Most people who come to Japan list “experiencing the culture” as one of the major reasons that they made the trip, be it a holiday or a longer stay. For the vast majority of cultural tourists all this amounts to is eating the food, watching a dance/traditional theatrical performance and touring the temples of Kyoto.

Truly immersing yourself into Japanese culture is an incredibly difficult goal. Numerous obstacles stand in the way of the foreigner who wants to understand some Japanese art. Value and ideological differences, language barriers and the major problem of simply finding out where and how one can learn these things all prove a barrier to the eager student of Japanese culture.

Put simply, it takes a lot of effort to try and learn and take part in tea ceremony, calligraphy, etc and frankly most of the time I can’t be arsed.

However, this weekend I indulged in my most intensive session of cultural tourism yet as I attended a festival of Japanese culture in Kyoto.

My opening diatribe aside this wasn’t really an opportunity to truly immerse myself into a Japanese art form; rather it was a sampler session. Lots of stalls were set up to give we gaijin a chance to try out calligraphy, tea ceremony, ikebana, etc for a few minutes and see if we had any interest. It was to cultural tourism what a free sample in a supermarket is to a gourmet meal. The speed dating of Japanese culture. Still I had a great time, whiling away a few hours playing games and having fun and I figured I’d relate my hastily-formed opinions of what I did.


Shodo is Japanese calligraphy, the art of drawing kanji (Chinese characters) in ink with brushes so that they look astonishingly beautiful.

If I may I’d like to go into a tangent about Kanji.

For those who don’t know Japanese uses three written alphabets. Hiragana あいうえお、 Katakana アイウエオ and Kanji, which are incredibly elaborate pictograms. Whilst the first two function similarly to our alphabet so that a ka sound is always か and か always means ka Kanji works so that symbols mean words. Thus the kanji 来 can be pronounced both rai or ashi depending on the other Kanji around it and the context it is used.

The usefulness and importance of Kanji is currently undergoing something of a debate in Japan in part because the present Prime Minister can barely read it and increasingly young Japanese people cannot use Kanji as effectively as their parents. This is almost universally regarded as an immense shame as the Japanese take huge pride in their culture and how their culture has been maintained throughout the years.

Critics of Kanji site more practical objections to it. It is enormously difficult to learn, both for native speakers and for foreigners trying to learn the language. The difficulty in using it lowers literacy levels amongst Japanese. The changing meaning of certain characters can cause confusion and misunderstanding. It is slow to adapt to the changing world (nearly all modern inventions are rendered into Japanese using katakana, the alphabet reserved for foreign loan words, and so have no appropriate Kanji). Finally it makes using dictionaries very difficult and until recently typing impossible.

Defenders have to fall back on more ephemeral but no less compelling reasons for maintaining Kanji. It looks beautiful. It provides a link to Japan’s proud cultural history. It is crucial to Japanese literature. It provides for layers of meaning and subtlety that more plain spoken language cannot; including the creation of all kinds of puns that the Japanese love so much. And the fact that it is difficult and requires thought and study is sometimes perceived as a good thing. The thinking is that if writing is to have any value at all it must be worth expending effort upon.

And both sides are right. For all that it is difficult and ill-conceived Kanji is beautiful, subtle and deep. I am currently trying to learn Kanji and whilst I am constantly frustrated by it I am equally as rewarded.

So shodo then. Shodo demonstrates the sheer respect and reverence that the Japanese have for their language, and for art in general. Shodo is the correct way to write a kanji, on a sheet of beautiful paper, with a brush and ink. The Japanese love a “correct” way to do something and shodo is so respected that it is even taught as a subject in schools.

My attempt at it was not quite the graceful and poetic painting I had imagined. I sat myself down at the desk, selected a kanji I wished to write (love 愛) and attempted to replicate it on the paper in front of me. Now, I perhaps naively assumed that what I did with my brush would in some way resemble what had been drawn on the paper in front of me forgetting for a moment that I lack even the most rudimentary of artistic skills. I can’t even hold a pencil correctly, let alone use it to try and capture the world. My special skill with drawing appears to be completely misjudging the proportions and distances of objects and producing people with differently sized eyes and noses far too small for their heads. Considering shodo, and kanji in general, is mostly about the correct positions of strokes and lines in relation to each other I was probably being a bit optimistic to think that I would have any talent at this whatsoever.

The instructor obviously agreed and decided to come over, teach me how to hold the brush (you keep your wrist straight and move only your arm apparently) and then manually force my arm around the picture. He seemed to think I would be happy with this but I wanted to try and do it on my own. So I had another go and produced something that in no way matched the order or directions of the strokes he did and looked rubbish. After some discussion I finally got him to write the direction and stroke order down so I had something to work with. I then tried again and again and again to produce something that vaguely resembled love and eventually ended up with this.

Hmmmm, I think I have a lot of work to do.

During all this a very nice woman drew my own name in Kanji. This doesn’t strictly speaking work for foreign names as the syllables don’t translate but she had a crack at doing a-da-mu (アダム) and came up with this.

Which apparently means love, realize, dream.

Although I was crap at it I really enjoyed the shodo. It was relaxing to just try and focus on achieving something so exact. There was a kind of meditative quality to the act.


Fran’s mother teaches ikebana. Being a man I gave traditional Japanese flower arranging a miss but Fran had a go. She reported that it all felt a bit rushed but she managed to make this.

I do like ikebana actually. I prefer the more minimalist Japanese style of home decoration and gardening to the overblown stuff that is more western.

Wearing Kimonos

I’ve worn Yukata before and this seemed to be identical to that but with a proper obi (belt). I think the girls enjoyed it much more than I did.

The Fan Game

Throwing fans at a small target on a pedestal.

Although there were dozens of ways to move the target and thus score points all of them were dependant on you actually hitting the target; something that I saw not one single person do. I managed to hit the pedestal a few times but no luck.

Tea Ceremony

I mentioned above that the Japanese people love a correct way to do something. A formalized order for an activity, but drinking tea?

The Tea Ceremony is probably one of the more famous examples of Japanese art since it seems so bizarre. It is easy for us to grasp how drawing or flower arranging can be construed as an art but the drinking of tea seems a little stranger. Surely you just drink it?

Well no. Instead you prepare it and drink it in a manner which is so incredibly formalized that it becomes a kind of seated dance. The woman running the stall, clad in a gorgeous kimono, served the tea and so did most of the work but even we gaijin had a role to do.

The exact steps were very fiddly and I can’t remember them all but it basically boiled down to this:

. pour hot water into cup
. use tea brush to whisk it round
. empty cup and wipe with a cloth
. spoon matcha powder into cup
. add hot water
. use tea brush to mix the powder and hot water into a lather
. hand to first drinker
. drinker turns the bowl three time so that the front is not facing them
. drinker takes at least 3 sips and downs their cup
. drinker turns it three times the opposite direction and then gives the cup back to the host

However it was much, much more intricate than that. The woman serving was very careful with the position of the scoop for hot water, lids, cups and other paraphernalia which all had to be in a set place at every stage. She also had an incredibly complicated way of folding a cloth over to hold each item before she picked it up.

The matcha itself was much nicer than any I have had before. Much weaker and less bitter. As is customary we enjoyed our tea with a Japanese sweet, a daifuku.

The formalisation and pattern is intended to promote focus. The tea ceremony should be done in a natural setting and is usually accompanied by attempts at composing haiku. Effectively it serves as another form of meditation. Providing mental focus to help enhance the appreciation of the natural scenery; this then can be channelled into a creative activity like haiku or shodo, themselves both simply ways of meditating nature.

Incense Game

Finally we had a go at a smelling game. The leader of this stall prepared three traditional incense scents; moon, flower and snow. We each smelled them and held them in the traditionally accepted fashion (again there is a formal pattern to even how one is meant to smell incense. The holder then gave us a small mystery pouch containing one of the scents and we had to identify which one it was. Sadly nobody playing at the same time as me successfully identified what the scent was, oops.

Although I take solace in the fact that the woman running it described me as a “cool type.”

There were various other stalls there too but frankly these were the only ones that really were worth mentioning.

In conclusion I don’t know if I gained any new startling insights into Japanese culture but I did while away a few hours happily, and frankly that’ll do.

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