Japan travel: Satisfying your yen for real Japanese culture

In the summer of 1853, four American ships sailed into Tokyo Bay, ending Japan’s 200 years of self-imposed isolation. The extraordinary, insular country they found immediately captured the world’s imagination, sparking a craze known as Japonisme that changed Western art and aesthetics forever. Japan continues to fascinate and delight; a country of startling modernity and of ancient traditions, where elegant geisha, robe-clad priests and visionary engineers all make up a part of the authentic face of Japan.

Dive into the thrilling and serene world of Shinto monks, street food vendors, anime characters, Okinawan centenarians, tech innovators, J-pop megastars, ancient philosophers, onsen dwellers and so many more.

From architecture to martial arts; from ramen to robots; kawaii to Kusama; ikigai to ikebana; towering skyscrapers to shrines – Be More Japan uncovers the art and creativity behind modern Japanese living through its kaleidoscope of contrasting places, people and practices.

Here are some essential must-dos when visiting Japan:

  • Cross the threshold into the world of the gods at a Shinto shrine.

You’ll find some are peaceful and intimate, while others are lively destinations resounding with ringing bells and the chatter of people discussing the love fortunes they’ve bought at the shrine stalls.

  • Picnic under the cherry blossom trees in spring – a truly Japanese celebration of nature and the changing seasons.

You can even chase the blossoms as they burst into life in stages across Japan from March in the south to early May up north.

  • No talent required: sing your heart out at karaoke. You can order food and drink right to your private, soundproof room, so settle in for the evening and get ready to belt out your favourite tunes in the ultimate singalong.
  • Experience a tranquil tea ceremony and fall under the spell of this traditional, elegant ritual.

The ceremony is full of Zen-inspired moments of peace and meditation, and beauty in the form of the ceramic bowls and wall art.

  • Visit Kyoto, a historic icon in the heart of modern Japan. The city is home to an amazing array of incredible architecture, with more Unesco-listed Unesco Heritage Sites than any other city on the planet.

With 1,600 Buddhist temples, Kyoto is an absolute must for any culture vulture.

The best way to experience the city is to stay in a ryokan (traditional inn), where you’ll sleep on a futon on tatami mats and dine on classic Japanese food washed down with plenty of sake.

  • Express yourself through style in the fashion districts of the big cities. Get inspired on Sundays when the streets become a catwalk of stylish shoppers – either showing off the latest chic trends or continuing the Japanese tradition of colourful experimentation.
  • Find your inner peace in a Zen garden. Sparse and barren at first glance, look closer to seek the meaning behind each choice of rock and stone, as understanding the scene before you is the key to unlocking true tranquility.
  • Join the riotous celebrations at a summer festival. Although each festival is different – some honouring a particular shrine or historic event – you will find they’re all full of exuberant crowds enjoying delicious street food, lively entertainment and quality time with friends and family.
  • Create a living sculpture in an ikebana class. Everything from the choice of vase to the spaces between the twigs and flowers becomes an artistic tool to design a piece that captures the fleeting beauty of nature.
  • Check out a vending machine classic: canned coffee, an everyday staple all across Japan.

Ditch the ordinary cafes and stop at the nearest vending machine – you’ll never be far from one of these ubiquitous gadgets – to enjoy a refreshingly cold coffee in the heat of summer, or deliciously hot can in winter.

  • Take a dip in a relaxing hot spring. As one of the most active volcanic regions in the world, is it any wonder that hot springs are such an integral part of Japan’s culture? Find out why they’re so important to the Japanese by soaking in a rotenburo – an outdoor hot spring – to enjoy not just a unique cultural experience but also the stunning natural views.
  • Savour Japan’s award-winning whisky in a refreshing highball, which pairs perfectly with either meat or seafood.

With the help of its seasonal climates and the native wood used for casking, Japanese whisky now takes centre stage across the world.

  • Japan is home to some of the world’s best (and strangest) snacks.

Try umaibo or “delicious stick”, a puffed corn stick that comes in savoury or sweet versions, with popular flavours including cheese, corn potage and teriyaki burger.

Onigiri are rice balls usually wrapped with nori seaweed, most of which are triangular and contain a meat or vegetable filling.

Hiyoko cakes (meika hiyoko) are sweet buns in the shape of baby chicks.

Filled with a yellow jam made of kidney beans, in seasonal flavours such as green tea or cherry blossom.

  • Take a fast train. When Japan launched the Shinkansen in 1964, they left the rest of the world in their dust.

Silently speeding at 200mph (320km/h), you’ll feel as if you’re already in the future.

Be More Japan, published by DK Eyewitness. £16.99, dk.com

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