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Sometimes, the best way to get under the skin of Japanese culture is through something you never thought of as Japanese at all.
Take baseball, for instance. It may not scream Japan to you, but seeing how Japanese fans throw their hearts and souls into this quintessentially American sport just might tell you more about Japanese culture than any temple visit could.
Sushi, geisha, tea ceremony: we love those iconic, only-in-Japan experiences as much as anybody. But what we really love about Japan is its endless capacity to surprise you, baffle you, and turn your expectations on their head.
These are just some of our team’s favourite ways to get a deeper understanding of Japan.
Why? Japanese culture is steeped in Buddhist traditions, and visiting temples and shrines is an integral part of the Japan experience. Though most visitors content themselves simply to marvel at the beauty of the temples themselves, we highly recommend taking one step further and spending the night at one. You’ll sleep in simple, tatami-mat dormitories like the monks themselves, eat traditional vegetarian Buddhist food, and learn about the rituals set down over centuries. Rising early to witness the morning ceremony, as the air fills with chanting and the smell of incense, is a truly magical experience.
Where? Surrounded by thick forest, the temple community of Mount Koya is one of the most atmospheric places we’ve visited in Japan — and it’s easily accessible from Osaka. More modern (and plush) is the temple stay at Eiheiji near Kanazawa, while Mount Haguro in Tohoku offers the chance to follow in the footsteps of mountain priests as you make a pilgrimage up 2,250 stone stairs to the summit.
Why? While we love Japan’s public transport, there’s something particularly special about seeing the country under pedal power. Whether you’re rolling through fields of lavender in Hokkaido or whizzing from temple to temple in Kyoto, getting about on your own two wheels means you’ll see things you’d never have noticed from a car or train — and cover much more ground than you would on foot. Our cycling guides are amazing, helping you get to know the history of the area, taking you to places you’d never have found otherwise, and introducing you to people you’d never have been able to talk to on your own.
Where? Cycling tours come in all shapes and sizes in Japan. There are some fantastic tours in Tokyo and Kyoto, where you’ll get to see a different side of the cities and explore neighbourhoods you might have missed otherwise. Meanwhile, some of our favourite countryside cycle tours begin in Takayama, taking you through the alpine villages and farms of the Hida region. Finally, there’s the Shimanami Kaido: a stunning cycle route that takes you across the Seto Inland Sea via a series of impressive suspension bridges.
Why? It might surprise you to know that hiking is something of a national obsession in Japan. Hit any trail at any time of year and you’re likely to outstripped by impossibly spry old grannies and grandpas, and the occasional lady tottering along in high heels. Though Japan is synonymous with big cities, it’s actually 70% rural and mountainous, which means you’re never far from a good hike. Many trails follow old samurai paths or pilgrimage routes dotted with staging posts, bathhouses, temples, inns (and vending machines). It’s a completely different experience from hiking anywhere else in the world — and once you’ve experienced hiking followed by a hot spring bath and a room at a traditional ryokan inn, you’ll never go back.
Where? The Kumano Kodo is an extensive network of old pilgrimage trails in the mountains outside of Osaka, and one of our favourite places for multi-day hikes. The Nakasendo Way in Gifu Prefecture follows an old samurai route, Kamikochi in the Japan Alps offers some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in the country, and majestic Mount Fuji can be tackled on an overnight hike during the summer. If you’re short on time, there are plenty of day hikes to be done — we particularly recommend the hike from Kibune to Kurama Onsen, just outside Kyoto.
Why? Did you know that Japan’s unofficial national sport is baseball? There’s no better way to get behind that famous Japanese reserve than getting stuck in at a baseball game — because Japanese baseball fans are bonkers, in the best possible way. Expect trumpets, drums, frenzied flag-waving. Expect pre-prepared songs and chants for every different player. Expect staff with beer kegs strapped to their backs running up and down the stadium, doling out Asahi’s and fried octopus balls. Above all, expect to have your expectations shattered — and to get completely swept up in the fun of it all.
Where? Sumo may be the national sport, but baseball is an obsession. You can see baseball all over Japan, but our favourites are the Hanshin Tigers (Osaka), the Hiroshima Carp, and the Yakult Swallows (Tokyo) — they have the craziest fans!