Unveiling Japan's richest
cultural experiences
An XO Private Story by Zoila Checa
Kyoto Streets by Sorakan
Japan, an extremely hot destination at the moment, offers a rich tapestry of traditional experiences and cultural heritage, from historical sites and quiet temples to immersive cultural practices and pulsating festivals. Whether it's participating in a tea ceremony, learning the practice of Ikebana (flower arranging), how to make sushi, or exploring ancient Kyoto, visitors can genuinely connect with Japan's unique traditions and timeless beauty.

It is truly on vogue, and everyone wants to discover a rich slice of Japan, with the authenticity being offered and cultural immersions that you can be part of being simply unparalleled. Needless to say, at XO Private we have a number of truly exceptional members who cover specific aspects of the country and are instrumental in creating once-in-a-lifetime journeys or experiences in the region.

First off there are two exquisite experience operators in Japan that also work closely together with DMC’s: My Taiken, where its masters and traditional families present the ultimate traditional art forms of Japan, and Maison Kissako, where food takes its much-deserved centre stage amongst a wide variety of luxurious experiences.
My Taiken experiences
Founded by Sebastien Moncus, originally from Brittany, France, My Taiken’s story is certainly an inspiring one. “Growing up in Brittany, a region renowned for its vibrant cultural heritage, particularly in Lorient, a city steeped in maritime history and longstanding trade connections with Asia, including notable events like the interceltic festival, my upbringing was immersed in diverse cultural experiences. Through school activities introducing theatre and global music instruments, friends and family connections, I engaged with people from various cultural backgrounds, reflecting my own mixed heritage of Celtic culture and Italian roots. This exposure ignited my enduring fascination with exploring new cultures”, says Sebastien.

Plus, for him, the intersections between cultures are also a fascinating subject to explore, even pointing out how it's been suggested that a deity in Japan may have in fact influenced the character and legends of Merlin! As it turns out, when he was still a very young soul studying at a business school in France, he had the opportunity of travelling to Japan as an exchange student at Sophia University, an international institution located in Central Tokyo with a rich history and great programs.

It was during his precious time in Tokyo where he met his future wife, who could speak French, and her family, who holds a significant position in Japanese culture as one of the four Grand Master families that founded Noh theatre approximately 700 years ago. Of course, gathering all these influences together, it was only a matter of time before Sebastien found his true calling in Japan.

“When Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Olympics, inbound tourism became an increasingly significant topic. Intrigued, I delved into research and discovered existing general platforms for travel experiences. Drawing from my previous personal and professional experiences, it felt like a natural progression to create a specialised service centered on introducing guests to traditional Japanese culture during their visits to Japan. Thus, I founded My Taiken, a service connecting travellers with masters of various traditional performing arts, including my in-laws for Noh theatre, to curate private and tailor-made cultural experiences”, he explains joyfully.
For him, there are a myriad of aspects leading to Japan’s popularity, including the well-known juxtaposition of modernity and tradition, alongside the societal norms of respect, politeness, cleanliness, and high service standards. But he insists: “As someone inherently curious and open to exploration, what captivates me most about Japan is its boundless wellspring of inspiration, discoveries, and opportunities for self-improvement. While every culture possesses its own unique charm, Japan's allure appears amplified. From sports to traditional and modern culture, spirituality and cuisine, Japan offers something for everyone.

Japan's rich cultural tapestry has been shaped over centuries by its adept absorption of elements from other cultures, notably from China. This cultural assimilation continues to define Japan's identity, evident in their adaptation of foreign foods and products to suit their own tastes and preferences. Traditional masters also note that foreigners may experience a sense of déjà vu, as the arts incorporate elements from foreign cultures and illustrates the universal character of Japanese culture. There are also numerous collaborations with Noh and other art forms such as theatre, opera, and jazz music on a global scale”.
My Taiken, Noh Theatre Lobby
What’s more, Japan also invites us to re-evaluate our relationship with time. Art forms created nearly a millennium ago can seem distant at first, but they continue to resonate in our lives today. In the country, ancient practices, performances, and knowledge are still actively celebrated, and this can have a calming and reassuring effect, with many of these enactments offering a sense of tranquillity and providing visitors with a priceless moment to pause and reflect.

“I am also struck by the resilience of young people, and increasingly women, who continue to pursue traditional performing arts as their life's calling and career path, despite the challenges they may encounter. This conviction is one of the driving forces behind the establishment of My Taiken, aimed at providing support to these individuals and cultural heritage through various initiatives”, says Sebastien, whose company specialises in performing arts that flourished and were popularised during the Muromachi period (1336 – 1573) (such as Noh, Ikebana, calligraphy, and the tea ceremony).

From all the grand experiences they offer in Japan, their most special one is certainly the ‘Noh Discovery Experience’. With a 600-year history, he explains, Noh is a symbolic form of theatre adapted from Japanese traditional literature. Originally performed for the Shogun (the military ruling class) and nobility, it has become a more popularised form of entertainment with the pass of time.

As he describes, Noh is a striking blend of traditional carved masks (omote), elaborate brocade costumes, and instruments, in which the main actors (shité), secondary actors (waki), musicians and chorus are perfectly synchronised. “A key feature is the main actor, who wears an iconic mask representing his character, and who through symbolic and highly stylised movements, expresses an elegant beauty and a deep feeling of humanity”, says Sebastien.
Traditional experience in Noh Theatre
Masks at the Noh Experience with My Taiken
Additionally, the Noh theatre, or Nogaku-do, is an austere yet honourable space, with a stage designed around specific historical elements that enhance the experience. “As one of the oldest surviving forms of theatre in the world today, Noh has been designated an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO, recognised as a classical form of Japanese dance and musical theatre. But beyond being a performing art, Noh is a comprehensive ecosystem encompassing various disciplines, families, and expertise.

Understanding Noh can be challenging for foreigners, so we tailor the content and explanations based on the interests of our guests, whether they are first-time attendees or repeat visitors. We offer premium and exclusive experiences tailored for families, couples, groups of friends, business professionals, VIPs, and artists alike”, he further clarifies.
Noh Theatre
Certainly, apart from their definite specialisation in performing arts, My Taiken is a force to be reckoned with in Japan for many other reasons. In fact, their collaboration with all the companies involved in the travel industry supply chain means they can offer much more flexibility and customised solutions: “While advancements in booking, travel management technology, and digital approaches enhance the guest experience, we value cultivating close relationships with our partners and exchanging ideas. Witnessing their passion, admiration, and extensive experience in Japan travel serves as both inspiration and additional motivation for us”.

Furthermore, he adds: “Being part of the XO private network provides us with the opportunity to communicate with a team possessing extensive experience, bridging stakeholders across borders and cultural specificities, and actively contributing to the preservation of traditional culture—an endeavour we are deeply excited about”.

As the only foreign insider within a Grand Master traditional performing arts family in Japan, Sebastien leverages his position to design experiences in collaboration with a web of top-level masters. Additionally, he keenly participates in each experience to provide extra information and foster meaningful interactions with guests. Beyond purely discovering the arts, My Taiken’s experiences offer guests a unique opportunity for cultural exchange and to fuel their imagination in shaping their own perception of the country.
My Taiken's entertainment in Japan
However, what also holds a great power over shaping one’s perception of a place is certainly the food scene, and no one can beat Maison Kissako at his own game. Although the company offers all sorts of grand experiences in Japan, they are a foodie expert at heart.

Founded by Tsubasa Kaieda, the company is just one year old, but he’s been running luxury tourism activities and tours for 10 years since 2014. Maison Kissako is a collective of travel designers who focus on creating unique travel activities for VIPs only in referral basis and for private tours. Prior to COVID, they predominantly offered sushi and fish market related VIP activities such as sushi making class with Michelin-starred sushi chefs, since he used to work at a tuna dealer in the world’s biggest Tsukiji fish market (current ‘Toyosu Market’). Today, they have now expanded the area of tours and activities to other fields such as ramen-making with a Michelin-listed chef and tea ceremonies booking a temple privately, for instance.
Sushi Insider experience with Maison Kissako
From his own perspective, the uniqueness of Japanese culture derives from historically being a civilization of translation and interpretation: “I would say almost all of Japanese culture is a Japanised version of foreign cultures such as the Chinese (letters/foods/religions/cloths/politics/poetry), Korean (foods/culture, etc.), and the West (manufacturing/modernity/military/science/food). We are so used to mixing what other people do and have with what we have for an improvement and invention, that once visitors come to Japan they also become a part of Japanese culture. This creates the uniqueness of Japanese culture and it’s fascinating to me”.

From all of Maison Kissako’s experiences in Japan, their most standout one is definitely their ‘Sushi Insider Tokyo’, which includes a tuna auction, a Toyosu wholesale tour and a sushi-making experience, all from 5:00 - 9:00 am.

Following a van pick-up bright an early at their hotel, visitors first view the exciting tuna auction from the mezzanine or third floor, depending on the result of a lottery held previously. At the auction, they are then given a detailed explanation of how the process works and the auction prices. 
“After the auction visit, guests are taken to the wholesale area, which is generally off-limits to tourists. The itinerary includes visits to about five to seven shops, including Yamago, which supplies Tempura Kondo, and Yamayuki, a tuna wholesaler that is purveyor to Michelin restaurants, where guests can talk to the people inside and are allowed into the shops while touring the market”, says Tsubasa.

Later, the tour takes guests to a teashop on the 4th floor of the 6th district, where many Michelin-starred restaurants are present, including Sukiyabashi Jiro. There they can buy Sencha green tea and explore a kitchenware shop specialising in hand-made products frequented by high-end restaurants, as well as a knife shop that has been around since the Edo period (from 1603 until 1868, when the Tokugawa family ruled Japan).

“After the market tour, guests will be guided by a van to a counter-only Omakase sushi restaurant in the city for a sushi-making experience with a master trained at a Michelin-starred sushi restaurant. Guests will learn from the chef to make about 10 pieces of seasonal fish in Nigiri sushi, which will be served directly to the guests as breakfast”, he highlights.
Sushi making experience with Maison Kissako
Certainly, Tsubasa and the team only cater insider experiences that are made possible due to his own background and connections. For instance, the Sushi Insider experience was made possible due to his past career as a tuna dealer, while the Zen Insider and Ramen Insider experiences are also possible because a relative and close friend of a member runs a Zen Temple and a Michelin-listed ramen shop.

Additionally, he says: “Our bar hopping tour goes to the member-only speakeasies and referral-only bars as we are the members and some of us worked at those night places. In other words, we open doors that don’t open, or we can put prices on priceless things”. That’s definitely one of the keys to Maison Kissako’s grandeur!
Windows to Japan: Lacquer Shokunin
In a similar way, Windows to Japan, a seasoned Destination Master in Japan, also bases many of its experiences upon personal connections, not merely business ones, but with a distinct ‘handmade’ touch. As Avi Lugasi, founder of the company, poses: “I think the uniqueness of Windows to Japan is that we are not a Tailor-Made company but rather handmade. We first ‘touch lives’ and we do it through handcrafted tours in Japan, not the other way around. That has a big impact on how we do things here”.

For him, originally a northern Israeli who this year celebrates 30 years of living in Japan, one of the most fascinating aspects of Japanese culture isn’t only the dynamic between tradition and the modern, but specifically the Zen part of the culture. Avi in fact spent 3 and a half years at a Zen monastery himself! “The way Zen is interwoven into the daily life, the way of thinking and aesthetic is fascinating. I must say, though, many Japanese themselves are not aware of it until you point it out to them. Moreover, travelling in Japan people meet extreme kindness, support, and generosity as well as safety, which make the travel a memorable experience”, he says.

This all comes through in the activities they normally propose, and although Avi likes to keep the best one a secret only to be revealed only to a fortunate few who end up visiting the country with them, the Dento experience is definitely still one of the finest ones.
It all comes down to a singular experience in which the team were welcomed into an old wooden house when walking through a country village. The interior was modest, yet around them were numerous works of extraordinary craftsmanship that would be celebrated in any museum worldwide. However, in this little village a little North of Kyoto, these were uncelebrated and completely nameless.

That’s how ‘Dento’ as such was born. “Dento denotes tradition, but literally it translates to “passing of the light.” Dento was established to help and protect the knowledge and culture of these incredible craftspeople, to support the search for the next generation of artisans, and to continue the passing of the light”, says Avi.
Dento Experience
With the support of the Japanese government and their own ‘Passing The Light Foundation’, Windows to Japan works with universities, art schools and other crafts and technical institutions to create programs for young people to sustain the craftsmanship industry of the country. This is then supported by clients travelling to meet these craftsmen and buying the beautiful arts they create.
Windows to Japan: Woodworker
XPERISUS, another grand DMC in Japan, also enjoys deep ties with the culture and its subsequent exquisite arts, but its core values and mission instead seek to create fans of Japan on a global scale through their high-end luxury programs and DMC features.

Curating over 250 high-value-added five-star experiences that are completely experiential, they tailor these to guests and their five senses, also looking to satisfy and elevate their lifestyles.

“Japan enchants with a harmonious blend of tradition and innovation. Its vibrant culture proudly displays timeless customs like tea ceremonies, sumo wrestling, and cherry blossom festivals amidst cutting-edge technological advancements. Precision and attention to detail define daily life, reflected in sublime cuisine and meticulously manicured gardens. A deeply ingrained respect for hierarchy and harmony cultivates societal tranquillity. The Japanese commitment to craftsmanship shines through in art, architecture, and everyday items. Seasonal celebrations such as Hanami (flower viewing) and Matsuri (festival) honour nature's beauty and cultural legacy. Japan's allure stems from its adept preservation of heritage alongside an embrace of modernity, captivating visitors worldwide”, says Tomoyoshi Maruyama, CEO of the company.
Hanami (flower viewing) in Japan by Kentaro Komada
It is precisely through its aim to admire nature’s beauty in Japan that they have created the magnificent Yakushima x LEXUS Plan. As they point out, Yakushima is located in the Southern part of Japan’s Kagoshima region, and is a Natural World Heritage site, as well as one of the most popular nature sites visited globally.

“Nestled amidst bountiful natural landscapes, the Yakushima island offers an array of tailored experiences to cater to every guest's preferences. From immersive trekking adventures to exhilarating sea activities, scenic drives with breathtaking vistas, and indulgent culinary delights; our bespoke tours promise an unparalleled journey unlike any other”, he says.
Yakushima Island by Marek Piwnicki
On day 1, guests take a flight to Yakushima and are offered a guide to the Sankara Hotel on a dedicated car after airport arrival. After a much-deserved rest, the next day they are taken on the unique program to tour the place and natural site with a stunning electric Lexus RZ450e, a ride sure to leave a lasting impression too! But all this exquisiteness is only paralleled by the activities of the third day, which gather visitors for a trekking tour to the ancient forest, aiming for the Jomon cedar (1000+ year old natural Cedar Tree) with an exclusive guide. To sign this off in style, a spectacular brunch is set up on the terrace on the last day, followed by some relaxing time at the SPA before jumping on back on a plane.
Yakushima x LEXUS Plan with XPERISUS
XPERISUS is therefore exclusivity at its best, one of its characteristic signatures. Actually, Tomoyoshi quickly points out not only this, but also their strong personal relationships with Shrines, Temples and local businesses that are normally seclusive to their community, which allows them to offer special programs in their extensive portfolio of over 250 one-of-a-kind experiences, and an in-house team of dynamic creation and sales. “Beyond being a DMC, we function as both program organisers and operators. By internally creating and managing our luxury programs, we provide clients with more flexibility and customisable plans tailored to their preferences”, he explains.
Forest trekking through Yakushima with XPERISUS
For others like Takahiro Noguchi, CEO of the DMC Beauty of Japan, what stands out when exploring Japan’s beauty is actually the vast mixture of several aspects that make it stand out as particularly captivating. This includes the natural landscapes and rich cultural heritage, but also the festivals, hospitality, pop culture, zen aesthetics, and of course the cuisine, with exquisite flavours and detailed or artistic preparations. “From delicate sushi to hearty ramen and local gourmet in each region, each dish is a culinary masterpiece that reflects Japan's reverence for food”, says Taka. Hence why one of the company’s top activities is its culinary adventure, with an exclusive journey through the vibrant fish market of Hyogo.

It was driven by a gap in the American travel market regarding Japan that Taka decided to venture into founding Beauty of Japan in 2014. Despite lacking prior experience and connections in the field, he was taken by the country’s allure, including the magnificent gastronomic culture. In their special culinary adventure, guests are invited into the heart of Japanese seafood culture, with a behind-the-scenes tour of a hidden gem: an off-the-beaten-path fish market that deals exclusively in live fish. 
Japanese cooking in Tokyo by Thomas Marban
Surrounded by a bustling atmosphere, an auction takes place among the curious onlookers, while locals skilfully flip each bucket onto the table, revealing the freshest catches of the day.

“With special access reserved just for our guests, they can gain insight into the intricacies of the auction process and discover the art of selecting the finest seafood. After the exciting experience, guests will witness the demonstration of ‘Shinkei-jime’. Shinkei-jime is a method employed to instantly kill the fish while preserving its freshness and flavour. It involves applying pressure to specific points on the fish's body to disrupt its nervous system and induce immediate unconsciousness, thus minimizing stress. This technique is considered essential for maintaining the quality of fish used in raw dishes like sushi and sashimi, as it helps prevent the release of stress hormones and enzymes that can degrade the taste and texture of the fish”, explains Takahiro enthusiastically.
Live fish auction with Beauty of Japan
Finally, guests visit a nearby sushi restaurant rented out just for them. The top chef is the only sushi chef in town who has a license to attend this auction, so visitors can indulge in a private sushi lunch expertly crafted from the day's bounty. This can be elevated with a curated sake pairing to toast with!

This is an unparalleled experience dear to many travellers, but it is only one of a huge range of options available to all sorts of clients. One of the company's key assets actually lies in their additional consulting department, a specialised division dedicated to providing strategic guidance and expertise to a diverse clientele. Their clients span a range of sectors, says Taka, including government bodies, local municipalities, DMOs, and private enterprises seeking to attract Western tourists. “Often, these entities possess valuable offerings but lack the knowledge and direction to effectively reach their target audience. Drawing upon our extensive marketing expertise and insights garnered from our experiences in DMC, particularly focusing on the affluent Western high-net-worth segment, we collaborate closely with our clients to craft tailored strategies. Our aim is to showcase the unique attractions and experiences they have to offer, ultimately driving increased local consumption by travellers”, he says.

This synergy between consulting and destination management positively positions Beauty of Japan as quite comprehensive and invaluable partner in the tourism industry, but of course each one of the masters mentioned has a distinct edge and approach to Japan’s plentiful offerings. So, whichever our goals are when visiting this rich region, these experts are sure to make it a remarkable and notable experience.
Zoila Checa
Zoila's true passion lies in the art of storytelling, whether that is in print, online, or on screen. Bilingual in English and Spanish since she was born, and versatile by nature, she has a professional background in journalism, travel writing, and screen acting, all of which have led her to live and work in places like London, Madrid, Ibiza and Los Angeles. For Zoila, writing serves as an ingenious channel to convey her profound love for soulful travel, singular cultures, and their transformative impact. She currently resides in Mallorca, her native island in Spain.