Sumo

Japan's de facto national sport (although this is not an official status) is the enthralling and at times bewildering spectacle that is sumo.

Deeply rooted in Japan's culture, sumo has a history of over 1,500 years. Legend has it that the very survival of the Japanese people balanced on the outcome of a sumo match between the gods, and indeed sumo originated as a form of Shinto ritual. Though it has developed into a professional sport, elements of these rituals are still apparent, from the use of salt to purify the ring, to the shrine-like roof hanging above.

Sumo tournaments, or basho, take place every two months in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka and are a truly fantastic way to spend the day. Though the pre-bout antics are strict and formalised, the fights are a spectacular blur of flesh, noise and power as the two man mountains attempt to push, pull or slap each other out of the ring, or onto any part of their body other than the soles of their supersize feet.

Though quintessentially Japanese, in recent times the number of foreign wrestlers has gradually increased and a growing number of non-Japanese excel at the sport and the complex set of cultural traditions it carries.

Take a bento lunch box, grab a beer and cheer on with the crowd as they rally their favourite rikishi to victory!

Kendo

The furious, noisy sport of kendo is perhaps Japan's oldest martial art and blends power, skill and bravery.

Kendo could be described loosely as "Japanese fencing", though the "swords" are today crafted from four substantial bamboo slats, usually held together by leather straps. Its origins lie in the Kamakura period (1185-1333) with the samurai, who needed to practice their swordsmanship.

They established "kenjutsu" schools for this purpose, and, with the influence of Zen Buddhism, it took on a rather spiritual as well as physical essence.  Over time the swords were replaced with the bamboo staves, and thick, protective body armour was introduced. Today kendo is practiced all over Japan and is a sport for all ages of participants.

Karate

Though arguably one of world's most famous martial arts, karate's beginnings are somewhat hazy. Often thought of as Japanese, the earliest antecedents of karate are said to have originated as far away as the Indian Subcontinent.

From there it passed into China, where it was developed and refined. Chinese traders brought these fighting skills to the Ryukyu Islands as early as the fourteenth century. Now incorporated in what is known as Okinawa, Japan's southernmost prefecture, the Ryukyus were once an independent kingdom with a culture completely distinct from that of Japan. It was here that karate as we know it today was developed.

Over hundreds of years various styles of these martial arts were practiced, and karate was not properly introduced to mainland Japan until the early twentieth century. The term karate originally meant "Tang hand" or "Chinese hand", but after World War Two the name (and character) was changed to mean "empty hand", which is also pronounced "karate" - an effort to develop the art in a Japanese style. Accordingly, karate features largely unarmed combat with a spectacular array of blows and blocks delivered by the fists, feet, legs and arms.

Aikido

Aikido is sometimes loosely translated to mean "way of the harmonious spirit". It is a less overtly aggressive martial art that focuses on defence by redirecting the power and energy of the attacker, with the ideal outcome that neither the attacked nor the attacker is harmed. 

Aikido was founded in the 1920s by Ueshiba Morihei. Morihei was born in Tanabe, located in the south of the Kii Peninsula. This is a remote, beautiful region to the south of Kyoto and Osaka and a place of great spiritual significance. This sense of spirituality became infused in the essence of aikido, as were aspects of Japanese dance, Shintoism, Buddhism, karate and kendo.

Judo

Of all of Japan's martial arts, Judo is perhaps the one that has spread most successfully around the world. The essence lies in the speed, subtlety and skill of using the size and strength of the opponent against themselves. 

Judo is practiced both recreationally and professionally; the epic bouts are one of the highlights of every Olympic Games. Judo means "gentle way" and was created by a man named Kano Jigoro in 1882. The inspiration for judo was born out of the bullying that Jigoro witnessed at the English medium boarding school he attended in Tokyo, when he was just fourteen years old.

Jigoro wanted to be trained in the art of jiu-jitsu, an ancient form of self-defence favoured by the samurai. Though finding a teacher proved difficult, He eventually studied under two masters before founding his own school and dojo at Eisho-ji Temple in Tokyo, and from here judo came into being.