Japanese Cultural Experiences: From Sushi-Making to Tea Ceremony to Origami and Beyond

Lily Crossley-Baxter

Experiencing Japan on your travels should mean more than just taking pictures—here’s how you can try some of the traditional crafts first hand in Tokyo

Japanese Cultural Experiences:
Photo by Tommy C used under CC

If you don’t have friends in the right places, it can be hard to get hands-on experience of some of the traditions Japan is famous for. Many tour groups and sites offer packages, but if it doesn’t fit with your schedule, you’re on your own or just don’t like the look of the prices, you can try some direct connections to organize your own Japanese cultural experiences:

 Bonsai | 盆栽

Bonsai
Photo by Raita used under CC

High up there on the list of Zen traditions, the art of bonsai trees might not be one you expected to try out yourself when you’re here. You would be as wrong as the trees are small though—there is one great place to try your hand at it on a Sunday afternoon. Shunkaen Bonsai Museum in Edogawa in Tokyo is more like a traditional Japanese home than a museum, and is filled with prints, books and of course real-life examples of bonsai. The house has its own school, with students caring for the many trees alongside the master, Kunio Kobaysahi. He runs any class you may wish to take, as he has 30 years of bonsai experience. Classes are every Sunday with some in English, costing ¥3,000. You must purchase a tree from the school though, as you cannot bring your own. Alternatively, if you live here you can attend weekly classes as well!


Shodo | 書道

Shodo Calligraphy
Photo by ot0rip 604 used under CC

The restful art of calligraphy is a well-known tradition, and is popular for visitors as well as long-termers, as it can be started quite quickly. In Roppongi, the Calligraphy Art Class teaches the principles of calligraphy and allows you to create various pieces yourself, slowly perfecting your skill. Classes run on Mondays and Fridays and follow a 6- or 12-lesson schedule, but you can drop into a class for ¥4,000 per person including everything you need to get started. There are also interpreters at every class. Alternatively Hisui Tokyo in Ginza offers a calligraphy introduction too. This calligraphy class in Shinjuku and Shibuya offers a souvenir to take home once finished, along with a master to teach your class and a history of the art, plus explanations of the characters and meaning. Classes cost between ¥3,000 and ¥5,000 per person depending on what you wish to use (board, fan or scroll) and take between 90 and 120 minutes.


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Martial arts

Kyudo Archery
Photo by Ignat Gorazd used under CC

While most people may have tried karate as kids, there’s nothing like learning a martial art in the home of Zen. From kyudo (archery) to aikido, there are plenty of different arts to try, some you may be familiar with and some less so. Compared to arts like ikebana and printing, martial arts are a little less likely to offer one-off classes, but they can still be found.

Keep an eye on the MIFA page as they often have classes in kyudo and karate as well as aikido at very reasonable prices. The Tokyo Budokan has a great kyudo range which can be used under the supervision of an instructor or alone of you hold the relevant certifications. If you are here for a while and wish to learn judo, you could attend one of the 6-day summer courses at the Kodokan. To try bujutsu (budo) try the Aunkai school where your first lesson is free if you reserve. Women’s karate lessons are available with a trial lesson at the Yomiuri Center in Yokohama on Saturday afternoons, but email ahead to check availability. Hisui Tokyo also offer introduction courses to batto (a sword-drawing art).

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Ikebana | 生け花

ikebana flower arranging
Photo by Nullumayulife used under CC

One of the most relaxing traditional crafts, ikebana is the art of flower arranging, and there are three main schools. You can try the Sogetsu style here: with an introductory lesson from ¥3,240 per person. The classes last 60-90 minutes and include everything you will need. You can attend at 10am, 2pm and 6pm on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Tuesdays of each month, with a few exceptions for holidays. If you want more than one class, it might be better to attend the Ohara school where the initial class is ¥4,000, but subsequent ones are ¥2,500. If you attend the Meguro International Friendship Association, you can learn from the three schools and be taught by local residents. The class costs ¥1,500 including flowers and  requires a reservation.  They also run tea ceremony, cooking and go classes!


Tea Ceremony | 茶道

Photo by Akuppa John Wigham used under CC

A time-honored tradition in Japan, the delicate process of preparing and serving the delicious matcha and wagashi is a sight to behold. Due to the formality, the ceremonies can take a few hours and taking part can be pricey. There are some shorter versions you can attend however, like at Kyoto-kan in Tokyo Station for only ¥500 per person. For a more in-depth experience, you could try Coredo Muromachi which is an hour long at ¥5,500. If you happen to be in Tokyo in October, you can head to Hamarikyu Gardens where they hold a Grand Tea Ceremony with some conducted in English during the day.


Wadaiko | 太鼓

Half music half workout, taiko drumming is an intense skill often used in festivals and celebrations. With dance-like movements and incredible strength, drummers perform highly rhythmic patterns which differ between schools. You can try a 60-minute class at Taiko Lab in Aoyama or Asakusa for ¥5,000 per person, with capacity for up to 150 and classes in English in their purpose-built practice rooms. There you can enjoy learning the different rhythms and see demonstrations from the teachers. They also have studios in Kyoto and Osaka in case that fits in with your planning better. Alternatively you can try the classes at WAKON in Ryougoku, where you can try a lesson for ¥3,000  or pay ¥10,000 for unlimited lessons per month.


Sushi-Making

Sushi
Photo by Yusuke Kawasaki used under CC

Since Japanese food is one of the main joys of traveling here, being able to take home some skills of your own can be a great bonus. Although sushi preparation is a carefully honed art, taking years to perfect, you can learn some of the tricks of home cooking on your travels without breaking the bank. For a personal touch, classes with Yuka, publisher of cookbooks and familiar face from TV cooking shows, are around ¥8,000 for a sushi and miso soup class. The lessons take place at her home and have flexible starting times as well as a variety of menu options if you’re not so into sushi. For some very instagrammable and delicious creations you can try Tokyo Kitchen, they have options for vegetarian and gluten-free menus as well.  If you’re near Tsukiji, there are classes and tours offered with combined or separately starting at ¥6,500 by Tsukiji Cooking and we also have this article with a few more suggestions around Tokyo.




Origami | 折り紙

Origami
Photo by Andrew Crump used under CC

Probably the most famous craft of Japan, origami is the intricate art of folding paper and is well known across the world. Although it may seem like you can make a crane from the back-panel instructions of your pretty origami paper from Daiso, there’s a lot more to it. To learn the craft from professionals and increase your complexity you can head to the Origami Kaikan for 15-minute lessons or a full hour with reservation. There’s also the Nippon Origami Museum at Narita Airport if you’re nearby which has an origami theme park (who knows) and a crane so small it has to be viewed under a microscope! We have this article if you want to know more.


Wood-Block Printing | 浮世絵

woodblock printing
Photo by Women's Studio Workshop used under CC

The traditional art of woodblock printing is one of the most revered in the art world, and there are countless stunning ukiyo-e prints you will surely recognize, from Hokusai’s the Great Wave to Kyosai’s Tiger, they are incredible demonstrations of skill and precision. For classes taught by a seasoned master, you can learn from Motoharu Asaka who has been studying the art for decades, with exhibitions and awarded the certificate of traditional craftsman. Holding classes with an interpreter for visitors each Wednesday you can attend a single session for ¥6,000 and learn a series of techniques using his own carvings, or a double session where you can carve and print your own design. Check here for more information on sessions and for Asaka’s impressive biography. For a more family-friendly option there is the Mokuhankan school in Asakusa run by Tokyo printmaker David Bull. Here they offer relaxed print parties for groups or individuals at ¥2,000 each, then an additional ¥1,500 per person, or a flat rate of ¥4,000 for two adults and up to three children.

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