Japan, land of the rising sun, comes with cultural experiences every minute. From traditional forms of theatre and dance to specific cultural rules about etiquette to the fish market, the cultural experiences of Japan are fascinating and varied.
Kabuki is one of the most traditional forms of theater in Japan, one in which only men can perform (in drag, when necessary) using a stylized form of language, movement, and sound to act out traditional Japanese folk tales. While Kabuki can be intimidating to try to access without a guide, the National Theatre of Japan offers introductory performances of Kabuki and other traditional forms of theater from time to time. The performance itself is introduced by information about the art form and demonstrations of some of the sound effects used. English speakers can enjoy the performance with a translation headset.
Another traditional cultural experience not to be missed is the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Much more than a simple drinking of tea, the tea ceremony is a dance of movements and words strung together in a highly stylized hospitality of tea. The tea ceremony emphasizes beauty and peace throughout. Some hotels offer the tea ceremony for a price, but the truly lucky will know a Japanese person who can connect them with someone who still does the tea ceremony in the home.
Eating with Japanese citizens will be a cultural experience in itself. Japanese food includes so much more than the stereotypical sushi. Restaurant fare could include hot or cold noodles, self-barbecue meat, or meat and vegetables known as tempura, which are battered and fried. While the food will be an excellent part of the cultural experience, the expectations during the meal will also be a part of the culture. For example, the Japanese will not pour their own drink; each person will pour drinks for others, but not for herself. Being invited to eat at a Japanese home is also an excellent cultural experience, as the food will often be somewhat different than the fare served in restaurants and shoes will need to be removed at the door.
Visiting a shrine or temple in Japan will also be a cultural education. There are different types of temples and shrines throughout Japan, including Buddhist temples or shrines to ancestors or war dead. Visitors to the Meiji Shrine, at which the Meiji Emperor and Empress are worshipped as gods, can view the stylized architecture, the worshippers, and sometimes even a wedding. A wooden structure is hung around with prayers written by visitors on wooden plaques, many in English addressed to the generic “God,” even though the focus of worship at Meiji shrine is very different. Even visiting one of the local Japanese Christian churches will yield a very different experience than visiting a western Christian church, including a strong hospitality and possibly needing to remove one’s shoes for church.
Staying at a traditional Japanese inn, or ryokan, is an excellent cultural experience. Ryokan offer traditional Japanese hospitality, including traditional meals, sleeping on the traditional tatami floor with comfortable mats, and often an attached hot spring bath. While many ryokan are quite expensive, the Fuji-Hakone Guest House offers comfortable accommodations and an English speaking staff, at an affordable price.
A visit to hot springs is a definite must for experiencing Japanese culture, but be aware that it is important to shower and wash off dirt before stepping into the hot springs to bathe. Many hot springs are same-gender nude communal experiences, so don’t be shocked, although the Fuji-Hakone offers a hot spring bath that may be used privately. Modern hotels may still offer a traditional style bathing room on one of the floors; check the hotel amenities to find out.
The Toyko Fish Market also offers a unique look at the seafood culture of Japan. Wholesale fish are sold there daily, although an early start is necessary to see the best selection. Flash-frozen whole tuna are auctioned off early every morning, commanding high prices, and are then broken down using band saws at the market. Live eels are prepared fresh by nailing their heads to the cutting board and then being swiftly gutted. A visit to the fish market does require a strong stomach, but it is so different from anything else that it is worth the effort.
These are just a few of the best cultural experiences in Japan. There are more, including the traditional geisha area in Osaka and viewing the cherry blossoms, but the ones listed are easily accessible and offer a unique look into Japanese culture, both traditional and as it is practiced today.