While picking up a traditional Japanese hobby or craft is fun in itself, many have an added benefit of expanding your mind into new ways of understanding. Many Japanese arts are based on concepts foreign to other parts of the world, and trying them out can help you not only grow as a person, but understand Japanese culture much better.
Legend has it that kintsugi was created when a Japanese shogun sent a damaged Chinese bowl back to China for repairs. To the disappointment of the shogun, the craftsman “fixed” the piece with ugly metal staples. Local craftsman thought they could do better, and set about finding better ways to repair damaged lacquerware. In time, their innovations lead to what became known as kintsugi, which repairs damage using gold bonded to resin to fill in the cracks.
This traditional Japanese craft treats breaks as part of the object’s history instead of something to be disguised, accepting and respecting life’s changes by turning them into something beautiful. Ancient collectors were thought to have been so impressed by the new technique that they began smashing ceramics on purpose so they could be repaired.
Taiko drums are classical Japanese drums often used during kabuki plays, festivals, and shrine performances. While they are still used traditionally, nowadays the taiko performance itself is usually the main attraction. Taiko organizations flourish throughout Japan and even abroad. They have an especially strong presence in North America, Brazil, and Australia. I haven’t ever tried taiko myself, but a few friends are really into it. There is a great sense of community among members. If you are in Japan, joining a taiko group is a great chance to get involved with native Japanese.
Beware, though, since taiko can be very physically demanding. The kata (forms) are very important and must be practiced until perfected. The focus on repeating something until mastered is a reflection of the Japanese way of learning. Western education emphasises experimentation at all levels in order to “find your way.” But Japanese education has a mindset of “only once you know the rules, can you break them.” And. Not. Before. Sometimes, not even after.
I made that sound negative, but this type of learning also involves Zen. With many traditional Japanese arts, there is a belief that your mind and body must learn each action until you can do them without conscious thought. Only then can you truly perform, enhancing each movement to its highest and purest expression.
Japanese woodblock printing was made famous by the ukiyo-e paintings of the Edo period. In the 18th century, western printing came to Japan. The technology was easier-to-use than Japanese printing processes at the time and caused an explosion in woodblock printing. Like many new technologies, however, one of the first industries to pick it up was pornography. There was a flood of erotic woodblock prints, which led to the art form gaining a decadent and unscrupulous reputation. Not only that, but there were millions of prints being made every year. There became so common they had almost no value.
Ironically, this was why they later became so revered as works of art. The artist Monet came across some Japanese prints being used as wrapping paper in Europe. Fascinated by their use of color and space, he became an avid collector. The style used by the masters of Japanese woodblock prints became a strong influence on his own works. Having the respect of one of history’s greatest artists, its reputation in Europe grew and the traditional craft was rediscovered.
Visitors to larger cities in Japan can take a Japanese woodblock printing class to experience the art themselves. One of the most famous studios is Mokuhankan. It grew famous in the gaming world for its Ukiyo-e Heroes line, which put popular video game characters in traditional style prints.
Bonsai has gone through many stages over the years, but the art as we know it became popular during the Meiji period. The Meiji emperor was a bonsai fanatic, so much so that government officials who did not share his love for the little trees soon fell out of favor. But aside from once being an necessity for political security, the trees are one of the best expressions of wabi sabi.
Wabi sabi is a Japanese art aesthetic based around an ageing world in constant flux. Pieces have no single aspect to attract the eye, so the viewer can appreciate their countless minor details.
Bonsai is also an excellent example of traditional Japan’s relationship with nature. It is a fine balance between constraining nature in order to bring out its beauty. The tiny potted trees are anything but natural. Every aspect of their appearance, from their size to their growth, is finely-controlled by the grower. Nevertheless, the final product does not appear forced, but brings out the potential beauty of the tree with the deft guidance of the human hand.
Bonsai, of course, is a long-term craft inaccessible to short-term visitors. But if you do intend to stay in Japan for a length of time, or can find some bonsai resources where you live, it’s a much more accessible hobby than people believe. In my hometown there was once a guy selling bonsai for hundreds of dollars. While there are bonsai in that price range, the majority of trees are much cheaper. Outside Japan you can generally get one for less than $40 USD. In Japan they are even cheaper.
Ikebana follows the same principles as bonsai. Both are based on the wabi sabi aesthetic, where nature and humanity are intertwined into art. Ikebana, though, goes a step further and tries to bring out features that are sometimes otherwise overlooked by viewers. The focus is not so much to make things look beautiful as to create an interaction between the work and the viewer. It’s maybe best explained in an old story about Rikkyu, an ancient tea ceremony master’s, display:
The leader of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, once expressed his desire to have a tea ceremony while overlooking Rikkyu’s famed morning glories in his garden. The master accepted, but when Hideyoshi arrived he found that all the flowers had been cut down. Instead, Rikkyu had placed a single morning glory inside his tea house. The one flower forced Hideyoshi to reflect on the singular beauty of the flower, letting him appreciate it in ways that would have been impossible had there been dozens more.
Since Ikebana is one of the most popular art forms in Japan, classes are available everywhere. Recently, some are focusing more on the appearance of the arrangement than traditionally, so if you take a class, you may want to ask if they adhere to traditional styles.
Kanzashi are hair ornaments used by geisha. Making them is a craft stretching back to the very beginnings of Japan, though they only came into wider use during the Edo period. (Some were even used as readily-available weapons.) Geisha once used them to designate rank, but nowadays less flamboyant kanzashi are worn by anyone wanting to add some flair to their style. Their creation, tsumami kanzashi, has been designated a traditional Japanese handicraft by the Japanese government.
Becoming an officially designated master–of which there are only five living–takes 5 to 10 years. Fortunately for us, there are classes by independent kanzashi creators throughout Japan. Even if you can’t find any classes, there are plenty of books (many in English) about how to make them at home. Tsumami kanzashi has many styles, from turtleshell combs to silk flowers. The most intricate require a lot of time, effort, and materials to learn, but the majority are easily picked up by beginners.
With science telling us that mindfulness meditation can physically change the brain to improve things like mood, concentration, and anxiety, it’s become more mainstream in recent years. Zazen is one form of mindfulness meditation particularly prevalent in Japan. The meaning and practice of “zazen” varies from school to school, but it is essentially “no mind,” which in terms of meditation means letting your thoughts pass by you without dwelling on them.
While I personally don’t practice meditation in any spiritual sense, I do consider it a great tool for improving mental and physical health. There are plenty or organizations both in Japan and out that teach zazen and other methods of mindfulness meditation. It’s surprisingly easy to pick up and the benefits are quick to appear. Even if you can’t stand to sit still for more than five minutes, there is also “walking meditation,” which you can put into practice on strolls around the neighborhood.
There are many different schools of Japanese pottery. Some variations of the traditional craft are quite elegant and sophisticated, but most are known for their simple, wabi sabi influenced designs. Pieces are rustic and riddled with irregularities. These irregularities are not mistakes, but the very essence of the craft. Like in bonsai, uniformity is looked down upon because there would be nothing to catch the eye. The imperfections capture the randomness of nature that make the piece beautiful and unique.
Some traditional schools of Japanese pottery use anagama style kilns, an ancient type of kiln that forces ash up into the pottery’s holding area. The proliferation of the ash results in random patterns depending on the placement of works within the kiln. The potter has no control over the end result, nor does he want any. The process takes days of hard labor, and the end result is that many pieces are deemed unfit for display. But those that are are highly sought after as true expressions of the beauty of nature given form by human hands.
Firing pottery in anagama style is inaccessible to the beginner, but many potters hold semi-regular classes throughout Japan. Students learn how to make a piece, then leave them with the potter to fire. In a few weeks they receive their work back fired and ready to use. My wife once attended a class like this. Even though it was her first time, she, and the other students, came back with pretty impressive pieces.
It may be interesting to try some of the less famous martial arts in Japan. Karate is well-known throughout the world, but it is only one style among many. Even if you are not athletic, many Japanese martial arts focus on concentration and purity of movement instead of raw power and speed.
Iaido is the art of drawing the sword form the scabbard. Like taiko, it focuses on perfecting kata (forms) until mastery is obtained. Another interesting style, Kyudo, is traditional Japanese archery. While in the beginning it requires strength training to be able to draw the bow appropriately, the level of concentration held by Kyudo masters is comparable to Zen monks. Some even go as far as to say that “Zen and Kyudo are one.”
Then there are other styles that are just plain old cool. Bajustu is somewhat rare but is still taught in some areas. It focuses on mounted fighting using swords, spears, and bows. Naganitajustu uses a kind of ancient Japanese polearm and is often practiced by women. And who wouldn’t want to learn ninjutsu in the very town of its birth? Learning martial arts in Japan is a great way not only to exercise in a cool way, but also improve your mental physique and make friends.
Shodo, better known as Japanese calligraphy, is probably the most popular traditional art in Japan. It’s a required subject in elementary school, and even afterwards high school students can take it as an art elective. But even though elementary students are learning it, shodo is better appreciated once you are older.
It is one of the arts practiced by ancient Zen Buddhism. The true goal is mushin, no mind, a perfect clarity of action linked to thought, where brush strokes flow out of one’s person without interference from the self. It is valued as an expression of a person’s state at a particular point in time, since the strokes must be made quickly, without hesitation, or a chance to correct mistakes. There are countless shodo masters offering classes all over Japan. And as I mentioned in my last post, an overnight stay at a temple may also offer a shodo session.
Tradition With Your Own Two Hands
If you visit Japan it’s a waste to use all of your time sightseeing. Experience Japanese culture with your own two hands. Even if it’s only one class, trying out a traditional Japanese hobby or craft is one of the best ways to put Japan’s ancient culture into practice.