Top Experiences in Japan
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. Sumo still exhibits its Shinto roots through its rituals such as the salt purification before entering the ring. Single bouts usually last less than a minute. Tournaments, running 15 days, are held three times a year in Tokyo and once a year in Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka. Novice wrestlers (jonokuchi) compete in the morning and top athletes (yokozuna) wrestle in the late afternoon. Crowds get pretty boisterous, especially for the later matches.
The ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, offers rooms outfitted with Japanese-style interiors, such as tatami flooring and paper (shoji) blinds. For in-room tea service pillows and small tables make sitting very comfortable. Futons are rolled out onto the tatami at bedtime. Meals, often included in the room rate, are breakfast and dinner, both of which contain small Japanese dishes of various seafood and regional specialties.
Gardens in the traditional Japanese style appear in parks, on castle grounds, and in front of shrines and temples. Featuring stone lanterns, rocks, ponds, a pavilion, and rolling hedges, 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. Jisho-ji Garden and Nijo Castle Ninomaru Garden in Kyoto and Hamarikyu Gardens in Tokyo are some of Japan's more prominent gardens to visit.
Karaoke is a Japanese institution whose rabid popularity cannot be understated. Often used as an after-work recreation, it takes place in private rooms, referred to as karaoke boxes, which can be rented by the hour and seat between 2 and 10 customers.
Yakyu (baseball) is often said to epitomize the Japanese character. Players are subject to punishing preseason training regimes that test their stamina and will. In contrast to the American style of play, the sacrifice bunt is a routine tactic, often employed in the early innings. The prized quality of group harmony is evident as ballparks reverberate to repetitive theme songs created for each batter, with the fans of the Hiroshima Carp going through perhaps the most elaborate routines. Following the final out of the Japan Series, fans of the winner crowd into city streets for a night—or, if it’s Osaka's Hanshin Tigers, jump from a bridge into a canal—and hit the victory sales at local stores that will follow.
Seafood and Sushi
As might be expected of a nation consisting of 3,000 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 uni (sea urchin), while Akita Prefecture is famous for shiokara (fermented squid intestines). Domestic tourism and television schedules are dominated by food, and city dwellers travel the length and breadth of the country on weekend excursions to taste regional specialties.
Department stores (depato) are towering palaces that cater to the whims of the kings and queens of global consumerism. From the ultrapolite elevator attendants to the expert package wrapper, the attention to detail is extraordinary. Established stores follow a convenient pattern in their layout. In the basement is an expansive array of elaborately presented food, ranging from handmade sweets to bento boxes. The first floor has cosmetics, and the next floors offer the latest in female fashion. Farther up you will find designer suits for men, ornate stationery, and refined home decorations. Finally, on the top floor, often with excellent urban views, is a restaurant area.
The Performing Arts
The performing arts date back hundreds of years but are still practiced in theaters across Japan. Noh is a minimalist dance drama where a masked actor performs stylized moves accompanied by instrumental music. Often in conjunction with Noh are Kyogen performances, which are comedic plays known for their down-to-earth humor. Kabuki is theater performed by adult males who also portray the female roles. Fans of puppet theater may enjoy a Bunraku performance, in which large puppets are manipulated to the accompaniment of narrators and stringed instruments.
The Japanese share their country with more than 100 active volcanoes, and certainly make the most of one of the consequences: thermal hot springs. Japan has more than 6,700 onsen hot springs with facilities ranging from simple outdoor baths to lavish resort complexes. A soak in a Japanese onsen, be the facilities humble or grand, offers not only total relaxation but a chance to see the unguarded, playful side of Japanese society. Japan’s top onsen include Hakone, where onsen ryokan have a long tradition of hospitality; the sulfurous waters of Kusatsu Onsen; the huge dairotenburo outdoor bath at Zao Onsen; and the ancient springs of Dogo Onsen.
The tea ceremony, or chanoyu (the Way of Tea), is a precisely choreographed program that started more than 1,000 years ago with Buddhist monks. The ritual begins as the server prepares a cup of tea for the first guest. This meditative process involves a strictly determined series of movements and actions meant to allow the server to lose him or herself in the process. One by one, the participants slurp up their bowl of tea and then eat a sweet confectionery served with it. In Tokyo the teahouse at Hamarikyu Gardens is a great place to enjoy this tradition.
Cocktails with pizzazz in a skyscraper’s rooftop lounge or streetside sticks of skewered chicken, dreamy jazz or thumping techno beats—you'll find it all under urban Japan's neon-soaked night sky. Walking the bar-and-club crazy streets at night is a great way to discover a city's character, though the side of the city you’ll see depends on whether you choose a sophisticated lounge, karaoke club, izakaya, nightclub, or jazz bar. Roppongi in Tokyo or Dotombori in Osaka have enough to keep all-night revelers going 'til dawn.