Whether you’re interested in culture, history, food, shopping or sports, Japan has it all. Japan is a country with many unique attractions worth seeing. Here are 10 unique things to see and do in Japan.
1. Watch a Sumo match
Watching Sumo wrestling is one of the most unique things to do in Japan. It is Japan’s national sport that dates back over a thousand years and one of the most iconic sports in the world. Many of the traditions and rituals such as salt tossing, foot-stomping and singing are still followed today.
The rules in sumo are very simple. The wrestler who exits the ring first or touches the ground or touches the ground with any part of his body other than his feet loses. Matches take place on an elevated ring called dohyo, made from clay and sand. Most matches usually only last a few seconds but on rare occasions can last up to a minute.
One of the best ways to watch a sumo match is during a sumo tournament (basho), where the crowd is very passionate. There are 6 tournaments held each year, with each lasting 15 days in 4 different cities (Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka). For an authentic Japanese style experience, floor seats are recommended. These seats are also closer to the action with a great view. Tickets go on sale a month in advance, as they are very popular events, it is best to purchase as soon as they are available.
2. Visit a Matsuri
Festivals or ‘matsuri’ as they are known in Japanese, are an important part of Japanese culture and tradition and a favourite for tourists. There are many festivals in Japan, with many of these taking place in the summer months and are held annually, celebrating a cultural or historic event or a shrine’s deity. It is a great way to immerse yourself in Japanese culture. With over 200,000 of these festivals taking place all over Japan you’ll never be too far away.
Processions are a main part of the experience, where the shrine’s kami (god) is carried through the streets in mikoshi. It is the only time in the year the kami leaves the shrine. Decorated floats are an important part of festivals, and are accompanied by drums and music. Many festivals have their own style and characteristics, some are very energetic and loud, while others are more calm and relaxed. Among the most popular festivals throughout the year are the Sapporo Snow matsuri, the Gion Matsuri in Kyoto and the Tenjin Matsuri in Osaka.
3. Experience traditional theatre
Kabuki is the traditional form of Japanese theatre dating back to the Edo period. It is an art form in showmanship, the performance includes drama, dance and music. The all-male performers wear elaborately designed costumes and eye-catching makeup, along with exaggerated actions performed by the actors. Plots are usually based on historical events, dramas, conflicts, love stories, conspiracy or other well-known stories.
Kabuki performance can be found in major cities (including Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Fukuoka) but the best place to see it is at the Kabukiza theatre in Ginza, Tokyo. The theatre was recently reconstructed and reopened in 2013. It is the most accessible for foreign tourists as they offer rental monitors that provide English explanations and subtitles.
4. Visit the Ghibli Museum
If you are a fan of Studio Ghibli, then the Ghibli Museum is definitely a museum worth visiting. The museum is a must-see for fans of one of Japan’s most famous animation studios. The charming museum is designed in the same style of the studio’s films, made up of a series of themed rooms giving visitors the idea they are inside an artist’s storyboard. Each room has a unique theme. You can learn all about the history and techniques of animation as well as watch movies that are exclusive to the museum. There are also special exhibitions as well as a rooftop garden, cafe and gift shop.
Tickets are not sold at the museum and must be purchased in advance. They can be purchased from Lawson convenience stores. Currently, the museum is only open to residents of Mitaka city, where the museum is located but is expected to reopen to the general public from September.
5. Stay in a capsule hotel
Staying in a capsule hotel is one of the most unique types of hotels to stay in. They are usually found around major train stations in major cities and are a great way for an individual on a budget to stay a night. Capsule hotels offer a unique experience, with many foreigners interested in the uniqueness of the hotel.
The rooms you stay are tiny, about the size of a casket, giving a very cosy feel, but if you’re claustrophobic or tall you probably won’t enjoy staying here. Each room is fitted with a bed, a light and an alarm clock. While most are catered to male guests, some also accept female guest and segregated floors.
6. Ride the Shinkansen
Travelling around Japan is simple and efficient and there is no better way than by Shinkansen. At speeds of over 320km/hr, the Shinkansen or bullet train is Japan’s high-speed train known for its comfort and cleanliness. You can travel between Tokyo and Osaka in no time at all. Along the way, you can enjoy some spectacular views of Japan’s countryside, including Mount Fuji. If you like Hello Kitty, you can even ride on a special Hello Kitty Shinkansen for a limited time.
Before you travel it is recommended to buy an ‘ekiben’ which translates as station lunchbox, which you can enjoy on your journey. Many regions have their own speciality bento which you can purchase in convenience stores at stations.
7. Visit Cat Island
If you’re a cat lover, there’s no better place to visit than Tashirojima, a small rural island in Miyagi Prefecture. Informally known as ‘Cat Island’ Tashirojima is home to several hundred cats, which are cared for and looked after by island’s residents. The cats were originally brought to the island to help with pest control. Since then their numbers have increased so much they outnumber the human population by almost four to one.
The island attracts visitors all year round. There is even a cat shrine honouring the cats for their work and service. Most of the cats are found on the southeastern side of the island around Nitoda Port, where they roam around freely. The cats enjoy the attention they get from the tourists who like to play and photograph them.
8. Visit Scarecrow Village
One of the strangest places to visit lies in Tokushima’s Iya Valley, Shikoku. Here lies a deserted village where almost all of its inhabitants are scarecrows, with around 350, each with their own facial expression.
Once many workers lived here but most left to work in the city. One woman stayed behind and decided to replace all the villagers with scarecrows. The scarecrows are located all around the village, you can see them in the fields, at the bus stop, on the street and even in the buildings.
For many, this is one of the weirdest things to do. The fact that there are so few people around the village makes it even creepier. As it is a very remote place to get to it can deter many visitors but it is definitely a unique place to visit.
9. Explore Art Island
For art lovers, there is probably no better place to explore than the Japan Art Islands. The islands are located on a secluded and hidden part of the Seto Inland Sea in Shikoku, amongst 3000 uninhabited islands, they are filled with many interesting and beautiful museums, exhibitions, installations and eye-catching modern architecture. A lot of the buildings are designed by well known Japanese architect Tadao Ando including the Chichu Museum and Benesse House, a combination of an art museum and a hotel.
The most well known of these islands is Naoshima, which includes several modern museums and many fascinating art pieces, including the famous pumpkins by Yayoi Kusama. There is also the Setouchi triennial art festival held here, the last one was in 2019. Some of the art from previous years include Yayoi Kusama, Monet, James Turrell, Tadao Ando and Many more.
10. Jigokudani Monkey Park
The Jigokudani Monkey Park, allows visitors to witness the unique experience of wild macaque monkeys bathing in the onsen. The park is a popular place to see the monkeys in their natural habitat, where up to 200 live in the nearby forest. The monkeys come down to the onsen to warm up and clean themselves. There is one large man-made pool where the monkeys like to gather, located near the entrance.
The monkeys live in large social groups and it can be entertaining watching interactions, especially as they are very used to humans and feel comfortable and relaxed around them. Seeing the monkeys is one of the best things to do in winter, it is a particularly photogenic experience when there is snow. Although it is a bit of a trek to the park, it is somewhere that is well worth visiting.
So there you have it, 10 unique things to see and do in Japan which will sure to leave with you a great experience.
See you again next time!
Alex is a graduate of photography from London. He has a strong interest in visual arts and culture. Alex is half Japanese and has a great knowledge of Japan, having spent several years living there, visiting many parts of the country.