Make no mistake, although Japan may seem like one of the most modern and connected countries in the world, it is also steeped in traditions dating back centuries. One of the great joys of visiting Japan is to discover the complex and intricate culture that exists here, but with so much to choose from, here’s what should you absolutely make sure not to miss.
Kimonos are probably one of the first things that comes to mind for most people when they think of Japan. Known for their exquisite design and detail, the kimono is essentially a long robe, secured at the waist with a broad sash called an obi.
Kimono used to be commonplace in Japan, although nowadays, people usually only wear them for weddings, formal ceremonies or festivals. It takes several hours to get dressed properly in a kimono and that’s with someone to help you, but if you get the chance to try one on, this is an experience not to be missed.
Much of the food in Japan is prepared according to culinary traditions that haven’t changed for centuries. Japanese cuisine is renowned for being some of the best in the world, and you will be spoiled for choice here.
Sushi is probably the best known of course, but did you know the name refers to the rice and not the fish that sits on top of it? Since Japan is an island nation, seafood has always been an important part of the culinary culture and is always very fresh. Sushi is typical of Japanese food in that it is simple yet delicious.
Other favorites include sashimi - sliced raw fish or horsemeat; yakitori, which is skewers of meat or vegetables cooked over hot coals; noodles, eaten hot or cold; tempura - fish or vegetables covered in a light batter and deep-fried; teppanyaki - meat and vegetables cooked on a hot flat griddle…..the list goes on and on.
3. Sakura or Cherry Blossom Viewing
Every spring, Japanese people celebrate the beauty and delicacy of sakura or cherry blossom as they bloom for just a couple of weeks. The pale pink blossoms are a beautiful sight contrasted against the almost black boughs of the tree, and it is customary to bring a picnic and enjoy the atmosphere under the cherry blossoms.
Hanami, or cherry blossom viewing, takes place all across Japan, starting in Okinawa in late February or early March, moving north as the weather warms up. The last week of March is usually when they bloom in Tokyo, while in Hirosaki Castle in Aomori, they don’t appear until early May.
Horticulture in Japan has a long and illustrious history, and a garden here isn’t just a garden. For centuries, gardens were designed according to Buddhist philosophy and many still contain Buddhist elements such as a temple.
Japanese gardens are meant to be designed with harmony in mind, so each element is carefully chosen and placed to balance and complement the others. This is why in almost any Japanese garden you can expect to find features such as trees, plants, carp ponds, stones, and wooden bridges, all combining to create a stylized and idealized version of Nature.
Tea Ceremony (Sado)
For many visitors, experiencing the Japanese tea ceremony is one of the highlights of their trip. The tea ceremony is a prescriptive and highly formalized ritual, performed as a kind of meditation and as a way of honoring guests and bringing people together. Many elements of Buddhism are incorporated into the tea ceremony. If you watch one or get a chance to take part, you will be able to try some bitter, yet delicious powdered matcha green tea which has been whisked with hot water during the ritual.
Japan has a long tradition of creating some of the most beautiful calligraphy in the world as the Chinese characters used to write the language naturally lend themselves to the elegant inky brushstrokes used in this amazing craft. It takes years of study and practice to become proficient, and calligraphy is also seen as a way of relaxing and meditating as well as a creative pursuit. On a trip to Japan, you can learn the basics of Japanese calligraphy yourself, or simply buy some brushes or traditional ink paintings as souvenirs.
Ikebana or Kado is an ancient art of flower arranging that has its origins in Buddhist altar offerings. It is one of the three Japanese classical arts of refinement. The aim of Ikebana is to balance different elements to make a harmonious and aesthetically pleasing arrangement. It emphasizes form, minimalism and combining nature and humanity. There are many ikebana shows, often in parks or temple grounds, but if you stay in a traditional Japanese inn, you are likely to find an ikebana arrangement in the alcove in your room.
6. People who express Japanese Traditions
Sumo wrestling is the national sport of Japan and as such is ingrained in the national psyche as one of Japan’s most important traditions. Going to watch sumo is to experience something quintessentially Japanese. A bout between two huge but supple wrestlers wearing silk loin cloths is steeped in symbolism from beginning to end. This includes the opening and closing displays by the Yokozuna or Grand Champion, that derive from Shinto religion, and throwing salt into the ring to purify it before the contest.
Geish and Maiko
Geisha are the women wearing of kimono and special makeup, who entertain guests with performing the ancient traditions of art, dance and singing. Maiko is an apprentice geisha in Kyoto and Western Japan. They also sing, dance and play the traditional Japanese instruments for the guests. You can meet them mainly in Kyoto or a few in Kgurazaka or Asakusa , Tokyo.
Kabuki is an age-old tradition of Japanese theatre, produced and played since the 17th century. Originally, kabuki was performed by women and young boys. However, mid-17th century, the style of kabuki changed and became a male-exclusive world. Since then, kabuki actors proudly carry the tradition and portray both male and female roles in a play. The art of kabuki is usually passed down generation to generation, from fathers to their sons. As such, there are many famous “kabuki families” in Japan that have a long-standing tradition of performing on stage.
7. Nihon shu or Japanese Sake
Sake is made from quality rice, koji molda, yeast, and clean water. You can enjoy Sake in Japanese restaurants, izakaya, and bars. There are specialty sake bars that have a wide range of sake from various regions, too. Visiting Sake breweries is also fun.