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    16 Unique Experiences That'll Give You A Taste Of Japanese Culture

    Forget Robot Restaurant and themed cafés — there's a whole other Japan beyond touristy Tokyo.

    1. Visit a cat shrine.

    Laura Studarus / Via Instagram: @laura_studarus

    One of the more overlooked temples in Tokyo is Gōtoku-ji, located in the neighborhood of Setagaya. This quiet outpost is home to the original "waving cat." To bring the opportunity for luck into your life, buy one at the gift shop — and then return it to the shrine once its purpose has been fulfilled. Or, you know, just keep it as the ultimate souvenir.

    2. Eat bean candy made by fourth-generation candymakers.

    Laura Studarus / Via Instagram: @laura_studarus

    If you’re in Japan with any type of sweet tooth, chances are you’ve sampled red bean, the flavor that populates nearly every form of dessert. But have you heard of green adzuki beans? The emerald-colored legume is used to make jewellike candy at Azumaya, a shop located in Mie Prefecture near the Misugi resort. The fourth-generation candy creators make batches on large cast-iron stoves, meaning a constant supply of fresh treats.

    3. Become a Studio Ghibli character.

    Laura Studarus / Via Instagram: @laura_studarus

    Hayao Miyazaki’s lavish cartoons have become one of Japan’s creative calling cards. On the island of Shōdoshima in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, fans can get close to Kiki, the titular teen witch of the 1989 film Kiki’s Delivery Service. Located deep in the heart of the island’s Olive Park is a white windmill that inspired the film’s most iconic location. Grab the ultimate selfie by jumping with a broom, provided by the park for free.

    4. Meet the world’s only onsen-loving monkeys.

    Laura Studarus / Via Instagram: @laura_studarus

    The onsen-loving “snow monkeys” of Jigokudani Monkey Park are unique because their behavior is learned rather than instinctual; however, researchers have determined that their soak actually lowers stress hormones. (Relatable.) For the ultimate photo opp, pick a colder month when they're more likely to be in the mood for a hot bath. Bonus: If all that simian appreciation has you hankering for tub time, book a room down the hill in Shibu Onsen to visit the tiny village’s nine bathhouses.

    5. Enjoy modern crop circles.

    Wikipedia / Captain76 (Public Domain) / Via en.wikipedia.org

    Who needs aliens when you’ve got the residents of Inakadate, Japan? In 1993, the community of rice farmers started creating dramatic scenes in their fields meant to be viewed from above. This is an exercise in big, bigger, biggest, as each work takes an estimated 1,200 locals and $35,000 to make. Sure, this is a blatant bid for tourism, but who can argue with the results?

    6. Hike next to a smoking volcano.

    Laura Studarus / Via Instagram: @laura_studarus

    Who needs Iceland snaps? Grab the ultimate photo of untamed nature in Hokkaido, where you can achieve the ultimate brag by (safely) hiking next to a smoking volcano. Climb the cragged peaks of Asahi-dake, or stroll next to sulfurous plumes at Meakan-dake. While most Japanese national parks have a view and an onsen (a bonus in this highly geothermic area of Japan), this is the ultimate untamed wilderness — conveniently located a short bus ride from civilization.

    7. Stay in a hotel room designed by a Japanese artist.

    8. Pay respect to the dead…dolls.

    Kazuhiro Nogi / Getty Images

    Many villages in Japan are suffering from declining populations as the younger generation leaves to find work in cities. In Nagoro, where there are now fewer than 40 living residents, they’ve dealt with this shift by creating a doll for each resident who dies. This new silent population, outnumbering the living 10 to 1, is everywhere, sitting patiently in class, out fishing, working the fields, and living in nearly empty houses, all the creations of Tsukimi Ayano. If you visit, walk carefully; you never know when a friendly local will pop up.

    9. Slurp burnt ramen.

    10. Celebrate the penis.

    Wikipedia / Saya M. (CC BY-SA 2.0) / Via en.wikipedia.org

    Get your head out of the gutter — the Shinto Kanamara Matsuri (“Festival of the Steel Phallus") celebrated the first Sunday in April is actually a fertility festival and a chance to raise money for HIV research. One that necessitates penis-shaped lollipops and a phallic shrine. Okay, go ahead, laugh.

    11. Survive a Godzilla attack.

    Laura Studarus / Via Instagram: @laura_studarus

    If you’ve come to Japan for its geek culture reputation — good call. You’ll find plenty to indulge in around the capital city, including Godzilla Road in Shinjuku, where every hour between 12 p.m.–8 p.m. the titular lizard (umm…sorry, kaiju) stages an attack. If you’re looking to see eye to eye with the titular beast, you can also book a Godzilla room at the nearby Hotel Gracery, where along with your lodging you’ll get a secret set of special effects.

    12. See Kusama’s signature pumpkins in the wild.

    Kimon Berlin (CC BY-SA 2.0) / Via Flickr: kimon

    Yayoi Kusama’s eye-bending infinity rooms have become an Instagram staple. However, the contemporary Japanese artist is a master of many mediums, including sculpture, where she often plays with oversize pumpkins and polka-dot motifs chosen exclusively because they make her happy. Seeing them in the wild, it’s hard not to sense the creator’s joy, which you can experience firsthand via Yellow Pumpkin and Red Pumpkin, both located in Naoshima. No time to head out to the remote prefecture? There's also a gallery in Tokyo dedicated to the brilliant creator.

    13. Lick sake ice cream.

    Laura Studarus / Via Instagram: @laura_studarus

    Japan goes in hard for ice cream, which makes sense given that in regions like Hokkaido there are almost as many cows as people. Try sake ice cream with traditional rice wine poured into every creamy bite. Then, while you’re at it, don’t forget to sample other traditionally Japanese flavors, including matcha, ume, black sesame, wasabi, and kinako (aka roasted soybean powder). If you're feeling daring, Shodoshima, where a large portion of the nation's soy sauce is produced, offers an ice cream with the distinct salty flavoring in shops and factories across the island.

    14. Hug a mascot…for practically everything.

    Mondo Mascots / Via Twitter: @mondomascots

    While not all mascots have managed worldwide popularity quite like Kumamon or Chiitan, in Japan, there’s rarely a shop, neighborhood, city, region or cause without a mascot. Be sure to keep your eyes out for these human–animal hybrids both in cartoon and furry form. Need more info on their elaborate backstories or not sure what you’re seeing? Don’t worry, there’s a Twitter account for that.

    15. Chow down on a black egg in Hakone.

    David Monniaux (CC BY-SA 3.0) / Via en.wikipedia.org

    Located next to Mount Hakone is “Hell Valley,” a geothermic area that’s still letting off steam. Locals have used the power source to create the ultimate snack — “kuro-tamago,” which translates literally to “black egg.” To see where they’re boiled, take a ride on the ironically scenic Hakone Ropeway to Hell, then head to just about any store, roadside stand, or gift shop to grab your charcoal-looking, normal-tasting snack, which has been cooking for over an hour in the nearby springs. Local legend states that eating one will add seven years to your life — so chow down.

    16. Get your vending machine on — all 5 million of them.

    Laura Studarus / Via Instagram: @laura_studarus

    Yes, the rest of the world has vending machines. But no one does drinks on demand QUITE like Japan, where in addition to soda, hot and cold tea, and specialty beverages (milk soda, anyone?) you can grab fresh bananas, hot meals, socks, ramen, and toys. If you don’t know what neighborhood you’re in, they can also act as lo-fi location devices, as regions like the Gion district in Kyoto, Nara, and Shibuya often paint them to reflect the local mascot, culture, and icons. Just make sure to carry your trash with you; vending machines are common, but trash cans are unicorn-level rare.

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