There’s no bad time to visit but as Autumn or Aki approaches, our thoughts happily return to Japan’s famous fall colours and ideal temps for exploration. We’ve missed its dynamic people, food, and sights SO MUCH and can’t wait for culturally curious travellers like yourself to join us now that entry restrictions have eased. Naturally, we’re inclined to seek out far-from-ordinary experiences beyond the cherry blossoms and buzzing cities. Come along as we share five unique ways to immerse yourself in Japanese culture (like training with a samurai master!) and make meaningful connections with local communities.
1: Stay in a traditional monastery
Make your way to Koyasan, the centre of Buddhism in Japan, and spend the night in Mount Koya Temple — a working monastery founded in 816 by the Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi. Located 800m atop Mount Koya, a train takes you up the mountain to reach the monastery, which is recognised as one of the most scenic rail journeys in Japan. Here, you’ll have the rare opportunity to spend time with the monks, observing their morning prayers and exploring the tranquil monastery grounds. Feel spirited away in the moss-covered Oku-no-in cemetery, one of the most sacred sites in Koyasan housing the Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum.
How to do it: Our 9-day Japan Express: Osaka to Tokyo tour includes an overnight stay in Mount Koya Temple
2: Spend time with elders in Hagi
If you’re looking for a truly immersive cultural experience, the Hagi Homestay sees elderly residents opening their homes, sharing meals and teaching you their traditional way of life. The rural farming and fishing community is located on Japan’s southern coast, nestled among rice fields, forests and pristine beaches. With no direct train routes, Hagi remains far off the tourist trail and has seen its younger generation migrate to cities for work, leaving behind an ageing population. Created to generate happiness and purpose for Hagi’s ageing residents, the Hagi Elder Homestay is supported by our non-profit partner, Planeterra, and benefits over 150 Hagi community members. You’ll sleep on traditional shikibuton beds, learn to cook meals with your host and enjoy a bike ride tour of the Hagi region, taking in the city’s samurai era architecture and coastal paths along the Japanese Sea.
How to do it: Our 11-day Back Roads of Japan tour includes two nights at the Planeterra-supported Hagi Elder Homestay
3: Learn from the Kembu Masters
In Kyoto, you can feel empowered by the ancient art of Kembu which honours the culture of the Japanese warrior class, the infamous samurai. Meet with Kembu masters and learn about the strict code of ethics and sense of duty that ran among the samurais between the 12th and 19th centuries. You’ll learn to wield a samurai sword, mastering the basic moves of this delicate art form which was used by samurais to improve concentration and express their warrior spirit.
How to do it: Our 12-day National Geographic Journeys Iconic Japan tour includes a highlight moment with Kembu Masters
4: Explore a traditional folk village
Having retained its traditional customs and touches unlike many Japanese cities, the mountainous city of Takayama continues to capture the imagination of travellers. With a restricted number of visitors to combat pre-pandemic overcrowding, now is the perfect time to explore Takayama’s unique history. You can visit the nearby Hida No Sato folk village and meander the quaint streets lined with sake breweries and craft shops. With buildings dating back to the 1600s, you’ll marvel at the steep, thatched roofed farmhouses that are said to resemble praying hands.
How to do it: Our 14-day Discover Japan tour includes two days in Takayama and a visit to the Hida No Sato folk village
5: Take in the fall colours at a Kyoto temple
Home to over 2,000 temples, Kyoto is the perfect place to enjoy sweater weather and the magical colours of Japan’s autumn leaves. From the red and yellow colours, known as koyo, to the intense red maple leaves, known as momiji, you can explore the tranquil gardens around the temples and teahouses, capturing the perfect fall photo along the way. A visit to the Fushimi Inari shrine just outside Kyoto lets you walk under the iconic torii gates, featured in the film Memoirs of a Geisha.
How to do it: Our 11-day Back Roads of Japan tour includes two nights in Kyoto with a visit to the Fushimi Inari Shrine