Learn All About the Traditions of Japan With These 7 Inspirational Artworks

Shigeta Yusuke's artwork, on display as part of CULTURE GATE to JAPAN, is inspired by samurai warriors
Shigeta Yusuke's artwork, on display as part of CULTURE GATE to JAPAN, is inspired by samurai warriors | Courtesy of Culture Gate to Japan

The CULTURE GATE to JAPAN project has turned seven airports and an international cruise terminal into exhibition areas, showcasing artworks inspired by Japan’s diverse regional cultures and crafts. In Narita and Haneda airports, in Tokyo, the Vision Gate installation guides visitors with six video works, each exploring a different aspect of Japanese culture. The contrasting themes of the pieces, exploring everything from traditional visions of femininity to manga, make a perfect introduction to this eclectic country.

Most international visitors to Japan pass through one of Tokyo’s transport hubs, but plenty of you also get to see regional airports when you go beyond the capital. The CULTURE GATE to JAPAN project enriches that experience, introducing you to local artists, crafts and history before you’ve even left the airport.

The Crowd Cloud (2021) installation by Yuri Suzuki and Miyu Hosoi is based on the sounds of the Japanese language | © Photo by Takashi Kawashima

Naha Airport

In Naha Airport, gateway to the sun-drenched islands of Okinawa, artists nuQ and Satoru Higa have created pieces exploring the theme of MEMORY.

Satoru Higa digital 3D model of Shurijō Castle gives visitors the chance to experience this icon of Okinawa while the real thing is under reconstruction following a fire in 2019. You’ll see aspects of the castle’s design repeated across Japan, such as the shisa, or lion dog, statues that stand guard in front of many buildings.

The artist Satoru Higa’s installation on display in Nahu airport explores the theme of memory | © Courtesy of Culture Gate to Japan

The artist nuQ’s colourful mural combines aspects of the traditional culture of the Ryukyu Islands, today a popular beach-holiday destination. Indeed, Okinawa, one of the islands in the archipelago, is an expert at this cultural mixing. For centuries the Ryukyu Islands existed as an independent kingdom, combining indigenous culture with influences from Japan, China, Korea and Southeast Asia. This fusion was called chanpurū, which is also the name of a stir-fry that combines a mixture of ingredients.

The artist nuQ’s installation, on display at Naha Airport, reflects tradition and modernity in Okinawa today | © Courtesy of Culture Gate to Japan

The islands’ crafts also show a diverse range of influences. Yachimun pottery drew from the ceramic traditions of surrounding nations and put a uniquely Okinawan spin on them, displaying natural motifs on glazed pottery. Bingata, a brightly patterned fabric, combines Okinawan imagery with techniques from China, India and Southeast Asia.

Bingata is a traditional dying craft that originated in Okinawa | © OCVB

Okinawa has its own unique set of performing arts, too, including eisa, or folk dancing, sanshin (a three-stringed instrument) music, classical Ryūkyūan dance and kumiodori theatre. It’s also the birthplace of karate, which is now practised around the world.

Ryūkyūan dances have been performed for centuries and are an integral part of Okinawan culture | © Courtesy of Culture Gate to Japan

Fukuoka Airport

The artworks displayed in Fukuoka Airport introduce visitors to Kyūshū through the theme of PATTERN. The first of the two artists shown, Macoto Murayama, re-envisioned his digital illustrations as botanical pottery designs. Elegant Arita ware, produced in western Kyūshū’s Saga prefecture, is one of Japan’s most famous ceramic styles. It’s also the oldest, first made in the 17th century, when kaolin clay was discovered in the area.

Maruyama’s artwork on show at Fukuoku Airport, celebrating the theme of PATTERN, is inspired by botanical pottery designs | © Courtesy of Culture Gate to Japan

The second artist, Mirai Mizue, toured four regions of Kyūshū to learn about their specialist crafts, combining their patterns into a mandala-like animation. In Fukuoka, he studied Hakata-ori textiles, a fabric woven with eye-catching geometric patterns and usually worn as an obi, the belt that goes with a kimono.

Mizue’s artwork, on display at Fukuoka Airport, is inspired by the patterns of Kyushu regional crafts | © Courtesy of Culture Gate to Japan

In the Gotō Islands, near Nagasaki, Mizue was inspired by Baramon kites, traditionally made to celebrate the birth of a boy. The flat paper kites are hand-painted in bright colours, usually with stylised warriors and demons, and are often flown on Children’s Day in May.

The Kyushu area is well known for its craft traditions and Mizue’s work captures this perfectly | © Courtesy of Culture Gate to Japan

Yamaga City, in Kumamoto Prefecture, produces ornate lanterns made from washi (Japanese paper) and glue. The paper is cut into delicate patterns to allow the warm light to shine through, which is something Mizue references in his work.

In Kagoshima, he drew inspiration from colourful Satsuma kiriko, a technique to cut glass developed in the 19th century by combining Japanese tradition with Chinese, English and Dutch methods. The craft was lost for decades, before being revived in the 1980s, and now there are several workshops in the region.

Satsuma kiriko combines traditional Japanese glassmaking with Chinese, English and Dutch techniques | © Courtesy of Sengan-en, Shimadzu clan residence in Kagoshima

Chūbu Centrair International Airport

The artworks shown at Chūbu Centrair International Airport, in central Japan, which work with the theme of MOTION, explore the region’s links to Japan’s formidable warriors and mysterious spies: samurai and ninja.

Yusuke Shigeta focuses on samurai, specifically the Battle of Sekigahara, in Chūbu in 1600. His digital illustration draws inspiration from the folding screen that depicts the bloody conflict in an elegant, gold-hued painting.

You can see Shigeta’s samurai-inspired artworks at Chubu Centrair International Airport | © Courtesy of Culture Gate to Japan

Another influence was a poem by the haiku master Bashō, written just a few decades after Sekigahara. His characteristically sparse verse captures the sense of Mono no aware, or “The pathos of things”:

Summer grasses:

all that remains

of warriors’ dreams

Shigeta’s artwork is directly inspired by the warriors and spies linked to the Chubū region | © Courtesy of Culture Gate to Japan

As the country moved into a more peaceful era, the samurai shifted their focus from war to culture and developed some of Japan’s most famous arts – the tea ceremony, waka poetry and Noh theatre. Other Culture Gate exhibits touch on the peacetime pastimes of the samurai; Senzo Ueno’s piece at Tokyo International Cruise Terminal focuses on bonsai, while Jun Inoue’s combines shodō (Japanese calligraphy) with graffiti.

Unlike samurai, ninja faded into the background in the relatively peaceful Tokugawa era, becoming as much mythical figures as historical people. Some of their techniques have been handed down, though, and with two of the most prominent ninja schools located here, Chūbu is an ideal place to learn about them. At Chūbu Centrair International Airport you’ll find A Box of Signs by creative group Euphrates on display; the piece is inspired by ninja signs and points of light float within a black box. The movement of light gives the impression that something or someone could emerge from the vast darkness, yet this rapid movement stops suddenly and all signs of presence quickly diminish.

A Box of Signs, by the creative group Euphrates, is inspired by the rapid movement of ninjas © | Courtesy of Culture Gate to Japan

In the cities of Iga and Kōka, you can see demonstrations of ninja arts and even visit historic ninja houses. Filled with ingenious booby traps, secret escape roots and hiding places, they offer a tantalising glimpse into the world of these mysterious mercenaries.

Venture to the cities of Iga and Kōka for demonstrations of ninjas in action | © Iga-ryu Ninja Museum

New Chitose Airport

The multimedia installation by creative company Naked Inc, at New Chitose Airport, explores Ainu culture through the theme of INVISIBLE. The Ainu are an indigenous people from northern Japan and eastern Russia. Many place names in Hokkaidō come from the Ainu language, including Sapporo – the prefectural capital, near the airport – which means “dry, great river”.

The oral tradition of Ainu culture is reflected in the artwork, which uses sound to convey the rich culture, just as the Ainu people have passed down spiritual traditions through songs and stories. At Tokyo International (Haneda) Airport, sound artist Yuri Suzuki and composer Miyu Hosoi have also created an audio installation for CULTURE GATE, based instead on the root sounds of the Japanese language.

Ceremonies and traditional dances have also taken inspiration from Ainu culture and spirituality; there are several museums and cultural centres in Hokkaidō where you can learn more about them, and many host performances that you can watch.

You’ll also be able to see examples of Ainu crafts, and perhaps try your hand at them. Many traditional Ainu performances are accompanied by music played on the mukkuri (mouth harp) or tonkori (a five-stringed instrument), and dancers wear robes made from attush (elm bark cloth), often embroidered with bold, symmetrical patterns that have specific spiritual significance or practical meaning.

The Ainu people were the earliest settlers of Hokkaido and much of their culture can be explored in Sapporo | © Courtesy of Sapporo Tourist Association

At Lake Akan Ainu Kotan, Hokkaidō’s largest Ainu settlement, you can see another multimedia interpretation of Ainu stories, Lost Kamuy, a groundbreaking performance that combines animation, contemporary dance and traditional storytelling to explore the thoughts and desires of the Ainu’s gods.

See artisan craft makers and performances prominent in Ainu culture at Lake Akan Ainu Kotan | © jeremy sutton-hibbert / Alamy Stock Photo

Visit the official website to see more of the artworks and to take a deeper dive into the destinations and Japanese traditions that inspired them.

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