Whether you're savoring a course meal in a Michelin-starred restaurant or trekking the grounds surrounding a temple or shrine, take a closer look at your surroundings. Do your lacquer-ware chopsticks have an intricate design? Can you spot carved animals or objects? Do the flower arrangements look a little different from what you’ve seen before?
Japanese crafts have survived through generations in more ways than just gracing museum halls. These days, apprentices and artisans alike still study and sell their wares to modern businesses. Some workshops also offer hands-on classes so you can gain a deeper appreciation of the work that goes into creating these pieces.
While you can participate in courses almost anywhere you go, some parts of Japan have a long history of specializing in specific crafts. Others put on breathtaking displays or offer extremely in-depth lectures and experiences. To help narrow down your options, we’ve compiled our top places for seeing and trying traditional crafts in Japan.
Who doesn’t love stories about the loyal samurai? This aristocratic class existed in Japan until the mid-nineteenth century, but we can still see their influences on today’s society. There are many preserved samurai districts, historic homes, and museums where you can learn about their lives. You can also find a few swordsmiths that make katana samurai swords using traditional techniques!
The best place to see sword-making in Japan is Gifu Prefecture. In October, you can see live forging demonstrations at the Cutlery Festival. If you can't make it during this time, places like the Seki Traditional Swordsmith Museum put on sparks-flying presentations on designated days throughout the year.
It's possible to take a katana workshop, but you probably won’t make a longsword like the ones you see in the movies. They take much longer than the average vacation to complete! Most places offer the chance to polish, forge, and engrave a knife made from the same methods as a samurai sword. Despite the knife’s length, these classes still take several hours (and a lunch break) to get through.
Among all of Japan’s traditional arts and crafts, kimonos might be the most well-known. Throughout your travels, you’ll come across several shops where you can rent one for the day. You can also find immersive classes on traditional textile weaving and dyeing methods.
The Hida Folk Village in Takayama is an open-air museum made up of 30 farmhouses that were built in the Edo Period. The massive structures have steep thatched roofs, and the region they came from is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nearby, you’ll find the Hida Takayama Crafts Experience Center where you can make Japanese dolls, glass wind chimes, and experience textile manufacturing.
Okinawa's Ryukyu Mura theme park recreates the villages that populated the islands before they became part of Japan. You can enjoy a wide variety of performances, including taiko drumming, traditional dance, and historical reenactments. For hands-on experiences, you can take weaving classes, play a sanshin guitar, or paint shisa statues.
If you don’t want to venture too far, take a day trip from Tokyo to Ibaraki Prefecture. In Yūki City, you can experience one of the most luxurious silks Japan has to offer. The rustic Yūki-Tsumugi kimonos are painstakingly woven from fragile silkworms. At the Tsumugi no Yakata Museum, you can take either weaving or dyeing classes and make a souvenir to take home.
In Japanese history and culture, fans aren't just rudimentary tools for cooling down. In ancient Japan, you could play games, transmit messages, and reveal your social status depending on which fan you carried. The artistic uchiwa style is still a symbolic representation of the summer season in Japan today.
In contrast to folding fans (sensu), uchiwa are flat and stiff bamboo paddles with artistic renderings. Although historians debate the origins of fans, we can trace the imaginatively-designed uchiwa to Kyoto in the 9th century. In this historical city, you can find English-speaking classes where an artisan will skillfully create a bamboo handle. Then, you’ll have a chance to choose a sheet of decorative hand-made paper and put the finishing touches on your uchiwa.
If you’ve never tried folding origami, don’t miss out on your chance to learn it in Japan. You’ll be astounded by all the shapes you can make from just one square of paper! Without using any scissors or glue, you can create flowers, animals, balloons, planes, boats, and more!
You can take origami folding classes nearly everywhere you go in Japan. Depending on which school you attend, your workshop might run for only thirty minutes and cost as low as 500 JPY (US $5.00). Some schools might offer more in-depth experiences that include lectures or paper dyeing, or they might combine origami lessons with other traditional Japanese crafts.
At Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, you can see tens of thousands of origami cranes surrounding the Children's Peace Monument. This monument commemorates children who passed away from leukemia after the atomic bombing. According to Japanese mythology, you can make one wish if you fold 1,000 cranes, and it's customary to give these to ill friends or family members.
If you have a flight delay or a long transfer at Narita International Airport, head to the 3rd floor of Terminal 1 to see the Nippon Origami Museum. Inside, you’ll find 400 pieces of origami from your run-of-the-mill shapes, to works that are so small you have to look through a microscope to see them!
Whether your shopping or touring a museum, it's hard to miss Japanese ceramics. They're so prevalent throughout the country that you could wind up drinking sake from a hand-made cup at a local bar! You can experience this traditional Japanese craft almost anywhere, but the most well-known methods come from Arita and the Kaga Onsen area.
Arita in Saga Prefecture was the first city in Japan to make porcelain. Consumers across Japan, China, and Europe coveted these works, and they're still beloved in modern times. During your trip, you can see a wealth of displays at the Kyushu Ceramic Museum. Or, head to the slightly bizarre Arita Porcelain Theme Park where you can take a hands-on class.
South of Kanazawa, you can enjoy hot spring baths and pottery in Kaga. The local Kutani style is recognizable by its bold depictions of landscapes and people. At the traditional handicraft village Yunokuni no Mori, you can choose from more than 50 different workshops, including painting Kutani pottery.
If you want to memorialize your favorite Japanese food, take a food replica workshop! Of the items on this list, this craft is the newest, but they’ve become customary across the country. Restaurants display wax or plastic models of the dishes they serve to entice customers inside. The best city to try food replica making is Gujo Hachiman in Gifu Prefecture.
This sleepy riverside town is the center of food replica production. Iwasaki Mokei (Sample Village Iwasaki) was the first shop to open and now serves over half of the available market! Their hands-on classes will show you how to create a lettuce leaf or tempura.
If you aren’t planning on venturing so far off the beaten track, you can also experience this activity along Tokyo’s Kappabashi Street. Also known as “Kitchen Street,” this road that runs between Asakusa and Ueno is a mecca for restaurant operators. Along the way, you’ll see stores specializing in pots, knives, appliances, and more. At places like Ganso Shokuhin Sample-ya, you can purchase or make food replicas.