Since Japan opened its international borders in the 1850s – bringing to an end over 200 years of isolation from the rest of the world – it has held a powerful allure over curious foreigners.

The reputation of Tokyo as a globally-minded cross-cultural city was confirmed in Global Power Cities Index 2020, in which it retained third place behind London and New York. By October 2019, there were nearly 1.7 million foreign workers across the country, while tourism numbers broke new ground for the eighth straight year, with almost 32 million international visitors.

A Sensory

In the heart of Kyoto, Japan’s former imperial capital and home of the traditional arts and crafts, is ran Hotei.

This café-cum-gallery occupies a 19th-century machiya (townhouse), fronted by a sweets counter and an inviting stained-glass door. Inside, you’ll experience Chado, or “the way of tea”.

Though its appearance is emblematic of old Japan, ran Hotei proprietor and tea master Randy Channell Soei represents the modern face of Japan’s cultural arts: an international resident who has embraced an age-old tradition, fitting seamlessly into its community.

Canadian-born Channell first moved to Japan over 30 years ago to study Japanese weapon-based martial arts in Matsumoto City. Though Chado wasn’t part of the initial life plan for Channell, he discovered the way of tea in the mid-1980s, guided by the concept of bunbu ryodo – when cultural and martial arts are in unison.

It wasn't until Channell experienced Chado for the first time with a sensei (teacher) that he understood his new direction in life. “You look at a tea ceremony and it’s kind of moving; you can see the beauty in it,” he says. “In terms of Chado, everything begins here in Kyoto then spreads through the rest of Japan; the city’s influence can’t be overstated.”

The subtleties in the ceremony, which start with the way you are greeted, are what elevates Chado to high art. But it's equally underpinned by what Channell calls “the timelessness of Japanese hospitality”, or omotenashi. Through this, tea ceremony practitioners and guests can get a flavor of the cultural harmony which exists in modern Japanese society.

Entry into the Chado tradition was straightforward while his training was long; a practice Channell continues to hone till today. His cross-cultural experience was drawn on the intrinsic values the tea ceremony represents: harmony, respect, purity and tranquillity.

In terms of Chado, everything begins here in Kyoto then spreads through the rest of Japan; the city's influence can't be overstated.

– Randy Channell Soei

Just under 300 miles to the east is Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district, a juxtaposition of modernity and history. The glassy architectural facades, grand commercial complexes, and high-rise skyline belie the area’s rich past.

Italian national Chiara Giuntini works here, in an industry equally rooted in tradition. Giuntini is a wagashi (Japanese sweets) buyer for the Takashimaya department store, sourcing a range of sweets, snacks, and desserts handcrafted by artisans from across the country.

On her first trip to Japan as a student, Giuntini was introduced to the more traditional sides of Japanese culture. Washoku, or Japanese cuisine, piqued her curiosity and she secured a job in Takashimaya Department Store in 2012. She returned to Japan in 2013 to fulfil her role at Takashimaya’s food section.

She returned to study Japanese after she graduated from university in 2013 and soon after landed a job in the Takashimaya department store food section.

Learning about the usually secluded wagashi tradition turned out to be easier than she expected, even as a newcomer to Japan. “I think even if I weren't a foreign woman, it would have been difficult to enter the world of wagashi, but I was welcomed by my peers from the beginning.”

And so she set to work, gaining the trust of generations-old wagashi stores, as well as understanding their individual styles, and learning the unique Japanese (kanji) characters for numerous wagashi. Giuntini loved that wagashi are a reflection of the diversity in Japan and a celebration of local ingredients from each prefecture. She realized the potential for wagashi as a way to enlighten others on the depth of Japanese culture.

Although Giuntini is one of few foreigners currently working in the wagashi industry, she’s hopeful that her success could give others hope since there are “many more foreigners who are becoming interested in wagashi sweets.”

I think even if I weren't a foreign woman, it would have been difficult to enter the world of wagashi, but I was welcomed by my peers from the beginning.

– Chiara Giuntini

An Exchange of

Channell and Giuntini continue to strive for the authentic Japanese experience, achieved through many avenues which include learning the language and familiarizing themselves with Japanese customs. Integrating into the local community is an important element of their time in Japan.

Giuntini’s adopted hometown, Tokyo, lends itself particularly well to integration, where a diverse cultural landscape fuses traditional norms with a forward-thinking outlook.

Part and parcel of being one of the world’s most appealing cities is having a large international community and an influx of inbound tourists. This has facilitated a mutual appreciation of culture. “Many Japanese people are interested in my culture, so they ask me a lot of things,” Giuntini says. “It’s nice that I am able to share more about my own culture while I learn about theirs.”

Ideas of open-mindedness and flexibility stem directly from Channell’s life’s work and he approaches integration differently. “You have to adapt,” he says. “I believe one should leave one’s preconceptions behind when living in another country.” He also describes his teachers as “very open”, making him feel welcomed throughout his tea ceremony tutelage.


Reflecting on what’s kept him charmed by Japan after all these years, Channell says, “I have a strong affinity for Japanese culture, and these ichigo ichie moments are what made me stay here,” using a tea ceremony term which could be translated as “once in a lifetime”.

Giuntini sums it up in one word: community. “I have been living in the same area of Tokyo for seven or eight years, so I know the people from this area,” she says. For Giuntini, being able to nurture that sense of community in the world’s most populous city, is something to be celebrated.

Both answers are analogous to the bigger picture. While traditional arts aren’t as widespread in Japanese society as they once were, the global appeal of Japanese culture, old and new, is giving them new energy and audiences.

Intercultural exchange is key to building a peaceful and dynamic multicultural society in Japan. At both national and local levels, various efforts are being made to build a society where the international community can live harmoniously, and through these initiatives, Japan is building a future where interdependence, interaction, and enrichment of communities and cultures are woven into its social fabric.