The People of Japan

The people of Japan are often depicted as inscrutable. Or reticent. Or shy. They are often these things, but they are often not. Japan is typically thought of as a homogeneous nation, and it largely is, ethnically (though there are minority cultures), but there are also deep divides between the urban and rural, stubbornly persistent gendered spheres and growing social stratification. Increasingly, the people of Japan are a people grappling with the same problems as developed nations the world over.


The population of Japan is approximately 127 million. That alone makes Japan a densely populated nation; to make things worse, 91% of people live in areas classified as urban. Roughly a quarter of the population (about 36 million) lives within the Greater Tokyo Metropolitan Area, which encompasses the cities of Tokyo, Kawasaki and Yokohama plus the commuter towns stretching deep into the suburbs; it's the most heavily populated metropolitan area in the world. Another nearly 20 million live in the Kyoto–Osaka–Kōbe conurbation (often called Keihanshin).

Besides density, the most notable feature of Japan's population is the fact that it is shrinking. Japan's astonishingly low birth rate of 1.4 births per woman is among the lowest in the developed world and over a quarter of the population is already over 65. The population peaked at 128 million in 2007 and has been in decline since; it's predicted to reach 100 million in 2050 and 67 million in 2100. Needless to say, such demographic change will have a major influence on the economy in coming decades.


One notable feature of Japan's population is its relative ethnic and cultural homogeneity. This is particularly striking for visitors from the USA, Australia and other multicultural nations. The Japanese census does not ask questions pertaining to race, only nationality. As a result, discussions of diversity in Japan tend to fall on divisions of national identity – who is Japanese and who is not.

The 2015 census revealed 2.23 million foreigners living in Japan – an uptick of 5% from the year before; the count includes those holding permanent residence status as well as students and temporary workers. The largest non-Japanese group in the country is the Chinese, who number roughly 666,000, or almost 30% of Japan's foreign population; next are the Koreans, who number 458,000 (20%) and the Filipinos (229,600; 10%).

Despite declining population numbers, Japan has shown a reluctance to let immigrants make up the difference.

Zainichi Koreans

There are just under half a million Koreans living in Japan today. For those that trace their origin to Japan's colonial empire, their history is a complicated one. When Japan annexed Korea in 1910 many migrants came to Japan for work; during WWII hundreds of thousands were brought over by the Japanese government to work in wartime factories or stand on the front lines. When the war ended and Korea regained its independence most Koreans returned home, but quite a few stayed. Some had established lives in Japan; others couldn't afford the trip home; and still others were wary of instability on the peninsula.

Under the colonial empire Koreans were subjects of the Japanese emperor; however after the war, the Japanese government did not automatically grant those Koreans who stayed citizenship. Instead they became Zainichi (temporary residents) and were effectively stateless. Up until the 1980s, Zainichi Koreans who wished to become naturalised citizens were required to adopt Japanese-sounding names.

Zainichi Koreans who did not naturalise faced discrimination in the workplace and in marriage. Those who did were often accused of betrayal by those who hadn't; if outed, they would face discrimination anyway.

When Japan resumed diplomatic relations with South Korea in 1965, the latter allowed Zainichi Koreans to claim South Korean nationality, which would now be recognised in Japan. Those who chose not to, perhaps because their allegiance or family ties lay with North Korea, and had not become naturalised Japanese citizens, remain stateless. According to the 2015 census, there are 34,000 of them.

While some Zainichi Koreans are now fourth or fifth generation residents of Japan many do still report episodes of discrimination or hate speech.

Minority Cultures

Buried within the population stats are Japan's invisible minorities – those who are native-born Japanese, who appear no different from other native-born Japanese but who can trace their ancestry to historically disenfranchised peoples. Chief among these are the descendants of the Ainu, the native people of Hokkaidō, and Okinawans.

Prior to being annexed by Japan in the 19th century, Hokkaidō and Okinawa (formerly the Ryūkyū Empire) were independent territories. Following annexation, the Japanese government imposed assimilation policies that forbade many traditional customs and even the teaching of native languages.

The number of Japanese who identify as Ainu is estimated to be around 20,000, though it is likely that there are many more descendants of Hokkaido's indigenous people out there – some who may not know it, perhaps because their ancestors buried their identity so deep (for fear of discrimination) that it became hidden forever. There are maybe 10 native speakers of Ainu left; however, in recent decades movements have emerged among the younger generation to learn the language and other aspects of their culture.

Today's Okinawans have a strong regional identity, though it is less about their ties to the former Ryūkyū Empire and more about their shared recent history since WWII. The Okinawans shouldered an unequal burden, both of casualties and of occupation.

Another group is the burakumin. Racially no different from other Japanese, they were the disenfranchised of the feudal era social hierarchy, whose work included tanning, butchering, the handling of corpses and other occupations that carried the taint of death. Shunned, they lived in isolated settlements (called buraku). When the old caste system was abolished and the country modernised, the stigma should have faded, but it didn't: official household registries (often required as proof of residence when applying for a job) tied the ancestors of the burakumin to towns known to be former buraku settlements.

Discrimination in work and marriage was once common, though negative feelings towards buraku descendants appear to be diminishing with each generation.

Though English is slim, the Liberty Museum in Osaka has exhibits on Japan's minority cultures and their fights for social justice.


Until the beginning of last century, the majority of Japanese lived in close-knit rural farming communities. Today, only one in 10 Japanese lives in the small farming and fishing villages that dot the mountains and cling to the rugged coasts. Mass postwar emigration from these rural enclaves has doubtless changed the weave of Japanese social fabric, as has the dizzying onslaught of Western material and pop culture. These days, the average young Tokyoite has more in common with her peers in Melbourne or London than she does with her grandmother back in the country.

In the City

Japan's urbanites live famously hectic lives dominated by often gruelling work schedules and punctuated by lengthy commutes from more affordable outlying neighbourhoods and suburbs to city centres.

Until fairly recently, the nexus of all this activity was the Japanese corporation, which provided lifetime employment to the legions of blue-suited, white-collar workers, almost all of them men, who lived, worked, drank, ate and slept in the service of the companies for which they toiled. Families typically consisted of a salaryman father, a housewife mother, kids who studied dutifully in order to earn a place at one of Japan's elite universities and an elderly in-law who had moved in.

These days, as the Japanese economy makes the transition from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, the old certainties are vanishing. On the way out are Japan's famous 'cradle to grave' employment and age-based promotion system. In their place are the legions of furitaa (part-time workers); for some, this is a conscientious rejection of their parents' lifestyles, but for most it is because they find themselves shut out of the full-time workforce. As in most developed countries, tomobataraki (both spouses working) is now increasingly common.

The kids in the family probably still study like mad. If they are not yet in high school, they will be working towards gaining admission to a select high school by attending an evening cram school, known as juku. If they are already in high school, they will be attending a juku in the hopes of passing university admission exams. With the number of full-time jobs up for grabs shrinking, getting into a top university is all the more vital.

Which isn't to say it's all glum in the cities; Japan's urbanites have a work hard, play hard ethos that fuels the famous nightlife of the major cities.

In the Country

Japan's rural population makes a living doing a variety of work, often seasonally – farming or fishing for part of the year and picking up other work, such as construction, in the off-season. As of 2015, Japan had 2.1 million full-time commercial farmers, and nearly two-thirds of them were over 65. Many more manage small, subsistence plots, getting up at dawn to weed and prune before heading in to town for work.

Children who would have followed in the footsteps of their parents now head to the cities for university, often never looking back. However some, after putting in a couple of decades at a corporation, feel a pull to return to their jika (hometown). Often it's to take care of aging parents, but sometimes, too, there is a sense of weariness of city life or a desire to give back to their communities.

Meanwhile, there is now a generation of urban Japanese who are so removed from rural life as to think it all sounds very romantic. They dream of finding an old minka (country house), fixing it up and starting an organic farm, selling their wares online to their former urban peers. Some actually follow through. Whether this is enough to save Japan's rural communities from steep population decline remains to be seen.


Shintō and Buddhism are the main religions in Japan. For much of history they were intertwined. Only about one-third of Japanese today identify as Buddhist and the figure for Shintō is just 3%; however most Japanese participate in annual rituals rooted in both, which they see as integral parts of their culture and community ties. New Year's visits to shrines and temples are just one example. Generally in Japan, Shintō is concerned with this life: births and marriages for example are celebrated at shrines. Meanwhile, Buddhism deals with the afterlife: funerals and memorials take place at temples.


Shintō, or 'the way of the gods' is the indigenous religion of Japan. It locates divinity in the natural world. Its kami (gods) inhabit trees, rocks, waterfalls and mountains; they can be summoned through rituals of dance and music into the shrines the Japanese have built for them, where they are beseeched with prayers for a good harvest, fertility and the like. The pantheon of deities includes thousands, from the celebrated sun goddess Amaterasu to the humble hearth kami.

Shintō has no central scripture, so it is hard to pin down, but one central tenet is purity. Visitors to shrines first wash their hands and mouth at a font at the gate; many rituals involve fire or water, prized for their cleansing powers. Over time, shrines have accrued specialisations – this one is good for business; that one for matchmaking. While very few Japanese say they believe in Shintō, it is still common to visit a shrine for luck. At the very least, people think, it can't hurt.


When Buddhism entered Japan via Korea in the 6th century it didn't so much displace Shintō as envelop it; now there were kami and bodhitsattvas (people who put off entry into nirvana in order to save the rest of us stuck in the corrupt world of time).

Several waves of Buddhist teachings arrived on Japanese shores; notably meditative Zen, Shingon (an esoteric sect related to Tantric Buddhism), and Pure Land, which preached of the salvation of heaven (the Pure Land). It was the latter that most struck a chord with common Japanese and Pure Land (called Jōdo-shū) remains the most popular form of Buddhism today. Kannon (the bodhitsattva of mercy and an important Pure Land figure) is the most worshiped deity in Japan.

Feature: Visiting a Shintō Shrine

A visit to a shrine is a prescribed ritual. Upon entering a torii gate, it's the custom to bow, hands pressed together, and then proceed to the temizuya (font). Use the dipper to collect water from the spigot, pour it over your left hand and then your right (careful not to let the water drip back into the font). Fill your left hand with water and rinse out your mouth; then rinse your left hand a final time with the remaining water.

Next, head to the haiden (hall of worship), which sits in front of the honden (main hall) enshrining the kami (god of the shrine). Here you'll find a thick rope hanging from a gong, with an offerings box in front. Toss a coin – a ¥5 coin is considered lucky – into the box and ring the gong by pulling on the rope (to summon the deity). Then pray, clap your hands twice, bow and then back away from the shrine. Be sure to bow again at the gate on your way out.

Feature: We Japanese

It's common to hear Japanese begin explanations of their culture by saying, ware ware nihonjin, which means, 'we Japanese'. There's a strong sense of national cohesion, reinforced by the media which plays up images of Japan as a unique cultural Galapagos; TV programs featuring foreign visitors being awed and wowed by the curious Japanese way of doing things are popular with viewers. The Japanese in turn are often fascinated (and intimidated) by what they perceive as the otherness of outside cultures.

Women in Japan

Women have traditionally been viewed as keepers of the home, responsible for overseeing the household budget, monitoring the children's education and taking care of the day-to-day tasks of cooking and cleaning. Of course this ideal was rarely matched by reality: labour shortfalls often resulted in women taking on factory work and, even before that, women often worked side by side with men in the fields.

As might be expected, the contemporary situation is complex. There are women who prefer the traditionally neat division of labour. They tend to opt for shorter college courses, often at women's colleges. They may work for several years, enjoying a period of freedom before settling down, leaving the role of breadwinner to the husband and becoming full-time mums.

This is often seen as the path of least resistance. While gender discrimination in the workforce is illegal, it remains pernicious. And while there is less societal resistance to women working, they still face enormous pressure to be doting mothers. Most women see the long hours that Japanese companies demand as incompatible with child-rearing, especially in the early years; few fathers are willing or, given their own work commitments, able to pick up the slack. Attempts at work-life balance, such as working from home, can result in guilt trips from colleagues or bosses. Working women have coined the phrase 'maternity harassment' to describe the remarks they hear in the office after announcing a pregnancy, the subtle suggestions that she quit so as not to cause trouble.

Women do in fact make up over 40% of the workforce; however, over half of them are working part-time and often menial, low-paying jobs.

In the face of Japan's declining birth rate, the central government has acknowledged the untapped labour potential of its female population (while still encouraging women to have more babies, naturally). In 2003 the government set a target of having women make up 30% of managerial positions by 2020; it has since scaled back its expectations to 15%. The current rate is 12% in the private sector; it's similarly low in the Diet.

Japan has the third largest pay-gap among developed countries: in 2015 Bloomberg reported that women who are in full-time employment make roughly 30% less than their male counterparts. Taking all of this into account, the World Economic Forum has given Japan the damning rating of 111 out of 144 countries in its Global Gender Gap Report for 2016.

On the upside: Japanese women have the longest life expectancy on earth, at 86.83 years of age.

Sidebar: Oya-koko

Oya-koko is the Japanese expression for filial piety, though it more literally means something like 'making your parents happy'. This can mean taking care of them when they're older but also calling them up, taking them out to lunch or popping around to do some odd chores.

Sidebar: Income Gap

For decades Japan has prided itself on being a nation made up almost exclusively of the middle class. However, in recent years, the numbers haven't been adding up: a combination of economic stagnation and liberalisation policies has resulted in an increasing income gap, especially for single-parent households.

Sidebar: Additional Reading

  • Contemporary Japan: History, Politics and Social Change Since the 1980s (Jeff Kingston; 2010)
  • Zen and Japanese Culture (Daisetz T Suzuki; 2010)
  • Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style (W David Marx; 2016)
  • Handbook of Japanese Mythology (Michael Ashkenazi; 2008)

Arts & Architecture

Japan has a sublime artistic tradition that transcends gallery walls, the pages of books and the kabuki stage to seep into everyday life. It is one that has been influenced by the cultures of continental Asia and later the West and shaped by a tendency to refine techniques and materials to an almost maniacal degree. Its traditional design aesthetic of clean lines, natural materials, heightened spatial awareness and subtle enhancement has long been an inspiration to creators around the world.


Traditional Visual Art


Japan has a rich history of painting, albeit one routinely influenced by China and then, from the 19th century, by the West (which was influenced by Japan in return). Traditionally, paintings consisted of black ink or mineral pigments on washi (Japanese handmade paper) and were sometimes decorated with gold leaf. These works adorned folding screens, sliding doors and hanging scrolls; never behind glass, they were a part of daily life.

Paintings of the Heian era (794–1185) depicted episodes of court life, like those narrated in the novel Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji), or seasonal motifs, often on scrolls. Works such as these were later called yamato-e (Yamato referring to the imperial clan), as they distinguished themselves thematically from those that were mere copies of Chinese paintings. Gradually a series of style conventions evolved to further distinguish yamato-e; one of the most striking is the use of a not-quite-bird's-eye perspective peering into palace rooms without their roofs (the better to see the intrigue!).

With the rise of Zen Buddhism in the 14th century, minimalist monochrome ink paintings came into vogue; the painters themselves were priests and the quick, spontaneous brush strokes of this painting style were in harmony with their guiding philosophies.

It was during the Muromachi period (1333–1573) that the ruling class became great patrons of Japanese painters, giving them the space and the means to develop their own styles. Two styles emerged at this time; the Tosa school and the Kano school.

The Tosa clan of artists worked for the imperial house, and were torch-bearers for the now classic yamato-e style, using fine brushwork to create highly stylised figures and elegant scenes from history and of the four seasons; sometimes the scenes were half-cloaked in washes of wispy gold clouds.

The Kano painters were under the patronage of the Ashikaga shogunate and employed to decorate their castles and villas. It was they who created the kind of works most associated with Japanese painting: decorative polychromatic depictions of mythical Chinese creatures and scenes from nature, boldly outlined on large folding screens and sliding doors.

The Kano school came to dominate Japanese painting, reaching a near hegemony that lasted through the Tokugawa years, when the lords favoured ever more showy works caked with gold leaf. Meanwhile in Kansai, another school emerged in the Edo period, Rimpa, which took the shimmering gold of Kano and married it with the more delicate line work of Tosa.

With the Meiji Restoration (1868), when artists and ideas were sent back and forth between Europe and Japan, painting necessarily became either a rejection or an embracing of Western influence. Two terms were coined: yōga for Western-style works and nihonga for works in the traditional Japanese style. In reality though, many nihonga artists incorporated shading and perspective into their works, while using techniques from all the major traditional Japanese painting schools. There are many artists today who continue to create and redefine nihonga.


Shodō (the way of writing) is one of Japan's most valued arts, cultivated by nobles, priests and samurai alike, and is still studied by Japanese school children today as shūji. Like the characters of the Japanese kanji script, the art of shodō was imported from China. In the Heian period, a fluid, cursive, distinctly Japanese style of shodō called wayō evolved, though the Chinese style remained popular in Japan among Zen priests and the literati for some time.

In both Chinese and Japanese shodō there are three important types. Most common is kaisho (block-style script). Due to its clarity, this style is favoured when readability is key. Gyōsho (running hand) is semi-cursive and is often used in informal correspondence. Sōsho (grass hand) is a truly cursive style. Sōsho abbreviates and links the characters together to create a flowing, graceful effect.

Ukiyo-e (Woodblock Prints)

The term ukiyo-e means 'pictures of the floating world' and derives from a Buddhist metaphor for the transient world of fleeting pleasures. This 'floating world' was the topsy-turvy kingdom of the pleasure quarters in cities such as Edo (present-day Tokyo), Kyoto and Osaka. Here, the social hierarchies dictated by the Tokugawa shogunate were inverted: money meant more than rank, actors were the arbitrators of style and courtesans were the most accomplished of artists. Ukiyo-e were often rather bawdy; there were also those that functioned more like travel postcards – for a populace that wasn't allowed to travel.

The vivid colours, novel composition and flowing lines of ukiyo-e caused great excitement in the West, sparking a vogue that one French art critic dubbed japonisme. Ukiyo-e became a key influence on Impressionists (for example, Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet and Degas) and post-Impressionists. Among the Japanese, the prints were hardly given more than passing consideration – millions were produced annually in Edo. They were often thrown away or used as wrapping paper for pottery. For many years, the Japanese continued to be perplexed by the keen interest foreigners took in this art form, which they considered of ephemeral value.

Shikki (Lacquerware)

Known in Japan as shikki or nurimono, lacquerware is made using the sap from the lacquer tree (urushi), a close relative of poison oak. Raw lacquer is actually toxic and causes severe skin irritation in those who have not developed immunity. Multiple layers of lacquer are painstakingly applied and left to dry, and finally polished to a luxurious shine; once hardened, it becomes extraordinarily durable.

Lacquer is naturally clear; pigments such as iron oxide (which produces vermillion) are added for colour. People in Japan have been using lacquer to protect and enhance the beauty of wood since at least 5000 BC. During the Heian period, black lacquerware decorated with gold and silver powder (called maki-e) became popular with court nobles. More sophisticated techniques that developed include inlay (such as mother-of-pearl) and layering different colours and then sanding away the top coat, to create a worn appearance (negoro style).

Feature: Wabi-Sabi

Wabi-sabi is an aesthetic that embraces the notion of ephemerality and imperfection and is Japan's most distinct – though hard to pin down – and profound contribution to the arts. Wabi roughly means 'rustic' and connotes the loneliness of the wilderness, while sabi can be interpreted as 'weathered', 'waning' or 'altered with age'. Together the two words signify an object's natural imperfections, arising in its inception, and the acquired beauty that comes with the patina of time.

It is most often evoked in descriptions of the tea ceremony, a kind of participatory performance art surrounding the ritual of drinking tea that came into vogue in the 16th century. Ceramics made for the tea ceremony – and this is where Japanese ceramics finally came into their own – often appeared dented or misshapen or had a rough texture, with drips of glaze running down the side. They were prized all the more for their imperfections. The most famous styles associated with the tea ceremony are raku, shigaraki and bizen.

The teahouses too, small, exceedingly humble and somewhat forlorn (compared to the manors they were attached to) also reflected wabi-sabi motifs, as did the ikebana (flower arrangements) and calligraphy scrolls that would be placed in the teahouse's alcove.


The Japanese art of flower arranging known as ikebana is thought to date back to the 6th century when Buddhism entered the country, bringing with it the tradition of leaving flowers as offerings for the spirits of the dead. However, given the older Shintō religion's deification of nature, it's possible that the roots of the art go back even further.

What sets Japanese ikebana (literally ‘living flowers’) apart from Western forms of flower arranging is the suggestion of space and the symbolism inherent in the choice and placement of the flowers and, in some cases, bare branches. It’s not as esoteric as it sounds. It's hard to pinpoint when it emerged (being the most ephemeral of Japanese arts), but it reached its artistic zenith in the 16th century with its incorporation into the rituals and tradition of the tea ceremony.

There are several distinct styles of ikebana. The main contemporary schools are the Kyoto-based Ikenobo (, and the Tokyo-based Ohara ( and Sōgetsu (; all hold exhibitions and the Tokyo-based ones conduct classes in English.

Contemporary Art Scene

The ’90s was a big decade for Japanese contemporary art: love him or hate him, Murakami Takashi brought Japan back into an international spotlight it hadn’t enjoyed since 19th-century collectors went wild for ukiyo-e. His work makes fantastic use of the flat planes, clear lines and decorative techniques associated with nihonga, while lifting motifs from the lowbrow subculture of manga (Japanese comics); his spirited, prankish images and installations have become emblematic of the Japanese aesthetic known as poku – a concept that combines pop art with an otaku (manga and anime super-fan) sensibility.

As much an artist as a clever theorist, Murakami proclaimed in his ‘Superflat’ manifesto that his work picked up where Japanese artists left off after the Meiji Restoration – and this might just be the future of painting, given that most of us now view the world through the portals of two-dimensional screens. Murakami inspired a whole generation of artists who worked in his ‘factory’, Kaikai Kiki, and presented their works at his Geisai art fairs.

Naturally, younger artists have had trouble defining themselves in the wake of ‘Tokyo Pop’, as the highly exportable art of the ’90s came to be known. Some artists making a mark include: Tenmyouya Hisashi, who coined the term 'neo-nihonga' to describe his works, which echo the flat surfaces and deep impressions of woodblock prints, while singing a song of the street; conceptual artist Tanaka Koki (named Deutsche Bank’s Artist of the Year in 2015); and the collection of irreverent pranksters known as ChimPom, who run a gallery space in Tokyo.

Tokyo is the centre of Japan's contemporary art world, though Kyoto has a thriving gallery scene as well. Travellers with a keen interest in contemporary art will want to make a trip to Naoshima.

Manga & Anime


Walk into any convenience store in Japan and you can pick up several phone-directory-sized weekly manga anthologies. Inside you’ll find about 25 comic narratives spanning everything from gangster sagas and teen romance to bicycle racing and shōgi (Japanese chess), often with generous helpings of sex and violence. The more successful series are collected in volumes (tankōbon), which occupy major sections of bookshops. No surprise then that manga accounts for roughly a quarter of all sales of Japan's US$15 billion book and magazine publishing industry.

You can trace manga's roots to the graphic art of Edo-era kibyōshi woodblock print publications and in the comic books that entered the country with the American occupation, but manga is fully its own art, often conveying the kind of complex themes and character development you'd expect from a novel. Popular series like One Piece, by Oda Eiichirō, have been going on for 20 years now, meaning many devoted readers are now well into middle age.

An excellent introduction to the art of manga is the Kyoto International Manga Museum.


Anime can mean anything from the highly polished hand-drawn output of Studio Ghibli to the low-budget series churned out each season for Japanese TV. It is created for all ages and social groups, encompassing genres from science fiction and action adventure to romance and historical drama.

The medium includes deep explorations of philosophical questions and social issues, humorous entertainment aimed at kids and bizarre fantasies. Many popular manga are later serialised as anime. Some works offer breathtakingly realistic visuals, exquisite attention to detail, complex and expressive characters, and elaborate plots. Leading directors and voice actors are accorded fame and respect, while characters become popular idols.

Among the best-known anime is Akira (1988), Ōtomo Katsuhiro's psychedelic fantasy set in a future Tokyo inhabited by speed-popping biker gangs and psychic children. Ghost in the Shell (1995) is an Ōishii Mamoru film with a sci-fi plot worthy of Philip K Dick involving cyborgs, hackers and the mother of all computer networks. The works of Kon Satoshi (1963–2010), including the Hitchcockian Perfect Blue (1997), the charming Tokyo Godfathers (2003) and the sci-fi thriller Paprika (2006), are also classics.

One new director to watch is Shinkai Makoto: his 2016 Kimi no Na wa (Your Name) was both a critical and box-office smash – the second highest-grossing domestic film ever, after Spirited Away. It's scheduled for world release in 2017.

Miyazaki Hayao – The King of Anime

Miyazaki Hayao, who together with Takahata Isao founded Studio Ghibli, is largely responsible for anime gaining widespread, mainstream appeal abroad. His 2001 Spirited Away earned the Academy Award for best animated film and he was given an Academy Honorary Award in 2014.

Miyazaki was born in 1941 in wartime Tokyo and his father was the director of a firm that manufactured parts for the famous Japanese Zero fighter plane. This early exposure to artificial flight had a deep impression on Miyazaki, and one of the hallmarks of his films is skies filled with whimsical flying machines; The Wind Rises (2013) is a fictionalised biopic about Zero designer Hirokoshi Jirō. The studio's name Ghibli (pronounced zhibli) comes from an Italian scouting plane used in WWII.

In high school, Miyazaki saw Japan's first feature-length anime, Hakujaden (known overseas as Panda and the Magic Serpent; 1958) and resolved to become an animator himself. After graduating from university in 1963, he joined Tōei and worked on some of the studio's most famous releases, including Little Norse Prince (1968), where he first teamed up with Takahata. His debut as a movie director was in 1979 on Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro.

In 1984, Miyazaki directed an anime version of his manga Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds. The movie provides a brilliant taste of many of the themes that run through Miyazaki's subsequent work, including environmental concerns and the central role of strong female characters. The film's critical and commercial success established Miyazaki as a major force in the world of Japanese anime and led to the creation of the animation studio, Studio Ghibli, through which he has produced all his later works.

In 1988 Studio Ghibli released My Neighbor Totoro. Much simpler and less dense than many Miyazaki films, Totoro is the tale of two young girls who move with their family to the Japanese countryside while their mother recuperates from an illness. There they befriend Totoro, a magical creature who lives in the base of a giant camphor tree. For anyone wishing to make an acquaintance with the world of Miyazaki, this is the perfect introduction.

Traditional Theatre & Dance

Sometimes transliterated as noh, this is the oldest of Japan's traditional performing arts, with its roots in Shintō rites. is not drama in the usual sense; it seeks to express a poetic moment by symbolic and almost abstract means: glorious movements, sonorous chorus and music, and subtle expression. The stage is furnished with only a single pine tree.

There are two principal characters: the shite, who is sometimes a living person but more often a demon or a ghost whose soul cannot rest; and the waki, who leads the main character towards the play's climactic moment. The haunting masks of theatre always depict female or nonhuman characters; adult male characters are played without masks.

Providing light relief to the sometimes heavy drama of are the comic vignettes known as kyōgen, some of which reference the main play, others of which stand alone. Colloquial language is used, so they are easier to understand for a contemporary audience than the esoteric chanting of .

The National Nō Theatre is located in Tokyo and there are many active schools that occasionally host performances. In summer and fall, outdoor, firelit performances called takagi-nō take place at shrines; Sado-ga-shima is famous for these.


Around the year 1600, a charismatic shrine priestess in Kyoto led a troupe of female performers in a new type of dance people dubbed kabuki – a slang expression that meant ‘cool’ or ‘in vogue’ at the time. The dancing – rather ribald and performed on a dry riverbed for gathering crowds – was also a gateway to prostitution. A series of crackdowns by the Tokugawa establishment (first on female performers, then on adolescent male performers) gave rise to one of the most fascinating elements of kabuki, the onnagata (adult male actors who specialise in portraying women).

As kabuki spread to Edo (Tokyo), it developed hand in hand with the increasingly affluent merchant class, whose decadent tastes translated into the breathtaking costumes, dramatic music and elaborate stagecraft that have come to characterise the art form. It is this intensely visual nature that makes kabuki accessible to foreign audiences – you don’t really have to know the story to enjoy the spectacle. (Tip: if you opt for the cheap seats, bring binoculars).

Over the course of several centuries, kabuki has developed a repertoire that draws on popular themes, such as famous historical accounts and stories of love-suicide, while also borrowing copiously from nō, kyōgen (comic drama) and bunraku (classical puppet theatre).

Formalised beauty and stylisation are the central aesthetic principles of kabuki; highlights for many fans are the dramatic poses (called mie) that actors strike at pivotal moments. Kabuki actors are born into the art form and training begins in childhood; they prepare for a role by studying and emulating the style perfected by their predecessors. A few actors today enjoy such social prestige that their activities on and off the stage are chronicled in the tabloids.


In bunraku, Japan's traditional puppet theatre, sophisticated and large – nearly two-thirds life-sized – puppets are manipulated by up to three black-robed puppeteers. The puppeteers do not speak; the story is provided by a narrator performing jōruri (narrative chanting) to the accompaniment of a shamisen (a three-stringed instrument resembling a lute or banjo). The syncronisation required to pull all this off is incredible.

Bunraku developed alongside kabuki; in fact, many famous plays in the kabuki repertoire were originally written for puppet theatre. Osakans were particularly fond of the puppet theatre, and the best place to see it is at Osaka's National Bunraku Theatre.


A traditional Japanese style of comic monologue, rakugo (literally 'dropped word') dates to the Edo period. The performer, usually in kimono, sits on a square cushion on a stage. Props are limited to a fan and hand towel. The monologue begins with a makura (prologue), which is followed by the story itself and, finally, the ochi (punch line or 'drop', which is another pronunciation of the Chinese character for raku in rakugo). Some comedians specialise in classic monologues, which date to the Edo and Meiji periods; others pen new ones that address issues relevant to contemporary life. A number of famous comedians, including movie director Kitano Takeshi, have studied rakugo as part of their development.

Today, rakugo is most often performed at yose (vaudeville theatres) as part of a line-up of jugglers, magicians and more. While some Japanese ability is certainly helpful, it can also be fun just to pop into one of these old halls for the experience; there are a few in Tokyo, such as Asakusa Engei Hall.

Contemporary Theatre & Dance

The angura (underground) theatre movement of the 1960s saw productions take place in any space available: tents, basements, open spaces and street corners. This was no doubt influenced by concurrent movements abroad, such as that of the situationists; however it also entailed a reconsideration and re-evaluation of just what a Japanese aesthetic should – and could – mean after a century of cultural influence from the West. For influential avant-garde playwright and director Kara Jūrō, taking the stage outside was evocative of kabuki's formative years along the riverbed. The angura also gave rise to shōgeki (literally ‘small theatre’, but more like ‘fringe theatre’).

Contemporary dramatists to look for include Okada Toshiki and his troupe chelfitsch, which earned critical acclaim for Five Days in March (Sangatsu no Itsukukan; 2004), a hyper-realistic portrayal of two furītā (part-time workers) holed up in a Shibuya love hotel at the start of the second Iraq War. Chelfitsch rely heavily on disjointed, hyper-colloquial language. More accessible to visitors with little or no Japanese ability are the physical and often risqué works of Miura Daisuke and his troupe Potudo-ru. He recently adapted his award-winning Love's Whirlpool (Ai no Uzu; 2005), set at a Roppongi swingers’ party, into a film of the same name (2014).


Butō is Japan’s unique and fascinating contribution to contemporary dance. It was born out of a rejection of the excessive formalisation that characterises traditional forms of Japanese dance and of an intention to return to more ancient roots. Hijikata Tatsumi (1928–86) is credited with giving the first butō performance in 1959; Ōno Kazuo (1906–2010) was also a key figure.

During a performance, one or more dancers use their naked or seminaked bodies to express the most elemental and intense human emotions. Nothing is forbidden in butō and performances often deal with taboo topics such as sexuality and death. For this reason, critics often describe butō as scandalous, and butō dancers delight in pushing the boundaries of what can be considered beautiful in artistic performance. It’s also entirely visual, meaning both Japanese and non-Japanese spectators are on a level footing.

Butō has been a largely underground scene and performances often take place in unconventional locations outdoors. However, in 2016 the Kyoto Butoh-kan (, opened as a dedicated performance space. Top Tokyo-based troupes who perform in the capital (and beyond) include Sankai Juku ( and Dairakudakan Kochūten (


Japan has a literary history that stretches back over a millennium.

Tales of the Heian Court

Japan's first major literary works were penned by women of the Heian court. Murasaki Shikibu's Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji; 1008) is credited as the world's first novel; the lengthy and complex serial, starring the lesser noble and playboy Genji, documents the intrigues and romances of court life. An easier (and quicker!) read is Sei Shōnagon's Makura no Sōshi (The Pillow Book; 1002), which reads curiously like the blog of a lady-in-waiting.


Japan has a rich poetic tradition, and one that was historically social in nature. Poetry groups would come together to collaborate on long renga (linked verse), with each new verse playing off some word or association in the one that came before. Renga were composed in a game-like atmosphere and were more about witty repartee than about creating works to be preserved and read. Sometime in the 17th century, however, the opening stanza of a renga became accepted as a standalone poem – and the haiku was born. Today, the haiku is Japan’s most widely known form of poetry; at just 17 sparse syllables, it is also the shortest.

Matsuo Bashō (1644–94) is considered the master of the form and is Japan’s most famous poet. He’s also the origin of the popular image of the haiku artist as a Zen-like ascetic figure. In 1689 Bashō left his home in Edo (Tokyo) to embark on a five-month, 2400km walk around northern Japan – then considered the ends of the earth. He returned to write his most famous work, Oku no Hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North; 1702), a poetic account of his journey.

Edo-Era Excess

Ihara Saikaku (1642–93), a contemporary of Bashō and also active in poetry circles (in his hometown, Osaka) was a famous chronicler of the ukiyo – the 'floating world' of the pleasure districts (which are also captured in ukiyo-e, woodblock prints). His first novel, Koshoku Ichidai Otoko (The Life of an Amorous Man; 1682), reads like an updated (and funnier) Tale of Genji, with the wealthy son of a 17th-century Osakan merchant as its antihero. The book was a contemporary bestseller.

The Modern Period

Most of Japan's important modern literature has been penned by authors who live in and write about cities. Though these works are sometimes celebratory, many lament the loss of a traditional rural lifestyle that has given way to the pressures of a modern, industrialised society. Kokoro (1914), the modern classic by Sōseki Natsume (1867–1916), outlines these rural–urban tensions, as does Yukiguni (Snow Country; 1935–37), by Nobel laureate Kawabata Yasunari (1899–1972). These works touch upon the conflict between Japan's nostalgia for the past and its rush towards the future, between its rural heartland and its burgeoning metropolises.

Contemporary Literature

Among contemporary novelists, Murakami Haruki (b 1949) is the biggest star, both at home and internationally. His 2013 novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, moved a million copies in a week. The English translation topped the US bestsellers list when it was released the following year. (His latest collection of short stories, Men Without Women, is due out in English in 2017). Of all his books, the one most Japanese people are likely to mention as their favourite is the one that established his reputation, Norwegian Wood (1987). It’s a wistful story of students in 1960s Tokyo trying to find themselves and each other.

The other literary Murakami, Murakami Ryū, is known for darker, edgier works that look at Japan’s urban underbelly. His signature work is Coin Locker Babies (1980), a coming-of-age tale of two boys left to die in coin lockers. Both survive, though the Tokyo they live to face is literally toxic. His most recent work in English translation is the short story collection Tokyo Decadence: 15 Stories (2016).

Literature in Japan is not, entirely, a boys’ club. Banana Yoshimoto (b 1964) – who picked her pen name because it sounded androgynous – had an international hit with Kitchen (1988). In 2003, the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for emerging writers was awarded to two young women: Wataya Risa (b 1984) for the novel The Back You Want to Kick (just published in English in 2015) and Kanehara Hitomi (b 1983) for the novel Snakes and Earrings. Wataya has gone on to have further success, winning the Kenzoburo Oe prize in 2012 for her latest work Isn't It a Pity?

Traditional Music

Japan's classical music is gagaku, the music played in the court from the 7th century onward, on the koto (zither) and biwa (short-neck lute), among other instruments, brought over from China. Haunting and ancient sounding, it is occasionally performed for the public in national theatres or at Shintō shrines.

More accessible (and admittedly way more fun), min'yo (folk music) is usually played on a shamisen (similar to a lute or a banjo). Different regions have different styles (even different structures) and in some areas of Japan (particularly Aomori and Okinawa) you can find bars and restaurants with spirited live performances. Another crowd pleaser are the energetic (an understatement, really) performances of the Sado-ga-shima–based taiko (drum) troupe Kodo (

Music also plays a big part in Japan's traditional performing arts: is punctuated by taiko and flute music; kabuki and bunraku are accompanied by shamisen.


Highlights of Japanese Cinema
  • 1950s

The golden age of Japanese film. Watch Kurosawa Akira’s Rashōmon (1950); Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953).

  • 1960s

Colour and prosperity arrive. Watch Ozu’s Sanma no Aji (An Autumn Afternoon; 1962).

  • 1970s

Ōshima Nagisa brings new-wave visual techniques and raw sex. Watch Ai no Korīda (In the Realm of the Senses; 1976).

  • 1980s

Imamura Shōhei and Itami Jūzō earn critical success for a new generation. Watch Imamura’s Naruyama Bushiko (The Ballad of Naruyama; 1983); Itami’s Tampopo (1986).

  • 1990s

Actor and comedian Takeshi Kitano emerges as director of merit and vision. Watch Hana-bi (Fireworks; 1997).

  • 2000s

Anime and horror flicks are international hits. Watch Miyazaki Hayao’s Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away; 2001) and Fukasaku Kinji's Battle Royale (2000).

  • 2010s

New voices and visions. Watch Shion Sono's Love & Peace (2015) and Hirokazu Koreeda's Soshite Chichi ni Naru (Like Father Like Son; 2013), which won the Jury Prize at Cannes.

Sidebar: Pottery Towns

  • Arita
  • Bizen
  • Hagi
  • Kanazawa
  • Mashiko

Sidebar: Laquerware

Famous laquerware-producing areas include Wajima in Ishikawa Prefecture, where it takes over 100 steps to create pieces that are known for their sturdy elegance, and Okinawa, where the style known as Ryūkyū-shikki incorporates designs of flowers and dragons more common to Chinese art.

Sidebar: Hokusai

One of the most famous ukiyo-e is The Great Wave by Hokusai (1760–1849), one of his series Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji. Visit the Hokusai Museum in Obuse, where the artist spent his final years, and the new Sumida Hokusai Museum in Tokyo.

Sidebar: Art Festivals

  • Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale (
  • Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale (
  • Sapporo International Arts Festival (
  • Setouchi Triennale (
  • Yokohama Triennale (

Sidebar: Recommended Reading

  • From Postwar to Postmodern, Art in Japan 1945–1989 (Dorun Chung; 2013)
  • Hundred Years of Japanese Film (Donald Richie; 2012)
  • The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Drama (Eds J Thomas Rimer, Mitsuya Mori & M Cody Poulton; 2014)

Sidebar: Arts Magazines

  • KIE (
  • Performing Arts Network (

Sidebar: Tezuka Osamu

Beloved TV anime Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion are based on hit manga by Tezuka Osamu (1928–89), an artist frequently referred to as manga no kamisama – the 'god of manga'.

Sidebar: Comiket

Comiket (; short for ‘Comic Market’) is a massive twice-yearly convention in Tokyo for fan-produced amateur manga known as dōjinshi. To the untrained eye, dōjinshi looks like ‘official’ manga, but most are parodies (sometimes of a sexual nature) of famous manga titles.

Sidebar: Contemporary Theatre

Tokyo has long claimed to be Japan's centre for contemporary theatre with its international festival F/T (; however, when it comes to critical merit, Kyoto is drawing focus with its edgier festival, Kyoto Experiment ( To learn more about Japan's contemporary theatre scene, see the blog Tokyo Stages (


Traditional Architecture

Traditional Japanese architecture is almost exclusively constructed of wood. Japanese carpenters were true masters, employing a complex system of joinery techniques to build large-scale wooden structures entirely without nails – some of which are still standing hundreds of years later (and if they're not, it's most likely due to fire).

Early architectural styles and techniques were greatly influenced by Korea and China, and well into the modern era (and possibly still today) building projects would begin by consulting a geomancer practised in the art of feng shui. Over the centuries, the tastes of various ruling classes have left their own mark, from the austere elegance favoured by the medieval warrior class to the more ostentatious styles that were in vogue during the Edo period. Even in the showiest buildings, however, the function of ornamentation was to draw out the beauty of the structure itself and that of the materials employed.

Throughout Japan's civilised history and until the Meiji era, building was heavily regulated according to status, down to the width of a gate. The grandest structures were the temples and shrines and the villas of the ruling classes – and of course the castles.

Traditional wooden structures were very vulnerable to fire and few truly old, original structures remain – though many reconstructions follow the old patterns.

Glossary of Traditional Japanese Architecture

fusamapapered sliding screens used to divide space into rooms
gasshō-zukuria distinct style of thatch-roof farmhouse, so named for the shape of the rafters, which resemble a pair of palms pressed together in prayer
hinokiJapanese cypress; the preferred material for monumental structures
kawaraslate roof tile
machiyatraditional Japanese townhouse, made of wood and usually of two storeys, with a shop on the ground floor and living quarters upstairs
monmain entrance gate of a temple or castle constructed of several pillars or casements, joined at the top by a multitiered roof; a Chinese-style entrance gate is called karamon
shoin-zukuristyle of elegant and refined architecture for the ascendant warrior class; originated in the 14th century with the spread of Zen Buddhism
sukiya-zukurihumbler than, though similar to, shoin-zukuri; shabby-chic style that developed in accordance with the tea ceremony in the 16th century
shōjimovable wooden screens, covered with mulberry paper, used as doors
tatamimats of woven reeds that cover the floors in traditional Japanese buildings; the size is codified and area is often measured by the number of mats
toriiShintō shrine gate composed of two upright pillars, joined at the top by two horizontal crossbars, the upper of which is normally slightly curved; often painted a bright vermilion

Feature: Temple or Shrine?

Buddhist temples and Shintō shrines were historically intertwined, until they were forcibly separated by government decree in 1868. But centuries of coexistence means the two resemble each other architecturally; you’ll also often find small temples within shrines and vice versa. The easiest way to tell the two apart is to check the gate: the main entrance of a shrine is a torii (gate) of two upright pillars, often painted red; a temple mon (main entrance gate) is often a much more substantial affair, with eaves, either natural wood or decoratively painted. Temple gates often contain guardian figures, usually Niō (deva kings).

Foreign Influences

When Japan opened its doors to Western influence following the Meiji Restoration (1868), the city's urban planners sought to remake downtown Tokyo in the image of a European city. A century-long push and pull ensued, between enthusiasts and detractors: architects who embraced the new styles and materials and those who rejected them. Tokyo Station, with its brick facade and domes looking very much like a European terminus, went up in 1914. Meanwhile, the Tokyo National Museum (1938) was done in what was called the Imperial Style, a sturdy, modern rendering of traditional design.

The new port cities, like Yokohama, Kōbe and Hakodate, with their foreign settlements and influence, acquired many new Western-style buildings including churches with their signature steeples and domes. These new buildings were often made of brick or stone. What is most striking about the architecture of this time is the incongruity of it all: a Russian Orthodox church next to a Victorian-style manor, around the corner from a Buddhist temple and maybe across the street from a neo-Baroque bank. Hakodate in particular preserves this sense of perhaps rather muddled cosmopolitanism. At the time, it was also the vogue for the wealthy elite to build hybrid homes, with Japanese- and European-style wings.

In 1917 Frank Lloyd Wright, a noted Japanophile, visited Japan, bequeathing it six structures and a bevy of disciplines schooled in the principles of modernism. Many Meiji-era structures, including part of Wright's original design for the Imperial Hotel (rebuilt in 1967), can be seen at Meiji-mura, outside Nagoya.

Modern Icons

Modern Japanese architecture really came into its own in the 1960s. The best known of Japan’s 20th-century builders was Tange Kenzō (1913–2005), who was influenced by traditional Japanese forms as well as the aggressively sculptural works of French architect Le Corbusier. One of his early commissions was the Hiroshima Peace Center and Memorial Park (1955). He also designed the National Gymnasium built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics – a structure that looks vaguely like a samurai helmet and uses suspension-bridge technology – and later the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices (1991), a looming complex with the silhouette of a Gothic cathedral.

Concurrent with Tange were the ‘metabolists’, Shinohara Kazuo, Kurokawa Kishō, Maki Fumihiko and Kikutake Kiyonori. The Metabolism movement promoted flexible spaces and functions at the expense of fixed forms in building. Design-wise, they were a radical bunch who produced a number of fascinating sketches and plans, the majority of which went unbuilt. One that did go up is Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower (1972), an apartment complex in Tokyo, with apartments designed as pods that could be removed whole from a central core and replaced. Maki, the most realistic of the bunch, went on to have a celebrated career, winning the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1993 (Tange won it earlier in 1987); his buildings, which make use of new and varied materials, have a geometric, uncentred composition. Tokyo's Spiral Building is a great example.

Contemporary Architecture

Since the 1980s a new generation of Japanese architects have emerged who continue to explore both modernism and postmodernism, while incorporating a renewed interest in Japan’s architectural heritage. Among the most esteemed are Itō Toyō and Andō Tadao, both winners of the Pritzker Prize.

Andō’s works are heavy, grounded and monumental; his favourite medium is concrete. Many of his structures can be found in Tokyo and on Naoshima. Itō’s designs are lighter and more conceptual. Among his signature works is the Sendai Mediatheque.

Sejima Kazuyo and Nishizawa Ryue who helm the SANAA firm (also a Pritzker winner) are noted for their luminous form-follows-function spaces. They have dozens of impressive projects under their belt, including the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, and the other-worldly Teshima Art Museum.

Japan's most recent Pritzker winner, in 2014, is Ban Shigeru. He marches to his own drum entirely, purposefully using low-cost and recycled materials, building pre-fab houses and disaster shelters in addition to prestigious projects. Among his more storied works is a temporary cathedral built of cardboard tubes in Kōbe following the 1995 Hanshin earthquake; when a more permanent structure was finally rebuilt, Ban's structure was packed up and shipped to Taiwan, which had recently had a quake of its own.

Feature: Traditional Japanese Gardens

Gardening is one of Japan's finest art forms. You'll encounter four major types of gardens during your horticultural explorations.

Funa asobi Meaning 'pleasure boat' and popular in the Heian period, such gardens feature a large pond for boating and were often built around nobles' mansions. The garden that surrounds Byōdō-in in Uji is a vestige of this style.

Shūyū These 'stroll' gardens are intended to be viewed from a winding path, allowing the design to unfold and reveal itself in stages and from different vantages. Popular during the Heian, Kamakura and Muromachi periods, a celebrated example is the garden at Ginkaku-ji in Kyoto.

Kanshō Zen rock gardens (also known as kare-sansui gardens) are an example of this type of 'contemplative' garden intended to be viewed from one vantage point and designed to aid meditation. Kyoto's Ryōan-ji is perhaps the most famous example.

Kaiyū The 'varied pleasures' garden features many small gardens with one or more teahouses surrounding a central pond. Like the stroll garden, it is meant to be explored on foot and provides the visitor with a variety of changing scenes, many with literary allusions. The imperial villa of Katsura Rikyū in Kyoto is the classic example.

Sidebar: Hasegawa Tohaku

The screen paintings of Hasegawa Tohaku, created almost 400 years ago, are said to be the first examples of Impressionist art.

Sidebar: Nara's Wooden Wonders

Hōryū-ji (607) is commonly believed to have the two oldest wooden structures in the world, including a 32m-high pagoda. Tōdai-ji's main hall is among the world's biggest wooden buildings; the current structure (1709) is actually only two-thirds of its original 8th-century size.

Sidebar: Ninja-proofing

Japan's feudal palaces and castles incorporated a straightforward security system known as uguisubari (nightingale floors). The creaking floors of Kyoto's Nijō-jō are an excellent example of this melodic security technique designed to catch out stealthy ninja assassins.

Sidebar: Theatre Tickets

For kabuki tickets in Tokyo and Kyoto, try For tickets to traditional performances (, bunraku) at Japan's national theatres, head to Japan Arts Council (

Sidebar: Art Info Online

Tokyo Art Beat ( and its sister site Kansai Art Beat ( are bilingual art-and-design guides, with regularly updated lists of events and art-world happenings.

Sidebar: Kaidan

The plots of most modern Japanese horror films can be traced back to the popular kaidan (traditional horror or ghost stories) of the Edo and Meiji periods.

Sidebar: Tokyo Sky Tree

Standing 634m tall, Tokyo Sky Tree (2012) is the world's tallest free-standing tower. It employs an ancient construction technique used in pagodas: a shimbashira column (made of contemporary, reinforced concrete), structurally separate from the exterior truss. It acts as a counterweight when the tower sways, cutting vibrations by 50%.

Sidebar: New Japanese Literature

Check out the annual anthology of new Japanese writing Monkey Business ( For news and reviews of Japanese works translated in English, see the blog Contemporary Japanese Literature (, edited by academic Kathryn Hemmann.

Sidebar: Ghibli

All Studio Ghibli fans will want to make a pilgrimage to the delightful Ghibli Museum in the Tokyo suburb of Mitaka.

Sidebar: Women Writers

Some of the earliest examples of Japanese literature were penned by women who, with no access to education in Chinese, used the simplified phonetic script hiragana. Their male counterparts at the time were busy copying and perfecting the imported Chinese characters known as kanji.

Living Art of the Geisha

The word geisha literally means 'arts person'; in Kyoto the term used is geiko – 'child of the arts'. Though dressed in the finest silks and often astonishingly beautiful, geisha are first and foremost accomplished musicians and dancers. On top of that, they are charming, skilled conversationalists. These now-rare creatures – who seem lifted from another world – still continue to entertain. Kyoto is particularly known for its geisha districts, where elaborately costumed maiko (apprentice geiko) can be spotted on the streets.

Life of a Geisha, Then & Now

Geisha now live a dramatically different life to their predecessors. Prior to the mid-20th century, a girl might arrive at an okiya (geisha living quarters) still a young child, and indeed some were sold into service by desperate families, to work as a maid. Should she show promise, the owner of the okiya would send her to begin training at the kaburenjo (school for geisha arts) at around age six. She would continue maid duty, waiting on the senior geisha of the house, while honing her skills and eventually specialising in one of the arts, such as playing the shamisen (three-stringed instrument resembling a lute or a banjo) or dance.

Training typically lasted about six years; those who passed exams would begin work as an apprentice under the wing of a senior geisha and eventually graduate to full-fledged geisha themselves.

Geisha were often indebted to the okiya who covered their board and training. Given the lack of bargaining chips that have been afforded women in history, there is no doubt that many geisha of the past, at some point in their careers, engaged in compensated relationships; this would be with a danna (a patron) with whom the geisha would enter a contractual relationship not unlike a marriage (and one that could be terminated). A wealthy danna could help a woman fulfil her debt to the okiya or help her start her own.

Other geisha married, which required them to leave the profession; some were adopted by the okiya and inherited the role of house mother; still others worked until old age.

Today's geisha begin their training no earlier than in their teens – perhaps after being inspired by a school trip to Kyoto – while completing their compulsory education (in Japan, until age 15). Then they'll leave home for an okiya (they do still exist) and start work as an apprentice. While in the past, a maiko would never be seen out and about in anything but finery, today's apprentices act much like ordinary teens in their downtime. For some, the magic is in the maiko stage and they never proceed to become geisha; those that do live largely normal lives, free to live where they choose, date as they like and change professions when they please.

Geisha Dress

In Kyoto, the maiko are easily distinguished by their ornate dress, long trailing obi and towering wooden clogs; the maiko also wears her own hair in a dramatic fashion, accentuated with opulent (and extremely expensive) ornaments, called kanzashi. Geisha, or geiko, in contrast wear more subdued robes and a simpler chignon (or a wig). Every stage of a geisha's career is marked by a change in dress. The most pronounced is the promotion from trainee to full-fledged geisha, which is marked with a ceremonial changing of the collar of the under-kimono from red to white, a ritual called erikae.

Maiko and young geisha paint their faces with thick white make-up, leaving only a suggestive forked tongue of bare flesh on the nape of the neck. Eyebrows are painted and the lower lip is coloured red; traditionally charcoal was used for the brows and safflower for the lips. As geisha grow older their make-up becomes increasingly natural; by then their artistic accomplishments need no fine-casing.

Experience Geisha Culture

Modern maiko and geisha entertain their clients in exclusive restaurants, banquet halls and traditional ochaya much like they did a century ago. This world is largely off limits to travellers, as a personal connection is required to get a foot in the door, though some tour operators can act as mediator. Of course, these experiences can cost hundreds of dollars (if not more).

The best way to experience geisha culture is to see one of Kyoto's annual public dance performances (known as odori), a city tradition for over a century. Three of the geisha districts perform their dance in April, to coincide with the cherry blossoms; one performs in May, and the final one performs in November, to coincide with the autumn foliage.

Historical Kyoto geisha districts such as Gion and Pontochō preserve well the atmosphere of a hanamachi. Though it's one of the smallest of Tokyo's entertainment districts, Kagurazaka, with its cobblestone lanes, is lovely. Kanazawa has some well preserved hanamachi, too, with many old ochaya that have been beautifully restored and are open to the public, either as museums or bars.

In an effort to save their art, some geisha are working with local tourism boards to create experiences for visitors; if you're visiting Kyoto, Tokyo or Kanazawa, it's worth doing a quick internet search or inquiring at a tourist information centre for events that might be happening.

Feature: Geisha Manners

No doubt spotting a maiko dressed to the hilt on the street in Kyoto is a wondrous experience, and a photo is a much-coveted souvenir of a visit to Japan. However, please keep in mind that these are young women – many of whom are minors – trying to get to work. In Kyoto the sport of geisha-spotting has gotten out of hand, with tourists sometimes blocking the women's paths in popular districts like Gion in order to get photos. Let them through; maiko and geisha are professionals – if you want to get close to them, support their art and go to see them perform. You can also find plenty of tourists dressed as geisha on the streets of Higashiyama during the daytime; many are happy to be photographed if asked.


hanamachi literally 'flower town', an entertainment district known for ochaya

kaburenjo formal training school for geisha arts

maiko an apprentice geisha in Kyoto

ochaya teahouse where geisha entertain

okiya living quarters for maiko or geisha overseen by a house mother who supervises training

okobo tall wooden clogs worn by maiko, to keep her long kimono from trailing on the ground

onēsan literally 'older sister', an older geisha who mentors an apprentice

shimada a mature geisha's more subdued chignon with side wings

ware-shinobu a chignon twined with padded red silk and decorated with many ornaments; hairstyle of a debut maiko

Sidebar: Geisha in Print

The novel Geisha in Rivalry (1918), by Nagai Kafu, chronicles the love lives of two Tokyo geisha with a penchant for drama. Kafu, a notorious dandy, did plenty of on-the-ground research for this one.

Sidebar: Geisha on Film

Mizoguchi Kenji's 1936 black-and-white film Sisters of Gion is a riveting portrayal of two very different sisters working in the famous Kyoto geisha district. The actress Yamada Isuzu, who plays one of the sisters, was herself the daughter of a geisha.


Stretching from the tropics to the Sea of Okhotsk, the Japanese archipelago is a fantastically diverse place. Few countries enjoy such a variety of climates and ecosystems, with everything from coral-reefed islands to snow-capped mountains. Unfortunately, this wonderful landscape is also one of the world's most crowded, and almost every inch of the Japanese mainland bears the imprint of human activity.

The Land

Japan's four main islands – Honshū (slightly larger than Britain), Hokkaidō, Kyūshū and Shikoku – make up 95% of the country's landmass. A further 6848 smaller islands make up the archipelago, which stretches from the Ryūkyū Islands (of which Okinawa is the largest) at around 25°N to the northern end of Hokkaidō at 45°N. Cities at comparable latitudes are Miami (south) and Montreal (north). Japan's total land area is 377,435 sq km, of which mountains comprise around 80% and as a result population is largely concentrated in dense areas along the coasts.

Situated along the 'Ring of Fire', Japan occupies one of earth's most seismically active regions, which has deeply shaped both its geography and culture and continues to impact on these today. Before the last Ice Age, Japan was connected by a land bridge to the East Asian continent.

Seismic Activity

It's estimated that 1500 or so earthquakes happen annually in Japan. Most go unfelt, though gentle rocks that can be felt are not uncommon. The last truly devastating earthquake to occur was the 9.0-magnitude Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, the fourth largest earthquake recorded in modern history. Earthquakes can frequently trigger tsunamis. The scale of the 2011 tsunami caught experts by surprise; they are usually not nearly that big. Regardless, after a major jolt, the prevailing wisdom is to get away from the coast and up to high ground.


Japan has 10% of the world's active volcanoes, including majestic Mt Fuji (which last erupted 300 years ago). Of these, Kyūshū's are the most active: spectacular Sakurajima in Kagoshima frequently puts on a show. While the country's volcanoes are actively monitored and fatalities rare, an unexpected eruption of Ontake-san in Nagano killed 56 hikers in 2014.

Japan's Construction Addiction

As traditional Japanese culture makes much of nature and the changing seasons, many visitors to Japan are shocked to see a countryside marred significantly by concrete. It's fair to say that Japan's public works programs started out in earnest as an infrastructure overhaul – paving rural roads and shoring up eroding hillsides against landslides, for example, were sorely needed projects in the postwar period. Along the way, however, construction went from being a source of jobs for rural populations to becoming one of the only sources of jobs for declining rural populations.

Rural areas yield enormous power in Japanese politics, as representation is determined more by area than by population. In order to ensure the support of their constituencies, rural politicians have little choice but to lobby for government spending on public-work projects – to keep jobs in their areas. As a result, Japan is number four in the world in dam construction; state-of-the-art bridges loom over villages that have little use for them; and small cities can boast of sophisticated cultural facilities (though they're often largely devoid of content).

In 2009, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan came into power, running on a platform to curb Japan's construction addiction (the Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, had been in power since 1955); however they faced resistance in rural communities when they cancelled pending projects. In 2012, the LDP were voted back in.

Alex Kerr writes extensively on this phenomenon in his 2001 book Dogs and Demons.

Feature: Sustainable Travel in Japan

As a traveller, you can minimise your impact on the Japanese environment in several simple ways.

Refuse packaging At the cash register, you can say: Fukuro wa irimasen (I don't need a bag), or just hold up a reusable shopping bag to show you've already got one.

Carry your own chopsticks Buy a pair of hashi (washable chopsticks with a carrying case) from a convenience store, to avoid relying on the disposable ones many restaurants use.

Less tuna and eel, please Limit your consumption of seafood threatened by over-fishing, such as unagi (eel) and maguro (tuna) – including toro (fatty tuna belly). We know, this one hurts!

Use public transport Japan's public transport system is among the best in the world; there's little reason not to use it.

Hop on a bike Many guesthouses and even some tourist information centres offer bike rentals (often for free).

Skip vending machines While ubiquitous vending machines are part of Japan's urban identity, they eat up a considerable amount of energy.


The latitudinal spread of Japan's islands makes for a wide diversity of flora and fauna. The Nansei and Ogasawara archipelagos in the far south are subtropical, and flora and fauna in this region are related to those found on the Malay peninsula. Mainland Japan (Honshū, Kyūshū and Shikoku) shows more similarities with Korea and China, while Hokkaidō shares many features with Russia's nearby Sakhalin Island. For more information on wildlife in Japan, visit the website of the Biodiversity Center of Japan at


Land bridges to the Asian continent allowed the migration of animals from Korea and China (and in Hokkaidō from Sakhalin). There are also species that are unique to Japan, such as the Japanese giant salamander and the Japanese macaque. In addition, the Nansei archipelago, which has been separated from the mainland for longer than the rest of Japan, has a few examples of fauna that are classified by experts as 'living fossils', such as the Iriomote cat.

Japan's largest carnivorous mammals are its bears. Two species are found in Japan: the higuma (brown bear) of Hokkaidō, and the tsukinowaguma (Asiatic brown bear or 'moon bear' because of the white crescent on its chest) of Honshū, Shikoku and Kyūshū.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) 'Red List' currently tallies 123 endangered fauna species in Japan, including Blakiston's fish eagle, the widely consumed Japanese eel and the red-crowned crane (an imperial emblem and symbol of longevity in Japan). The Iriomote cat, along with 28 other species, is listed as 'critically endangered' and the Japanese river otter went extinct in 2012. The majority of the critically endangered species are located in the Ogasawara Islands, a remote island chain in the Pacific that's something like Japan's own Galapagos.


The flora of Japan today is, for the most part, not what the Japanese saw hundreds of years ago. The cool-to-temperate zones of central and northern Honshū and southern Hokkaidō were once home to broad-leaf mixed deciduous forests. While roughly two-thirds of the country remains forested, natural forests make up only about half of that; the rest is planted forest, mainly of cedar and cypress. It is also thought that 200 to 500 plant species have been introduced to Japan since the Meiji period, mainly from Europe, but also from North America.

The subtropical islands of Yakushima and Iriomote are part of the Nansei archipelago, that extends southwest from Kyūshū. The islands stand out for their largely untouched landscapes; Iriomote in particular is a mostly unexplored primordial jungle, home to numerous endemic plants not found elsewhere. At the other end of the country, at the northeastern tip of Hokkaidō, Shiretoko National Park is home to old-growth temperate and sub-alpine forests of Erman's birch, Sakhalin fir and Mongolian oak. The sheer inaccessibility of some alpine regions in central Honshū has preserved some areas of great natural beauty there, too.

National Parks

In 1931 Japan laid the groundwork for its national park system and today has 32 national parks, ranging from the far south (Iriomote National Park) to the northern tip of Hokkaidō (Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park), plus 57 awkwardly titled quasi-national parks. National parks cover 5.5% of Japan's landmass and are administered by the Ministry of the Environment. Including quasi-national parks and prefectural national parks, the total amount of protected land extends to 14.3%.

Unlike national parks in some other countries, the ones in Japan are not entirely government-owned land – the system was far too late for that. Shintō shrines, in particular, laid claim to many of Japan's mountains long ago. National parks also contain towns, farmland, onsen resorts, industry – anything really. Much of the land that is government-owned land is forested and instead overseen by the Forestry Agency (rather than the Ministry of the Environment). A convoluted multi-tier system is used to regulate development in such a way as to minimise environmental impact to varying degrees.

All of this amounts to a curious atmosphere, where you're more likely to be greeted by a torii gate on entering a national park, or to find a noodle shop on top of a mountain, than to come across a ranger station (though the number of the latter are increasing).

For descriptions of Japan's parks, see

Environmental Issues

Environmentalism in Japan is largely a consumer movement; people here have been eager adopters of hybrid cars, tank-less toilets and the like, produced by the country's own leading manufacturers. Environmental activism (and, well, any kind of activism) is largely viewed in Japan as a fringe activity. However, groups such as Japan for Sustainability (, Green Action ( and Greenpeace Japan ( each lobby for concerns such as denuclearisation, research and development of renewable energy technologies, and the reduction of carbon emissions.

Feature: Fukushima Nuclear Incident

The 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake unleashed a tsunami that overwhelmed the seaside six-reactor Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. The flooding knocked out backup generators which resulted in a catastrophic loss of essential cooling capacity, causing a core meltdown in three reactors.

While it is thought that much of the deadly radioactive material remains contained on-site, a significant amount of radiation was dispersed in a plume to the northwest. Radioactive water continues to leak or be released into the Pacific Ocean (and may for years). Hundreds of makeshift tanks have been filled with contaminated water used to cool spent fuel.

The real scope of the environmental and public health impact is largely unknown. The central government has maintained that the situation is under control and decontamination is proceeding at a measured pace; however the pro-nuclear LDP administration has not been forthcoming with much detailed information and has imposed policies to limit the freedom of the media.

Scientists have largely reinforced the government's claims, though there is little precedent to go on. There has been only one other nuclear disaster of this magnitude to date – Chernobyl – and the two unfolded very differently (Chernobyl is believed to have released significantly more radiation into the air).

The 20km exclusion zone instated shortly after the disaster remains largely in place, though some communities have been permitted to return (if they want; many don't). Few researchers have been allowed on site.

A study released in 2015 by researchers at Nagoya University, who used highly sophisticated radiograph technology to spy on the reactors' cores, revealed that one of the reactors appeared to have little to no fuel in its containment vessel (while in others it was clearly visible). These results encouraged speculation that the vessels had been breached and the ground below contaminated.

Even optimistic government forecasts set the target for decommissioning the plant at 2051.


Commercial whaling was banned by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in the 1980s; however, the Japanese government continues to fund the Japan Institute of Cetacean Research (JICR), which kills several hundred whales each year in the name of scientific research. Critics have long questioned the actual scientific aims of the program; in 30 years the research has led to no notable discoveries. Moreover, after the whales have been purportedly studied, meat is sold on the commercial market. The Japanese counter these claims by saying that they don't want the meat to be wasted and that, furthermore, whaling has long been an important part of Japanese culture.

The cultural claim is dubious: whales have been hunted over time in some coastal communities; however, the scientific whaling program takes place in deep waters near Antarctica aboard a factory ship. Whale meat was eaten with frequency during WWII and its aftermath, when food was seriously scarce. For this reason, some elderly Japanese feel fondly towards it. But consumption levels today are so low that much of the whale meat presented at auction goes unsold. Stockpiles continue to rise, leading the JICR to begin selling it at bargain rates to schools, which serve it in the cafeteria (despite whale meat being known to contain significant amounts of mercury).

The issue over whaling became international news in 2010 when the anti-whaling organisation Sea Shepherd's vessel Ady Gil was rammed and sunk by Japanese whalers. The following year, it was revealed that US$29 million of funds earmarked for tsunami recovery efforts had gone to shore up the whaling industry. Critics say it's hard to understand why Japan would continue to hold out, given the huge amount of negative publicity these developments have brought. A 2012 survey by the Nippon Research Center showed the public is ambivalent towards whale meat and has little to no interest in continuing to fund the whaling program.

In 2014 the International Court of Justice ruled that Japan's whaling program was not scientific and ordered Japan to cease whaling; in the 2015–16 season, 333 minke whales were killed by Japanese whalers in Antarctica. Japan has since said it would review its program in 2017.

Taiji Dolphin Hunt

In 2009, the documentary The Cove brought to light a hitherto little-known practice in the small town of Taiji (in southern Kansai) of herding pods of dolphins into a cove and slaughtering them. Condemnation from international wildlife organisations was swift; the film won the Academy Award for best documentary feature. Only six cinemas in Japan screened the film. The Taiji fishermen claim that the filmmakers lied to them and misrepresented them.

Taiji (pop 3500) was one of those coastal communities that had long hunted whales – a commercial activity now banned by the IWC. Local residents do in fact eat dolphin and whale meat; a 2010 study by the National Institute for Minamata Disease showed that Taiji residents have higher mercury levels than average in Japan.

The annual cull continues, drawing protesters from around the globe. Hundreds of dolphins are killed and sold for meat; others are captured and sold to aquariums. Activists have had one recent victory: in 2015 the Japan Association of Zoos and Aquariums ordered its member aquariums not to purchase dolphins from Taiji.

Sidebar: Emissions

Japan is the fifth leading contributor of carbon emissions globally. It ratified the Paris climate accord in 2016.

Sidebar: Chopsticks

Twenty-five billion pairs of waribashi (disposable wooden chopsticks) are used in Japan annually – equivalent to the timber needed to build 17,000 houses.

Sidebar: Cool Biz

In 2005 the Japanese Ministry of the Environment launched the 'Cool Biz' campaign to cut CO₂ emissions. The program encouraged offices to hold 'casual Fridays' and raise thermostats in summer (to use less air-con). After a year it was estimated that annual CO₂ emissions were reduced by over 1 million tonnes.

Honshū Blossom & Foliage Seasons

  • January

Hot-pink camellias add colour to winter.

  • Early February–mid-March

Whether white or pink, plum blossoms signal winter is loosening its grip.

  • Mid-March–mid-April

Sakura season. Wherever you are, in a really good cherry-blossom year it can seem like Mother Nature has decided to put on her best party dress and go mad; crowds gather everywhere for hanami (cherry-blossom viewing).

  • April & May

Hikers delight in the many varieties of wild azaleas that festoon the highlands.

  • Late April–May

In Japanese, a word exists to describe the luminous green that typifies the trees of Japan for the first few weeks after budding: shinryoku. Photographers use the word 'oversaturation'.

  • May

Divine purple blossoms of draping wisteria decorate temple gardens and mountainsides.

  • June

Irises add jolts of purple and yellow to gardens and temple grounds.

  • July & August

Wildflowers bloom on alpine plains.

  • Late October–early December

The brilliant spectacle of kōyō (autumn foliage season) sees momiji (maples), ginkgos and other broad-leaved trees cycle through yellow, crimson, orange and flaming red.


Sumo, steeped in ancient ritual, is Japan's national sport. While it has its devout followers, it's baseball that is the clear fan favourite; soccer is popular, too. Martial arts have a following among both spectators and participants and gets a boost every four years during the Olympics, as Japan excels at judo. In 2019 the country will host the Rugby World Cup, which will be but a prelude to the hoopla surrounding the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.


The national sport is a ritualistic form of wrestling that developed out of ancient Shintō rites for a good harvest. Two overweight, amply muscled men, clothed only in mawashi (loin cloths) with their hair slicked back into a topknot, battle it out in a packed earth dōyo (ring) over which hangs a roof that resembles that of a shrine. Before bouts, which typically last only seconds, the rikishi (wrestlers) rinse their mouths with water and toss salt into the ring – both purification rituals. They also perform the shiko movement, where they squat, clap their hands and alternately raise each leg as high as it can go before stamping it down – all shows of strength and agility.

Bashō (grand tournaments) are held over a 15-day period, six times a year (January, May and September in Tokyo, March in Osaka, July in Nagoya and November in Fukuoka) and they are well worth a visit. It's the pageantry as much as the actual wrestling of a bashō that is so memorable, including spectacles such as the ceremonial entrance of maku-uchi (top division) wrestlers in their decorative keshō-mawashi aprons and the bow-twirling moves of the yokozuna, sumo's supreme champions.

Feature: Sumo Moves

Size is important in sumo, but woe betide any rikishi who relies solely on bulk as, more often than not, it's kimari-te (wrestling techniques) that win the day. There are 82 official kimari-te a rikishi may legitimately employ, including:

Abisetaoshi Using body weight to push an opponent backwards to the ground.

Oshidashi Pushing an opponent's arms underneath or in the chest to force him out of the ring.

Oshitaoshi Pushing an opponent to the ground either inside or outside the ring.

Shitatenage Tackling an opponent by grabbing inside his arms.

Tsukiotoshi Grabbing an opponent underneath the arm or on his side and forcing him down at an angle.

Uwatenage Grabbing an opponent's mawashi from outside the opponent's arms and throwing him to the ground.

Uwatedashinage As above but also dragging an opponent.

Yorikiri Lifting an opponent out of the ring by his mawashi.

Moves that will get a wrestler disqualified include punching with a closed fist, boxing ears, choking, grabbing an opponent in the crotch area and pulling hair.


The Japanese call it yakyū; it was introduced in 1873 by Horace Wilson, an American teacher in Tokyo. Games are played between April and October across the country in two pro leagues (Central and Pacific;, each with six teams sponsored by big businesses. The victors in each league then duke it out in the end-of-season, seven-match Japan Series. The most successful team by a wide margin is Tokyo-based Yomiuri Giants, who have 35 Central League and 22 Japan Series titles to their name. In Kansai, the Hanshin Tigers are the hometown favourite. Regardless of your interest in baseball, it's worth catching a game just to watch the fans who engage in elaborately choreographed cheering.

Martial Arts

Although they have their roots in the combat techniques honed over centuries by samurai and other warriors, the martial arts that are most closely associated with Japan today developed in the modern era. These gendai budō (Japanese martial arts) aim for self-improvement and self-protection rather than aggression.


Developed in the early 20th century, this form of self-defence combines elements of judo, karate and kendō so that the practitioner uses, rather than opposes, an adversary's attack through techniques such as throws and controls. Tokyo's Hombu-dōjō is the headquarters of the International Aikido Federation ( and you can sign up for classes there.


An evolution of kenjutsu (the art of sword fighting), kendō is a sport whose practitioners use shinai (blunt bamboo swords) and bōgu (light body armour). The sport is governed by the All-Japan Kendo Federation ( based at Tokyo's Nippon Buddōkan, where many of the championship matches are held.


An Olympic sport since 1964, judo (literally meaning 'the gentle way') is a wrestling style of martial art that developed at the end of the 19th century from the more harmful jujitsu fighting school. The controlling body is the Tokyo-based All-Japan Judo Federation (; check their website for information on tournaments. The Kodokan Judo Institute has training centres in Tokyo and Osaka; the former has a hostel at which recommended students can stay.


Meaning 'empty hand', karate came to mainland Japan from Okinawa and is a fusion of an Okinawan martial art known as ke and Chinese martial arts. Today there are various styles of karate, with the Japan Karate Association ( representing the most popular Shokotan tradition. The association's dōjō (practice hall) in Tokyo welcomes visitors who wish to join a training session.


The beautiful game has a 150-year-old pedigree in Japan, but it was only with the creation of the professional J-League ( in 1993 that it began to gain wider spectator popularity. There are 18 clubs in the premier J1 division and 22 in the J2 division; the season runs March to October with top teams competing for the J-League Cup. Meanwhile all teams – down to high-school teams – can compete in the Emperor's Cup, with play from September until the final match, held on New Year's Day.

Sidebar: Resources

Nihon Sumo Kyokai ( offers online ticket sales. Sumo Fan Magazine ( is a multilingual online fanzine. Sumotalk ( will give you the skinny on all things sumo.

Sidebar: New Olympic Sports

Five new sports have been approved by the IOC for inclusion in the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games: karate, skateboarding, surfing, climbing and – back for the first time since 2008 – baseball and softball.

Traditional Japanese Accommodation

A hotel is a hotel wherever you go. And while some of Japan's hotels are very nice indeed, staying in traditional-style accommodation offers an added cultural experience. Sleeping on futons (quilt-like mattresses), soaking in an o-furo (Japanese-style bath, often communal) or starting your day with grilled fish and rice are all opportunities to connect a little deeper with Japan. Options include ryokan (traditional inns), minshuku (traditional guesthouses) and shukubō (temple lodgings).

Feature: Accommodation Tips

  • It's always best to have a reservation, even if it's just a quick call a few hours before arriving. One easy way to do this is to have your present accommodation call ahead and reserve your next night's lodging. Tourist information centres can often suggest places to stay and call ahead for you.
  • Email is the best means of communication; most Japanese tend to be more comfortable with written than spoken English.
  • If you have any dietary restrictions (or foods you wish to avoid) be upfront about this at the time of booking. Places that regularly welcome foreign guests may be able to accommodate certain requests, but others may not.
  • If you'd prefer to forgo meals entirely, most inns offer sudomari (staying only) rates.
  • Old buildings (with no elevators) can be tricky with large luggage. If you plan to stay in many such inns, it's best to pack as light as possible. If you are just making an overnight excursion to one, consider asking your previous night's accommodation if they'd be willing to store your suitcase (and just travel with a day pack).
  • You could also take advantage of Japan's new 'hands-free' travel service to send larger bags onward to your next stop. For details see,

The Basics


At any traditional lodging you should leave your shoes at the door and put on the slippers set out for you. At smaller, casual places, there will be a shelf or cupboard for you to stash your shoes (or barring that just leave them neatly to the side). At fancier places, you can just step out of your shoes and staff will whisk them away. Separate slippers will be set out for use just in the toilet; don't forget to slip back into your regular slippers on the way out! There will also be outdoor slippers (either wooden-soled geta, traditional sandals, or clunky plastic ones) in the entrance way, if you need to pop outside. Given all this sharing of slippers, most guests prefer to wear socks.


All lodgings in Japan (save hostels) supply sleepwear and at a traditional accommodation this will be a yukata, a light, cotton kimono-like robe. Don't be insulted if you're given one marked extra large – they're sized by length not by girth! Put it on over your underwear, left over right; women might want to wear a camisole, as the robes tend to creep open on top. Men typically tie the obi (sash) low on their hips while women tend to secure it snugly at the waist. You can wear the yukata anywhere around the inn: to and from the baths and during meals (though of course this is optional). At some onsen resort towns, guests wear them around town as well, while going from bathhouse to bathhouse.


For Japanese guests, a ryokan is a destination in and of itself and as a result most will check-in as early as possible (usually 3pm). Most places (ryokan, minshuku and shukubō) expect you to check in by 6pm, unless you have arranged otherwise. After signing in (yes, by hand), you'll be escorted to your room and perhaps given a basic tour of the inn on the way – to show you where the baths and dining rooms are located. Staff will most likely enter the room with you, to show you where the robes and towels are stashed. If you've reserved meals, the staff may then ask what time you would like them. Dinner is typically early, at 6 or 7pm; breakfast is usually sometime between 7am and 8.30am. You can make yourself a pot of tea – the supplies should be on the low table, along with some traditional sweets or snacks – and relax.


The vast majority of traditional inns, regardless of whether they have en suite facilities, will have communal baths separated by gender. Inns that see a significant number of overseas guests may be an exception, having instead several small baths that can be used privately. The same etiquette rules apply as at public baths: wash yourself first in the shower area and then soak in the tub.

Many Japanese guests will head right to the bath upon check-in. Soaking in the hot tubs can be uncomfortable after a big meal and especially after alcohol (be warned that this might have a dizzying effect), so it's best to wait a bit if you go after dinner. And by all means, if you're staying in an onsen ryokan, go several times!

Feature: Accommodation Etiquette

  • Sound carries in older buildings, so it's considerate to be quiet after dinner hours.
  • Don't put your luggage in the tokonoma (sacred alcove); it's usually decorated with a scroll.
  • Slippers should never be worn on tatami mats.


Simply put, ryokan are traditional Japanese inns; they are where Japanese travellers stayed long before they heard the word hoteru (hotel). Usually this means rooms with tatami mats and futons (instead of beds). Most inns also serve meals.

From there, ryokan can differ greatly. Some are famous for their onsen baths, which may be indoors or outdoors – located along riverbeds, overlooking mountains or perhaps even on your own private verandah; others are famous for their food, serving kaiseki ryōri (Japanese haute cuisine) that rivals the meals served in the best restaurants. The most exclusive are famous for both. Some onsen ryokan offer kashikiri-buro (baths, either indoors or outdoors) which you can rent for private use (alone, as a couple or as a family) for 40 minutes to an hour; the cost is usually between ¥2000 and ¥4000.

They can be rambling old wooden buildings that look like they're straight out of a ukiyo-e (woodblock) print or they can be modern concrete structures. The latter are more likely to have an elevator, en suite bathrooms and a few rooms with beds (including a wheelchair accessible room). Older inns may be drafty, with thin walls and shared toilets, but the atmosphere more than makes up for it: often made entirely of natural materials, such as wood, earth, paper, grass, bamboo and stone, they can feel like an extension of the natural world. Many, too, have beautiful traditional gardens.

Ryokan staff (often clad in kimono) tend to very doting. During meals they'll serve you course by course – and at some fancier inns meals can be taken in your room; during or after dinner, they'll come to lay out the bedding for you. After check-out, you'll be seen off with deep bows.

There are ryokan at both ends of the price spectrum. Simpler ones (where the distinction between ryokan and minshuku becomes murky) may cost only ¥5000–7000 per person (including meals). A night in a high-end ryokan could literally cost 10 times that. For a very nice experience, expect to pay between ¥12,000 and ¥20,000 per person.


A minshuku is usually a family-run private lodging, rather like a B&B in Europe or the USA. In some very simple minshuku you're really just staying with a Japanese family that has turned a few of the rooms in their house into guest rooms. Other places are purpose-built to serve as accommodation. In either case, the rooms will be Japanese style, with tatami mats and futons. Bathroom facilities are usually shared; meals are much simpler than what you'd get in a ryokan – more like home cooking – and are usually eaten in a common dining room. Unlike at a ryokan, in a minshuku you are usually expected to lay out and put away your own bedding.

The average price per person per night, including two meals, is around ¥5500. Minshuku are a little hard to find on your own if you don't speak and read Japanese. Many are still rather analogue and don't do online bookings; few have English-speaking owners. The best way to find a minshuku is to ask at a local tourist information office, where they will usually call ahead and make all arrangements for you.


A shukubō is lodging offered at Buddhist temples, traditionally for pilgrims or official visitors to the temple, but these days just as often for casual travellers.

Shukubō vary tremendously in style and amenities: some are downright luxurious (rivalling high-end ryokan), while others are merely spartan rooms that resemble those found at a cheap hostel or guesthouse. Most are somewhere in between. Rooms are almost always traditionally Japanese, meaning tatami mats on the floor and a futon for sleeping. Occasionally, sexes will be segregated, but most places allow couples to stay together. Sometimes you are simply allocated a room in the temple precincts and left to your own devices. At other places, you may also be allowed (or even required) to participate in prayers, services or meditation. If you're lucky, you might find an English-speaking monk on hand who will be willing to give you a tour of the temple and explain the treasures and history of the place.

You can find shukubō all across Japan, including at temples in Kyoto and Nara. Many provide meals. Expect to pay between ¥6000 to ¥14,000 per person, depending on meals and facilities offered.

The most popular spot to try a shukubō is at the mountain monastery complex of Kōya-san in Wakayama Prefecture (Kansai), about two hours by train south of Osaka. Almost all temples here offer lodging and some of them are truly spectacular, with beautiful gardens and well-appointed rooms (though there are modest ones, too). The speciality of Kōya-san is shōjin-ryōri (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine) and some temples here offer truly memorable fare. For a list of temple accommodations in Kōya-san, visit Koyasan Shukubo Association (

Sidebar: Best Ryokan

  • Tawaraya, Kyoto
  • Arai Ryokan, Shuzen-ji Onsen
  • Hōshi Onsen Chōjūkan, Minakami
  • Lamp no Yado, Aoni Onsen
  • Iwasō Ryokan, Miyajima

Sidebar: Ryokan Numbers

According to government statistics there are roughly 40,000 ryokan in Japan; however the number decreases each year. Many young Japanese prefer the anonymous convenience of hotels; costly maintenance expenses for older buildings and inheritance taxes are also a factor.

Sidebar: Ryokan Booking Services

  • Japanese Inn Group (
  • Ryokan Collection (
  • Selected Onsen Ryokan (