Top Experiences in Japan
Sumo pits two extremely large athletes against one another in a ring (dohyo). A wrestler who breaches the ring's boundary or touches the ground with a body part (other than the sole of his foot) loses. Originally intended as entertainment for Shinto gods, single bouts usually last less than a minute. Tournaments, running 15 days, are held three times a year in Tokyo and once a year in Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka. Novice wrestlers (jonokuchi) compete in the morning and top athletes (yokozuna) wrestle in the late afternoon. Crowds get pretty boisterous, especially for the later matches.
The ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, offers rooms outfitted with Japanese-style interiors, such as tatami flooring and paper (shoji) blinds. For in-room tea service pillows and small tables make sitting very comfortable. Futons are rolled out onto the tatami at bedtime. Meals, often included in the room rate, are breakfast and dinner, both of which contain small Japanese dishes of various seafood and regional specialties. The tourist areas of Kyoto and Hakone, near Tokyo, are home to a wonderful selection of these inns.
Gardens in the traditional Japanese style appear in parks, on castle grounds, and in front of shrines and temples. Featuring stone lanterns, rocks, ponds, a pavilion, and rolling hedges, many of the principles that influence Japanese garden design come from religion. Shintoism, Taoism, and Buddhism all stress the contemplation and re-creation of nature as part of the process of achieving understanding and enlightenment. Jisho-ji Garden and Nijo Castle Ninomaru Garden in Kyoto and Hamarikyu Gardens in Tokyo are some of Japan's more prominent gardens to visit.
Karaoke is a Japanese institution whose rabid popularity cannot be understated. Often used as an after-work recreation, the activity is enjoyed by millions and involves the singing of a popular song into a microphone as the instrumental track plays on the in-room sound system and its lyrics roll across a monitor. Rooms, referred to as karaoke boxes, can be rented by the hour and seat between two and 10 customers. Drinks and light snacks can be downed as song selection books are studied.
Yakyu (baseball) is often said to epitomize the Japanese character. Players are subject to punishing preseason training regimes that test their stamina and will. In contrast to the American style of play, the sacrifice bunt is a routine tactic, often employed in the early innings. The prized quality of group harmony is evident as ballparks reverberate to repetitive theme songs created for each batter, with the fans of the Hiroshima Carp going through perhaps the most elaborate routines. Following the final out of the Japan Series, fans of the winner crowd into city streets for a night—or, if its Osaka's Hanshin Tigers, jump from a bridge into a canal—and hit the victory sales at local stores that will follow.
Seafood and Sushi
As might be expected of a nation consisting of 3,000 islands, Japan is synonymous with the fruits of the sea. Sashimi and sushi have gained popularity with restaurant goers around the world, but it's hard to imagine some other so-called delicacies catching on. The northern island of Hokkaido boasts of the quality of its uni (sea urchin), while Akita Prefecture is famous for shiokara (raw squid intestines). Domestic tourism and television schedules are dominated by food, and city dwellers travel the length and breadth of the country on weekend excursions to taste regional specialties.
Department stores (depato) are towering palaces that cater to the whims of the kings and queens of global consumerism. From the ultrapolite elevator attendants to the expert package wrapper, the attention to detail is extraordinary. Established stores follow a convenient pattern in their layout. In the basement is an expansive array of elaborately presented food, ranging from handmade sweets to bento boxes. The first floor has cosmetics, and the next floors offer the latest in female fashion. Farther up you will find designer suits for men, ornate stationery, and refined home decorations. Finally, on the top floor, often with excellent urban views, is a restaurant area.
The tea ceremony, or chanoyu (the Way of Tea), is a precisely choreographed program that started more than 1,000 years ago with Buddhist monks. The ritual begins as the server prepares a cup of tea for the first guest. This process involves a strictly determined series of movements and actions, including the cleansing of each utensil to be used. One by one, the participants slurp up their bowl of tea and then eat a sweet confectionary served with it. In Tokyo, the teahouse at Hamarikyu Gardens offers a wonderful chance to enjoy this tradition.
Whether you're out with friends, clients, or belting out a tune at the local karaoke bar, you're sure to have a drink at least once during your stay. Rice-based sake, pronounced sa-kay, is Japan's number one alcoholic beverage, with more than 2,000 different brands available. The sake bar Amanogawa, in the Keio Plaza Hotel Tokyo, provides a wonderful opportunity to sample different varieties. Shochu is made from grain and is served either on the rocks or mixed with juice or water. As to beer, Asahi and Kirin are the two heavyweights, constantly battling for the coveted title of Japan's leading brewer, but many beer fans rate Suntory's Malts brand and Sapporo's Yebisu brand as the tastiest brews in the land.
The Performing Arts
The performing arts date back hundreds of years but are still practiced in theaters across Japan. Noh is a minimalist dance drama where a masked actor performs very stylized moves accompanied by instrumental music. Often in conjunction with Noh are Kyogen performances, which are comedic plays known for their down-to-earth humor. Kabuki is theater performed by adult males who also portray the female roles. Fans of puppet theater may enjoy a Bunraku performance, in which large puppets are manipulated to the accompaniment of narrators and stringed instruments.
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