Peace & Quiet
Essence of Japan
The essence of Japan might conveniently be divided into two aspects. There is the ultra-modern urban Japan of big cities that have developed into conurbations, one city melting into another; and there is the Japan of tranquillity, of temples, gardens and shrines, mountains, coastlines and national parks. Vast areas of the country are only thinly populated, and offer everything for the seeker of spiritual contemplation. Contemporary Japan is likely to make the greatest immediate impact on the first-time visitor, however, for all the major cities are essentially modern. Tokyo, in particular, is an immense showground for new architecture and the latest in technology and gadgetry.
The 10 Essentials
If you want to get under the skin of the country and of the Japanese, here are some essentials:
Visit a pachinko parlour. Every town has its pachinko parlours, huge entertainment rooms with row after row of vertical pinball machines patronised by people of all ages.
Stay in a ryokan. These are traditional inns, often family run, where the rooms are enclosed with wood and paper walls, where there are tatami mats on the floor and where you sleep on a futon. They are pricey, but the price will usually include traditional Japanese dinner and break fast, served in your room.
Travel on the bullet train, or Shinkansen, the express train network that links the major cities. These trains are fast and comfortable, but quite expensive.
Eat noisy noodles. Ramen, or Chinese noodles, are Japan's own fast food. Small street establishments sell them hot in a broth to passers-by. Eating them noisily is supposed to enhance the flavour.
See sumo or kabuki, both quintessential Japanese entertainments. The first is stylised wrestling involving huge fighters (two at a time) trying to push each other over or out of a circle drawn on the floor; the second is a form of theatre in which expansive gestures tell popular folk tales.
Visit a public bath. The Japanese take cleanliness very seriously, but having a traditional bath is also a great pleasure. Soaping takes place separately, so that when you enter the communal hot bath you are already clean.
Stay in a capsule hotel. Not for the claustrophobic, these hotels are space-savers in crowded cities. They feature tiny rooms (2m x 1m x 1m) with bed, TV and radio, lights and alarm clock.
Picnic under cherry blossom in the spring. It used to be traditional to welcome the new season by mounting a small expedition to see the blossom, and this is still a charming way to spend a warm day.
See a geisha on her way to work. Although much less conspicuous in recent years, the geisha still has a role to play. At dusk in Kyoto and Tokyo geishas are still to be seen in full regalia on their way to their first appointments.
Go to a karaoke. This is not everybody's idea of a good time except in Japan, where it has become a national institution and can be found all over the country.