Sake, sumo and kabuki are certainly among Japan’s most highly prized cultural assets for overseas visitors and residents alike.

While some new Japanese pop culture can provide quick amusement without the need for explanation, some facets of traditional culture may require a certain amount of knowledge to understand and enjoy. Yet it is worth learning about the traditional culture that has deepened and flourished over the centuries, as some preliminary knowledge can go a long way toward fully appreciating the various cultural aspects.

Some things that may seem difficult to grasp can be enjoyed so much more if people acquire knowledge about the origins, historical backgrounds and basic rules in advance.

The charm of sake

Alcohol is a universal equalizer within and across cultures, and Japanese sake is no exception. In recent years, sake has enjoyed a meteoric spike in popularity abroad, inspiring a new chapter in an ongoing legacy.

Within Japan, the history of modern sake is not specific to a single area and is heavily entwined with the country’s rice production.

Rice is the defining ingredient of sake. Climate, season and how sake is stored during fermentation are other significant elements that help brewers control aroma and flavor.

Sake can also be paired with a wide array of traditional Japanese cuisine to elevate an already stellar meal and spans the country’s diverse regions and climates.

Japan’s large selection of sake can seem intimidating at first glance, but much like wine, the many different tiers of quality and separate categories help narrow down the search across the archipelago’s diverse regions for the perfect one.

Sake is a must for occasions such as traditional events or ceremonies including wakes and weddings.

Washoku, which was placed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2013, is a customary social practice expressing “respect for nature” and serving to strengthen the bonds of family and community, which goes well with certain types of sake.

Sumo boasts long history

Sumo, another aspect of Japanese culture that cannot be missed, has a long history dating back to the Edo Period (1603–1868) — when the foundation of today’s sumo — including the ring entering ceremony, the match, the ranking list, kimono and others — was established.

It can be traced back to myths and Shinto rituals, some of which still influence how tournaments are conducted today.

Yokozuna (the highest rank a rikishi sumo wrestler can hold) are revered in the sumo world and the decisive winning techniques displayed during their matches can send opponents hurtling out of the ring and into the audience.

Unique entertainment of kabuki

Kabuki also evolved into a popular form of mass entertainment and attracted patrons of all levels of society during the Edo Period; this was particularly reflective of the cultural and economic developments of the time.

Today, it is a form of entertainment that charms audiences from both Japan and abroad, with unique and highly entertaining factors that include music, elaborate dancing and more.

Nowadays, all roles are played by men and onnagata (actors who play female characters) pay particular attention to each individual movement in order to embody the essence of femininity across all ages and classes.

Japanese traditions crystallize centuries of cultural development and social shifts; there are many ways to enjoy them if one takes the extra step to know more about it.