My interest in Japan was cultivated from a young age. I grew up eating Japanese food, watched Pokémon until way past my bedtime, and even tried to learn the language when I was six years old. It’s the first place I remember ever wanting to visit, despite not grasping just how far away from home it was, or what it would take for me to get there. So, once I had the freedom to travel extensively, it was one of the first destinations I visited. Since then I’ve returned several times, spending 21 weeks over the course of three years in the Land of the Rising Sun leading up to the pandemic.
Japan has been closed for over two years now, but as of August, the government is loosening its border restrictions and allowing guests coming with tour groups to explore the island nation. While I yearn for the destination to fully open, allowing me to once again hop freely from one city to the next with a JR Pass in hand, this felt like the right time to reflect on some of the truly incredible moments that I have had in years past. From meeting warm, hospitable locals to learning about ancient practices, there’s so much to uncover in the eclectic country.
Here are some of my favourite experiences—and how you could have similar ones, too.
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Female free divers known as ama can be found throughout Japan, but the majority of them live in Mie Prefecture. Curious to learn more, I ventured out to the Shima Peninsula to meet some of the women keeping this fading, centuries-old tradition alive, watching them dive for turban snails and abalone and savouring a lunch where they prepare their catch over smouldering coal. But it’s our conversation that I valued most. The stories they had to share about enduring the hardships of being an ama, and gaining insight into what their lives are like resulted in one of the most genuine and authentic moments I’ve ever had while traveling. (Plus, their forward humour was a welcome reprieve from the overly polite interactions that I usually have in Japan.)
How to experience: If you want to have lunch at an amagoya (ama hut), make a reservation at Osatsu-kamado, Hachiman, Satoumian, or have one arranged by Amanemu if you’re staying at the luxurious resort.
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Chatting with locals along the Nakasendo Route
As one of two roads that connected Kyoto and modern-day Tokyo during the Edo Period, the Nakasendo Route is a well-known trail for hikers and backpackers. The most popular stretch is between the well-preserved post towns of Magomejuku and Tsumagojuku. I was staying at Zenagi, Japan’s first expedition hotel and the only luxury property in the area, and decided to do a walking and e-bike tour along the path. What I expected was to learn about the history and see some interesting landmarks, but what I was surprised by was my guide’s connection to the local community. Along the way, we spoke with a woman we spotted harvesting leeks, who told us how her father used to walk several kilometres to and from work on the very same road we were on; took a break at a rest stop where the volunteer offered us not only tea, but also the best plum wine I’ve ever had from an unassuming glass jar; and popped into one of his friend’s homes, where I was presented with home-dried persimmons, shrimp crackers, and convivial conversation.
How to experience: Stay at Zenagi and opt for this as one of your experiences.
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Overnighting in a Buddhist temple
Home to over 100 Shingon Buddhist temples and the site of Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum, Koyasan is considered to be one of Japan’s most sacred areas. I came here in the fall when the air was crisp and the leaves were a beautiful mix of autumnal hues, adding to the magical ambiance. When you visit Koyasan, you don’t stay at a traditional hotel. Instead, you overnight at a shukubo (temple lodging), where you’re given the opportunity to get a glimpse into a monk’s lifestyle, sample their vegetarian cuisine known as shojin ryori, and participate in morning meditation and prayers. It provided me with a different perspective on life, even if fleeting, and the serenity that I felt while I was there is something I long for until this day.
How to experience: Book a stay at a shukubo in Koyasan. I stayed at Ekoin, but there are dozens to choose from.
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Making soba in the mountains
Tucked away in the verdant hills of Tokushima Prefecture near Iya Valley is a small shop that has been making soba for generations. Here, you’ll learn how to grind buckwheat and make your own noodles—a task that’s a lot easier than you’d imagine with the helpful guidance of Tsuzuki-san. Afterward, enjoy the soba you’ve just made with some piping hot tempura and enjoy Tsuzuki-san’s award-winning folk singing.
How to experience: Make a reservation through Tsuzuki–Iyajiman.
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Visiting a Geisha school
Following a dinner that included entertainment from two geiko and one maiko in Kyoto, I was eager to learn more about the young women who were preserving this highly misunderstood culture. Shortly thereafter, I put in a request with some contacts of mine to see if I might be able to gain access to a school to see where they learn and hone their craft. To my surprise, everything came together just days ahead of the Gion Odori festival, an annual dance performance that’s held for Gion Higashi kagai (geisha district) in Kyoto. For a couple of hours, I watched them rehearse and spoke to a few members about what it meant to them to be geiko and maiko along with the importance of keeping this tradition alive. It all culminated with attending one of the Gion Odori shows, a beautiful theatrical performance put on by the entire kagai.
How to experience: While geisha schools aren’t open to the public, there are other opportunities to meet these women. Book a meal with geisha entertainment; stay at Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto on the weekend, where they invite geiko and maiko in the evening to mingle with guests; or attend one of the six dance performances that they put on every year.
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Shower climbing in Kiso
What is shower climbing, you ask? I had never heard of it prior to my stay at Zenagi, either. It’s essentially an activity where you hike up a river or stream to reach a waterfall. My guide had asked me at least twice whether or not I was sure I wanted to participate given that water temperatures were below freezing. I fervently—after confirming that we’d be in a dry suit—assured him that I was game. After squeezing myself into both wet and dry gear with heavy, but sturdy, hiking boots on my feet, we made our way up the Kakizore River. I stumbled at least half a dozen times, was briefly swept away by the current more than once, but sitting at the base of cascading water with a thermos of green tea was surreal, as was floating back down the river like a fallen leaf.
How to experience: Stay at Zenagi and opt for this as one of your experiences.
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Harvesting shellfish on Ogijima
Naoshima—home to Chichu Art Museum, Benesse House, and Yayoi Kusama’s yellow Pumpkin—is the most famous out of Japan’s art islands, but you’ll find some real experiential gems across some of the others nearby as well. Out on Ogijima, Miyoko Kobayashi runs a small café and lodge on the isle where she teaches her guests about organic farming and a sustainable way of life. When I stopped by for the evening one summer just a few hours before sunset, we quickly made our way down to the shore to learn about different types of shellfish and harvest them for dinner, one of the many components of our meal. Conversation was centred around Kobayashi’s interest in agriculture and the beauty of living on a quiet, rural island. In the morning we walked up to her shop where she serves a delectable breakfast while enjoying the view of the sea before departing.
How to experience: Stay or make a reservation at Dorima no Ue.
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Dining at Den
When it comes to Japanese food, seasonality and quality are at the forefront of every chef’s mind. From a soul-warming bowl of noodles prepared by an elderly couple at a small farmer’s market in Morioka to elaborate multi-course meals at luxury ryokans, I’ve had some extraordinary bites while traveling around the country. But what has been the most memorable is Den, where chef Zaiyu Hasegawa puts a modern spin on kaiseki cuisine. He’s most known for a stuffed chicken wing served in a paper box that is reminiscent of what you’d get from KFC, but it’s his salad utilizing over 20 vegetables that’s the true star. Because if you can turn something that is considered to be so mundane into a memorable dish, that’s an automatic win. And for extra bonus points, the majority of his team consists of women—a rare occurrence in the hospitality industry, but especially in Japan—and his spirited Chihuahua can often be seen there.
How to experience: Call Den to make a reservation, which can be made up to two months in advance.
This article was originally published on Vogue.com