Get to grips with Japanese culture through art workshops and traditional experiences
An origami class will have you creating something ornamental out of a something simple
Japan takes artistic flair to new levels, with even the humble cup of tea elevated to an artform with the tea ceremony. To make the most of your trip, I wholeheartedly suggest trying your hand at a cultural class in order to master—or at least dabble in—a new skill.
Learning something new—particularly something hands-on—is a way to understand a culture in a deeper way than merely sightseeing. While the Japanese language may be beyond the grasp of a casual tourist, dipping into a local craft is another way to reveal a little more of the thinking behind a culture.
Kinsugi, for instance, is the Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics with gold lacquer dust. The philosophy behind this beautiful art is that breakage is part of the history of an object and its ‘scars’ aren’t something to hide. Similarly, bonsai—the art of manipulating potted plants to achieve a certain aesthetic—reveals a new side to Japanese culture. This painstaking and subtle process carefully avoids symmetry and should look ‘untouched’, showing no trace of an artist’s involvement. The philosophy of both these arts express the Japanese concept of wabi sabi, best translated as ‘beauty in imperfection.
Lacquerware is a popular art in Japan
When I first arrived in Japan, I was worried about its reputation for being culturally inaccessible, but getting involved in various workshops in Japan—which are usually available in English language in major cities—helps to bring down barriers. Beyond learning a new art, these cultural classes have given me an opportunity to meet people I would otherwise never cross paths with—both teachers who’ve dedicated their whole lives to mastering kendo or the intricate art of ikebana, for instance, and the kind of tourist who wants to deep dive into one of the more obscure aspects of Japanese culture on their holiday—my kind of person.
Airbnb is a great first port of call for art workshops in Japan. The site provides a selection of ‘experiences’ with local hosts, ranging from Japanese cooking classes covering everything from how to make soba noodles or wagashi sweets to crafty pursuits, including calligraphy and Japanese umbrella making. Next on my list is a sampuru workshop, creating the plastic food displayed in the windows of restaurants. An essential life skill.
Another option is Deeper Japan, which offers those once-in-a-lifetime experiences tourists wouldn’t usually get to take part in. Samurai sword making, wadaiko drumming, vegan Buddhist cookery, noh theatre, koto zither, manga and even a sumo training session are all options intrepid travellers can take part in. For those with a sense of adventure, Japan is never boring. If you are so inclined, you could take a different class every day for a year and still have a lot more to discover.
Deeper Japan offer traditional classes including kinsugi. Photo credit: Deeper Japan.
When I have guests visit, though, the most popular choice is always a sushi-making class. It takes years of intensive training and surgeon-like precision to master the art of sushi making, but you can learn enough to impress friends at dinner parties in a few hours. Some of the most fun classes include a trip to the morning tuna auctions at the fish market before preparing super fresh sushi with a skilled local chef. There are plenty of options to choose from when you Google ‘sushi making classes Tokyo’, and most of them will be in English language
About the author
Gaby is a Japan newbie with an aversion to lazy weekends spent doing nothing. Since moving to Tokyo, she has filled her days with various hobbies to the point where she no longer has time to do very much else.