Japan

Things that define Japan: Part II

#6 CONVENIENCE STORE

Convenience stores in Japan, or combini for short, can be found scattered around cities like stop signs. Combini have everything to offer: from snacks and bento to toiletries, toys and souvenirs. Food-wise, you can buy anything that you can think of. Onigiri, sushi, soba, ice cream, soda, beer, sake, etc. At the combini, you can choose between cold meals like onigiri or if you prefer something hot, you can have cooked-on-the-spot chicken wings, manju and French fries.

Combini food: bukkake and cheesecake
(c) Mylène Lau

The most striking feature of a combini is without a doubt the low prices on everything and the possibility to do some one-stop shopping.

  • メロンパン meron pan (melon bread) 105円
  • お握り onigiri 105円
  • スパイシチッキン spicy chicken 125円 (exclusive to Family Mart)
  • コーヒー coffee 105-125円
  • ぶっかけ、そば、ラメン bukkake, soba, ramen 325-350円

Good food, good prices, how can you complain?

#7 KISSATEN

For a quick fix, the combini coffee is not too bad, but for real coffee and tea amateurs, the 喫茶店 kissaten (literally “coffee and tea shop”) is the place to be. When I asked a coffee-loving friend what he thought of combini coffee, he said 「まずいです」 mazui desu meaning “it tastes bad”. Proof that real good coffee can only be found in coffee shops.

Now, finding the right kissaten can be a difficult task. A coffee-lover myself, I had to try several different places until I found the one that perfectly suited my taste: ドトール Doutoru.

Doutor coffee shop in Asakusa, Tokyo

For me, this place was the equivalent of Tim Hortons, not because they sold donuts (kissaten don’t have those), but because of the quality and taste of the coffee. The best part of it is that these shops can be found all over the country.

#8 MATSURI

It is absolutely impossible, if not unthinkable, to go to Japan and not see a まつり matsuri (Japanese festival). Matsuri are wonderful. Streets lined with vendors selling all kinds of knick-knacks, food, toys, and a wide range of traditional games like catching small fish with paper hoops.

There are several hundreds of matsuri that take place year-round in all prefectures around the country. However, it is the big festivals which attract the most visitors. Obon takes place during the summer and is a celebration to honour ancestors. Tanabata is in July and is a celebration of the tale of two lovers who have to cross a river to meet each other only once a year (how romantic!). The yuki matsuri is held in Sapporo where ice sculptures can be admired and winter activities are organized.

Shinto priests carrying a mikoshi (portable shrine) during 百万石まつり (hyakumangoku matsuri) in Kanazawa

Matsuri are an important part of Japanese culture and are rich in cultural meaning. This is the perfect time for people to observe Japanese traditions and take part in cultural activities otherwise inaccessible.

#9 GARDENS

Japenese gardens (or niwa in Japanese) are so beautiful that they figure amongst the best gardens in the world. Much like Ikebana (the art of flower arrangement), niwa are meticulously arranged and groomed to look their best and portray certain feelings. Rock gardens for example, are an important part of the zen culture and are used to bring inner peace to onlookers. Other gardens offer spectacular seasonal blooming, where each plant, tree or shrub is chosen for its flowering.

Japanese garden at the Miyojo temple in the Noto peninsula

Gardens are used to instil calm and beauty in one’s mind and offer a physical and emotional reprieve from the stress of the outside world. where ever you go in Japan, you are sure to find a niwa along the way, whether you’re visiting a castle or a temple, or staying in a Japanese home and even in school yards. Take the time to stop and look at these beautiful landscapes

#10 CHADO

茶道 Chado (or sometimes called sado) goes hand-in-hand with gardens. Chado, the way of the tea, is the traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony, filled with cultural significance. Although rigid in its execution, chado is another art from that expresses the principles of zen. Drinking tea correctly is essential in order to better appreciate its taste. This century-long tradition has been maintained throughout the years and is still carefully performed by tea masters.

Wagashi (Japanese sweet) and matcha (green tea) in Kanazawa

The 抹茶 maccha (spelt matcha in the West), whisked just enough to be frothy on top, is bitter to the taste, which is why it is usually served with wagashi, Japanese sweets, to help balance it out. Personally I love matcha so I drank three cups consecutively, but my friends didn’t share my opinion. Matcha is the highest grade of green tea that you can find, and sells for a pretty penny too. However, going to a Tea House and participating in a chado let’s you taste this exquisite tea and enjoy the view of a perfectly manicure niwa.

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