Japan is a nation steeped in tradition, but it is in the country’s lesser-known regions where cultural rituals are best explored
It’s been a long time since my Mum has run me a bath, which is probably for the best because I’m 38 years old. So, when Akiko shuffles into the dining room, where I am basking in the satisfaction of an entirely-too-generous dinner, to tell me she has drawn me a bath, it comes as a surprise.
For two nights only, Akiko is my host – or, as she is quickly dubbed, ‘Host Mum’ – as part of G Adventures’ 11-day Back Roads of Japan tour. I am in Hagi, a quaint castle city in Yamaguchi Prefecture on Japan’s southwest coast, enjoying the homestay portion of the itinerary.
I had met Akiko just a few hours earlier. The 75-year-old speaks no English, but her kind expression conveys a warm welcome and the bath, if it’s possible, delivers an even warmer one. I lower my weight into the comically short, but indulgently deep tub and am immediately inclined to draw a long and mindful breath. This isn’t my usual scene. I am a shower person, for starters. And while the idea of doing nothing appeals to me, when an opportunity presents itself, I am quick to start wondering what I can do. But there is something about this bath. The steamy water, bordering on scalding, is just my temperature. It’s also yellow and on that note, I want to swiftly put your mind at ease. Akiko has added a yuzu-scented (and -coloured), mineral-laden liquid, essentially transforming her bathroom into an onsen experience.
I soak. And I soak and I soak and I soak. It feels considered and restorative, two things that keep cropping up during my stay with Akiko. On arrival, we sit to a traditional tea ceremony, not a tea bag in sight. Instead, the ceremonial preparation of matcha, complete with a delicate bamboo whisk. The accompanying wagashi (tea sweets), made with white bean paste, are just as intricate. On to dinner, we slowly, steadily slice and plate the freshest of ingredients – salmon, kingfish, cucumber, avocado and the rest – in preparation for a make-it-yourself sushi feast.
Akiko’s kitchen is filled with ikebana, traditional Japanese flower arrangements that she has taken the time to create herself, and as we sit down to eat, our host offers us homemade plum sake. Onegaishimasu! She digs it out and, in the process, discovers a 20-year-old strawberry sake she’d forgotten all about. We try both. We finish both.
This isn’t my first brush with Japan’s famed alcoholic beverage, and it won’t be my last. The fact that our G Adventures tour guide happens to be a certified Sake Advisor can be credited, although only in part. His name is Makoto – Mack for short – and he’s not actually a guide, but a Chief Experience Officer, or CEO. The acronym is G Adventures’ way of acknowledging that its guides are the backbone of the company. With Mack as my example, as well as Ayako, who has joined us to complete her CEO training, I can’t argue. From the moment we meet, it is clear both guides possess not only the passion and knowledge required for such a job, but the telepathy, too. The WiFi code is in my hand before I draw breath to ask for it; a personal bottle of hand sanitiser is part of the thoughtful welcome pack; ponchos and umbrellas are at the ready when the rain begins to fall. I almost forget how to look after myself during our 11 days together, and this is before I’ve touched a drop of the fermented rice wine.
At an impromptu ‘sake party’ in Nagano, Mack offers a crash course, explaining the flavour profile of each of the three sakes he has selected for the group. He then compares the three-drink journey – which started “fresh”, moved towards “dry” and finished “deep” – to life. The analogy is as layered as sake number three, but if anyone understands such transitions, it’s Mack. Four years ago, the now 58-year-old moved on from a three-decade-career in research and development for a chemical company to work for G Adventures because he “wanted to enjoy a second life”.
And what a second life he’s living. On our Back Roads of Japan tour alone (G Adventures runs 12 different trips in Japan), he took in the neon glamour of Tokyo and the cultural gems of Kyoto; he witnessed the cheeky snow monkeys of Nagano and the tradition of making washi (Japanese paper) in Hamada; he explored the towering sand dune of Tottori and the charming streets of Hagi. But for Mack – and this comes as no surprise – his experience is not what matters. “I love introducing good points of Japanese people and their daily life [to travellers],” he says.
Japan’s good points are many and varied, and the rewards feel richer via the back roads. Traditions are sacred and locals hold firm. They are also immensely proud to share their knowledge, hoping such efforts will help preserve their treasured way of life. In contrast, other parts of the country stand at the forefront of innovation and modernity. Its capital is the obvious example. The world’s most populous city, Tokyo is a jungle of fluorescent advertising, its citizens scurrying below with help from an astonishingly sophisticated rail network.
Yet, even within particular destinations, Japan’s diversity is evident. Still in Tokyo, amid the frenzied pace of Shibuya, we stroll through Yoyogi Park, a 54-hectare expanse of lush lawns, picturesque vistas and forested nooks. The park is also home to Meiji Jingu, where my attention is torn between the grand shrine and the countless ema hanging nearby. A Shinto custom, ema are small wooden plaques on which worshippers – and, surely in this case, plenty of tourists – write their wishes and prayers.
Whether or not you believe that spirits will receive and grant those wishes, the ema make for inspiring reading. I stand and scan, reading requests for health, wealth, love, university admissions and everything in between. But it is two strangers named ‘C & L’, in particular, who catch my attention. “I wish to be rich in adventure,” they write. Likewise, which is why G Adventures is such a great fit.