Your first trip to Japan is bound to be a whirlwind visit as you try to pack so many things into a short period of time. Do go to Tokyo and see the white-gloved train pushers, the famous Shibuya scramble crossing, and many of the scenes depicted in anime and manga. Do go to Kyoto and see the shrines and temples that are simply amazing.
But as a country that has so much to offer, it can take years to really get to know and understand Japan, even when you live here. So if you want to take your understanding of Japan a step further, we’re here to suggest a few things you’ll want to experience in order to better understand Japanese culture: things that give you insight on what’s behind the Japanese way of thinking.
These experiences will help you understand who the Japanese people are, and why they act the way they do. Get ready to move from tourist to cultural expert after the jump!
1. See a geisha (or maiko) perform 芸者 (芸子)
▼ Maiko in Kyoto
“Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world.”–Asai Ryōi
You’ve been to Kyoto and Nara, now what? Go see a geisha perform! Geisha and their apprentices, called maiko, can be found in the hanamachi districts, such as Gion in Kyoto and Shimbashi, Asakusa and Kagurazaka in Tokyo.
The geisha profession, part of the “floating world,” was born in Kyoto after it became Japan’s capital in 794 launching the Heian Period (794 to 1185), an age of a flourishing imperial court that spread its influence to art, poetry and literature. The geisha developed over time from their tawdry roots as waitresses and prostitutes to becoming accomplished artists and entertainers exemplary of the Japanese ideal of beauty and refinement. Besides traditional dance, they are versed in Japanese musical instruments including the shamisen, shakuhachi and koto. They are trained in tea ceremony, poetry, calligraphy and games like as go and sugoroku. The geisha trade was flourishing by the end of the 1700’s and didn’t let up until WWII when women had to go to work in factories to help in the war effort.
Geisha are more accessible to sightseers than they’ve ever been thanks to both domestic and foreign tourism. Whereas before, in addition to paying a high price, you need a personal recommendation, nowadays the geisha give public performances a few times a year. Tickets are reasonably priced, with the most expensive being around 4,500 yen (US$37) which includes a tea ceremony with a maiko beforehand.
Where to go: In Kyoto, the hanamachi hold performances in spring and autumn as well as an annual tea ceremony at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine on Feb. 25 where geisha and maiko serve tea to 3,000 guests at the plum blossom festival. Geisha also serve beer in the summer at the Kamishichiken Kaburenjo Theatre. Gion Shinmonso Ryokan purportedly also offers a geisha beer garden with dances in the evenings.
2. Climb Mount Fuji 富士山
▼We’ve all seen Mount Fuji (or pictures of it) but how many have seen the view from Mount Fuji?
climb Mount Fuji,
but slowly, slowly! –Issa (1763-1828)
It’s not just the beauty of Mount Fuji that bewitches the Japanese, it’s the sacredness of the holy mountain as a dwelling of the gods. Japan’s tallest mountain, Fujisan has been revered throughout Japanese history and plays a part in fables, miracles and superstitions. Hokusai’s 36 Views of Mount Fuji captures the enigma of the many faces of Fujisan and the mountain is the subject of many a poem, proverb and omen as well as being one of Japan’s 18 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It’s even said to be a sign of good luck to dream of the cone-shaped mountain on the eve of the first day of the New Year. Most Japanese say they want to climb Mount Fuji once in their lifetime, so if you do climb it, you will be realizing the dream of many of her native people. Hut facilities (where you can rest or sleep overnight) are open from July 1 to August 27 every year. You can start from the bottom of the mountain and pass through the 10 stations to the top, or you can start from the fifth station where the paved road ends. You can climb Fujisan at night to watch the sunrise or take the 6-8 hour hike up descending the next day. There are several routes to the top but the Yoshida route is perhaps the most historic, featuring old shrines and tea houses along the way. But those who climb it often say that it’s too crowded and that hiking with hoards of people is not fun. Thus perhaps another proverb: “You are wise to climb Mt. Fuji, but a fool to do it twice.”
3. Take a dip in an onsen 温泉
▼Even Japanese monkeys like to take a dip in the onsen.
A bath refreshes the body, tea refreshes the mind–Japanese proverb
Bathing in very hot natural springs is a tradition in Japan thanks to the volcanic landscape that ensures a plethora of thermal springs. And bathing is at the heart of the Japanese culture of cleanliness. There is no better way to learn the rituals of bathing than by taking an onsen (or even a sento). The major difference between the two is that the onsen uses natural spring water believed to have healing powers because of the water’s mineral content such as sulpher, sodium chloride or iron. Sento baths, on the other hand, are filled up with heated water from the tap. They both involve the same ablutions, however.
For those who are not shy about entering these public bathing spaces naked, there is much to be learned about the Japanese way of bathing: sitting for a shower rather than standing, using a pail of water to rinse if you choose, and scrubbing the skin clean before getting into the tub.
There are indoor pools and outdoor rotenburo, the latter constructed of natural woods of cypress or cedar. Onsen steep in their appreciation for nature, with large windows often facing out over beautiful views of the mountains or the sea. Hot springs are found everywhere, but the best are said to be in the mountains where the water is pure. The onsen isn’t just a place to get clean, but is a place to relax and relieve stress. Once out of the bath, most Japanese will pad around the facilities for a while relaxing in a traditional yukata robes and drinking a cold drink before changing back into their street clothes. Many Japanese take family vacations to hot spring resorts in places like Atami (Shizuoka) where you can stay overnight and even do onsen-hopping around town.
4. Go to a hanami party 花見
when cherry blossoms
no regrets–Issa (1763-1828)
The significance of the cherry blossom runs deep in the Japanese psyche. Not only is it Japan’s unofficial national flower, but the blossoms are an enduring symbol of temporal beauty and a metaphor for the ephemeral quality of life itself. It is not uncommon to see people singing karaoke under the trees and getting a bit raucous, but it’s all in good fun. After all, these harbingers of spring only last two weeks, then the petals come fluttering down like pink snow blanketing the streets. There they take on a second life blowing across lawns and parks making art on the ground, until finally deciding to settle down and disappear completely. Hanami parties provide bonding opportunities for friends and co-workers and are mandatory company outings to promote harmony among staff. It’s a good chance for friends to eat, drink, and let loose a bit too. A bit of cherry blossom harmony is indeed good for the soul.
Japan’s Top Cherry blossom viewing party spots: Hirosaki Park, Takato Castle Ruins and Yoshinoyama.
5. See a live sumo tournament 相撲
from the pines
frogs watch, too…
sumo wrestling–Issa (1763-1828)
While all martial arts give you an inside look at a culture and its ways, sumo is the most accessible for a tourist to see while in Japan. Six Grand Sumo Tournaments are held around the nation every year, spread among Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka with tickets procurable via the Internet. Sumo, a centuries-old Japanese martial art, still maintains many ancient rituals such as throwing salt around the ring for purification (Shinto), and requiring the rikishi (wrestlers) to stay in sumo stables where they live a regimented life incorporating the ideals of Japanese society. Indeed many of the first sumo wrestlers were said to have been samurai. In addition, there is plenty of scandal, including bout fixing and yakuza links that just add to the Japaneseness of the sport. And, because I know you’re dying to know, yes, there is an International Women’s Sumo Tournament.
6. Experience a Shinto Festival 神道
the pitiless sun
autumn winds–Matsuo Bashō (1644 – 1694)
Shinto, Japan’s original folkloric religion based on ancestor worship, is still very much a part of everyday Japanese life. Shinto worships nature and the seasons so you’ll find fertility festivals in the springtime and harvest festivals in the autumn. These festivals are to appease the Shinto kami (gods), all eight million of them! Most Japanese have a Shinto wedding. People visit shrines to pray for everything from luck in finding a marriage partner and asking for an easy childbirth, to the more prosaic passing of school exams or getting into the university or company of the acolyte’s choice. Shinto is the basis of many Japanese superstitions, including yakudoshi, the bad luck years for men (25, 42, 61) and women (19, 33, 37). But no worries, if you participate in carrying the mikoshi during the Shinto festival (men) or ringing a bell at the shrine (women) in your home town on your bad luck year, you’ll appease the gods and perhaps even be exonerated!
7. Walk part of the Shikoku Pilgrimage 四国遍路
▼Pilgrims on the Shikoku 88-Temple Pilgrimage Trail
Photos: Top: Molly Stacy and Greg Winker at Temple 51; Bottom left: Elly Jührend with backpack and pilgrim’s staff; Middle right: Molly Stacy announcing her arrival at the temple by ringing the bell; Bottom right: Claire Petersky and Ann Brashear starting off their pilgrimage at Temple No. 1.
One becomes virtuous by subduing the body. –Japanese proverb
For over 1,200 years Japanese people have donned white pilgrim robes and walked this 1,350-km Buddhist pilgrimage (840 miles) to 88 temples. Buddhism is Japan’s other religion, introduced in the sixth century. Although Zen Buddhism is the most known sect in the West, Zen’s popularity comes behind Shingon in Japan. Kūkai (774–835), posthumously called Kōbō Daishi, introduced Shingon to Japan from China. An accomplished poet and monk, he is also one of the founders of the Shikoku Pilgrimage, the goal of which is to reach enlightenment. Japanese people are prompted to embark on the pilgrimage for many reasons, for example, to pray for recovery from illness or for the repose of the soul of a deceased family member. Others aim to do the pilgrimage in their retirement, in preparation for a Buddhist death in which devotion and merit will help ensure they’ll reach enlightenment and enter the Buddhist Paradise.
Unlike the Kumano Pilgrimage, the Shikoku Pilgrimage has no restrictions on women. It is a circuit route, following the perimeter of Shikoku island, so you end up where you started 40 to 60 days later (the estimated amount of time it takes if you walk it). Most Japanese people these days can’t take the time off from jobs (or other obligations) to walk the entire route, and others prefer to do the journey in their retirement when such an undertaking proves too arduous to walk, so most take cars, buses or trains, allowing them to complete the endeavor over several years of weekends and holidays. By car the entire route can be completed in 10 days. Adventurous foreigners walk it, even if they can only take a couple of days out of their schedule, visiting a few temples along the route. One of the most common misunderstandings by foreigners about the pilgrimage is that one should walk it. To the Japanese, however, it doesn’t really matter how you do it–it’s more important what you take away from the experience. “I learned more about the Japanese way of living with their two religions, Buddhism and Shinto,” says Elly Jührend from the Netherlands who recently completed her second walk on the pilgrimage. “The lessons I heard from several monks and priests during my pilgrimage made me aware and understand that we people are able to achieve enlightenment in this life.”
For information to get started, see David Moreton’s page on the subject.
8. Stay with a Japanese family
For those who have the opportunity, spend a few days (or longer) with a Japanese family doing a “homestay.” These chances to peek in on and participate in Japanese life are invaluable. You’ll see day-to-day things that will undoubtedly be different from the way you do them in your country. Furthermore, any stereotypes of Japan and the Japanese are bound to be destroyed! You’ll be the person who gets a family who isn’t Shinto or Buddhist, who hates raw fish or who, despite their Japanese roots, speaks fluent Chinese! Yes, they’re a homogenous society, yes, they eat raw fish, and sometimes have contentious relations with Asian neighbors–but not always and not everyone. While it may be true that “the nail that sticks up gets hammered back down,” it may also not be true just as often. After all, even in the U.S., a country known for the Wild West, cowboys and meat ‘n potatoes, there are still a lot of vegetarians.
Find a homestay at Homestay.com
We’re willing to bet that after you’ve experienced the things we’ve suggested in this article, and really start to understand Japan, things that previously didn’t make sense suddenly will, and you’ll start seeing the similarities in your cultures, rather than the differences. And that’s when you’ll know you’re well on your way to enlightenment!