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Top 5: Made in Japan

Many customs in the Land of the Rising Sun have evolved in isolation over centuries. Head to its historic heartland to experience a beguiling culture steeped in tradition

Top 5: Made in Japan
Geisha in Japan. Image: Getty

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01 Unleash your inner ninja

In a shadowy den, I’m faced with a stick-wielding warrior. Garbed in dark robes, he stands deadly still, as if preparing to pounce. After a dramatic pause he turns, lifts his fukiya blowpipe to his lips and spits a staccato breath that sends a deadly dart hurtling soundlessly through the air. Bullseye.

This awesome warrior is Izo Ichikawa, a sixth-generation ninja and expert in the dark arts of his ancestors. He’s dedicated years to research and trained with Japan’s only remaining ninja clan member to pass on the covert code of these fabled assassins to new apprentices in his Kyoto-based dojo.

My hazy notion of ninja conjures up superhuman attackers from martial-arts movies. From Izo, I learn they have their origins in feudal Japan, when the ruling shoguns hired trained assassins and informants during the ‘warring states’ period of the 15th century. “Their mission was to keep peace and survive,” Izo explains.

Survival starts with channelling my inner strength in a meditation ritual, before we practise ninja breathing rhythms and walking silently like a shadow. “The secret is not moving your hips,” Izo advises.

Tapping the dojo’s back wall, Izo reveals revolving doors, secret cupboards and two katana swords. Wrestling mine from its scabbard, I try to emulate Izo’s deliverance of a fatal blow with great enthusiasm but limited skill. We feint and shimmy to launch surprise attacks and hurl sharpened star-shaped shurikens to hit targets.

Training over, Izo shows me his prized collection of original ninja tools sourced from private sellers. I leave weapon-free, albeit armed with a new set of ninja tricks to help me fight another day.  Zoe McIntyre

How to do it: A private one-hour lesson at Ninja Dojo costs ¥8,000 (£51).

02 Create your own cartoon

A large pair of glassy eyes are staring back at me. They belong to a character whose cutesy looks are offset by an explosion-shaped speech bubble delivering an impassioned harangue in a blitz of Japanese symbols.

This is my attempt at manga — Japan’s strain of cartoon comics that started as a geeky subculture and has become a national phenomenon, crowding bookshops, newsstands, billboards and television screens.

The craze is captured perfectly at Kyoto’s International Manga Museum, where I’ve come for my hands-on tutorial. The floorboards of this former school groan under the load of 300,000 comic books, ranging from martial art fantasy to cop-and-robber capers.

Guided by a manga artist, I learn to build a plot through attention to detail. Tight ruled lines indicate fast movement, while altering the shape of the fukidashi, or thought bubble, reflects a particular mood. We shine hair, plot spirals within star-struck eyes and colour abstract backgrounds to create a proud addition to my collection.  Zoe McIntyre

How to do it: A one-hour group manga workshop costs ¥1,000 (£6.50) per person.

Plastic food dish in the display window of a Japanese restaurant, Honshu, Tokyo prefecture. Image: Getty

Plastic food dish in the display window of a Japanese restaurant, Honshu, Tokyo prefecture. Image: Getty

03 Master the art of faking it

A chrome worktop is laden with plates of marbled wagyu beef and heaps of uniformly chopped lotus roots. Wooden boards are piled high with oozing eggs benedict, stacks of butter-soaked pancakes and doughnuts drenched in pink icing. Bowls are overflowing with noodles topped with fried eggs, and tomato-slathered spaghetti glistening with prawns. I’d be in gastronomic heaven but for one simple fact: none of this food is real.

Despite the utensils, chopping boards and tempting cuisine, this is no professional kitchen, and the hurried workers moving between cooking stations are not actually chefs. It’s the workshop of Iwasaki Mokei (Sample Village Iwasaki) in Gujo Hachiman, a small riverside town in Gifu prefecture, which holds the unique accolade of being Japan’s capital of fake food.

The story begins in 1932, when Takizo Iwasaki, inspired by one of his wife’s omelettes, began creating realistic wax food models, from sushi and sashimi to noodles and tempura, for restaurants to display in their windows. Iwasaki’s faux food was an instant hit, and paved the way for several other sampuru (sample) workshops in Gujo, which today supplies 80% of Japan’s now ubiquitous model food.

Sample Village Iwasaki alone caters to half of the country’s replica market, and while some of its techniques and materials have changed over the years — plastic has largely replaced wax — one thing has stayed the same: every sampura is skilfully hand-made by a trained craftsman and has to look like the real deal, or better.

Manager Seigo Kozakai tells me that the premise of replica food is not just to look appetising but also to give customers an idea of what’s on offer, as well as quantity and price. Imitation window dishes might be a convenient advertising tool but on a deeper level, Kozakai believes replica food is a distinctly Japanese cultural affair, tied to the country’s obsession with the visual aesthetics of food.

Visitors to the Iwasaki workshop can attempt to master the skills for themselves, choosing one of three different sets to make during a sampuru masterclass. I opt for tempura prawns and vegetables, plus a whole lettuce.

I watch closely as my instructor Yoko blitzes through the process of drizzling wax into warm water in a zigzag pattern before topping it with a prawn, rolling it up, trimming and plunging it into cold water. It’s oddly satisfying watching the crispy creation take shape in a matter of seconds by an expert who honed her craft over a decade.

My fumbling hands turn out a baseball bat-shaped mess, which looks odd compared to the perfectly formed battered shrimp next to it. It doesn’t fill me with confidence for the tempura veg, but each new effort looks ever more accomplished until I’m ready to attempt a lettuce.

This turns out to be a far more challenging process. I ladle a pool of white wax on to the water, to create the internal leaves, before adding a strip of green wax above it for the outer layers and pull the whole sheet down into the water with finger and thumb to create the leafy pattern. Next, I roll the sheet into a loose ball, cut it in half with a hot knife and plunge it into cold water to reveal vibrantly green and incredibly realistic layers of lettuce.

With a gesturing nod from Yoko, I feel like I’ve made a fair stab at sampuru, but after looking at phoney food all morning, I’m now desperate for the real thing.  Chris Peacock

How to do it: A three-set class at Iwasaki costs Y1,200 (£7.50) per person.

04 Splash out in an onsen

A blanket of fresh snow shimmers on moonlit streets framed by icy stalactites. I watch the window scene through drooping eyelids and a haze of steam while soaking languidly in simmering waters. Who knew sharing a bath with strangers could be so relaxing?

As a volcanic archipelago blessed with natural geothermal springs, Japan has a passion for communal baths, known as onsen, which date back to antiquity. To sample its pleasures means staying in one of its ryokans, or country inns, that have served as resting places for weary travellers since the Edo period of the 1600s.

Mine is in a far-flung spa village on the fringes of the castle city of Matsumoto, gateway to the Japanese Alps. Reaching it involves clattering through bucolic countryside on the regional railway and then taking a bus to its discreet front entrance, behind which guests decompress in comfortable yukata robes.

My inhibitions take a little longer to wash away. Amid the low-slung furniture of my suite, I fret over the laminated guide to bathing etiquette, which dictates a total strip and a thorough bucket-water pre-spa wash. Tiptoeing into the female pool, I’m relieved to find only two other women will witness my clumsy ablutions.

The rest of the evening is devoted to kaiseki — a traditional dinner comprising a series of exquisitely prepared small dishes served in guests’ rooms. There’s beef cooking on embers, tofu soup, buckwheat noodles and tender pink sashimi adorned with seasonal flowers.

Morning brings an equally delicious breakfast followed by a rejuvenating dip. It’s a routine I could get used to.  Zoe McIntyre

How to do it: Doubles at Umenoyu ryokan cost from ¥13,000 (£84) including breakfast and dinner.

Making traditional washi paper at the Mino-Washi Museum. Image: Chris Peacock

Making traditional washi paper at the Mino-Washi Museum. Image: Chris Peacock

05 Try your hand at making paper

In 2014, washi, Japan’s traditional handmade paper, was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. The award was a boon to the skilled artisans who maintain the tradition, but for many Japanese people it merely confirmed a fact they’ve long known — that for more than 1,000 years, washi has been one of the world’s finest papers.

Washi is the result of a long, complex process that begins with the soaking of raw materials — typically gampi tree bark or kozo (paper mulberry). Traditionally, washi paper has been used not only for letter writing and books but also for decorative arts and home interiors.

One of the most highly prized types of washi is produced in the mountain-fringed city of Mino, whose paper-making history can be traced to the eighth century — a single A2 sheet of Mino paper can cost more than ¥2,000 (£12).

Visitors to the Mino-Washi Museum can try their hand at traditional paper making. Each move must be exact, but the result is a beautiful material designed to stand the test of time.  Chris Peacock

How to do it: Entrance to the Mino-Washi Museum and a washi making lesson costs Y1,000 (£6.50) per person.


Read more in the June 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)