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Kabuki: All there is to know about the traditional Japanese dance-drama

Kabuki is a traditional Japanese popular drama with singing and dancing that is performed in a highly stylized manner. This Japanese art is a rich blend of music, dance, mime and spectacular staging and costuming. Kabuki has been a major theatrical form in Japan for almost four centuries, dating right back to the early 17th century. The term Kabuki originally suggested the unorthodox and shocking character of this art form. In modern Japanese, the word is written in three characters, with each syllable translating to ‘song’, ‘dance’ and ‘skill’. Let’s delve into the rich past of this traditional Japanese art form and what makes it so unique.

A step back in time

Kabuki originates back to the early 1600s when a woman named Izumo no Okuni began performing a special new style of dance that she had created. This Japanese play caught on almost instantly. Japanese women began learning Kabuki dances and performing them for audiences, these dances had a very suggestive nature and in 1629 the government banned women from performing them. From this period, men took over the dance. These new male dancers were typically young and were referred to as ‘wakashu’. Once more, in 1652, the government banned young males from dancing as it became common for brawls to break out at performances.
Kabuki made its return during the ‘Golden Age’ which lasted from 1673 to 1841. The dances began to have a more formal structure and lasted all day from sunrise to sunset. Despite Kabuki theatres growing in popularity, just as Kabuki reached its peak, many of the theatres were destroyed during World War II, with forces banning the play. This ban lasted until 1947, however, after the war, Japan tried to rebuild and reestablish itself with the people of Japan rejecting some traditional ways, and so the art of Kabuki was almost abandoned. Just as Kabuki faded out of society, a director began to produce plays that revitalised Kabuki, bringing it into modern popularity.

A token from the audience

Kabuki plays are traditionally interactive with constant interplay taking place between actors and spectators of the theatre. Actors frequently interrupted the play to address the crowd and who responded with praise for the actors and plenty of applause. Many audience members would also call out the names of their favourite actors of the plays during the course of the performance. These performances often incorporated traditional Japanese themes and customs that reflected the four seasons, they also selected material based on both modern and historical events.
As Kabuki plays ran from sunrise to sunset, many spectators often attended for only a single play or scene, meaning the theatres were a constant hustle and bustle of audience members coming and going. At mealtimes, food and refreshments would be served to the viewers, usually from surrounding teahouses. The areas around the Kabuki theatres were filled with shops selling souvenirs with this art form becoming a true piece of Japanese entertainment.

Anatomy of the art form

When it comes to Kabuki stage sets, showmanship doesn’t fall short. Dynamic stage sets such as revolving platforms and trapdoors allowed for the all-important scene and set changes as well as the appearance and disappearance of actors throughout the plot. Many Kabuki stages have a footbridge, referred to as ‘hanamich’, that leads through to the audience, allowing for a dramatic entrance or exit.
The stage’s ambience will often be complemented by live music, performed using traditional instruments. Music was used to set the mood of the play and was also used to emphasize important points in each play. Music was also used to direct the actors who were trained to take their cues based on the music rather than stage directions.
Most Kabuki theatre plots were typically focused on important events in Japanese history, other plots also consisted of warm-hearted dramas, moral conflicts, love stories and tales of tragedy. Strict censorship was put in place to make sure the plays did not become critical of the government. To enhance the enjoyment of the traditional Kabuki, it is common to read a little about the story before attending.
Kabuki theatres relied heavily on the stages, plots and music in their performances and depicted a wide variety of themes and genres. With its roots tracing back to the Edo Period, this Japanese art form is an intrinsic part of Japanese culture. At Atelier Japan, we strive to keep Japanese culture and ancient techniques alive with our range of handcrafted tea, silverware, pottery, jewellery and fans that are handcrafted by Japanese artisans. Explore more of our collections below for handcrafted Japanese products that tell their own story.


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Japanese Customs: All you need to know about travelling in Japan

When it comes to Japanese customs, there is a lot to take in, but understanding just why it is that they are carried out is quite interesting to explore. If you’re planning on visiting this unique culture, improving your knowledge of Japanese customs can be very worthwhile and make your journey a whole lot simpler. Let’s take a look at the top ten Japanese customs you need to know before jetting off to the beautiful country.

#1 Addressing Others

Bowing is a highly important part of Japanese customs. Japanese customs are influenced by their views on respect, especially when you are addressing someone. How you address another person will depend on their position and the circumstance. A simple inclination of the head or an attempt at a bow at the waist is sufficient in showing signs of respect. A friend may receive a short and swift bow whereas an office superior may receive a slower, more extended bow.

#2 Table Manners

When it comes to Japanese customs, table manners are highly important. Some simple Japanese customs to take in include slurping noodles and making loud noises while dining as this is accepted to show you are enjoying your meal. Raising a bowl to your mouth is a custom that is accepted throughout Japan to make your meal easier to eat with chopsticks, and before eating it is polite to say ‘itadakimasu’, or ‘I will receive’.
Japanese customs also suggest that if you’re with a dinner party and receive drinks, wait before raising the glass to your lips. When dining you will receive a small wet cloth to use to wash your hands before eating. This towel, or ‘Oshibori’, has long been part of hospitality culture in Japan for visitors to use.

#3 No Tipping

Japanese customs suggest that there should be no tipping in any situation in Japan, as it is seen as an insult. A price is a price in Japan, whether it is a taxi journey, restaurant meal or personal care, tipping isn’t something that’s carried out as the services you have asked for are covered by their original price.

#4 Chopsticks

When it comes to Japanese customs, chopsticks play a large role. Depending on where you choose to dine in Japan, you may be required to use chopsticks. If for some reason you can’t already use chopsticks or are yet to experience them during dining, you should have fun trying to learn this traditional Japanese eating technique before passing up the opportunity.

#5 Thresholds

When entering all homes, most business and hotels, it’s typical to remove your shoes. Again, Japanese customs are based on their focus on respect and removing your shoes is a great way to demonstrate your understanding of this important part of Japanese culture. Usually, a rack will be provided to store your shoes, and a pair of guest slippers will be sitting nearby to bring you comfort.

#6 Masks

It’s not uncommon for you to see people of Japan wearing sterilized masks. Commonly used day to day in Japan, these masks are used to protect both the wearer and others from germs. They are nothing to be concerned about, in fact, Japanese customs such as this one are there to protect you from colds and germs that could hinder your travels.

#7 Individuality

Japanese customs focus closely on the people of Japan. The population of Japan don’t tend to draw attention to their individuality. It’s customary to make sure that you don’t blow your nose in public, try to avoid eating while on the go, and don’t speak on your cell phone in crowded public areas to avoid drawing attention to yourself.

#8 Bathing

Japanese customs embrace public bathhouses. Sento, or neighbourhood bathhouses, can be found all across the country from the largest areas in Shinjuku to the small towns on the island of Shikoku. Onsen, or hot springs, are also very popular as a weekend excursion.
If you are to be invited into a Japanese household, as the guest you will be given the honour of using the bath first. Being extra careful to make sure that you don’t dirty the water in any way is very important as it is the sanctity of the ofuro, a traditional Japanese type of bath.

#9 Speaking English

When it comes to Japanese customs, the people you meet Japan will generally assume that you are a native English speaker. The people of Japan are also not afraid to directly ask you where you are from, Japanese customs like this are friendly and bridge the language barrier. Japanese people know their language is difficult to master, therefore, many Japanese people will try to use English to communicate with you.

#10 Safety

Japan has a very low crime rate, which is evident throughout its cities. When it comes to Japanese customs, it’s not uncommon for Japanese people to warn you to be safe in your travels and to take care of your belongings. In fact, Japan is known for its indoor ATMs, parking lot attendants and security guards which are on hand to reduce crime and help visitors and civilians feel safe.
At Atelier Japan, our collection of traditional Japanese craft captures the true essence of Japanese culture. From traditional matcha tea to auspicious pottery. Visit our marker collections to browse our ranges of handcrafted tea, silverware, pottery, jewellery and fans that are handcrafted by artisans of Japan.

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Bonsai Trees: Symbolism and significance

The bonsai tree is a true Japanese art form that uniquely combines horticultural techniques and beautiful aesthetics. The art of the bonsai actually originated in the Chinese Empire and grew in popularity here before being imitated and adapted in Japan to become what we know and recognise today. Interestingly, ‘bonsai’ can be literally translated as ‘planted in a container’, though it’s the trees and how to nurture them that is the true fascination. Let’s take a look at this part of nature’s vast history and its role in Japanese culture.

Plant symbolism

The real purpose of bonsai is for each tree to act as a symbol of contemplation for those viewing them whilst also being an enjoyable past time. Unlike many other plant cultivation practices, bonsai are not intended for food or for medicine. Instead, taking care of these trees focuses on long-term cultivation and shaping the trees as they grow over time.
There are many styles and sizes of bonsai, as well as different ways of growing them. Over the years, bonsai trees have come to follow important aesthetic guidelines. They tend to be kept small, in proportion and symmetrical. Importantly, bonsai should still look natural, despite being so carefully nurtured.
The bonsai’s beauty extends further than that of its leaves. For tree’s being shown on display, the shape, colour, and size of its pot are chosen to complement the tree’s aesthetic. In fact, some bonsai pots are highly collectable, such as ancient Chinese or Japanese pots made in regions with experienced pot makers.

History of the tree

The history of the bonsai dates back to the 6th century where Imperial embassy personnel and Buddhist students from Japan visited and returned from mainland China, bringing ideas, goods and plants. These plants soon began to appear in Japanese writings and art. In the medieval period, these ‘dwarf trees’ were portrayed in handscroll paintings, becoming the earliest known to depictions of small trees that would later be known as the bonsai in Japan.
After the 1300’s Zen monks began to develop trays of landscapes so that a single tree in a pot, later known as bonsai, could represent the universe. As time progressed, everyone from military leader shoguns to the general population grew some form of tree or azalea in a pot or shell. By the late eighteenth century, a show for traditional pine dwarf potted trees was then held annually in Kyoto. Around the year 1800, a group of scholars of the Chinese arts gathered near the city of Osaka to discuss recent styles in miniature trees. Their dwarf trees were renamed as ‘bonsai’ in order to differentiate them from the ordinary ‘hachi-no-ki’, a more common potted tree.
Over the coming years, different sizes and styles of bonsai were developed, with catalogues and books about the trees, tools, and pots being published. As popularity grew, many early formal shows were held for this symbolic Japanese tree. Cultivation and caring methods also began to adapt with copper and iron wire replacing hemp fibres for shaping the trees.

Cultivation and Care

The most important part of the bonsai is care and cultivation. This tree requires techniques and tools that are specialised to support the growth and long term maintenance of the tree. Leaf trimming, pruning, wiring, clamping, grafting, defoliation and deadwood are all techniques used to cultivate and care for this symbolic plant.
Not only are the techniques important but the basic levels of care needed. Maintaining the long term health of a this tree requires specialist care. Watering must be regular and sufficient for the type of tree. Repotting must be carried out often using specially developed tools used for maintenance. Soil composition and fertilisation must be specialised to the needs of each tree as well as making sure that the bonsai is kept in the right light conditions both indoor and outdoor.
At Atelier Japan, we focus on true Japanese symbolism and history in all of our products. From the centuries-old techniques used by our expert makers to their modern takes on traditional craft, our collections of handcrafted tea, silverware, pottery, jewellery and fans are designed to bring meaning and heritage to your home. Visit Atelier Japan to be inspired by our collections.

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The Samurai: The call for a certain culture

After first delving into the history of the samurai, it’s interesting to explore the culture of this pre-modern Japanese warrior. From the weapons they used to how they were addressed, there is a lot to take in when exploring the nature and evolution of this Japanese warrior. Let’s delve into the world of the samurai even deeper to understand how they fought, rose and became a cultural icon of Japan.

Warrior Weapons

Traditional Japanese weapons are highly associated with that of the samurai. There are many varieties and styles of samurai weapons, providing a unique and interesting range of Japanese weaponry to look into. The most popular choice of weapon of the samurai was the sword, a now synonymous icon of this historical Japanese warrior. Ancient Japanese swords from the Nara period featured a straight blade, though by the late 900s, different types of blades began to emerge. These included the curved tachi appeared, followed by the uchigatana and ultimately the katana. The Katana is one of Japans most famous weapons with its unique sharpness and strength. The Katana was strong enough to be used in defence and sharp enough to damage the enemy, earning its reputation as ‘the soul of the samurai’.
The yumi is a form of Japanese long-range bow. Crafted from bamboo, wood, rattan and leather, this weapon was favoured by samurai skilled in archery. The use of pole weapons was also highly popular, with the most popular types being the yari and the naginata. Whilst resembling a spear, the pole weapon’s curved blade was what made them so effective. The samurai also often chose to use the tanegashima, a type of Japanese matchlock. Tanegashima were produced on a large scale by Japanese gunsmiths, these then new weapons were highly effective, seeing them become the weapon of choice over the traditional yumi.

Artisinal Armour

As far back as the seventh century, Japanese warriors wore a form of lamellar armour, a type of armour made from small rectangular plates of iron and leather. This armour eventually evolved into the armour worn by that of the samurai. The first types of armour were known as yoroi and consisted of small individual scales known as kozane which were crafted using either iron or leather that was bound in small strips and coated with waterproof lacquer to protect the samurai armour from water. The strips were then laced together with silk or leather lace to form a complete chest armour, these parts were then combined to create the whole suit of armour. Alongside carrying their weapons and adornments, the samurai had to endure the weight of the intricately crafted armour that when completed weighed an astounding 66 lbs.
As time evolved, so did the nature of the samurai armour to accommodate the use of firearms, new fighting tactics and the need for more protection. As samurai armour changed over the coming years it developed drastically and so did the methods of warfare. The kozane armour was retired and replaced by a new iron-plated armour with added new features that protected the face, thigh and back as well as features such as the helmet and loincloth.

Noble Names

The samurai name is an intrinsic part of samurai culture, that has long been influenced by heritage. Each samurai would be named by combining the kanji, the Chinese characters that are used within the Japanese writing system, from their grandfather and one new kanji. It was also traditional to use only a small part of their total name when addressing each other which is why samurai have official nicknames. Unlike the nobles, this Japanese warrior tended to use their shorter names rather than their formal names. Because of this, samurai had four parts to their name: a true family name (their clan root), one that links to their family lineage, an official nickname for their first name, and a formal first name.
At Atelier Japan, we believe in preserving Japanese culture. Our brand is home to the finest traditional Japnese products that have been handcrafted by artisanal makers all across Japan to share with those interested in the culture and process of each collection. Visit Atelier Japan to explore our range of history and heritage-filled collections of tea, fans, silverware, pottery and jewellery.

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The Samurai: The warriors of pre-modern Japan

The samurai is a greatly respected military figure of Japan. From all eras and periods of Japanese history, the samurai evolved and adapted with the changing times to become what we know it as today. Samurai were usually associated with a clan and were trained as officers in military tactics and grand strategy. Let’s take a look at their history and how far this ancient military honour has come.

Asuka and Nara periods

The Asuka and Nara period is where the first depictions of the samurai began to emerge. The then ruler, Emperor Monmu introduced a new law whereby 1 in 3 Japanese adult males were to be drafted into the national military. This was one of the first attempts by the imperial government to form an organised army modelled after the Chinese system, however, it was believed to be short-lived. This new structure was divided into an array of ranks and sub-ranks with the 1st being the highest adviser to the emperor of the time. Those who belonged to the 6th rank and below were referred to as ‘samurai’ and were left to deal with the day-to-day affairs. Even though these ‘samurai’ were civilian public servants, the modern use of the word ‘samurai’ is said to derive from this movement.

Heian period

As Japan entered into the early Heian period, Emperor Kanmu sought to expand his rule, sending military campaigns against the Emishi. As time went on, the Emperor ultimately disbanded his army and his power gradually declined. Through his reign, many clans formed to protect themselves from the imperial magistrates. By the mid-Heian period, they had adopted characteristic Japanese armour and weapons which were thought to be the first steps in the establishment and evolution of this Japanese warrior.

Late Heian Period and Kamakura Bakufu

Originally, the Emperor and non-warrior nobility employed these newly allied warrior nobles. In time, the clans amassed plenty of manpower, resources and political backing. After the Genpei war, Yoritomo, the founder and the first shōgun, was allowed to organize soldiers and police, seeing the samurai-class begin to appear as the political ruling power in Japan.

Ashikaga shogunate and the Mongol invasions

Various samurai clans struggled for power during the Kamakura and Ashikaga Shogunates. Zen Buddhism spread among the samurai in the 13th century and helped to shape their standards of conduct, particularly overcoming the fear of death and killing. During this time, the samurai fought in the Mongolian invasions with the thunderstorms of 1274 and the typhoon of 1281 helping the warrior defenders of Japan repel the Mongol invaders. Invasions of neighbouring territories became common to avoid infighting, and bickering among samurai was a constant problem.

Sengoku period

The Sengoku period was marked by the loosening of samurai culture, with people born into other social statuses sometimes making a name for themselves as warriors. Japanese war tactics and technologies improved rapidly during this time and introduced a more mobilized infantry, providing the this Japanese warrior with the opportunity to evolve and improve their weapons and fighting skills. By the end of the Sengoku period, several hundred thousand firearms existed in Japan and massive armies numbering over 100,000 clashed in battles.

Azuchi–Momoyama period

During the Azuchi-Momoyama Period, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who became a grand minister, created a law codifying the samurai caste as permanent and hereditary, and forbidding non-samurai to carry weapons. It is important to note that the distinction between the samurai and non-samurai was so obscure that during the 16th century, most male adults in any social class belonged to at least one military organization. Large battles occurred during the change between regimes, and a number of defeated warriors were retired of their duties, destroyed or became without a lord or master.

Tokugawa shogunate

During the Tokugawa shogunate, samurai increasingly became courtiers, bureaucrats, and administrators rather than warriors. With no warfare since the early 17th century, samurai gradually lost their military function. Here, samurai served as role model behaviour for the other social classes. With time on their hands, they pursued other interests such as becoming renowned scholars.


The last real evidence of the original Japanese warrior was in 1867 when the warriors from Chōshū and Satsuma provinces defeated the Shogunate forces in favour of the rule of the Emperor. Emperor Meiji abolished the samurai’s right to be the only armed force in favour of a more modern, Western-style army in 1873. The samurai finally came to an end after hundreds of years of enjoyment of their status, their powers, and their ability to shape the government of Japan. The future of these Japanese warriors was to be determined by the fact that many of them were exchange students. Because so many of them were literate and well-educated scholars, some of these exchange students started private schools for higher education, while many decided to take on new careers, becoming reporters and writers and introduced new governmental services.
There are many areas of Japanese culture that have come and gone, but some have stayed for generations. Atelier Japan aims to keep traditional Japanese craft alive for as long as possible. Visit our website to browse our collection of handcrafted tea, silverware, pottery, jewellery and fans, and add a piece of Japanese history to your home.