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The ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, offers rooms outfitted with Japanese-style interiors, such as tatami flooring and paper (shoji) blinds. Pillows and small tables make sitting for the in-room tea service comfortable. At bedtime, futons are rolled out onto the tatami. The room rate usually includes breakfast and dinner. Hakone, near Tokyo, has 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. Hamarikyu Gardens in Tokyo is one of Japan's more prominent gardens.
Karaoke is a Japanese institution whose rabid popularity cannot be understated. Millions of locals enjoy this after-work recreation, in which they sing popular songs 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 2 and 10 customers. Choose a song from the song selection book and fortify yourself for your performance with drinks and light snacks.
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), but if you are in Tokyo you can see just about anything living in the sea at the fish market at Tsukiji. 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.
The tea ceremony, or chanoyu (the way of tea), is a precisely choreographed program that started more than 1,000 years ago with Zen 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.
Though spawned in the geek town of Akihabara, the maid café can be found in many of Tokyo's major entertainment areas. These cafés allow customers to engage in a pseudo master-and-servant relationship with a young lady wearing a frilly black dress with curvy tails or a white apron with matching headpiece. Conversations often include overly polite addresses as "my lord" or "my lady" and menus are written in deliberately antiquated Japanese offering drinks, small food dishes, and even full-body massages. This is truly an experience like no other.
Basement Food Halls
Entire basement floors (depachika) of many Japanese department stores (depato) are often occupied by grocery sections featuring high-end food fare. Entire sections are dedicated to fish (including sushi), meats, cheese, and tea. At least one bakery will serve fresh baguettes. Exotic foods, like German sausages, are here as well. Specially prepared foods for those in a hurry fill large cases, with housewives scooping up mixed salads, fried dumplings, and various meat dishes.
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. 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.
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