Lost Japan: Secrets from the Land of the Rising Sun

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Japan is losing its culture, its life-force in danger of being washed away by decades of modernisation.

The world famous adverts on big screens in Tokyo were once a true representation of Japan and an image of the journey to come for any traveller, but now those same ads reflect not everyday reality but an ersatz experience created for tourists.

Once, restaurants would have habitually seated visitors on traditional mats, with the men in agura, the traditional cross-legged position, and women in the traditional kneeling position seiza. Those very same restaurants are now fitted out with Western-style tables and plastic booths, while teenagers frequent the ubiquitous fast-food chains, drinking cola instead of aromatic green tea. It can seem today as if Japan has almost entirely detached from its past.

The country’s self-imposed isolation, lasting from the 17th century until the second half of the 19th century, preserved many ancient ways from the industrial revolution of the west. When Japan was finally forced into international trade, the speed at which the feudal society changed was truly shocking to its inhabitants. Much of its ancient culture was actively discarded at that time, with just enough left for Japan to retain a traditional identity while still fitting in with the West.

Foreign travellers took it upon themselves to record Japan’s ancient customs and traditions – which even then were dying – for their audiences back home. The writer Lafcadio Hearn (1850–1904) was the most prolific of these, and is still well remembered today. A slew of others enjoyed varying degrees of popularity, but most are now lost in obscurity or left to moulder on library shelves, their valuable testimony too complex and time-consuming to digest for the readers of today.

Tokyo has become one of the most modern cities in the world

Tokyo has become one of the most modern cities in the world

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It is, thankfully, still possible to discern some traces of old Japan in the modern nation. And even where traditions have been totally lost, a glimpse of the Land of the Rising Sun can be caught by remembering the legends, folklore and customs recorded a century or more ago. Despite the sweeping modernisation, Japan’s culture is still there, waiting to be rescued. 

Here are some quirky insights and historical anecdotes to bring a little of old Japan into the light of today.

Curious echoes of old Japan

1. Shy royalty

When royalty travelled in old Japan, attendants would go ahead of the procession to clear the streets and glue paper over all the windows in a town so that the royal figure in the palanquin could not be seen by anyone. Special exorcisms were performed in haunted places along the route. Today, the Imperial Palace in Tokyo is open to visitors on certain days and the Emperor is often now seen by his people.

2. Professional waders

Transport in Japan was not always the dream it is today. Travel was slowed by boulders placed on the roads to stop floods washing them away. To cross rivers, a traveller had to pay for a piggy-back from professional waders and heavy rain could mean being left stranded for days.   

3. Choose your weapon

Japanese people, who tend to have small nostrils, pick their nose with their little finger. They will be surprised to spot a Westerner using the index finger.

4. The festival of the dead

Obon, the festival of the dead, held in summer, is one of the best times to travel in Japan with a real atmosphere of the old. People used to throw stones on to their roofs to scare away any ghosts who remained behind instead of returning to the land of the dead. Today, the Japanese still come together to celebrate the lives of those departed.

Japan still marks the festival of the dead every year

Japan still marks the festival of the dead every year

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5. Guide your dreams

If you turn your nightwear inside out when you sleep in Japan, it is still thought that you will dream of your future spouse.

6. Celluloid samurai

William Adams was one of the first Englishmen to arrive in Japan in 1600. He became a samurai and personal retainer to the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. The American television show Shogun is based on his life.   

7. Saved from the scrap heap

The great Buddha statue at Kamakura is today one of the most visited sites in Japan. Tourists who admire the statue and the beautiful trees there might be interested to learn that the temple monks once tried to cut down the avenue to leave more room for their crops and even tried to sell the statute itself as scrap metal.

The Buddha at Kamakura

The Buddha at Kamakura

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8. Sheathe your sword

Anyone holding an exposed sword blade in old Japan intended to kill with it. On one occasion a British diplomat was being escorted by mounted soldiers who in ceremonial style held their naked sword blades against their shoulders. Unbeknown to them, this faux pas sent a very strong message to the Japanese.  

9. Deer held dear

Many people who have been to Japan have visited a temple where sacred deer wander at pleasure, eating from the hands of tourists. These animals were once held in such high spiritual regard that killing one of them was a crime punishable with the death sentence, confiscation of property and the discontinuation of the family line (which usually meant that the culprit’s children were killed). Even the natural death of a deer had to be investigated.

The Nara Park are popular with tourists

The Nara Park are popular with tourists

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10. Keep yourself warm

To keep warm, people used to use hot stones in a wooden box wrapped in cloth. Hand warmers are still popular in Japan today.

11. Closed borders

At the start of the isolation period in the 17th century, Japan’s strict non-disembarkation policy for all foreigners was put to the test when a trading vessel arrived from China. As threatened, most of the crew were executed, with the survivors sent back to spread the word. For around 200 years, the only foreign entry point was the Nagasaki trading post, where a small contingent of Portuguese was allowed to land. Immigration is much easier for modern visitors.

Antony Cummins is the Official Tourist Ambassador for Wakayama Japan and author of Old Japan: Secrets from the Shores of the Samurai (History Press, 2018)

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