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The Japanese ‘Secret’ to Living (Nearly) Forever? The Food!

Kazuyoshi Miura is Japan’s second-leading goal scorer, but he hasn’t scored for his country in 23 years. He’s not sitting around at home, though; since scoring his 55th international goal, he has played over 400 matches, and this week joined Portuguese club Oliveirense on loan from Yokohama FC.

Later this month Miura will turn 56 (!), and his astonishing longevity as a football player made us think about Japanese longevity in general.

Among G7 nations, Japan claims the longest longest average life expectancy, due primarily to low mortality rates from ischemic heart disease and cancer. But as recently as the 1960s, Japan had the shortest average life expectancy among G7 countries.

So what changed? Mainly, diet.

Japan’s low mortality rates from ischemic heart disease and cancer are believed to be attributable mostly to the typical Japanese diet, which is characterized by a high proportion of vegetables (including seaweed) and fish, as well as the introduction (since 1945) of “Western” dietary staples (mostly consumed in moderation) such as meat, milk, and dairy products.

So yeah, we’re talking about Japanese food! Again! Check out our previous posts on the use of the word “oishii”, the legendary Copenhagen restaurant Noma bringing formal kaiseki to its place of birth in Kyoto; Japan’s most famous food-related brand – Kobe beef; and the myriad options for vegetarian and vegan travellers to Japan.

Oishii – it’s not (just) the taste!

We’ve posted a lot about food recently – we commented on Noma bringing formal kaiseki to its place of birth in Kyoto; we marveled at the marble in Kobe beef; and we noted that there are myriad options for vegetarian and vegan travellers to Japan.

Now we think it is high time to talk about some language about food, and share what is, probably, one of the most frequently used Japanese words: “oishii” (pronounced, oy-shi).

If you look in the dictionary, the translation will be given as “delicious”, and other words complimenting a food’s taste. Indeed, the Japanese characters used to write “oishii” can be translated literally as “beautiful flavour”.

When you share a meal with Japanese people, you are more than likely to hear a lot of conversation and comment that includes “oishii”. Therefore, if someone has bought or cooked a meal for you, it is most appropriate to use the single word, oishii, to show your appreciation.

However, after decades living and working in Japan, we think it is a disservice to the word to restrict the use of “oishii” to a celebration of taste and texture only. The word has come to encompass so much more. When a Japanese person prepares a meal (either one that they cook or buy at a restaurant) they are thinking about the whole experience. Much more than the sensory experience on the palate. In fact, the time of day, the setting, the assembled guests, the tableware, the arrangement on the table, the ingredients, the cooking, … each element of the meal experience combine and mingle to create the sensation of “oishii”.

Oishii is an extremely difficult word to define succinctly in English, but perhaps rather than just signifying “tasty”, its use may better express overall enjoyment of the food and experience. Most travellers to Japan will have many opportunities to use the word. Best of all, liberal deployment of “oishii” will have a deep and positive impact on the people receiving your compliments.

The Best Place in Japan for Vegetarians Is …

A few weeks ago we wrote about Kobe beef, but what if you’re not a meat eater?

As we wrote in the beef post, prior to the arrival of foreigners, Japanese were not big meat eaters. Coastal Japanese ate plenty of fish, certainly, inlanders trapped wild game, and the rest was vegetables (and seaweed!).

Today, unfortunately, it’s not as easy to find vegetarian restaurants as it was 150 years ago. [The good news is, public transportation is much improved since that time!]

Still, Japan is slowly rediscovering vegetarianism, and in the major cities of Tokyo and Osaka it’s not difficult to find vegetarian restaurants.

And in Kyoto, it’s easy.

Because Kyoto is the base for most of Japan’s main Buddhist sects, it has long (since the 13th century) been a center for shojin ryori, traditional Buddhist temple cuisine.

Like a great deal of food in Kyoto, shojin ryori is notable for its beautiful presentation, and for using seasonal ingredients.

You can find casual vegetarian cafes in Kyoto, and more sophisticated cuisine, though travelers on a budget can almost always dine affordably at good restaurants by going there for lunch (and ordering the set lunch) rather than dinner.

One important note: if you are strictly vegetarian, you will want to confirm that the restaurant prepares its dishes with dashi (stock) made from konbu (kelp) rather than bonito flakes, which is much more common. We’re very happy to provide suggestions of vegetarian restaurants in Kyoto and other cities. Hit us up with questions!

‘Cool Japan’ or ‘Your Japan’?

In October, “Cool Japan” ambassador Benjamin Boas published a book titled From ‘Cool Japan’ to ‘Your Japan’. The volume was in part the result of Boas’s feeling that the people in charge of marketing (“cool”) Japan to the world were missing the point: it’s not up to a government agency to tell tourists what they should appreciate in a country’s culture; they’ll find that thing on their own.

In Boas’s case, video games provided the spark for his interest in Japan, he studied Japanese language and culture at university in the United States, and eventually made his way across the Pacific, where he found himself serving as a bridge between Japan and the world.

Several years after the Japanese government launched its “Cool Japan” campaign in 2010, Boas published a critique of the initiative, and not long after, was contacted by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s Creative Industries Promotion Office and asked to serve as an ambassador for the brand.

In a recent interview with The Japan Times, Boas said, “Nobody ever told me to like video games, I found them on my own. I never understood why anyone had to put any degree of effort into telling people what to like.”

Well, yes and no.

The average Hollywood movie costs $100 million to make, of which $35 million is spent on marketing.

Why? So you’ll know the movie exists. So you’ll know who stars in it, and whether it’s a comedy or a love story or an action-packed thriller.

The fact is, today’s travelers have a lot of choices.

They can go to Morocco or Brazil or New Zealand or Japan, among many other attractive destinations.

It’s our job to first of all put Japan on travelers’ radar screens, then help them find “their Japan”.

How do we do that?

By trying to understand their interests.

Are they outdoors people? Indoors people? Techies? Foodies? Sports nuts? Culture vultures?

Most importantly for us, are they interested in experiencing something different?

Because we’re not the people to come to for a “plain vanilla” (or even “plain matcha”!) travel adventure.

But we do disagree with Benjamin Boas that people can and should “find their Japan” on their own. Japan, like most countries and cultures, is a complex place with a long and interesting history.

We spend lots of time outside our offices, road-testing the experiences and meeting the characters that tell Japan’s story, and working to figure out how best to package Japan’s attractions to meet individual desire (and exceed expectations!). So although we’re very happy when clients come to us with a very clear idea of what they want from their Japan adventures, we’re also very happy to offer suggestions based on our collective decades of experience!

Just Mixing The Faiths (for Perfect Harmony)

Business events often incorporate elements of the two main faiths of the Japanese. Perhaps a morning blessing at a Shinto shrine to herald success; and a special dinner at a Buddhist temple to close. This mix and match approach is in perfect harmony with Japanese society itself.

It is difficult to define who is a dedicated follower of Shinto, and who prioritises Buddhism in Japan. Many surveys that try to find out tend to obtain results that about 70-80% of the population follow some element of Shinto practices in their daily lives; and … about 60-70% follow Buddhist practices. This apparent overlap is probably one of the least contradictory aspects of life in this country.

Shinto is the native, natural belief system of Japan that dates back millennia. It is not a single-god religion. It is a spiritual belief with regional trends and accents, and more than 10,000 deities found in natural features such as trees, rocks, rivers, sea, sky, mountains. Shinto shrines can most easily be identified by the distinctive torii gates that mark the entrance.

Buddhism became established in Japan in the Nara area in the sixth century A.D., arriving from China after having been established much earlier in India. Buddhism developed into an organised and managed faith in the eighth century when Nara (then known as Heijokyo) was the capital and the imperial family used faith as part of its governance of the nation. Since the time that Buddhism arrived in Japan it has always coexisted with Shintoism. The most striking evidence of this is that often temples and shrines share the same site.

Indeed, spirituality is part of daily and seasonal routine here in Japan. To oversimplify and over-generalise, Buddhism tends to be associated with closure, such as funerals. Just before midnight on 31st December we go to the Buddhist temple to ring the bell 108 times to mark the end of the year and the dispelling of 108 human sins. Within a few short hours, at sunrise, we are at our local Shinto shrine to welcome the New Year. Shinto shrines are also closely associated with other major starting points, such as marriage and welcoming a new child into the world.

Of course, many other religions are also practised in Japan; with Christianity the most prominent. While Christianity was banned in the late 17th century, freedom of religious practise was enshrined in Japanese law in 1873, and an estimated two million Japanese are practising Christians. No matter what your faith, Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines are an important component of Japanese culture, and well worth making time to visit. Some of Japan’s most beautiful gardens are on the grounds of Buddhist temples, and some Shinto shrines are among Japan’s most sacred sites.