Planning a trip to Asia? I can almost guarantee that Japan isn’t first on most people’s destination list, if indeed it is a part of the list at all. We are ignorant of a country that still seems mysterious and exotic, and one which we assume is still inaccessible to a regular tourist.
Japan isn’t the cheapest of Asian countries to visit, but there is so much to see and do there that won’t cost a Yen, and lots that won’t break the bank. It’s a country that will give plenty of material to any writer or photographer with an eye for a striking vignette, be it a classical stereotype or a hip-hop tableau.
I have had a distant love affair with Japan all my life but have never been there. I think it started with film: epic subtitled productions showing well-armoured Samurai and shy geisha in dazzling kimonos. And then there was the food, that was so different in both ingredient and concept from anything I had eaten before.
Eventually I was able to indulge my passion for Japan in delicious ways. I became a restaurant and cookbook reviewer in London. Yes, it is indeed the job that everybody wants and it has enabled me to learn about and to appreciate Japan’s tastes and traditions. I am mentioned on the covers of two Japanese cookbooks (published in Japan) and it will be a surprise to many that the Japanese do actually cook. They really do eat hot food: there’s more to a Japanese meal than just sushi.
I am now a certified Japanese Sake Sommelier and look forward to introducing that unique beverage to a wider audience. True, it’s a bit like Marmite: you initially either love it or hate it, but it grows on you with practice, and what a pleasure it is to practise.
A tour of Japan would be a dream for any lover of travel. There is so much that is truly unique and enigmatic. It would offer an opportunity to learn about Japan’s culture at close quarters. A land that was closed to us for centuries now presents both charm and adventure for anyone lucky enough to visit. It’s the land of golden falling leaves as well as the Land of the Rising Sun, a country of the young and fashion-conscious as well as the traditional; boxes of bento and frightening Fugu Fish; a silken tapestry of antiquity and modernity waiting to be unrolled.
This is a list of subjects that I would like to cover – things I know a little about and more that I want to learn about. I’d write articles, post video and chatter on social media to share my adventure with others.
1. Japanese food – fine dining to bento
There is so much more to this fascinating cuisine than cold rice around fish. There are complex braises and smoky grilled skewers, and even breakfast is a world away from a slice of toast and a cuppa coffee on the run. There are hand-made noodles and tempting street foods that are only found in Japan. I would want to try bento boxes at railway stations, have a beer and teriyaki beef in a bar, and learn more about Japanese tea.
This is the national beverage and more Europeans are discovering its qualities. Everything from the beautiful but unfathomable labels to the aromatic contents make a bottle of Sake a must-have souvenir of any trip to Japan. But which bottle to buy? A visit to a Sake shop would fascinate and educate.
3. Street fashion
Fairy kei is a trend that is a marked change from the ever-popular Goth. It’s characterised by its use of pastel colours and takes its inspiration from accessories from Western toy lines of the 1980s. The costumes will revive memories of My Little Pony, Strawberry Shortcake, and Care Bears. It’s cute and very photogenic if pigtails, leg warmers and pigeon toes are what float your sartorial boat.
Japan is famed for its anime. They are those cartoons that have a recognisable wide-eyed style. Manga are the comics that are paper versions of the anime. But it’s the Japanese epic that excites my interest just as much. A trip to a Japanese cinema would be on my list but I would also enjoy an evening just watching TV. One can learn so much from popular TV and, in particular, adverts.
A stay at a Ryokan would be a step back in time to the traditional Japan of the Edo period. They present an opportunity to enjoy tatami mats, sliding doors, communal bathing (I’ll devote a whole article to that adventure) and traditional cuisine.
I have visited Buddhist temples in other parts of Asia, and even visitors with no religious conviction cannot fail to be impressed by these buildings. A temple is a must-do and burning an incense stick or two never does any harm.
A couple of years ago a friend gave me a piece of fabric. Very nice but I was surprised that it came with a user’s manual. Furoshiki is a traditional Japanese wrapping cloth and is a multi-use, eco-friendly bag. A couple of knots will give you a bag for groceries, and some folding and a knot will give you a very stylish bag for two bottles (always drink responsibly). There are shops devoted to these cloths that make ideal gifts.
Traditional Japanese music is different from Western music in that it is said to be based on the rhythm of breathing rather than mathematical timing! I prefer Enka (Japanese ballad) singing which is much more to Western taste and is enjoying a revival, with the latest Enka star being an Afro-American with a Japanese grandmother! Baggy clothes are his trademark.
Public transport says so much about a culture. We have all heard stories of the horror of the packed Japanese metro and of the comfort of the Bullet Train but we need to reach Japan before we can try those modes of transport. An article about getting there would be handy.
Japanese garden architecture has had a great influence on European garden design. Those stone lamps and water features can be found all over the world and they are not only lovely to look at, they also have a meaning.
Japan is a country of contrasts. There is plenty to enchant any lover of classic Japanese history but it’s a land that has developed dramatically over the last eighty years. Japan is noteworthy in that the ancient and the modern coexist. Architecture, music, dress and even food have undergone huge changes. What is Japan 2012?
12. You don’t know what you don’t know
This must be a category included on any travel “reasons to go” list. I have been lucky enough to travel the world but the things that I have often found most fascinating are those that I knew nothing about before my arrival. If you are familiar with a country you take for granted those little things that first made an impression, and they are probably not mentioned in tourist guides – drinking etiquette, how folks pass the time on a train trip, what’s in the equivalent of a Pound shop? Travel with a positive attitude and an open mind and it’s fun and inspiring. Japan truly would be.
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018