Whenever I travel abroad, something I almost always notice is how very young a country America is. When I was in Germany, locals would refer to the “new” government hall and then casually gesture to a fabulous neo-Gothic building and casually say that it was “only built in 1760.” At which point I would laugh and say it was older than my country.
Japan takes that to a whole new level. Everywhere I went, there was a fascinating blend of ancient and modern that somehow manage to blend together into a single rich culture and society.
For example, Tokyo is often thought of as one of the most glowing, modern cities in the world. And it is–but when you take the time to look around, you’ll also see things like this shrine, tucked away in the corner of a seven-story building:
Or this house, which despite being overshadowed by massive skyscrapers manages to stand its ground as an example of traditional architecture:
Everywhere I went there were similar reminders of ancient traditions. Most every temple sell charms called omamori that are intended for everything from general good luck to help passing exams, giving birth, or being a safe driver. The Gion festival in Kyoto is the only place were a larger good luck charm called a chimaki can be purchase from one of the parade floats. After Gion, I saw these chimaki hanging over doors all over Kyoto, and omamori are often attached to book bags, wallets, or keychains. They aren’t just historical artifacts or touristy souvenirs; they’re religious amulets that are still extremely popular and common in everyday life.
And it’s not just the older generation that still upholds these old traditions. It is not uncommon for high school students to take lessons in flower arranging, chado (Japanese tea ceremony), or calligraphy, or for people of all ages to dress up in brilliantly colored yukatas to attend anything from summer festivals to shrines to traditional-style restaurants. Although their numbers are declining, there are still girls as young as 14 years old who decide to become maikos and go through extensive training to learn and then perform traditional songs, dances, games, and art forms.
Japan also still has a monarchy, although it is more of a symbolic role than anything else. But the same imperial family has been in power in Japan for roughly 2600 years, which is incredible. Where else in the world can a single family claim having had 125 emperors in a row???
Today, Japanese culture still contains countless ancient traditions that have survived for centuries and managed to maintain their popularity even as Japan continues to modernize. This blend of ancient and modern was one of the most fascinating cultural aspects of my time in Japan.