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Culture you don’t always see in guides for some reason.
While sightseeing and dining in Tokyo are absolutely incredible, there’s a ton more to Japanese culture and the Japanese people.
In this guide, I want to give you a list of interesting Japanese culture to learn about and maybe check out while in Tokyo.
Bunraku is a traditional Japanese puppet theater. It’s 100’s of years old, originating from the Edo Period, 1603-1868. Where puppet masters manipulate the puppets while a narrator, called a tayu, tells the story.
Not as popular today but you can find some bunraku shows in Asakusa, and references to bunraku in popular culture.
Chanoyu is the art of serving tea to guests as a means to show good manners. In return, guests show their respect to the host by enjoying the tea with accompanying conversation.
You could think of it much like afternoon tea in England. One could dive deeply into the art of the tea ceremony to learn all about the utensils, techniques, and art involved.
Or you could simply enjoy tea with friends.
Geisha are the traditional Japanese female entertainer easily spotted by the intricate kimono they wear and the white makeup over the exposed skin. They are not prostitutes. More of an escort that will sing, dance, pour drinks and participate in games to entertain their clients.
Professional geisha are still a thing today, with most being part of a sub-culture at high-end traditional Japanese restaurants called kaiseki (primarily in Kyoto, but there are geisha in Tokyo too).
A haiku is a compact type of poetry in Japan. The poet must write in a structured way, three sentences with a 5-7-5 syllable cadence. And there is one more requirement — to use a “seasonal” word (called kigo).
Haiku is a fantastic educational exercise and doesn’t require rhyming like poems in other countries often do. If you want to discover haiku while in Tokyo there is a museum dedicated to poetic art.
Hanami is almost like a picnic but under the cherry blossoms. It’s not necessarily a tradition, but it is common for friends and family to pack food and drinks for a nice time under the cherry blossoms each year.
Ueno Park is absolutely packed during the hanami season (cherry blossom season) with its large cherry blossom trees creating an incredible view.
Ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arrangement. By taking into account the season, context, reason for arrangement, and more — an ikebana professional is said to be capable of delivering the perfect flower arrangement for the space.
There are schools dedicated to the art which originally started as a way to offer flowers in Buddhist temples.
Here’s a tour that takes you to great spots to see ikebana in Tokyo — it’s through Voyagin and you can register online in English. #affiliate
Jinja are Shinto shrines. They are an interesting aspect of Japanese culture because they enshrine local deities. Usually, these deities have a focus, for instance, Ebisu is one of the seven gods of fortune.
Japanese people will frequent these shrines for various rituals like weddings or festivals. There are hundreds of shrines of varying sizes throughout Tokyo.
To experience jinja and learn more, you could go on a walking tour of the powerful Senso-Ji Temple in Asakusa — reserve online. The guide will explain the area and history in English while enjoying the old-Japan atmosphere. #affiliate
Judo is a Japanese martial art form focused on throwing and pinning one’s opponent — and has been an Olympic sport since 1964. It emphasizes training not only one’s spirit and discipline but also courtesy.
Even though the goal is to best one’s opponent it should never sacrifice the courtesy one should have toward their opponent — something judo carried over from the samurai jujutsu.
If you’re lucky, you might be able to visit the Kodokan, the judo school founded by the creator of judo, Kano Jigoro.
Kabuki is a form of Japanese stage drama, much like a play and a bit of opera mixed in. It has singing, dance, and scene acting. The actors are all men and wear heavy makeup and costumes to fit the time they are enacting (such as the old-Edo era).
Since kabuki is performed solely by men, the scenes with female characters are played by men, called onnagata.
Here is a private walking tour around Ginza where you’ll get to catch one act of a kabuki show with an English captioning device. Online reservations with Voyagin’s concierge service in English. #affiliate
Kanpai means “cheers!” It’s what is said by a group of friends or family before everyone takes the first drink at a party. It’s much like a toast though there’s rarely a speech (but there can be).
It literally means to drink up sake from one’s cup. What a great way to start a party right!?
Technically, kanpai was brought over from western cultures and incorporated into Japanese culture.
Karuta is a traditional card game in Japan. Not quite like cards we know in the U.S. where we play games such as poker or blackjack. Instead, karuta is more of a competitive match of reaction and speed.
The cards have intricate designs on one side with a corresponding kana character. Then on the other side is a Japanese saying or idiom.
The cards are laid out on the ground and the game is played when the announcer calls out the cards and the players compete to find the card first.
Kendo is a martial art form in Japan where one learns swordsmanship, spiritual strength, and discipline. Kendo artists use a bamboo sword called a shinai and score points against competitors by landing uncontested hits using proper form and sword grip.
Kendo is easily recognized by the protective gear, notably the metal helmet — very similar to fencing.
You can practice genuine kendo on this tour. Sign up online, in English. It’s quite an experience. #affiliate
A kimono is a traditional Japanse clothing item a bit like a robe. Usually made from very intricate patterns and heavy material. It’s wrapped with a sash called an obi.
Kimono used to be worn commonly but today not nearly as much — often only during ceremonies. Though you will occasionally see someone who is clinging to old traditions (I think it’s so cool).
You will find shops specifically for tourists to try on kimono and take photos in traditional Japanese attire.
Kyudo is traditional Japanese archery. Different from western archery where the score is based solely on the arrows hitting the target. In kyudo, the archer’s poise, appearance, and form are taken into account as well.
And it is pure archery — only the bow and arrow, no aids such as grip, compound bow, etc.
Yabusame is archery from horseback. Now a show, it was once a way for samurai to train and show expertise in their skill.
About two hours from downtown Tokyo, in Ibaraki, is a place where you can participate in yabusame and fire arrows from horseback. Sign up through Voyagin’s concierge online, in English. #affiliate
A shamisen is a traditional Japanese stringed musical instrument, a bit like a guitar — but only has three strings — and is played with a large pick shaped like a spatula (or a paint scraper).
It’s an extremely difficult instrument to play correctly and takes a great deal of dedication to reach the level to play for the top enka singers in Japan.
Would you like to give it a try though? There’s a fantastic sensei in Tokyo ready to teach you how to play. Sign up online, in English. #affiliate
Shodo is the traditional Japanese art of calligraphy. You may have seen the demonstrations — where the artists hold a large brush with a heavy dab of charcoal ink and create an almost splattered look to a kanji character.
There is a very special shodo — the first shodo of the year — called kakizome, especially important at the start of a new emperor era.
You’ll see shodo all around when visiting Tokyo. The Japanese people enjoy using it to design incredible signs for businesses and scrolls for decoration — among many other uses.
Here you can try your hand at shodo and learn from a real designer, easy sign up online, and in English. #affiliate
Shogi is Japanese chess. While very different, it’s similar in the sense a player wins when they checkmate their opponent’s king piece.
Shogi is a big deal in Japan, where amateur players strive to master the game and professionals can be national celebrities.
Of course, there are lessons where you can learn this intricate game and try your hand at it. Easy online signup and in English. #affiliate
Sumo is… well, sumo. I think almost everyone knows what sumo is right? Where two very large men “wrestle” to knock the other out of the ring.
That’s an oversimplification, but the general idea. Behind that are a pile of traditions, rituals, and rules.
Sumo is Japan’s national sport and there are six grand tournaments per year — each lasting 15 days.
You can train like a sumo wrestler, maybe you’d prefer to watch a training session — or even better, tour Asakusa and Ryogoku with a real sumo wrestler. Easy online signup in English too. #affiliate
Ukiyo-e is a type of artwork in Japan where the artist carves the design into woodblocks. The woodblocks are dipped in ink then stamped on the canvas.
It creates a really interesting effect you can see in traditional Japanese artwork throughout history. If you’d like to learn a little more about Ukiyo-e, read our quick guide.
Wadaiko, or taiko, is the traditional Japanese drum. Taiko drummers generally use very thick wooden sticks to bang the large drums to create a deep, resonating sound. Another thing that sets these apart from the standard drums is a drummer will use their entire body to impact the drum with the correct force for the note they want to hit.
It’s a grueling experience to participate in and an amazing show to watch — if you can get into a wadaiko drum performance while in Tokyo I VERY highly recommend it.
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