Delighting all the senses

cuisine and sake

A traditional Japanese multi-couse “Kaiseki” dinner

©JNTO

Cuisine and Sake

Japanese cuisine is famously light and healthy with very little sugar, salt, fat or oil. It is based on a rice, fish or noodle staple served with mountain or sea vegetables. It is made as much for taste and presentation as it is to fill you up, but even then Japanese people say “Hara hachi-bun”, which means they eat only 80% of what they can. Expect smaller servings, except if you’re trying Chanko-nabe (a hot pot), which is what sumo wrestlers eat to gain their bulk.

While sushi is the most recognisable Japanese food in Australia, it isn’t as celebrated in its native home. Instead, there are Ramen bars that serve noodles which are significantly better than the instant variety, and izakaya, which are reasonably priced corner restaurants with local vibes. Yakiniku (BBQ) is also popular with locals, as is other local styles such as Teppan-yaki. A battered mix cooked in Osaka on a hot plate is called Okonomiyaki, and Monjayaki, which is a Tokyo variation. Preparation of the battered mix is entirely up to the customer, meaning that the resulting pancake is only limited by one’s tastes and preferences, though helpful staff are always on hand to cook the house special. Besides Ramen, there are many types of soba, which is thicker with variations made from rice. Every area has famous specialties: Hokkaido is famous for king crabs and a salmon stew called Ishikari-nabe. Nagoya is renowned for Miso Katsu, fried pork fillet with sweet miso sauce. There are also fast food outlets, but with a Japanese twist, such as mayonnaise on pizza. A Japanese kind of fast food is Gyudon, essentially beef on rice that is tastier than it sounds. There is also high cuisine and specialty food to suit the most demanding gourmet, whether it is high-end sushi restaurants or Wagyu premium beef. For thrill seekers, there is fugu, a poisonous blowfish that is expertly prepared by a certified chef.

Sake (called Nihonshu in Japanese), or Japanese rice wine, comes in a wide range of qualities and distillation methods: micro-distilleries, premium aged types and local styles. Niigata Prefecture is known for its premium sake made from pure alpine water from melted snow. Another variation is Shochu, a kind of Japanese Vodka.

Places to stay and experience the culture

Ryokan

An outdoor hot spring in Yamanashi Prefecture

©Japan Ryokan Association   ©JNTO

Accomodation

hot spring town

Taking Stroll around the hot spring town to Tawarayama in Yamaguchi Prefecture

©JNTO

Accommodation in Japan runs the whole gamut, from luxury five-star hotels to traditional inns at the peak of Japanese lifestyle and hospitality, to places that are more affordable to stay at. The uniqueness of accommodation in Japan embodies the omotenashi spirit, a personalised and thoughtful quality of service seen even in small inns in Japan.

Besides the usual chain hotels, there are cheaper “business hotels” that have the basics, such as WiFi. At the other end of the scale are extravagant places like the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Tokyo, a 38 storey embodiment of luxury with a spectacular night view and extensive spa facilities. The Conrad Hotel near Ginza is another example of luxurious living.

For longer stays, weekly apartments, share houses and even complete houses are also available for travelers on a budget.

delicacy

Taking Stroll around the hot spring town to Tawarayama in Yamaguchi Prefecture

©Japan Ryokan Association   ©JNTO

Another cheap option is “capsule hotels,” though they are not for the faint hearted and best appreciated for a night or two at most. Beds in stacked capsules along a wall provide only enough space to lie down, while bathroom facilities consist of a shared bath known as a sento.

In the mountains near ski resorts are the usual hotels, as well as lodges that feature Alpine European design, complete with fireplaces and feather beds. Sometimes there may even be an onsen that can be used both as a bath and for relaxation.

A truly unforgettable once-in-a-lifetime experience of traditional cuisine and hospitality is a ryokan. A room typically consists of tatami mat flooring perfectly suited for sitting while wearing a yukata following a dip in the adjoining onsen. A kimono-clad attendant serves a a kaiseiki course consisting of seafood and local dishes. The food is served in separate dishes, artistically arranged to balance their tastes, textures, appearance and colours.

Another option is a minshuku (B&B), consisting of a reasonably-priced room in a private house, typically located near resorts and sightseeing spots, with family style meals.

If you’re exploring temples and pilgrimage routes, then a fitting option is shukubo, or temple lodgings. These come with vegetarian meals and a chance to participate in morning chants and prayers. Buddhist mountain retreats on Mount Koya in Wakayama offer an especially unique opportunity to refresh the soul due to the holy nature of the location.

An Incredible variety of vistas

JS1312_NATU_L1

Nature

Spanning from tropical south to the arctic north, Japan has an incredible variety of nature and national parks: snowy panoramas, mountain vistas, tropical lagoons, dramatic coastlines, primeval forests and even sand dunes and active volcanoes. Some of the most impressive are the giant whirlpools in Naruto straits or the world heritage island of Yakushima with its cryptomeria forests. Most famous are the Sakura Cherry blossoms, and of course Mt. Fuji, which takes about eight hours to climb.
There is a huge variety of ways to get in touch with nature in Japan. Forest walking, hiking and trekking are popular: either through pristine natural parks or between temples. In Shikoku there are 88 temples forming a loop around the island
and the Kumano Kodo is a way to combine nature and history. Yakushima has a surrealistic landscape of verdant forest that inspired a famous anime film called Princess Mononoke. Hiking through this or up volcanic black earth in Mount Rishiri in Hokkaido to see a steaming volcano crater is an experience one can simply walk into! Cycling is also becoming popular: the Shimanami cycling route is a 70km route that crosses a bridge between the islands of Honshu and Shikoku. White-knuckle
rafting can also be done in the summer months as snow melts and creates fastflowing rivers in Furano, Hokkaido, and in Tokushima.
Japan’s local specialties and food varies by local landscapes, weather and ingredients, which makes for interesting experiences. In the north, for example, rice isn’t grown as much as wheat, so learning how to make soba and udon (varieties of noodles) from the locals or joining a Wanko-soba contest (how many bowls can you eat?) is an experience. In Okayama the Aizo-me indigo blue dye lasts longer than the clothes they colour and in Okinawa there is a kind of doll called Shisa. If you’re in Morioka, there’s a beautiful kind of black ironware called Nambu that’s made from local materials.