There is no bad time to visit, but when autumn or? As Aki approaches, our thoughts happily return to Japan’s famous fall colors and ideal temperatures for exploration. We’ve missed the dynamic people, food and sights SO MUCH and can’t wait for culturally curious travelers like you to join us now that entry restrictions have been eased. Of course, we tend to seek far from ordinary experiences beyond the cherry blossoms and bustling cities. Join us as we share five unique ways to immerse yourself in Japanese culture (like train with a samurai master!) and make meaningful connections with local communities.
1: Stay in a traditional monastery
Make your way to Koyasan, the center of Buddhism in Japan, and spend the night at Mount Koya Temple – a working monastery founded in 816 by Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi. Located 800 meters atop Mount Koya, a train takes you up the mountain to reach the monastery, which is recognized as one of the most beautiful train journeys in Japan. Here you will have the rare opportunity to spend time with the monks, observe their morning prayers and explore the tranquil monastic grounds. Feel uplifted at the moss-covered Oku-no-in cemetery, one of the most sacred sites in Koyasan with the mausoleum of the Kobo Daishi.
How to do it: Our 9-Day Japan Express: Osaka to Tokyo Tour includes an overnight stay at Mount Koya Temple
2: Spend time with elders in Hagi
If you are looking for a truly immersive cultural experience, the Hagi Homestay sees elderly residents open their homes, share meals and teach you their traditional way of life. The rural farming and fishing community is located on Japan’s southern coast, nestled among rice paddies, forests, and pristine beaches. With no direct train routes, Hagi stays well off the tourist trail and has seen the younger generation migrate to cities for work, leaving behind an aging population. Created to create happiness and purpose for Hagi’s aging residents, the Hagi Elder Homestay is supported by our non-profit partner, Planeterra, and benefits from over 150 Hagi community members. You sleep on traditional shikibutonbeds, learn to cook meals with your host, and enjoy a bike ride through the Hagi region, taking in the city’s samurai architecture and coastal paths along the Sea of Japan.
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 invigorated by the ancient art of Kembu, which honors the culture of the Japanese warrior class, the infamous samurai. Meet Kembu masters and learn about the strict code of ethics and devotion to duty that existed among the samurai between the 12th and 19th centuries. You will learn to wield a samurai sword and master the basic movements of this delicate art form used by samurai to improve concentration and express their warrior spirit.
How to do it: Our 12-Day National Geographic Journeys Iconic Japan tour includes a highlight with Kembu Masters
4: Explore a traditional folk village
The mountainous city of Takayama has retained its traditional customs and accents, unlike many other Japanese cities, and continues to capture the imagination of travelers. With limited visitors to combat pre-pandemic overcrowding, now is the perfect time to explore Takayama’s unique history. You can visit the nearby folk village of Hida No Sato and wander the quaint streets lined with sake breweries and craft shops. With buildings dating back to the 1600s, you’ll marvel at the steep thatched farmhouses said to resemble praying hands.
How to do it: Our 14-day Discover Japan tour includes two days in Takayama and a visit to Hida No Sato folk village
5: Enjoy the fall colors at a temple in Kyoto
Home to over 2,000 temples, Kyoto is the perfect place to enjoy sweater weather and the magical colors of the Japanese fall leaves. From the red and yellow colors known as koyo to the intense red maple leaves known as momiji , you can explore the tranquil gardens surrounding the temples and teahouses and capture the perfect fall photo along the way. A visit to the Fushimi Inari Shrine just outside of 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