An invitation to visit ‘delicious Japan’

| September 30, 2017 | 0 Comments
Enjoying cherry blossoms is a springtime rite of passage in Japan; they are shown against the country's iconic Mount Fuji. (Photo: ©Akira Okada©JNTO)

Enjoying cherry blossoms is a springtime rite of passage in Japan; they are shown against the country’s iconic Mount Fuji. (Photo: ©Akira Okada©JNTO)

If you want a fresh experience from your overseas travel, visit Japan. Japan has been gaining popularity as one of the major tourist destinations in the world. In recent years, the number of foreign visitors increased significantly. After achieving a decade-long goal of 10 million visitors in 2013, the number more than doubled in the following three years to top 24 million. Japan continues to push to attract a staggering 40 million by 2020, the year of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. To welcome more visitors, great efforts are being made to develop tourism, including infrastructure improvements and personnel training.

Although the number of Canadian visitors has reached record levels for three years in a row, topping 270,000 in 2016, many Canadians still falsely think that travelling to Japan is expensive. While flights are more costly than those to Europe, good deals can be found. Once you arrive in Japan, you can travel on a reasonable budget because we have a much wider price range for accommodation, meals and transportation than Canada. While you can splash out on luxury hotels, there are also many reasonably priced accommodations, such as business hotels. Likewise, there are many high-quality, yet inexpensive restaurants, including conveyor-belt sushi bars, noodle places and family restaurants. For transportation, the Japan Rail Pass, and the flat-rate air ticket service, both available only to foreign tourists, can be useful. In short, it is possible to visit Japan and have a wonderful experience without breaking the bank.

Another concern that Canadians may have is the language barrier. However, English signage and public announcements are prevalent in major cities. Japanese people, although not all fluent in English, are kind and friendly, and will be happy to try to help you. In Japan, the less Japanese you speak, the more help you will get.
Most foreign tourists visit Japan’s prime destinations such as Tokyo, Mt. Fuji, Kyoto and Osaka. This itinerary is called the Golden Route. It covers major cities and regular tourist attractions. But there are many other fascinating places to visit in Japan. Some tourists, especially young ones, enjoy planning their own tours, themed around particular interests, such as skiing or snowboarding on Hokkaido’s powder snow, hiking the 88 Temple Pilgrimage on the island of Shikoku, a 1,200-kilometre pilgrimage route; relaxing in hot springs in Kyushu, or enjoying beaches and marine sports in Okinawa. Also, the Anime Sacred Places Pilgrimage, where one visits the locations depicted in famous anime films, is very popular.

Lure of traditional washoku foods

At an izakaya, you can enjoy “sakana,” a snack that goes well with sake. (Photo: Kenjiro Monji)

At an izakaya, you can enjoy “sakana,” a snack that goes well with sake. (Photo: Kenjiro Monji)

I recommend you choose a culinary theme for your adventure because you can enjoy Japanese food regardless of the timing or what area of Japan you explore.
Japan is a hotspot for gastronomy. Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than Paris and London combined. In Tokyo, you can find dishes from all over the world, even including poutine and Beaver Tails. Tokyo is just the beginning of your culinary journey. You can enjoy great food throughout Japan.
Naturally, you should try washoku, Japanese traditional cuisine. Washoku was the top reason given by foreign tourists surveyed in 2015 for choosing to visit Japan. The number of Japanese restaurants in the world has exploded, reaching more than 89,000, including more than 2,600 in Canada alone. This was aided by the fact that washoku was recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity while I was ambassador to UNESCO in 2013. Washoku is appealing because its cooking methods respect the inherent flavours of fresh, seasonal ingredients. This is combined with esthetic presentation and a sense of passing seasons. Washoku also encompasses regional differences so you can enjoy what is special, seasonal and local in each area you visit. Of course, washoku is known for its health benefits, too.
The price range for meals in Japan is very wide, from sumptuous banquets to casual eateries. Yet wherever you go, the quality and safety of food will be assured. The sales tax is just eight per cent and there is no custom of tipping. Eating out costs less in Tokyo than it does in Ottawa.

Sake and izakaya (Japanese-style pubs)

The small portions at izakaya allow you to try many different tastes with various kinds of sake. (Photo: Kenjiro Monji)

The small portions at izakaya allow you to try many different tastes with various kinds of sake. (Photo: Kenjiro Monji)

Washoku restaurants typically specialize in a particular type of food, such as kaiseki (traditional multi-course meal), sushi, tempura, yakitori or ramen. In my capacity as Sake Samurai, a title I was awarded for my contribution to the global promotion of sake, I recommend that you go to an izakaya. Izakaya literally means “a house to stay and drink sake.” According to this definition, places resembling izakaya exist in many countries, such as pubs in the U.K., bars in Spain and beer halls in Germany. However, izakaya in Japan are unique. Japanese izakaya is somewhere between a bar, which mainly serves alcoholic beverages, and a restaurant, which mainly serves food. At izakaya, people can enjoy various alcoholic beverages as well as an extremely wide range of foods at very reasonable prices.
Also, izakaya have inviting and comfortable atmospheres, where customers, including first-time visitors, often become familiar and friendly with each other. It was at izakaya that I made the acquaintance of people outside of my business circle, including manga writers, who create the famous genre of Japanese comic books, storytellers, potters and photographers. I am sure that you will also be welcomed by friendly customers eager to help you enjoy izakaya. They may even share some of their favourite sake and food with you.
Izakaya can be found across Japan. Although many guidebooks on izakaya are available, asking local residents is an effective way to find a good one. Among the different types of izakaya, I strongly recommend premium sake izakaya. On izakaya menus, there are many simple dishes as well as exquisite ones made with delicious ingredients, especially seafood and vegetables, that are familiar to Japanese, but not well known in Canada. All of the dishes match very well with sake, although some consideration should be given to pairing.

Customers can enjoy sake and food in a relaxed, inviting and comfortable atmosphere at an izakaya, quite often in the presence of its master or mistress. (Photo: /©Makoto Takagi)

Customers can enjoy sake and food in a relaxed, inviting and comfortable atmosphere at an izakaya, quite often in the presence of its master or mistress. (Photo: /©Makoto Takagi)

Let me explain a little about sake, the national drink of Japan. Sake is a fermented alcoholic beverage made from rice and water, using koji (rice mould) and yeast. Some people mistake sake for a distilled spirit such as vodka, but sake’s alcoholic content is only slightly higher than that of wine, at around 16 per cent. The process of sake manufacturing is extremely complex. It requires a great deal of care and attention. Current methods of sake-making are said to date back to the 7th Century and it may be considered one of the oldest biotechnology industries.
There are several distinct types of sake, depending on the variety of rice and its polishing ratio, quality of water, kind of yeast, brewing temperature and other elements. It may seem a little overwhelming, but, for a sake novice, remembering only three types of sake will suffice to begin with: Junmai-Daiginjo, Junmai-Ginjo and Junmai. Junmai Daiginjo has a strong aroma and pairs well with light-tasting dishes. Junmai has less aroma, but a full and rich body with a taste of rice. It is versatile, pairing well with a variety of foods, including stronger-flavoured dishes. Junmai-Ginjo falls in between these two. At izakaya, you can taste many other types, such as sparkling sake and aged sake. It is wise to seek advice on how best to enjoy sake, including serving temperature and food matches. You may not know that sake goes well with western cuisines, such as French or Italian. So you can enjoy sake even after returning to Canada.

Sake tours and sampling

Premium sake izakaya in back streets draw in the sake lovers with glowing paper lanterns at night. (Photo: /©Makoto Takagi)

Premium sake izakaya in back streets draw in the sake lovers with glowing paper lanterns at night. (Photo: /©Makoto Takagi)

To further explore sake culture, make a visit to a sake brewery. In Japan, there are about 1,400 sake breweries across all 47 prefectures. Most breweries welcome the public to view their facilities during the brewing season, from fall to spring. A growing number of breweries accept visitors throughout the year. There are some breweries near Tokyo that provide tours in English. Sake tourism is becoming increasingly popular in Japan, thanks to the co-operation of local municipalities.
At breweries, you can learn about the process of making sake and appreciate the tranquil atmosphere. You can taste specialty sake and, if you are lucky, freshly brewed ones. Comparing the taste of the water and the brewed sake is something you can only experience at breweries. As 80 per cent of sake’s volume comes from water, the characteristics of the local water are reflected in the final product.

It’s time to visit Japan

Sake is amazingly diverse in terms of flavour, aroma and taste. Different temperatures and serving styles enhance the characteristics of each sake. (Photo: Wiki)

Sake is amazingly diverse in terms of flavour, aroma and taste. Different temperatures and serving styles enhance the characteristics of each sake. (Photo: Wiki)

It is hard to sum up all that Japan has to offer to tourists. It is beautiful, kind, intriguing, traditional yet modern, and truly delicious. It can offer beautiful scenery that changes through four distinct seasons. There are world-class sightseeing spots and distinctive regional specialties. You can experience various arts and culture from traditional to contemporary and enjoy delicious Japanese cuisine and sake. Japan awaits you with her unique approach to hospitality. I hope that you will fully enjoy “delicious Japan.”

Kenjiro Monji is ambassador of Japan. For tourism information, visit ilovejapan.ca or info@jntoyyz.com or contact the Japan National Tourism Organization’s Toronto office.

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Kenjiro Monji is ambassador of Japan. For tourism information, visit ilovejapan.ca or info@jntoyyz.com or contact the Japan National Tourism Organization’s Toronto office.

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