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Japanese Culture

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1. Shinto religion and Buddhism

Most Japanese people observe rites of the native Shinto religion and those of Buddhism, and even some of Christianity; a person may celebrate a local festival at a Shinto shrine, a wedding at a Christian church or chapel, and a funeral at a Buddhist temple. Many Japanese people regard the religious practices of Japan as part of the nation’s culture, rather than a matter of individual belief or faith.

1.1 Shinto

Shinto is the native religion of Japan, and was once its state religion. It involves the worship of kami, or spirits. Some kami are local – the spirit of a particular place – but others represent major natural phemonena like Amaterasu, the Sun goddess, or Mount Fuji. The word Shinto is a combination of two kanji (Chinese characters): “shin”, meaning gods or spirits, and “tō” meaning a way or path (like Tao or dao in Chinese). So Shinto is often translated as “The Way of the Gods”. Shinto can be seen as a form of animism. The afterlife, and belief, are not major concerns in Shinto; the emphasis is on fitting into this world instead of preparing for the next, and on ritual and observance rather than on faith. The religion has no fixed dogma or book, no holiest place, no person or kami regarded as the holiest, and no defined set of prayers. Instead, Shinto is a collection of rituals and methods meant to regulate the relations between living people and the spirits.  The main theme in the Shinto religion is love and reverence for natural artifacts and processes. So a waterfall or a special rock might come to be regarded as a spirit (kami) of that place; so might abstract things like growth and fertility. Sacred objects, such as rocks or trees, can be recognized by the special ropes (shimenawa) and white paper strips attached to them.

The principal worship of kami is done at public shrines (jinja), although many people also have a small private shrine at home(kamidana) – sometimes only a high shelf with a few ritual objects. Some public shrines are elaborate and impressive buildings, but many are small structures in typical Japanese architectural style. Shrines are commonly fronted by a distinctive gate (torii). These gates form a symbolic barrier separating the living and the spirit-worlds. There are often two guardian animals at each side of the gate, protecting the entrance. To pay respects at a Shinto shrine, stand in front of the cashbox and the long ropes dangling from a gong. The shrine may contain offerings of food and sake placed before a symbol of the kami – typically, white paper gohei (hanging zigzags) or a mirror. Most people toss a coin in the box, sound the gong a couple of times, bow deeply twice, clap hands firmly twice, bow once deeply, once lightly and then back away politely to avoid turning their back to the shrine.

Shinto beliefs and ways of thinking influence Japanese society, even today. Many famously Japanese practices have origins either directly or indirectly rooted in Shinto. For example, the Shinto ideal of harmony with nature underlies such typically Japanese arts as flower-arranging (ikebana), traditional architecture, and garden design. Obvious links to Shinto can be seen in sumo wrestling, where many Shinto-inspired ceremonies must be performed before a bout, such as purifying the wrestling arena by sprinkling it with salt. Many Japanese customs, such as using wooden chopsticks, and removing shoes before entering a building, have their origin in Shinto beliefs and practices.

1.2 Buddhism

Buddhism came to Japan from China in the 6th century, bringing many other aspects of the highly-developed culture of the Asian mainland with it. The form of Buddhism established in Japan through China is the Mahayana (Great Vehicle), rather than the Theravada Buddhism of India, Sri Lanka, and other southern Asian nations. When the shoguns took power in the 1100s, and the administrative capital moved to Kamakura, new forms of Buddhism arrived. The most popular was Zen (see below), known in China as Chan and in Korea as Seon. Another form of Buddhism arrived in the Kamakura period, known as Jodo-kyo or “Pure Land” Buddhism. Pure Land Buddhism emphasizes the role of Amida Buddha or the Buddha of the Western Paradise. According to this school, if the phrase “Namo Amida Butsu” is recited, upon death a person will be taken by Amida to the “Western Paradise” or “Pure Land” and from then on to Nirvana.

A more radical form of Buddhism was Nichiren Buddhism, created by the monk Nichiren, which praised the Lotus Sutra. Nichiren Buddhism is the second largest form, and includes Soka Gakkai, a very radical Nichiren denomination, whose political wing forms the conservative Buddhist New Komeito Party, Japan’s third largest political party. In Japan’s history, Shinto and Buddhism were closely knit, and religious practices developed where forms of Shinto and Buddhism were merged together. In 1868, after the Meiji Restoration, Buddhism and Shintoism were separated, but many Japanese still adhered to both.  Today, most Japanese people observe both Buddhism and Shinto, according to the occasion, without any conflict or contradition between the two. While weddings are often Shinto or Christian ceremonies, funerals (soshiki) are almost always Buddhist. The body is cleaned, dressed in white robes and laid with the head facing north. There is a wake, where mourners present a gift of money (koden). At the funeral the next day, mourners gather at a photograph of the deceased and a priest from the local temple recites sutras. Most deceased are cremated and pieces of their bones placed in a small jar which is placed on the butsudan altar in the home until it is buried. Relatives often pray for the deceased at the butsudan, and visit the grave during the Bon festival.

2. Japanese Gardens

Landscape gardening is an art that has developed in Japan since olden times. Its origins may be traced back to around 600AD: there is evidence from that time that well-designed gardens with artificial hills and ornamental ponds already existed in Japan. The aim of the art is to create a scenic composition in the same way that an artist composes a landscape on canvas. Rocks, trees, ponds and running water are naturally arranged so as to leave no trace of artificiality. The traditional features of such a garden include an island set in a lake or pool and connected with the mainland by bridges. Curiously-shaped boulders and rocks are carefully arranged as well as a stone lantern, with all the elements placed in such a way as to seem like a landscape. even in a garden of limited size. With the introduction of Zen Buddhism during the Kamakura period (1192 – 1333) the principles of religion were applied to the traditional rules guiding the construction of landscape gardens. The gardens designed in this period were not as decorative as those of the previous period, but were more tranquil and substantial.The popularity of the tea ceremony also influenced landscape gardening, since the garden had to be arranged to include a sukiya (tea-ceremony house). One of the greatest designers was Sen-no-Rikyu (1521-1591) – the well-known master of the tea ceremony, who created the garden of the Chishaku-in Temple of Kyoto, as well as a number of others.

2.1 Type of garden

The gardens of Japan have long been classified into two general types: the tsukiyama (hill garden) and the hiraniwa (flat garden). For many centuries, the main garden on the south side of a mansion was invariably done in the hill style, while the flat style was largely reserved for smaller gardens tucked away in cramped places. So the two styles developed side by side. The hill garden features a hill usually combined with a pond and a stream. Examples of this style include the Shukkei-en at Hiroshima, Rakuraku-en at Hikone and Suizenji Garden in Kumamoto. In a flat garden, stones, trees, stone lanterns, water basins and wells form the important decorative elements. The most famous example of a flat garden is at Ryonaji Temple in Kyoto, where, enclosed by a low wall on three sides, 15 rocks of varying sizes are arranged on a flat piece of ground covered with white sand. There is not a single tree or shrub. The trees outside the walls and the distant view serve as a background. An offshoot of landscape gardening, only on a smaller scale, is the hako-niwa (box-garden). It may sometimes be seen at the entrance to a workshop or similar place in a crowded city. A miniature pond, often stocked with goldfish, tiny rocks, trees, etc., make up what could be described as a toy garden. There is also the bonkei, or tray garden – a miniature garden created with mud, peat, coloured sand and other materials. Bonseki – the art of creating landscapes with stones and sand on black lacquered trays as a form of decoration, and bonsai – the cultivation of miniature trees, are other aspects of the art of Japanese gardening.

2.2 Best gardens to visit


Hama-Rikyu Garden: In central Tokyo, this garden is in two parts: the southern garden is the older part, the garden attached to a villa used by feudal lords when they stayed in Edo (present-day Tokyo) in the 17th-19th centuries. It has the Shio-iri-no Niwa (garden with tidal pond) which is on the sea: the scenery varies with the ebb and flow of the tide. The northern garden is more recent. Although it is overlooked by the skyscrapers of modern Tokyo it is recommendable as an oasis of calm in the centre of the city.

Shinjuku Gyoen: although purists may be offended by its mixture of Japanese, French and English landscape gardening styles, this garden provides a substantial area of calm in the bustling Shinjuku district of Tokyo. The 1,500 cherry blossom trees are a famous sight in spring; in autumn the chrysanthemums are a colourful attraction. Entrance fee: 200 yen Close to: JR Shinjuku Minamiguchi station(south exit) – 10 min. on foot.


Kinkaku-ji Temple Garden: the easiest of access, as it is featured in JTB’s Sunrise tour of Kyoto(morning and full-day). The most famous part of the garden is the lake: it has several islands whose changing shapes can be appreciated as you view them from different angles. But the most impressive feature is the Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) itself, which stands by the water and can be perfectly reflected on a calm day.

Shosei-en Garden: this garden was designed at the request of the priest of Higashi-Hongan-ji Temple, and is situated close to the temple, just across the main “Karasuma Street” which runs up from Kyoto station. In the garden there are several tea houses, a large pond, a waterfall, stone lanterns, and trees and plants that are in bloom throughout the year: there is a wonderful display of plum and cherry blossoms in the spring, irises and water lilies in summer, and maple leaves in the autumn. Entrance fee: 500 yen Get there: walk up Karasuma Street from Kyoto station, turn right along Shichijo Street.

Ryoanji: the quintessential abstract rock garden. Just fifteen rocks and white sand, surrounded by a wall. The surface of the sand is raked into a ripple pattern, and the stones are in groups of seven, five and three, positioned with extreme care. As you view the arrangement from different angles, one rock is always hidden. Entrance fee: 500 yen Get there: bus ride from JR Kyoto Stn. to the Ritsumeikan Univ. mae Stop – 8 min. on foot.

Daisen-in Garden: another peaceful rock and sand karesansui garden (perhaps known more popularly to Westerners as a “Zen” garden). The stones themselves symbolise a natural environment of steep mountains and deep valleys. A sand bar represents “a torrent rushing into a great ocean”. Entrance fee: 400 yen Get there: bus ride from JR Kyoto Stn. to Daitokuji-mae stop – 5 min. on foot.

Tenryu-ji Garden: the Tenryu-ji Temple Garden is said to have been built by the founder of the temple and master gardener Muso Kokushi. The garden is designed to enable a visitor to enjoy changes in scenery while walking around the pond. The scenery of two hills – Kame-yama and Arashi-yama – both of which are located outside the garden, form part of the composition. This technique of making use of the surrounding landscape in garden design is known as shakkei. Stonework on a hill at the back of the pond symbolizes a mountain stream cascading into the pond. There are also stones symbolizing carp.This garden is believed to be the least changed from the original concept of Muso Kokushi, and is considered one of the most exquisite of all Japanese gardens. Entrance fee: Yen 500 Get there: JR Sagano Line to Sagano Arashiyama Stn – 10-min on foot.


Kenrokuen Garden: originally the outer garden of Kanazawa’s Ishikawa castle, Kenrokuen Garden was opened to the public in 1875. It is considered one of the “three most beautiful gardens in Japan” and is filled with a variety of trees, ponds, waterfalls and flowers stretching over 25 acres. In winter, the park is notable for its yukitsuri — ropes attached in a conical array to trees to break up snow as it falls, protecting the trees from damage.

3. Hot Springs - Onsen

As Japan is a country of volcanic activity, natural hot springs (onsen) abound: there are said to be around 19,500 of them.  The custom of bathing in hot springs in Japan dates back over 2,000 years. Hotels and ryokan and other tourist accommodation have developed around most hot springs. Travelling to such resort areas is a favourite form of recreation among Japanese people. Although many large resort areas have developed around famous hot springs, there are still numerous springs along sea coasts and in the mountains that remain undeveloped, and in their natural state.


Near Tokyo

Nikko: in Nikko National Park there are several hot springs at the foot of Mount Nantai, a sacred, extinct volcano. There is Yumoto Onsen, and Chuzenji Onsen on the shore of Lake Chuzenji.

Hakone: one of Japan’s most popular hot spring resorts, Hakone has a large number of onsen in beautiful settings in a forested valley and along the shore of Lake Ashi. JTB offers 2-day Sunrise tours to Hakone from Tokyo, travelling by Shinkansen (Bullet train) and including an overnight stay in a spa hotel in Hakone.

Kusatsu: the waters of Kusatsu Onsen are considered among Japan’s best, being recommended by Dr. von Baelz, a German doctor who served at Japan’s Imperial Court in the 1880s. The town is in the mountains of Gumma Prefecture, at an altitude of 1,200 metres above sea level, and offers hiking too, in the summer months.

Atami: a small town about 100km down the east coast from Tokyo. Atami literally means ‘hot sea’; the hills which encircle the coastal town are the side of an ancient volcano crater. With this geological history, there are hot springs all over the area: Izu-yama-onsen, Izu-Yugawara-onsen, Ajiro-onsen, and the Oyu Geyser that spouts up a huge quantity of hot water. The town itself looks a little tired, but its many museums add interest to a stay; at the top of the hill by Atami Station is the MOMA Museum, with around 3,500 mainly oriental paintings and applied arts

Northern Japan

Hanamaki Onsen: this is a popular hot spring resort in Iwate Prefecture, 40 kilometers south of Morioka.

Noboribetsu Onsen (Hokkaido): this typical Japanese spa is located on a mountain and surrounded by primeval forest. One reason that the place is so famous is because there are 11 different kinds of springs: bathers can select the spring which best suits their purpose. Five minutes on foot from the town is the spectacular Jigokudani (“Hell Valley”). In an explosive crater 450m across, steam and scalding water gush out from countless fumaroles of all sizes, creating a truly hellish scene.Kamuiwakka Falls (Hokkaido) : Kamuiwakka is a warm mountain stream in Shiretoko National Park, Hokkaido. There is a natural basin beneath a hot waterfall: bathers need to climb up the stream for about 20 minutes to reach it.

Nyuto Onsen: (lit.: nipple hot spring) is named after the nearby, suggestively-shaped Mount Nyuto in the remote mountains of Akita Prefecture above Lake Tazawako.

Toyako Onsen (Hokkaido): located in Shikotsu-Toya National Park. A resort on the shores of the beautiful Lake Toya, at the foot of Mount Uzu, an active volcano which most recently erupted in 2000. There are several large luxury hotels right on the shore, offering rooms and hot spring baths with beautiful views of the lake. Some of the hotels’ hot spring baths are open to non-residents during the daytime, for an admission fee of around Yen 500 – 1000. In front of the hotels there is a pleasant promenade, with foot baths (ashiyu) and firework displays every evening from May through October. Sightseeing cruises of the lake also depart from here.

Public bathing at onsen is usually single-sex: there are separate baths for men and women.

In Japan, tattoos are perceived as a sign of the Yakuza, or organised crime syndicates. In general it is not allowed for those with tattoos to use public bath facilities. However, it is common practice for foreign visitors with small tattoos to cover them with an adhesive dressing when bathing. This is perfectly acceptable and shows respect for the culture and attitudes prevailing in Japan.

Western Japan

Beppu: could be said to be Japan’s onsen capital. There is a great choice of hot spring baths. In addition, there are waters too hot for bathing, known as jigoku (“hells”) – tourist attractions in themselves, which can be rather tackily presented. The best of them are Oniishibozu Jigoku, Shiraike Jigoku and Umi Jigoku, all in the Kannawa district of Beppu.


A fascinating aspect of contemporary Japan

Whether you are looking for it or not, it is hard to avoid anime and manga on a trip to Japan: shops offer adorable little shapes for everything from sausages to green tea, tourist attractions have their own animated mascot, anyone from schoolgirls to businessmen read thick manga books on commuter trains, and on the street you might pass a young man dressed as a perfect copy of any anime character.

If you are interested in this fascinating art and life , here are the absolute must-sees:



Akihabara district is the centre of Japan’s ‘otaku’ culture. ‘Otaku’ has a variety of meanings, but it can be taken to mean ‘extreme fan’, young people who are so obsessed with particular characters or anime series that they disengage from the rest of life and find it difficult to create human relationships. In the West , however, many ordinary fans of Japanese anime and manga describe themselves as ‘otaku’ with pride. In any case, this is the place to be if you want to buy things related to anime and manga: characters, posters, and of course tons of movies and books. The ‘Tokyo Anime Center’ is here, hosting exhibitions related to anime, and some of the weirder side of contemporary culture can be found here too, such as the so-called “maid cafes” where the waitresses are dressed as maids or cartoon characters.


In the Harajuku district – particularly on Sundays – teens gather dressed as something resembling cartoon characters, but it’s really just unique Japanese street fashion. It is colourful and great to look at, and there are a multitude of shops selling this fascinating clothing and equipment. Visit the local Daiso store that has a particularly large selection of adorable character merchandise – all for only 100 yen !

Ghibli Museum

Just outside of Tokyo, in the suburb of Mitaka, is the Ghibli Museum. This whole museum evokes the wonderful world of Hayao Miyazaki. The man behind films like ‘Spirited Away’ and ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ goes his own way and has his own particular artistic vision . Visiting the museum is like stepping into Miyazaki’s magical world: the museum building itself is made for children to explore. There are exhibits showing how moving images are made, samples and short films, as well as rooms dedicated to the work of 19th-century illustrators which inspired Miyazaki. Note that tickets must be booked in advance: JTB can provide tickets or a guided excursion from Shinjuku, Tokyo – more information. If you are a dedicated fan of Miyazaki’s films, you can also visit other places that inspired them. See more below.

Tokyo International Anime Fair

The world’s largest anime event! Held at the end of March, this is the Japanese cartoon industry’s annual trade show, which attracts over 250 exhibitors and 130,000 visitors from around the world. If you are crazy about anime, this is a must! The huge ‘Big Sight’ exhibition hall on Tokyo’s waterfront is transformed into a living cartoon, and there are people dressed as cartoon characters, giant statues and large screens showing cartoons. See new talent or explore the more bizarre aspects of this huge and unique arts industry. We often arrange special tours during the fair.

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