If you’re like many travelers these days, you want to experience local culture when you visit a destination, not just check off the tourist sights. You might want to explore an out-of-the-way neighborhood, learn more about the city’s food or immerse yourself in some distinctive aspect of the area culture.
But in a mega-metropolis like Tokyo, how do you go local, particularly if you don’t speak Japanese? We did a deep dive into the city’s culture, and here’s what we recommend for an experience that goes beyond some queue at a museum.
Private local tours
The first step in venturing beyond the standard tourist attractions is to hire a guide who knows the city’s ins and outs. Tours By Locals, a Vancouver-based company, offers private tours led by experienced guides in cities around the world. In Tokyo, for example, your English-speaking guide might take you to a fire ritual ceremony at a Buddhist temple (and explain what you are seeing) or set up a customized pop culture and anime tour.
The Tours By Locals guides provide suggested itineraries, but because these excursions are private, you can tailor your trip to your particular interests and schedule. Simply let your guide know in advance how much time you have and what types of things most interest you.
Context Travel also offers private and small-group Tokyo tours on specialized topics, from Japanese design and architecture to the history of the city’s geisha district.
Japanese cooking classes
What better way to begin understanding a culture than through its food? And while the Japanese capital can give you amazing food experiences in restaurants like the intimate Sushi Kanesaka in the Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Palace Hotel Tokyo, consider enjoying a cooking workshop and a meal in a Japanese home. Many hotels, including the Four-Star Shangri-La Hotel, Tokyo, can arrange private cooking classes; talk with the concierge staff for assistance.
Another option is to book an evening of foodie fun through a company that matches travelers with meal hosts. When you reserve with EatWith, you might join a local couple for a tour of a neighborhood supermarket and a sushi-making workshop in a local’s traditional Tokyo home, complete with tips on proper chopstick technique and other advice on Japanese dining etiquette.
BonAppetour affords other home-cooking choices, like the opportunity to get to know a local family over dinner. You’ll join them in the kitchen to prepare okonomiyaki (a traditional meat-and-vegetable pancake from Osaka) or learn to make a classic rolled omelet.
For either service, check the respective websites for details about the available hosts and cooking options, and to make reservations.
A day at the bathhouse
Communal bathing is an important element of Japanese culture. Even if you can’t get out to the countryside to bathe in a natural onsen (hot spring), you can soak in the city by spending a few hours at a local spa. Four-Star The Spa at Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi has its own onsen, as does Four-Star Yu, The Spa at Hotel Chinzanso Tokyo.
For an upscale bath experience beyond the hotels, consider a day at Spa Laqua, centrally located inside Tokyo Dome City. This expansive facility, with separate areas for men and women, has multiple pools of different temperatures fed by natural underground hot springs.
Remember to shower thoroughly before entering the baths, and note that bathing suits are not permitted.