Last updated: 03:00 AM ET, Tue August 11 2015

Japanese Tradition Takes Modern Roots

Destination & Tourism | James Ruggia | August 11, 2015

Japanese Tradition Takes Modern Roots

PHOTO: The Amanemu in Ise Shima National Park will open early in 2016. (Photo courtesy of Aman Resorts)

Japan’s popularity is branching out in many directions and in many new markets from culinary special interests and anime to the longstanding interest that Americans have in classic Japanese culture. The latest statistics from the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) show that May 2015 was the 14th consecutive monthly record high for the number of U.S. visitors.

Last year, Japan reached record visitor numbers and for the first time in 50 years received more visitors than it sent abroad. While a weakened yen deserves much of the credit for this success, it only proves how attractive a destination Japan is once potential visitors perceive it as reasonably priced. The exaggerations of the price of travel in Japan have unfairly hampered the destination for decades and finally, news of a soft yen has given Americans the confidence to go.

Though the JNTO has wisely put renewed energy into marketing Japan with a broader set of attractions, traditional Japanese culture remains the strongest pull for Americans. Japanese culture is different from any other Asian culture. The lore of the samurai, the geisha, Kabuki theatre, Ukiyo-E woodblock prints, tea ceremonies and other touchstones of Japanese culture continue to draw with the greatest power and currently there are several creative ways to experience these elements.

You know when a tradition is still alive by its courage to innovate. Inflexible rules about what is and what isn’t permitted are a sure sign that something is dead and the period is being preserved in a formaldehyde solution of dos and don’ts. Kyoto’s Kou-An Glass Teahouse is a perfect example of an old tradition that has enough vitality that it’s still rooting in modernity. Situated in Kyoto’s eastern mountains on a wooden observation deck outside of Seiryuden Temple, the teahouse is a transparent structure made from thick glass panels using minimal metal supports by artist Yoshioka Tokujin.

PHOTO: Yoshioka Tokujin’s Glass Teahouse outside Kyoto exemplifies Japan’s very living traditions. (Courtesy of Koun-An Glass Teahouse)

That spirit of living tradition keeps Kyoto on the must-visit list in Japan. For the second straight year, Travel + Leisure named Kyoto the World’s Best City. The Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto’s new series of programs, which take place at set weekly times, are designed to help guests penetrate Kyoto’s most famous traditions. The hotel’s Samurai Experience, for instance, shows guests the art of kenbu, a sword dance that samurais did to prepare themselves for battle.

Guests can learn basic kenbu moves using a samurai sword while dressed in traditional costume. After learning basic techniques, guests have the opportunity to view a performance by a kenbu master. The Samurai Experience is offered every Tuesday and costs about $65 per person. Other programs focus on such touchstones as kimonos, tastings of Japanese wagashi sweets, sake tasting, a sushi master class, touring the city by bicycle or even by a Jinrikisha rickshaw.

While Kyoto is the home of the Emperor, the military rulers of the Shogunate made their home in Tokyo. The samurai and his sword were joined by one spirit and the art of forging the sword remains a skill that Japanese identify with on an intensely spiritual level. In Tokyo, visitors can experience one of the art’s all time masters, Yoshindo Yoshihara, and gain an appreciation of a craft that has the power of a religious rite. Yoshihara’s workshop can be visited on a program from Destination Asia.

Ritz-Carlton hotels can be found in three other Japanese destinations beyond Kyoto: Okinawa, Osaka and Tokyo. In hosting the Fourth Annual Ritz-Carlton Asia Food & Wine Festival (Sept. 30 to Oct. 4), the Ritz-Carlton Tokyo is giving master chefs from around the world a place to display their crafts.

Among these Michelin masters, Japan will be represented by Kenichi Hasimoto of Japan, owner of two Michelin-starred restaurants in Kyoto and famous for Kaiseki Japanese cuisine; Ryousuke Nakatani of Japan, owner of a two Michelin-starred restaurant in Osaka also famous for his Kaiseki; and participating chefs from The Ritz-Carlton, Tokyo include Chef de Cuisine Miyazaki Shintaro of the fine dining French restaurant, Azure 45, and Teppanyaki Chef Hidemitsu Yasui of the Japanese restaurant, Hinokizaka.

Early next year, Amanresorts will open the Amanemu in Ise Shima National Park, as its first hot spring resort. The resort follows the opening of the Aman Tokyo, which opened in 2014 as Aman's first city hotel. Hot spring or onsen bathing is yet another deep-rooted Japanese tradition.

Amanemu is located on Ago Bay with 24 suites and four two-bedroomed villas all of which have their own onsen, as well as an extensive Aman Spa, a lap pool, restaurant and lounge. About 186 miles southwest of Tokyo in Ise Shima, the resort is easily accessed via Japan’s high-speed rail network. Nagoya is a scenic two-hour train journey or 25-minute helicopter ride from the resort. Located in Ise Shima National Park, Shima will play host to the G7 Summit in 2016. 

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