Japan’s unique cultural mix of ancient traditions and fast evolving modern subcultures makes it an exceptionally interesting place to visit. This is a country where you can spend the afternoon at an elegant historical tea ceremony and the evening at a loud, blinking internet cafe and come away with an understanding of two important aspects of Japanese culture.
There’s a lot to explore and learn about, which can be hard with limited time so here are eight simple ways to experience the rich culture of Japan.
1. Traditional Tea Ceremonies
The traditional Japanese tea ceremony is a very old and venerable tradition. Every step and detail of the experience follows the guidelines of wa kei sei jaku: harmony, respect, purity and tranquility. It is the host’s goal to provide a beautiful spiritual experiences for everyone involved. This responsibility encompasses everything from the food to the utensils to the paintings on the walls.
Many travelers choose to partake in a tea ceremony while in Kyoto, a city known for it’s ancient elegance and tradition. Take note that this ritual in Japan is distinct for using a bitter, very fine form of green tea known as matcha. Usually small sweets are served alongside to counteract the bitterness.
Participate in a Tea Ceremony in Tokyo
Modern Japanese geishas are elusive, yet fascinating, particularly in Kyoto, where a small number are still actively working. Geishas, cultured and educated entertainers and companions, became extremely popular during the 19th century and the practice continues to this day, although on a much smaller scale. Geishas are not prostitutes, but highly trained performers who sing, dance and provide stimulating conversation. They are known for their extremely elaborate make-up and kimonos.
It can be very difficult to spot an authentic geisha in Kyoto, as they only appear at private clubs. They are sometimes seen walking the streets of the Gion district in the early evening. There are also organized geisha entertainment shows that anyone can attend. They do not feature true geishas but illustrate much of the culture and showmanship associated with them.
Explore Gion on a Kyoto Cultural Tour
3. Mount Fuji
The world-famous Mount Fuji is the tallest mountain in Japan. It’s actually a sleeping volcano: the last eruption occurred 300 years ago. It is considered one of the country’s most beautiful sites and is one of the three holy mountains of Japan. As a result is has frequently been depicted in local art and poetry.
Climbing the iconic mountain is open to anyone. In fact, over 300,000 people climb Fuji every year. The climbing season is short however: it’s only accessible between June and August. The rest of the year the weather is too unpredictable and snowfall too great. There are a handful of different routes, each offering different views and historic sites.
Visit Mt Fuji from Tokyo
4. Sake Tasting
This unique rice wine is the national drink of Japan. It has been brewed for thousands of years and is an important component of Japanese culture and spirituality (sake plays a large role in certain Shinto ceremonies). It’s also a very, very popular drink, second only to beer in consumption.
Sake is meant to be sipped and savored. There are hundreds of breweries in Japan that produce a wide variety of sakes with different tastes and flavorings. Depending on the variety, the drink needs to be served either hot, chilled or at room temperature. Because this can be complicated it can be useful to test out different sakes under the knowledgeable guidance of a bartender. Although sake tasting courses are not particularly common, there are many sake bars in Tokyo that will help you experiment with the drink.
Possibly Japan’s most famous export is sushi. The typical “roll-style” sushi commonly eaten in western countries does exist, but it pales in comparison to the wide variety of sushi types available.
The number one headquarters for amazing, practically still swimming sushi is the area around Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. Arrive early in the morning to browse the huge market of startlingly fresh sea creatures. Then adjourn to one of the local sushi joints for incredibly fresh and diverse sushi pieces. Or combine your fish market tour with a sushi making class. You won’t find any rolls here: this sushi is straight nigiri.
6. Sumo Wrestling
Although sometimes treated as a punchline in the West, sumo wrestling is a serious, well respected tradition in Japan. In fact, it’s the country’s national sport! Sumo traces it’s origins back many hundreds of years and has strong associations with the ritual dancing of the Shinto religion. A sumo match has many ritualized elements and the fighters live a highly regimented, almost monk-like existence.
It is easy for visitors to attend a sumo match in Tokyo, Osaka or any major Japanese city. It is often recommended to buy sumo tickets in advance as they often sell out.
7. Relaxing Onsens
The Japanese onsen, or hot spring, can be a wonderful and relaxing experience. As an area with a lot of geothermal activity, there are many natural hot springs used for this purpose. Traditional bath houses can be found in almost any corner of the country; some of them offer outdoor bathing experiences or mud baths and waterfalls. The mineral content of the ground water is believed to give it healing properties. Different springs have different benefits depending on their make-up, but each and every one is meant to be relaxing.
One of the most opulent and accessible onsen is Spa World in Osaka. It’s open 24 hours a day, has 11 floors and several elaborate European and Asian themed baths. Be aware that in most onsen the genders are segregated and nudity is the standard. People with tattoos are often denied entrance to the baths.
8. Modern Youth Culture
Japan has scores of history and tradition but it’s also famous for it’s exceptionally modern, pop culture side. It’s bright, colorful and cutting edge.
A stroll through any number of Tokyo neighborhoods will give you an idea of some of the intense subcultures in Japan. Check out the bustling Harajuku neighborhood to see insane fashions, youths in cosplay costumes and the culture of kawaii (cuteness).
Even more exciting is the crazy modern area of Akihabara. This district, sometimes called “electric town” is the national headquarters of cutting edge technology. Visit at night to see dazzling lights and signs flashing, clanging pachinko parlors and vast anime shops. It really is like a visit to the future.
Japanese culture is so incredibly vast that it’s impossible to grasp is all on a short trip. Many people dedicate their entire lives to studying the complicated history and experiences of the country. Luckily, it is possible to participate in many activities and to at least catch a glimpse of what makes this country so fascinating.
- Stephanie Yoder