Travelling is essentially all about gaining experiences.
Visiting places is one experience.
But there are many more too, like participating in cultural activities and engaging with local people.
Here are the 6 types of cultural experiences that will help you immerse yourself in Japan and learn more about Japanese culture, history and the people.
I believe even adding one of these cultural experiences to your travel itinerary will make your trip much more enjoyable and enlightening.
1. Arts and Crafts
Japanese craftsmanship has a long history.
What’s widely respected about Japanese craftsmanship is that their skills are handed down from generation to generation, so it’s impressive to see the old traditions being preserved even through modern day Japan.
In many fields, these traditions are evolving by the efforts of younger generations, which is also fascinating to see.
There are hundreds of crafts in Japan.
Pottery, lacquerware and kimono are probably the major ones.
But there are many others like washi paper, glassware and kitchen knives to name a few.
Many of these items are simply breathtaking thanks to Japanese shokunin or craftspeople who are generally known for their attention to detail, a sense of pride in their skills, and persistence to produce the best.
Some of the popular cultural activities include visiting craftsmen’s workshops and learning how to make a product with these craftspeople.
These cultural activities are a great choice if you want to feel the spirit of Japanese monozukuri or manufacturing.
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2. The Way
The Way is known as Dou in Japanese.
Traditional cultural activities under this category were originally developed or perfected as self-discipline practice among the nobility and samurai warriors.
Later, they became available to the ordinary people.
In Japanese society, each of these traditional activities are usually carried out by different schools in a hierarchy system.
The Way is also referred to as Michi or Road in Japanese, suggesting that you should keep improving your skills at whatever age you are.
Major cultural activities in this category are sado or tea ceremony, kado or ikebana, shodo or calligraphy, budo or martial arts.
It will be a perfect opportunity if you want to learn the essence of traditional Japan directly from a Japanese shihan or senior instructor in a particular field.
3. Food and Drink
Food and drink are what you may be looking forward to the most when you visit Japan.
You can simply sample Japanese food and drink for lunch or dinner.
But if you want to immerse yourself a little bit further, it’s definitely a good idea to try out some cultural activities related to Japanese food and drink.
For example, learning how to make Japanese dishes is one of them; you can make sushi, home-made meals, or even Japanese sweets.
The other option is joining a tour that shows you around the making of Japanese ingredients like sake, miso, or tea.
These experiences will give you a chance to talk to Japanese people, from chefs, to mothers and grandmothers, to brewers and farmers, and to eat the meals or get a taste of what the locals produce on site.
4. Spirituality and Religious Traditions
Visiting a shrine or temple might already be on your itinerary.
But why don’t you explore some other options to get a deeper experience, like staying at a temple lodge called shukubo?
At a shukubo, you’ll be provided with accommodation, meals, and a chance to participate in a morning service to the buddhist altar.
These places are usually found in what’s known as sacred mountains where monks and mountain ascetics have traditionally had their training because the shukubo were originally constructed to be used for such training and lodging.
Nowadays, there are shukubo that are more accessible by ordinary worshippers and tourists and some of their services are almost like what’s provided at ryokan or Japanese-style inns so you’ll have different choices depending on where to visit.
Another cultural activity you might want to consider is walking on pilgrimage routes such as Shikoku Henro, Kumano Kodo, and Dewa Sanzan.
5. Theatre Performances
There are many forms of entertainment nowadays.
But the classical forms of Japanese entertainment are theatre performances, namely Noh, Kabuki and Bunraku.
Bunraku specifically refers to Ningyo Joruri performed in Osaka.
Ningyo Joruri are traditional puppet theatres that are spread across many parts of Japan.
Noh and Kabuki both involve dancing and singing, accompanied by musical instruments, although their origins are different and this is reflected on what we see on the stage like props, who’s playing, and more.
Other classical forms of entertainment are Rakugo storytelling and Kyogen comedy, which is traditionally performed between Noh plays as comic relief.
These performances are usually more accessible in major cities, but some local areas are known for a particular activity.
For instance, Tokushima is famous for Ningyo Joruri, so if you want to see a particular genre of performance, I would suggest doing a bit of research first.
You may think not knowing Japanese language would make it difficult to appreciate these performances, but actually, they are not as difficult as you might think.
6. Local Living
If you’re really keen to learn about how the local Japanese people live in this modern-day Japan, you may want to consider what I classify as ‘local living’.
But of course, the local lifestyle isn’t the same for people living in cities and those who are living in rural areas.
And it varies from person to person too.
As you could imagine, those who are living in the countryside tend to have a more traditional lifestyle than people in cities, so you may find some unique opportunities in the countryside.
Some popular options are a farm stay and a visit to female divers Ama-san who catch oysters and other shellfish in the sea.
You could also visit local markets and attend special events and festivals, which are happening all over Japan.
What’s important to note is that Japan has so much regional diversity so even if you're participating in the same activity, you will find some differences from region to region.
So gaining local living experiences in Japan would never bore you.