From hot springs to festivals: Japan’s cultural highlights

08 August 2018


From ancient capitals filled with historical relics but also with contemporary art, to modern metropolises blending trendy streets with traditional gardens, Japan is the place for a cultural adventure you’ll never forget. Immerse yourself in this compelling destination by walking one of its ancient trails, getting creative with a traditional craft or staying in a temple. The following are some of our favourite experiences to take in during a trip to Japan.

Old townscapes

Low sloping roofs, wooden facades and ornate hanging lanterns are all features of Japan’s traditional architecture. Kyoto and Nara are the go-to destinations for glimpses of Japan’s past, but lesser-travelled destinations include Nakasendo and with its historic trail – an important trade route with Tokyo in the Edo period – and the UNESCO-listed Gokayama with its carefully preserved gasshou-zukuri (‘praying hands’) buildings.

Traditional gardens

Gardening is an important Japanese art form practised for over 1,000 years and a variety of styles has evolved for different purposes. These include Edo period strolling gardens and dry-stone gardens for religious use by Zen monks. The garden at Korakuen is one of Japan’s finest, with sculptured gardens, authentic teahouses and carp-filled ponds.

Local markets

Japanese markets are one of the best ways to take in local culture while also getting some amazing deals. Kyoto’s Nishiki marquee food market is a long shopping street with hundreds of small food shops and stalls, many family-owned. There’s also the famous Tsukiji fish market, where watching the busy buyers and sellers haggle is all part of the fun.

Local crafts

From origami to calligraphy and from byobu screens to kagura masks, arts and crafts are integral to Japanese culture, and there are lots of opportunities to get involved. At Ontayaki Pottery Village you can see distinctive Onta ceramics and try your hand at a pottery workshop, while Omiya Bonsai Village has the world’s first museum dedicated to the ancient craft of bonsai, also hosting once-monthly workshops.


Japan’s national sport is steeped in tradition and its ritualistic aspect can be just as mesmerising as the spectacle itself. While the pushing and shoving can be over in a matter of seconds, the pageantry of sumo, from the pre-match throwing of the salt to the silk robed, priest-like referees, make it an event like no other in Japan. Two-week sumo tournaments are held six times a year in four different locations, with two of the most prestigious taking place in January (Tokyo Sumo Tournament) and July (Nagoya Sumo Tournament).


Thanks to its high level of volcanic activity, Japan is awash with natural hot springs or onsen. A firm favourite with many visitors, these large baths are filled with water geothermally heated beneath the ground, which then rises to the top at a pleasantly warm temperature perfect for a relaxing soak. Try Hokkaido’s top casual bathing spot Noboribetsu Onsen, surrounded by lush countryside and red-leafed trees, or bathe at the Yubatake hot-water fields at Kusatsu Onsen, where water is filtered and cooled through wooden chutes before reaching the main bath.

Places of worship

Japan is home to thousands of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, as well as a small number of churches and mosques. The Shinto shrine of Fishimi Inari-taisha features striking red and black beams that form walkways and its buildings, while Nagasaki is worth visiting for its hidden Christian sites comprised of 10 villages, Hara Castle and a cathedral built between the 17th and 19th centuries during the country’s Christian prohibition era (together granted UNESCO World Heritage Status in 2018).

Local festivals

You’re never far from lively entertainment in Japan, whatever the time of year. The 450-year-old Giant Lantern Festival at Chita Bay each August features huge, colourfully decorated lanterns said to keep sea monsters at bay. Meanwhile, from late January to early March, the Yuishigawa Kamakura Festival is a spellbinding display of light and snow, with hundreds of snow huts filling the streets of the small onsen town of Nishikawa.


To find out more or book your Japan trip, contact your Travel Counsellor.

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