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Experience Japanese Culture Online – From Zen to Geisha

Welcome, virtual travelers. During this prolonged period of COVID-19 quarantine, many of us have come to realize how important travel is for our well-being – it is sustenance for the soul. Although boarding a flight to Japan may not be practical at this time, there is no harm in indulging your wanderlust online. 

If you relish the idea of discovering new places and things, check out the following online experiences. Through these activities, you can learn more about Japan’s culture, cuisine and spiritual traditions. What better time than now to try Zen meditation or learn how to cook authentic Japanese vegan cuisine? And to then reward yourself by enjoying the charming company of an actual geisha.


Zen meditation with a Japanese monk

Zen meditation, also known as zazen, is a meditation technique rooted in Buddhist philosophy. Experience a greater sense of inner peace by taking an online Zen meditation class with a Zen practitioner based in Kyoto. Studies have shown that meditation not only focuses the mind but also regulates the emotions—something we can all benefit from in a time of uncertainty. It is also good for the body; 20 minutes of active meditation can produce the same endorphin boost as one hour of running. Think of it as a workout without the sweat.

Rev. Takafumi “Zenryu” Kawakami
Rev. Takafumi “Zenryu” Kawakami welcomes everyone to take part in zazen practice online.


Learn more about yourself through Zen meditation

Meet Zen meditation master, Rev. Takafumi “Zenryu” Kawakami. He is the deputy head priest of Shunkoin Temple, part of the larger Myoshinji Temple complex in Kyoto Prefecture. The peaceful surroundings of Shunkoin Temple are ideal for zazen practice and mindfulness—virtually, if not physically at this time. The temple states that “practice at Shunkoin is open to all who are curious and wish to know themselves more deeply.”

Zen garden of Shunkoin Temple
A peaceful Zen garden of Shunkoin Temple


Online reflection

You can participate in one of Zenryu’s Zoom zen meditation sessions using your tablet or smartphone. A Zoom meditation session typically starts with Zenryu offering a brief introduction about Zen Buddhism. After the introduction, he leads guided and silent meditation practices (20 min.) followed by a short discussion with participants. In the second exercise, he guides you to a self-compassion (naikan) meditation. At the end, there is a Q&A to wrap up the session. There is no charge, but you can show your appreciation in the form of a donation. When are able to visit Shunkoin in person, be sure to take part in on-site Zen experience courses, including meditation, tea ceremony and calligraphy. Lodging is available for overnight stays.  For more information, visit their website.

Zenryu’s Zoom zen meditation sessions
Zenryu’s Zoom zen meditation sessions offer guided and silent meditation practices.


Vegan Japanese dishes cooking classes

One of the most popular things to do during quarantine is to learn how to cook new dishes, and there’s never been a better time to hone your cooking skills than during a pandemic. Add a splash of culture to your cooking repertoire by learning how to make authentic Japanese food with a plant-based twist.

bento lunchbox
Learn how to prepare a bento lunchbox with seaweed-wrapped rice balls, vegan eggs shaped like hearts and carrots cut in the shape of flowers.


Online instruction

BentoYa Cooking is a cooking school specializing in “authentic plant-based Japanese style cooking.” The school has adapted the classes held in Tokyo, Kyoto and other Japanese cities for an online audience. The online sessions, conducted twice every Saturday, are in an easy-to-follow demonstration format where you can ask the chef questions along the way. Group lessons are limited to four people, and the friendly staff will send a list of required ingredients and instructions in advance so that you can be fully prepared.

BentoYa Cooking’s online classes


Japanese cuisine goes vegan

Vegan takes on Japanese classics like tempura, ramen and spring rolls are easy to prepare. They are also as pleasing to the eye as to the palate. There are many dishes to discover and savor from vegan rolled sushi to vegan cheesecake and miso muffins. Each class focuses on one particular dish, so choose the class that most appeals to you. Although, once you’ve tried one dish, you’ll probably want to try them all.

grilled eel
The dish on the left may look like a piece of Japanese eel, but it is a delicious vegetarian bean curd “grilled eel”


Cooking for a cause

By taking a class with BentoYa Cooking, you’ll be supporting worthy causes, too. BentoYa donates a part of the profits from its online sessions to a Japanese organization supporting families in financial difficulties and orphaned children. Also, taking a BentoYa class is a great way to support the guest chefs whose restaurants are maybe closed or downsized due to the ongoing pandemic, and it helps farmers who can no longer send their vegetables and fruits to schools due to closures. For more information about pricing and availability, visit their website.


Online drinking with geisha

Try googling “Japanese culture,” and you are likely to see many photos showing geisha (or geiko, as they are known in Kyoto) wearing colorful kimonos and white-face makeup in picturesque settings.

What is a geisha?

Geisha are artisans who perform traditional Japanese singing and dancing, as well as customs of hospitality (they are not courtesans as is a common misconception). Seeing colorfully costumed geikos on a street in Old Kyoto or another charming locale can be one of the most memorable moments of a trip to Japan. While you can’t run into one in public right now, you can enjoy their company online. 

Observing geishas performing traditional song and dance
Observing geishas performing traditional song and dance is an age-old attraction for travelers in Japan.


Meetings with a geisha

Although geisha culture may have a strong image of the culture of Kyoto, Hakone-Yumoto in Kanagawa Prefecture is also known to have the second largest geisha organization after Kyoto.
Meet Geisha, a Hakone-based business that previously offered in-person meetings with geisha, now offers virtual experiences via Zoom. Launched on 29 May, 2020, this new service lets you enjoy the virtual company of an actual geisha who is trained in song and dance, drinking games and the art of conversation. She’ll even “pour a drink” for you, though you’ll have to provide your own beverages and snacks.

When it is safe to travel, you can meet with geishas in person at your accommodation in Hakone.


Geisha games

One of the most fun things you can do during “Online Drinking with Geisha” is playing drinking games, such as a guessing game where your geisha shows you multiple white-painted faces (geishas in full makeup) and you have to guess which one she is, or a music guessing game where she plays shamisen and you have to guess what song she is playing. You’ll have a lot of fun remembering those rules while knocking back another sake.

Geishas online
While you’ll need to bring your own beverages, drinking with geishas online can be a lot of fun.


English-speaking geisha experiences

Presuming you aren’t fluent in Japanese, you’ll be happy to know that you can book English-speaking geishas. You can join a group with other geisha-curious people or book a private session for you and your friends. You can also request a child-friendly session for fun with the whole family. 
For more information about pricing and availability, visit here.


Visit Japan virtually

Until COVID-19-related travel and hospitality restrictions are lifted in Japan, virtual tourism is the best way to bring Japan to you, and with more and more Zoom-style services coming online, it’s never been easier to enjoy Japanese cultural experiences. Whether you’re interested in Zen meditation, Japanese cooking, geisha parties, or some other immersive diversion, the ability to experience these online may be one of the most welcome byproducts of the quarantine lifestyle. And it’s a great way to prepare for your next actual trip to Japan!


    About the author

    Kristopher Spencer

    Kristopher Spencer is an American writer based in Bangkok, Thailand. His trips to Japan have always left him wanting more and writing about the Land of the Rising Sun now is providing plenty of inspiration for his post-pandemic travel itinerary. An avid photographer, Kristopher recommends Japan’s bright, bustling cityscapes and stunning natural vistas alike for all shutterbugs and social media connoisseurs.














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