Historically, Japan went through several periods of opening and closing its borders to foreign trade. The Japanese adopted new ideas from countries like China, and they would transform these concepts during isolationist periods. This practice allowed for the creation of the culture we’re familiar with today.
One aspect of Japanese culture visitors love exploring is the art world. Traditional Japanese art has fascinated the world for centuries because it's elegant yet uncomplicated, with heavy influences from Shintoism and Buddhism. Here, we’ve prepared a list of six traditional Japanese art styles, and how you can experience them.
In the 5th century, Japan adopted Chinese characters (kanji) as a writing system and calligraphy as a craft. The Japanese developed a distinctive style of calligraphy called shodo, which sometimes also uses hiragana and katakana. Although it might look like a sloppy ink painting to the untrained eye, this ancient Japanese art form follows strict techniques.
The main styles of shodo writing are kaisho (block lettering), gyosho (semi-cursive), and sosho (cursive). Elementary school students learn kaisho penmanship, and some adults continue practicing calligraphy as a hobby. You might see displays of amateur gyosho or sosho in public areas like train stations or town halls.
Temples and cultural centers hold beginner lessons in English that travelers can join. You can find classes all over Japan, especially in the historic neighborhoods of Kyoto and Tokyo. A typical session starts with a short seminar on the history of the shodo, followed by a guided workshop. The entire experience usually takes around one or two hours.
Shintoists and Buddhists using evergreen plants and flowers for worship probably led to the evolution of Ikebana floral arrangements. There are thousands of schools of Ikebana today, each with individual varieties of style. Some practice techniques similar to sculpture and pay close attention to the colors, lines, forms, and functions of each blossom. Others mimic the flowers’ natural conditions and try to show them as they grew in the wild.
Many displays use seasonal flowers in either elaborate or uncomplicated compositions. Given the artist’s skill, a single standing flower can make as powerful of an impact as a detailed design. Although sometimes wildly different, all arrangement styles strive to preserve the blooms and clippings for as long as possible.
Japanese art galleries, exhibition halls, and local government offices often hold Ikebana displays. If you’d like to try your hand at it, you can find classes throughout the country. Ikebana schools hold sessions for beginners or trial lessons for total novices, but require reservations. Depending on how immersive of an experience you please, one seminar can last between one and several hours.
Archeological records suggest ancient Japanese cultures have used some form of percussion instruments since the Neolithic period. Taking inspiration from China, Korea, and India, Japan created taiko drums during the 6th century. Taiko performances often accompany religious rituals, theatrical performances, and celebratory festivals.
If you visit Japan in summer, the low rumblings of Japanese drums will welcome you to annual jubilees like Obon. According to Buddhist traditions, the veil between this world and the next grows thin in August. To celebrate, Japanese people dress in yukata kimono and perform the Bon Odori to dance with their ancestors. If you aren’t traveling during this time of year, there are plenty of ways to enjoy taiko drums.
If you’re looking for a high-energy activity, a Japanese taiko drum class might be just what you need. Japanese-style drumming is a full-body workout, but still accessible for children and retirees. During a lesson, your instructor will show you the correct positions and techniques before leading you through a rhythmic song. At the end of the workshop, you’ll feel ready to do a full-fledged performance.
Buddhist monks introduced green tea from China in the 8th century as a medicinal cure. In the Muromachi period (1333-1573) it became fashionable for the noble classes to drink the beverage in Zen-inspired ritualistic parties. Every Japanese tea ceremony step, tool, and snack holds significance.
Part of the beauty of participating in a tea ceremony is enjoying the hospitality of your gracious host. Tea masters and sometimes maiko (apprentice geisha) guide the proceedings with deft artistry. To lead an event, a host must spend years studying every flick of the wrist and movement of the finger.
A full formal tea ceremony takes several hours and includes a kaiseki dinner, but most tea houses offer abridged versions. The best places to participate in a tea ceremony are in temples or Japanese gardens, which add a lovely atmosphere. Uji City near Kyoto is also a desirable location for aficionados who want to try Japan’s tastiest tea.
Potting miniature trees came from China, but bonsai pruning has become epitomical of classic Japanese art. Practitioners use different methods to keep the trees small but in proportion to how they would look in nature. Bonsai tree pruning techniques include trimming the roots or wiring the trunks to encourage specific growth patterns.
Typical trees used in bonsai are pine, maple, and cherry blossoms. It takes careful attention to detail to keep them from overgrowing. They say to appreciate bonsai you must take in an overall impression, then bend down to lower your line of sight. This way, you can imagine what it would look like in the forest.
After the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, gardeners and bonsai nursery workers needed a safe place to move. They chose Omiya City for its clean water and fertile soil, and Omiya Bonsai Village was born. You can find several nurseries across the village and walk through the many gardens. Visitors can learn more about the various aspects and styles of bonsai at the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum.
When thinking about traditional Japanese artwork, most people imagine ukiyo-e woodblock prints. During the 17th and 19th centuries, the merchant class rose in prosperity and began to purchase luxuries for their homes. They collected uikiyo-e because many pieces featured sumo wrestlers and actors, but some artists used natural sceneries and legendary heroes as their subjects.
From this period of Japanese art history rose one of the most beloved Japanese artists, Katsushika Hokusai. His landscape The Great Wave Off Kanagawa is among the most famous Japanese prints. Following his and his contemporaries' deaths, ukiyo-e saw a steep decline in production. However, there are still many places where you can see it today.
Several art museums across Japan house permanent or temporary ukiyo-e exhibitions. The Ohara Museum of Art opened to commemorate the works of Kojima Torajiro. It specializes in contemporary and Western styles, but there is an annex with traditional Japanese art, including woodblock prints. In Nagano, you can also visit the Hokusai Museum and the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum.