Japan offers a full range of entertainment, both classic and modern. From the mysterious Oriental symbolism of the Noh drama to the glittering cabaret reviews of Tokyo, there is no lack of amusement to keep you constantly on the whirl while visiting Japan. The nation’s rich artistic heritage has been preserved in shrine and temple treasure houses and through the private collections of royalty, Daimyo (feudal lords) and rich merchants for hundreds of years, and is now available in numerous public and private museums.
■Museums & Art Galleries
Japan’s long historical record, as well as its profound artistic accomplishments, are copiously detailed and displayed in its many museums. Indeed, the archaeological artifacts, crafts and artistic masterpieces contained in its museums represent exquisite microcosm of the Japanese experience that illuminate the nation and its people as a whole.
Perhaps at the pinnacle of Japan’s museums stand its national museums, of which the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park was first established, in 1871. Its extensive collection gives a comprehensive overview of the entire history of traditional Japanese art, plus historic, scientific and natural history exhibits.
The Kyoto National Museum was originally created around the paintings, sculpture and other treasures from temples of the vicinity, and now contains examples of Japanese art from all periods.
The Nara National Museum is noted especially for its collection of Buddhist sculpture.
There are numerous private museums in Japan, with their beginnings in both religious collections and those of private collectors. The Tokugawa Art Museum of Nagoya specializes in Noh costumes, swords, armor and other samurai relics. In the city of Kanazawa, the Seisonkaku is based around the ancestral treasures of an old Daimyo family, and is unusual in being housed in the family’s original buildings.
Tokyo is especially rich in private museums dedicated to the preservation of traditional art. Among them are the Goto Art Museum, the Nezu Institute of Fine Arts, the Hatakeyama Collection and the Okura Shukokan Museum. Equally worthwhile are the many collections which are contained in office buildings. These include the Idemitsu Museum of Arts, the Riccar Art Museum, the Suntory Museum of Art, and the Yamatane Museum of Art.
In the Osaka-Kobe area, the Fujita Art Museum is an important one.
In addition, most of the big department stores in major cities contain art galleries on their upper floors, which regularly feature large exhibitions of both traditional and modern artists, from both Japan and around the world.
Japanese gardens, which excel at the creation of symbolic miniature replicas of entire seas or landscapes within the restrictions of a few hundred meters or less, are renowned around the world. Evolving from the sponsorship of a highly refined ruling class and the principles of Buddhism and Shintoism, Japanese gardens are ravishing combinations of plants, sand, water and rock that celebrate the beauties of nature in a structured artistic form. Numerous gardens are found on the grounds of temples, and may be hundreds of years old.
Kyoto is particularly rich in gardens, with those of Katsura Imperial Villa, Ginkakuji and Kinkakuji Pavilions, Nijo Castle and the famous rock garden of Ryoanji Temple being especially lovely examples.
In Tokyo, recommended gardens include Higashi Gyoen Garden, Hama Rikyu Garden and Koishikawa Korakuen, while the large public park of Shinjuku Gyoen was originally a pleasure ground of the Imperial family.
Elsewhere across the country, notable gardens include Kenrokuen of Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture, Kairakuen in Ibaraki Prefecture, Korakuen in Okayama Prefecture and Ritsurin Park in Kagawa Prefecture.
■Classic Performing Arts
Japan’s Noh drama is a highly stylized stage art with 700 years of history. Richly symbolic, Noh is rooted in ancient Shinto rites and is performed on a stage which is roofed like a Shinto shrine. Actors wear masks, and movement is highly stylized, while the costumes are usually gorgeous.
Occasionally performed in such public halls as Tokyo’s National Noh Theater in the Shinjuku district, you can also sometimes see plays at Noh schools such as the Kanze Nohgakudo, in Tokyo’s Shibuya, the Kita Nohgakudo, in Tokyo’s Shinagawa, and the Umewaka Nohgakudo of the city’s Nakano. Noh is perhaps best appreciated, however, at open-air, torch-lit performances at temples.
Kabuki Theater is Japan’s secular classical drama, with vivid makeup, spectacular costumes and sets, plus dramatic action that includes sword-fighting, dancing, and even actors flying from the stage over the audience.
The best venue for Kabuki in Tokyo is the Kabuki-za in Ginza, which stages plays throughout the year. Also in Ginza is the Shimbashi Embujo, while the National Theatre of Japan near the Imperial Palace occasionally hosts touring companies.
Bunraku is an elaborate form of puppet theater in which three-quarter-lifesize wooden and porcelain figures are manipulated by three puppeteers working in tandem. With narration provided by formally clad masters and Shamisen accompaniment, Bunraku is an exotic and picturesque experience.
Although Osaka is the spiritual center of Bunraku, performances are sometimes scheduled at the Small Hall of Tokyo’s National Theatre.
Among its indigenous arts, few are more typically Japanese than Ikebana, or the art of flower arranging. Closely related with the Zen Buddhist art of the tea ceremony, Ikebana emphasizes simplicity and precision of form and aims at symbolizing aspects of nature. There are numerous schools teaching Ikebana, many of which offer instruction in English.
The art of tea, or Chanoyu, is an aesthetic cult of spiritual refinement that was originally very popular among the ruling samurai. Today, you can see demonstrations of Chanoyu at some of the major schools, and occasionally in hotels and department stores.
Sports of all kinds enjoy great popularity in Japan. And, in its various martial arts, Japan has contributed several major sports to the world.
Among home-grown sports, none represents Japan’s national feeling as much as Sumo, a form of wrestling which originally was practiced during festivals and on holy days at Shinto shrines. Consisting of a single dirt ring in which two ––often enormous–– men meet, a Sumo match is won when one wrestler forces the other from the ring or to the ground. Sumo involves intricate rules and an entire vocabulary of holds, thrusts and strategies that its devotees delight in debating.
Judo is an art of self defense which was born in Japan and now enjoys popularity among devotees internationally. Based on principles of leverage and using an opponent’s strength to one’s own advantage, Judo is now an Olympic medal event. The Kodokan training center in Tokyo is a good place to see Judo pupils training, as well as occasional exhibition bouts by experts.
Kendo is a form of fencing in which opponents clad in heavy cotton padding and lacquered armor assail one another with bamboo swords. The Nippon Budokan Hall in Tokyo is a good place to observe Kendo students.
Karate, a form of weaponless combat, was developed by Okinawan peasants whom their mainland rulers forebode from carrying arms. Trained in the concentration of energy into blows of the hand or foot, a Karate expert can break through a thick stack of bricks or wood with a single stroke. Go to the Japan Karate Association in Tokyo to watch trainees practice.
Aikido is another martial art based on concentrating one’s energy, as well as taking advantage of an opponent’s strength. Aikido is especially valued among its followers as a way of maintaining and increasing physical fitness. The Aikikai is an Aikido center in Tokyo.
Japanese Archery is considered to be as much for individual spiritual refinement and the development of concentration as it is for competition. Long associated with the principles of Zen Buddhism, archery contests can sometimes be seen at temples.
Baseball is so popular in Japan that many fans are surprised to hear that Americans also consider it their “national sport.” Especially popular is the yearly series of games held among the nation’s senior high-school teams, which fans nationwide follow with near-fanatical zeal. Professional baseball is well developed, with twelve teams being sponsored by major corporations. In Tokyo, the place to see a game is at the Korakuen “Big-dome” stadium.
Golf is another wildly popular Japanese sport. There are many first-class golf courses in the countryside near all the major cities, and within the cities themselves, numerous driving ranges for the country’s millions of enthusiastic golfers.
Angling has many fans in Japan, and in fact the fresh water rivers and lakes are often stocked by nationally developed fish farms. Due to the varied nature of its coast, however, offshore and deep sea fishing requires greater expertise and more specialized gear than does fresh water angling.
Swimming is a readily available leisure activity in Japan, with all cities having many public as well as private pools. And of course the nation’s coastline is a popular summertime destination for water lovers.
Mountaineering is well-developed in the nation’s many mountain ranges, with the Japan Alps being a favorite destination of hikers and climbers.
Skiing is big business in Japan, with millions of skiers flocking in wintertime to the major resorts in the mountains of Honshu and Hokkaido. Skiing is so popular, in fact, that an indoor ski slope enables skiers to practice even in summer.
Skating is available in indoor rinks in the major cities, as well as at excellent outdoor facilities in wintertime in the north and Hokkaido.
Tennis enjoys great popularity, especially among young people, and the country’s many private tennis clubs are well attended. There are also plentiful public courts, while many first-rate hotels will often have their own courts.
Where to Drink
No drinking visitor need go thirsty in Japan. In addition to western-style bars in the cities, there are many traditional drinking spots.
Yakitori-ya are small restaurants featuring grilled chicken on skewers that are washed down with beer and sake. Reasonably to low priced.
Karaoke bars are those with recorded music in which patrons practice the national craze of pretending to be Frank Sinatra for a few brief moments. In Karaoke bars, everyone is expected to sing.
Akachochin literally means “red lanterns,” which hang outside and identify these often tiny watering holes. In addition to beer and sake, Akachochin serve whiskey and other drinks, while also serving a la carte dishes.
In Tokyo, the best locations for a lively evening of good food, drink and entertainment are the foreign-centered district of Roppongi, the upscale and elegant Ginza, the sophisticated Akasaka, the youthful, crowded Shibuya, and the raunchy Kabukicho.
Discotheques are common and well-frequented in all major cities, particularly by young people. In Tokyo, Roppongi offers many high-class venues for adults, while Shibuya is a dancing mecca of the young.
Tokyo contains numerous small clubs which feature live entertainment, ranging from the energetically amateurish to the professionally polished. Certain clubs in the Akasaka district feature dinner theater with singers and topless dancers, while other clubs have attractive and attentive hostesses to chat with you between the acts of their shows. And for the traditionally minded, there are even venues where diners can enjoy performances of Japanese folk dancing beneath the thatched roof of an old country-style house.