Traditional and performing arts are an integral part of Japanese culture. Experiencing them will help us better understand Japanese aesthetic sensibilities and how they convey beauty and spirituality. Precision and attention to detail, as well as a strong interest in nature, both from a religious and aesthetic point of view, intertwine in several unique cultural manifestations. These forms of expression range from musical and theatrical performances to architecture and landscaping. And mostly they have a ritual component. On your next trip to Japan, don't miss the extraordinary world of traditional Japanese art for an unforgettable experience.
Timeless Noh culture on Sado Island
Noh is a traditional form of Japanese theater that originated between the 12th and 13th centuries. Typically, Noh plays are based on Japanese folk tales and often depict stories of love, loss, and the supernatural. Some of their distinguishing features include their use of masks, elaborate costumes, and highly stylized movements and gestures. And while this is a cultural art form found throughout Japan, Sado Island off the coast of Niigata Prefecture has a long and very special relationship with Noh culture.
Noh is perceived more as an elite art form developed to entertain the nobility, but its development in the sado was associated with local shrines and its popularity spread as entertainment for the common people. As a result, Noh became an integral part of the islanders' culture and, as such, was passed down from generation to generation. Today, Noh thrives on the island thanks to the numerous Noh theaters and also the many Noh schools where new generations continue to learn and develop this art. The tradition is kept alive with various Noh festivals and events held throughout the year on the island, attracting visitors from across Japan and beyond.
A key component in maintaining this culture is the openness of practitioners to adapting Noh to modern times. Traditional Noh plays can also mix with a variety of theatrical, musical and dance performances, allowing Noh to breathe and evolve with the times and its people. A great example is Earth Celebration, a vibrant and exciting annual arts and culture festival organized by Kodo, a world-renowned taiko group based on Sado Island. Since 1988, Celebration of the Earth has featured a three-day cultural explosion of musical and cultural performances across many of the island's Noh stages, celebrating nature, the land, the local Sado culture and its cultural connections around the world. With its 35 years of history, this festival is one of the biggest cultural and music events in Japan.
Mountain Service at Dewa Sanza
Japan's sacred mountains of Dewa Sanzan, or "Three Mountains of Dewa" in Yamagata Prefecture, are a mystical and peaceful destination where ancient spiritual practices intertwine with a deep connection and reverence for nature. These three peaks, Hagurosan, Gassan and Yudonosan, each symbolizing birth, death and rebirth, have been worshiped for over a thousand years by the Yamabushi, ascetic mountain hermits who embark on spiritual quests to deepen their enlightenment.
Visitors looking for an immersive experience at Dewa Sanzan will find that staying in Shukubo temple accommodation offers an experience like no other. These Buddhist temple lodges are not just a resting place for pilgrims, but a gateway to another world; one of morning prayers, ascetic training and nutritious vegetarian meals according to Buddhist teachings and practices. A peaceful atmosphere surrounded by the beauty of nature makes a Shokubo experience the perfect environment in which to pursue spiritual growth.
However, Yamabushi practices encompass more than just Buddhism. Their religion, Shugendo, is an ancient form of mountain worship that combines Buddhism with Shintoism and Taoism. They believe in the power of nature and the role it plays in the quest for spiritual upliftment. Their practices involve performing rituals in the forests and rivers that surround the mountains as part of a spiritual journey. In this way, the Dewa Sanzan pilgrimage serves the purpose of self-renewal or rebirth and communion with the spirits of nature. One of the most unique aspects of Yamabushi is the fire rituals, as fire is believed to purify the body, mind and spirit. A mesmerizing show where ascetic monks swirl fire in their hands and chant mantras while meditating. Shugendo practices are demanding. This often includes long periods of fasting, meditating in the cold or even under icy waterfalls, or sleeping on mattresses of branches. Seemingly extreme acts from an external point of view, but a sacrifice worth making in exchange for enlightenment.
Regardless of age or background, anyone can attain Yamabushi status. The journey begins with the week-long Akinomine Autumn Peak Ritual. An ancient rite of passage that is kept secret but involves more than just physical endurance and meditation. It is a test of one's spirit as the initiate must navigate the dark and sacred paths of the mountains and seek their divine guidance. Those who complete the ritual can become certified Yamabushi, and many repeat the same ritual every year to forge their lifelong spiritual journey.
Geiko and Maiko, an integral part of some of Japan's best-known traditional neighborhoods
Geisha are traditional Japanese performers who have spent years training and mastering a wide variety of music, dance, and conversational arts. In Kyoto they are known as Geiko while in Ishikawa and Niigata they are called Geigi. The Maiko are young apprentices aged between 15 and 20 who are still in training. These artists are typically associated with the ancient neighborhoods of Gion and Nichinenzaka in Kyoto, Higashi Chaya in Kanazawa and Furumachi in Niigata, known for their historic streets and traditional wooden buildings.
Walking through these neighborhoods, it is common to see geiko/geigi or maiko coming and going between teahouses or to and from private performances. We can distinguish the young maiko from her more professional counterparts by her longer, more colorful kimonos, adorned with intricate patterns and designs, as well as her attractive hair accessories. Their flashy appearance is meant to make up for their lack of experience, which is why professionally established geiko, in contrast, wear more subtle clothing and more understated ornaments to show maturity and rely on sheer skill over appearance.
When one thinks of traditional Japanese cityscapes, one of the most commonly conjured up conjurations is the sight of these beautiful and gracefully ornate geiko, geigi or maiko, walking silently through the narrow, winding streets and old wooden buildings of these historic neighborhoods, where the timeless quality of old and new shops and restaurants evokes a sense of history and cultural heritage.
Gion e Ninenzaka
Gion in particular is famous for its narrow cobbled streets and traditional houses that once housed merchants and artisans. Today, many of these homes have been converted into restaurants, teahouses and other businesses catering to tourists and locals alike. The area is also known for its many shrines and temples surrounded by trees and gardens, offering a peaceful retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city. Ninenzaka, on the other hand, is known for its steep and winding streets that lead to Kiyomizu Temple. This temple, one of the most famous in Kyoto, is built on a hill and offers breathtaking views of the city and surrounding mountains.
Higashi Chaya in Kanazawa is another historic district where its narrow streets lined with traditional wooden machiya houses come alive with charming teahouses and old historic facilities. In these places, Maiko and Geigi can present traditional arts to visitors. You'll also find a variety of craft shops and traditional restaurants nearby, reflecting Kanazawa's rich cultural history.
Furumachi Geigi of Niigata is the name by which Niigata geisha are traditionally known. The Furumachi district was one of the most famous entertainment districts in Japan during the Edo period. And although today it is mainly a business and commercial area, the atmosphere of the old city remains in its streets. In addition to regular performances in traditional settings, the beautiful Niigata Saito Villa hosts geigi performances in the unforgettable setting of a beautiful Japanese-style garden.
Gardens, the soul of traditional Japanese aesthetics
Few places have taken the joy of their surroundings to such refined levels as Japan with the refinement of its landscaping. Whether for recreational or spiritual purposes, the variety of design elements intended to represent nature or convey different feelings make any visit to a Japanese garden a unique experience and an excellent opportunity to learn about the history and traditional aesthetics behind each location. The following are some of the finest examples of artistic beauty in Japanese landscaping:
The Korakuen Garden in Okayama is an excellent example of a Japanese garden. It was built at the end of the 17th century by a feudal lord as a place of leisure and entertainment for his guests right in front of Okayama Castle. The garden features a large lake with several streams and pedestrian paths, as well as a hill that serves as a viewpoint to enjoy the landscape in general. One of the most notable features of Korakuen Gardens is its use of "borrowed landscapes", in which views of the surrounding landscape are incorporated into the garden's design. In this case, the imposing grandeur of nearby Okayama Castle contrasts with the garden as a beautifully designed structure that also served defensive purposes.
the coconut garden
The Kokoen Gardens in Himeji are an outstanding example of combining a Japanese garden with a palace; in this case, Himeji Castle. However, despite its appearance as a historic garden, it is a series of nine separate gardens that were built based on design features of historic gardens from the Edo period, just 31 years ago. It masterfully combines all the elements we would expect from a historic garden, such as a pond with a waterfall, flower gardens, bamboo gardens and a tea house, among others. From these gardens we can also enjoy a privileged view of Himeji Castle, considered one of the best examples of Japanese castle architecture and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Adachi Museum of Art Japanese Gardens
The Japanese Gardens at the Adachi Museum of Art in Yasugi, Shimane Prefecture are the absolute best highlights of the museum. Since its founding in 1970, the museum's garden design has been ranked among the best Japanese gardens internationally. It surrounds the museum building and includes a variety of different styles, including a moss garden, a dry garden, and a white gravel and pine garden. Unfortunately, the garden cannot be accessed, but its views can be enjoyed from the museum building as the seasons change.