You might be preparing a trip to Japan or simply be passionate about the Country of the Rising Sun, what is certain is that Japan will always surprise you.
Did you know that Japanese was the 9th most spoken language in the world? The native tongue of almost 130 million people counts no less than 3 different alphabets: hiragana, katakana and kanji.
While learning Japanese will be absolutely necessary if you intend to be living in Japan, just knowing a few words and maybe sentences will be more than enough if you are just going there as a tourist.
Let's go and find out more about the Japanese literature classics, the delicacies of the country or its best-animated movies.
The Best Japanese Novels to Learn About the Culture of Japan
Japan, mostly known for its manga and maybe its haikus (short poems), has long been overlooked when it came to it literary scene.
Often shadowed by British, French and American great writers, Japan only received two Nobel Prices of Literature since 1901 (11 for the U.K.).
Nonetheless, Japanese novels are absolutely worth a read. Japanese writing style is known for focusing on action and adventure rather than lengthy descriptions.
Japanese writers also often convey a critical message on the social state of our modern societies while developing complex characters and interesting plots.
In the U.K., and because of the difficulty to translate the Japanese language, only the best novels or short stories make it to your bookstores, pre-screening for you the best of the best.
A few examples of those are:
- Hiroshima notes, by Ōe Kenzaburō, 1996
- Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Murakami Haruki, 2013
- The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, by Mishima Yukio, 1956
- The Last Shogun: The Life of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, by Shiba Ryotaro, 1967
- Dream Flower, by Higashino Keigo, 2013
Also check, Kafka on the shore, Seventeen, Norwegian Wood or The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea.
Japanese novels will bring you to a whole new world and quickly you will most likely read all Murakami's book.
The must-try Traditional Japanese Cuisine.
Books are not the only thing you can eagerly devour in Japan, the food there is great too!
The History of Japan is also the History of washoku, the traditional Japanese cuisine. Despite the Japanese food wave and crave that arrived in the U.K. through the U.S., for a long time in Europe, Japanese food has been reduced to sushi. But it's much more than that.
The precision, passion and craft that Japanese chefs put in every dishes is something no short of art. It is probably for that reason and because of it historically rich past that traditional Japanese food has been on UNESCO's List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity since 2013.
The Japanese diet is one of the healthiest on the planet with a perfect balance of fish, vegetables, soups and rice.
A classic Japanese meal is traditionally made of one soup and three dishes. Those dishes are often seasoned with soya sauce and wasabi.
Here are the 10 Japanese dishes you must try:
- Miso soup: this traditional Japanese dish is the centre of Japanese cuisine. It has been eaten through Japanese History by peasants and nobles alike. Made of fermented soybeans, salt and kojikin (rice fungus), the miso paste is used to make a soup. Often added to it you will often find vegetables and tofu, all depending on the season.
- Yakitoris: those traditional chicken skewers became part of everyday meals after WWII when a constant a cheap supply of chicken appeared. Long considered a delicacy, today they are enjoyed by everyone, especially the "salaryman" (white collar workers) who often have them along their beers after work.
- Takoyaki: a speciality of Osaka, these octopus balls are usually seasoned with pickled ginger and green onions. Crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, takoyaki is a food delicacy that you should absolutely try. If you are in Osaka do not forget to check the best takoyaki restaurants.
- Onigiri: triangle shaped rice cakes, these tasty snacks are often filled with fish or vegetables and wrapped with nori (dried seaweed).
- Gyozas: Originating from China, those dumplings are a staple of Japanese food. They can be filled with meat, fish or vegetables and be fried or steamed.
- Okonomiyaki: these are Japanese style savoury pancakes usually layered and containing many ingredients such as cabbage, pork, squid, octopus, cheese and of course the batter.
- Tayakis: these are little fish-shaped cakes made using waffle batter and filled with sweet red bean paste, chocolate or even cream. They're very popular all over Japan and especially during some festivals.
- Mochis: those little sweets are made using glutinous rice paste. The origins of the dish got lost in legends and tales but today it is mainly enjoyed during the celebration of New Year. If you have a sweet tooth, check the best sweet treats spots in Tokyo.
- Sushi: not as popular in Japan as they are in Europe, sushis are often reserved for special occasions and are considered to be a luxury food in Japan. Made of a vinegared-rice ball topped with a slice of raw fish (sashimi), they are often eaten in a single bite.
- Fugu: the famous fish that can kill you if not prepared properly is the only food that the Emperor of Japan is forbidden by law to eat. It has been consumed in Japan for centuries and was at time outlawed. Today it constitutes a pricey delicacy and a highly regulated trade. Indeed Japanese chefs need to follow a two to three-year apprenticeship before obtaining an official licence to prepare and sell fugu. Only 35% of applicants pass.
If going through Kyoto, the former Imperial capital, do not miss on trying Kaiseki ryori, this multi-course meal that embodies the perfection Japanese chefs are always seeking.
If you like street food and the smells of tasty dishes in the air, head to Fukuoka on the Kyushu island, the city is famed for its many street vendors.
Sake and tea are also a central part of the Japanese food culture and one's experience of Japan would not be complete without assisting to a tea ceremony.
But many more dishes should be on your list. Each region or even city will have a speciality or a variant of a traditional dish, which makes it impossible, to sum up Japanese cuisine and maybe impossible to try every Japanese dishes, but you can always try. One thing is for sure: you will never go hungry between two sightseeing sessions.
Despite the American occupation following the war and the assimilation of parts of the American culture by Japanese people, the country's food cuisine is more popular than ever and the equivalent of fast food for a Japanese person would be some yummy soba.
Tips: in Japan eating while walking in public is considered bad etiquette and should be avoided. Same goes for eating in sacred places such as Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples. Exceptions are festivals.
Should you get a Tattoo in Japan?
In the traditional society that Japan is, tattoos are frown upon maybe more than anywhere else in the world.
Originally used as a punishment, tattoos were for a very long time the mark of the yakuza (Japanese mobsters) who would proudly wear them.
Outlawed after the Meiji restoration, tattoos were legalised again after World War II but more recently a court ruling made it mandatory for Japanese tattoo artists to possess a medical licence to perform their trade. Obviously, the ruling was appealed and the final verdict is still expected.
Traditional Japanese tattoo is called irezumi and usually cover parts of the body (arms, back, legs) or in its entirety.
This tattooing style, mainly influenced by Chinese woodblock prints, can be costly. Because of the use of bamboo needles rather than electrical tattoo gun, the process is quite long and more painful than modern tattoos. Some of these traditional tattoos are said to have cost up to £25,000.
Even finding a traditional tattoo artist may prove daunting and having a few Japanese (tattooed) friends will come in handy.
Of course, finding friends is easier if you speak Japanese - so why not search for online Japanese course?
Many motives have a specific meaning:
- The koi fish symbolises courage.
- The cherry blossom represents the ephemeral nature of life.
- The chrysanthemum is a symbol of determination.
- The peony is linked to wealth.
- The dragon is associated with generosity and wisdom.
- The Oni demon mask is used for protection
- The lotus flower is a symbol of knowledge and understanding.
- The snake keeps illness away.
- The phoenix represents immortality and renewal.
- The geisha is a symbol of beauty and elegance.
- The samurai symbolises honour and loyalty.
- The tiger brings strength and longevity.
- The Baku, a creature of legends and tales feeding on nightmares, is used as protection against bad spirits.
The younger generation is growing more appreciative of the art of tattooing and breaking away from the strict traditional taboo and stereotypes that was involved with tattoos. The culture of Japan is changing, at its own pace.
The Best Japanese Animation Movies
If you fancy learning Japanese, watching animation movies or anime will probably be the most entertaining way to do it.
On top of its extensive pop-culture, video games, martial arts and much more, the animation movies are a big part of Japanese culture.
Even if you're not a fan of the classic American animation movies, their Japanese equivalent are often aimed at a more adult crowd.
Some of their best work includes :
- Castle in the sky, 1986
- My Neighbor Totoro, 1988
- Kiki's Delivery Service, 1989
- Princess Mononoke, 1997
- Howl's Moving Castle, 2004
- Ponyo, 2008
- The Wind Rises, 2013
The work of Miyazaki is often politically engaged, and his movies are characterized by themes such as pacifism, environmentalism, love and family. The central spot that the Japanese women have in his work let transpire a deep feminism, a rare thing in Japanese culture. The plots of his movies are also known to go beyond the hero versus villain narrative.
Miyazaki might be one of the most famous animation movie directors in Japan, but his work is only a small part of what this industry has to offer. If you would like to complete your Japanese culture knowledge, or maybe improve your language skills, these are some of the best animations movies you could watch:
- Graves of the fireflies, Nosaka Akiyuki, 1988
- The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Hosoda Mamoru, 2006
- Perfect Blue, Ikumi Masahiro, 1997
- 5 Centimetres Per Second, Shinkai Makoto, 2007
- The Cats Return, Morita Hiroyuki, 2002
- My Neigbors the Yamadas, Takahata Isao, 1999
- The Secret World of Arrietty, Yonebayashi Hiromasa, 2010
- Akira, Yamashiro Shoji, 1988
- Ghost in the Shell, Oshii Mamoru, 1995
- Summer Wars, Hosoda Mamoru, 2009
- Pom Poko, Suzuki Toshio, 1994
- Wolf Children, Hosoda Mamoru, 2012
- Paprika, Hirasawa Susumu, 2006
Mangas, the Japanese comic books, are often the origin of many animation movies and is also an excellent way to discover Japan's vast culture.
Do not forget to take Japanese lessons before your leave.
Japanese Society: A Unique Culture
We only mentioned a few aspects of Japanese culture and arts but the country has much more to offer. Just walking down the street in Japan is an experience in itself.
Should you make your way to the Land of the Rising Sun, do not forget to visit some amazing sites such as Osaka's Castle or take a dip in its many traditional hot spring baths, the famous onsens.
But as you travel through the biggest cities in the country, you will quickly realise that Japanese society is very codified and to know a bit about Japan's traditions and culture will help you navigate these codes much more easily and make your trip even better. Avoiding the culture shock is always best.
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