Top 10: classic experiences in Japan

Where else can you meditate with Buddhist monks, meet a geisha, master the art of matcha tea, and learn to make sushi all in one visit? When it comes to standout experiences, Japan delivers enough to last a lifetime.

By Stephanie Cavagnaro
Published 28 Jun 2019, 08:00 BST, Updated 16 Mar 2021, 10:05 GMT
Maiko (apprentice geisha), Kyoto
Maiko (apprentice geisha), Kyoto.
Photograph by Getty Images

1. Sushi lesson, Osaka

Cheery, kimono-clad Machiko welcomes would-be sushi masters into her minimalist Osaka home for lessons on washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine). “Do you know umami?” she asks during my visit. “To describe umami is difficult, it’s delicious and sensitive.” We learn about the savoury flavour while honing in on a key element of washoku: sushi. Machiko claps as I roll the perfect tamagoyaki omelette, takes me through the intricate rules of making nigiri-zushi by pressing rice with two fingers then draping a thick slice of fresh salmon atop, and looks pleased as I delicately stuff sticky rice into spongy, deep-fried tofu pockets. Our colourful sushi — some tied with thin strips of nori, others spinkled with sesame — is displayed on long, black lacquered trays, accompanied by a pink pile of pickled ginger. Served with miso, it offers the perfect balance of nutrition and aesthetics. We tuck in; hard work never tasted so good.
How to do it: Classes at Washoku Home Cooking from ¥5,000 (£33) per person.

2. Temple time, Noto Peninsula

Tempted by a temple stay? Try Terahaku, a company that launched a programme of experiences and overnight accommodation at shrines and temples across Japan last year. “The temple is the centre of a community,” says Takashi Waguri, from Terahaku. “We support temples to help locals.” On the windswept Noto Peninsula, laidback Jōkō-ji is a Buddhist temple that’s included in Terahaku’s network. Here, Koh and her mum, Seiko, offer overnight stays and varied temple activities, including morning yoga, juzu bead-making, a morning religious service, and cloth dying using local plants.
How to do it: An overnight stay for two at Jōkō-ji, including two meals, is from ¥30,000 (£216). 

3. Washi paper making, Kyoto

At Motoshiro, a family-run shop near northern Kyoto’s stunning Sanzen-in temple, try your hand at making washi. Towards the back of the store — stocked with notebooks, paper lanterns, tourist trinkets and calligraphed washi — there’s a small workshop. Get your hands dirty as you dip and shake a bamboo screen into a vat of gloopy, mushed mulberry bark, decorate with tiny, technicolour paper cut-outs, and drop more beige liquid atop. After a quick dryer blast, gently brush the damp washi on a heated board. And voila — you’re an artisan.
How to do it: From ¥500 (£3.50). T: +81 75 744 3388. English-speaking tours with Maiko

4. Sake brewery tour, Kanazawa

Suit up in a lab coat and cap before touring Fukumitsuya’s 400-year-old ‘junmai-gura’ brewery — a name that alludes to the purity of its sake, made using only rice, and water filtered underground for over 100 years before reaching Fukumitsuya’s well. Follow the production process from the heaped trays of rice cultivated with koji spores, to steel tanks fermenting the oatmeal-like moromi rice mash, meeting master brewers along the way. And save the best for last: sip three sakes, from light and fresh to a long-aged variety. Kanpai!
How to do it: 90-minute guided tour from October-April from ¥1,000 (£7) per person.

Wakihonjin Okuya teahouse, Nakasendo
Photograph by JNTO

5. Nakasendō hike, Kiso

“Magome is one of the best-preserved towns on the Nakasendo,” says Takashi, from the local tourism office. There’s such a strong Edo-era aesthetic — its sloping cobblestone street is flanked by minimalist black-and-white facades — it seems I’ve stepped into another century. The five-mile trail from Magome to Tsumago is but a small section of the Nakasendō, an ancient mountain route connecting Kyoto to Tokyo. As I walk, bells echo across the Kiso Valley to ward off bears that inhabit surrounding cedar and cypress forests. Inside a 200-year-old teahouse, whose eaves are strung with vibrant persimmons, a small bell even hangs from a volunteer’s trousers, dinging as he serves free cups of steaming green tea. We walk through bamboo groves before reaching Tsumago, whose street-side shops serve chestnut ice cream to weary walkers. I stop at Wakihonjin Okuya teahouse, made of hinoki cypress, where shafts of light erupt over a central hearth, whose flames heat an antique kettle hanging above — a last hurrah for the time traveller.

While you're there: Get crafty — paint a pair of prized hinoki cypress chopsticks with lacquer at Ebiya, a 150-year old shop in Kiso-Fukushima, which also sells smooth, glazed dishes and utensils (¥1,500/£10). Foodie fiends can join a soba workshop in the town’s Furusato Taikenkan cultural centre, with the chance to dip their thick noodle creations in Nagano’s classic dish: toji soba, a hot broth of mushrooms, tofu and vegetables (¥1,400/£9.60).

6. Country living, Shirakawago

A veritable Cotswolds-in-Japan, this village of postcard-perfect thatched cottages is set in a remote river valley in Gifu’s Ryōhaku Mountains. The UNESCO World Heritage Site’s houses show off their steep gassho-zukuri roofs, which resemble hands steepled in prayer, to help them withstand the thick blanket of snow that settles on the valley each winter. Visit Wada House (¥300/£2), a 200-year-old property displaying farming artefacts as well as a slew of silkworms at work in the expansive attic, before snacking on the region’s famed gohei mochi — a sticky rice cake coated in sweet miso and roasted.

7. Meet a geisha, Kanazawa
The culture surrounding geisha has ancient roots stretching back to the 7th century. These white-faced performers train for years in dance, song, shamisen (a three-string instrument) and even drinking games in order to entertain their deep-pocketed guests.

Want to know more? Lady Baby, landlady of Kanazawa’s Kaikaro teahouse, shares some insight about this mysterious part of Japanese culture.

"In Kanazawa, the youngest geisha is 19 years old — she’s like a beautiful Japanese doll. The oldest is 84, and most of my guests choose her because she’s very charming. I even have a reservation for her in 2020.

Kyoto has a school to train geishas from 15 years old, but Kanazawa doesn’t, so geishas go to an individual master’s house and take lessons one by one every single day. Teahouses are like agents for geishas. My teahouse is 200 years old and it’s a treasure for Kanazawa. It’s the highest ranking in the city, with two guest rooms — the red room and the VIP blue room. Guests with bodyguards use that one.

Geishas paint their faces white because a long time ago there was no electricity, but it was necessary to look beautiful by candlelight. This is still adopted today, and it takes 20 to 30 minutes for a geisha to put on make-up. Next is the kimono. Many tourists wear a rental kimono made from polyester, but our kimono is made completely from silk. I do not use a wig — this is real hair, so I have to go to a beauty salon every morning to have my hair set; it’s like a mushroom. Many geishas, however, wear a wig made from human hair that fits each of their heads.

Can geishas get married? Yes, we can. But if I say I have a boyfriend, my popularity will go down very quickly. Guests never ask about our background — it’s always a mystery."

How to do it: Geisha Evenings in Kanazawa has tickets for a 90-minute dance and music performance plus a lesson on geisha culture from ¥6,500 (£44).

Matcha tea
Photograph by Getty Images

8. Matcha tea ceremony, Matsumoto

“I’ve done this for 45 years and I’m still learning,” says sensei Soshin as she prepares to demonstrate sadō (‘the way of tea’). We wear kimonos — mine's splashed in autumnal colours, hers a floral frock of pale pink, green and cream. I’m ushered through Hyakuchiku-tei teahouse’s small crawl-in entrance to an alcove featuring a burnt-orange flower arrangement and calligraphed scroll. We kneel in formal seiza style on a tatami floor, as sticky wagashi snacks filled with red bean paste are doled out. “Matcha is bitter so this makes your mouth sweet first,” explains Eina, who has joined us from local cafe Matcha Garden. Soshin displays a mastery of her craft: she gracefully cleans tools, drops vibrant matcha (green tea powder) from a bamboo ladle into a bowl and adds just-right hot water. The liquid is rapidly mixed with a bamboo whisk until it becomes a thin tea. I rotate the bowl 90 degrees and watch as it swirls with satisfying bubbles before taking a sip. It’s creamy, mildly bitter with whispers of sweet. But this is about more than a cuppa — it’s a lesson in Japanese culture, from presentation to craftsmanship. And I’m still learning, too.
How to do it: Matcha Garden has a two-hour matcha and kimono experience from ¥3,490 (£24).

9. Samurai experience, Osaka

Are you the last samurai? The fierce warriors may no longer exist, but you can still make believe you’re one of them at Osaka’s Samurai Experience. The hour-long session includes a performance by pros, plus time to try your hand at swordplay. Play the part wearing a kimono, ninja costume or samurai armour, and practise techniques before starring in a short performance. Nimble ninjas can also try shuriken (star-shaped blade throwing) at a target.
How to do it: A private class with members of the Japan Swordfight Road Association from ¥7,500 (£51).

10. Ryokan stay, Takayama

For all the traditional trimmings, try Honjin Hiranoya Kachoan. Start your stay with the famed Hida beef dinner. This melt-in-your-mouth wagyu is served three ways, and cooked in ponzu sauce, miso and wasabi. Other dishes include local trout with jujube and hajikami ginger; lotus root sushi; and matsutake mushroom broth steamed in an earthenware teapot. And after you’re stuffed senseless, head to your tatami-matted room, or to one of three onsens for a soak, offering views of the timber-built town and distant Northern Alps.
How to do it: ¥26,000 (£182) per person for one-night accommodation, breakfast and wagyu kaiseki.

More info
The Japan Rail Pass (seven-, 14- and 21-day) covers most bullet trains. Buy a voucher from TopTours before travel. 
Nohi Bus travels between Takayama, Shirakawa-go and Kanazawa.
Lonely Planet Japan. RRP: £18.99
Insight Guides Japan. RRP: £19.99

How to do it
Cox & Kings offers a 15-night trip to Japan, costing £6,195 per person based on two sharing. It includes flights from London (into Tokyo/out from Osaka), 15 nights’ four/five-star B&B, transfers, excursions, train journeys, and an English-speaking tour guide.

Click here to see our full list of the 20 unforgettable places for 2019 from our Trips of a Lifetime cover story.

Published in the July/August 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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