Where to Get a Taste of Japanese Culture—in Japan

Japanese culture has become popular around the world, especially in the United States. Almost every supermarket has a sushi counter, and American diners flock to the novelty of a restaurant where dinner can float toward them on a miniature boat. Japanese Gardens are oases of serenity even among the most urban landscapes that surround them, and Anime shows and feature films are popular with adults and children alike.

It’s no wonder that many Americans want to visit the Land of the Rising Sun themselves and check out one of the most unique cultures on the planet. But with a culture that’s totally different from our own, signage in three alphabets, and booming metropolises that can confound even the hardiest of explorers, it can be difficult to know where to start. That’s why we assembled this brief list of how you can experience Japanese culture right where it all started: in Japan. 

Where can I see Japanese art in Japan?

Japanese art is influenced by native Japanese aesthetics and some outside influences, especially from China. Chinese influences in Japanese art can be seen with the black and white ink-wash landscape paintings, calligraphy, and paintings of natural topics like flowers and prints. However, one of Japan’s own most recognizable artistic traditions is the art of printmaking, especially the depiction of everyday scenes. These “pictures of the floating world” or Ukiyo-e in Japanese became popular in the Meiji Period and found their way into Europe, where they influenced the French Impressionists with their bold lines and depictions of everyday life. If you’re looking to see that world famous painting of the giant wave, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, look no further than the Sumida Hokusai Museum in Tokyo. It’s actually part of a series called Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji, which shows us the Japanese penchant for contemplating nature from multiple angles. There are also extensive collections of art and sculpture at the National Museum, with locations in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Nara, each one an impressive example of traditional Japanese architecture. A fourth one in Kyushu, opened in 2005, boasts a stunning modern design inspired by the sky and mountains.

Where can I see Japanese gardens in Japan?

The Japanese garden is a cultural fixture anywhere in the world the Japanese have lived. Japanese gardens are guided by Japanese aesthetics, philosophy, and a desire to highlight the beauty of nature and natural forms. This is in stark contrast to the European landscaping model, particular the French formal garden, which seeks to impose order over nature with symmetry. In the Japanese garden, nature is alive, free, and present. There are several types of traditional gardens in Japan: hill gardens or tsukiyama, dry gardens or karesansui, and tea gardens or chaniwa. That last variety sets the scene for the Japanese Tea Ceremony, which is held in a tea house with meditative views of nature. Rock gardens like that of the Ryoan-ji Temple in Kyoto are noted for stones surrounded by white sand, often raked into patterns that inspire contemplation. The hill gardens are so named for miniature hills and miniature landscape features such as small trees, that are meant to recreate a scaled down version of a natural vista. Ponds, bridges, lanterns, and colorful, teeming koi fish are other noted features in Japanese gardening, some of which can be seen at the gardens of Kenroku-en in Kanazawa, centered around a peaceful pond and one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan.

Where can I hear traditional Japanese music in Japan?

Ongaku, or music, in Japan contains a wide variety of styles from the classical to the modern. Unlike Western music, traditional Japanese music is not based on timing, but on the human breath. There are three main forms of traditional Japanese music. The theater music of Noh and Kabuki is made with an instrumental ensemble called hayashi-kata, made of drums, one of which is the famous Taiko, and a bamboo flute, sometimes accompanied by yokyoku, or vocals. Gagaku, or Court Music, was for the Imperial Court and religious shrines. One of the best places to immerse in traditional Japanese Music is the Ran Theater in Kyoto, a city that is a must-see on the bucket list of any travel who wants to immerse in Japan’s history and classical culture. Of course, Japan also has a thriving pop music scene, and karaoke is a popular activity in most cities with a thriving nightlife. If you are able to make it to Matsumoto Castle in the summer, you will be able to catch the incredible sights and sounds of the largest Taiko Drum Festival in Japan.

Where can I see traditional Japanese theater in Japan?

Japanese entertainment is known around the world, mostly for a particular style of animation known as Anime. But entertainment in Japan has its historical roots in ancient Japanese performing arts, some of which are the oldest forms of theatre in the world. Noh plays are spiritual dramas that combine mythical, symbolic elements from Buddhism and Shintoism. Noh plays are often accompanied by Kyogen, which contrasts with the seriousness of Noh using slapstick humor. Though Noh was traditionally performed for nobles, today you can watch a performance at the National Noh Theatre near Sendagaya Station. In contrast to Noh is Kabuki, dance-drama’s known for elaborate costumes,wigs,makeup, and exaggerated gestures. One of the most accessible venues for English-speaking tourists is the Kabukiza Theatre in the Giza District of Tokyo, where the audience can rent monitors with English subtitles. Another unique form of Japanese theater includes Bunraku puppetry, which can be seen at only one of two locations: the National Bunraku Theater in Osaka and the National Theater in Tokyo.

Where should I try Japanese food in Japan?

Japanese food is popular around the world, especially tempera, teriyaki, noodles, and sushi. Of course, once you’re in Japan, that will be all around you, no matter where you go. Try grabbing some hot noodle soup at one of the many Ramen restaurants, of which there are around 21,000 in the greater Tokyo area. If you want to grab drinks and food, sit down at an izakaya. It’s sort of like an informal bar with a food menu that might include yakitori, or skewered meat. Convenience stores, supermarkets, and train stations can also become fun places to explore strange looking packaged foods or pick up a bento box—a portable, single serving meal with rice or noodles, fish or meat, and pickled and cooked vegetables. See if your hotel serves Japanese Breakfast, the staples of which include salmon, rice, and miso soup. Of course, no trip to Japan would be complete without trying sushi. There are a number of options from sit-down to conveyor belt. If you can afford to drop several hundred dollars for a meal, book a reservation at Sukiyabashi Jiro, which was featured in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. There are only ten seats in the restaurant, and reservations must be made through a select group of luxury hotels.

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