Although Japan had been absorbing external cultural influences since the 7th century, especially from Korea and China, it spent many hundreds of years purposely cut off from the rest of the world. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that Japan began opening up to the outside world. While western history records this as the “opening”…
As any visitor to Kyoto will soon notice, geisha are not just historical figures. With some luck, a visitor wandering in the city’s ancient Gion neighborhood may well catch a glimpse of one of these exotic, mysterious women as she moves quickly through the area’s narrow streets, on her way to work. But who are the geisha? What do they do? And in the 21st century, what is their role in society?
Flowers are valued as offerings throughout Asia. From Thailand to Bali to India, bouquets or even single flowers are an offering to the gods: a gift of life, given in thanks, to the Source of Life. And around the world, flowers have been offered at funerals as gifts to the spirits of the dead.
In the world of beef, there are top sirloin steaks from Omaha, bifteck in France and lomo from Argentina. But Kobe beef stands alone, with a reputation for high quality and a deep mystique surrounding its breeding and raising.
Visitors who spend any amount of time in Japan quickly become aware of the importance, even the primacy, of presentation. A nice meal, or a gift, or even an everyday object, is always appreciated for itself – but just as important is how it is wrapped or otherwise packaged.
Warriors, nobles, scholars and ultimately outcasts, the samurai, or as the Japanese are more apt to call them, bushi, were crucial figures in Japanese history for nearly a thousand years. For a third of that time, they ruled much of the country, but about 150 years ago, they all but disappeared. To understand why, we must know where they came from.
Japan offers more extraordinary food experiences than nearly any other country in the world. Even if you want French crepes, or Italian osso bucco, or delicious Sichuan – even just a great cheeseburger and milk shake – the Japanese can cook it, and cook it well.
Unless you are going to spend all your time in Japan shopping, eating and drinking – and we could hardly blame you – Japan is one of the great cultures of the world when it comes to religious, or spiritual, expression. Much Japanese art and architecture is devoted to spiritual matters, and the country is loaded with artifacts from grand temples to tiny shrines, sometimes in the unlikeliest places.
Some things take more than effort – some things may just be a bit more than you can handle. And if you’re like most westerners over the age of 20, every fear you may have of being unable to “go Japanese” can be summed up in one terrifying word: Seiza.
Whether in the form of udon, soba, yakisoba, somen, the universally-popular ramen or others, Japan’s love affair with noodles is rich and varied. Given the many uses of the form, in a broth as soup, in hot dishes, or in cold salads with a variety of dipping sauces, the Japanese prove every day that they can do nearly anything with noodles.
Japan’s position on top of a volcanic archipelago has clear disadvantages, so it’s important to remember one of its great benefits: Japan is home to literally thousands of hot springs, or onsen. The Japanese have a long and beautiful tradition of deep enjoyment of this natural advantage.
Its name in Japanese is simple – chakai (tea gathering) – but to the rest of the world it is regarded as one of Japan’s greatest mysteries, and is known distinctively as the Japanese Tea Ceremony.
But the chakai (or more formal chaji) is not just about tea, nor is it simply a ceremony, something to be learned, performed and added to one’s list of accomplishments. Chakai is more than that. It is a way of life itself.
Japan is home to not one, but two religions, Shinto and Buddhism. Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples often stand side by side, and the Japanese see no inconsistency worshiping the Buddha and the many Shinto kami with virtually the same breath. After nearly 1500 years, they are deeply, culturally interconnected – though that was the result of a long, complex process known as shin-butsu shugo (Shinto-Buddhism coalescence).
Ki is possibly the most powerful, useful and even quintessentially Japanese word in the Japanese language. Familiar to everyone from fans of modern manga to practitioners of ancient Aikido, alone or in combination with other syllables, ki can mean many things.
There are few places offering greater opportunities to violate local customs that at the dining table. Nowhere else do such clear rules come in conflict with such a basic need: we are, after all, hungry.
So here are ten tips for gaijin.
The Japanese language is difficult enough to learn, even for people who live for years in Japan; writing it is well beyond the ability of any visitor of short duration. But that doesn’t mean it can’t still be enjoyed for its great beauty and delicacy.
If one were to pick a phrase that aptly sums up the traditional aesthetic sensibility of the Japanese, it might well be wabi-sabi. A combination of two old words with overlapping definitions, wabi-sabi might be the Buddhist view of the facts of existence: Both life and art are beautiful not because they are perfect and…
While many gourmands around the food world laud the current trend of “farm-to-fork” cuisine – with its focus on fresh, local, seasonal ingredients and simple-but-elegant presentation – the Japanese have been raising the same approach to a high art for centuries. Kaiseki, Japan’s multi-course haute cuisine, has been refined over the four hundred years since…
The word sake is actually a generic Japanese word, and refers to any alcoholic beverage. Vodka is, then, sake in Japan, as is beer, which now out-sells sake in Japan. What English speakers call sake is what the Japanese call seishu or nihonshu: “Japanese liquor.” But since English-speakers routinely call it sake, we will continue with that usage here.
Tea, its cultivation and consumption, are crucial to Japan and its culture. Such elegant ancient rituals as the Japanese tea ceremony and unique contemporary creations as green tea ice cream have created the impression that Japan and tea are nearly synonymous. In fact, Japan accounts for a relatively small amount of global tea production…
Japan is a modern country, moving ever faster, and it is easy when visiting to get caught up in the Japanese enthusiasm for the shiny, flashy and new, whether it is manga or karaoke or the latest food craze. Japan, especially Tokyo, can be as loud and glitzy as any city on earth – perhaps…
Elegant and timeless, these buildings remain Japan’s quintessential architectural creations, many of them having survived earthquakes, war, blizzards and dynastic changes over 1,300 years. In 2003, Japan’s government designated 3,844 buildings and other structures in the country as either National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties.
Even if you have ample funds and a healthy credit card, there are good reasons to shop for bargains beyond simply saving money: Watching for bargains gets you out of your accustomed ways, puts you in the position to meet ordinary Japanese (and other travelers) and see how they live, introduces you to new habits, and gives you the opportunity to learn the value of a Yen. No one minds saving a little money.