From experiencing the intricacies of tea ceremony to watching nimble sumo wrestlers at their morning training sessions, plan these uniquely Japanese activities into your itinerary for a trip to remember.
Watch a morning sumo training session
While sumo tournaments (basho) can be tricky to plan for — they only happen six times a year — morning training sessions at stables happen regularly, and offer tourists a chance to experience the sport in an intimate environment. Visit the website of the Japan Sumo Association for a list of sumo stables. Some, like Kasugayama Beya and Arashio Beya (both in Tokyo), are accustomed to receiving travellers. The morning practice, also known as keiko, is a very serious, rigorous activity, so avoid chatting and flash photography, and also keep a respectful distance.
Partake in a Japanese tea ceremony
Also known as sado or cha-no-yu, a Japanese tea ceremony is an intricate and elevated way to enjoy a cup of tea — as you will find out, the whole process is hypnotically calming. In the session, your teacher will demonstrate the rules and forms, and then you will have the chance to try it yourself. Kyoto is one of the best places to experience this unique art form. Located in a traditional house near Kiyomizu Temple, Camellia, which presents the ceremony in English, is a good place to try.
Play with hedgehogs
Long known for their animal cafes — cats, rabbits and owls, among others — Tokyo is now caught up in its latest trend, hedgehogs. A short stroll from Tokyo’s Roppongi station, HARRY offers patrons the opportunity to cuddle with the adorable animals. Here’s a tip: Cup your hands and let the hedgehog sit in your palms to gradually settle, before you start stroking it. The admission fee (1,000 yen on weekdays for 30 minutes; 1,300 yen on weekends for 30 minutes) includes self-service drinks. You are also allowed to bring your own food and drinks, but there’s really no point — spend your time with the tiny bundles of cute instead!
Soak in a bathhouse
Public bathhouses (sento) are dotted all over Japan, and a good soak in one can be invigorating after a long day of sightseeing. Bring an open mind because you’re required to strip right down to your birthday suit, but as you’ll soon find out, it’s not that big a deal. Make sure you shower and rinse well before entering the baths, and as you soak, leave the small towel you’re given at the rim — it’s not meant to enter the water with you. The changing area usually has a large fan or air conditioners to help you cool off after your experience. Some larger sento may have gardens for you to relax in too.
Watch a kabuki performance
A traditional form of Japanese theatre with its roots in the Edo Period, kabuki is an art that combines elaborate costumes, rich showmanship and dynamic stage sets. As an old-fashioned form of the language is usually used, the performers’ exaggerated movements will aid the audience in understanding the storyline, which can range from historical events to tales of romance and tragedy. The Kabukiza Theatre in Tokyo’s Ginza district is one of the most accessible for travellers, offering an English ticket booking website and English headsets.