Live and Learn

Modern-day Tokyo's cityscape is a maze of weird and wonderful modern architecture, design and extravagance, which makes it the perfect place to study the absurdities of Japanese pop culture. For a lesson in alternative fashion head for Takeshita Dori in Harajuku, Shibuya 109 for a crash course in consumerism, Shinjuku's Kabukicho for a close study of salarymen in their natural habitat, and Roppongi for expat gaijin in theirs. All well and good, but does this mean that Tokyo's a barren wasteland when it comes to really discovering some of the more traditional Japanese pursuits? The answer's no - in fact, in Tokyo you can study almost every tradition imaginable, from sushi to tea ceremony. Kate Crockett takes a look at some of the options for cultural study in the Big Mikan.

Living on the Edge

Courtesy of Ohara School of Ikebana

Cooking the Books
at Sumida Women's Center

Anyone new to this country and unfamiliar with Japanese cuisine will remember their first nightmarish trip to the local supermarket. If the kanji labeling on the product didn't get you, then what to do with it once you got it home probably didÉ which is where a few friendly pointers in the art of Japanese cooking can come in very handy.

Every month at the Sumida Women's Center, local volunteer cooks offer the opportunity to create traditional Japanese recipes under the supervision of those who really know how. The class is only JY300 and it's fine to just turn up on the day and register. The "lesson" starts at 11am prompt. The Japanese cooks demonstrate how to make the dishes of the day (recipes are supplied in Japanese and English) after which everyone mucks in to create the dishes.

sushiToday we're hurrying the recipes for hakusai wagu rollu (Japanese-style cabbage rolls) and gomoku chirashi (mixed sushi). The two dishes are created simultaneously - which is a little confusing at first - but necessary in order to get everything done in the allotted time. As there are 60 or so people here (apparently a much larger turnout than usual) we all share in the preparation. As the initial instructions are in Japanese (with a little translation) the non-nihongo speakers among us observe what to do before having a go ourselves. Somehow, despite the volume of people, it's not a case of "too many cooks," in fact, it's the opportunity to meet lots of new people which makes the morning so enjoyable. If you're learning Japanese then it's also the perfect chance to practice. I use the term "class" loosely here, as the session is more a chance to observe the preparation, chop a few veggies, meet people and enjoy the delicious food afterwards than to become a master of Japanese cuisine.

The verdict? Delicious. A fun and inexpensive way to sample traditional Japanese cuisine and (hopefully) take home the knowledge of how to make it yourself.

Where: Sumida Women's Center (Josei Senta), Room 2/3, 2-12-7 Oshiage, Sumida-ku.
Tel: Call 03-5608-6212 for information & map
Nearest stn: Oshiage (Asakusa line), exit A4
When: Every third Tue, 11am-2pm
The bottom line? JY300

Tea Time at Hotel Okura

The tea ceremony is one of the most famous and fascinating of Japanese traditions, which probably explains why most of Tokyo's major hotels offer the chance for guests to take part in a ceremony in purpose-built tea houses on their premises. The Hotel Okura is no exception, and here you'll find the management cashing in on tradition on the seventh floor of the main building.

The tea room is nestled between suites along a regular hotel corridor - just follow the sound of running water and turn to the right into a rough, patio area with low ceilings, leading to a series of tatami rooms. This indoor patio looks out on an elaborate rooftop garden complete with sakura trees and a winding path of pebbles, symbolizing a river.

Courtesy of Hotel Okura

After being welcomed by your host and "washing" your hands in the fountain, you'll be invited into the tea room. A Westernized version of the tea ceremony is performed (i.e., you won't have to sit on the floor) unless you think you can manage to sit on your knees for half an hour and request otherwise. If you're one of the first guests you'll get the "best seat" in the house, next to the alcove with the cha-bana and the calligraphy.

First you will be given some traditional wagashi and anko sweets with a seasonal theme. The host then proceeds with the preparation for the ceremony. The preparation is a fascinating ritual of precise processes and movements. After the utensils have been prepared, a powdered, bitter-tasting form of green tea called macha is combined with water and whisked vigorously but precisely. When the tea is finally served you must drink it quickly, as the temperature is important. The "cleaning-up" which follows is done as carefully as the initial preparation was. The ceremony itself lasts about 30 minutes which, although not long, is so engrossing that you'll forget you're in a busy hotel in the middle of stressful Tokyo. Afterwards your host will answer any questions you may have.

Where: Hotel Okura, Main Building 7F, 2-10-4 Toranomon, Minato-ku.
Tel: 03-3582-0111
Nearest stn: Kamiyacho (Hibiya line), Shiroyama Hills exit
When: Mon-Fri 11am-4pm (30 mins)
The bottom line? JY1050

An Education in Bloom
at Ohara School of Ikebana

The Ohara School, which was founded in the 1800s, is one of the three main flower arrangement schools in Japan. Their studies are based on two main forms of ikebana - moribana, which is created in flat containers with a large water surface area, and heika, which uses tall vases with small openings.

The ikebana classes held at the Ohara School on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings are taught in English, and are popular with non-Japanese speakers and English learners alike. The classes are for students of all levels and ability and so different arrangement styles will be studied simultaneously within the one class.

At your first lesson you'll need to go in early so that the tutor can explain the style rules and basic terminology used before the class starts. You'll then need to prepare your container and collect scissors and a kenzan (a spiky metal block into which you stick the stems). The tutor will demonstrate any new styles to the students, who will then complete their own designs. After completion, the tutor advises on where to improve and will, invariably, totally redo what you thought was perfect (at least for the first few weeks, anyway). Make notes and drawings of your work (before and after alteration) to help you remember the styles and the mistakes you made.

The beginner's course is devoted entirely to Moribana and the Elementary Form styles, which are necessary in order to progress on to Heika and freestyle arrangements. You'll also learn about traditional groups of plants used in arrangements and how to create arrangements for different occasions.

Every other week you'll revise the style learnt the previous week, using different flowers, in order to remember it and to get a feel for the varied materials that can be used. The first course takes eight sessions to complete, but it's extremely flexible, so they need not be done consecutively. Ikebana is a remarkably adaptable traditional skill that you can (eventually) take home and use - regardless of where you hail from.

Where: Ohara School of Ikebana, Ohara Ryu Kaikan 6F, 5-7-17 Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku.
Tel: 03-3499-1200, fax 03-5485-1734 or email
Nearest stn: Omotesando (Chiyoda, Ginza, Hanzomon lines), exit B1
When: For Japanese students, Tue 1:30-3:30pm. For foreign students, Wed and Thur 10am-12pm (first time, 9:30am). For Japanese and foreign students together, Thur 1:30-3:30pm.
The bottom line? JY2000, plus about JY2000 for flowers. Visitors can observe the lesson for JY800.

Musical Maestros with Nishimura Makoto
In the long list of Japanese things to study, the music is one that is often overlooked as too expensive, too difficult, and too obscure. True enough, like other traditional arts, the music is usually taught within a rigid and very expensive hierarchy. Enter Nishimura Makoto, a traditional Japanese musician in Tokyo who is devoted to perpetuating the music by teaching it to foreigners for - you're not going to believe it - free.

shamisenNishimura sensei's specialty is nagauta music, which means "long songs," and is a style of kabuki music. She teaches and trains people on shamisen, voice, drums, and flute. Sensing a growing apathy among the Japanese for their own traditional music, Nishimura sensei - fluent in English - has "ironically" turned to the foreign community to perpetuate this beautiful and endangered music.

Because she works full-time during the day, Nishimura sensei teaches in the evenings and on weekends. After you call and set up an appointment with her, you will go to her house, where you will be graciously welcomed into her music sanctuary. Her lavish array of instruments is worthy of any museum collection; shamisen hang in every nook and drums line the shelves. Nishimura sensei can work with you in any of the areas listed above, but encourages all students to study at least a little of the shamisen, as it is the foundation of much of the music. After introductory lessons, Nishimura's students - from eleven different countries - often practice together, making for an animated Japanese afternoon straight out of Edo.

Nishimura sensei's group, The Daita Nagauta Kai, performs around Tokyo several times a year. She encourages both musicians and non-musicians to join. A highly recommended experience. Janet Pocorobba

Where: Nishimura sensei's house in Setagaya-ku, Daita 1-10-5-103.
Tel: 03-3412-6096 (evenings only)
Nearest Stn: Setagaya Daita (Odakyu line)
When: Nishimura sensei gives private and group lessons in the evenings and on weekends. She also holds Sunday workshops from 1-4pm.
The bottom line? Free!

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298: Snow time like the present
When, where and how to get your share of the white stuff this winter
297: Helping Hands
The spirit of giving through volunteering
296: Stop the Music
Tokyo's nightclubs under attack
295: Just Do It!
Staying in shape in the city
294: 2 can play that game
The next generation of games consoles
293: Vegging out in Tokyo
Some of Tokyo's meatless oases
292: Multiplicity
The belated arrival of the multiplex
291: After a Fashion
Zita Ohe walks through Tokyo's fall/winter fashions
290: Used and Abused
Second-hand shops in the city
289: Microbrew - a mini guide
Tour the best of Tokyo's independent suds makers
288: The Delusions of a Kabuki Addict
Visit Ginza's Kabuki-za
287: Live and Learn
Studying traditional culture in Tokyo
286: Are you quaking?
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285: Sagawa Kyubin guys
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284: South Park
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283: A saner Tokyo
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282: Trainspotting
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281: The Lost World
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280: Body of Art
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279: Open all hours
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278: The Rice Stuff
A guide to sake
277: Get out!
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276: The Empire Strikes Big
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275: Don't worry be happy!
A definitive guide to Tokyo's drinking deals
274: Off the hook
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273: Books
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272: What's up pussy cat?
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271: Moving mountains for Freedom
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270: So you think you're safe?
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269: Are these the droids you're looking for?
Japan's new robot army
268: From beast to beauty
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267: Perfect TV
Exploring Japanese TV
266: Let's do talk
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265: Get ready to rock!
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264: Kichijoji uncovered
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263: Tour Japan one bite at a time
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262: Golden getaways
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261: Millennium fudge
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260: Ueno Park
A walk in the low city
259: Stressed to kill
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258: Oodles of noodles
A day in a life of a local ramen shop
257: Off the shelf
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256: Lord of light
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255: Are you game
Indoor sports to get your blood on the boil
254: Eat your heart out
Valentine's Day in Japan
253: The way of wagashi
A friendly face in Japanese cooking
252: Face to face with Harajuku
Yoyogi Park street culture
251: What a grind!
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250: The year of the rabbit
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