As you will see from this list, Japan is an incredibly interesting and varied country. With so many unique experiences on offer, it’s hard to whittle down all the memorable moments. But, here are 10 experiences that you simply can’t miss…
1. See the giant sumo wrestlers up close
This has to, hands down, be the weirdest sport in the world. 2, huge wrestlers face each other in a small ring. After performing a number of ceremonies from stamping their feet, throwing salt and smacking their bellies, they charge at each other, the aim – to push your opponent out of the ring. The matches last for seconds but are violent and mesmerising to watch.
The best fights are when the wrestlers end up being flung from the ring, landing on the front row spectators who sit cross legged at the ring side. It’s brilliant! To buy tickets use Buy Sumo Tickets who have all the match and ticketing information on their site.
2. Stuff yourself at a sakura picnic
Being in Japan during the cherry blossom is a great experience. From late March to mid April the country is surrounded by splashes of white and pink everywhere you go. Not only are the blossoms beautiful to see, but the excitement from the Japanese during this season was comparable to Christmas. Do as the locals do – grab a benton box (selection of food in a take out lunch box), a bottle of sake and head to a park to have a picnic under a canopy of blossom.
3. Stay with monks at Koya San
Koya San was my favourite place in Japan. Considered the centre of Shingon Buddhism, the mountain of Koya houses over 100 temples and in 2004 received World Heritage Site status.
To really experience Koya San you should stay over night a a temple lodging, known as Shukubo. I stayed at Fudoin, which I cannot recommend enough with its beautiful well kept grounds, a traditional hot bath and the most comfortable Futon bed I slept on. We were well looked after by a friendly monk who served us a remarkable multi-dish vegan monk cuisine (Shojin Ryori) and invited us to join morning prayer.
4. Be in awe of a Geisha
Another reason to visit Japan over the cherry blossom season is to experience a Geisha Spring Dance. Although the practice has greatly changed, Geisha still operate in Japan in a handful of places. One of the few times Geisha perform to the public is during Cherry Blossom, when they put on performances over a couple of weeks to celebrate the season.
The dancing, outfits and performance was so unique it has to be the highlight of my visit to Japan. It is almost impossible to buy tickets if you don’t speak Japanese so to buy Geisha dance tickets see if your hotel can help or contact Buy Sumo Tickets. If you do go, do a bit of research into the life of a Geisha beforehand, and read Memoirs of a Geisha if you haven’t already.
5. Dress down in a Ryokan
Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns that originated in the Edo period (1603-1868) although they remain a popular form of accommodation today. Staying in Ryokans worked out not only cheaper but also a lot more fun. It’s a great way to experience traditional Japanese customs including changing into slippers on entrance, staying in a tatami-matted room with sliding doors, eating on a floor table, sleeping on a Futon, taking a communal bath and wearing a yukata (a light kimono).
6. Eat the bizarre and unrecognisable
Most of the time I was eating in Japan, I had no idea what it was. Visually the food is colourful and creatively presented, the tastes are strong and the textures bizarre. Wandering the shops or food counters, with not a word of english in sight, it was a guessing game. Sometimes the food was amazing and sometimes it was downright disgusting. But it was always fun and interesting.
7. Get a breathtaking view at the peak of Mt Misen
The island of Miyajima, easily accessible by ferry from Hiroshima, is a must for an overnight stop. Famous for its tame, pesky resident dear and torii gate that appears to float on the water, considered on of Japans top 3 sites, there is plenty to do.
But top of the list on a clear day should be making your way to Mt Misen. To get a real sense of achievement, take the easy to follow track which will take you 2-3 hours to reach the top. If you don’t fancy the hike though you can take a cable car most of the way which will leave you with a gentle 20-30min climb to reach the peak. The views from the top are breathtaking.
8. Sleep in a capsule
In most of Japans cities you will find Capsule Hotels – cheap accommodation where you sleep in pods that are pilled on top of each other. I felt like I was sleeping on a spaceship! In my pod I had a fresh set of pyjamas, reading light, air con, TV and a phone. If you want to share with someone, Kiba Hotel, is one of the few capsule hotels that have couple pods or for a more modern single capsule hotel, try 9 Hours.
9. Experience the Japanese Alps on skis
When people think Japan they don’t usually think of snow and winter sports. But visiting the dramatic landscape of the Japanese Alps at the tail end of winter, was a perfect excuse to try out skiing for the first time. Hakuba, famed for hosting the jumps for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, provided the ideal introduction to skiing. It was so much fun and much easier than I expected.
Staying in a traditional Ryokan provided the perfect end to the day as after my second visit to the hot spring baths, I changed into my Yukata for a traditional dinner, followed by a couple of beers while making the most of our mountain view as the sun set.
10. Queueing, fancy dress & giggling
Those three words pretty much sum up a day at the theme parks in Japan. There are lots to visit but the most impressive and well rounded is DisneySea. Everyone was dressed up in matching outfits – even the adults get on board with the fancy dress and face paints. Its hard not to get caught up in the excitement and to laugh at the giggles and screams that came from the rides as you waited for your turn.
The Japanese love to queue and their patients really showed at the theme parks – at Universal Studios a new ride clocked up an incredible 13 hour wait time!! Experiencing a theme park in Japan is like nowhere else….just make sure you get the Express passes!