Traditional Japanese cuisine can be considered at its most fundamental level to be based on three major pillars: soy, rice, and seafood. A staggering majority of traditionally Japanese cooking ingredients are derived from soy and rice alone: edamame, shoyu, tofu, aburage, miso, and natto, sake, shochu, mirin and mochi. Almost all traditional Japanese dishes incorporate a handful of the aforementioned ingredients, with rice serving as a foundation for the meal and a light miso soup as a common accompaniment. Since Japan is an island nation, there is precious little land available for grazing cattle, and as such there has historically been little beef in the Japanese diet. Fish, shellfish, and sea vegetables such as kelp contribute heavily to the overall flavor spectrum of Japanese cuisine, with fish often dried and used as a basis for soup stock, grilled over charcoal and served hot, or in the famously Japanese fashion served raw as in the dish sashimi.
A single Kaiseki Banquet place-setting.
Japanese cuisine isn’t strictly relegated to traditional dishes, however. In the 20th and 21st centuries, Japan has seen an incredible flourishing of culinary development, with cross-pollination from all across the globe. Neighboring cuisines have been adopted and adapted to the Japanese pallete as in the case of ramen, Korean barbecue, and curry, as well as cuisines from places as far flung as Italy, whose seafood pasta dishes have enjoyed a renaissance under the careful and passionate preparation of Japanese chefs. The proud American hamburger has found a place in the Japanese culinary milieu as well, with variations such as ‘hamburg steak’ offering a creative deconstruction, and Matcha Green Tea Milkshakes appearing alongside familiar brands of this American fast-food favorite.
Green tea is eminently popular in Japan, usually referred to simply as ‘tea’ (ocha). Green tea holds a special place in Japanese history and culture, having an elaborate and long-practiced ritual preparation or ‘Tea Ceremony’ as an important pillar of Japanese tradition. The art of the tea ceremony is still practiced today, usually in purpose-built rooms or structures dedicated exclusively to the ritual. The tea ceremony is centered around a uniquely Japanese preparation of green tea called matcha, where in preparation the tea leaves are processed into a bright green uniform powder. In modern Japan, matcha has found its way into every imaginable corner of the culinary landscape across the globe, from the ubiquitous Green Tea Latte to artisinal matcha bars in trendy neighborhoods in the US and abroad.
A serving of prepared green tea next to a bowl of matcha powder and a traditional bamboo matcha 'whisk'.
With rice being the principal staple food of the Japanese diet, one might naturally presume that the traditionally most prevalent form of alcohol would be rice-based. This is sake, a light and aromatic wine made from rice in much the same way that beer is brewed from wheat. Sake is traditionally served either at room temperature, chilled, or warmed, usually in a small earthenware or ceramic vessel accompanied by relatively small matching cups. Shochu is a distilled spirit related to, but not equivalent to, sake. Shochu can be made from rice just as sake is, but can also be make from various other sources of starch such as potatoes and barley, or from plant and fruit sugars.
A Torii gate stands in front of a small Shinto shrine in the forest.
Japan’s constitution protects freedom of religion, and its largest active religious traditions are those of Shinto and Buddhism. Shinto is a religious tradition indigenous to Japan, evolved from various different native spiritual beliefs and mythologies, focused on the practice of rituals at shrines dedicated to local ‘kami’, meaning gods or spirits. Shinto shrines can be found everywhere across Japan, denoted by their characteristic red archways, called torii gates. Buddhist temples, on the other hand, can be identified not only by the lack of a torii gate, but also by the common presence of images of the Buddha, such as the bronze Buddha statues (called Daibutsu) found in places like Nara and Kamakura.
Measuring religious views and practice in Japan is more difficult than elsewhere in the world due partly to the fact that Shintoism, Japan’s home-grown spiritual tradition, does not require or reward adherence to a doctrine, nor does it resemble other ‘religions’ in its organizational structure (or rather, the lack thereof). While over three-fourths of people in Japan identify as nonreligious, a similar fraction also reports regularly engaging actively in Shinto shrine activities and rituals, with the majority of Japanese people identifying their sprititual beliefs as a mixture of Shinto and Buddhist principles. Western religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are present in Japan, but at less than 1% of the population identifying as members of these they are a distinct religious minority in the country.
Demographics & Language
Japan is somewhat unusual among globalized metropolitan nations for its degree of demographic homogeneity, with over 99% of its resident population being ethnically Japanese, and speaking Japanese as their primary language. Although Japanese is generally the only language spoken in the country there are many regional dialects spoken throughout the country, including the Kanto dialect (so-called ‘Standard Japanese’, the variety spoken in Tokyo and on Japanese television), Kansai dialect (spoken in Osaka, Kyoto, and the rest of the Kansai region), Okinawan, Kyushu dialect, Tohoku dialect, and many more.
English language education has been a standard part of Japanese public schooling curriculum for many years, increasingly so in the last few decades. This means that many Japanese people have some familiarity with the English language (especially younger generations), so it is not impossible to get around the country and communicate to some degree using only English. However, many are reluctant to speak in English, especially to English-native foreigners, for fear of being seen as having poor pronounciation or other such relatable anxieties. Wherever you travel, its always good practice to keep a phrasebook handy and try to pick up the local language as much as possible-- your poor Japanese pronounciation may make your new friends more comfortable trying out their English, too!
Unlike English, Japanese uses three different writing systems called Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. Hiragana and Katakana are two different ways to write the same set of characters, and as such have the same number of unique symbols (46). Both are phonetic writing systems, meaning that the characters represent a specfic sound or part of speech. Hiragana is used to write the parts of speech that are native to Japanese, while Katakana is used for non-speech sounds such as ‘doki doki’ (the sound a rapidly beating heart makes) or non-Japanese loan words such as ‘pan’ (Spanish for bread), ‘takushii’ (taxi, English for a kind of old-fashioned Uber), or ‘ramen’ (lamian, the variety of Chinese noodle on which ramen noodles are based). Kanji, on the other hand is a pictoral writing system, meaning the characters do not have a direct relation to the spoken word that they reference. Kanji uses the same character set that is used in Simplified Chinese writing, and often uses the same or similar pronounciation, based on the context in which the characters are used.
Sports & Leisure
Two 'rikishi' (wrestlers) facing off in the ring.
Sumo is a uniqely Japanese sport, having originated from certain Shinto ritual practices, and is Japan’s official national sport. The practice has a long history in Japan but Sumo as a professional spectator sport has existed since at least the 17th century CE, and has continuted to be a valued tradition in the intervening years. Sumo tournaments are held six times a year, each lasting 15 days and can be seen in cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka. To learn more about sumo, and to see when upcoming tournaments are, visit the Japanese Sumo Association website.
Karaoke is unequivocally the Japanese peoples’ favorite pastime, and since its invention has spread far beyond the island nation’s borders. A 1993 study showed that Japanese people spend significantly more time singing karaoke than participating in other Japanese cultural activities such as Ikebana (flower arranging) or tea ceremonies. While in the west karaoke is usually thought of as something done on a stage as a form of ritual public humiliation often involving alcohol consumption, in Japan karaoke is most frequently enjoyed in more intimate settings such as ‘karaoke boxes’; small rooms that accommodate somewhere between 2-8 people in establishments that often serve food and drink as well.
Japan is the birthplace of a variety of martial arts that are still commonly practiced today, often as after-school activities for students. In contemporary Japan, martial arts are not practiced and preserved so much for their utility on the battlefield as for their personal, spiritual, and cultural value. Three of the most common and popular Japanese martial arts practiced today are Karate (literally ‘empty hand’), which is focused on techniques for unarmed punching and kicking, Kendo (meaning ‘way of the sword’), which utilizes bamboo sticks and lightweight wooden armor to practice a variety of swordsmanship techniques, and Judo (literally ‘the way of softness’), focused on grappling techniques.
Japan is well-known around the world for its unabiding enthusiasm for what in the west is usually thought of as ‘America’s Pastime’; baseball. Professional baseball is by far the most popular spectator sport in Japan, so much so that JNTO (the Japan National Tourism Organization) is quoted as saying "Baseball is so popular in Japan that many fans are surprised to hear that Americans also consider it their ‘national sport.’" Baseball was first introduced to Japan in the late 19th century, continued gaining popularity through the 20th century and became a national obsession. Two of the most popular Japanese baseball teams are the Hanshin Tigers and the Yomiuri Giants, based in Osaka and Tokyo, respectively. If you’re interested in seeing a baseball game in Japan, you can check the schedule of upcoming games at the Nippon Professional Baseball Organization’s website.