An incredibly diverse country, Japan is so much more than great sushi and bustling streets. Through this guide I run down the must not miss Japanese traditions and cultures in Tokyo and beyond.
So what is Onsen? Put simply, Onsen is a Japanese hot spring, as Japan is a volcanically active country there are many Onsen through the country.
The most relaxing and freeing experience from our entire trip. Even better surrounded by mountains covered in a fresh dusting of snow as a backdrop. Important things, it’s mandatory to be naked, but fear not men and women’s onsen are always separate, you can’t even see the other gender from the pool so there is no need to worry about that. It is expected to shower before you enter onsen, as a matter of respect and cleanliness. Don’t shower after if you don’t have to, the natural minerals and sulphur in the waters are incredible for your skin (although remember to take off any silver jewellery to avoid tarnishing!)
The beauty and uniqueness of each Onsen are as individual and different as the people who visit from. This means that some are more aesthetically pleasing than others.
Another useful thing to note is it’s not really acceptable to take photos or videos in the Onsen, this is a place for people to truly relax without worry of cameras or phones. (The images taken for this guide were on assignment, and we made sure to get up early before people arrived) Onsen are often open almost 24 hours, with an hour in the middle of the night to swap the men and women’s! On that note, double check which door you’re going through (often marked by flags with gender symbols in Japanese!) as they tend to swap them when they close in the middle of the night. Onsen is undoubetdly my favourite of all Japanese traditions
2. Food: As previously mentioned, it’s not all sushi you know!
Eat your body weight in ramen, curry soup (this was phenomenal and not something I’d previously heard of!) and if you’re up in Hokkaido make sure to visit Lucky Pierrot!
So, curry soup- what is it? It’s basically a combination of ramen and a rice dish. You can select your level of spice when you order, and whether you want meat or fish in it. I went for a medium spice and just veggies, it was bloody phenomenal. The rice comes in a dish on the side so you can add it as you eat. We went for curry soup at Soup Curry Mog Mog in Hokkaido. Another tiny restaurant that really packs a punch on flavour directions here
The next recommendation is a little left field, and definitely not for everyone!
It’s called Lucky Pierrot, and it’s a Hokkaido staple. And in fact it can’t be found anywhere else in Japan, or the world! As I’m a lover of all things kitsch and slightly crazy I knew I couldn’t miss it. Each of these restaurants has its own ‘theme’ (seriously) from Angels, to flowers they do every thing from noodles, to burgers to curry’s- while it may not seem like the most traditional spot, it’s pretty special!
Ramen is an absolutely essential and bloody delicious food to go and get when you’re in Japan. My favourite hole in the wall spot that I smashed my face into was in Sapporo, Northern Japan:
Down a tiny, easily missed little side street (almost impassable as it’s so crammed with people) there are dozens of teeny tiny little ‘restaurants’ I use this word in quotation marks as they are basically just kitchens with a few seats crammed in. It’s a truly incredible experience to watch your ramen be cooked fresh in front of your eyes!
N.B it’s almost impossible to be a vegan or vegetarian in Japan (especially rural/ Northern Japan) as so many of the dishes are made with a base of fish and meat stocks. Of course you can cook for yourself, or avoid going out but I prefer to experience the culture as truly as I can
3. Snow! This one is pretty straightforward, but the famous Japow is renowned for being the best in the world, and after experiencing it I would have to agree.
We were lucky enough to go on a snowshoeing adventure in the stunning surrounding countryside of Sounkyo. We headed out through the woods and ended up on an untouched and seemingly endless stretch of thick deep powder. The guides informed us that we were actually walking across what is usually marsh land and at any other time of year its inaccessible.
I’m not a skier, growing up in a warm country meant I never learnt. But from the state of the snow we experienced, skiers rejoice and head to Japan as soon as you can.
4. Stay, so where should you stay?
If you can, stay at a traditional Japanese hotel- these often have the most beautiful Onsen as mentioned above. We stayed in Aizu Ashinomaki Onsen OKAWASOU, in Northern japan in the region of Fukushima and the views from the very traditional rooms and the onsen are some of the best I saw from any hotel while travelling in Japan. The snow dusted gorge surrounding the back of the hotel, and which the Onsen overlooks was absolutely breathtaking. While this is one of the bigger, traditional hotels, it still didn’t detract from that immersive Japanese feeling!
5. Visit the Ouchi-Juku snow festival.
Held on the 2nd weekend in February every year, it is a 2 day festival held in the town of Ouchi-juku, Minamiaizu in Northern Japan. Rich in history, the village has been painstakingly preserved to stay as it would have been hundreds of years ago.
The best thing to do is head through the main street up to the viewpoint that overlooks the main street (if you’re coming up for sunset/blue hour make sure to arrive as early as you can as it gets very crowded very quickly with plenty of tripods!) As the sun sets locals move along the main street lighting candles inside the painstakingly crafted igloos, sculptures and the small thatched gift shops light up. It is a magical sight that truly does feel timeless.
Ouchi-juku can be accessed by taxi or bus from Yunokami Onsen station, which is on the Aizu Railway line.
There are of course many more Japanese traditions and cultures to be experienced, and as a first time visitor there is plenty more to come back for. The rest of my work from this trip can be viewed on my website here, in the mean time check out the rest of my guides here.