A trip to Japan is full of unique experiences, and the most difficult part of planning an itinerary is to pick the most exclusive things to do in Japan. We spent over five weeks in the Land of the Rising Sun, where we sampled a fair bit of everything Japan has to offer. In fact, such a broad variety of experiences that I’ve had to split them up into three separate posts.

In my previous blog post, I covered the unique culinary experiences, while I’ll dedicate this post to the unique cultural experiences in Japan. From watching a Kabuki theater to attending a Geisha performance on a small budget, from visiting the Ninja Temple to stepping back in time in Hokkaido, here is my list of the top 10 off-the-beaten-path cultural experiences in Japan:

The majority of the things in the above list might sound like the ‘boring’ kind of stuff for those of you who are not into art, history, and traditional culture, but just stick around for a little longer. The cool things will be coming your way in the next blog post 😉

Visit the gorgeous hilltop Gujo Hachiman Castle

If you’ve already read my previous post, you’ll remember the town Gujo Hachiman renowned as the Fake Food Capital of Japan. Plastic food aside, Gujo is a rewarding destination in its own right. Once you’ve done with making sampuru, you must plan on exploring the rest of Gujo’s amazing sights, such as the town’s traditional water system, zen temple, Igawa canal full of huge koi fish, to name some, and of course the stunning hilltop Hachiman Castle!

unique cultural experiences in japan

Honestly, Gujo Hachiman Castle was not the main reason for my visit to the same-named authentic riverside town down in the valley, but this 16th-century castle perched atop of a mountain just stole the show. The castle’s hilltop location provides splendid views of the town below, and the hike through the forest trail is simply spectacular. The hike up from the town center to the castle takes about 30 minutes, but you can take a taxi to the base of the castle. Possibly due to its elevated location inaccessible for big tour buses, the castle remains a hidden gem spared from flocks of tourists.

The majority of castles in Japan are not originals. During the Meiji Restoration in the late 1800s, many castles were demolished in an attempt to ‘modernize’ Japan. The Gujo Hachiman Castle being no exception was originally built in 1559, torn down in 1870, and reconstructed from wood in 1933.

The castle alone is a good enough excuse, and even more so, with history and culture perfectly preserved, Gujo Hachiman City was the Japan I’ve always dreamed of visiting, almost like stepping back in time. If you happen to be here in summer, don’t miss the over 400-year-old Gujo Odori dance festival held from mid-July to early September (over 30 nights of dance from sunset to sunrise).

Admire the exquisite floats at Matsuri no Mori Museum in Takayama

Unlike Gujo Hachiman, Takayama in the Japanese Alps is a very popular city among tourists, especially day-trippers, because it’s much more easily accessible from main cities in Japan. It’s known for its very well preserved old town, where you can try Hida beef with a gorgeous mountainous backdrop and rivers cutting through the town, but the number one activity in Takayama is actually the Takayama Festival, which is held twice a year both in spring and autumn over two days. If you can’t make it for the festival, make sure to head over to the Matsuri no Mori (Festival Forest) Museum that houses a collection of exquisitely designed festival floats, and life-sized Karakuri dolls along with giant taiko drums that are said to be the biggest in the world. The museum is open year-round, and brief performances are frequently held throughout the day.

Karakuri dolls are marionettes that are operated by puppeteers during the Takayama Festival,  but the museum uses machine-operated ones for demonstration shows. Here https://youtu.be/9erXV50lUXY you can watch some parts of the performance from my visit.   

Even a short shishi-mai, the Japanese lion dance was part of the regular show that you can watch at this link: https://youtu.be/bQenEC2ECOs

The main exhibition hall of the museum is underground, giving this place a mysterious atmosphere that makes you feel like you’ve chanced upon a hidden gem, absolutely worth allocating a couple of hours of your precious time when in Takayama.

Find your zen in Kenroku-en Japanese Garden in Kanazawa

Japan is renowned for its wonderfully manicured gardens that have been refined over centuries, and the Kenroku-en Garden in Kanazawa is considered as one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan, where you can feel today the aesthetic sense of ancient Japan. Along with Kairakuen and Kƍrakuen, all three gardens were designed as a strolling-style landscape garden around a central pond by feudal lords during the Edo period (1603–1868).

The Keuroken Garden was founded and perfected by the ruling Maeda family over a period of around 180 years, and it is said to implement all six aspects of an ideal landscape garden as stated in ancient Chinese literature. These aspects grouped into their complementary pairs are the spaciousness and seclusion, artifice and antiquity, and water-courses and panorama.

Kanazawa can easily be incorporated into a typical Japan itinerary, so go get inspired by the centuries-old beauty on contemplative walks around the panoramic spaces in Kenrouken Garden with its water features, bridges, teahouses, trees, flowers, stones, viewpoints, and hidden corners to discover. Make sure to stop by the teahouse right on the water for a cup of matcha tea.

Dress up for a swimming pool photoshoot in Kanazawa’s 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art

Continuing with Kanazawa, near the Kenrouken Garden, you’ll find the Kanazawa Castle and the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, which features a swimming pool with people trapped inside like fish in an aquarium. Chances are you’ve already seen this quirky swimming pool on TV shows, but let me assure you once again: it’s for real.

In our opinion, the swimming pool is the only highlight in this museum, and if you don’t necessarily need that picture of you inside the pool, it’s free of admission to visit from outside. On the museum grounds, you’ll also find some other art displays which are free to explore.

Being fascinated by the admission-free pieces of art displays, we paid the relatively hefty entrance fee to visit all halls and the pool. We are possibly too dumb to understand contemporary art displayed there, but the exhibitions felt like a joke to us. Having paid for the entrance to the swimming pool, we took our pictures inside the pool in turns. Re-entry is allowed once you pay.

Literally, get your mind twisted at the Ninja Temple in Kanazawa

Often called ‘Little Kyoto’, the city of Kanazawa turned out much lovelier than expected. It is a very conveniently sized city with very well preserved old districts, a modern night-life, and far fewer tourists. If you’re not convinced yet, listen to this: the Ninjadera Temple alone is reason enough to justify a stopover in Kanazawa. From the outside, the temple is not spectacular, but inside it’s an architectural delight with lots of mind-boggling secret traps, mazy corridors, hidden passageways, secret mezzanines, and deceptive defense systems.

Reservations are recommended, but you can also show up on the same day and try your luck. We were able to join the next tour without having to wait at all back in May 2018, but summertime might be busier.

Image source: https://ikidane-nippon.com/en

Photography is prohibited inside, and indeed no picture can capture the complexity of the temple. The tour of the interior takes about half an hour, and I can assure you that you won’t be able to close your jaw even for a second. It’s by far the most unique temple we’ve ever visited, absolutely an unmissable attraction, and one of the few exquisitely designed complex structures in all of Japan.

It might still be worth noting that the Ninja Temple has nothing to do with Ninjas. Don’t let its name fool you, but the Ninja Temple, locally known as Myoryuji Temple, was not owned by ninjas, rather by Maeda lords who used it as a defensive post against enemies.

If you are interested in ninja culture itself, check out the Samurai District in Kanazawa, where ancient samurai used to reside. Nomura Clan Samurai House (pictured above) with a beautiful zakanshiki style Japanese Garden (designed to be viewed from indoor spaces) is a notable example.

Enjoy a Geisha performance on a small budget in Yamanaka Onsen

Experiencing the Geisha culture is another essential part of a trip to Japan, though Geisha performances are not easily available and might be out of budget for many. In Kanazawa, for instance, regular Geisha shows in summer months cost 5000 Yen per person (~ $50 USD), and private performances obviously a lot more. If you are on a budget, don’t worry. I’ve got you covered for much less with an ultimate side trip to Yamanaka Onsen that offers lots of experiences beyond Geisha performance! All you need to do is to break up the two-hour train journey from Kanazawa to Kyoto, assuming you’re traveling on a weekend or public holiday. Only on weekends and public holidays, you can attend a traditional Geisha song and dance performance at the Yamanaka-za theater adjacent to the ladies public bathhouse in Yamanaka Onsen (admission 700 Yen as of May 2018). That’s about $7 US for a 1-hour geisha performance, all clear? So, get ready for a day involving onsen, boiled eggs, nature walk, picnic, geisha, koi fish, and Shinkansen!

First, you need to catch a local train from Kanazawa to Kagaonsen (57 minutes, 760 Yen), a region composed of four onsens (=hot spring spa) towns. Once you arrive in Kagaonsen, lock your luggage (big lockers 600 Yen) at the station before catching the local bus just on time (30 minutes, 420 Yen) to Yamanaka Onsen spa town. Note where you get off the bus and check out the departure times back to Kagaonsen before heading into the town center. Unless staying overnight, you’ll eventually need to return the same way to continue your train journey towards Kyoto (or Osaka). There are several train connections throughout the day with some direct lines. Keep in mind that with its rich history and perfect mountainous setting, Yamanaka Onsen is worth even staying overnight in one of the ryokan style hot spring spa hotels, especially if you need a break from big cities while in Japan. You won’t regret adding this small but authentic town into your itinerary.

Yamanaka Onsen town, well rather village, is pretty small and easily walkable. Finding the public bath and the adjacent theater on the main square is like a breeze. After you’ve secured your tickets for the geisha performance, you may want to boil your own onsen eggs in the hot spring source in front of the men’s public bath (3 eggs 210 Yen), and while waiting 40 minutes for your perfectly cooked eggs, you can either go take a bath in the onsen (440 Yen), wander around the town or just take a footbath under the tree and wait for the clock puppet display (free). Once your eggs are ready, you can wander along the gorgeous gorge footpath and have a picnic. I know, I know, we are primarily here for the geisha show, so let’s get to it.

For the uninitiated, Geishas are the traditional female Japanese entertainers, skilled in different Japanese arts, like playing classical Japanese music, dancing, and poetry. The Yamanaka-za theater is dedicated to the preservation of Yamanaka-bushi, Yamanaka Onsen’s legendary folk song that originated when local women gathered in front of the public bathhouse and created their own versions of sailor chants. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Yamanaka Onsen was a popular relaxation destination for seafarers from merchant ships.

At the Yamanaka Onsen theater, you’ll see and hear some of these traditional pieces, including Shishi-mai, the Japanese lion dance, a particularly lively, acrobatic, and comical performance. Here is the compiled clip of the Geisha performance from my visit to Yamanaka-za (lion dance starts at 5:06): https://youtu.be/35UehxWlkVY

Worship the ancient craftsmanship at the Sanjusangendo Buddhist temple in Kyoto

While Kyoto boasts many other temples that are overrun with tourists, admirers of ancient craftsmanship may want to head to the Sanjusangendo Buddhist temple (Rengeo-in) with 1001 life-sized carved wooden statues of Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, all of which are sculptured in amazing detail.

The Sanjusangendo temple was built in 1164 and rebuilt in 1266 after the original structure had been destroyed in a fire in 1249. The temple hall is said to be Japan’s longest wooden structure, measuring 120 meters or 33 intervals, referring to the intervals between support columns, an ancient method for measuring the length of a building. In the center of the hall is a large wooden statue of a 1000-armed Kannon, on each side flanked by 500 life-sized statues of 1000-armed Kannon. The statues feature 11 heads to better witness the suffering of humans, and 1000 arms to better help them fight the suffering.

Source: discoverkyoto.com

Again, photography is prohibited inside the temple, but you can take as many as you like from the outside, where you’ll find a lovely Japanese Garden as well.

Learn about different layers of history at Hokkaido Museum and Historical Village

I won’t lie. I’m not particularly a history buff, only every now and then I visit carefully selected museums. So, in order to close the history circle with Russia and Korea, I aimed for the Hokkaido Museum on the outskirts of Sapporo City.

It’s said that the history of Hokkaido is brief, and admittedly it has only been 150 years since Japanese settlement and development first brought a large population to Japan’s second-largest and most undeveloped island. But this land is built upon layers of 1.2 million years of history. In Hokkaido Museum you can walk through the layers of this unique history, very well presented and illustrated, sometimes with hands-on sections (though limited English translations).

One section in the museum, for instance, dedicated to the Ainu, indigenous people of Hokkaido who also used to live in regions such as Sakhalin which is now part of Russia.

Fast forward to the end of the 19th century, influenced by border disputes between Japan and Russia over Sakhalin, the Meiji government (the early government of the Empire of Japan) renamed the island of Ezochi as Hokkaido and declared it Japanese territory. And from then on, Hokkaido became the new home for many immigrants from Honshu and other parts of Japan.

To be able to literally walk in the past, you should not miss out on the nearby Hokkaido Historical Village, an open-air museum showcasing the different architectures of the island and the pioneer’s daily life, complete with a railway station, school, barbershop, grocery, post office, government building, temple, shrine, church and more, in total around 60 typical structures of Meiji and Taisho eras, many of which you are allowed to enter after taking off your shoes.

The site is divided into separate villages (Town, Fishing, Farm, and Mountain). Most structures are original buildings that have been donated and moved to the museum. Not only were the structures impressive, but the insides were also outfitted with normal artifacts found at that time, in some places brought to life with wax figures and audio effects, in others by alive museum workers.

Heading up to the fishing village, I was invited to sit by the open fire pit, enjoy a warm cup of tea, and join in the conversation. And in the newspaper building, I was given a piece of paper and encouraged to print my own postcard.

My initial intention was to skip this fantastic open-air museum (it would have been a huge mistake!), but then while around the corner, I decided to check it out quickly. Quickly? I spent almost 3 hours and that wasn’t enough. The Historic Village of Hokkaido turned out to be one of the most interesting museums I’ve ever visited, if not the best. It simply felt authentic, alive, and kicking. Made in Japan.

Visit an exhibition of  Yayoi Kusama

While you don’t necessarily need to be in Japan to come across an exhibit of Yayoi Kusama, the list would not be complete without a mention of one of the greatest artists from Japan.

Yayoi Kusama was born in Matsumoto in 1929. She began drawing at an early age, and her visual art is a product of her obsession with patterns unfolding in her head. Kusama became the most expensive living female artist at New York Christie’s auction when one of her works,  White No. 28 (1960), was sold for $7.1 million in 2014.

I was lucky enough to visit her Pumpkin Forever exhibition at the Forever Museum of Contemporary Art Kyoto in May 2018. The Yayoi Kusama Museum opened in October 2017 in Tokyo is the very first permanent museum dedicated to the artwork of the avant-garde artist, holding two long-running exhibitions a year. If you happen to be in Tokyo and have even a fleeting interest in her work, don’t pass up on it.

Watch the centuries-old performing art at the Kabukiza Theater, Tokyo

Last but not least, here is another traditional Japanese performing arts you should not miss out on, Kabuki Theater. Over 400 years old, an art that has been passed on for generations, rich in showmanship, elaborate costumes, extravagant wigs, and stunning Kumadori make-up, is no wonder on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

The origins of Kabuki can be traced back to 1603, around the same time Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Othello were first performed in London when dances and light sketches performed by a female troupe in Kyoto. But then Kabuki evolved into an all-male theatrical performance after females were banned from Kabuki theatre in 1629. Despite its over 400 years of history, Kabuki is surprisingly mainstream, usually plotting a classical drama, which makes the storyline easy to understand for foreigners, though it’s advisable that you learn more about the play on the internet or purchase a program guide on the spot.

It’s actually quite easy to catch a Kabuki performance in Japan, even if you don’t have plenty of time or cash on your hands! One of the best places to experience Kabuki is the Kabukiza Theater in Ginza, Tokyo, in fact, the only theater in Tokyo that specializes in Kabuki. Other than Kabukiza Theatre, there are theaters in Kyoto and Osaka where Kabuki is performed on a semi-regular basis.

At the Kabukiza Theater in Tokyo, the program changes every month, hence you can basically see Kabuki year-round. There is an afternoon show, which starts at 11:00 am, as well as an evening show, which starts after 4:00 pm. Performances are usually divided into two or three segments that last up to four hours. Each segment is then divided into acts and, although tickets are normally sold per segment, it’s possible to buy a ticket per act. Tickets are available for online purchase at the Shochiku’s official website: https://www.kabukiweb.net/

If online tickets are sold out, or you are looking for an economical and time-efficient way to experience Kabuki, you can try to get single act tickets on the spot. The number of single-act tickets available for purchase is limited to about 150 per day, thus you must line up at the ticket counter of Kabukiza Theater on the day of the performance. These tickets would allow you to watch just one act at a reduced price (1000 – 1500 Yen) from the upper gallery (4th floor, no seats). Should you go for this option, make sure to bring opera glasses, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to see any of the details of the gorgeous art, costumes, and Kumadori, the unique makeup of Kabuki.

While in Tokyo, I was able to secure one of the lower-priced seats on the third floor for a Saturday evening show (for the entire segment, 3-acts, 4000 Yen) just two days in advance. Unfortunately, the stage was quite far away from my seat, so either opera glasses or more expensive seats are essential if you want to truly enjoy the performance.

On that evening, Benten the Thief, a  3-act play was on stage, a perfect display of Kabuki’s generations-old distinctive beauty incorporating rhythmic speeches accompanied by beautiful music, and even including a spectacular acrobatic fight scene. Photography/videography at the Kabukiza theater was strictly prohibited during my visit. Unaware of this rule, I took some pictures and videos, but as soon as the theater attendant noticed me, she made me delete all my shots. Later at home though, I was able to rescue some of the deleted files, as I believe there must be a tiny bring-home-souvenir included in that price tag to remember the colorful stage, lively atmosphere, and the roof of the temple that rotates to reveal another beautiful set below.

If you happen to be in a city with a Kabuki theater, make sure to immerse yourself in this unique cultural experience in Japan and remember to pay attention to the special make-up of the actors, how men impressively play female roles, the exquisite costumes, the beautiful music, and the dance. Big shout out to all the talented actors and artists!