No trip to Japan would be complete without experiencing the ancient culture firsthand. Luckily, Japan has managed to embrace the new without letting go of the old, meaning that opportunities to discover traditional Japan are bountiful.
Ikebana, origami and Japanese calligraphy are long-established arts with something in common: Washi, traditional Japanese handmade paper. Directly translating to “Japanese paper”, washi has been made for over 1,000 years and is regarded as one of the world’s finest papers, and has been awarded Intangible Cultural Heritage status by UNESCO. Washi is commonly made from the long inner fibers of the plants gampi, mitsumata and kozo (paper mulberry) and excels in terms of strength and flexibility compared to other papers. Washi also boasts an incredible range of colors, textures and designs. Such qualities mean washi is used for many things beyond the arts, from souvenirs of all kinds to paper screens and sliding doors found in traditional Japanese buildings, to even western-style interiors. Try your hand at making washi by taking a class at a papermaking factory or museum in locations throughout Japan.
Tea ceremony, known locally as sado, the way of tea, is one of the greatest examples of the Japanese aesthetic and offers a penetrating insight into the Japanese ideals of balance, harmony, grace and etiquette. Heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism, sado is a ritual in which every motion, every element, even the passing of time is done for a reason. Many temples (otera) throughout Japan offer tea ceremony for visitors. This is a one-of-a-kind experience that should not be missed. And while at one of the temples you may want to try zazen. Zazen translates literally as seated meditation, and is the practice of suspending judgment and removing oneself from the world of words, ideas and images. In Zen Buddhism, zazen is a means of calming the body and mind to enhance concentration and gain enlightenment. Many temples offer an opportunity to practice zazen.
Even in modern cities throughout Japan, it is not uncommon to see actual geisha or their younger apprentices known as maiko simply walking down the street. In Kyoto, the likelihood of such an encounter is much greater, as the profession remains strong to this day. Geisha, which is written using the characters for ‘art’ and ‘one who does’, is best described as a performing artist. Skilled in dance, song, classical Japanese music, conversation and even parlor games, geisha became the entertainers of the elite. Though not inexpensive, many ryoutei (traditional Japanese style restaurants) offer a night of food, drinks and entertainment with an actual geisha in your private straw mat room.
Another form of traditional Japanese entertainment that is as active today as it ever was is kabuki. Written with the characters for ‘sing’, ‘dance’ and ‘skill’, kabuki is a type of danced dramatization that is renowned for its elaborate costumes and awkward movements. A trip to kabuki is an all day event, though there is a smart way to enjoy the spectacle without having to commit an entire day to the theater. All kabuki theaters offer a hito makumi (single act) ticket, with options for rent a recording that explains the performance in English.
One fun way to get a real taste of traditional Japan is to watch a sumo tournament. Tournaments, called basho in Japanese, take place every two months starting with the January Tournament in Tokyo. March in Osaka, May in Tokyo, July in Aichi, September in Tokyo and finally November in Fukuoka. While the fighting is a unique experience not to be missed, the ritual is truly unforgettable. As an introduction, the massive wrestlers parade around the ring wearing intricately woven keshou mawashi, something similar to an apron covering their lower bodies. To non-Japanese, these look elegant and highly traditional when in fact they are paid advertising for local companies supporting individual rishiki, or wrestlers. Win or lose, sumo wrestlers are forbidden to show emotion. The spectators, on the other hand, scream and cheer with fervor for their favorite rikishi, even throwing their zabuton cushions after a hard-fought battle. Tournaments run for two weeks ending on a Sunday. The closer to the end of the tournament, the more exciting and the more difficult it is to get tickets. Mornings begin with the lower ranks, so if you are not an avid fan, the last hour is usually enough to get the full experience.