3 ‘must try’ experiences in Japan

Japan is like no other country in the world. A land of incredible contrasts, it offers overseas travellers so many diverse and unusual experiences that you wont find anywhere else. This article is about 3 ‘must try’ experiences for any discerning traveller interested in visiting the Land of the Rising Sun.

Experience a ryokan (an alternative to a traditional hotel)

Did you ever fancy sleeping on the floor, in a bare room with practically no furniture and paying over $1300 a night for the privilege?

Well, if you didn’t yet – you have to try it. It’s not as bad as it sounds – it will give you a taste of how Japanese people used to live and it is an experience you won’t find anywhere else in the world. The most famous ryokans in Japan are in Kyoto – choose from either Tarawaya or Hiragaya.

Both ryokans are more than 100 years old and very traditional. We have chosen to experience Tawaraya for our story. It has been run for over 300 years by generations of the same family.

When you arrive in Tawaraya by taxi an old Japanese gentleman greets you at the door and escorts you inside. Don’t arrive early; check in is strictly after 3pm. Japanese live by the rules so you are not likely to get in your room before the check in time. At the door you must take off your shoes and put the offered slippers on. In winter the staff warm them up for you so they feel nice on cold feet. When you enter the ryokan, watch your head. The entrance is about 1.5m high, definitely not designed with Western travellers in mind. But that makes you bow – and that is a traditional Japanese greeting showing respect. Like I said before, it is a very traditional experience.

Ryokan Tawaraya

I booked a suite which consisted of 2 rooms with a sliding door separating the bedroom and the living room. The living room has only one low table and 2 chairs in it and the bedroom has no furniture at all. How different is that?

Once in the room – the idea is to unwind! Take a shower or a bath and change into the stylish kimonos thoughtfully provided by the ryokan. When you are relaxed and settled in on the floor at your low Japanese table on tatami mats, traditional Japanese dinner arrives. People in Japan eat early so the staff expects to start serving dinner at 6pm. More about the dinner later as it is a second ‘must try’ in Japan.

After the dinner – bed time. Oh joy of simple life! As if by magic you will find a super comfortable futon bed appears on the floor in the bedroom area. A comfy nightie is left on the beds for everyone and all beds are separate single futon beds. If you are hoping for romance – you better be able to fit on one small bed!

Ryokan beds

I wasn’t too sure about sleeping on the floor – but it was so cozy being wrapped up in my feather doona on a soft pillow with Tiffany clock gently ticking by my side that I think it was my favourite part of the stay.

The service at ryokans is a little harsh and very ‘rule orientated’. The latest you can get breakfast (served in the room) is 8.30am (a little too early if you ask me) so promptly at 8.15am all lights went on and a slightly grumpy lady has shouted ‘good morning’ at me. Luckily her grasp of English was just good enough to understand ‘turn it off!’

All in all –it was a very interesting experience. Even though not at all luxurious in a traditional sense and very expensive I still recommend it! be adventurous & try it!

Have a kaiseki – a traditional Japanese multi-course meal

Whether you are staying at a ryokan or not this is a must try experience. There are a lot of Michelin star restaurants in Tokyo and Japan that specialise in serving this type of meal.

If you are going for a Michelin star experience – be prepared to pay for it. Most menu options start from $300-350 per person, food only. We experienced Hamadaya, a Michelin star restaurant tucked in a quite side street in Tokyo.

Kaiseki

The restaurant occupies a traditional old Japanese house that used to be a home of a geisha 100 years ago. Now the restaurant features 7 private dining rooms and a small Japanese garden.

Every group dines in a separate room, so you have to make sure the company dining with you is fun, as there is no atmosphere or entertainment. The focus is on food and on sharing the experience with your partner.

Again, you get greeted at the front door by one of the staff and escorted into the house. It feels more like visiting a home of a long lost friend rather than going to a restaurant. After the obligatory slippers are on and you are comfortably settled in the private tatami room a meal service starts.

There is no menu so be prepared for a surprise. Every little dish out of a 10-12 course experience is like nothing you have ever tasted before…it looks, smells and tastes ‘unusual’. The menu is mostly fish / seafood based so if you are allergic or simply don’t like the fish you’ll have to let the restaurant know well in advance.

I found that Japanese people don’t like surprises; it is much better to prepare them in advance with any special requests.

You won’t be able to request a last minute change as they only shop and prepare for one type of meal every day (and being a very small restaurant they don’t cater for variety of tastes).

The meal lasts for about 2 hours. Ladies serve you in traditional Japanese kimonos. They look beautiful but hardly speak any English, so communication with your waiter is out of the question.

Did I forget to mention? They serve you on their knees and always serve a man first. The drinks menu is very limited with focus being on local Sake. I am not a big fan of sake and was extremely pleased to discover a NZ Sauvignon Blanc served by the glass.

All in all – a very interesting, one-off experience, you won’t find anywhere else in the world. As for the food – I liked around 10% of what was served but then, I don’t have a very adventurous pallet. For me, the food was too fishy with very strong aromas.

Would I do it again? No, but I will strongly recommend it as an experience tried at least once.

Visit Meiji Shrine – a truly spiritual experience

There are a lot of shrines in Japan. But Meiji Shrine is one of the most famous and beautiful shrines I’ve seen. It is surrounded by a luscious large green forest, that is peaceful and serene. This place is a true oasis in the middle of a huge busy concrete city. The shrine that is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife. It is an austere and spiritual place that is a must visit for all tourists in Tokyo.

On the grounds of the shrine is a prayer stand where you can write your wishes on a little timber card and place them on the stand. The wishes are meant to come true!

Meiji Shrine

Open your heart and enjoy Japan! It certainly has a lot of new and different experiences to offer all of us.

Marina Noble is Founder of The Lux Traveller.

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