March 6, 2018

Finding Culture in Tokyo

Defining Tokyo's unique culture is a difficult question but this article will take a stab at unveiling what dwells under the neon lights.

An artwork on display at Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum

This is a good question; perhaps, THE question. Dictionary.com defines culture as: “the quality in a person or society that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellent in arts, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc.” More broadly, one could even go as far as making a claim that culture is all that which has been molded by the minds and hands of human beings.

When it comes to sense of place, I think it’s easy to make the claim that some locations are more culturally endowed than others. For example, the city of Kyoto holds the worldwide distinction of being the vanguard of Japan’s traditional heritage. After all, Kyoto is often regarded as “old Japan’s” keeper and thousands are drawn to her shrines and temples every year. But, what about Tokyo? Well, unlike Japan’s old capital, the world’s largest megalopolis suffered heavily during World War II.

As a result of being nearly burned to the ground, Tokyo has far fewer cultural relics remaining when compared to Kyoto’s in the west. Nevertheless, there are indeed many prime examples of Tokyo’s rich history yet you’ll need to do some digging to uncover them. While the ravages of war may have taken their toll, Tokyo makes up for what it lacks in observable culture in more untouchable ways. Tokyo is a dynamic city that is rich in historical traditions and the performing arts.

Unfortunately, it can be hard mere visitors to find the truly great examples of culture amidst the vast concrete jungle of Tokyo. Fret not though! Luckily, organizations such as Arts Council Tokyo have been making it easier and easier for foreign tourists to explore Tokyo’s originality and diversity. They offer some truly unique experiences that one might otherwise entirely miss.

Anyway, without further ado, the following is a smorgasbord of some of my favorite facets of Tokyo’s rich cultural endowment.

Japanese Culture as Music

Donny Kimball learns to play the shamisen in Tokyo’s Asakusa area

No trip to Tokyo would be complete without visiting Senso-ji and the traditional Asakusa neighborhood. However, this is a blog about getting off the beaten path and therefore recommending only the most mainstream of attractions simply will not do. Luckily though, the Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center has recently been offering a wide variety of first hand cultural experiences.

When last I visited the historic Asakusa area, I had the chance to partake in the so-called Shamisen of Nagauta Workshop.” Taught by a well respected master of the craft, these forty-minute classes will walk you through the basics of the shamisen. You’ll learn how to hold the instrument as well as how to play Sakura Sakura,” one of Japan’s most famous tunes. English language support is available and the classes are held in such a way that even first-timers can follow along without issue.

Despite being an apparently simple instrument with a mere three strings, mastering the shamisen is no easy task! While the teachers do a good job walking you through exactly what to do, coordinating your motor skills is an entirely different matter. In a manner that is quite similar to the guitar, melodies are made by simultaneously performing two independent actions with both the right and left hands. If you’ve never played a string instrument before, expect to struggle!

Unfortunately, the shamisen classes will only be featured until March 18, 2018. That said, those visiting Japan thereafter need not despair. Arts Council Tokyo, the organization responsible for the “Shamisen of Nagauta Workshop,” has a wide array of events and seminars to choose from. To view a full list of the organization’s offerings, refer to their official site for more details. If you’re looking to add some authenticity to your travels, I cannot more highly recommend one of these experiences!

Japanese Culture as Art

An artwork on display at Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum

Culturally speaking, Tokyo can be said to be a city lacking traditional architecture. Yet, again and again, Tokyo more than makes up for its shortcomings in diverse and creative ways. Chief among these is the unique approach in which Tokyo champions the arts. The megalopolis is home to a shocking number of extraordinary museums. Among their curations you’ll find a dazzling lineup representing historical collections of ukiyo-e woodblock prints to contemporary artistry. You’d be hard pressed to find a urban area that spoils you more for choice than Tokyo.

While the likes of the Mori Art Museum are well known worldwide, Tokyo has considerably much more to offer than just the mainstream roster. Granted, a full list of institutions to consider falls well outside the scope of this article, yet one recommendation I have is the exquisite Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum. What makes this spot so special is that the building itself was once the former residence of Prince Asaka Yasuhiko and his family during the years 1933 to 1947. Built in a European style that is uncommon in Japan, the architecture and design of the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum is every bit as impressive as the artwork on display.

You can reference the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum’s official site for more information to see what’s in town during your visit. From what I can gather, it seems like the museum brings in fresh robust exhibits every few months. The museum also features a teahouse that has been designated an Important Cultural Property along with Prince Asaka’s residence. If you do visit, be sure to also check out the stellar gardens out back before moving on with your day. Note that the facility is open from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM and entry fees depend on the exhibit.

Before concluding this section, there’s one other bit of advice I have to offer; don’t make the mistake of limiting your definition of “art” only to the likes of exhibitions and installations. Tokyo is a city that is richly endowed in the performing arts. From classical music to Kabuki and Noh, there’s little that you can’t find here. For the Japanese speakers out there who are looking for something unique, consider checking out Shinjuku’s Suehiro-tei. If you can follow along with the performance, this Rakugo (comedic storytelling) theater will leave you in stitches.

Japanese Culture as Tradition

A statue of a Tengu on Tokyo’s Mt. Takao

As mentioned previously, due to the destruction wrought by World War II, there are fewer traditional experiences to be had in Tokyo than Kyoto. This however, does not mean that the world’s biggest megalopolis is not without some stunning spiritual establishments of its own. In fact, if you know where to look, Tokyo can easily compete with the likes of the former capital out west.

When it comes traditional experiences, one of my all-time favorites in Tokyo is none other than Mt. Takao. This enclave of mountain asceticism can be found at the far western edges of Tokyo prefecture and makes for the perfect day-long getaway from the city. Mt. Takao is an attraction that I’ve covered in depth before. If you’re interested in learning more about this amazing peak, I’ll direct you to this article in the interest of brevity.

Before moving on, know that in addition to offering the chance to visit Yakuo-in, a temple with over 1,000 years of history, Mt. Takao also allows for some deeply cultural experiences. Most memorable among these are the opportunities to try Shojin Ryori (Buddhist veterinarian cuisine but the monks do an amazing job of replicating the non-vegetarian tastes) or witness the magnificent Goma Fire Ritual. Unfortunately, both require making a reservation in Japanese so try to rope in a friend or hotel staff.

For more information about the Goma Fire Ritual and Shojin Ryori, refer to Mt. Takao’s official website (which has been translated into English).

Japanese Culture as Enjoyment

Shinjuku’s Golden Gai drinking area

During my years as an academic, I often heard that culture is all that which is touched by humanity. So, with this in mind, what better way is there to end this piece than with the everyday joy of a drink with friends. While Tokyo of course has its fair share of watering holes, perhaps no where is the working class’s drinking culture more corporeal than in Golden Gai. Seemingly forgotten by time, this boozy collection of hole-in-the-wall hovels is an “only in Japan” experience that is a stark comparison to Shinjuku’s neon glow.

Initially, Golden Gai catered predominantly to a Japanese-only audience though lately the area has become quite popular with visitors from abroad. Sensing an opportunity, many business owners have upped their English game in an attempt to lure more foreign patrons. Because of this, Golden Gai is relatively easy to navigate, even for those with no Japanese ability (at least while you’re still sober). Purists will say this shift makes it less authentic. Yet, is it not better, at least from the perspective of tourism, that Golden Gai is accessible?

Oh, and before you ask, no the hangover isn’t an integral part of Japanese culture! In fact, the locals have a concocted a drink to combat just such an inconvenience. Known as Ukon no Chikara,” downing one of these beverages before a night of revelry is said to reduce or all together eliminate hangovers. Talk about a panacea!! It’s no wonder why Japanese salarymen are able to pound beers all night and still show up to work the next day.