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3 ‘only-in-Japan’ experiences not to be missed

I don’t know where I was when I first heard there was a new taste: umami. Surely you can’t discover a taste, can you? It’s like saying scientists have just designed a new emotion or announced a thicker type of gravity. To be fair, it is no surprise somebody from Japan discovered this ‘fifth’ savoury taste. Visit Japan and everything seems ever so slightly out of kilter: traffic lights are blue, Kit Kats are green and you need a doctorate in advanced engineering to use a toilet. This is the country you should head to if you want to feel discombobulated. So if your comfort zone has its own comfort zone, if you are tired of your torpor, then shake things up and hop on a flight to one of the planet’s most fascinating destinations. It won’t take long before you have your own umami moment: ‘do you remember where we were when we first … ‘ Here’s three suggestions how: Have a whisky What’s the best whisky in the world? A single malt Scotch? Nope! Not according to Jim Murray’s World Whisky Bible. In November last year, it declared the finest whisky in the world to be from a distillery tucked away in the dense bamboo forests of southwest Japan. The winning dram, the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013, was described as being of ‘near incredible genius’ and scored a remarkable 97.5 marks out of 100. Whisky-Tokyo So where can you try this world-beating uisuki (whisky)? Ironically enough, not in Japan as it was only released in Europe and, unsurprisingly, it sold out. That said, the New York Bar at the Park Hyatt Tokyo — of ‘Lost in Translation’ fame — has a wide range of Japanese malts to savour, from a 21 year old Taketsuru to a more mature Hibiki 30 yrs. Go on-za-rokku (on the rocks) and, for authenticity, don’t forget to declare solemnly before your first sip, ‘for relaxing times, make it Suntory time!’ … or perhaps don’t. The bartender has heard it all before, you’re not Bill Murray, and, well, you are far too sophisticated to quote hackneyed lines from films, aren’t you? (Quick admission: I wasn’t.) My advice? Just concentrate on admiring Tokyo’s carpet of skyscrapers from 52 two floors up. The views are mesmerizing. Park Hyatt Tokyo view Go to a theme restaurant In the 1990s theme restaurants were de rigueur. Then they weren’t. Now they are again, but in a post-modern, achingly ironic way. Or perhaps they’re not? I’ve lost track. Perhaps I should flag down a passing hipster and ask him or her? ‘Excuse me, where does such-and-such-a-place-in-Chidoya sit on the irony scale this week?’ ‘That low? Really? I don’t think we we’ll bother then.’ Which, in the case of Ninja Akasaka in Tokyo, would be a pity. That the concept is slightly silly—being served by ninjas—is a given. If you were to be served by a real ninja, he might well set fire to your table and then curl up into a tight ball to disguise himself as a stone (known as uzura-gakure in the trade). Happily, the ninjas here are familiar with modern sensibilities: shogun-era warfare and rubbish disguises are out (they don’t go down well on Tripadvisor), fun magic tricks are in (they do). So far so themey, but what about the food? This is where the true surprise lays: it is really rather good. Surprisingly so. It is not for nothing that it is one of Tokyo’s most popular restaurants, ranking number nine, at the time of writing, out of over 4,500 restaurants in the Chidoya district of the city. The menus (set and à la carte) offer an array of modern Japanese flavours, sometimes with an international twist, from white fish and tomato ceviche to sublimely succulent Wagyu beef. Finally, don’t forget to reserve in advance or, even easier, ask your concierge to do this. You know what ninjas are like: they don’t like surprises… Stay in a ryokan Staying in a traditional Japanese inn, a ryokan, is like booking into a hotel where certain fundamental things are missing. A few sliding screens, an expanse of rice-straw matting and a single low table is often all there is. ‘Is that it?’ many Westerners mumble to themselves on arrival. The rooms are a black hole for soft furnishings and the bland flotsam and jetsam of a typical Western hotel. Snow monkey-Japan So where might you start with your first minimalist Japanese-style inn? Why not try a ryokan in the Japanese Alps? If you stay at Aburaya Tosen in the town of Yamanouchi-machi, not only do you get remarkably attentive service and the benefit of an on-site hot spring (onsen), you are also only a short drive away from the famous snow monkeys, which bathe in the hot springs of the nearby Jigokudani Yaenkoen park. (A word of warning: you may have to walk along an icy path for half an hour or so to catch a glimpse of them.) Snow monkey shaking head-Japan So there you go: three ‘only-in-Japan’ experiences. To be fair, there are hundreds if not thousands more. So what are yours? Perhaps they combine all three of the above (whisky-guzzling ninja monkeys?) or, dare I say, none of the above? Let us know. We always love to hear from you. Bamboo forest-Japan

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  1. I had my ‘umami moment’ in Tokyo earlier this year whilst talking to my guide over a plate of gyoza in a ramen shop (in fact, I make specific reference to it at https://www.aluxurytravelblog.com/2015/02/06/tokyo-tourism-temples-and-toilets/ ). I’d never even heard of it before then.

    I only had a few nights in Tokyo and sadly didn’t get to try of the things you mention. I’m not all that keen on whisky and the only themed restaurants I saw were those maid ones which look… well, a little suspect! Being served by a ninja… now that’s more like it! :)

    One thing I’d definitely like to do next time, though, is stay in a ryokan. My only regrets from my first trip were that I didn’t do that and couldn’t get tickets to see the Sumo wrestling either…

  2. Hi Paul,

    Gyoza-now you are talking. Like a lot of Japanese food they are impossibly moreish and a perfect snack. Umami heaven!

    I know what you are saying about theme restaurants. I was reticent when the idea of heading to one was floated and wasn’t keen at all. More fool me. That said, it is always worth doing your research as I hear that some can be more style over substance.

    As for a ryokan, they are wonderful. Just don’t walk on the tatami mats with your shoes on. A big ‘no no’ which can be difficult to get used to if you wear shoes indoors and forget…

  3. Yes, note to self, do not walk on the tatami mats wearing shoes…(aimed at me perchance?!)
    And you did your bill Murray perfectly!

  4. I also caught myself walking on the flooring on the odd occasion so wasn’t thinking of you! Although I do now recall you doing that. I hope that you can still feel the shame?

    As for the Bill Murray comment, what can I say? I’m a natural.

  5. It has been a while since I visited Japan. I did stay at a ryokan inn while I was in Kyoto. It was a fabulous experience. But you have provided some new great ideas that I have not tried.The theme restaurants seem like a great thing to try.

  6. Hi Bob, Kyoto is a wonderful place to stay in a ryokan. I hope that you enjoyed the experience!

  7. We stayed in Hiiragiya ryokan, Kyoto, on my 65th birthday in April & I was presented with a beautiful pair of chopsticks & a handwritten card of Mt Fuji. Also memorable was trip to Hiroshima & the fantastic latest Bullet Train.

  8. Hi David,

    Such is the magic of staying in a ryokan. When I stayed in one of these traditional inns in Asahikawe (in the north of Hokkaido) I was presented with a gift of a delicate origami swan and card of exquisite Japanese calligraphy upon leaving. This seems quite common. Indeed, when we were leaving the ryokan in Yamanouchi referred to above the charming owner came out and chatted to us for ages and, to our surprise, ended up making a series of mini snowmen and women for us. There’s a playfulness with the Japanese that I was not expecting!

    It sounds like you had a wonderful time too. I hope that you get to return soon…

  9. I’m practically cheating when I say I’ve done all of those things seeing as I once upon a time lived in Japan. The only thing I would add is go to a Japanese festival. There are so many they’re almost impossible not to hit especially if you are there in August which is hanabi season. Not to be confused with hanami which is cherry blossom viewing, hanami is a townships annual fireworks display! Always amazing coupled with a tray of yakitori.

  10. Lucky you, Jenni, having lived in Japan! I think that a festival is definitely on the cards on my next visit

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