Japan is truly timeless, a place where ancient traditions are fused with modern life as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
Culture & History
Present-day Japanese culture is a fascinating mix of tradition and modernity as is observed in all aspects of everyday life. One unchanging concept is the “loss of face,” an idea which embodies personal dignity and peer status. Any conflict, criticism, insult, or request which cannot be fulfilled causes loss of face, and must be avoided at all costs. In society as a whole, harmony is the premier philosophy, essential in both family and business. Children are taught to value peace above their own needs, and are trained to work together rather than to aspire to be independent.
The resulting group-dependency relies heavily on body language in communication as words can have many underlying meanings. A passive facial expression is recommended for visitors, with eye contact discouraged as it invades the Japanese sense of privacy, invaluable in this crowded country. The hierarchy of status and age is important, with every person having his or her own place within the group. Formal greetings are standard (your name-san), and bowing the head is a sign of respect, although unwrapping a gift in the giver’s presence is not.
If you’re invited to a Japanese home for dinner, there’s a minefield of protocols to follow, beginning with the removal of your shoes before entering. Arrive on time, dress appropriately and conservatively, and wait to be told where to sit. Don’t point or pierce your food with your chopsticks, and try whatever is offered. If you don’t want second or third helpings, leave a little food in your bowl or drink in your glass as it’s good manners to never leave the guest with an empty plate. Finally, conversation while eating isn’t polite, as your hosts prefer to savor the food.
Restaurants in Japan tend to specialize in regional or specific dishes such as sushi and sashimi, hot or cold noodles, or seafood including the notorious, but delicious fugu blowfish―poisonous if not prepared by a specially-trained chef. In the big cities, entire streets are devoted to specialty eateries, including the ever-popular Korean cuisine.
For visitors, the best-known delicacies are sushi and sashimi, prepared on order at conveyor-belt sushi bars, as well as at upscale eateries famous for their masterful chefs. For a special treat in the spring, the beautiful cherry blossom trees bring sakura-flavored pastries and ice cream.
Japanese dishes are based on seasonal availability, always using the freshest of ingredients, and lovers of fine cuisine will appreciate the difference. Favorites include the traditional Kyoto kaiseki ryori, based on ‘less is more,’ the vegetarian shojin ryori, the delicious obanzi ryori peasant dishes and even the thick, high-calorie hot-pot stews favored by Sumo wrestlers. This delicious dish can be found at the Chanko Tomoegata (2-17-6 Ryogoku, Tokyo) restaurant not far from the stadium in Tokyo’s Ryogoku district.
Traditionally, seafood is the preferred protein in Japan, as eating meat was virtually prohibited until the late 1800s. Nowadays, pork is part of many specialties such as domburimono (rice topped with a grilled cutlet) and beef used in savory sukiyaki stews or cook-it-yourself shabu-shabu hot pots similar to fondue. A favorite in Osaka and Kyoto is okonomiyaki, a cross between an omelet and a pancake topped with vegetables, seafood, or meat and doused with special sauce. Another regional specialty in Osaka is takoyaki balls, deep fried octopus dumplings sold from street vendors.
Ramen, thin wheat noodle soup, and udon, thicker flour noodles are served hot in winter and deliciously cold in summer. Tsukemen is another way of preparing soup, in which you dip the noodles in a separate bowl of broth and are provided with limes and seaweed to make a sandwich. In all local eateries, a bowl of miso soup comes as part of the meal.
Most lunchtime and informal restaurants serve set bento box lunches on a tray, with the ceramic examples of the various meals on display, making it easy for non-Japanese speakers to select by pointing. Many of these restaurants are found in food courts in the basement of department stores and under railway stations. Kushinobu is just one of the options at the Kyoto Train Station. Another form of casual dining, yakitori (anything grilled on skewers and priced by the stick) is accompanied with sake or beer in bars and, for vegetarians, tempura deep-fried and battered vegetables are available alongside seafood.
Chopsticks are universal, but most restaurants will also provide knives, forks, and spoons if requested. Soup is to be drunk straight from the bowl and it’s actually flattering to slurp your noodles.
If you’re visiting Tokyo in January, May, or September, you’re in for a uniquely Japanese treat as the three key Sumo tournaments take place during these months at the National Sumo Hall, Ryogoku Kokugikan. While you may have no idea what’s going on, watching one of these fascinating matches is a great way to immerse yourself in tradition. Tickets for Tokyo tournaments can be obtained through the Ryogoku Kokugikan Box Office, among other ticket brokers.
Another not to miss Tokyo attraction is the Tsukiji Fish Market at 5:00 a.m. when the tuna auctions begin. If you’re not an early riser, head there once you wake for the freshest seafood sushi you’ve ever tasted literally straight from the source. Guided tours of the market are a great way to experience its 1,000-plus food establishments. Tokyo City Tour offers insight into the fish auctions, time to browse the stalls and a tasty breakfast.
For vibrant nightlife in Japan before you leave the capital, the Roppongi district is the place to see and be seen. Exciting, slightly seedy, and packed with clubs, bars, music venues, and karaoke joints, this is where it all happens. There’s no dress code, even in the hostess bars (strip clubs), but you will need an ID or passport at most places.
Outdoors & Adventure
Take a look at all the amazing destinations we have selected for you and your group, read our experiences and advice in our blog, and check what’s people saying about us too!