On the flipside of Japan’s famously fast-paced, high-tech modernity is its profoundly traditional side, full of history, ceremony and unique customs. Many elements of traditional Japanese culture are world-famous, from geisha, kimonos and cherry blossoms to sumo wrestlers, zen gardens and samurai legend. It’s a country in deep communion with its past, celebrating its culture and history at every juncture.
Discover the details behind the iconography of Japan’s vivid traditions wherever you go, from stepping out of time on the streets of Gion, Kyoto, to trekking between atmospheric Shinto shrines in the forests of Kyushu. Wherever your trip takes you, you’ll find places where the energy and rush of modern Japan blends seamlessly with the pomp and ceremony of the country’s oldest customs.
The tea ceremony
Learning chado, or the ‘way of the tea’, might sound a little dry, but this iconic tea ceremony is a very special experience. One of the country’s most revered traditions, it feels like Japan in a cup. The formality and etiquette, the selfless manner in which the tea is served, and the humble way it is received, all heighten the senses to create perhaps the greatest tea drinking experience in the world. English afternoon tea seems like an exercise in frivolity in comparison!
We work with the best partners in Japan to unlock the heart of the ceremony. Take tea in a beautiful Kyoto town house with an expert, kimono-clad guide leading you to admire the rustic imperfections of the tea bowls, after taking exactly 3 sips of the bitter beverage. This is a condensed demonstration of Japanese formality, courtesy and the admiration of perfection through imperfection. It’ll leave you lost in thought long after it’s finished.
Samurai sword fighting
Possibly one of the coolest experiences you could sign up for in Japan, samurai sword fighting is a firm winner amongst all age groups. This unique experience is led by a team of professional choreographers who’ve worked on a variety of Hollywood a-list movie fights, including those in ‘Kill Bill’ (2003). Alongside sword craft, they'll introduce you to bushido, the way of the samurai, which is similar to the medieval code of chivalry
After learning some of the history of samurai, you’ll witness a fine display of professional fighting skills before undertaking your own training, culminating in an opportunity to spar with a learning partner. This is a really high quality experience, and priced accordingly, but it makes a unique and impactful addition to your time in Tokyo.
Ninja: a word that instantly conjures up images of mythical superhuman assassins, yet these fighters really existed. The mountainous region of Iga, not far from Kyoto, is one of the most historically studied and well understood areas in Japan. Whilst breaking free from an ancient system of feudal rule, Iga families lived a basic life as farmers and peasants unless their services were called upon to rush into battle for whomever was paying. No honour here; this was a mercenary, underhand form of combat and a very dangerous way to earn a living. Concealing your identity was paramount, hence the concept of stealthy ninjas with their faces hidden.
Visit a recreated village home from this Edo period complete with revolving doors, hidden storage for weapons, and trapdoors; head to a museum housing some real ninja weapons and explanations of training and tactics; and watch a mesmerising live action ninjutsu show. There may even be the opportunity to try your hand at throwing real shuriken stars, which is extraordinarily difficult. A rare glimpse into the reality behind the legend.