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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

Living Art of the Geisha





No other aspect of Japanese culture is as widely misunderstood as the geisha. First – and let’s get this out of the way – geisha are not prostitutes. Nor is their virginity sold off to the highest bidder. Nor do they have to sleep with regular patrons. To put it simply, geisha are highly skilled entertainers who are paid to facilitate and liven up social occasions in Japan.

The origins of geisha are subject to some debate, but most historians believe that the institution of the geisha started in the Edo period (1600–1868). At this time, there were various types of prostitutes who served men in the pleasure quarters of the large cities. Some of these ladies became very accomplished in various arts and it is said that some pleasure houses even employed male performers to entertain customers. Some believe that these male entertainers were the first to be dubbed ‘geisha’, which means ‘artistic person’.

Eventually, there arose a class of young ladies who specialised exclusively in entertainment and who did not engage in sexual relations with clients. These were the first true female geisha, and over the years they became prized for the accomplishments in a wide variety of Japanese arts. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden is an entertaining fictional account of the life of a Kyoto geisha. Without a doubt, Kyoto is the capital of the geisha world. Confusingly, in Kyoto they are not called ‘geisha’; rather, they are called maiko or geiko . A maiko is a girl between the ages of 15 and 20, who is in the process of training to become a fully fledged geiko (the Kyoto word for ‘geisha’). During this five-year period, she lives in an okiya (geisha house) and studies traditional Japanese arts, including dance, singing, tea ceremony and shamisen (a three-stringed instrument). During this time, she will also start to entertain clients, usually in the company of a geiko, who acts like an older sister. Due to the extensive training she receives, a maiko or geiko is like a living museum of Japanese traditional culture. In addition to her skills, the kimono she wears and the ornaments in her hair and on her obi (kimono sash) represent the highest achievements in Japanese arts. It’s therefore hardly surprising that both Japanese and foreigners consider a meeting with a geisha to be a magical occurrence.

GEISHA MANNERS

There’s no doubt that catching a glimpse of a geisha is a once-in-a-lifetime Japanese experience. Unfortunately, the sport of ‘geisha-spotting’ has really gotten out of hand in Kyoto’s Gion district (the city’s main geisha district). It’s probably best to keep the following in mind if you join the ranks of geisha-spotters in Gion: » The geisha you see in Gion are usually on the way to or from an appointment and cannot stop for photos or conversation.

» You shouldn’t touch or grab a geisha, or physically block their progress.
» No one likes being mobbed by photographers or hounded as they walk down the street.
» If you really want to get close to a geisha, private tour agencies and high-end ryokan or hotels can arrange geisha entertainment.
» Finally, if you are intent on getting a few photos of geisha, you will find plenty of ‘tourist geisha’ in the streets of Higashiyama during the daytime. These are tourists who have paid to be made up as geisha. They look pretty much like the real thing and they are usually more than happy to pose for pictures.

While young girls may have been sold into this world in times gone by, these days girls make the choice themselves, often after coming to Kyoto to see one of the city’s famous geisha dances. The proprietor of the okiya will meet the girl and her parents to determine if the girl is serious and if her parents are willing to grant her permission to enter the world of the geisha (the okiya makes a considerable investment in terms of training and kimonos, so they are loathe to take girls who may quit).

Once a maiko completes her training and becomes a geiko, she is able to move out of the okiya and live on her own. At this point she is free to have a boyfriend, but if she gets married she has to leave the world of the geisha. It’s very easy to spot the difference between a maiko and a geiko: geiko wear wigs with minimal ornamentation (usually just a wooden comb in the wig), while maiko wear their own hair in an elaborate hairstyle with many bright hair ornaments called kanzashi . Also, maiko wear elaborate long-sleeve kimonos, while geiko wear simpler kimonos with shorter sleeves.

Maiko and geiko entertain their clients in exclusive restaurants, banquet halls, ‘teahouses’ (more like exclusive traditional bars) and other venues. An evening of maiko/geiko entertainment usually starts with a kaiseki (Japanese haute cuisine) meal. While their customers eat, the maiko/geiko enter the room and introduce themselves in Kyoto dialect. They proceed to pour drinks and make witty banter with the guests. Sometimes they even play drinking games, and we can tell you from experience that it’s hard to beat geisha at their own games! If it’s a large party with a jikata ( shamisen player), the girls may dance after dinner.

As you might guess, this sort of entertainment does not come cheap: a dinner with one maiko and one geiko and a jikata might cost about US$900, but it’s definitely worth it for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Let’s face it: ‘I had dinner with a geisha’ is a pretty good entry in any ‘been-there-done-that’ contest.

It’s impossible to arrange private geisha entertainment without an introduction from an established patron. However, these days geisha entertainment can be arranged through top-end hotels, ryokan and some private tour operators in Kyoto. Knowledgeable sources estimate that there are perhaps 100 maiko and just over 100 geiko in Kyoto. Geisha can also be found in other parts of the country, most notably Tokyo. However, it is thought that there are less than 1000 geisha or geiko and maiko remaining in all of Japan.

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