This article explores the music, performing arts, cultural arts, martial arts, and visual arts of Japan.
Pre-modern Japan had a very distinct culture up to the mid-19th century, when it became the first non-Western country to industrialize. Traditional arts are alive in today's Japan, together with contemporary pop culture.
Music (音楽 ongaku) is celebrated in Japan — not just traditional forms of music, but in all styles. It's common to find short jingles and pleasant melodic tunes even in the most mundane circumstances: on the platform at train stations, from domestic appliances, in the elevator, and elsewhere. However, at other times you may desperately wish for a silent respite from the endless repetitive tunes played in many stores, or the cacophony of adjacent shops all playing songs on top of one another.
Exposure to music in Japan comes early and often, with compulsory music education in elementary and middle school (not to mention the routine set by school bells that universally play Westminster chimes). Choirs and orchestras are much appreciated for the group unity they embody, and it's not uncommon to begin the workday by having everyone sing the company song.
Traditional Japanese music (邦楽 hōgaku) uses a variety of instruments, many of which originated in China, but developed into unique forms after being introduced to Japan. The most common instruments are
- the shamisen (三味線) — a 3-string picked or plucked instrument, similar in some ways to a banjo
- the shakuhachi (尺八) — a bamboo flute
- the koto (箏) — a 13-string picked zither (like a dulcimer), regarded as the national instrument of Japan
Taiko (太鼓) are Japanese drums. Taiko drums are unique to Japan, and range in size from small handheld drums to enormous 1.8-metre (71 in) stationary drums. Taiko also refers to the performance itself; these physically demanding instruments can be played solo or in a kumi-daiko ensemble, and are very common at festivals. (In Japanese, taiko just means "drum", but is usually understood to mean "Japanese drums" as it does in the rest of the world. A Western drum kit would be called doramu setto, doramu kitto, or doramusu.)
The shō (笙) is a Japanese free reed instrument in which the reeds are at the ends of each of 17 bamboo pipes. Its ancestor, the sheng, came to Japan during the Tang Dynasty. You can hear its distinctive sound and characteristic dissonant harmonies in gagaku and at traditional Shinto weddings held at any of numerous Shinto shrines around the country. Expect to hear long notes and chords. Its sound may remind you a bit of the bagpipe, but you will notice the difference.
Traditional Japanese music can be divided into several categories. Gagaku (雅楽) is instrumental or vocal music and dance that was played for the imperial court. Several forms of Japanese theater use music. Jōruri (浄瑠璃) is narrative music using the shamisen, and min'yō (民謡) is folk music such as work songs, religious songs, and children's songs.
Outside of traditional Japanese music, these instruments are not frequently used, and the more obscure ones are slowly dying out. However, a few popular artists like the Yoshida Brothers and Rin' have combined traditional instruments with modern Western musical styles.
One of the most popular taiko performance groups is Kodo. They are based in Niigata and often perform there, but they hold performances nationwide. Their schedule can be viewed on their website along with how to purchase tickets for specific events.
Western classical music (クラシック[音楽] kurashikku [ongaku]) is popular in Japan with people of all ages; while it's not everyday listening, it's certainly more popular than in many Western countries. There are 1,600 professional and amateur orchestras (オーケストラ ōkesutora) in Japan; Tokyo is home to nearly half of them, including eight full-time professional orchestras. There are also well over 10,000 choirs (合唱 gasshō, コーラス kōrasu or クワイア kuwaia); the Japan Choral Association has more information including an extensive list of upcoming concerts (available in Japanese only). Concert dress is casual except for businessmen coming straight from work.
With the arrival of Western pop music in the 20th century, Japan created its own unique forms of pop music. These have largely died out except for enka (演歌), sentimental ballads in Western pop styles composed to resemble traditional Japanese music, typically sung in an exaggerated emotional style. Enka, too, is on the decline; it's often sung by older people at karaoke, but it's rare to find a young person who enjoys it. Outside Japan, enka has had a huge influence of Taiwanese pop, which continues to be enjoyed by Taiwanese people of all ages. Genres created in the 1980s such as city pop have enjoyed an international resurgence since the 2010s, with many songs being used in remixes or simply enjoyed as-is, such as Mariya Takeuchi's "Plastic Love" (which became so popular on YouTube that it got an official music video 35 years after the song's release).
Jazz (ジャズ jazu) has been very popular in Japan since the 1930s, except for a brief gap during World War II. There are often Japan-only recordings that can't be found in other countries. Jazz coffee shops are a common way to listen to jazz. Decades ago, most jazz cafes prohibited talking, expecting only serious enjoyment of the music, but today most jazz cafes are more relaxed and less restrictive.
Of course, the most popular kind of music in Japan today is pop music. J-pop and J-rock flood the airwaves, and are sometimes even popular internationally: L'Arc~en~Ciel and X Japan have played sold-out concerts in Madison Square Garden, while The 18.104.22.168's cover of "Woo Hoo" found its way onto the UK Singles Chart after it was used in Kill Bill: Volume 1 and quite a few TV commercials. Punk, heavy metal, hip hop, electronic, and many other genres also find niches in Japan.
J-pop itself is most often associated with idols (アイドル aidoru), young music stars manufactured by talent agencies. Typically marketed as "aspiring" artists, they're trained (sometimes for years) in singing, acting, dancing, and modeling, although some debut as amateurs with little training. To many people, an idol's biggest appeal is not the music (which is typically ghostwritten to be repetitive and catchy), but rather their status as a "hometown girl/boy who made it big". This is reinforced by frequent public appearances at meet-and-greets, as well as controversial contracts that offer idols little control over their private lives, often forbidding them from dating in order to maintain the illusion of "availability" to their fans. Though widely popular, most idols achieve only brief fame with a lone hit song, or only become locally famous. However, quite a few idol groups do turn into long-lasting acts with wide appeal: SMAP and Morning Musume have been popular for decades, with more than 50 Top 10 singles each, while AKB48 has rocketed to the top of the charts to become the best-selling female group in Japan, and has even established offshoots in other countries.
Concerts in Japan
Concerts (ライブ raibu, "live") are plentiful, although very often information is only available in Japanese. Music festivals (ロック・フェスティバル rokku fesutibaru, shortened to ロックフェス rokku fesu or just フェス fesu) are also popular, drawing tens of thousands of people. Fuji Rock Festival is Japan's largest festival, and actually covers many genres. Rock In Japan Festival is the biggest festival where only Japanese artists are allowed to perform.
Depending on the event, you may be able to buy tickets at convenience stores (using a numeric code to identify the right concert), online, at record stores, or in various pre-sale lotteries which is usually where big concerts sell most of their tickets. (Some sellers may require you to have a Japanese credit card with a Japanese billing address, so you may need to try multiple methods to find one you can use. Buying from overseas is even more difficult, as all ticket websites require you to register with a Japanese phone number for text messages, and sometimes even block non-Japanese IP addresses.) You can buy day-of tickets at the venue, assuming the concert isn't sold out, but large venues may not even sell tickets at the door. Resale tickets are also available, but large popular concerts may be strict about checking that your ID matches the buyer's initials printed on the tickets; check for an announcement of this before buying a ticket. Rather than doing general admission, standing tickets may be numbered to divide the audience into smaller groups which are admitted in order.
Japanese fans can be just as fanatical as music lovers elsewhere. Devotees follow their favorite bands on tour, and collaborate to get front row tickets; they may have spent more than you did to attend the same concert, so don't feel as though you "deserve" a good seat just because you paid to come from abroad! When there are multiple bands on the schedule, and you don't care for the one playing, Japanese fans think it's natural to leave your seat so others can enjoy up close; staying in your seat just so you can save it for later is inconsiderate. Many songs have furitsuke, choreographed hand gestures the crowd performs along with the music, these days often with handheld lights. The band may create some of the movements, but most of it is created organically by fans (usually the ones in those front row seats). The movements are unique for every song, which makes for an impressive sight when you realize the whole audience learned them by rote; you can try to learn a few movements by watching closely, or just relax and enjoy the show.
The most well-known types of traditional Japanese performing arts — bunraku puppetry, kabuki drama, and noh opera — originated and are set in medieval or pre-modern Japan. All feature melodramatic period stories (familiar to Japanese audiences) of historical events, romance, or moral conflicts. Don't feel excluded by the text and songs in stylized old Japanese, as an important part of these art forms is the intricate visual aspects of their traditional costumes and emotional expressiveness. In all of these, playbills will have an overview of the story, and some theaters provide English translations and commentary via headsets - the Kabuki-za Theatre in Ginza, Tokyo is one of these.
Despite the language barrier, you may also find the modern art of comedy more approachable - such as rakugo solo storytellers and the extremely popular manzai stand-up duos. You can also seek out taishū engeki ("pop theatre"), similar to, but more approachable than the traditional arts - or, you can find Western-style comedy in English.
Bunraku (文楽) is a type of puppet theater. Three actors — one in full view, the other two hidden in black hoods — deliver precise control over the head, hands, and legs of each puppet. Roughly one-half life size, puppets have sophisticated mechanics, unique to the expressions required for each character, to move the eyebrows, mouth, hands, and even individual fingers. A single narrator sings and speaks the exposition and all dialogue in a stylized cadence, with shamisen playing improvised accompaniment for effect. Some plays can take a whole day to perform, but the individual acts are designed to stand alone, and this is how they're often performed or watched today. Tickets for half a play are around ¥1,000-6,500; if you fancy something a little more life-size, you can also find some of the most famous bunraku plays ported to the kabuki stage.
Kabuki (歌舞伎) is a popular type of traditional dance-drama, with stars often getting TV or film roles. Having once been considered a "low-brow" type of performance for the lower classes at its inception in the early 17th century, over time, it evolved into the highly-dramatic and wildly popular form of theater seen on stage today, with plays about love, loss, and forbidden romance remaining common storytelling themes. It's also known for its visually dramatic style, with elaborate stage sets, striking makeup and the gorgeous period costumes that the actors wear. With many plays being centuries old, and many costumes having gone unchanged since the Edo period, kabuki is a one-stop-shop experience of what entertainment looked like in centuries gone by.
While the language used for these tales is an older form of Japanese, kabuki also tells its stories through the actors' expressions, their movements, dance numbers and the music accompanying the play. Some kabuki stages feature impressive revolving sets, and some even have wires allowing the actors to fly above the audience; but every kabuki stage features a hanamichi runway, allowing the actors to make dramatic entrances and exits via an aisle in the middle of the audience, or a trapdoor hidden in the runway itself. During climactic moments, fans cheer their favorite actors by shouting their stage names, which have been handed down carefully for centuries within some families.
For several centuries, only male actors were used, with some specializing in playing female roles, but today some local troupes do use female actresses. As traditional plays can be many hours long, a performance today may include only the highlight acts from the play (and even so, during intermission they may still sell bentō boxed lunches to be eaten during longer plays). Some plays are only rarely performed, such as Akoya, which requires the main actor to be a skilled musician in three different instruments — all of the music in kabuki is performed live, meaning that such performances are a treat to be savored.
Tickets are around ¥4,000-20,000. If you're on a budget, you can get single-act tickets (一幕見席 hitomaku-mi seki) for ¥800-2,000, but there are restrictions: only a limited number are available, they're only sold in person, you'll have to wait in line for 30 minutes up to 2 hours, and you have to sit or stand at the very back of the theater.
- 2 Kabuki-za (歌舞伎座), 4-12-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, ☏ (10:00AM-6:00PM).
- 3 Shinbashi Enbujō (新橋演舞場), 6-18-2 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, ☏ .
- 4 Osaka Shochikuza (大阪松竹座), 1-9-19 Dotonbori, Chuo-ku, Osaka-shi, Osaka, ☏ .
- 5 Minami-za (京都四條 南座), 198 Nakano-chō, Shijo-ōdori Yamato-ōji nishi-iri, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto City, Kyoto (Shijō-ōhashi higashi-zume, east end of the Shijō Ōhashi bridge), ☏ .
- 6 Misono-za (名古屋 御園座), 1-6-14 Sakae, Naka-ku, Nagoya-shi, Aichi, ☏ .
- 7 Hakata-za (博多座), 2-1 Shimokawabatamachi, Hakata-ku, Fukuoka City, Fukuoka, ☏ .
Noh (能 nō or 能楽 nōgaku) is an older type of musical drama. While the costumes may seem superficially similar to kabuki, noh is otherwise very stark; its minimalist form developed at the same time as tea ceremony and ikebana flower arranging. To be honest, most visitors will probably find its plodding subtlety to be rather boring. Noh stories often relate to dreams or the supernatural, such as a spirit that's transformed into human form or the ghost of a historical figure that must relive a significant moment in their life. The lead actor wears one of many traditional masks which represent ghosts, deities, demons, or animals, sometimes changing masks to show a jump in the story (such as a flashback from an old crone to when they were a beautiful young woman). Plays are always set on identical bare stages with almost no props, usually using a hand fan to symbolize whatever's needed. The real impenetrability, though, is because the action is largely talked about rather than shown, using emotion-driven lyrics that are in an even older form of Japanese than bunraku or kabuki (difficult for even native speakers to understand). Noh is sometimes described as "Japanese opera", although it's closer to chanted poetry rather than actual singing. Three drums and a flute punctuate the drama, a small chorus adds commentary, and an actor will sometimes have lines from the perspective of a different character or a narrator, making for a confusing otherworldly experience. In modern times, innovators have use noh to "translate" some of Shakespeare's tragedies, ancient Greek plays, and other classical Western works onto the noh theater stage.
Traditionally noh plays were performed five at a time, but today it's more common to have two or three plays, which will be accompanied by one or two kyōgen (short intermediate plays; see below) and around New Year's and other special occasions may be opened with an okina, a dance-play which is actually a Shinto rite; in total this will be around 2-3 hours. Tickets are around ¥3,000-12,500.
Traditionally used as an intermission between or during noh plays, kyōgen (狂言) consists of short (10 minute) plays. When used between plays they're usually comedic skits, often using stock characters such as servants and their master, or a farmer and his son. When used during or before a play the skit is dramatic, and serves to summarize and explain the plot of the corresponding noh play. Kyōgen plays are much more accessible than noh or kabuki, as they use more of a speaking voice and are typically in Early Modern Japanese, which is easier for modern listeners to understand (akin to Shakespearean English). Outside of the noh theater, one notable use of kyōgen is in the Mibu kyōgen (壬生狂言) in Kyoto, where three temples put on comedic plays that evolved to impart Buddhist teachings to the masses. These take place in early February (just one play, free) and in spring and autumn (¥1,000 gets you access to all five plays).
Much less well-known is taishū engeki (大衆演劇), a vague term meaning "theater for the masses" or "popular theater". While kabuki and noh have come to be seen as highbrow hallmarks of Japanese performing arts, taishū engeki is the lowbrow cousin for light entertainment. Superficially, it's similar to kabuki, with elaborate Edo-period costumes and men playing some (but not all) of the female roles, but the melodrama is turned all the way up. Performances are usually in two halves: the first is a simple play set in "ye olde Japan" that usually combines period themes, romantic personal stories, and dramatic sword fights. Every performance is a new tale, as these plays are not scripted, but invented from scratch during the morning's rehearsal; the simple stories are easy to understand even without a translation, with the good guys obviously triumphing over the bad guys. The second half is unrelated to the first, and showcases actors mostly solo performing traditional dances with modern flashing stage lights and fog machines. You may find these accessible shows to have cultural similarities to variety shows, revues, or even drag shows. Troupes travel the country, and the actors' children and toddlers often make an appearance on stage. Actors are very approachable, selling merchandise in the aisles during intermission and greeting fans after the show, while fans (most of whom are middle-aged women) shower their favorite actors with letters and sometimes multiple ¥10,000 bills during dances. Shows are much cheaper than kabuki or noh, around ¥2,000.
Comedy in Japan is markedly different from the Western style. Japanese are very sensitive about making jokes at the expense of others, so Western-style stand-up comedy isn't very common. Most Japanese comedy relies on absurdity, non sequiturs, and breaking the strict social expectations. Most Japanese also love puns and wordplay (駄洒落 dajare), although these can cross the line into groan-inducing oyaji gyagu (親父ギャグ "old man gags/jokes", or in other words, "dad jokes"). Don't bother attempting irony or sarcasm; Japanese rarely use these, and they're likely to take your statement at face value instead.
The most common and well-known type of stand-up comedy in Japan is manzai (漫才). This typically involves two performers, the boke (funny man) and the tsukkomi (straight man), delivering jokes at a breakneck pace. Jokes are based on the boke misinterpreting lines or making puns, provoking the tsukkomi into a rage until they often retaliate by smacking the boke on the head. Manzai is typically associated with Osaka, and many manzai performers use an Osaka accent, but manzai acts are popular all across the country.
Another traditional type of Japanese comedy is rakugo (落語), comedic storytelling. A lone performer sits on stage and tells a long and usually complicated funny story. They never get up from the seiza kneeling position, but use tricks to convey actions like standing up or walking. The story always involves dialog between two or more characters, which the storyteller depicts with vocal inflections and body language. Rakugo translates very well; a few performers have made a career of performing in English, but they mostly perform at special events as a sort of cultural education, and in videos online. Still, you may be able to find a performance in English that you can attend.
A few troupes do Western style stand-up and improv comedy in English. These attract an international audience: foreign visitors, expats, and even a lot of English-speaking Japanese. In Tokyo, major groups include Pirates of Tokyo Bay, Stand-Up Tokyo, and the long-running Tokyo Comedy Store. Other groups include ROR Comedy and Pirates of the Dotombori in Osaka, Comedy Fukuoka, NagoyaComedy, and Sendai Comedy Club.
Japan is famous for geisha, although they're often misunderstood by the West. Literally translated, the word geisha (芸者) means "artist" or "artisan". Geisha are entertainers, whether you're looking for song and dance, party games, or just some nice company and conversation. Numerous blogs online chronicle the world of geisha in Kyoto and elsewhere — you might be surprised at just how many there are scattered around Japan!
Historically, the profession has been entangled with sex work, with some geisha having engaged in sex work, willingly or otherwise. However, since the profession's inception in the early 1800s geisha have been legally distinct from courtesans and sex workers (known as oiran and yūjo, respectively). When most forms of sex work were outlawed in the 1950s, geisha were entirely unaffected, with sex work having always been viewed as something extraneous to the everyday nature of the geisha's profession. Today, sex work is not part of the geisha profession.
The path to becoming a geisha usually starts before adulthood, beginning as an apprentice known as maiko (舞子, lit. "dancing girl"), or hangyoku (半玉, "half-jewel") in Tokyo. Historically, girls trained from a fairly young age, spending a few years just observing before even becoming a maiko; however, following the introduction of education laws in the 1960s, most geisha now begin training in their mid- to late-teenage years, with some new to the profession beginning as geisha outright, considered too old to begin their training appearing as maiko. Regardless of whether they apprentice or not, training lasts at least a year and can be as long as five, and continues for years after becoming a practicing geisha.
Apprenticing is arduous, and there's around a 50% dropout rate. Apprentices typically wear colorful trailing kimono with long swinging sleeves and heavy extravagant obi sashes (so heavy that they're tied by strong male kimono dressers, the only men directly involved in the geisha profession). They also wear all-white face makeup, known as oshiroi, for every official appointment they attend. They wear elaborate hairstyles which are so time-consuming to prepare that they usually leave them for a week at a time — including when sleeping, requiring the use of a special raised pillow.
Once they have graduated to geisha status, geisha wear specially-styled wigs known as katsura that require restyling far less often. Geisha also wear more subdued kimono than apprentices, and wear less pink blush when wearing oshiroi than apprentices do. Though geisha also wear trailing kimono, theirs have short sleeves; as they mature, geisha eventually begin to wear non-trailing kimono to official engagements, roughly around the same time they begin wearing their own hair with no oshiroi to parties. Though maiko may be more visually striking and many people think of young women as the ideal geisha, older geisha are often the most skilled hostesses, artists, and performers, able to keep up a witty repartee with guests honed through years of experience.
A traditional event with geisha usually starts with a multi-course kaiseki meal and drinks; as it's a formal affair, you should probably avoid casual clothes. It's meant to be fun, though, and geisha will exercise perhaps their greatest talent by keeping a lively conversation going throughout the meal. Afterwards, they will provide some entertainment with music, dancing, and even some light party games which can be often played as drinking games. Some simple examples are tora tora, which plays like rock-paper-scissors but with crone-samurai-tiger, and konpira fune fune, where you and a partner make repetitive motions in rhythm and try to trick the other player into making the wrong motion.
Geisha are often employed today by businesses for parties and banquets. Traditionally you need an introduction and connections to hire a geisha, not to mention ¥50,000 to ¥200,000 per guest. These days many geisha are making more of an effort to share their talents in public performances; you may be able to see geisha perform for as little as ¥3,000, or for free at a festival. Or, with some research, you may be able to book a private or semi-private party with a geisha (in some cases even over the Internet) in the range of ¥15,000-30,000/person. Hardly any foreigners have become geisha, but nowadays some geisha speak English and are happy to entertain non-Japanese clients.
Kyoto is home to the oldest and most widely-known geisha community in the world; Tokyo and Osaka have their own as well. Other cities, such as Yamagata and Niigata, are known for their historically-prestigious connections to geisha, though the scene is less active today than in days gone by. You can also find geisha in cities such as Atami (historically known for its truly outrageous number of geisha), Kanazawa, and Nara, to name a few. Geisha outside of Kyoto and Tokyo tend to be cheaper and less exclusive to book, although you shouldn't discount booking geisha in some of the more prestigious geisha districts.
Spotting geisha and henshin
Geisha and maiko are found in geisha communities throughout Japan known as hanamachi (花町, lit. "flower town"), or kagai (花街) in Kyoto. Each community has its own traditions and distinctive appearance; in some cases, such as in Kyoto, there are as many as five distinct geisha communities in the city. Each community is made up of a number of geisha houses (okiya), which function somewhat like a talent agency. Every geisha belongs to one, which handles their booking, training, and in some cases even provides their lodging. Hanamachi also have many o-chaya; these "tea houses" are not for tea, but are private event spaces where patrons go to be entertained by geisha.
In the largest Japanese cities, it can be easy to spot a geisha if you look in the right part of town. That said, many of the people you may see on the streets are not actually geisha or maiko, but are just out for a stroll in a costume. Today there's a burgeoning industry of henshin studios, where Japanese and foreigners alike pay around ¥8,000-15,000 to be "transformed" for an hour or so, with extra charges for designer kimono or better photo shoots. (Men shouldn't feel left out; studios offer a similar experience of dressing up in full samurai gear, complete with a real sword and a shaved-head-and-ponytail headpiece.) There are some visual tells to distinguish henshin when seen side-by-side with a real geisha or maiko, as some cities require those going outside in costume to be visually inaccurate so as not to be mistaken for the real thing. The easiest way to tell, though, is that real geisha don't have time to stand around posing for photos. They're busy women, likely walking to their next appointment or lesson, so it's best that you don't bother them; it's against the law in Kyoto, and strongly discouraged elsewhere.
If you're itching to take photos of geisha and maiko, it's likely that most henshin would be happy to pose if you ask — the point of dressing up on the streets is to be seen, after all! You'll be much happier with the results than a blurry photo at a distance taken without permission or even illegally, and if you don't tell your friends (or simply don't ask if they're a real geisha), they'll be none the wiser. If you don't want to do your own photography, or want something that you know is more authentic, there are numerous excellent photographers within the karyūkai (花柳界 the world of geisha, lit. "the flower and willow world"), and you can buy some excellent prints and postcards of their work.
Clubs and bars
Japanese-style clubs and bars, in some sense, are a modern take on the same role that geisha filled. Hostess clubs (キャバクラ kyaba-kura, short for "cabaret club") are slightly dodgy operations where paid hostesses provide conversation, pour drinks, entertain, and to some degree flirt with their male clients, charging upwards of ¥3,000/hour for the service. (At a host club (ホストクラブ hosuto kurabu), roles are reversed with male hosts serving female clients, typically with a bit more overt flirting.) Tourists will probably feel out of place and many do not even admit non-Japanese patrons. Keep in mind though that the hostesses are professional flirts, not prostitutes, and many hostess clubs have a prohibition on physical intimacy or sexual conversation topics.
A similar institution is the snack bar (スナック sunakku). These small neighborhood bars are usually run by an aging woman addressed as mama-san ("Ms. Mom"); besides serving food and a limited selection of drinks (often just beer and whiskey), she's a surrogate mother for patrons to converse with and get advice and even an occasional scolding from. The mama-san and handful of other waitresses are often former hostesses, making the line between sunakku and hostess clubs a bit fuzzy (and many hostess clubs describe themselves as sunakku). Many are dive bars filled with cigarette-smoking regulars; an occasional visit from foreigners may be welcomed, but if you don't speak some Japanese you're undoubtedly missing some of the appeal.
A more distant incarnation of the same idea are maid cafés (メイド喫茶 meido kissa or メイドカフェ meido kafe) and other cosplay restaurants. Catering mainly to otaku (nerds), employees dressed as French maids pamper their clients while serving them beverages and food, all usually decorated with syrup (except entrées like the popular omelette rice, which is decorated with ketchup).
Tea ceremony (茶道 sadō or chadō, or 茶の湯 cha-no-yu) is not unique to Japan, or even to Asia, but the Japanese version stands out for its deep connection to Japanese aesthetics. Indeed, the focus of a Japanese tea ceremony is not so much the tea as making guests feel welcome and appreciating the season. Due to the influence of Zen Buddhism, Japanese tea ceremony emphasizes a uniquely Japanese aesthetic called wabi-sabi (侘寂). A very rough translation might be that wabi is "rustic simplicity" and sabi is "beauty that comes with age and wear". The rustic bowls used in tea ceremony, usually in a handmade not-quite-symmetric style, are wabi; the wear in the bowl's glaze from use and the nicks in the pottery, sometimes made deliberately, are sabi. Seasonality is also extremely important; a venue for tea ceremony is typically small and plain, with sparse decorations chosen to complement the season, and usually a picturesque view of a garden or the outdoors.
The tea used in tea ceremony is matcha (抹茶). During the ceremony, the host will add this tea powder to water, whisking vigorously to get a frothy consistency. The lurid green matcha is fairly bitter, so tea ceremony also includes one or two small confections (菓子 kashi); their sweetness offsets the bitterness of the tea, and the snacks too are chosen to complement the seasons. Both the tea and food are presented on seasonal serving ware that is as much a part of the experiences as the edibles.
There are tea houses across Japan where you can be a guest at a tea ceremony. The most common type of "informal" ceremony usually takes 30 minutes to an hour; a "formal" ceremony can take up to 4 hours, although it includes a much more substantial kaiseki meal. It might be worthwhile to seek out a ceremony that's performed at least partially in English, or hire a local guide, otherwise you may find the subtle details of the ceremony fairly inscrutable. (Much of the ceremony is in contemplative silence punctuated by a few formal comments, but towards the end the lead guest will ask the host to describe the tea, servingware, and decorations.) While casual dress may be acceptable today at informal ceremonies, you should check if there's a dress code, and probably try to dress up a little anyway. Slacks or long skirts would certainly do nicely, but more formal ceremonies would call for a suit; subdued clothing is best to not detract from the ceremony.
The art of the way of the clan of… being made up
Thinking of squeezing in some ninja training while you're in Japan so you can amaze your friends and confound your enemies? While there are some places in Japan that offer training in ninjutsu, it's largely a modern gimmick for foreigners and Japanese alike.
Historical ninja (or shinobi as they were known at the time) acted as spies more often than assassins. Originally ninjas were essentially guerilla fighters, although it eventually evolved into a legitimate profession. Ninjutsu was not a school of martial arts, but an amalgamation of simple but effective techniques that amounted to things like "getting a fake ID", "distracting people" (often by arson), "hiding", and "running away really well".
Well before modern times, period dramas had already romanticized ninja into a popular culture portrayal with many exaggerated abilities and attributes. The all-black outfits are a convention borrowed from bunraku and noh theater (where stagehands wear all black and are treated as "invisible" by the audience); real ninja would have dressed as civilians in a variety of plainclothes disguises. They did use weapons like shuriken throwing stars, caltrops, and irritating powder blown into the eyes, but only because these were simple improvised weapons that could effectively distract someone, usually so the ninja could escape. Any supernatural powers are pure fiction, believe it!
There are some schools today which claim to teach ninjutsu, but aside from ninjutsu never being a formalized discipline, modern schools' claims to authenticity (having only been founded since the 1970s) are dubious. However, if a school is teaching what you want to learn, the knowledge is as real as anything else, regardless of whether it's ancient or modern. If nothing else, taking a "ninja class" for an afternoon is a fun way to pass the time with a bit of Japanese pop culture.
With a long history of samurai and warring feudal lords, Japan developed many systems of martial arts. In the modern era, these methods of combat have been refined into competitive sports and training systems for self-improvement and health. Quite a few of these today are well-known and practiced all around the world.
Within each discipline, most have been repeatedly codified by influential teachers into a family tree of "schools" which each emphasize different elements or techniques, and are organized by a variety of national and international federations. Members of cooperating federations can typically attend practices at schools in Japan. If you're a newcomer to the sport, note that attending just a few practices isn't useful, as you have to train for many months or years to become proficient; instead, consider spectating at a competition or exhibition.
- Judo (柔道 jūdō, literally "the gentle way") focuses on grappling and throws, and was the first martial art to become a modern Olympic sport. There are many schools all over the country in which you can study it. If you are a member of a judo federation in any country, you can take part in a randori training at the Kodokan, the headquarters of the worldwide judo community.
- Karate (空手 karate, pron. kah-rah-teh not kuh-RAH-dee, literally "empty hand") is a striking martial art — using punches, kicks, and open-hand techniques — that is popular all over the world, and also has an influence on Western pop culture as can be seen in the Hollywood movie The Karate Kid (1984). There are schools all over the country in which you can study various styles. It will be featured at the Olympics for the first time in 2020.
- Kendo (剣道 kendō) is competitive swordfighting using bamboo or wooden swords, akin to fencing. While judo and karate are better known in much of the Western world, in Japan itself, kendo remains an integral part of modern Japanese culture, and is taught to students in many Japanese schools.
- Aikido (合氣道 aikidō, literally "the way to harmony with ki") is another grappling form, designed to prevent harm to both the defender and attacker. Because it uses the opponent's movements against them rather than relying primarily on your own strength, it's popular with women for self-defense. Due to the beliefs of its founder, it also emphasizes the personal development of its students.
- Jiu-jitsu (柔術 jūjutsu) is a method of close combat either against someone who's unarmed or using short weapons like knives, truncheons, and knuckledusters. Created during the Warring States Period from a combination of existing martial arts, jūjutsu is a practical method of defense using throws, joint-locking, and potentially lethal strikes. It eventually gave rise to many other codified derivatives including judo, aikido, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
- Kyūdō (弓道) is Japanese archery. It uses very tall traditional longbows, and stance and technique are an integral part of the practice. Some schools emphasize it as contemplative practice, while others practice it as a competitive sport.
One activity you can easily get involved in is radio calisthenics (ラジオ体操 rajio taisō). NHK radio (daily 6:30, M-Sa 8:40, 12:00, 15:00) and NHK TV (daily 6:25, M-F 9:55, 14:55) broadcast a 10-minute program that guides you through a simple exercise routine. You may see these being performed by groups of people in a park, at schools, or outside of offices. A few places in Japan also have public tai chi (太極拳 taikyokuken, a meditative Chinese martial art) sessions, which you may be able to join for free.
Origami (折り紙 "paper folding") is known around the world for the complex shapes that can be made, which have found many cutting-edge applications in science and mathematics, such as folding solar panels on spacecraft. Many Japanese schoolchildren have folded origami cranes to be placed at the Sadako Sasaki memorial in Hiroshima, and most Japanese probably know one or more ways to fold the wrapper of their chopsticks into a chopstick rest.
Ikebana (生け花 "flower arrangement") is rather different to floral design in the West; rather than simply putting pretty flowers in a container, ikebana is more of an artistic expression, using a few carefully-chosen elements including leaves, stalks, and twigs to make a statement. Many young Japanese women practice it, as it's one of several arts seen to convey an air of sophistication.
Japanese calligraphy (書道 shodō), like Chinese, uses ink brushes for writing and employs a variety of styles: semi-cursive styles look like flowing simplified versions of the characters, while artistic cursive versions often merely suggest the characters and are unreadable without quite a bit of practice. It's a required class in elementary school, although it's more fair to call that shūji (習字, "penmanship", literally "practicing characters"), as the goal is to practice properly-formed square characters; knowledge of kanji and good penmanship are still valued in Japan even with the rise of electronic communication, and anyone studying Japanese may find similar practice helpful. Starting in junior high school it becomes an elective class and the focus shifts to producing art. Calligraphy supplies are easy to find worldwide in art supply stores and online.
Bonsai (盆栽 "tray planting") is the art of cultivating small potted trees that imitate the size and proportions of full-size trees. This isn't done by using genetic "dwarf" species, but by carefully pruning the tree for decades (or even centuries) to create realistic miniature branches and leaves. As with many other Japanese art forms, bonsai typically eschews symmetry, and bonsai trees may be misshapen, grown atop a rock, cascading out of the pot, and even have dead branches and scarred trunks.
Furoshiki (風呂敷) are wrapping cloths used to carry things. Over the years, the Japanese have figured out clever ways to wrap things of all shapes and sizes: small and large boxes, watermelons, wine bottles, long skinny objects, and more. Although disposable plastic and paper bags have largely displaced many of its uses, all it takes to revive this practical art is an appropriately-sized cloth (which you could find or make at home, or buy from any Japanese department store) and an instructional guide or video.
Japan has a long tradition of bentō (弁当), elaborate boxed lunches made with a variety of dishes artfully arranged in a container. Students and working adults, rather than bringing an unadorned container of leftovers straight from the fridge, will take a bento packed with several leftovers and some raw or freshly-cooked items. Bento are also commonly enjoyed at picnics, on long-distance trains, and during intermission at a long kabuki play. For several decades many Japanese mothers have been making their kids' lunches into character bento (キャラ弁 kyara-ben) and picture bento (おえかき弁 oekaki-ben) by decorating the food to look like animals, cartoon characters, and more. To some people, it's practically become a competition to out-decorate other mothers' bento. Japanese department stores sell bento boxes in many sizes and with various compartments, as well as dividers, accessories, and many specialized tools for shaping and decorating ingredients; you can also buy them online internationally. You can take classes to learn how to prepare and pack bento, whether you want to learn some decorating tips or just how to pack a healthy and affordable lunch for the office.