The ryokan offers one of Japan’s most unforgettable experiences. The rooms at these traditional inns are outfitted with Japanese-style interiors, such as tatami flooring, sliding screen doors, and paper (shoji) blinds, while floor cushions and small tables make sitting for the in-room tea service and multicourse dinner 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 can be found across Tokyo, from stand-alone landscaped gardens featuring stone lanterns, rocks, ponds, and rolling hedges, such as Kiyosumi Teien and Hamarikyu, to smaller affairs attached to shrines and temples or found in castle grounds. 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.
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, fortify yourself for your performance with drinks and light snacks, and let loose your inner diva.
Seafood and Sushi
As might be expected of a nation consisting of more than 4,000 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 creamy uni (sea urchin), while Akita Prefecture is famous for shiokara (raw squid intestines). 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 it’s not uncommon for city dwellers to 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. Some hotels, such as the New Otani and Imperial Hotel, also have tearooms where you can try the ceremony with English guidance.
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 the alcoholic beverage most associated with Japan, and more than 2,000 different brands are available. The sake bar Amanogawa, in the Keio Plaza Hotel Tokyo, provides a wonderful opportunity to sample different varieties. Shochu, a stronger drink than sake, is made from grain or potato and is served straight, 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 mass-produced brews in the land. Better is to try some of Japan’s fantastic craft beers, at specialist bars like Goodbeer Faucets in Shibuya or Beer Club Popeye in Ryogoku.
Soaking in an onsen (hot spring bath) is one of Japan’s greatest and oldest pleasures. The country’s earliest records contain accounts of onsen bathing by both humans and animals. The tradition has endured partly because the mineral-rich waters, which are found all over Japan, are said to alleviate all manner of ailments. More than that, immersing yourself in the piping hot water just feels so good, whether it’s at one of Tokyo’s onsen theme parks, like Oedo Onsen Monogatari or LaQua, or soaking surrounded in nature in Hakone and Nikko, where most of the ryokan have natural hot spring baths.
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, and there will be dozens selling fine chocolates and patisseries. Imported foods, like German sausages, are here as well. Many of the deli counters will have free bite-size samples available, which make for a great way to try some local flavors.
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 (ozeki and yokozuna) wrestle in the late afternoon. Crowds get pretty boisterous, especially for the later matches.
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