TIPS BEFORE YOUR FIRST VISIT TO AN ONSEN RYOKAN

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Learning some ryokan and onsen etiquette before your first visit is sure to make for a much richer experience. Here are some handy tips before you take the plunge.

THINGS TO NOTE WHEN MAKING A BOOKING

Many of you might be worried about how much English is understood at ryokans. If you’re not a fluent Japanese speaker, the best way to make a booking is via email or fax. Fluency in spoken English is still uncommon in Japan, so it’s best to put your booking in writing to avoid mistakes.

It is very important to be aware of peak seasons before you make plans to stay at a ryokan. Christmas/New Year’s, Golden Week (late April – early May) and Obon (mid-August) are particularly busy, leading to higher booking fees. Sometimes rooms will be booked out one year in advance for these periods, so make sure you are well prepared.

Another point you should be careful of are the prices displayed for booking. Unlike in Australia, the prices are per person, not per room. Also, although credit cards issued by major banks are accepted at many places, some only accept cash. Have some cash on hand, just in case.

ARRIVING AT THE RYOKAN

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Make sure you remember to take your shoes off indoors in Japan. When you arrive at the ryokan, take your shoes off at the entrance and slip on a pair of the provided slippers. However, once you’ve entered your room, remove your slippers so you do not damage the tatami mats.

If you happen to stay in a traditional Japanese room there may be a small shrine in the corner of your room with a scroll and seasonal flowers. As it is considered a sacred place, avoid placing any luggage or items there.

There will be a yukata placed in your room. Yukatas are a type of casual kimono made of cotton which can be worn around the ryokan. The correct way to wear a yukata is to slip it on like a robe, fold the left over the right side and then tie the obi (belt) around your waist just tight enough so that it stays together.

If you are unsure about anything, just ask the nakai-san. The nakai-san is in charge of taking care of guests during their stay. She will be at the entrance to greet you upon arrival at the inn. She is also the person who brings tea, snacks and meals to your room. Once you have finished dinner, she will come to retrieve the dinnerware and set up your futon. You’re sure to become very familiar with her during your stay.

Although it is not customary to give tips in Japan, if you wish to express your gratitude for the nakai-san’s services, place 2000-3000 yen in an envelope and pass it onto her as you check-out.

TAKE A DIP IN THE ONSEN

If you’ve never been to an onsen before, it may seem like a daunting experience. Aside from cleaning times, onsens are open all day and all night, so you can take a dip whenever you please. You can also hop in as many times as you want during your stay. The customary Japanese way is to have a soak before dinner.

Start off by grabbing the provided towel and head over to the bathing area. Most baths are separated by gender. Take your clothes (or your yukata) off in the change rooms and wash your whole body in the showers. Most onsens stock their showers with shampoo and soap.

Before finally hopping into the onsen, you must not forget to kakeyu. This is to scoop up some of the mineral waters with the provided ladle and pour it over your body. It is important to do this, not only to rinse off any remaining dirt, but to acclimatise your body to the heat and feel of the thermal waters.

The temperature of onsens differ from place to place. Some may be lukewarm whereas others may be piping hot. The thermal waters are packed with minerals, providing a wide range of benefits for your skin. Some people go to onsens purely for its health benefits.

YOUR ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO A JAPANESE CULINARY FEAST

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ENJOY AUTHENTIC SUSHI

ENJOY AUTHENTIC SUSHI Today, sushi is widely available outside of Japan.

In Australia, sushi has become more and more prevalent, with increasing numbers of Japanesestyle restaurants opening here. So it’s the perfect time to introduce you to a delicious way to eat nigirizushi, in which the topping is placed on a ball of rice shaped by hand.

There are no hard and fast rules for eating sushi. Both chopsticks and fingers are acceptable. People who don’t want to get sticky fingers should use chopsticks, otherwise it’s quite acceptable to eat sushi with your hands.

Sushi tastes best when dipped into a small saucer of soy sauce to which you can add wasabi for extra zing. Obviously this depends on personal taste, however, you should be careful about how much wasabi you add to the soy sauce, as there is already wasabi on the sushi itself.

Flipping the nigirizushi over so that you get just enough soy sauce on the topping, but not on the rice, is the most delicious way to eat sushi.

Incidentally, soy sauce is not necessary with certain types of sushi, such as unagi eel, that is pre-seasoned with a special sauce. It’s already served with just the right amount of flavouring.
As a rule of thumb, start with subtly flavoured sushi and finish with stronger flavoured pieces, to avoid overpowering the subtleties of the milder sushi. On the other hand, if after eating something oily such as toro, the fatty part of the bluefin tuna, you would like something lighter like a whitemeat fish, then nibble on some pickled ginger. Pickled ginger is not just for decoration, it’s there to refresh your palate.

NABE IS HEARTY WINTER FARE

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When visiting Japan in winter, nabe, or a onepot dish cooked at the table, is a must-try meal. Although it’s possible to have nabe for just one person, sharing a large nabe with like-minded friends is the way to enjoy it. It warms not only your body, but also your heart.

There are many different approaches to nabe, but perhaps the most famous is sukiyaki. The Kanto style of sukiyaki involves boiling the beef and vegetables simultaneously, while in the Kansai style the beef is fried first and after flavouring with a little sugar and soy sauce, vegetables are added, followed by sake and water. A raw egg is used when eating sukiyaki made in either style, as is warishita, a special sauce for sukiyaki made from sweet mirin cooking wine, soy sauce, sake and sugar.

Japan offers a rare opportunity to eat wagyu beef in its land of origin, and shabu-shabu is the perfect way to experience this premium meat. Beef which has been sliced extremely thinly is cooked at the table by briefly immersing it in a flavoursome pot of stock. The beef is cooked together with vegetables and tofu and eaten with either a sesame sauce or a ponzu citrus sauce. It’s truly a mouth-watering taste sensation.

Mizutaki takes its name from a delicious stock made from chicken bones, and chanko nabe is famous for forming part of the daily diet of sumo wrestlers. Chanko contains big helpings of meatballs, Chinese cabbage and udon noodles. Trying many different kinds of nabe and increasing your culinary repertoire could turn out to be one of the most fun experiences about travelling to Japan in winter.

JAPANESE SOUL FOOD: RAMEN

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No story about trending Japanese food culture could be complete without reference to ramen. A deceptively simple dish, ramen is a combination of soup, noodles and toppings that embodies the passion and flair of the cook. The complexity of flavours infused into a bowl of steaming ramen captivates many and has universal appeal.

The flavour and impression of a bowl of ramen is established by its soup. There is great variety in ingredients and how they are combined.

Ramen soup may be made from pork bones or chicken frames, or from small dried sardines, dried bonito and vegetables. Soy sauce, miso paste or salt added to the stock characterise the flavour and appearance of the soup, and oil may be added in the form of vegetable oil, lard, or chicken fat, to achieve a rich broth.

Noodles are typically made from wheat flour, with each restaurant choosing thickness and shape – either straight or curly – as appropriate to their signature soup.

Some will let customers choose their noodles either soft or al dente, the latter most commonly requested when the stock has been taken from pork bones.

The array of specialty ramen restaurants in Japan, from famous restaurants that are privately run, to fast food style chain stores, is bewildering. Generally speaking, if your preference is for light, simple flavours, look for advertisements of soy sauce or salt flavoured ramen. If you feel like eating rich, heavy flavours, go for pork bone or miso ramen.

Across the sea in major Australian cities like Sydney and Melbourne, ramen restaurants are booming. Some popular Japanese restaurants have also opened Australian outlets, and are attracting local fan bases.

GENUINE IZAKAYA EXPERIENCE

One Japanese word that is making an increasingly frequent appearance in Australia in recent years is izakaya the term for combined restaurant and bar spaces in Japan that offer both alcohol and a range of simple food.

Where the concept of a bar or pub in Japan conjures images of western-style stores serving western-style drinks, the izakaya is all Japanese. Many offer beer, chuhai, and Japanese sake, and a wide range of food as well. Something else that sets the izakaya apart from standard restaurants is that what you drink is the star here, and not what you eat.

When you enter an izakaya and order a drink, you are first served some small dishes without even having to order.These appetisers, called “otooshi” or “tsukidashi”, fill the time between your first order and the arrival of your food.

Such dishes are prepared in advance so that they can be served straight away, and are designed as a match for your first drink. While you may hold some reservations over paying for something you didn’t order at first, learning to expect and appreciate such appetisers is the first step in enjoying hospitality izakaya style.

Good food is the perfect partner to a good drink. While it is popular to stick with beer throughout the evening in Australian pubs, the draw of an izakaya is the food that accompanies and brings out the flavour of the drink.

The term “sakana”, also called “ate” or “tsumami” refers to the food enjoyed alongside alcohol. Often served in small portions like the tapas of Spanish food, such dishes allow you to enjoy a wide range of different food.

Popular items on the izakaya menu include yakitori, edamame, sashimi, karaage, dried foods, and egg rolls.

BeerMame

WHY I LOVE AKIHABARA

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Words: Charlene Lim

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Akihabara, a district full of bright lights and culture. On the surface it looks like a busy city full of life and adventure, with its own culture and social group. Underneath it all, it has a history so deep it took over a century to develop into the place it is today.

This is one of the top cities to visit when in Tokyo. Located in central Tokyo, it is most accessible by train as the district has its own station where several lines converge. For tourists, Akihabara has many sights and wonders that are uniquely Japanese. The experience is quite unlike any other city, some may love it whilst others may not. It is quite a strange and unique city. To truly grasp the Akihabara experience may take a few good days.

Looking around, you will be sure to notice a large number of electronic goods stores. If you have a penchant for gadgets, be it the latest and greatest or just something cute or practical, there is something in store for everyone.

Akihabara houses many shops that offer a wide variety of otaku goods. On top of anime and manga offerings, there are also stores that specialise in action figures and other collectibles. There are also shops that specialise in gachapon vending machines – vending machines that dispense capsules containing memorabilia and trinkets that may make unique gifts and are collectible as well.

Fancy being treated to a unique café experience? There are many maid and cosplay cafés unique to Akihabara. At these cafés, you will be treated to adorably decorated meals and served by staff dressed in French maid outfits or your favourite anime character. If you are looking for a quick snack instead, like most of Japan, Akihabara is no stranger to the vending machine. In Akihabara, you may find vending machines that dispense ramen noodles and oden in a can as well!

We also must not forget the history of Akihabara. Another unique experience is a visit to a shrine. The Kanda Myojin shrine is a short walk from the electronics district. It is a beautiful Shinto shrine that has been rebuilt and restored many times due to fire and earthquake damage. Being located so close to Akihabara Electric Town, it has become the shrine where blessing ceremonies are held particularly for technology ventures. The shrine also sells omamori (take-home charms) in the shape of a computer chip to protect the user from harm.

Akihabara has managed to give its own twist to commonplace Japanese culture and items, making it one of the more unique places to visit in Japan. It’s a must-go spot!

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AKIHABARA HAS MANAGED TO GIVE ITS OWN TWIST TO COMMONPLACE JAPANESE CULTURE AND ITEMS, MAKING IT ONE OF THE MORE UNIQUE PLACES TO VISIT IN JAPAN. IT’S A MUST-GO SPOT!

A SHORT HISTORY OF AKIHABARA

The Akihabara we know today is nothing like how it was in the 1800s. It was not always fancy lights and maid cafés. What we see today is a direct result of everything it has gone through.

Back in 1869, a massive fire broke out in the city, reducing the land to nothing. To prevent further mishaps, the Meiji government erected a small shrine named “Chinka-Sha”, also known as the “Extinguisher Shrine”, as a ward. The citizens at that time mistook the structure as a shrine for a fire-quelling deity named Akiba, and thus, the area became known as Akiba no Hara.

Sometime in the early 1900s, a careless typing mistake resulted in the name of the town we know and love today, Akihabara.

By 1935, this area had become a fruit and vegetable market. Other merchandise such as lumber also made its way here. This resulted in an influx of people. The technology also brought in the first otaku – train enthusiasts.

In the 1940s after the war, the area became popular for the trade of electronic parts. It was frequented by students from the nearby Tokyo Denki University who specialised in radio parts. Second hand goods and electronics can be found in abundance in Akihabara.

By 1962, the iconic seven story building, Radio Kaikan, was ready and it historically housed various popular items in Akihabara and, more recently, a large variety of otaku goods. During this time, there was a boom in electronic sales for household white goods resulting in the sale of various such items as well.

In the 1980s, the move from consumer white goods to computer products can be seen in Akihabara. White goods were now readily available from suburban chain stores, leading to the change in the demographics in the area. During this time, Radio Kaikan carried computers, parts and games, including doujinshi (self-published manga) and doujin-sofuto (selfpublished video games).

By 1994, sales of computers over took consumer white goods. With computers, came video games and manga, and this movement started building the foundations of the otaku subculture in Akihabara.

In 1996, Toranoana Inc was established. This store originally started off specialising in used doujinshi. However, due to the anime boom at the time, it started extending its range of products to include character goods as well. Today, it is the centre for manga and related merchandise.

“Okaerinasaimase, goshujinsama!” – “Welcome home, master!”, a typical welcoming phrase that you will hear upon entering a maid café, a type of establishment that started in the early 2000s and gained popularity over the years. This style of café features “maids” – waitresses dressed in French maid outfits, serving cute themed food in a café setting. Akihabara still boasts a wide variety of maid and cosplay cafés with various themes.

Today, Akihabara is a mecca for otaku. What is an otaku? An otaku is someone with a strong interest (to the point of obsession) in their chosen subject. In modern terms, it is mostly associated with anime and manga fandom. Akihabara has developed over the years to cater for the growing and evolving otaku lifestyle. It is a place where you can get computer parts and collectibles to build your hobby, or just sit back and enjoy what the city has to offer.

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