don’t know about every one of them, I can vouch for the Mashikoyaki form of ceramic pottery, located a little north of Tokyo in a town called Mashiko.
What makes this place so special is the rustic look, and you can even stay overnight here.
12. Celebrate festivals the Japanese way
Like everything in Japan, their festivals are also unique, and it would be an experience of a lifetime if you can be a part of them. During the summer months in Japan, many traditional festivals or ‘matsuris’ are held. Every region of the country has tailor-made its own matsuri, so no matter which city you are in, you still get to enjoy the glitz and glamour.
During these festivals, there are parades through the city, carrying different floats. You can see shrine relics and hear religious chants. The festival is filled with traditional music, games, and food. Dress up in the traditional kimono like the locals and embrace this culture of the beautiful country. Pro tip: Try to book your tickets to Kyoto during the Gion Matsuri for a visual treat. Read my blog on the 10 best cities to visit as a solo female traveler in Japan.
When you travel to Japan, you will feel that every Japanese has OCD. Trust me. I don’t know how everything is in order in a country. In the same strain comes Ikebana or live flower arrangement. Like a lot of traditions in Japan, this also has a link to the Shinto religion. But gradually, it has become more secular as time wore by.
The best thing about Ikebana is its beauty in simplicity, and today, there are places all over Japan that impart knowledge about Ikebana. If you can visit Ikenobo school in Kyoto, you can learn more about this style of Ikebana that is the oldest and largest in the country. What I like best about learning Ikebana is how calm it made me feel. It’s almost like meditation, and a few moments of tranquility is needed.
One of the most important and well-known cultures of Japan is hanami. Which is basically watching sakura or cherry blossom flowers bloom all over Japan.
Japan is beautiful during this time of spring. The ground is filled with pink and white petals, and there is a sense of joy in the air. Visitors flock to various locations all over the country to be one with nature. In Japanese culture, this time of sakura signifies rebirth. Sitting beneath a cherry blossom tree during the sakura season with a book and some food is one of the best ways to wile your time in Japan.
To know all the spots for hanami in the country, read my blog, My Ultimate Solo Travel Guide to Japan’s Cherry Blossom.
While sakura steals the cake when it comes to beautiful Japan, Momijigari is not further behind. The colorful autumn season in Japan when leaves change color to bright fall colors: red intertwined with a bit of yellow and a splash of brown. Like hanami, watching the autumn colours is also a tradition in Japan, and much like everything else in the country, it is a sight to behold.
You cannot rush through Japan, and neither can you rush through any of the above cultural experiences. Slow down, take a deep breath, push the pause button on life, relax and be a part of an experience that comes once in a lifetime.
An introverted blogger who is looking to make unforgettable solo travel memories with one short life.