Your Guide to Japanese Art 

Whether it’s museum hopping on a bicycle around Naoshima art island or admiring the ancient pottery of long-lost treasures, Japan has so much to offer with its unique artistic expressions. 

Art in Japan

 

The Origins of Japanese Art

With an extensive history spanning over 12,000 years, Japanese art has evolved significantly throughout the years to produce its distinctive versions of creativity and expression.

The earliest inhabitants of Japan likely arrived from mainland Asia thousands of years ago. Because of this, Japanese art has a long history of Chinese influences. Its remarkable diversity can be seen across each historical period which proudly features unique characteristics and distinctive forms of art - namely during the following periods:

  • Jomon
  • Yayoi
  • Kofun
  • Asuka
  • Nara
  • Heian
  • Kamakura
  • Muromachi
  • Azuchi-Momoyama
  • Edo
  • Meiji
  • Taisho
  • Showa
  • Heisei

Over the years, the Japanese have absorbed and assimilated elements of foreign culture that complement their aesthetic artwork - blending yesterday’s charm and present-day modernity in perfect harmony. 

Today, Japanese art features a wide range of styles and means of expression that leave visitors in awe and inspired.

Someone forming a vase on the pottery wheel

What kind of art does Japan have?

Japanese art is one of the world’s greatest treasures and has evolved through the years. From ancient Japanese art to modern, contemporary expressions, it has gone through many stages of evolution that define its present-day art form. Today, Japanese art covers a broad spectrum of creative expressions that include:

  • Origami
  • Painting
  • Woodblock prints
  • Literature
  • Pottery
  • Calligraphy
  • Sculpture
  • Architecture
  • Manga

Exterior shot of Matsue Castle

Architecture

Japanese architecture is distinctive, as seen in the use of materials and functions of its buildings - the love for natural materials and the seamless harmonious interaction between the interior and exterior. 

The most important buildings in the early days were shrines, built of wood and often adorned with beautiful, well-manicured gardens. Castles began to emerge in the Azuchi-Momoyama period (17th century). They were built in the style of the shrines, featuring wooden powers and outcropping roofs. Housing feudal lords and soldiers, these castles retained the elegance of the shrines that they were based upon.

In modern Japanese art, its urban architecture has gone through several evolutions of innovation over its rich history. Japanese architects have brought to life some truly unique and iconic buildings of metal and concrete like the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, done in a postmodern architectural style that awes tourists and locals alike. 

A large ceramic pumpkin sits on a shore

Contemporary Art

The Japanese contemporary art scene is dynamic as it is diverse, giving birth to contemporary artists like Yayoi Kusama and Takashi Murakami who have become international household names.

While ancient Japanese art is admired by everyone globally, contemporary art in Japan truly took the world by storm. Bold, experimental movements have emerged throughout the country leaving a renewed and lasting impression on Japan.

The Seto Inland Sea region is popularly known as the creative hub of contemporary art: a cluster of islands that are home to avant-garde art museums and Instagram-worthy outdoor installations. One of the famous islands is Naoshima art Island, Japan’s premier art destination. As you arrive, you’ll be greeted by the oversized, colorful pumpkin sculptures on the seafront, a prelude to this art island in Japan. 

While on the island, don’t forget to visit The Chichu Art Museum, a unique modern art museum built underground to preserve the natural, beautiful view of the Seto Inland Sea.  Literally meaning “art museum in the earth,” this avant-garde museum houses over five distinctive art galleries, which were designed by globally renowned Japanese architect, Tadao Ando. Built in 2004, this magnificent museum is a major tourist attraction, drawing tourists from all around the world to explore its themes of rethinking the relationship between nature and its people, as well as the best of Japanese artwork, making it one of our must-visit locations.

Despite being underground, this art museum is cleverly designed to leverage natural light to illuminate the artworks, allowing you to discover something different at various viewing times throughout the day. While on Naoshima art island, take the opportunity to explore the many abandoned houses, temples and workshops that have been re-energized by artists into modern art installations. Or, better yet, stay in a hotel that doubles as an art museum.

A calligraphy brush on a sheet of paper

Calligraphy

As one of the most celebrated and revered forms of artistic expression within Japanese culture, Japanese calligraphy is a lasting art form that keeps the ancient Japanese art style alive.

Calligraphy was first brought to Japan by China in the 6th century A.D. and after centuries of evolution, a style and technique unique to Japan was born. Known by the locals as Shodo, which means “the way of writing,” calligraphy has been practiced by samurai, nobility, and ordinary people ever since.

Through careful choreography of brush strokes, Japanese calligraphy takes decades to master and can fetch high values matching those of paintings and other forms of art from Japan. As an important aspect of Japanese culture, it harmoniously fuses poetry, literature, and painting into one unique Japanese art form.

A man wearing a mask performing on stage

Kabuki

A classical, complex and fascinating storytelling style, Kabuki is one of the three most famous Japanese traditional theater styles that originated in the Edo period at the beginning of the seventeenth century. 

In the beginning, both men and women acted in Kabuki plays, but eventually, only male actors performed - a tradition that remains today. Kabuki actors perform in a monotone voice while traditional instruments accompany the performance. Depicting tales derived from regional myths and history, Kabuki features music, dance, and mime with elaborate costumes and sets - the perfect opportunity to experience ancient Japanese art. Kabuki’s unique style of make-up is easily recognizable even by those who are unfamiliar. Largely unchanged for centuries, many modern kabuki techniques still retain their original methods, and performers are directly descended from historical actors. 

The Kabuki stage isn’t any ordinary stage. It’s built with revolving platforms and trapdoors through which the actors can appear and disappear. Some of the distinctive characteristics you’ll find in a Kabuki theater include its music, costumes, stage devices and props as well as specific plays, language and acting styles.

A woman in traditional dress pouring tea

Tea Ceremony

Another form of Japanese art is its tea ceremony. Steeped in history, the Japanese tea ceremony is a significant ceremonial way of preparing and drinking green tea, most usually in a traditional tea room with a tatami floor.

Beyond just drinking tea, it’s a ceremony for guests to take a break from the hectic lifestyle and fast pace of city life to enjoy the hospitality of the host in a calm and relaxing setting. Usually practiced as a hobby, there are many places within Japan where you can experience a true and authentic Japanese tea ceremony. Our Japan travel experts will prepare an itinerary that’ll take you to some of the most beautiful Japanese tea ceremony destinations, including unique and lesser-known spots.

Enjoy your Japanese tea ceremony at a traditional garden, culture center, or even hotel with Kyoto and Uji being some of the best destinations to enjoy Japan’s rich tea culture. 

Japan Art Tours

Want to discover all the must-visit art destinations around Japan? Get in touch with one of our travel experts or browse one of our luxury Japan tours and be prepared to experience the best of Japanese art with a carefully curated itinerary, like that of our Exceptional Japan tour.

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