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TRAVEL June 15, 2019

The Four Seasons in Japan

Ah, to be in Japan, now that spring is here… or fall… or winter…

The fours seasons in Japan are fondly admired and quite distinct. Each is regarded in as a step in an endless cycle, each one bringing its own food, festivals and sights. From the hanami picnics of spring to the ski-and-onsen trips of the frigid winters, or the beach parties all over the archipelago, Japan’s seasons are yet another reason for the Japanese – and for visitors – to explore the many seasonal facets of Japan.

The Japanese insist that their four seasons are particularly unique, and while that may smack of chauvinism to some – and fair enough – it’s also a fact that, like everything else, the seasons are a bit different in Japan. After all, there are cherry trees blooming every spring all over the temperate world, from northern Spain to Washington, DC, but there is nothing quite like the cherry blossoms in Kyoto or other parts of Japan.

So let’s start with spring (haru), when the Japanese love of nature is repaid in kind by a natural display of color that is hard to match. Not only are the cherry (sakura) trees sprouting their famous and much-beloved colors – TV stations track the march of the bloom as it moves northeast across Japan as though it were a hurricane – but the other flowering trees so beloved of the Japanese – plus plums (satsuma) and dogwood (Hanamizuki no ki) – are also blooming this time of year, and a walk around Kyoto, in particular, is almost dizzying in its delightful mass of colors. Cherry petals collect in the city’s small canals, pile up in drifts against buildings and float through the air like snowflakes, leading to the phrase sakura fubuki, literally “cherry blossom snowstorm.”

The sakura blossom underlines the ways in which the Japanese see the passing of seasons as a metaphor, not just a meteorological event. The fleeting beauty of the sakura blossoms is widely seen as a metaphor for our own, human insignificance and temporary existence. It’s not a heavy thing, but the Japanese acknowledge this in their celebrations.

The Japanese celebrate with hanami, a picnic under the blooming trees that is addressed elsewhere. When visiting Japan in the spring, be sure to be prepared for any weather, including wind, rain and cold: Japan is, for the most part, a northern country, and a rainy one at that. Spring can bring just about any weather.

Summer (natsu) in Japan is hot and humid, with the exception of far-northern Hokkaido island, so be prepared to sweat. Tokyo, in particular, can be oppressive simply because of the massive number of cars, buildings and people, all of which create even more heat. In addition, June, most of which is still technically spring, is also the rainy season (tsuyu), so be prepared with an umbrella at least.

But the Japanese make the most of their humid summers, and for many, summer boils down to fireworks (hanabi): The Chinese may have invented them, but the Japanese have a passion for fireworks that can result in some of the most spectacular and uniquely-artistic fireworks displays possible. The annual fireworks (hanabi taikai) held on the Sumida River in Tokyo draws more than a million people every summer, as it has since 1733! Then there’s the beach, a plentiful commodity in an island nation. One popular game in summer is suikawari (literally, split the watermelon), a game that turns even the most timid office worker into a sword-wielding samurai. Summer in Japan also means baseball, and rice fields so green, they seem almost electric.

Autumn (aki) comes to Japan the way spring comes in, with winds, foliage changes, and the added element of typhoons (hurricanes in the Western hemisphere) which can cause considerable damage in the archipelago. The landscape is sheathed in a riot of colors, this time the dying of the leaves, particularly of Japan’s ubiquitous maples and their koyo (red leaves). The hills around the country are seemingly draped in color, especially the maples, which are of course world-renowned. But there are also chestnuts (kuri) and persimmons (kaki). As the weather cools, if it’s clear, the tradition of moon-viewing (tsukimi) lingers, though it’s nowhere near as popular as hanami. One popular place to see fall colors is Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto, but one need do no more than be in nature to be overwhelmed by the beauty of Japan in the autumn.

One other thing about Japanese autumn is that many vegetables, mushrooms and fish come into season then, and a phrase often used is shokuyoku no aki, which literally means “appetizing autumn,” or “Autumn is the season for eating.” Indeed it is.

Finally, winter in mountainous Japan means, among other things, skiing in the Japanese Alps, and plenty of action for the numerous onsen that are dotted around the archipelago. Nagano and the surrounding mountains are world-class ski areas, but the prices aren’t: 3000-5000 yen ($30-50, fewer in euros) will get you a lift ticket for the day, a fraction of what skiing in the US costs. And then there are those onsen afterwards.

There’s also the Yuki Matsuri (snow festival) in Sapporo every February, which draws thousands of tourists to Hokkido to see its magnificent ice sculptures. And of course, Fuji-san never looks quite as majestic as when it has a mantle of snow and the air is clear and crisp. The area known as Shirakawa-go, along the Sho river in Gifu, draws crowds with the beautifully-lit, snow-covered houses of the area.

Ultimately, the four seasons in Japan are just another part of an overall sensibility that has the Japanese as sensitive to their environment as ever, appreciative of nature and always ready to celebrate their good fortune at being born in this beautiful country.

By David Watts Barton

ARTS&CULTURE May 24, 2019

Wa and the Japanese Reluctance to Say “No”

The simple word wa is perhaps the most important in the Japanese language. It is so important to the nature of Japanese social interaction that it was the original name of the country.

Wa means “harmony,” and the maintenance of that harmony is absolutely paramount in all Japanese relations, because the essential nature of social interaction in Japan is focused on the group and the individual’s subordination to that group – whether family or business unit – above all else. Wa is quintessentially Japanese, and the Japanese people will go out of their way to ensure that harmony – which means group harmony – is maintained.

This is why a second word – iie, which translates as “no” – is so rarely heard in Japan. To use that word is considered rude and even dangerous to social interaction, and is avoided by most Japanese in all but the most basic, clearest circumstances. Even in what Westerners would consider a circumstance in which a simple yes or no would suffice, it is avoided.

Whereas saying no to someone in most countries is simply a statement of preference or fact, in Japan it is seen as veering perilously close to causing a disturbance in the harmony of the moment, and the Japanese will go to significant verbal lengths to avoid saying iie. The verbal gymnastics can get quite elaborate, to a degree that many non-Japanese would consider excessive, even comic. But to the Japanese, it is no laughing matter.

This is particularly important because the Japanese are acutely aware of social standing, and every Japanese will very quickly assess their relative social status to others in any given situation. A person of lower social status will try even harder to avoid saying no to anyone above them, a concept alien to most Westerners, who don’t focus on relative social status, at least not consciously. The Japanese do not have that luxury.

Thus, a question will be answered in a roundabout way that avoids using the word iie, such as giving an excuse, or redirecting the question or reframing it in order to not to give offense or angering the questioner. These phrasings are subtle, and they get the message across, but they manage to avoid the use of the dreaded iie.

For example, if one is asked if one likes something or agrees to an idea, rather than saying no, the person you asked might ask for a little more time to consider the question. Or if someone asks if something is possible, the answer will never be a direct “no”; instead, one will be told that what is being asked “would be difficult” or that it “may not work out well,” or even simply “I don’t know,” all of which can confidently be read as NO.

Even an answer in which a direct no would be sufficient, a yes (hai) is likely to be substituted: “Yes, it is difficult for me to do that.” The meaning is obvious, but the word “no” is scrupulously avoided and social harmony preserved.

One situation in which the response must be finessed is when one is extended an invitation to a party, especially an after-work gathering in which there will be a considerable amount of drinking – a typical invitation for anyone working in Japan, or even visiting for any length of time – and one is, say, not drinking. In a work situation, these invitations are difficult, even impossible, to refuse.

Probably the best approach – and one that won’t be unfamiliar even to Westerners who are comfortable with using the word “no” – is to make an apology or an excuse: “I’d love to, but my mother-in-law will be visiting.” “That sounds awesome, but I have to do homework.” Or even “I’m sorry, that’s my night to wash my hair” – virtually any excuse is acceptable, as long as it avoids the using the word no.

Now, some of these are niceties that any civilized person would observe. A curt “no” is rarely dispensed to someone about whom one cares, and most “no” answers are usually couched, to some degree, in softening tones or even phrases that will spare feelings or not offend. Social invitations are rarely shut down with a simple “no,” but are often accompanied by an excuse. This is just being polite.

But in Japan, as in many things, scrupulous attention is given to even the smallest details in conversation, and as in all things regarding interactions with foreigners, leeway is given to people who aren’t Japanese. But knowing of the Japanese aversion to direct statements using the word “no” is one of those little tricks that will smooth social interactions, and give just a touch more insight into the sensitive, finely-tuned Japanese mindset.

By David Watts Barton

FOOD&DRINK May 13, 2019

14 Japanese Snacks You Need to Try

Photo by M’s photography via Flickr

From sweet mochi to savory corn puffs, Japan is home to an impressive variety of snacks. Wander into any local convenience store and you’ll find yourself surrounded by unique candy, spicy rice crackers, and cartoon-shaped cookies. Given Japan’s proud food heritage and focus on innovation, it’s hardly surprising that Japanese snacks are among the most inventive in the world.

Snacking has been a part of Japanese culture since the 15th century. Samurai originally invented portable foods with a long shelf-life, so that they could eat during battle. After the 1860s, once Japan began to import sugar and grains, Western-style snacks grew in popularity. Today, the Japanese snack food industry is diverse but competitive. Limited edition flavors are regularly released and snack variations are often only available for a few weeks. However, despite the constant change, some Japanese snacks have stood the test of time. To make your food choices a little easier, we’ve rounded up fourteen of these classic snacks to try while you explore the country.

1. Senbei

Photo by City Foodsters via Flickr

A type of Japanese rice cracker, senbei has apparently been in existence since the 8th century. However, cracker recipes vary according to the region. In the Kanto region of Japan, for example, senbei is made with non-glutinous rice flour. Meanwhile, the Kansai region uses glutinous rice to make the crackers. Baked or fried, senbei can be spicy, salty or flavored with seaweed.

2. Pocky

Photo by Jen via Flickr

One of the most distinctive Japanese snacks, Pocky is hard to miss. Sold in almost every convenience store and supermarket, these chocolate-covered biscuit sticks come in a variety of flavors. Although Pocky is now well-known throughout Asia, the chocolate sticks in red packaging are a classic in Japan.

3. Wasabi Peas

Photo by John Patrick Robichaud via Flickr

Another classic Japanese snack, wasabi peas are simple green peas in a wasabi flavored coating. However, despite their small size, they have a fiery kick, so go easy if it’s your first time trying them. In Japan, often serve wasabi peas alongside beer or sake.

4. Imagawayaki

Crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, imagawayakiis a popular Japanese dessert. Filled with a red bean paste, these sweet treats are delicious with a cup of green tea. In Japan, imagawayaki have been enjoyed for generations, making these a truly traditional snack. You’ll typically find them at festivals, in shopping centers, and at food stands near temples.

5. Takoyaki Corn Puffs

Photo by Kate Hopkins via Flickr

An example of classic Osaka street food, takoyaki corn puffs are a savory snack. Street vendors make the puffs by pan-frying batter in a special pan. Each deep-fried puff has a small amount of octopus (tako) in the center and they’re usually drizzled with takoyaki sauce and a little mayonnaise. A combination of powdered seaweed, green onions, and dried bonito flakes give them plenty of flavor. You can now buy bags of takoyaki corn puffs in convenience stores, so they’re easy to find.

6. Daifuku

A popular Japanese sweet snack, daifuku is a type of mochi. With a filling of red or white bean paste, these treats come in lots of varieties and are common throughout Japan.

7. Choco Bananas

Choco bananas are a simple, but popular, summer festival food in Japan. The bananas are coated in either a chocolate or strawberry mixture, before being dipped in colorful sprinkles.

8. Kinoko No Yama

Kinoko No Yama means “mushroom mountain” and these small, mushroom-shaped biscuits have become a popular snack in Japan. With a biscuit stem and a chocolate-covered top, these are a delicate treat. Although the biscuits are typically coated in chocolate, it’s possible to find them in other flavors.

9. Karinto

A classic Japanese dessert, is usually found at traditional cafes and ryokan. Made from flour, yeast, and brown sugar, this sweet snack dates back to the Edo-era. As karinto is deep-fried, it has a burnt appearance and a crunchy texture. Although harder to find than other snacks on this list, karinto is worth trying if you’re a sweet-toothed visitor to Japan.

10. Nikuman

Photo by ketou-daisuki via Flickr

If meaty comfort food is your idea of a delicious snack, then you’ll love nikuman. A nikuman is a fluffy, steamed bun, stuffed with a meat and vegetable filling. Warming and satisfying, nikuman is often eaten as a snack during the winter months.

11. Kaki no Tane

Kaki no tane is a savory snack that consists of crescent-shaped rice crackers. The rice crackers resemble the seeds of a kaki fruit, otherwise known as a Japanese persimmon. Seasoned with a little chilli powder, pepper, or wasabi, kaki no tane is often slightly spicy. The crackers are then mixed with peanuts, and the dish is usually eaten alongside drinks.

12. Anpan

Photo by a_le_jan_dro N via Flickr

A traditional Japanese treat, anpan is a bun with a sweet, sticky filling. Around Japan, you can find anpan with fillings of red bean paste, white bean paste, sesame paste, and chestnut paste. Invented in 1875, during the Great Japanese Empire, anpan was one of the first snacks to incorporate Western bread into Japanese cuisine. You can find them at convenience stores, supermarkets, and bakeries around Japan.

13. Dango

Photo by Charles Kim via Flickr

A traditional Japanese dessert, dango is a sweet rice dumpling. There are numerous varieties of dango and it’s particularly delicious when grilled or toasted over a fire. With a similar appearance to marshmallow, dango melts and turns golden when you toast it. It’s usually served on a stick, making it easier to eat.

14. Pretz

These savory pretzel sticks were first released in 1962, making them a classic Japanese snack. New flavors appear on the market regularly. Although, if you’d like to try one of the popular variations,  choose the “salad” Pretz.

Sampling Japanese snacks is a wonderful adventure. With endless flavors and textures to try, you’re likely to find something new in every bakery, as you explore the country. From the classic to the unconventional, Japanese snacks offer a delicious insight into the local culture.

EXPERIENCE April 20, 2019

Irezumi, the Art of Japanese Tattooing

Irezumi the Art of Japanese Tattooing

Photo by L’oeil étranger via Flickr


Of its many artistic traditions, perhaps the one the Japanese are most conflicted about is irezumi, or the art of tattooing. Dating back to the pre-historic Jomon period (roughly 5,000 BCE), the art of irezumi – which literally means “injecting ink (zumi)” – has a long and complicated history.

Irezumi, also called horimono, has gone in and out of cultural favor in Japan, and even its legality has ebbed and flowed: It was illegal from the Meiji Restoration in 1868 until after World War II…but only if you were Japanese. It is currently legal, and experiencing a bit of a popular renaissance as in the rest of the modern world. But tattoos are still considered distasteful by the majority of Japanese. Many establishments, particularly onsen and sento (public baths), still ban those with visible tattoos.

But attitudes are changing as younger Japanese adopt Western styles and attitudes, and Japan’s unique contributions to this art form are showcased everywhere from Ed Hardy’s down-market merchandise to museums in the United States and Europe. Like it or not, tattooing is a cultural phenomenon, and Japan, despite its conflicting attitudes, is a crucial part of the story.

Tattooing was originally done by the proto Japanese of the Jomon period, Japan’s pre-history, and survived into the first millennium BCE as decoration of warriors and various craftspeople. Some women were also thought to have worn tattoos as talismans against evil. But as Buddhism and Confucianism entered Japan from China in the 600s and 700s CE, Chinese cultural prejudices against such body decoration infiltrated Japan, and tattoos fell out of favor. Soon, they were used mostly to mark criminals and other undesirables.

Nevertheless, the art of irezumi continued to grow, and by the beginning of the Edo period (1600 CE), it was an established decoration for firefighters in particular, indicating their courage and strength, though coal miners, samurai, gamblers and others adopted them as well. Some of the patterns typical of irezumi even now – dragons, tigers, flowing water, koi fish and cherry blossoms – were well established.

Japanese Tattoo

At the time, the tattooing technique was a slow, painful process using a special ink from Nara that turned blue-green when poked into the skin. Association with the ukiyo-e woodcuts of the early Edo – which used many of the same images – also lent Japanese tattooing its other name: Horimono is based on the word hori, meaning “to engrave.”

Japanese Back Tattoo

Photo by Steve Watkins via Flickr


During the middle-Edo period of the 18th century, the translation of the ancient Chinese book Shui-Hi-Chuan (in Japanese, Suikoden) created a craze for tattooing, as the Robin Hood-like outlaw-heroes of the book were heavily tattooed. An illustrated edition in the late 1700’s displayed new tattoo designs of the book’s heroes, and body tattoos became popular – but still mostly among the lower classes.

Criminals, who had originally been forced into tattoos – a well-placed kanji character warned anyone with eyes that the tattooed man was a thief, or worse – soon added more, bigger tattoos that covered their original branding. This ultimately led to their use by the modern era’s gangsters, the infamous yakuza, which further heightened association of tattoos with criminality. (Today’s yakusa reportedly don’t have as many tattoos, as they are a sure giveaway.)

When Japan opened to the West with the Meiji Restoration in 1868, tattoos were quickly banned, since the leaders of the rapidly-modernizing country didn’t want the western world to see their nation as primitive, and ripe for colonizing. This only further reinforced the image of tattooing among the Japanese as criminal, low class and generally undesirable.

Tattoos didn’t carry the same negative baggage for foreigners arriving in Japan, and in addition to sailors and merchant seamen, several prominent Western figures got these indelible souvenirs of a visit to Japan. Britain’s Prince Alfred (Queen Victoria’s son) got two large dragon tattoos on his arms, and Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II, also got inked. Another early tattoo fan was reportedly the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose 1914 assassination would plunge Europe into World War I.

During World War II, young Japanese men got tattoos because they thought the stigma might keep them out of the military, but after the war, the American occupiers who wrote Japan’s modern Constitution allowed tattooing as a form of freedom of speech – and as a practical matter, many American troops sported tattoos already. But tattooing’s low-brow image was fixed in the Japanese imagination. While acceptance is growing, a 2018 survey by Japan Tourism Association found that a majority of Japanese associate it with criminality and say that tattoos scare them. Workers are still docked pay for exposed tattoos, and students disciplined. A majority of onsen owners still have policies against tattoos in their pools, though many flout those rules. Old attitudes and associations continue to dog tattoos.

Photo by operation_janet via Flickr


Nevertheless, the number of tattoo parlors, while small, is growing, and the art form – characterized by whole arm, leg or even torso designs, of dragons, tigers and cherry blossoms – has spread worldwide. There’s even the Yokohama Tattoo Museum south of Tokyo, and expectations are that with increasing tourism, and growing numbers of tattooed tourists, discrimination against tattooed people will slowly disappear.

After all, cultural attitudes change; tattoos are forever.

By David Watts Barton

ARTS&CULTURE April 5, 2019

20 Facts On Japanese Culture You Probably Never Knew

Photo by Giuseppe Milo via Flickr

Japan’s unique culture is a fascinating blend of old and new. With deeply-rooted customs and a continuously-evolving lifestyle, Japan is both proudly traditional and ultramodern. This is a nation that celebrates its strong cultural identity, from food and everyday etiquette to art and education. Whether you’re planning a trip or just want to learn more about the country, these 20 facts on Japanese culture will give you a deeper insight into the nation’s unique and fascinating culture.

1. Chopsticks

Photo by Jessica Spengler via Flickr

Good table manners are highly regarded in Japanese culture and correctly using chopsticks is an important part of polite dining. So when using chopsticks in Japan, don’t stab or cut your food with them. Instead, you should lift the food as it is to your mouth. Don’t point at something with your chopsticks, as this is rude in Japanese culture. Meanwhile, you should never leave your chopsticks sticking upright in a bowl of rice, as this is associated with funeral customs. Instead, place them on the chopstick rest in between bites or when you finish eating.

2. Bowing

Photo by Akuppa John Wigham via Flickr

Bowing (known as ojigi) is the traditional form of greeting in Japan. However, bowing can also be used to indicate gratitude, congratulations, or an apology. In casual daily situations, a bow is often a simple nod of the head. Meanwhile, a longer and deeper bow is more respectful and can signify a formal apology or sincere thanks. Don’t worry if you’re just visiting – it’s completely acceptable for foreigners to shake hands in Japan.

3. Bathroom Slippers

In Japanese homes, there’s typically an area inside the front door, known as genkan, where people swap their shoes for house slippers. Going to the bathroom involves changing slippers again, as cleanliness is an inherent part of Japanese culture. The most important thing to remember is to swap slippers again as soon as you leave the bathroom. It’s considered very embarrassing to leave bathroom slippers on when you reenter a living space.

4. Anime

One of Japan’s best known cultural exports, anime is popular on a global scale. Anime refers to Japanese animation that’s either hand drawn or created digitally. Although Japanese anime accounted for 60% of the world’s animation in 2016, it’s biggest impact has been on modern Japanese culture. If you travel around the country, look out for anime statues, snacks in themed packaging, and character-based advertising.

5. Slurping Noodles

Photo by Masaaki Komori via Flickr

There are lots of interesting dining traditions in Japan, but slurping noodles has to be one of the most fun. When Japanese diners slurp their noodles, it’s seen as both a sign of enjoyment and a compliment to the chef. So next time you order ramen or yakisoba in Japan, feel free to slurp to your heart’s content.

6. Eating Sushi

Photo by Saigon Time via Flickr

Sushi isn’t just one of Japan’s most popular dishes – it’s loved all over the globe. If you want to embrace Japanese culture, it’s worth perfecting the way you eat it. The traditional way to eat maki and nigiri sushi is with the fingers, while sashimi is eaten with chopsticks. It’s also worth remembering that when dipping sushi in soy sauce, only the fish should touch the sauce. Rice soaks up too much soy sauce, so Japanese people tend to avoid doing this. Meanwhile, the only time mixing wasabi and soy sauce together is acceptable is when eating sashimi.

7. Chankonabe

Most frequently associated with sumo wrestlers, chankonabe is a traditional Japanese stew. Packed with fish, vegetables, meat, and tofu, this high-calorie dish is eaten daily by sumo wrestlers. Sumo wrestlers eat chankonabe with bowls of rice and it provides them with the necessary nutrients for their training.

8. Onsen Etiquette

Photo by Japanexperterna via Flickr

Visitors to onsens, or hot springs baths, are required to bathe naked in Japan. Traditional onsens do not allow swimsuits, so everyone must shower thoroughly before entering the baths. This means that visitors leave their clothes and large towels in the locker room and take just a small towel with them to the bathing area. As there’s usually nowhere to put the small towels, the traditional solution is to put it on your head.

9. Literacy

Photo by Mika Ueno via Flickr

At a rate of almost 100%, Japan’s literacy rate is one of the highest in the world. This is largely thanks to the country’s excellent education system, which is compulsory at the levels of elementary and Junior High School. Japan’s wealth of great writers may also be linked to the country’s focus on literacy. You can experience Japanese literature for yourself by reading the works of some of the nation’s best authors.

10. Fugu

Every year, incorrectly prepared fugu causes food poisoning in Japan. Fugu, Japan’s toxic blowfish, is one of the most lethal natural products on the planet. Yet it remains an expensive and sought-after delicacy in Japan. Chefs must train for a minimum of three years before undertaking an examination to legally cook and serve it.

11. Morning Exercise

Photo by Justin C. via Flickr

Health is important to Japanese culture and the country’s tradition of morning exercise reflects that. Rajio Taiso, introduced by Emperor Hirohito, is a radio exercise program that’s been broadcast daily since 1928. It plays every morning for 10 minutes and it’s mostly followed by school children and the elderly.

12. Sitting Seiza

Photo by kasashine via Flickr

Seiza, which means sitting with your legs folded underneath you, is the traditional way to sit on Japanese tatami floors. At formal occasions, sitting seiza is considered appropriate and respectful. Even so, it’s a difficult position for the average person to hold. Older Japanese people sometimes sit with their legs out in front of them, which is completely acceptable.

13. Colds and Allergies

Photo by Stephan Geyer via Flickr

When you suffer from a cold or hayfever in Japan, it’s polite to wear a mask. Japanese people also avoid blowing their noses in public, as it’s seen as rude.

14. Bathing

In Japan, a bath at home is for relaxation, rather than for cleaning. So Japanese people do not use soap in their baths. Instead, they shower first and then soak in the bath afterwards.

15. Walking While Eating or Smoking

Photo by C.K. Tse via Flickr

Walking down the street while eating is not acceptable in Japan. So you’ll sometimes see people standing by vending machines, finishing their drink or snack. Meanwhile, smoking while walking is illegal in many areas. There are designated smoking areas, so don’t light up until you reach one.

16. Coffee

Photo by Tomohiro Ohtake via Flickr
Although tea is a huge part of Japanese culture, the nation is also known for its love of high-quality Jamaican coffee. About 70% of Jamaica’s exported Blue Mountain Coffee goes to Japan.

17. Geisha

Photo by J3SSL33 via Flickr

A geish, which translates as “performing artist” in English, is a traditional female entertainer. Although surprisingly, the first geisha were men. As time passed, it became regarded as a mostly female profession and today, geisha are still a much-loved part of Japanese culture.

18. Pouring Drinks

The Japanese consider it impolite to pour your own drink at dinner parties. So it’s best to pour everyone else’s drinks and then wait for someone else to pour yours.

19. Oshibori

Photo by Charles Haynes via Flickr
Japanese restaurants often give customers a moist towel, known as oshibori, to clean their hands before eating. Depending on the season, the towel will be cold or hot. Just don’t use it to clean your face or use it throughout the meal.

20. Non-Verbal Communication

For most Japanese people, non-verbal communication is an important part of social interactions. In Japan, facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language are all seen as influential on the tone of a conversation. Words can have various meanings, so Japanese people often observe non-verbal signals to work out what someone really means.

These interesting facts about Japan are just a taster of all there is to learn about the nation’s culture. In Japan, cutting-edge trends sit side by side with ancient traditions. This dynamic cultural mix is part of what makes it such an exciting country to explore.

TRAVEL March 27, 2019

Chinmoku, Sontaku and the Uses of Silence

Photo by J3SSL33 via Flickr

It is said that in music, the space between the notes can say as much as the notes themselves. This idea also applies to language, through which the pauses in speech, the unspoken words and the implications of the context can say as much as any overt comment.

And that, it need hardly be said, goes double in Japan.

The Japanese, as a homogeneous, “high-context” society – in contrast to “low-context” societies in Western Europe and the Americas – share an almost infinite number of common assumptions about life. Thus, many of those assumptions need not be stated, and communication can take place with a minimal amount of explanation. The Japanese can get by with using fewer words.

Or, perhaps, no words at all. Thus, silence (chinmoku in Japanese) can reveal as much as speech, and the artful use of silence in Japanese communication is one of the subtleties of Japanese culture. But it can also be used to obscure, and silence and other non-verbal subterfuge has its dark side – as well as its profound effects.

Photo by Gino Mempin via Flickr

With much understanding already baked-in to any given conversation, the Japanese can communicate what is required or desired by speaking indirectly, or not at all. Chinmoku is a powerful form of communication, reflecting the Japanese appreciation for the value of simple silence. Or it may just seem simple to the outsider; to the Japanese, silence can be loaded with meaning. From Zen Buddhism, in which silence holds the secrets of existence – indeed, language is considered inadequate to expressing real truth – to deep cultural tropes that characterize those who speak as more shallow and common than those who maintain silence – mono ieba kuchibiru samushi aki no kaze (“it is better to leave many things unsaid”) is a popular Japanese proverb – silence isn’t empty and it isn’t meaningless.

Instead, silence can be taken to mean the other person is taking what you just said seriously enough to be considering it carefully. On the other hand, that person may just be buying time to consider how to respond without offending you when they think you are wrong. Worse, they may simply having nothing worthwhile to say; silence can obscure shallowness as well as depth.

While in the West, people seem in a hurry to fill every pause with talk, and aren’t shy about disagreeing with another, the Japanese are comfortable with silence and do not run from it. But there is a flip side to this comfort with silence; the Japanese are generally not comfortable with confrontation, and will avoid direct contradiction of another’s position merely to avoid disagreement.

There is a subtext here: the Japanese preoccupation with maintaining harmony (wa). Japanese will often talk around a topic, certainly when it comes to his or her own opinion, largely in order to maintain this harmonic equilibrium. Japanese society and manners and especially language are all built around the desire to maintain wa, particularly as regards the social group, at nearly any cost. Thus, the Japanese are anything but “plain-speaking” – in fact, to speak plainly is to be seen as childish, unsophisticated, even arrogant, and to upset the delicate social balance.

Photo by Gino Mempin via Flickr

While this use of silence allows the Japanese to maintain wa, it can be at the cost of unresolved disagreements. This is one of the frustrations of foreigners in Japan, especially those engaged in business, which often involves disagreements that must be resolved. It isn’t so great in personal relationships, either.

A related concept is captured by the current vogue word sontaku, a previously obscure word that was chosen as the top buzzword of 2017 by the publisher Jiyukokuminsha. Sontaku literally translates as “guess” or “speculate” but is better explained by the phrase “gyokan wo yomu,” which evokes a familiar English expression: it means the ability to “read between the lines.”

Sontaku grew in use after it was employed to describe actions in a recent scandal involving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife, in which underlings were suspected of acting on orders that were given indirectly, thus avoiding implicating anyone higher up the chain of command.

The use of sontaku in turn evokes another, somewhat darker, aspect to this use of language, or of the silence “between the lines,” to obscure the truth. The word haragei literally means “stomach art,” but given its usage by businessmen and politicians, there is a less polite translation, usually abbreviated to “B.S.”

While even those who have been in Japan for many years tend to struggle with these counterintuitive concepts and behaviors – how can we communicate if we’re not communicating? – approaching conversation with the Japanese with an openness to silence can be a revelatory experience. In this way, Westerners may yet find the truth in one of our oldest sayings: Silence is golden.

By David Watts Barton

FOOD&DRINK March 18, 2019

Exploring the Traditional Japanese Diet

Rooted in simplicity and seasonality, the traditional Japanese diet is regarded as one of the healthiest in the world. From oily fish to protein-packed tofu, traditional meals are full of fresh, unprocessed ingredients. Vegetables, grains, rice, fish, and fermented foods are all eaten in moderate amounts. And the result is a well-balanced diet that’s low in fat and high in nutrition.

Not only do the Japanese have one of the longest life expectancies in the world, but they also have some of the lowest rates of obesity and cardiovascular disease. This is due, in part, to what they eat on a daily basis. But it also has something to do with Japanese attitudes towards food. In Okinawa, for example, the phrase “hara hachi bu” translates roughly into English as “eat until you are 8 parts full”. Unlike many countries in the western world, avoiding overeating is part of the Okinawan way of life.

Although the traditional Japanese diet still exists, particularly among older generations, it has evolved over the years. Political, economic, and social changes have all influenced the type of food consumed in Japan. Wheat-based products are now eaten regularly, while rice consumption is declining. But the roots of the traditional diet are still apparent in Japanese restaurants and homes and much-loved staple ingredients are as important as ever.

Japanese Historical Food Traditions

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The traditional Japanese diet revolves around rice, fresh vegetables, pickled vegetables, fish, and miso. In its origins, Japanese cuisine was heavily influenced by Chinese cooking. But Japan is a fishing nation, consisting of 6, 582 islands. And so its citizens consume far more fish and seafood than other Asian countries. This is still true today – as well as grilled fish, the Japanese eat lots of raw fish in the form of sushi and sashimi.

Meanwhile, red meat was kept to a minimum in the traditional Japanese diet. With the arrival of Buddhism in Japan, eating red meat was seen as taboo and its popularity fell even further. But things changed significantly, starting in 1871, with the legalization of beef as a food item. Meat-based restaurants started to pop up around the country and meaty dishes gradually became more popular. Yakiniku, a dish from the late 1800s, is a Japanese-style barbecue that involves grilling bite-size pieces of meat alongside vegetables. Tonkatsu, another popular meat dish that’s been around for a century, consists of breaded and deep-fried cutlets of pork.

Staples of the Traditional Japanese Diet

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Soybeans, usually in the form of tofu or edamame, are a prominent staple of the Japanese diet. Fermented soybeans are basis of miso soup, an important part of most Japanese meals. Miso recipes vary according to the region, so you can expect to enjoy a few kinds if you travel around the country. Full of good bacteria, antioxidants, and amino acids, fermented soybeans are one reason why the Japanese diet offers so many health benefits.

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Green tea was, and still is, a daily elixir for many Japanese people. The tea is thought to lower blood pressure, help digestion, and prevent some cancers. So traditionally, Japanese people drank green tea for medicinal purposes. Meanwhile, matcha tea powder is a superior grade of green tea that’s whisked with hot water to create a frothy drink. Used for centuries in tea ceremonies, matcha is also an important part of Japanese cultural identity.

Photo by Ken Hawkins via Flickr

Seaweed is everywhere in Japanese cuisine. Take yourself on a food tour of any Japanese city and you’ll notice seaweed salads sprinkled with sesame seeds, sushi wrapped in nori sheets, and kombu in bowls of miso soup. Flavorful and high in essential minerals, seaweed has been a Japanese staple for centuries. Today, you can wander into any Japanese convenience store and pick up packets of salted or spicy nori sheets to eat as a crispy snack.

Photo by Jiří 伊日 via Flickr

It would be difficult to travel around Japan and not eat a bowl of rice at some point. An everyday staple and a base for many traditional meals, rice holds a hugely significant place in Japanese food traditions. Once seen as the country’s main food source, rice is typically eate in small portions alongside other dishes. And although its popularity is declining, as people consume more wheat products, rice will always be an important part of Japanese cuisine.

Modern Food Innovation in Japan

art of Japan’s culinary culture. Over the course of history, the influence of Western cuisine on Japanese food traditions has resulted in deliciously unique dishes. Incorporating elements of Western cooking, the Japanese created new regional recipes that now hold an important place in Japanese cuisine.

Photo by hirotomo t via Flickr

Okonomiyaki, for example, is a savoury pancake that typically consists of flour, eggs, and cabbage. Topped with meat, vegetables, and sauce, okonomiyaki is sometimes called “Japanese Pizza”. Curry also became part of Japanese cuisine, when the British introduced it to the nation after the Meiji Period. Curries with a Japanese twist, such as udon curry and katsukarē, are now popular throughout the country.

Japanese chefs are continuously adapting and creating recipes in creative ways. This is particularly apparent in the cutting-edge capital of Tokyo. For the past 11 years, Tokyo has had more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world. Using the highest-quality ingredients in a thoughtful way, while drawing on an impressive culinary tradition, allows Japanese chefs to stay ahead of the game.

Dining at the new Kigi restaurant in Tokyo is a wonderful opportunity to experience this fusion of tradition and innovation for yourself. With a major emphasis on seasonality, Kigi takes inspiration from the ways in which ingredients were used by previous generations. By focusing on locally-sourced ingredients, Kigi ensures that every dish is as fresh and flavorful as possible.  

At Kigi, the team combines fresh ingredients in creative ways, but with as little interference as possible. This ensures that the nutritional value remains high, harking back to the unprocessed nature of traditional Japanese cooking. A stylishly minimalist Japanese restaurant, Kigi is all about beautifully presentation and high-quality food.

Strong traditions, simple ingredients, and an emphasis on nutrition are what make the traditional Japanese diet so special. Although Japanese cuisine has changed significantly over the years, the original diet is still highly valued both in Japan and abroad. Home to many varieties of meal preparation and the highest-quality ingredients, there’s no better place to immerse yourself in Japanese cuisine than in Japan itself.

FOOD&DRINK February 26, 2019

Farm to Hashi in Japan

Photo by sk via Flickr

Anyone who has traveled around Japan has likely marveled at how many farm plots dot all but the most urban areas. A trip on any shinkansen will offer the passenger fleeting glimpses of rice paddies and gardens that lie, green and lush, amidst Japan’s office towers, houses and apartment blocks.

Gardening and farming are integrated into modern Japanese cities and suburbs because they have always been there; it is the cities that have grown up around them. Besides the fact that the Japanese love cultivating plants in general – not to mention eating them – the country’s arable land is extremely limited, no more than about 15 percent of the archipelago. Farming must be done wherever it is possible.

Photo by spinster cardigan via Flickr

Add to this the Japanese attitude, often based on more than mere chauvinism, that foreign-grown food is not as good as home-grown, and the desire for locally-grown produce makes perfect sense in Japan. The current vogue for what has been dubbed farm-to-table, or farm-to-fork, would seem to be a perfect fit for Japan. Call it farm-to-hachi (chopsticks). Or use the Japanese local name chisan-chisho, which roughly means “local production for local consumption.”

That said, Japan, as a modern country with a passion for quality as well as convenience and food safety, has its own industrial farming chain, a well-established series of steps along the chain of food production that make farm-to-table dining a rarity even here. But a handful of restaurants in Tokyo and Kyoto are beginning to do what Americans would call “cutting out the middle man,” eliminating as many steps as possible from the farm – or, rarely, from the sea – to the restaurant table.

Photo by spinster cardigan via Flickr

Most prominent is in the town of Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture, on the west coast of Tohoku, four hours from Tokyo. Tsuruoka has been designated by UNESCO as one of only 18 Creative Cities of Gastronomy worldwide, and the only one in Japan. Here, the city encourages farmers and chefs to work in concert to preserve and promote indigenous crops and their use in gastronomy.

Farm-to-table restaurants in Japan include Soholm Cafe+Dining in Osaka, known for its daring chefs and devotion to local ingredients, the two We Are the Farm restaurants in Tokyo, and Noz by T.Y. Farm, a more casual eatery that focuses on “exotic” western vegetables like kale and arugula. It recently opened a branch in Shinagawa, Tokyo.

The latest entry on this small list of restaurants is Kigi, which will open next month in Chiyoda, Tokyo. The elegant restaurant, which like the others will focus on fresh vegetables, hopes to make its name by also focusing on fish, which it’s representative says will make it one of only two restaurants in Tokyo that serve fish the same day it was caught. Kigi’s chef is Noriyuki Nakagami, whose passion for freshness comes from his upbringing in his family’s country restaurant.

Another remarkable example is Hiiragitei, an izakaya in Kyoto’s ancient, fashionable Gion district, where the family of three – husband, wife, and grown son – serve a delicacy that’s rare even in Japan. It is, in fact, literally rare: Hiiragitei serves several forms of chicken tartare, a dish that would send restaurant health inspectors around the world into a frenzy of ticket-writing. Salmonella is nothing to be trifled with. But at tiny Hiiragitei, each chicken is selected daily, slaughtered under exacting conditions, and then transported and prepared carefully. This is an extreme example, as virtually no vegetables or even meats carry the dangers of raw chicken; but it shows how careful management of the food supply chain can deliver high-quality ingredients.

Another facet of this farm-to-table trend serves another growing need of the modern gourmand: the desire to feel close to the land, to the sea – to the sources of all food, of all life.

Photo by Mike via Flickr

Some Japanese are bringing those sources of food right into their own lives; not just their home gardens, but even into some offices. A shining example is the Pasona Group, a recruiting firm in which indoor farming is literally integrated into its headquarters. Using proper lighting and advanced irrigation techniques, Pasona’s nine story office tower in Tokyo features 20 percent of its square footage dedicated to farming: A rice paddy in the building’s lobby, with more than 200 different varieties of vegetables and herbs growing in conference rooms and other offices. Even the building itself is sheathed in greenery, giving the entire operation an exceedingly low carbon footprint.

But the most impressive aspect is that the company gives its 1,500 employees some time every day to tend to their crops, which are then harvested and served in the company dining room. The psychological and dietary benefits of this office-to-table farming are clear to nearly everyone at the organization, and is a dazzling demonstration of Japanese ingenuity.

The Japanese have always considered food, and farming, a crucial aspect of Japanese life and society. The 21st century sees the country, and its restauranteurs, taking full advantage of its natural gifts, cultural efficiency and the overarching Japanese passion for quality.

By David Watts Barton

FOOD&DRINK February 17, 2019

Tokyo Food Guide: 8 Traditional Dishes You Must Try

Photo via Flickr CC

Japanese cuisine is unlike any other and Tokyo is one of the best places to try it. Fizzing with relentless energy, Japan’s capital is a feast for the senses. In Tokyo, you can slurp from bowls of steaming hot ramen, delicately savor sashimi, or munch on traditional Japanese sweet treats, all in one afternoon.

From crispy tempura to smooth soba noodles, Tokyo is a city of delicious food. Street vendors whip up local delicacies, while regional restaurants offer dishes from all over Japan. You can dine on a budget by stopping at cheap chains and casual noodle bars, which are easy to find on main streets and in department stores throughout Tokyo. Or take things up a level and enjoy dinner in a Michelin-star restaurant, some of which tower over the city in sleek skyscrapers.

But it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by Tokyo’s seemingly endless restaurants and diverse menus. So to make things easier, we’ve rounded up some of the best traditional dishes to try while you explore the capital.

1. Sushi

Photo by Saigon Time via Flickr

Although sushi is now popular around the world, there’s no better place to eat it than in Japan. There are thousands of sushi spots in Tokyo, ranging from conveyor belt chains to fine dining experiences. The city’s main source of fresh seafood and fish is Tsukijii Market, most of which is delivered directly to the new Toyosu Market. So if you make your way to Toyosu, you can expect to dine on high-quality sushi fish. For a Tokyo twist on sushi, try nigiri-zushi. A local delicacy that’s become popular around Japan, nigiri-zushi consists of a piece of seafood on a ball of rice.

2. Ramen

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In Toyko, you won’t have to go far before coming across a ramen restaurant. A staple in Japanese cuisine, ramen is hot, flavorful broth, that’s packed with noodles and topped with meat or vegetables. Usually cheap and always satisfying, ramen is a wonderfully warming meal on a chilly day. Recipes vary according to the region, but Tokyo-style ramen consists of a chicken broth with thin, curly noodles and a little dashi for extra flavor.

3. Okonomiyaki and Monjayaki

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If you’re looking for more Japanese comfort food, don’t miss the chance to devour okonomiyaki. A savory pancake, okonomiyaki is popular throughout Japan. The flour-based pancake typically contains cabbage, scallions, and slices of pork belly. Meanwhile, Tokyo is one of the best places to sample monjayaki – another savory Japanese-style pancake. Less firm than okonomiyaki, monjayaki is made from softer batter. While exploring the Tokyo Bay area, make your way to Monjo street, which is home to over 60 monjayaki restaurants.

4. Soba

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Among Japan’s best-known noodles, soba is a standout. After gaining popularity during the Edo period, soba is now served all over Japan. Made from buckwheat, these silky smooth noodles can be eaten hot or cold. Soba is typically served with simple toppings, like nori, or alongside heartier dishes, such as tempura. A refreshing soba dish is mori soba, which consists of cold, boiled noodles, served with a soy dipping sauce. And don’t be shy when you eat soba noodles in Tokyo – slurping is expected!

5. Tempura

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Tempura is a crispy, delicious dish that features frequently on Japanese menus. Introduced to 16th-century Japan by Portuguese missionaries, tempura underwent lots of development in Tokyo. Traditionally, Tempura consisted of vegetables fried in a batter made from eggs and flour. But these days, tempura restaurants also offer seafood versions. The best way to enjoy tempura is to go to one of Tokyo’s many tempura restaurants and enjoy it as a freshly-cooked dish.

6. Chankonabe

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Nutritious and satisfying, chankonabe is a hot pot dish. Thanks to its high protein content, chankonabe was originally served to sumo wrestlers. Now, this traditional dish is served at specialized restaurants in Tokyo and it’s an ideal cold-weather meal. Chankonabe is often made up of a chicken-based broth, vegetables, tofu, and/or fish. And if you’re looking to try more traditional but nutritious Japanese food, treat yourself to dinner at Kigi in Tokyo. Kigi’s focus is on using fresh, locally-sourced ingredients and the dishes are beautifully presented.

7. Tokyo Candy

Photo by Evan Blaser via Flickr

Satisfying your sweet tooth is almost too easy in Tokyo. When it comes to traditional Japanese sweets, known as wagashi, the city has endless options. Ningyo-yaki are small cakes that come in a variety of shapes, including dolls, birds, and pagodas. Filled with red bean paste, these sweet cakes make for a delicious snack. Another traditional treat is dorayaki, a pastry that consists of layers of sweet pancakes and bean paste. Or keep it simple and get your hands on some popular mochi. Mochi is made from rice flour and comes in a range of flavors that taste as good as they look.

8. Tsukudani

Photo by Toshiyuki IMAI via Flickr

A Tokyo specialty, Tsukadani hails from Tsukadajma Island in Tokyo Bay. Tsukadani consists of small pieces of food, such as seafood, seaweed, or beef, which are simmered in soy sauce and sweet sake. Tsukadani is often enjoyed as a topping on rice and it’s an adventurous choice for visitors who want to dive deeper into Toyko’s cuisine.

Tokyo is one of the best cities in the world for foodies, so expect to have your mind blown as you explore the cuisine. The blend of traditional and ultra-modern dining keeps things interesting, while high-quality ingredients and an emphasis on perfection takes Tokyo food to the next level.

ARTS&CULTURE January 24, 2019

Japanese Traditions & Celebrations

Traditional Japanese Wedding
Photo by Jeff Carpenter via Flickr

Japan is home to numerous traditions and celebrations, honoring cultural heritage, family, friends and events throughout the year. From weddings and birth celebrations to numerous matsuri’s, seasonal changes and the ringing in of the new year, Japanese traditions and celebrations are a wonderful way to learn about the culture. While many traditional celebrations are usually celebrated with close family, there is an emerging number of festivals and events that can be enjoyed by foreigners as well.


Like many cultures around the world, wedding celebrations in Japan are an elaborate affair, bringing two families together and honoring traditions. Most couples in Japan opt to have either a traditional Shinto wedding, or a “white wedding”, similar to a Protestant Christian wedding held in a hall or large venue. The former is held in a Shinto shrine, with the couple dressed in elegant kimonos, and with the bride also wearing a headdress and geisha-style makeup. The Shinto wedding style was made popular in 1900 when the Crown Prince Yoshihito took a bride, while the “white wedding” gained popularity after the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. Both wedding styles are elegant affairs, often costing close to a years salary, but unlike most western weddings, they typically involve only immediate relatives and very close friends.

Japanese White Wedding
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Another joyous time, the birth of a child in Japan is also surrounded in celebration. On the child’s 7th day, or oshichiya, they are given a name, and on their 30th or 32nd day, or omiyamairi, the baby will be taken to visit a Shinto shrine. Gifts typically come one to two months after a child is born, as it is considered to be tempting fate if given before birth. As the child ages, birthdays will be celebrated with small parties, but as they enter adulthood, many Japanese chose to only celebrate with their partners.

Japan’s Demographic Time Bomb baby

The final celebration of life, a Japanese funeral, is also a time of tradition for most families. Japanese typically hold a wake, or otsuya, the evening before the funeral, or kokubetsushiki. At the otsuya, typically a Buddhist priest will chant a sutra and immediate family will offer respect to the deceased. To help with the costs of the funeral, guests will bring monetary contributions, depending on their relation to the deceased. The following day is the funeral, and later a cremation occurs.

Yearly Celebrations

Since the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1873, New Years, or oshogatsu, in Japan has become a wildly celebrated time. A highlight is osechi ryōri, the traditional food eaten this time of year which is made up of sweet, sour or dried small plates. They keep without refrigeration, as this tradition dates back to the time before homes had electricity and shops would close for the holidays. In the past, families would prepare the meals together, but many now order from shops, making this tradition accessible to visitors across the country.

Japan New Year Sunrise Tradition
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On the first day of the year, it is tradition to watch the sunrise, or hatsuhinode, and to make a wish for the upcoming year. This tradition originates from the Shinto belief that Toshigami, the god of the new year, arrives when the sun rises to grant wishes. Some insist on climbing snowy Mount Fuji on this day, but most will visit various temples, shrines or parks across the country that welcome locals and tourists alike.

The Japanese also celebrate solstices, and equinoxes every year, a traditional time to celebrate the seasons and Eearth. Though all seasonal solstices and equinoxes offer great sights to visitors, a wonderful time to visit is during winter solstice, or Tōji, celebrating the departure of ‘yin’, cold and darkness, and welcome ‘yang’, the upcoming light and warmth. Tōji is celebrated by bathing with yuzu fruit, visiting onsens and enjoying warming foods. For visitors, consider visiting the famous Toji Matsuri at the Issan Shrin in Saitama City, or head to Hokkaido for the Sapporo Festival of Snow in January.

Photo by Charles Lam via Flickr

The Japanese also celebrate many festivals, or matsuri’s, throughout the year. The dates change dates every year, but many occur around traditional holidays like Setsubun, a celebration of seasonal division every spring, and Obon, the celebration of one’s ancestors in August. Typically held by local shrines or communities, they offer traditional food, and entertainment such as games, karaoke and large float displays. Some notable festivals to explore are Gion Matsuri, in July in Kyoto, Kanda Matsuri, in May in Tokyo and Tenjin Matsuti, in July in Osaka.

Tradition and celebration are extremely important to Japanese culture, and as a visitor, witnessing such events is an honor. Taking the time to better understand the highly traditional ways of Japan is extremely important, and whether visiting a widely celebrated festival or being invited into an intimate affair, it will help you gain insight to the uniqueness of Japan.