Snow monkeys, or Japanese Macaques, can be spotted on the islands of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. // © 2014 Julie Snider
As Japan becomes increasingly popular with families, couples and honeymooners, travelers are discovering that it offers an incredible variety of experiences and destinations. The following are some of the most iconic and surprising experiences the island nation has to offer.
A Traditional Drinking Party with a Real Geisha
Partying with a geisha doesn't come cheap — an evening at an exclusive, traditional teahouse in Kyoto's Gion geisha district can easily cost $1,000 or more. But for an increasing number of travelers, such once-in-a-lifetime experiences are worth the price. Witnessing the geishas’ artistic expertise and playing traditional Japanese drinking games with your expert entertainers are often highlights of an evening in an authentic teahouse.
Spotting Snow Monkeys
Seeing Japan's famous snow monkeys requires some effort, but it's definitely worth the trek for animal lovers. The adorable Japanese Macaques seem to relish the attention of travelers who brave the cold to watch (and photograph) them as they act out their daily routines, including soaking in the hot springs in snowy Nagano, Japan. Combine this with a few days of world-class skiing or snowboarding, available nearby, and you have the perfect winter getaway.
The cat cafe concept is simple: pay an hourly fee (usually about $10 per hour) to have a cup of coffee or tea in the company of cats. What may seem bizarre to Westerners is actually quite logical here. In Japan, living space is at a premium and most landlords do not permit pets, so cat cafes are an ingenious solution. Many city dwellers find the companionship of pets to be very relaxing, so it comes as no surprise that cat cafes are incredibly popular in Japan's big cities.
Sushi for Breakfast
Many visitors to Japan are not accustomed to having fish — let alone sushi — for breakfast. But there's no better way to complement a morning at Tokyo's incredible Tsukiji Fish Market than with a breakfast featuring the freshest and best-prepared sushi you may ever have. Make sure to visit Tsukiji now, as it's slated to move to a new location soon.
Sleeping in a Capsule Hotel
If you're claustrophobic, this is one experience to skip. Having traditionally catered to budget-minded business travelers, many capsule hotels are now targeting foreign tourists looking for a unique Japanese experience. Kyoto's 9 Hour Capsule Hotel is one stylish option. The pods are tiny, but it may be worth the experience for adventurous travelers.
The Best Tiny Bars in the World
No country does as much with small spaces as Japan. You'll find tiny bars all over the country, but there’s a huge concentration of them in Shinjuku's well-known Golden Gai, a small drinking area lined with dozens of bars that seat no more than a few people each. There's no better way to interact with locals then to sit down in one of these intimate settings.
When most non-Japanese people imagine cherry blossom viewing, they picture quiet contemplation or perhaps a nice picnic. But the reality is much more colorful. The Japanese have perfected the art of viewing — and partying under — the cherry blossoms. During the cherry blossom season, parks all over Japan fill to the brim with groups of friends and coworkers, and the parties often take a rowdy turn. You'll hear boisterous laughter, karaoke and people everywhere letting their hair down to celebrate the arrival of spring.
Japan's Teen Fashion
Japan's colorful fashions have long attracted a cult following, and for good reason. In the Shibuya and Harajuku neighborhoods of Tokyo, you'll see a dizzying variety of fashion styles, and the subcultures are always evolving. The best places to see eccentric teen fashions are on Shibuya's Center Gai and Harajuku's Takeshita Dori.
Department Store Food Halls
In Japan, department store basements, called “depachika” are gigantic food halls full of beautifully presented edibles. Selections range from Japanese to Western and encompass everything from sushi to French pastries, as well as gorgeous produce and seafood. It’s a must-see for anyone remotely interested in food.
Maid cafes, hospital restaurants, ninja restaurants — if they weren't done so well, you could accuse these restaurants of being gimmicky. Themed restaurants may not be for everyone, but the degree of execution and detail at these establishments is truly impressive.
The Dancing Rockabillies
If you're in Tokyo on a Sunday afternoon, there’s one sight to see — head to Harajuku's Yoyogi Park, where you’ll witness middle-aged, leather-clad men and women drinking beers, blasting classic Japanese punk and garage rock from a lo-fi speaker system and dancing like there’s no tomorrow.
Vending machines in Japan go above and beyond the Western norm. In addition to water and soft drinks, you'll find beer, sake and wine. It is no surprise that Japanese people are often bemused by the curious lack of selection of American vending machines.
Sleeping at an Art Museum
Where else in the world can you spend the night in a world-class museum on a magical island? Naoshima Island, in Japan's Inland Sea, is gradually becoming a renowned art destination, and there is no better way to immerse yourself than with a stay at the gorgeous Benesse House Museum Hotel. The museum is beautiful enough in itself, but hotel guests also enjoy special access to the collection, in addition to ocean views and excellent Japanese and French dining.
Luxurious Open Air Hot Springs
Traditional Japanese inns, or “ryokans,” offer stunning open-air hot spring baths (onsens). At luxurious ryokans such as Gora Kadan in Hakone National Park, you can enjoy rejuvenating onsen waters in your very own “rotenburo” (open-air bath) overlooking Hakone's natural surrounding. When you’re not in the onsen, you’ll enjoy exquisite multi-course meals known as “kaiseki.”
Staying at a Buddhist Temple
Visitors interested in traditional Japan and Buddhism should plan a stay at a "shukubo" (temple lodging) at the top of holy Mount Koya. Koya-san, as it's known in Japanese, has been attracting pilgrims for centuries — it's an extremely peaceful place and just a couple of hours south of Kyoto. A stay here includes a fantastic multi-course vegetarian meal and the chance to experience what Japan felt like hundreds of years ago. The early-morning meditation session is optional.
Andres Zuleta and Christina Soto are the founders of Boutique Japan, a company specializing in unique Japan travel.