You will struggle to travel far in Japan and not see a cultural tradition or historical reality. The country remembers and celebrates its past – from way-of-life skills to its sadly horrible histories. Experience everything from the Japanese perspective – the importance of tea, the continuing relevance of sumo, the cultural importance of the kimono. All of these elements will touch you on your visit because Japan embraces and celebrates them whenever it can.
History & heritage
Meet the awe-inspiring amas
Giving some heed to ancient myths of mermaid out at sea, the Ama divers are a women-only group of free divers. These enigmatic women of the sea were first recorded in the oldest Japanese anthology of poetry, the Man’yoshu, in the 8th century. For centuries, they’ve headed beneath the waves in search of pearls, oysters, abalone, seaweed and shellfish.
Today, at Mikimoto Pearl Island, you can learn about this long-standing tradition and witness an Ama demonstration. Dressed head-to-toe in a traditional white cloth outfit, the Ama plunges headfirst into the deep water and vanishes, mining the seabed for shellfish and seaweed. This can take place up to 1km away from shore, with a depth of up to 10m. Without a snorkel or aqualung, this is a physical feat of endurance and the freezing sea temperature and strong currents are just as feared as the shark encounters that occasionally take place for this fearless female community.
Remember the history of Hiroshima
There are many festivals and celebrations throughout August, and it’s a great time to see the country at its most joyful and active. However, the moving tradition of setting thousands of paper lanterns adrift on the River Ota to commemorate the anniversary of the atomic blast in Hiroshima (6 August) is also worth witnessing. This honours the memory of the 140,000 people killed by the Hiroshima bomb at the end of World War II. As does the Peace Park where you may even find yourself in a friendly conversation with those who continue to visit this monument to ensure that the past is neither forgotten nor repeated.
This tragic history alone does not characterise the town though and Hiroshima offers bustle and vibrancy like any far Eastern town. Its wide and colourful streets are filled with fine-dining options, inviting bars and cafes, delectable street snacks and an incredibly friendly local culture.
Live like an Emperor for a day
The residence of Japan’s imperial family since 1888, the Imperial Palace is an imposing building in the centre of modern Tokyo. Set within a large park and surrounded by moats and stone walls, the building was destroyed in World War II but then rebuilt in the same style afterwards. Previously the Imperial family had resided in Kyoto, the once capital of the country.
Although, the palace is generally closed to the public, on New Year (2 January) and the Emperor's Birthday (23 December), the public is permitted to enter through the Nakamon (inner gate) and receive a short address and blessing from the Imperial Family. Throughout the rest of the year, guided tours of the Palace are possible although not within the Imperial buildings. From Kokyo Gaien, the large plaza in front of the Imperial Palace, visitors can view the Nijubashi, two bridges that form an entrance to the inner palace grounds.
See Sumo up close and personal
There are six Grand Sumo Tournaments held every year in Japan and three of these are held at the grand Ryogoku Kokugikan Sumo Hall, in Tokyo’s sumo heartland, which seats over 10,000 visitors. In January, May and September, each competition begins at 9am with bouts between the youngest rikishi, from jonokuchi, or the lowest-ranking division, to maezumo, a rank below that for new wrestlers. Choose to watch these spectacles from a masu-seki box seat close to the ringside, which is the traditional seating assignment in Japanese entertainment. And the fun starts before the games, as oyakata stablemasters, who were once rikishi themselves, tear your ticket in half at the entrance and give you the stub.
There is also a Sumo Museum here, displaying items such as nishiki-e colored woodblock prints, banzuke tournament record books, and kesho-mawashi belts worn for ceremony only by top-ranked rikishi. Don’t miss a visit to the sumo stables, where the wrestlers live and train, and where you may be able to taste chanko nabe – their staple food.
Understand the ritual of the tea ceremony
Tea ceremonies and the etiquette surrounding them are of great importance in Japan. This is an event to include on any itinerary around the country. Tea ceremonies in Kyoto are best experienced in a machiya, a typical restored wooden townhouse. Here you will be dressed by your host in a kimono, possibly a geisha at the beginning of her five-year apprenticeship. The manner in which this ceremony is performed, or the art of its performance, is called otemae. This is a choreographed ritual – preparing and serving Japanese green tea, called matcha, together with traditional sweets to balance the bitter tea.
Tea etiquette sits at the heart of the event. Preparing tea in this ceremony means pouring all one's attention into the predefined movements. The whole process is not about drinking tea, but aesthetics, preparing a bowl of tea from one's heart. Every movement and gesture is part of the host’s consideration of his guests, even down to how and where the tea utensils are placed.
Get ceremonial with a kimono
Here, traditional dress for both men and women is the Japanese kimono. It is always worn wrapped round the body, with the left side over the right. The only exception to this is when dressing the dead for burial. As a rule of thumb, the kimono is worn for formal events and important festivals – of which there are many in Japan. Just like the etiquette and aesthetics of the tea ceremony, it is associated with politeness and good manners. Different kimono reflects different social standing. Unmarried women tend to wear a furisode which has sleeves almost to the floor. Professional sumo wrestlers will only be seen in the kimono in public places as they are required to wear traditional Japanese dress.
Another formal event where the kimono is worn is the Coming of Age Day or seijin-no-hi – the time you turn 20. This is when you are able to drink alcohol and become more independent. In traditional dress, they visit the shrines and then the local pubs to celebrate with their friends and family.Find more inspiration to start planning your luxury holiday to Japan.