Japan, home to fan favourites like sushi and the luminous city of Tokyo. While it may be small in comparison to other geographic juggernauts, it certainly offers a larger-than-life impact when it comes to entertainment value. Tokyo alone will provide you with enough memorable stories to tell for the rest of your life, but what about those “uniquely Japanese” attractions that are less talked about? We took some time out to find five unique things to help you get excited for your trip to Japan.
1. Freak Yourself Out in the Aokigahara Forest
Off the bat it sounds gruesome, but it’s an incredibly captivating place, filled with natural beauty as well as the underlying chill of all the lives that have been taken here. The forest grew on a bed of hardened volcanic lava after the last major eruption of Mt Fuji.
Over the years, the location has become an eerily interesting place to explore, but also has been believed to be haunted by the people who have taken their lives in the depths of the forest off the beaten paths. The massive green belt is a beautiful location, with Mt Fuji looking down over it, and is almost impossible to avoid if you are in the area as it covers such a large expanse of land.
Travel to: Japan
2. Be Humbled at Mount Koya
A sacred, mountaintop Buddhist sanctuary lies in wait for those travellers looking for something blissful, spiritual and uplifting to add to their travel diaries. Mount Koya is home to a Buddhist temple town that surrounds the original headquarters of the Shingon Buddhist sect, a small Japanese Buddhist sect with a history dating back over 1000 years.
You are able to spend the night in traditional Buddhist temple lodgings called shukubo while also taking part in the daily activities of the monks, including morning prayers and vegetarian dining. The setting alone is a mystical, magical scene with forests surrounding the quaint temples, buildings and mausoleum.
My absolute highlight of visiting Koya was watching an evening ceremony at Okonuin graveyard. I happened to be there on an auspicious day, and went to the cemetery at night to see a procession of monks, followed by rituals involving chanting, pacing, fire and incense. It was an inspiration! I suggest that travelers spend at least two nights here, in order to get a good feel of the destination, and that they watch the monks chant in the morning and at ceremonies to get immersed in the Buddhist culture of Koyasan. – La Carmina, La Carmina
3. Have a Drink in Piss Alley AKA Memory Lane
Originally the centre of illegal alcohol consumption in the 1940s, Piss Alley grew to become a small haven of activity for the impoverished, war-torn community. It was a place where people could enjoy a cheap drink and a meal, while also partaking in cabaret entertainment.
Patrons used to venture just off the alleyway to relieve themselves after too much consumption, hence the name. Thankfully there are toilet facilities now, and the small alley welcomes tourists to try some unique and interesting dishes in tiny, box-sized restaurants. Pigs testicles can be eaten here, as can grilled salamander, but yakitori (grilled, skewered meat) is probably the most popular option.
What I love about Piss Alley is how colourful it is despite being a narrow alley that runs down the side of train tracks in the Shinjuku area. When I say colouful, I’m talking about neon lights like you’ll find anywhere in Tokyo, I’m referring more to the character and charm. The area looks relatively run down, sees no natural light, and gets incredibly packed at night, but it’s an experience that shouldn’t be missed. You really can’t go wrong with any of the restaurants you choose, but note that English menus here are rare. Instead, just point at what someone else is eating and the chef will understand. One tip, Piss Alley is worth a quick stroll on the day just to see what the contrast is compared to at night when it comes alive. – Barry, Money We Have
See Also: The Most Scenic Train Trips Around Japan
4. Experience Strength and Power at a Sumo Wrestling Stable
Sumo wrestling is an age old organised sport that originated over 1500 years ago as a traditional religious ritual. Some of the ritual still carries through to wrestling matches today and there’s no better way to see it than either at a tournament or (if you’re lucky to gain access) at a traditional sumo wresting stable. It’s not often that you will gain access to watch practice as a member of the public, but worth every shot if you can.
Booking in advance is usually essential. Traditional elements such as clapping the hands upon entering the ring will call on the gods to protect the fighter and bless him with good luck. Rinsing the mouth with sacred water is another one, as is pouring salt onto the ring before a fight to purify the space. Something that will blow you away is the strength of these fighters as they take on one another in the ring. Their bodies shapes vary in size and stature, but one thing’s for certain…there is pure muscle underneath their skin.
5. Uncover History at the Hiroshima Castle
Hiroshima has been a popular destination on many a tourist itinerary, especially those looking to uncover more of the history of this area, pre and post World War II. Although the Hiroshima Castle was destroyed in the atomic bomb attack on August 6th 1945, a replica of the original version from the 1590s was built in its place.
Here you can experience traditional Japanese culture in a way that reminds us of what life was like before the war. It now serves as a museum and is also surrounded by a number of other fascinating museums and landmarks, well worth visiting on foot in order to take it all in.