Tokyo has grown spectacularly from a small fishing village to a metropolis with cutting-edge design and skyscrapers like Tokyo Skytree, the world’s tallest freestanding tower. Still, Tokyo’s traditions endure, and that old-new mix is part of the city’s distinctive allure. Beyond the futuristic neon lights and trend-setting cocktail bars are serene spaces that offer a welcome reprieve. A morning meditation with Buddhist monks, for instance, will leave your body and mind calm for the day ahead. You might spend the afternoon learning the craft of Edo Sarasa cotton dyeing and then head to a tour of sake breweries. In Tokyo, you’ll discover there’s a traditional experience to suit every style of modern-day traveler.
In its 1950s heyday, the area of Ochiai in Shinjuku counted 300 dye houses. Now Futaba-en, family run for nearly 100 years, is one of the few keeping traditions alive—and sharing them with locals and visitors through its workshops. They use Edo Komon and Sarasa cotton dyeing techniques, the former dating back to the 1600s, when such coveted fabrics were only accessible to wealthy samurai and other elite. Edo Sarasa is known for vibrant patterns and distinctive Japanese floral and bird designs. During the workshop, you’ll learn to create an authentic cotton centerpiece using Edo Sarasa dyeing techniques and fine handprint patterns.
Many sake producers are tucked deep within Japan’s rural snow-covered regions, but conveniently, nine breweries are yours to explore in and around Tokyo. A good place to begin your studies of this fermented rice drink is Ishikawa Brewery, which makes its Tamajiman sake in storehouses, known as kura. The Ishikawa family has been brewing sake since 1863 in Fussa about an hour west of central Tokyo. Water is the most important element in sake brewing, and the well remains a central part of the facility. Since the usual sake-brewing season is November through April, many of the breweries, Ishikawa included, also brew beer. (As you’ll learn, the sake process is more similar to brewing beer than cultivating wine.) After touring the sake facilities, you can sample three of their seasonal specialties. Another tour-worthy brewery, the Ozawa Shuzo has been operating for 300 years in a mountainous area west of Tokyo—90 minutes from Shinjuku and seemingly worlds away. Its signature Sawanoi brand is light and dry.
It’s transporting—and perhaps unexpected—to come upon a temple or shrine on the side streets of Tokyo. Enter, and join Buddhist monks on tatami mat floors for zazen, a seated Zen meditation meant to bring insight and calm to the body and mind. Start the morning with a peaceful meditation at Risenji Temple, a well-known Zen gathering place north of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace. Following the meditation, receive a dokyo sutra reading, try samu temple work, or enjoy a shukuza temple breakfast. It’s also well worth spending an evening at Kourin-in Temple, which welcomes visitors to participate in daily zazen meditations. Kourin-in also offers shakyo sutra transcriptions meant to calm the soul and shabutsu Buddha image tracing meant to aid meditation and bring enlightenment. It all amounts to a soothing way to wind down after a stimulating day exploring Tokyo.