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While we don’t want to do the whole ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ thing, we’ve been sending travellers to Japan for nearly 20 years (crikey, time flies!), and it’s the friends we’ve made along the way that give us access to lots of unique activities and experiences
Making the trip to Japan is one step closer to learning about the country’s rich culture and heritage, but reading and temple-hopping can only tell you so much. Immerse yourself by learning new skills from master craftspeople. Brimming photo albums only ever tell half the story, so we’re fans of getting stuck in to make memories that last.
These are just 10 of our favourites activities in Japan, but if you have an interest (even one you think may be a little niche), chances are we can help. So without further ado…
10 of the best activities in Japan
1. Meeting a maiko (trainee geisha)
If there’s something (or someone) that needs no introduction, it’s the maiko (trainee geisha); one of the most famous and enigmatic roles in Japanese culture. It’s not easy to get an audience with these talented and dedicated performers – they’re highly in demand so many tourists see them dance at group performances as part of an audience.
But meeting a maiko in person to learn about her life, watch her play the shamisen (traditional instrument), and take her on in a drinking game (prepare to lose) is another thing entirely.
2. Knife sharpening
I know what you’re thinking, knife sharpening? I barely have time to do that at home. This is not your kitchen chore variety; unless your cutlery can be traced to ancient times and has intrinsic cultural value, in which case, I take it all back.
This experience sees you taking a trip back in time to the Edo Period (1687-1885) to use techniques of time gone by on uchihamano knives. Team up with an expert and a translator to get smelting steel, welding, polishing and sharpening a kitchen knife.
3. Roketsu indigo dyeing
While Kyoto does have a fine selection of craft and knick knack shops, there’s nothing quite like making your own souvenir. This roketsu masterclass is the only one of its kind where you can make a unique piece in a style that’s native to Kyoto.
Not an artist? No problem! Even amateur enthusiasts can create a handkerchief or t-shirt of beauty. Roketsu involves taking a stencil and using hot wax and a natural dye to transfer the image; a master teacher will guide you through the whole process.
4. Pottery class
Where better to get clay throwing than in Japan, the home of internationally revered yakimomo (pottery). While no-one expects a masterpiece (but do aim high), Kyoto has some of the world’s best teachers to guide you through the process of making a pot, from getting the hang of the wheel right up to the final glaze. It’s even possible to have your work of art shipped home safely so you’re not carrying it from ryokan to ryokan (that’s traditional Japanese inn to you and me).
5. Rice planting
Outside Japan’s bursting cities, rolling countryside awaits and rural life ticks over a little more slowly. It turns out that those dreamlike villages tucked between rich green rice paddies in Studio Ghibli films aren’t a thing of fiction.
Get your feet dirty and help with the rice planting for a hands-on insight into Japan’s agricultural industry. With a hearty sushi lunch to follow, you’ll get a whole new appreciation for where your food comes from.
6. Taiko drumming
Like the roketsu dyeing, taiko drumming is more about enthusiasm than inherent ability. From experience, we’ve learned that even the most reluctant turn out to be proficient percussionists deep down. Learn the basic rhythms and moves (yes, there is a dance element), and build up to a polished performance.
7. Zazen meditation
Where better to take a guided meditation session than in Kyoto, where a temple awaits around every turn? While you may not achieve complete self-enlightenment after a 10-minute seated meditation with the temple’s chief priest, you’ll certainly be closer than when you boarded that plane to Japan. The breath, focus and technique is a very special souvenir indeed.
8. Kimono wearing
Put away your envy of Kyoto’s kimono-clad, it’s your time to turn heads. It’s extremely difficult (read: impossible) for the uninitiated to put a kimono on correctly, so an instructor helps you pick one to try, then works some magic so you look the real deal. There’s a kimono out there for everyone, so men are in too.
9. Soba noodle making
One for the foodies (or the hungry). From creating the right dough consistency, and slicing with the dedicated soba knife, right up until the final slurp, this soba noodle cookery class is one to be savoured.
10. Washi (paper making)
Washi is a type of paper so special that it is recognised in Japan is a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage. It’s made using the bark of the gampi tree and the mitsumata shrub or paper mulberry bush, and then processed by hand. Spot washi paper in origami, and Ukiyo-e prints (such as those by Hokusai) in Japan.
You don’t have to take part in all 10 of these to get to the heart of Japan, but if you did want to give them all a go, take a look at our Hands On Japan small group tour. All of the photos are a sneaky peek into Mark Fujishige‘s Hands On Japan tour last year.
If this has piqued your interest but you wouldn’t mind tying in a visit to the sumo stables, sake festival, or snow monkeys, find a full list of our experiences here, or contact our team for more information.