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Temples, Shrines & Gardens

You’ll find the Japan of your imagination – immaculately raked gardens, quiet Buddhist temples and mysterious Shintō shrines – waiting for you all across the archipelago, even in the ultramodern capital of Tokyo. Kyoto You could stay in Kyoto for a month and see a different garden, temple and shrine each day. If you’re after traditional Japan, you could spend your whole trip here and not get bored. Nara A short hop, skip and jump from Kyoto, Nara is a compact wonder of a city that some consider the birthplace of Japanese culture. It has some of our favourite gardens, temples and shrines. Kanazawa Some call this small city on the Sea of Japan coast a ‘mini-Kyoto’, but Kanazawa isn’t a ‘mini’ anything – it’s big on temples and has one of the best gardens in Japan: Kenroku-en. Tokyo That’s right: amid all that concrete and neon there are some wonderful hints of traditional culture. If you can’t make it to Kyoto, the capital has enough to satisfy the craving for ‘old Japan’.

Culinary Adventure

Who doesn’t come to Japan to eat? And we don’t just mean ‘extreme eating’; we mean some of the food you might have tried back home, only much better versions. Then there’s all the new stuff to try – and did we mention really good sake? Tokyo With more Michelin stars than any city on earth, this is the place for the best Japanese food in the country. And, if you need a break from local cuisine, some of the best French and Italian food you’ll find anywhere. Tsukiji Tokyo’s fish market deserves its own entry. Simply pointing out that it’s the biggest in the world doesn’t begin to convey the size, variety and excitement of the place. If you enjoy eating or cooking, you’ll enjoy Tsukiji. Kyoto If you want to sample kaiseki (haute cuisine) in traditional surroundings, or dine with a geisha, this is the place. And don’t forget the Japanese sweet shops and the wonderful old Nishiki food market. Depachika Department-store food halls in Tokyo and Kyoto are the best food shops on the planet. Be prepared to get hungry, get overwhelmed and get lost.

Hiking

When you think of going overseas to hike, Japan probably doesn’t rank near the top of your list. But Japan has some brilliant hiking and a reasonably priced hut system that rivals anything you’ll find elsewhere. Whether you fancy a week-long hike across the peaks with nothing but a daypack or just a few good strolls in the hills between bouts of temple-hopping, Japan will definitely satisfy. Japan Alps The Japan Alps in Central Honshū form the roof of Japan. If you like big peaks, grand scenery and long walks, this is the place. Hokkaidō You’ll find some seriously rugged hiking on Japan’s northern island. From incredible coastal treks to the famed Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse, Hokkaidō is a destination for nature lovers. Kyūshū If the whiff of volcanic gases and the threat of an occasional eruption adds a certain frisson to your hiking, you’ll love the volcanoes of Japan’s southern island of Kyūshū. Kumano Kodō Head down to the wooded wilds of southern Kansai to follow the ancient pilgrimage path to the shrines and hot springs of Hongū.

Castles

For anyone with an interest in Japan’s feudal era (think samurai, shōguns and daimyō ), a visit to a Japanese castle is sure to get the imagination working. Kids, in particular, find them fascinating. The Japanese word for ‘castle’, by the way, is jō. Himeji-jō The queen of all Japanese castles, the ‘White Heron’ is presently undergoing a multiyear renovation and the main keep is under wraps, but it’s still an interesting stop for castle fans. Hikone-jō Within easy day-trip distance of Kyoto, Hikone-jō is a beautiful castle that makes up for its lack of size with a fine view and graceful lines. Osaka-jō It’s not original and it’s not subtle, but it sure looks good from a distance or when the cherries in the surrounding park are in bloom. Matsuyama-jō Dominating the city of Matsuyama on the island of Shikoku, this is easily one of Japan’s finest original castles. Shuri-jō Way down in Okinawa, this rebuilt castle is a completely different kettle of fish from its mainland cousins – the Chinese influence is clear.

Onsen (Hot Springs)

If you’re tired of coming home from a vacation and feeling like you need a vacation, you should try a Japanese onsen holiday. Spend some time soaking in a few of Japan’s great onsen or, better yet, in an onsen ryokan (a traditional inn built around a private hot spring) and you’ll arrive home recharged. Kinosaki Japan’s classic onsen town is everything an onsen town ought to be: quaint, friendly and packed with homey ryokan. Walk from one great bath to another in your yukata (robe) and don’t miss the crab cuisine in the winter. Kayōtei We’re going to single this onsen ryokan out for

Japanese Cuisine





Those familiar with Japanese cuisine ( nihon ryōri ) know that eating is half the fun of travelling in Japan. Even if you’ve already tried some of Japan’s better-known specialities, you’re likely to be surprised by how delicious the original is when served on its home turf. More importantly, the adventurous eater will be delighted to find that Japanese food is far more than just sushi, tempura or sukiyaki. Indeed, it is possible to spend a month in Japan and sample a different speciality restaurant every day.

With the exception of shokudō (all-round restaurants) and izakaya (pub-eateries), most Japanese restaurants concentrate on a speciality cuisine. In this chapter we discuss the main types of restaurants you are likely to encounter and we provide sample menus for each type. If you familiarise yourself with the main types of restaurants and what they serve, you’ll be able to get the most out of Japan’s incredible culinary scene.

Of course, you may baulk at charging into a restaurant where both the language and the menu are likely to be incomprehensible. Those timid of heart should take solace in the fact that the Japanese will go to extraordinary lengths to understand what you want and will help you to order. To assist you further, eating reviews in this book recommend specific dishes for restaurants in which no English menu is available. If there is an English menu, this is indicated in the review with the symbol .

In this guide, restaurant listings are organised by price category, indicated by the symbols $ (budget), $$ (midrange) or $$$ (top end). Budget options cost ¥1000 or less; midrange meals cost between ¥1000 and ¥4000; and top-end meals will cost more than ¥4000.

EATING IN A JAPANESE RESTAURANT

When you enter a restaurant in Japan, you’ll be greeted with a hearty ‘ irasshaimase ’ (Welcome!). In all but the most casual places the waiter will next ask you ‘ nan-mei sama ’ (How many people?). Answer with your fingers, which is what the Japanese do. You will then be led to a table, a place at the counter or a tatami room.

At this point you will be given an o-shibori (a hot towel), a cup of tea and a menu. The o-shibori is for wiping your hands and face. When you’re done with it, just roll it up and leave it next to your place. Now comes the hard part: ordering. If you don’t read Japanese, you can use the romanisations and translations in this book to help you, or direct the waiter’s attention to the Japanese script. If this doesn’t work, there are two phrases that may help: ‘ o-susume wa nan desu ka ’ (What do you recommend?) and ‘ o-makase shimasu’ (Please decide for me).

When you’ve finished eating, you can signal for the bill by crossing one index finger over the other to form the sign of an ‘x’. This is the standard sign for ‘Bill, please’. You can also say ‘ o-kanjō kudasai’ . Remember there is no tipping in Japan and tea is free of charge. Usually you will be given a bill to take to the cashier at the front of the restaurant. Only the bigger and more international places take credit cards, so cash is always the surer option. When leaving, it is polite to say to the restaurant staff ‘ gochisō-sama deshita ’, which means ‘It was a real feast’.

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