Be it Sakura or Sake, Sushi or Samurai, and many other aspects that will surprise you, Japan is a true treat for all the senses.
You may not have realised it, but Japan has been seeping into your conscious for a while now. Even if you weren’t influenced by Kurosawa’s films and Murakami’s books, the Japanese takeover of pop culture is evident in the way we speak glibly of finding our ikigai, arranging our flowers with ikebana, repairing broken pottery with golden lacquer called kintsugi, so we can admire its wabi-sabi beauty – the perfection in the imperfection!
We find peace with the Nicheren Buddhist chant ‘Nam Myoho Renge Kyo’ and swear by Sudoku to challenge our brain when we’re bored. And whether or not Marie Kondo’s trademarked Kon Mari method of clearing the clutter in our life sparks joy for us, she’s going to be back with a new show on Netflix at the end of this month teaching the world how to be as neat, polite and mindful as the Japanese.
A journey through Japan repeatedly reminds you of these qualities. Not only the people, but their cuisine too, is just that – neat, polite and mindful! Think carefully rolled maki, almost-surgically sliced sashimi, the deliberate dance of the Japanese tea ceremony… it’s all about slow, thoughtful food, crafted with technique and consumed with care.
Take the street eats in Osaka’s Dotonbori district, for example. Whether it is popular faves like the pancakes known as okonomiyaki and octopus minced and batter-fried into balls called takoyaki, or more expensive options such as Hokkaido scallops and Kobe beef, it’s all done with the perfect mix that I call ‘flair and care’.
Even a street vendor, be his stall ever so humble, respects the quality of ingredients and prides himself on his technique. This is why at rest stops along highways too, you get sensational meals at affordable prices. Not quite the impression that Japanese restaurants back home give you about the cuisine. Even a budget traveller can enjoy a quality experience, as long as you figure out how to work those picture menus they often have. Meant to help tourists, they oddly have instructions for use only in Japanese. And, of course, the universal language of travellers – pointing, hand signs and expressions – doesn’t really work with a machine!
Machines are a large part of the Japanese experience, though often much friendlier than these. The toilets are a case in point, being as high tech as they come! They have a button for everything, from bidet sprays to music while you wee to the most dangerous-sounding one – tampon removal! And then there are bots to do a lot, be it hotel lobby cleaning to advertising. Even if you aren’t going there expressly to buy a robot as a friend of ours was, you could rent a tiny robot guide for a day or even engage in robot battles for a price. A simpler way to engage would be to try the many brightly coloured pachinko parlours (for fun, of course… gambling, especially on a holiday, is a very bad idea!). A much cuter thing to do is pay a couple of hundred yen to try your luck with a gachapon machine (there are hundreds in Tokyo’s Akihabara area) and see which tiny capsule toy pops out. Collecting these is a craze among young and old in Japan and has caught on with tourists too.
You’ll encounter such high levels of cute and general quirkiness everywhere you go in Japan. From pets in adorable clothing to whimsical manhole covers to themed cafes, you’ll find many aww-inspiring and some quite surprising. Be it Kit Kat or Coca Cola, the Japanese have made them their own by adding unique flavours, artistic packaging, and a poetic sense of whimsy. If you’re into graphic novels, you’ll appreciate their Manga mania.
here are fewer print copies in shops these days, but we’re betting that a large number of smartphone users are reading e-Manga on their daily commute or at their favourite cat café. As can you. The animated stories are called Anime and the characters have such cult followings all over the world that they’ve even influenced haute couture in a big way! It’s a culture that capably straddles these great extremes – 21st-century technology and centuries-old customs, cutting-edge design and an inherent understanding of form, an appreciation of nature and beauty even as it has embraced everything from the Shinkansen bullet train to artificial intelligence to the planned creation of a future Society 5.0.
When you go to Kyoto and see the roots of this future-facing nation, you realise how deep they run. The old capital is rich with tradition, seen in the ancient wooden houses, the Shinto shrines with the orange-hued torii gates (like the much-photographed Fushimi Inari), and the age-old shops lining the winding streets. This is a good place to treat yourself to an elaborate tea ceremony, which has Japanese green tea or matcha at the centre of the sublime experience. It’s an ancient ritual that is all about mindfulness, harmony and connection between the hostess and the guests.
In some destinations, the tea ceremony is conducted by a geisha, a woman who has been trained in Japanese performing arts and etiquette for years to be a highly skilled entertainer. Because of their beautiful kimonos and striking make-up and hair arrangements, they are sought after by tourists even when they are not entertaining at high-end restaurants or teahouses. If you want to spot a geisha on her way somewhere, you can try the streets in Hanami-koji-dori in the Gion district on weekdays around sunset.
Kyoto’s geishas are the most authentic and accomplished, a symbol of how the city respects its time-tested traditions. In fact, so strong is its cultural cachet, that the authorities in Kyoto have worked hard to protect its gravitas by making sure that even international chains such as Starbucks, Mc Donald’s and 7-Eleven that are in the more modern part of the city, still adhere to its mandate of sober signage in shades of brown!
The same sort of reverence is reserved for Mount Fuji, or Fujisan, as it is fondly called by locals. The highest mountain in Japan at a little more than 3776 metres, it has been regarded as a sacred site for pilgrimage from as far back as the 12th century. Tourists and pilgrims make the trek to various stations that rise from five lakes at the base, to the grassy slopes, to a forested section, and finally to the barren snowbound bits before reaching the volcanic rim.
This connection with the past is strongly felt even in the midst of modern Tokyo, where the Imperial Palace shimmers ethereally over beautiful lakes and ornate gardens. It’s the royal residence of Emperor Naruhito, who ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne in 2019. The Yamato dynasty is the longest-surviving dynasty in the world, whose reign is traditionally dated to 660 BC.
If the ancient warriors known as the Samurai fascinate you, rambles through various districts where their homes are well preserved to this day might be interesting. Nagamachi, near the Kanazawa Castle, is one of the most visited Samurai districts in Japan. Kakunodate in the Akita prefecture is another popular spot. And, if you’re there you can blend the fierce and the floral, the Japanese version of guns and roses – katana (samurai swords) and sakura (cherry blossoms) on the same visit!
So much has been said and written about Japanese sakura. But it is just one of the many ways that the Japanese celebrate their links with nature. Once the spring blooms have faded, summer brings fireflies in from the rivers and there are special festivals held to appreciate their beauty and the significance of the changing season.
Seasons play a very important part in beautiful Japanese traditions such as the delicate-yet-powerful poems called the Haiku too. Often, the poetic emotion is translated onto the plate as well. Like the eight-course omakase that Hiroshima-born Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto created for us a couple of years ago, which had a distinct autumnal aura throughout, but especially in the second course.
According to the principles of formal Kaiseki cuisine, the hassun course sets the seasonal tone for the rest of the meal. So, he presented us a stunning painting of a platter, lined with leaves underneath, and an orange maple leaf nestled between an array of tiny culinary creations in fall colours. A melt-in-your-mouth roast duck, karasumi daikon (salted mullet roe with radish), walnut tofu, soft ginkgo nuts, fried lotus root, and prized matsutake mushrooms with the astringent taste of kikuna leaves just blew our minds. Omakase, which translates to ‘respectfully leaving another to decide what is best’ in Japanese, is a philosophy that resonates with the excellence-centric ethic of the country. Where you can leave it to the expert because you know she or he will give you the best. Which sort of applies to your entire journey through Japan too.
What to eat and where
Styles of cuisine, speciality ingredients, budget stalls to super expensive fine dines, the variety in Japan is mindboggling. Here’s our pick of one great place in each big city to get you started with the different Japanese dishes…
Sensational Sushi in Tokyo
Once a three Michelin starred restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro in the glamourous Ginza area has been dropped by the guide in 2020, as it doesn’t accept public reservations anymore. If you can manage a table through your hotel or special connections, you can be one of 10 guests every night to get a taste of sushi made by 95-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono. He’s been perfecting what many call the world’s best sushi from the age of seven. If you’ve watched the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which was made on him a decade ago, you’ll know exactly what we’re talking about here. Budget travellers can go get unlimited sushi for a fixed price off a conveyor belt at places like Katsumidori in Meguro.
Top-rated Tempura in Osaka
The deep-fried tempura at Shunsaiten Tsuchiya is considered the best, crunchy outside and fluffy inside. With two Michelin stars, the restaurant uses seasonal ingredients and gives you value for your yen by giving you a chance to interact with the chefs.
Kingly Kaiseki in Kyoto
Hyotei, just like the old capital of Japan, is brimming over with history and heritage. It was a tea house 400 years ago. Today, it serves Kyoto’s traditional Kaiseki dishes as a bento box or multi-course meal. The three Michelin starred restaurant is set in the typical Zen garden that is seen in many parts of old Kyoto.
Ridiculously Good Ramen in Sapporo
Sapporo specialises in miso-flavoured ramen and Ramen Shingen in the heart of the city, is one of the hottest tickets to the best comfort bowl. You can try it ‘echigo’ if you like things spicy or ‘shinsu’ if you prefer it mild. No stars here, but the long lines of ramen-hungry patrons are enough testament to their taste.
Satisfying Shabushabu in Okinawa
You can have the hotpot called shabushabu in most places across Japan. But Kin Aguu Shabushabu in this city is special because it serves Kin Aguu, a really high-quality Japanese pork that Okinawa is known for, along with fresh vegetables harvested locally.
Read on the road
We recommend three books on Japan, written by outsiders but offering the inside track on its various aspects.
Untangling My Chopsticks: A Culinary Sojourn in Kyoto
By Victoria Abbott Riccardi
A young American woman travels to Kyoto to learn about tea kaiseki, the intricate multi-course meal that is traditionally served before a tea ceremony. A fun way to gain insights into Japan’s complicated food and culture. Especially useful for vegetarians, as it explains shojin ryori, the Zen Buddhist vegetarian cuisine.
Rice Noodle Fish: Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture
By Matt Goulding
When the man behind Roads & Kingdoms writes on food travel, it’s bound to be immersive and interesting. He explores the gamut of Japan’s food culture and the passion of the shokunin chefs, who dedicate their lives to cooking one type of food perfectly.
Tokyo on Foot: Travels in the City’s Most Colorful Neighborhoods
By Florent Chavouet
A collection of drawings and descriptions about the city’s different neighbourhoods by a French man who lived there for a while, this one can be a fun look while travelling through Tokyo.