Catch one of Japan's Cultural Festivals
If you're looking for total cultural immersion, then head to the nearest festival. Known as matsuri, these festivals are often rowdy and colorful, giving travelers wonderful local insight—and they're a lot of fun, too.
Larger festivals, like Kyoto's UNESCO-listed Gion Matsuri, a 1,100-year-old procession of parade floats, require some advance planning, since they're usually mobbed. But you can also partake in small local festivals, which take place all throughout Japan—even in the tiniest towns. They're usually associated with a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple. At the temple grounds, you'll find stalls serving up tasty snacks, a variety of children's games, and trinket and fortune vendors. If you're lucky, you might catch raucous traditional processions, live musical performances, and even sumo matches.
You'll find matsuri all over Japan year-round, but for the most atmospheric experience try to go to a summer festival. On summer nights, you'll see attendees strolling around in lightweight cotton kimono, while lights twinkle overhead. Grab a fish-shaped cake, known as taiyaki, or a cup of shaved ice and join in on the celebrations. For more on visiting Japan in summer (and the other seasons), check out this article.
Go on a Culinary Journey with a Kaiseki Meal
Japanese haute cuisine is known as kaiseki-ryōri. It's the ultimate way to enjoy Japanese gastronomy. More than a meal, it's an experience. You'll be treated to multiple small plates, exquisitely presented and served one course at a time. You'll usually find kaiseki meals at high-end ryokan inns or specialized restaurants. Consider it a culinary journey, where tastes are enhanced by the elegantly minimalist decor. Each dish is composed of seasonal ingredients, with a careful balance between texture and flavor.
Be prepared to splurge. But a kaiseki meal is well worth budgeting into your trip. If you're looking for an alternative to a higher priced ryokan stay, you can find reasonable lunch packages at local restaurants. But try not to leave Japan without experiencing it. It's a meal that encapsulates Japan's attentiveness to detail, beauty, and sensory pleasure.
Culinary-minded travelers should consider this 11-day gastronomic tour through the country, culminating in a kaiseki farewell dinner.
Enjoy a Cup of Matcha in a Tea Ceremony
Another time-honored tradition, the tea ceremony—known as chanoyu—is an introduction to Japanese refinement. It's an intimate experience, usually limited to only a handful of people at a time. An important social custom, it first emerged in the 16th century among Japan's elite classes as a way to forge bonds between host and guest. You can still partake in a tea ceremony, and the mindful ritual remains more-or-less unchanged. The host uses special bamboo tools, finely-ground powered matcha (green tea), and handmade ceramics while making and serving tea. The quality of the materials, along with the painstaking preparation of the tea, show the guests respect.
In this centuries-old ritual, travelers can get a taste—both literal and figurative—of Japanese hospitality. Make sure to observe the beauty of the green brew and the delicately glazed stoneware before you drink. But it isn't all stiff formality. Sipping the hot, frothy tea can also make for a relaxing break during a busy day of sightseeing.
See a Geisha Perform Traditional Japanese Dance
A centuries-old profession, geisha spend years of rigorous training to learn traditional Japanese dances and songs. Although they were once stigmatized, they're now revered as phenomenal performers, known for their exquisite kimonos and distinctive, white-powdered makeup. You can still experience a public geisha show, and smaller-scale shows can also be arranged through specialty tour operators. That will give you the opportunity to interact with geisha during a more traditional—and intimate—dinner setting.
The Gion district of Kyoto, with its traditional wooden townhouses, is still Japan's main enclave for geishas. You might be lucky enough to catch a geisha or maiko—a geisha-in-training—as they rush between appointments. Listen for the distinctive clack of their high-heeled wooden platform shoes, known as okobo.
Catch a performance before an unforgettable Nakasendo Trail trek during this 10-day itinerary—it starts with three days of cultural sightseeing in Kyoto.
Observe Shinto Rituals in a Sumō Match
Watching a live sumo match is the perfect "only in Japan" experience. The singular sport is uniquely tied to Shinto rituals. Every aspect of the match is imbued with cultural symbolism, from the referees in their silk hats and uniforms to the salt that wrestlers throw to purify the ring. Even the claps and stomps are a holdover from the days when sumo was a religious ceremony.
For a modern-day cultural experience, pick up a bento box and tuck into your food as you watch the match. It might not feel as holy as it once probably did, but the spectacle is sure to satisfy. Tournaments last for several weeks as they build up to the heavy-hitters. It's possible to get tickets on the day of the event, except for final championship matches. Six annual tournaments occur throughout Japan. The Tokyo tournaments are held in January, May, and September—consider one of the city's great boutique hotels during your stay.
Play with Cats Over Cappuccinos in a Theme Café
Themed cafés first evolved from Japanese subcultures, like mange and anime. They represent playful flights from reality, all featuring outlandishly costumed serving staff. The original—and still most famous—theme establishments are maid cafés, where waitresses dote on customers in cartoonish French maid uniforms. Butler cafés have recently cropped up with female customers in mind.
Japan is also the birthplace of cat cafés. You can sip lattes while playing with furry friends. Since their genesis, cat cafés have inspired other animal spinoffs, with rabbit, reptile, and owl cafés all doing brisk business. You can find cat cafés even in small towns, whereas some of the more unusual animal cafés are only in bigger cities like Tokyo and Osaka. When in Tokyo, you can also check out more bizarrely themed establishments— there are cafés filled with monsters, robots, and beyond.
For more activities in Japan, keep reading about Essential Japan: Top 10 Things to Do & See.