With a hunger for cutting-edge technology and modern architecture, you could spend your time weaving through Japan’s soaring streets, craning your neck to see one of the tallest towers in the world or standing in the reception of a robot-run hotel- all high up on the list of things to do. However, though Japan may seem entirely modern, it has spent millennia refining its cultural bounties to produce something both distinctly Japanese and incredibly traditional. From the thrilling clash of bodies during a sumo match to the theatrical performances of the all-male kabuki, stay in a traditional ryokan and experience these wonderful living examples of traditional Japanese culture:
Attend morning practice at a sumo stable
One of Japan’s most revered sports, sumo wrestling is a full-contact fight where a rikishi (wrestler) attempts to force his opponent out of a circular ring or to touch the ground with anything other than the soles of his feet. The height of the year-long season, the six Grand Tournaments feature some of the best fighters in the country, but if you are visiting outside of these tournaments, you can watch the wrestlers up close and personal and in full action during a morning practice, or asageiko.
It requires years of strict training to become a wrestler and training is carried out at a heya, or stable, where the wrestlers eat, sleep and train throughout their career. Wrestlers wake up at 5am and train until 11am when they have a breakfast of chanko, a large hotpot or stew containing large quantities of protein, such as pork, fish, chicken and tofu. With 47 stables in Tokyo, some are open to visitors at 8am and we suggest going with a Japanese-speaking guide, which we can organize, as there are some formalities to start with.
Sit on the cushions provided and watch as the wrestlers practice butsukari-geiko, where they take turns pushing each other around the ring, and engage in mohshiai, where the winner of a practice match continues to take new challengers until overthrown. With practice taken in almost complete silence, you can marvel in the intensity, which is heightened as a tournament approaches. Having watched the master wrestlers in the dirt dohyo (ring), follow the experience by going to the Sumo Museum to read up on the techniques and history of the ancient sport.
Watch a kabuki performance
Named a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, kabuki, a traditional Japanese form of theatre, dates back to the Edo Period. Recognizable with its exaggerated performances, elaborate costume designs and stark make-up, the dance drama features an all-male cast performing highly-stylized movements to convey strong emotions and meaning to the audience. With trapdoors, revolving platforms and a footbridge that leads through the audience, you will feel right in the heart of the production. From historical events and warming dramas to moral conflicts and tales of tragedy, you are bound to be swept up in the emotion and intricacy of the performances.
Kabuki performances are usually only short snippets of an entire story. Though they are the best parts of the play, it could begin in the middle of the plot so make sure to grab headsets to have a translation. Featuring some of Japan’s A-list stars, don’t be surprised if the audience starts shouting out names of the well-known actors on stage, it’s a form of encouragement and shows support for a particular favourite.
Stay in a traditional ryokan and take part in a tea ceremony
Immediately bestowing a sense of calm and peace, traditional ryokans are beautifully delicate with paper-thin walls, tatami floors, futon beds and Japanese style baths. Though they vary in size, most are small, family run establishments with just a few rooms to ensure privacy and excellent service. Going to great lengths to provide a restful atmosphere, the ryokans usually have picturesque green gardens with tranquil water features and relaxing hot baths.
Built over a century ago, the Yoshikawa Ryokan is just a stone’s throw from Kyoto’s Imperial Palace Park and is a perfect representation of old Kyoto. With only 8 guest rooms, an exquisite garden and an on-site restaurant known as one of the best places for kaiseki and tempura, this traditional inn is perfect for experiencing the famed culture especially as you can take part in a tea ceremony, which was born and remains at the spiritual heart of Kyoto.