Experience The Zen Of Japan

Posted on: 26 March 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Experience the Zen gardens, Buddhist temples, natural hot spas and sacred mountains of Japan.

Experience the Zen gardens, Buddhist temples, natural hot spas and sacred mountains of Japan.

Japan has a fascinating and multifaceted culture; on the one hand it is steeped in the deepest of traditions dating back thousands of years; on the other it is a society in a continual state of rapid flux, with continually shifting fads and fashions and technological development that constantly pushes back the boundaries of the possible. It could therefore be said that Japan is a country of stark contradictions and is in part this that makes it such a fascinating country to visit and a truly unique tourist destination.

Japan has a population of about 126 million - the eighth largest in the world - 75% of whom live in urban areas where population density is very high. In the industrial areas of Kansai and Kanto there is no discernible gap between cities. Yokohama and Tokyo, although separate in name, really make up a single urban conurbation which is the largest in the world.

Much of Japan however is very sparsely populated; there are large national parks and vast mountainous regions where the people's way of life is unrecognisable from urban Japan. Indeed, in order to protect Japan's rice crops from cheaper foreign imports, rural lives are government protected, although for how long no one can be sure.

Japan is no longer an expensive holiday destination. With zero inflation for the past 15 years and even a slight fall in many prices, the cost of living in Japan is now significantly less than many parts of the UK, and certainly prices of everyday items are comparable with those in other developed nations.

For those who have an interest in Buddhism or Shinto, Japan is full of fascinating places to visit. Nara, in the Kansai region near Osaka, is thought to be the original home of Buddhism in Japan and features an extensive museum of Buddhist art and artefacts, as well as the huge statue of Buddha that is Nara's central visitor attraction.

Kyoto is full of beautiful shrines and temples and can provide a unique look back through history to a time when religious belief was a more significant part of everyday life, as well as being simply stunning to behold. In fact, everywhere you go in Japan, you will see the face of the country's religious heritage.

The Cuisine

The best place to try Sushi, slices of raw seafood placed on lightly vinegared rice balls, and sashimi, slices of raw seafood dipped in soy sauce, is a kaiten-zushi bar where you sit round a conveyor belt and pick plates of it, paying per plate eaten. But Japanese food does not stop with raw fish; other specialities include teriyaki - marinated beef/chicken/fish seared on a hot plate, sukiyaki -  thin slices of beef, bean curd and vegetables cooked in soy sauce and then dipped in egg, and tempura - deep fried sea-food and vegetables.

If everything so far sounds a bit meat and fish orientated don't be alarmed - there are vegetarian options in Japan. Try the wonderful zaru soba - buck-wheat noodles served cold, a bowl of Udon - thicker noodles, in a mountain vegetable soup, tofu steak or a vegetable okonomiyaki - a savoury pancake. If you are feeling adventurous you could try natto, this is a sticky and slightly smelly concoction made of fermented soya beans. The Japanese liken it to marmite - you'll either love it or hate it.

If you want a more general selection, then the best place to go is an Izakaya, a Japanese pub, where you will find an extensive and pretty cheap choice of food and drink. Izakaya often offer tabehodai or nomihodai - for a set price you get an hour or two to eat or drink as much as you like. Choosing exactly what to eat is made easier by well illustrated menus or plastic food displays at the doorway that Madame Tussaud would be proud of - just point and see what you get.

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