Japan - Culture
Until the 19th century, the main influences on Japanese art came from China and Korea, but a distinct Japanese aesthetic was present from early on. There is a fascination with the ephemeral (such as in ikebana, the art of flower arrangement), with the unadorned, and with forms that echo the randomness of nature. A gift for caricature is also present, from early Zen ink paintings right up to the manga (comics) of contemporary Japan. There is a wildness and passion and an interest in the grotesque or the bizarre visible in many works, from Buddhist scrolls depicting the horrors of hell to the highly stylised renderings of body parts in the wood-block prints of the Edo period.
The Japanese aesthetic is writ large in its architecture, from graceful Shintō shrines and Buddhist temples, to elaborate castles and practical gossamer-thin houses (built to keep cool in summer and to crumple lightly in earthquakes). Precise physical composition is also evident in Japanese gardens, meticulously planned no matter how haphazard they may look. The two most famous Japanese performance traditions are kabuki (melodramatic, spectacular theatre) and nō (formal, masked theatre), both of which can be seen in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. Ancient Japanese gagaku uses drums and Japanese instruments resembling the lute, plucked zither, oboe and flute. Pop music is massive in Japan: indigenous groups usually feature a gorgeous lead singer of irrelevant talents. Girl punk groups have recently been getting a good airing in the hungry world of indie music.
Much of Japan's early literature was written by women, as men wrote in Chinese characters while women, who were denied the educational resources to learn Chinese, wrote in Japanese script (hiragana). Thus, while men were busy copying Chinese styles and texts, women were producing the first authentic Japanese literature. Among these early female authors is Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote one of Japan's most important works of literature, The Tale of Genji, about the intrigues of early Japanese court life. The revered poet Matsuo Basho perfected just-so haiku poetry in the 17th century. More modern literati include controversial Yukio Mishima, provocative Murakami Ryu and cool cat Banana Yoshimoto.
Set aside several years if you want to learn to read Japanese. Japan has one of the most complex writing systems in the world, using three different scripts (four if you include the increasingly used Roman script romaji). Fortunately, for visitors to Japan, it's not all bad news. Unlike other Asian languages, Japanese is not tonal and the pronunciation system is fairly easy to master. In fact, with a little effort, getting together a repertoire of travellers' phrases should be no trouble - the only problem will be understanding what people say back to you.
Shintō (the native religion of Japan), Buddhism (a much-travelled foreign import originating in India), Confucianism (a Chinese import that is less a religion than a code of ethics), Taoism and even Christianity all play a role in contemporary Japanese social life, and are defining in some way of the Japanese world view. Religions, for the most part, are not exclusive of each other. Shintō grew out of an awe for manifestations of nature such as sun, water, rocks, trees and even sounds. All such natural features were felt to have their god, and shrines were erected in particularly sacred spots. Many Shintō beliefs were incorporated into Japanese Buddhist practices after Buddhism was introduced in the 6th century.
Eating is half the fun of being in Japan, and the adventurous eater will be delighted to know that Japanese food is far more than the sushi, tempura and sukiyaki for which it is best known in other countries. With the exception of shokudō (all-round eateries) and izakaya (the equivalent of a pub with meals), most Japanese restaurants specialise in one type of cuisine. In a cook-it-yourself okonomiyaki restaurant, diners choose a mixture of meat, seafood and vegetables to fry up in a cabbage and vegetable batter; a robatayaki is a rustic drinking restaurant specialising in charcoal grills. There are a variety of cook-at-your-table restaurants where you'll end up eating sukiyaki (thinly sliced beef, vegetables and tofu cooked in broth), shabu-shabu (beef and vegies cooked by swirling them in broth and then dipped in sauces) or nabemono (a participatory soup, with each diner dipping ingredients from trays of prepared raw food). It's possible to eat relatively cheaply by sticking to humble shokudō, or eating bentōs (boxed lunches) or teishoku (set meals) from cheaper restaurants or cafeteria-style places.
Drinking is the glue that holds Japanese society together. It is practised by almost every adult, male or female, and a good number of teenagers. Beer is the favourite tipple of the Japanese and it's dispensed everywhere from vending machines to temple lodgings. Sake (rice wine) is served warm or cold, with the warm stuff especially likely to go straight to your head. Sake hangovers are memorable, so drink carefully. Japanese green tea contains a lot of vitamin C and caffeine. It's very healthy and refreshing and is said by some to prevent cancer.