When visiting a country, there’s often a desire to grasp its essence and immerse oneself in local traditions. Observing people, their mannerisms, and seizing every opportunity to ask questions become second nature. One of the finest ways to truly delve into a local culture is by partaking in a typical cultural experience of the country.
Japan, with its rich history and traditions, offers an array of cultural experiences tailored even for English-speaking tourists, a selection that expands with each passing year. Nowhere is this more evident than in Tokyo, where the options for activities and tourist experiences are remarkably diverse and plentiful. Beyond the classic tea ceremonies and kimono dressing sessions, there are countless other unique experiences to be had. In a city like Tokyo, the range of activities spans from tradition to modernity, ensuring that whatever your interest, a workshop or experience is waiting for you!
Personally, it’s the cultural aspect that captivates me the most. That’s why I’ve ventured to try and collect some cultural experiences in Tokyo that I highly recommend for your journey.
Cultural Experience in Tokyo
Classic experiences such as tea ceremony or kimono dressing, are great classics that you can find in many Japanese cities even less famous, as in the pretty Kitsuki Town, where I walked among Samurai houses wearing a Kimono, for this reason, I’ll not include those ones into special experiences to do in Tokyo, although they are absolutely interesting and recommended. Actually, I recommend doing the tea ceremony in Kyoto, there is a more realistic atmosphere in my opinion 😀
Samurai Kembu Experience
***ATTENTION: CURRENTLY AVAILABLE AT AN AFFORDABLE PRICE ONLY IN KYOTO***
Another interesting cultural experience to do in Tokyo is to turn yourself into a Samurai!
Ok, not a real samurai on the battlefield, but a theater samurai. Kembu is a theatrical art that mixes katana techniques with delicate movements on music. The family of Ryuou has been handed down this art for 4 generations and today the Samurai Kembu Experience is one of the most interesting and particular experiences you can make during your trip to Tokyo.
You will see a Kembu performance, after which it will be your shift to wear the hakama, the traditional dress, and wield the katana! Will be explained the basic movements and you will notice that is not so easy to handle with elegance this sword.
You’ll learn basic movements and their meaning, and you will feel real Samurai warriors preparing for the duel. The teacher will answer your questions patiently and will carefully correct your posture, and at the end if you want, a video of your performance will be recorded.
At the end of the experience, you will be taken a photo frame and issued a certificate of participation, a wonderful memory of your version Samurai!
You can choose the short experience for an hour or the full version for just under two hours and the price varies from 4,000yen (if you choose not to wear the costume) to 10,500yen for the option that includes a performance by Kembo complete of the Master, which also includes song and fan dance.
Traditional Dinner on Yakatabune Boat
Yakatabune are traditional wooden boats adorned with classic paper lanterns outside and tatami mats inside, where traditional Japanese food is served. Originally used by the nobility during the Edo period, these boats were used for dining and celebration on the Sumida River during summer evenings, often to view fireworks from a privileged position.
Today, these 3-hour cruises with dinner on board are often chosen by companies for corporate events, but there are also many dedicated to private clients, offering everyone the chance to dine while cruising the river, admiring the city lights to Odaiba Bay.
The dinner is a traditional kaiseki meal, featuring various small portions such as tempura, sashimi, boiled meat, vegetables, rice, grilled fish, and more, offering an excellent way to sample the classic Japanese course.
During the cruise, it’s also possible to climb onto the roof of the Yakatabune and take beautiful night photos, especially near the Rainbow Bridge. There are several companies that own these Yakatabune, but often there is no English assistance. Yakatabune Amitatsu offers foreign-friendly service, or you can find options on platforms like Klook. Prices range from around 15,000 to 17,000 yen.
In spring, during the cherry blossom season, Yakatabune cruises are also offered during the day, allowing guests to lunch while enjoying the cherry blossoms along the Sumida River.
Cooking a Totoro Bento Box
Staying on the topic of food, one unusual and absolutely typical thing in Japan is to prepare cute and aesthetically pleasing obento (lunch boxes) composed of balanced food, usually rice, vegetables, eggs, and proteins. A particular aspect is creating the so-called Kyaraben, a character bento inspired by anime characters. So why not take the opportunity to participate in a cooking class where you can prepare (and eat) a lovely Totoro bento? I attended this cooking class thanks to my company, but anyone can book it directly, and it costs 10,000 yen.
Step by step, you’ll be guided on how to cook the various elements that will make up the lunchbox. After that, you’ll have fun assembling and decorating your own bento before enjoying it together! The ingredients are simple and generally available even after returning home, making it not only a fun experience but also a learning one that can be applied later on.
Customized Maneki Neko
The Maneki Neko, the famous kitten with a raised paw, is one of the classic symbols of Japan and here in Tokyo there is even a dedicated temple, which seems to be the place of origin of this lucky charm. There are so many souvenir shops where you can buy a maneki neko, but having a personalized and unique souvenir of the trip to Japan is definitely something fabulous!
In Yanaka, the “old city” north of Ueno Park, also known as the city of cats, you can make this unique cultural experience in Tokyo to customize your Maneki Neko.
In the Café Nekoemon (Neko = cat) in fact, in addition to a choice of cakes with feline shapes, it’s also possible customize and color your own maneki neko: you can choose the size and which paw you prefer (left brings money and luck, right ones brings customers) and decorate it as you wish with colored felt-tip pens, bringing you an original personalized souvenir at home!
The set of maneki neko + sweet and drink starts from 1,620yen and you can order more than one per person (in case you would like to make personalized gifts)!
Traditional Craft Workshop
While Tokyo may not have the long history and ancient traditions of Kyoto, during the Edo period, local craftsmanship flourished, especially to meet the growing demand of the nobility. In the shitamachi, or “downtown” of Tokyo, particularly in the areas of Asakusa and Sumida ward, many artists and artisans relocated, working here to create unique pieces using and refining traditional techniques. Many descendants of these artisans still practice in their small, super-local workshops, and some offer workshops where you can create your own unique souvenir.
At Atelier Sougeikan, you can personalize paper lanterns in the same traditional and manual way the craftsman still creates them today for various festivals and events. The small workshop is an incredible place, with paper lanterns of various sizes and designs hanging from the ceiling, and the craftsman doesn’t speak a word of English… but the workshop is well-equipped with English instructions, step-by-step photos, and a portable translator. It’s a true experience, the place is super Instagrammable, and painting the lanterns is more intricate than it seems! Price: 4,000 yen.
At Tsukada Koubu, artisan Tsukada Sensei creates stunning Kimekomi dolls: paulownia wood dolls covered with silk fabric scraps. The kimekomi technique originated in Kyoto and developed and enriched in ancient Tokyo during the Edo period when many Edo Kimekomi dolls were in demand for the Hina Matsuri celebration, given the refined details of the kimonos worn by these dolls. In his workshop, you can create a pendant using this traditional technique for only 1,980 yen.
Lastly, I recommend Sokichi, where you can customize a glass using the Edo Kiriko technique, which involves decorating glass by carving it with water. Once you’ve decided on the design, it’s processed on the appropriate machine which, depending on the pressure applied to the glass, carves it, creating beautiful patterns that play with light and shadow. Trust me, every time I drink from the glass I created, it’s a moving experience! This experience is available in English, and the cost varies depending on the glass, starting from 3,600 yen.
In addition to the classical cultural experiences in Tokyo there are also many other funny and unconventional experiences, like turning into Mario and driving a kart through the streets of the city or a visit to one of the many strange and particular restaurants and cafes, but I’ll talk about them in a future post.
If there are any particular experiences that you would like to try, let me know, I’ll go to try them for you and review them!
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