10 Unique Activities You Can Only Do in Japan

Japan is full of traditions and activities you won't find anywhere else on Earth. Here are just a few.

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October 30, 2019

Photo By: © ATTA / Rupert Shanks

Photo By: Visit Kinosaki

Photo By: Kassondra Cloos

Photo By: Kassondra Cloos

Photo By: © ATTA / Kristen Kellogg

Photo By: © ATTA / Rupert Shanks

Photo By: Visit Miyagi

Photo By: Colby Barthelmess

Photo By: Leslie Barrett

Photo By: Leslie Barrett

Explore Ainu Culture

All across Japan and its many islands, you'll find scores of cultural and culinary experiences you won't find anywhere else. With the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo coming up quickly, and ski season approaching even faster, now is the time to plan a trip to Japan. Consider starting your trip by flying into Sapporo, on the large, northern island of Hokkaido. Hokkaido is known for "jappow," which some say is the world's best powder for skiing. But aside from skiing, you'll also find rich Ainu culture on the island. The Ainu people are indigenous to Japan and some parts of Russia, and faced institutionalized discrimination in Japan for a long time. Visit the Marukibune Inn to see a contemporary Ainu dance performance. Near Lake Akan, you'll find an Ainu village filled with shops with traditional crafts and opportunities for cultural exploration, like more traditional Ainu dance performances.

Soak Naked in Japan's Onsen Hot Spring Spas

You’ll find onsen—hot spring spas—all over Japan. And these aren’t like the hippie hot springs you might find in the U.S. At onsen, which are generally separated by gender, everyone has to be completely naked. It can be strange to get used to at first, since we’re often pretty sheepish about nudity in the U.S. But once you realize no one cares who you are or what you look like, it’s deeply relaxing. For an onsen-focused experience, spend a weekend in Kinosaki-onsen, a small town that considers itself to be one giant ryokan. Here, you’ll see people wandering the streets in yukata and geita, light, colorful cotton robes and clunky wooden slides. The town has seven public onsen, which you can visit as much as you’d like for $12 a day. If you stay at a ryokan in town, like the spacious Okesho you’ll get free entry to them all.

Stay at a Traditional Japanese Ryokan

Ryokan, traditional Japanese inns, are extremely relaxing places to stay, and they’re quite different from your standard Western hotel. Instead of sleeping in a bed, you’ll sleep on a futon, a mattress laid out on the floor. When you check in, you can change into a comfy yukata right away and wear it throughout the ryokan’s property. Many ryokan have their own onsen and rooms don’t have their own showers; you have to bathe in the onsen. Save your appetite and order a kaiseki dinner at the ryokan, which can often be served right in your room. These multi-course masterpieces are made up of sometimes a dozen or more dishes, which each have their own beautiful presentation (breakfast at Okesho is pictured here). If you visit Kyoto, take the bus to the edge of the city to the Ohara area, where you’ll trade skyscrapers for mountains, and stay at the Yumoto Onsen Oharasansou. It makes an excellent nature retreat.

BOOK NOW: Yumoto Onsen OharaSansou | Booking.com, Starting at $108/night

Make Mochi from Scratch

Making mochi, the chewy dessert made out of sweetened rice, is surprisingly violent. It requires pounding boiled rice until it turns into a gum-like texture. When done by hand, this involves two people taking turns pounding it with heavy wooden mallets. On the island of Hokkaido, Travel Hokkaido will take you to a location where you can make mochi from scratch alongside a family that has been doing it for decades.

See Frost Flowers Bloom at Lake Akan

Early on winter mornings, frost "flowers" bloom from the ice covering Lake Akan in Hokkaido. Conditions have to be just right in order for the frost to grow in this way: It has to be cold, below five degrees Fahrenheit, and there has to be little to no wind. You have to get up before dawn to see the flowers, but it’s worth it, especially for the sunrise views of the mountains framing the lake. Stay at Lake Akan Tsuruga Wings, which is right on the lake and offers a wide variety of guided outdoor experiences. After you venture out into the cold to stare at the flowers, warm up in the expansive onsen, which has both rooftop and lake-level soaking pools.

BOOK NOW: Lake Akan Tsuruga Wings | Booking.com, Starting at $221/night

Take a Dunk Amid the Drift Ice on the Sea of Okhotsk

The shores of Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido — which is a lot closer to Siberia than you were likely aware — are awash with drift ice every winter. Shinra will set you up with a special suit and take you out for a walk on the ice. It’s thin enough in places to fall through, and floating among the ice can be a highlight of the experience. If you go, stay at the Kitakobushi Shiretoko Hotel & Resort, which has an onsen on the top floor with a stunning view of the ice crashing into the shores of the Shiretoko Peninsula.

BOOK NOW: Kitakobushi Shiretoko Hotel & Resort | Booking.com, Starting at $166/night

Visit a Cat Island

Japan has a handful of small islands where there are more cats than people. One such island is Tashirojima, in the Miyagi Prefecture, where there are six times as many cats as people. A shrine on the island honors a cat that died in an accident. You can visit as a day trip, or you can stay the night. The Manga Island recreation area has cat-shaped huts available for rent.

Take a Shinkansen Bullet Train

Japan is likely the highest-tech country you’ll ever visit. Nowhere is this more obvious than on its public transit system, which is extremely fast and reliable. When traveling to new cities, hop on the Shinkansen, or bullet train, to speed up to 199 mph between destinations. For unlimited travel for a set number of days, plan ahead and purchase a Japan Rail pass before your trip. Buying individual tickets at automatic kiosks can be confusing and time consuming, and you also typically need cash for them. Having a rail pass will save you time and, likely, money. Be aware, though, that subways and buses aren’t included on the Japan Rail pass. There are many different train companies that operate within Japan. If you’re concerned about your budget, make a travel plan ahead of time taking into account day passes for city public transit systems and add everything up to determine whether a rail pass is the most economical option for you.

Get Your Fortune at Shrines and Temples

All over Japan, you’ll find Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. Not only are these historic places beautiful and rich in legends, they’re wonderful places to rest and disconnect for an afternoon. At the Sanzen-in Temple in Kyoto, you can order a cup of matcha to sip while staring out at the manicured gardens in silence for hours, if you’d like. Many shrines and temples sell good luck charms and paper fortunes, and have creative ways for you to make requests or wishes. At the Fushimi Inari shrine, for example, there’s an area where you can make a wish, then pick up a large weight. If it’s lighter than you expected it to be, your wish will be granted; if it’s heavier, it won’t come true.

Make Your Own Washi Paper in Kyoto, Japan

Paper is a huge part of Japanese culture, and to this day high-quality specialty paper is made by hand there. Make your own — either as a decorative souvenir or to write a special letter to a friend — at Motoshiro, a washi shop in Kyoto. The process involves catching pulp in a screen, adding decorative elements like colorful papers, leaves or flowers, sucking all of the water out of it and hanging it on a heated metal board to dry. While you wait for your washi to dry, check out the stacks of colorful, artisan paper Motoshiro sells. A large piece of patterned washi can make a beautiful, affordable souvenir to frame when you get home. You can also make paper at Ozu Washi in Tokyo.

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