Scratching Under the Surface: Japan a Little Closer Up

1. Japanese History
2. Japanese Culture
Culture and Castles Green Tea,
Calligraphy and Small Trees

3. Religion in Japan
4. Japanese Landscape and scenery
5. Working in Japan
6. Recreation in Japan
7. Japanese Entertainment
8. Shopping in Japan
9. Japanese Food

1. Japanese History

2. Japanese Culture

Castles and Culture

Samurais dressed in their battle garb.
An ancient castle silhouetted against a darkening sky.
Lovingly cared for gardens; a piece of nature’s harmony sheltered behind stone walls.

One of the most popular tourist destinations in any given Japanese city are the castles. From Kumamoto in the south to Sendai in the north, each castle has its own unique character and presence amongst the rapidly evolving cityscapes; a prominent anchor point to the feudal and often bloody past. Any visitor to Japan must experience at least one castle. Fine examples of these fortresses can be found in many prefectures. Himeiji castle is the largest in Japan, whilst the Nagoya castle incorporates more modern facilities for visitors (including a 3D virtual tour) as this stone giant was completely reconstructed after World War II bombing raids by American planes ravaged the original structure and surrounding area.
Of particular note when visiting almost all of Japan’s castles are the precision of the stone works which make up the castle’s defenses. Especially evident in the large moat walls are massive blocks of stone forming perfect joins. This is even more remarkable given that the walls were built on an angle between about 70 and 80 degrees off the y-axis, aiding the strength of each wall.
In most castles these days only remnants of Japan’s evolution from feudal and classical periods to the economic powerhouse of industrialized Japan reside. Despite the nature of modern Japanese life, more than just armour and artifacts have survived and defined what visitors believe is ‘Japanese’ and what actually is.

Green Tea, Calligraphy and Small Trees
Charcoal black ink reflecting pure white parchment.
The scent of bitter green tea overlaying musty fragrances of straw tatami flooring.
Graceful curves of elm and birch skillfully, subtly, patiently coerced by weathered hands.

To explore a little more than just the surface of Japan, one needs to adventure into areas of Japanese culture resulting from Japan’s classical period beginning in 550 AD; Japan’s time of cultural development and enrichment. One such activity which still remains popular (predominately with women) is the tea ceremony.
On the face of it, the tea ceremony appears to be an overly complicated, rule bound procedure which inhibits the opportunity for conversation. It is not until you dig a little deeper that you begin to understand the symbolic nature of a ritual that emphasizes perfection. In fact, the tea itself is merely a vehicle to recognize that every human encounter is a moment in time which will never be repeated. Therefore each part of the tea must be savored for what it gives those involved. The preparation, carried out by all who are to participate, involves purification with water (to wash the marks of the physical world away) and the journey into the spiritual world of tea can begin. Reflective of the ceremony’s notion of equality, guests must enter the tea room through a 36 inch doorway requiring all to crouch and bow, regardless of status in the outside world.
The ceremony is a highly spiritual affair. Each component represents a spiritual element. Each part of the ceremony is highly structured with each participant contributing to the entire process.

The tea itself is very bitter and quite unlike the consistency of the Indian and English varieties people from the west enjoy. Japanese green tea is made from a powder, mixed with boiling water. You won’t find the host adding sugar either. For a taste of quintessential Japan, the tea ceremony is a must.

Another art form closely tied to the Japan of old is calligraphy. Calligraphy or ‘shodo’ originated in China and was a required skill of the cultured classes. It began to filter into Japan around the 7th century A.D. It translates to ‘way of writing’ and the execution of the writing is considered just as important as the final piece itself. Unlike western calligraphy which focuses on uniformity, Japanese calligraphy breathes life into each word giving it a unique character of its own. To the untrained eye, the piece is usually put together in rather a slap-dash manner but the level of difficulty should not be underestimated. Remember also that once the brush touches the paper there will be no revisions; no post production alterations.
To the trained eye, the difference between good calligraphy and bad calligraphy is easy to spot. As someone interested in appreciating this fine art, keep the following things in mind when viewing shodo:
  • There is a natural balance in the characters as well as the composition in its entirety. This doesn’t necessarily mean perfect symmetry but to the eye, the composition ‘appears’ natural and not forced within any particular constraints.
  • Following the philosophy of maintaining a natural balance, there needs to be rhythm apparent in the work.
  • Straight lines are precise and clear.
  • Curved lines are subtle and fluid.
  • There is variance in brush stroke; not all lines are thick or thin.
  • There is consistency in the amount of ink for each stroke. If you have seen any ‘shodo’ you will probably remember strokes which appear to have been made with a brush ‘light’ on ink. This is intentional.
  • Each character is appropriately sized to further the appearance of rhythm and life in the piece.
    Still taught in school today, calligraphy has become more of a hobby for most, though a great deal of modern design, including western design, borrows from this ancient art form.

If your visit to Japan will last only a short time it may be unrealistic for you to enroll in a course. However, there are places to view this remarkable art form across the country.
To get more information about shodo, ‘the way of writing’ please click here: . Like ‘shodo’, ‘bonsai’ is an art and form of expression that takes many years to become proficient and viewing bonsai in Japan is almost compulsory.

Bonsai, like shodo was first practiced in China. Originally tree trunks and roots were considered highly prized if they resembled animals such as dragons or tigers. After its introduction through Zen Buddhism into Japan in the Kamakura period, bonsai practitioners started to refine the process. Originally trees which held the characteristics of bonsai in nature were collected but as the art form’s development proceeded over the centuries, bonsai enthusiasts began incorporating the horticultural practice of pruning and training. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the main philosophy behind Japanese bonsai had evolved to focus on a refinement of nature; eliminating everything not necessary for the plant. From this point, the practice of bonsai became an art form with many sub-categories including reproducing landscapes found in nature and landscapes incorporating miniature buildings and people.

Today visitors to Japan can find examples of bonsai in many cultural museums or gardens. Some of the best and oldest example can be found in Kyoto however, when visiting Nagoya, one should definitely investigate little temples like Shimpukuji in Toyota (see photos and pay this link a visit: )

3. Religion in Japan
4. Japanese Landscape and scenery
(COMING SOON) (Photo Gallery)
5. Working in Japan
Developing your career or starting a business in Japan is an exciting idea. Not only will you be entering a community unlike anything you have ever experienced before but because of relatively high salaries and good working conditions for foreign nationals, you will have the opportunity to enjoy a rich business and social life. Often people who have spent time working in Japan and returned home find themselves back in Japan for a second and even third time. Working life in Japan, in the main, is a rewarding experience with lifelong friendships being forged due to the large diversity of nationalities mixed in companies utilizing foreign nationals as a resource. If working in Japan is something that interests you, please read the section title: Teaching in Japan

6. Recreation and Entertainment in Japan
(COMING SOON) To learn about recreation and entertainment try:

7. Shopping in Japan
The shopping experience in Japan can be endless. There are thousands of stores in any given area with the variety almost as endless and intriguing as the experience itself. Perhaps the most famous type of store for visitors to Japan are the electronics denizens like Yamada Denki, Eiden, K’s Denki or Bic Camera. Being at the forefront of technical innovation in terms of electronics means that visitors to Japan often get a sneak peak into what will reach the international market in the near future. This is perhaps most evident in mobile phone technology, where Japan, along with Korea are on the cutting edge of design, technology and functionality. With SIM card technology, even visitors to Japan can purchase the latest 3G phones in Japan and use them back home.

If electronics aren’t of particular interest to you, Japan is also a major player in the fashion industry. Japan is perhaps one of the main markets for European fashion designers; Gucci, Louis Vuiton, Chanel and the list goes on. It will be rare for you NOT to see at least 1 major fashion label in the form of bag, shoes or bracelet draped over one of the many shopping enthused Japanese women. There is something to keep in your mind when shopping for fashion goods; Japanese are, on average, physically smaller than Western people. This translates into a hard time in the fitting room with the dress or pair of trousers that you just have to have. Accessories, on the other hand, will rarely cause you problems in this area. A word of advice: make sure you try clothes and shoes on before you buy. If you are intending to live in Japan for more than just a brief visit, it might be wise to purchase clothes and footwear at home first.

After a hard day abusing your credit card there are countless places to sit down and unwind in. Café’s, traditional Japanese, French, Italian eateries, and all the fast food restaurants found in Western countries are but within a short walking distance from virtually all of Japan’s shopping area centers. Even if your travels have taken you outside of the central business districts, small and medium sized restaurants can be easily found. If your shopping day has wound up late, a host of night spots are easily accessible. Indeed the rich nightlife is perhaps one of Japan’s best kept secrets.

Owing to fierce competition in the catering, recreation and entertainment industry, a vast array of specialized bars and nightclubs make life after dusk an amazing experience. No matter where your interests lie, you will find a place that will match the music and atmosphere of your ideal bar or club.

If you are planning to visit central Japan, pay
a visit to find a bar, restaurant or hotel right for you.

8. Japanese Food
(COMING SOON) To find out more about Japanese grocery items check: