Monday, March 12, 2012

Japan: A singular destination

From bowing to conveyor-belt sushi to ninjas, Japan is a special place. Here are some of the admirable things about the Land of the Rising Sun that haven't changed and indeed make Japan a singular destination.

The entire cabin crew aboard the flight bows in unison before the safety announcements. This collective gesture of welcome and appreciation is repeated everywhere: from the attendants putting you on the limousine bus at the airport to the staff of the ryokan (inn) as you check out.


Onigiri. These little triangles of rice, with a dollop of salmon, kelp or tuna inside, and wrapped in nori seaweed, were once road snacks for samurai. Now, road warriors and corporate workers buy them at convenience stores to put in lunch boxes or eat onboard long-distance trains. You haven't officially arrived in Japan
until You've eaten one.


Buddhist temple gardens. A temple garden is more than a green space: It's a place to draw inspiration. But you don't need to know anything about Buddhism to experience the peace that comes from clearing your mind. Sit on the temple's tatami and focus on a rock, lantern or leaf in the garden, and let the rest of the world disappear.


Hot spring baths. Whether it's in mosaic-muraled bathhouses, cedar tubs in the countryside or stone baths on a mountaintop, Japan is all about bathing in onsen, natural mineral waters said to be good for rheumatism, high blood pressure and general relaxation.


Vending machines. Sure, we have vending machines in the States, but machines that sell hot and cold canned drinks, with temperatures that can be changed seasonally? All kinds of awesome. Vending machines are a way of life in Japan, selling subway tickets, Coke on a mountainside by a middle-of-nowhere hiking trail, beer, toys, even underwear.


Hospitality. It must be an unwritten law that ryokan room attendants are prohibited from saying, "No." Any attempt to carry suitcases that seem bigger than the bell clerk, are routinely and politely declined. All this, and never a thought of a tip.


Luggage shipping. Nobody likes fussing with luggage at airports and train stations, and Japan's amazing door-to-door shipping system means it will travel cross-country — overnight! — for less than the cost of checking it on your flight. Ship to a hotel, and it's a good bet that the staff will have delivered it to your room before you've checked in.


Haiku: Daringly simple. Remarkably expressive. You can do it too.


Ramen. If the only ramen you've ever known is from those plastic packets, you won't know what hit you when you have your first taste of real ramen. It starts with the broth — soy sauce, salt, miso, pork bones and more — and the noodles topped with bamboo shoots, half a hard-boiled egg and strips of roast pork. The obsession extends to a ramen museum (with plenty of tasting opportunities).


Tatami rooms. Minimalism may have been discovered by the rest of the world over the last 50 years, but it goes back ages in Japan. A traditional Japanese room has tatami (mats) on the floor, simple stucco walls supported by wooden posts, and an alcove called a tokonoma, used to display your changing selection of hanging scrolls, pottery and seasonal ikebana.


Harajuku girls. Sassy though they may look in their manga-inspired cosplay (costume play) outfits, beneath the makeup, they're basically sweet kids. If one bumps into you, it's a good bet she will raise a palm in apology and say, "Sumimasen" (excuse me).


Conveyor-belt sushi. Two obsessions: sushi and automation, mashed together with style and fun. It's taking the world by storm from Kyoto to Koreatown.


Taxis. Sorry, America
has us beat on this, white-gloved hands down. Taxi doors open and close automatically, lace doilies cover the seats, drivers are unfailingly polite and tipping never enters their mind. If you don't know the route or can't speak Japanese, it's a good idea to have a map to your destination. In the unlikely event that the driver takes the wrong route, I've had instances where he (or, increasingly, she) will shut off the meter.


Contemporary architecture. Certain Tokyo districts look like galleries of modern architecture. The five Japanese Pritzker Prize winners (the second most in the world, after the U.S.) have quietly influenced design worldwide, yet the Japanese are happy to be schooled by architects from elsewhere. Case in point: Uruguay-born, New York-based Rafael Viñoly designed the Tokyo International Forum, by my reckoning (and many others'), Japan's greatest modern building.


Tokyo subways. Other cities only wish they had a Metro. Tokyo's amazing train network is the envy of the world, spotless, punctual and genteel. With 13 lines below ground and a tangle of additional lines above ground, it's the life blood of the city. If you hear anyone talking loudly on board, it's almost certainly not in Japanese. Those images you've seen of packers shoving folks into cars — only at certain stations during rush hour.


Tea ceremony. Yes, there's tea involved, but that's only one part of it. In the tea ceremony (Preferably a direct translation of the Japanese word sado, the way of tea), the setup is as important as the action: fresh picked flower in the tokonoma, calligraphy scroll conveying a precise emotion, bowls and vases selected specificly for the season. It's all about making the most of this one moment — it sounds very Zen, and in this case that's not a cliché.


Tsukiji fish market. Times Square has nothing on the bustle of the world's largest market for fish and seafood, some 450 varieties in the heart of Tokyo. It's difficult to view the auctions, but browsing the hundreds of wholesalers is a fascinating peek at where your fish comes from. Warning: Fast-moving motorized carts take no prisoners. Afterward, browse the Outer Market for produce and pottery, then indulge in a sushi breakfast at one of dozens of tiny shops.


High-tech toilets. Are heated toilet seats necessary? Maybe not, but they sure are nice on a cold winter morning. Japan has elevated plumbing to an art, and the graphics on the push buttons are adorable.

100 yen stores.


is famously expensive, but more and more (not just) Japanese are shopping at the equivalent of dollar stores. You're not going to get top-shelf stuff, but the wares — rice bowls to rice crackers, neckties to knickers — are often equal to what you'd buy elsewhere. Where else can you outfit your entire kitchen for the equivalent of $50?

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