If you feel like you lost a bit of yourself during COVID….perhaps your mojo? Your wanderlust? Your general sense of purpose? You’re not alone.
Many of us are not only keen to get back into our travels, but we’re looking to take restorative holidays, consciously undertaking activities that help us re-connect our body and soul.
With its innate reverence and long history of meditation, arts and crafts, and beauty everywhere you look, as well as being known for its unique and long-running wellbeing traditions (from onsens to the art of kintsugi, shiatsu… the list goes on) Japan is the ideal destination for finding yourself again. Here are some ideas to get you thinking about what a mindful, meditative and mojo-restoring holiday might look like in some of Japan’s lesser-known destinations….
1) Engage your Right Brain with Japanese Art Therapy: Kutani Ceramic Painting at The Kutani Kosen Kiln in Kanazawa
Pottery is actually super beneficial for stress relief, and it’s a form of mindfulness meditation. Painting is a right-brained activity that will help you focus less on the problems at hand, by putting your focus on an external activity. Kutani ceramic painting is a hands-on and archetypally Japanese experience. The Kutani Kosen Kiln is Kanazawa’s only such ceramic kiln and invites tourists in to witness the “potter’s lathe to the final glaze”. The best part is you can actually participate in the painting process and take a ready-made saucer or cup, create your own design and colour it using traditional paints and pigments. Even better is they’ll bake your masterpiece and have it delivered to your home address.
2) In Nagano: Make Like a Monk and Explore the Foundations of Buddhism
Known as one of Japan’s most open and welcoming temples (as well as one of its oldest), Zenko-ji in Nagano offers visitors of any faith and background the opportunity to try several key Buddhist practices. All led by resident monks, ‘goma’ prayer (fire ceremony), ‘shakyo’ (calligraphy) and ‘zazen’ (seated meditation) experiences are on offer, as well as numerous amulets, prayer books, and icons to buy. ‘Shakyo’, or the tracing the sutras in a form of calligraphy, is a beautiful way to allow your body and mind to harmonise – Japanese believe the words flow through you; and through the silence and awareness this studied practice becomes a form of meditation. Shakyo originated before printing and was the primary way of diffusing the teachings of Buddha. Now, the practice is done as a form of prayer, and copying sutras can help someone obtain various blessings.
3) In Kanazawa: Find Harmony and Beauty on the Rails
If you find your sense of balance and purpose through food, you may want to consider a ride on the JR Hanayome Noren, a popular luxury train based on the concept of harmony and beauty. A sightseeing train, it makes two round trips daily between Kanazawa Station and the hot spring resort of Wakura Onsen. Soak up the gorgeous interiors of the train: walls decorated with yuzen silk patterns, booths separated by traditional wooden lattices, carpets with patterns resembling stepping stones in a Japanese garden. The journey is just as amazing as the destination, Wakura Onsen, a 1200 year old luxury hot spring resort on Nanao Bay (the coast). One of Japan’s most iconic wellness attractions, the onsen (or hot spring), is naturally enriched with vitamins and minerals from subterranean volcanic activity beneath the archipelago. Your jaw will drop at the views of the sea stretching out from the window. Warm your body and enjoy the silky smooth water on your skin in this ocean onsen.
4) In Kamikochi (Nagano): Surround Yourself with Untamed Wilderness During a Half-day Trek in the Japanese Alps
Japan’s Nagano prefecture boasts stunning natural landscapes, famous castles, and breathtaking shrines. You’ve probably heard of the popular Nagano snow monkeys, but you might not know about the idyllic national park with an active volcano. With stunning mountain views, crystal clear waters, and well-placed food huts, Kamikochi National Park is one of the best Japanese Alps hiking experiences. Exploring Kamikochi is one of the best things to do in Nagano – if you do a half day trek, the best thing about Kamikochi hiking is the diverse landscape: you’ll cross a winding river (the Azusa River has the cleanest, clearest water you might have ever seen) pass beneath towering trees, and balance on wooden planks suspended over a marsh, among other wild adventures. The Myojin Pond is a must experience. They have built a dock out into the pond, so you can feel surrounded by untamed wilderness, relax and listen to all of the natural sounds surrounding you, and lose yourself in the moment. Springtime, or Mid-May through late October, is the best time to visit Kamikochi, as the trails are closed from mid-November to late April.
5) In Kanazawa: Tea Ceremony and Garden Walk at Gyokusen-en Garden (Nishida Family Garden)
Peaceful, silent and perfectly maintained, this family-owned garden is the perfect place to enjoy the ritual of a Japanese tea ceremony. Rich in history, Wakita Naotaka started designing and constructing the garden in the middle of the 17th century, and four generations of his family carried on the landscaping of the garden. The matcha ceremony is a wonderful experience, where you’ll learn the correct way of participating (rather than feeling like it’s a show). After the tea ceremony, take your time to indulge in some ‘forest bathing’ as you explore the stunning garden. There are a large number of plants in the garden, including a huge Korean pentaphylla pine that Naotaka and his father raised after they obtained the seed from Korea. If you go at night, you might even see the fireflies come alight!
6) In Kanazawa / Toyama: Embrace Your Inner Warrior
Take the Shinkansen from Kanazawa to Toyama for about 30 minutes and experience the samurai way of life at Toyama Castle Park, dressing up in authentic armour including helmets and kimonos, and riding horses. The Park has 500 years of history as the residence of the Maeda clan during the Edo period. Surrounded by lush greenery, the park offers a striking view of the castle’s moat and tower. This is a unique experience that makes you feel as if you’ve fought your way back to the time of feudal-era Japan.
7) In Kanazawa: Try the kintsugi technique
Directly translating to “golden journey”, kintsugi is the meditative Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with a special lacquer dusted in gold, silver or platinum and is tied to the philosophy of wabi-sabi, embracing the flawed or imperfect. Today, most gold used to fix ceramics with the kintsugi technique in Japan can be traced back to Kanazawa, which produces 99% of all domestic gold leaf.
The Asano store in the Higashi Chaya District runs a course that involves choosing shapes to apply to items (boxes, small plates, a glass, mirror or tray) and sticking them on, while the apprentice one involves wrapping gold leaf on chopstick handles or postcards.
8) In Dorogwa: Relax, reflect, rejuvenate and sample some folk medicine in a charming onsen town
Lying deep in Nara’s central mountains, the traditional hot spring town of Dorogawa retains a serene, spiritual atmosphere that attracts pilgrims from all over the world. Pure mountain spring water and restorative hot springs that originate on sacred Mt. Omine have established this small onsen town as a place to heal fatigue and injuries, and for more modern-day visitors, a place to relax, reflect and rejuvenate.
Each year in August, practitioners of Shegundo, an ascetic form of Buddhism, arrive in the town dressed in white robes to begin their pilgrimage to Mt. Omine. The folk medicine daranisuke has roots in the esoteric Shugendo community practising in the Yoshino and Omine mountains. Legend says it was developed by the sect’s founder. The dark black pellets made from tree bark are a natural remedy for maladies ranging from stomach aches to hangovers. Found in households throughout Nara, it is readily available at shops in Dorogawa and Yoshino.
9) In Yoshino: Experience the Art of Forest Bathing
If you’re feeling tech-boom burnout, forest bathing could be just the kind of ecotherapy you need. Put simply, forest bathing is about spending time immersed in nature, reconnecting with the natural world. First introduced by the Japanese Forestry Agency in 1982, Shinrin-yoku or ‘forest therapy’ is now a recognised health-management system for preventive health, wellness, and healing.
Located in Nara’s mountainous region just south of ancient Asuka, the town of Yoshino is a place of deep spiritual and cultural significance, offering spectacular views and fascinating Buddhist culture. Yoshino has offered Shinrin-yoku walks since 2013 – offering visitors the perfect opportunity to grab their hiking boots and enjoy a guided meditative excursion through sacred Japanese nature.
10) Ashizuri-Uwakai National Park, Shikoku: Snorkel to a Mysterious Japanese Shrine
Love the feeling of genuine peace when being underwater? Snorkelling to a mysterious shrine that can only be reached by boat – Yura Shrine – is not only a beautiful journey, but is also said to bring good fortune and luck in love to those who visit. So what are you waiting for?!
The curious distance between the sea and the torii gate, and the approach to the shrine that leads to the crystal clear sea make this a mystical spot to see. The ocean stretches out in front of the shrine, offering a great snorkelling environment abundant with coral reefs and colourful fish.