Japan close to home
Japan has started to become an increasingly popular tourist destination and a global interest in recent years. Just shy of 31.9 million tourists arrived in japan in 2019 according to the Japan National Tourist Organisation (or JNTO). With the help of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, many more people were expected to experience Japan in 2020 — including myself.
Well … that didn’t happen for anyone.
Yet, with the world being more connected than ever, hobbies, interests and even countries are becoming much more accessible closer to home. I’m not just talking about through a screen either. Lots of people tend to overlook what is currently available on their doorstep and are missing out on so many opportunities. The aim of this post is to highlight a few different ways to experience japan close to home.
So, whether you are just becoming interested in Japan; have always wanted to go but never made it; or have been before but want that fix until the next visit; here’s some ideas on how to experience japan close at hand!
Everything is already here!
If you want an all-encompassing Japanese experience find yourself your nearest Matsuri or festival. Usually, these are major events organised by the Japanese communities in major cities.
They celebrate and share Japanese culture and the friendship between nations, and often include dance and music performances, martial art displays, a collection of Japanese street food stalls, Shodo or calligraphy, market stalls selling authentic Japanese products, and maybe even a Mikoshi carrying, which is in a sense a portable shrine … just to name a few things.
Would you believe, throughout the year Japanese festivals take place in 6 of the 7 Continents, excluding Antarctica (of course). Here are just some of the festivals to take place outside of Japan.
- North America – Sakura Matsuri in Washington, Chicago Matsuri, Arizona Matsuri.
- South America – Tanabata Matsuri in Sao Paulo.
- Europe – Japan Day in Dusseldorf Germany, Japan Matsuri in London UK.
- Australia – Matsuri Japan Festival in Sydney, Japan Summer Festival in Melbourne.
- Africa – The Japanese Spring Festival in Johannesburg South Africa.
- Asia – The Japan Summer Festival in Singapore.
This is not an exhaustive list by any means but rather a showcase as to how far Japanese festivals have spread. The ones noted here are a few examples of some of the major events that anyone can participate in.
A heads up
A lot of the events and festivals start to take place from the middle of the year around May or June. Due to the on-going situation some of these may or may not happen depending on where you are; however, many are offering virtual events that are still worth checking out while the real thing becomes available once again.
Gardens and Parks
Instead of huge crowds and intense atmospheres, perhaps you might like something more contemplative? Something that can really transport you a bit closer to japan? Then you’ll be wanting to visit a Japanese garden.
Compared to a normal park or garden in the western sense, Japanese gardens are composed in a minimalist style. They focus on directly representing nature through a handful of carefully selected and observable features; rather than an over-abundance of flowers and purposefully elaborate design.
The idea behind them is to truly reflect and bridge the gap between yourself and nature. To that end, key features often include small waterfalls and streams, Japanese maple trees, the careful placement of rocks and stones, small age-old ornaments that reflect the flow of time, with a final feature such as a single teahouse.
Japanese-styled gardens are more abundant than I’d previously thought and can be found all over the world. In fact according to the Japanese Garden Journal there are over 300 in north America alone. Alongside this, I found them to exist in over half the countries in Europe, as well as across the other 4 continents previously mentioned.
In case you are wondering, sadly no, I’m not going to write them all down this time. (Maybe in a future PDF.) But just be aware that there is now no excuse for not taking the chance to visit at least one!
Museums and exhibitions are a great way to learn more about the history and development of Japan. Having the chance to see a collection of artefacts or art in person often forges a much greater connection and enhances the significance of each piece. It is also well known for providing a greater period of retention when learning new information.
Japanese exhibits are already a staple in many museum collections and well worth a look if you’re interested in Japanese history. You may have the chance to see the uniquely Japanese woodblock Prints, Kimono and textile design, ornate masks, ceremonial ornaments and maybe one of the many varieties of Japanese samurai armour.
With all that in mind however, there’s more to be seen than just those pieces with historical significance. There are also exhibitions dedicated to contemporary work such as prints, concepts, sculptures, photos, and architecture as a few examples.
‘Japan House’ is my recommended starting point for exploring some of these ideas. They are an organisation that have set up in London, Los Angeles, and Sao Paulo and provide ever-changing exhibits.
Exhibition spaces change throughout the year, and so, it is worth keeping up with a number of different institutions. Keep track of them to be alerted about Japanese exhibits heading your way.
Cherry Blossom viewing/Hanami
There are few things in life that symbolise japan more than cherry blossoms. What’s more cherry blossom viewing is an activity that is available in many places outside of japan.
Cherry blossom viewing, also known as Hanami, is one of the biggest events of the year in Japan. The period helps to symbolises the transience of life or it’s temporariness. This may relate to the way that cherry blossoms bloom for only around two weeks in a year, before returning to a dormant state until the next spring.
Compared to some other entries on this list, visiting a cherry blossom spot requires minimum effort but high reward, and a great way to spend a short amount of time. Many countries have small cherry blossom beauty spots; although, there are some countries that go all out with the festival vibes in a similar fashion to Japan. The U.S, Canada, Germany, and Denmark are prime examples that love to put on a display.
The cherry blossom viewing period is usually between March and April but there is an important factor to consider:
- If it has been a mild spring: then they will generally bloom around mid-March.
- If it has been a cold spring: then they will likely bloom later at the beginning of April.
Now, chances are that being interested in Japan, you’ve most likely heard of anime once or twice before. The term anime is essentially just the shortened form of the word animation; however, anime is a term that is almost always used to describe specifically Japanese animation. Many would class anime as just cartoons but this Is not really the case, as there are around 40 different genres and sub-genres. Ranging from those for kids to those with adult themes and everything in-between.
Anime has become such a massive form of pop-culture both inside and outside Japan that conventions have become widespread across the world throughout the year. Many have become core events in the annual calendar and for fans alike.
At an anime convention or con expect to find a festival-like atmosphere albeit heavily themed. With music, performances, guest panels, food, games and most uniquely — cosplay — its certainly worth attending at least one. Unlike a traditional festival or gathering however, some prior knowledge or interest may help to truly appreciate the experience more than otherwise, but is certainly not necessary to enjoy it.
Restaurants and cafes’
It has often been said that to truly experience a culture, you have to experience the food. As for japan, food is often remarkably high on the list of reasons for visiting the country as well as being consistently high on world food rankings. Lucky for us Japanese restaurants and cafés are becoming an increasingly popular site outside of japan. The hardest part is deciding which one to try next.
Of course, the food is the primary reason you’ll want to go, but like so much in Japanese culture its often the little details that can make the difference. Presentation, design, service are things that can make an experience better; although this is the case with any dining experience, the options are there with Japanese Restaurants and cafés too — depending on the budget.
For the most part, Sushi, and Sashimi make up the core of many overseas restaurants along with Maki rolls. Tempura and noodle based dishes are also fairly common, but some higher end places have opted to acquire a prestigious cut of A5 Wagyu beef; of course you’ll have to pay for that privilege. What seems to be quite rare however, are things like Okonomiyaki and Takoyaki. Fret not though as they do exist outside of japan, for those seeking to try all manner of Japanese cuisine.
This is my roundup of just some of the activities to do and places to go that can help you experience Japan close to home. There are of course lots of smaller activities, events, clubs, workshops, and shops that are inspired by japan. I will certainly be trying to do as many of these things as I can; to share the experiences, and provide (hopefully) insightful articles on different aspects of japan.