Just walking down the street could be considered a cultural experience in Japan. But there are a few more concrete ways to learn about this country's cultural life: The best of them involve participating in some of the country's time-honored rituals and traditions.
In addition to the recommendations below, several tour companies offer cultural activities, which you might consider if time is short or you wish to experience an activity not covered in this guide. Of course, you'll also pay more for the convenience of a tour. JTB's Sunrise Tours (tel. 03/5796-5454; www.jtb-sunrisetours.jp) offers a wide range of cultural activities, from trying your hand at making sushi or writing calligraphy to learning about bonsai, visiting a sumo stable, participating in a tea ceremony, to trying on a kimono or samurai and ninja outfits. Prices range from ¥5,000 for the bonsai tour to ¥19,000 for a tour that includes an ikebana (flower arranging) lesson, a tea ceremony, and the experience of wearing a kimono.
Similarly, H.I.S. Experience Japan (http://hisexperience.jp) offers a wide range of hands-on activities, including a ninja training session; a samurai sword class featuring a sword fight demonstration by instructors and a lesson covering the basic movements; a visit to a sumo stable, followed by a typical sumo meal; a taiko drumming or shamisen course; the tea ceremony; a kimono workshop; a survival Japanese-language class; and cooking classes that cover sushi, soba, and traditional Japanese food. Activities are held irregularly, so check the website for dates. Prices range from ¥5,500 for the Japanese-language class to ¥30,000 for the 4-hour Japanese Traditional Cooking class, including lunch.
Ikebana -- Japanese flower arranging, or ikebana, was first popularized among aristocrats during the Heian Period (A.D. 794-1192). In its simplest form, traditional ikebana is supposed to represent heaven, man, and earth, but there are various forms of the art and several schools of thought. It's considered a truly Japanese art without outside influences; as important as the arrangement itself is the vase chosen to display it.
Today, most young Japanese girls have at least some training in the art. Instruction is available at several schools in Tokyo, a few of which offer English-language classes on a regular basis. Note that you must register in advance to enroll. Sogetsu Ikebana School, 7-2-21 Akasaka (tel. 03/3408-1209 or 03/3408-1151; www.sogetsu.or.jp; station: Aoyama-Itchome, exit 4, 5 min.), offers instruction in English on Monday from 10am to noon (closed in Aug). The cost of one lesson for first-time participants is ¥3,800, including flowers, and reservations should be made by noon on the previous Thursday. Additionally, classes in Japanese, with assistance in English for those who require it, are held the first three Tuesdays and Thursdays of the month from 10am to noon, 2 to 4pm, and 6 to 8pm. The cost of these is ¥3,150, and reservations should be made at least 3 days in advance.
The Ohara School of Ikebana, 5-7-17 Minami Aoyama (tel. 03/5774-5097; www.ohararyu.or.jp; station: Omotesando, exit B1, 3 min.), offers 2-hour instruction in English at 10am on Wednesday and 10am and 1:30pm on Thursday for ¥4,000. Reservations should be made at least one day in advance (no classes July 15-Sept 3). If you wish to observe the class but not participate, you can do so for ¥800 (no reservations required).
If you wish to see ikebana, ask at the Tourist Information Office whether there are any special exhibitions. Department stores sometimes hold special ikebana exhibitions in their galleries. Another place to look is Yasukuni Shrine, located on Yasukuni Dori northwest of the Imperial Palace (closest station: Ichigaya or Kudanshita). Dedicated to Japanese war dead, the shrine is also famous for ongoing ikebana exhibitions on its grounds.
Tea Ceremony -- Brought to Japan from China more than 1,000 years ago, tea first became popular among Buddhist priests as a means of staying awake during long hours of meditation. Gradually, its use filtered down among the upper classes, and in the 16th century, the tea ceremony, cha-no-yu, was perfected by a merchant named Sen-no-Rikyu. Using the principles of Zen and the spiritual discipline of the samurai, the tea ceremony became a highly stylized ritual, with detailed rules on how tea should be prepared, served, and drunk. The simplicity of movement and tranquillity of setting are meant to free the mind from the banality of everyday life and to allow the spirit to enjoy peace and harmony.
Teahouses are traditionally quite small, with a small tatami room, a small brazier for the teapot, and views of a garden. One of my favorite places to enjoy the tea ceremony is at a traditional Japanese garden. Otherwise, several first-class hotels hold tea-ceremony demonstrations in special tea-ceremony rooms. Reservations are usually required, and because the ceremonies are often booked by groups, you'll want to call in advance to see whether you can participate. Seisei-an, on the seventh floor of the Hotel New Otani, 4-1 Kioi-cho, Chiyoda-ku (tel. 03/3265-1111, ext. 2443; station: Nagatacho or Akasaka-mitsuke, a 3-min. walk from both), holds 20-minute demonstrations Thursday through Saturday from 11am to 4pm. The cost is ¥1,050, including tea and sweets. Chosho-an, on the seventh floor of the Hotel Okura, 2-10-4 Toranomon, Minato-ku (tel. 03/3582-0111; station: Toranomon or Kamiyacho, a 10-min. walk from both), gives 40-minute demonstrations anytime between 11am and noon and between 1 and 4pm Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday through Saturday except holidays. Appointments are required; the cost is ¥1,050 for tea and sweets. At Toko-an, on the fourth floor of the Imperial Hotel, 1-1-1 Uchisaiwaicho, Chiyoda-ku (tel. 03/3504-1111; station: Hibiya, 1 min.), demonstrations are given from 10am to 4pm Monday through Saturday except holidays. Reservations are required. The fee is ¥1,500 for tea and sweets.
Acupuncture & Shiatsu -- Although most Westerners have heard of acupuncture, they may not be familiar with shiatsu (Japanese pressure-point massage) or moxibustion (using moxa, or mugwort, to warm acupuncture points and thereby stimulate circulation and facilitate healing). Most hotels in Japan offer shiatsu in the privacy of your room (look for a bedside placard offering the service or look in the hotel services booklet in your room). There are acupuncture clinics everywhere in Tokyo, and the staff of your hotel may be able to tell you of one nearby. As it's not likely the clinic's staff will speak English, it might be a good idea to have the guest relations officer at your hotel not only make the reservation, but also specify the treatment you want.
Otherwise, English is spoken at Yamate Acupuncture Clinic, second floor of the ULS Nakameguro Building, 1-3-3 Higashiyama, Meguro-ku (tel. 03-3792-8989; station: Nakameguro, 6 min.), open Monday to Friday 9am to 8pm and Saturday 9am to 2pm. Specializing in athletic injuries, it charges ¥3,000 for a specific treatment or ¥5,000 for the whole body, plus a ¥1,000 initial fee. English is also spoken at Tani Clinic, third floor of the Taishoseimei Hibiya Building, 1-9-1 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku (tel. 03/3201-5675; station: Hibiya, 1 min.), open Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday 9am to noon and 2 to 5pm, and Saturday 8:30am to noon and 2 to 4:30pm, and charging ¥10,500 for the first visit, ¥6,300 for each subsequent visit. The Shirokane Oriental Therapy Center, 1-26-4 Shirokane, Minato-ku (tel. 03/5789-8222; www.shirogane-s.com; station: Shirokane-Takanawa, 1 min.), offers 60-minute shiatsu for ¥7,350 and 90-minute massage and acupuncture treatments for ¥10,500.
Public Baths -- Tokyo has approximately 1,000 sento (public baths) -- which may sound like a lot but is nothing compared to the 2,687 it used to have in the 1970s. Easily recognizable by a tall chimney and shoe lockers just inside the door, a sento sells just about anything you might need at the bathhouse -- soap, shampoo, towels, even underwear. Keep in mind, however, that people bearing tattoos are sometimes prohibited from entering public and hot-spring baths, as tattoos are associated with the Japanese mafia. If your tattoo is discreet, however, or you're using a public bath in, say, a hotel, you probably won't experience any problems.
For a unique bathing experience, nothing beats a 3- or 4-hour respite at the Ooedo-Onsen Monogatari, 2-57 Aomi on Odaiba (tel. 03/5500-1126; www.ooedoonsen.jp; station: Telecom Center Station, 2 min.), which tapped mineral-rich hot-spring waters 1,380m (4,528 ft.) below ground to supply this re-created Edo-era bathhouse village. After changing into a yukata (cotton kimono) and depositing your belongings in a locker (your key is bar-coded, so there's no need to carry any money), you'll stroll past souvenir shops and restaurants on your way to massage rooms, sand baths (extra fee charged), and onsen (hot-spring baths) complete with outdoor baths, Jacuzzi, steam baths, foot baths, and saunas. Because as many as 6,500 bathers pour into this facility on weekends, try to come on a weekday. Also, signs in English are virtually nonexistent, so observe gender before entering bathing areas (a hint: women's baths usually have pink or red curtains, men's have blue). Open daily 11am to 9am the next day. Admission is ¥2,900 for adults and ¥1,600 for children 4 to 11, with reduced prices after 6pm.
Not quite as colorful is the upscale Spa LaQua, 1-1-1 Kasuga (tel. 03/3817-4173; www.laqua.jp; station: Kasuga, 2 min.), located in the heart of Tokyo at Korakuen's Tokyo Dome City complex. It, too, has hot-spring indoor/outdoor baths, saunas, and massage options, but an adjoining amusement park with roller coasters (and screaming passengers) makes this a less relaxing alternative. It's open daily 11am to 9am the next day, with admission priced at ¥2,565, with higher fees weekends, holidays, and after midnight. Note that this is considered an adult facility; children under 6 are not allowed, and no minors under 18 are allowed after 6pm.
Zazen -- A few temples in the Tokyo vicinity occasionally offer sitting meditation with instruction in English. You should call in advance to make a reservation and arrive 30 minutes early for instructions. The Toshoji International Zen Center, 4-5-18 Yutaka-machi, Shinagawa-ku (tel. 03/3781-4235; station: Togoshikoen, 5 min.), offers free zazen at 5am every morning (except Sun and holidays), as well as Zen training meetings Saturday from 6 to 8pm, including zazen, a lecture, and tea. Accommodations are also available to those who wish to stay for longer periods to practice Zen. Sounin Temple, 4-1-12 Higashi-Ueno, Taito-ku (tel. 03/3844-3711; station: Ueno, 5 min.), holds zazen the second Sunday and Monday (and preceding Sat) from 7 to 8pm, followed by a talk and tea.
Pachinko Parlors -- Brightly lit and garish, pachinko parlors are packed with upright pinball-like machines and -- increasingly -- slot machines, at which row upon row of Japanese businessmen, housewives, and students sit intently immobile. Originating in Nagoya in the 1920s, pachinko is a game in which ball bearings are flung into a kind of vertical pinball machine, one after the other. Humans control the strength with which the ball is released, but otherwise there's very little to do. Some players even wedge a matchstick under the control and just watch the machine with folded arms. Points are amassed according to which holes the ball bearings fall into. If you're good at it, you win ball bearings back, which you can subsequently trade in for food, watches, calculators, gadgets, and the like.
It's illegal to win money in Japan, but outside many pachinko parlors along back alleyways, there are slots where you can trade in the watches, calculators, and other prizes for cash. The slots are so small that the person handing over the goods never sees the person who hands back money. Police, meanwhile, look the other way.
Pachinko parlors compete in an ever-escalating war of themes, lights, and noise. Step inside, and you'll wonder how anyone could possibly think; the noise level of thousands of ball bearings clanking is awesome. Perhaps that's the answer to its popularity: You can't think, making it a getaway pastime. Some people seem to be addicted to the mesmerizing game, newspaper articles talk of errant husbands who are hardly ever home, and psychologists analyze its popularity (an estimated 13% of Japan's population plays the game). At any rate, every hamlet seems to have a pachinko parlor, and major cities, such as Tokyo, are inundated with them. You'll find them in nightlife districts and clustered around train stations, but with their unmistakable clanging and clanking, you'll hear them long before you notice their brightly lit, gaudy facades.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.