Fodor's Japan, 15th Edition: Expert Advice and Smart Choices: Where to Stay, Eat, and Explore On and Off the Beaten Path (Travel Guide)

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9780679003960: Fodor's Japan, 15th Edition: Expert Advice and Smart Choices: Where to Stay, Eat, and Explore On and Off the Beaten Path (Travel Guide)

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Fodor's Exploring Japan: An information-rich cultural guide in full color.

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Destination: Japan

Modern Japan is a social democracy -- or its own version of one -- where more than 80% of the people regularly describe themselves to government pollsters as "middle class."

The Japanese take inexhaustible delight in things new and different, especially from other cultures. But for the unprecedented, for sudden changes in the structure of everyday life, they have little taste. Nobody here plays practical jokes, however harmless. Nobody just drops in on anybody else, however close the acquaintance. Loudspeakers on trains announce every station well in advance and even tell you on which side of the car the doors will open. The nonrefundable "key money" -- usually two months' rent -- that tenants must pay their landlords for the privilege of signing a lease usually puzzles newcomers to this country. The function of the custom is clear enough: It discourages people from suddenly deciding to move.

Of course, there are exceptions to all this. Like any society, Japan has its share of mavericks and adventurers, but it is a small share, quite incidental to the real strengths and achievements of the culture. One of those strengths is efficiency. Let the task be well defined, dispose the people working on it in due hierarchy, and the Japanese will bring it off with astonishing grace, every detail in place, every contingency provided for. Distaste for the unexpected can be a weakness, but it is also a strength. Predictability makes Japan an orderly society -- one of the safest in the world -- where it's possible to accept, even welcome, the limits on one's mobility.

Dining

Japanese food is not only delicious and healthy but also aesthetically pleasing -- in fact the aesthetic experience of food is of utmost importance to the Japanese. Even the most humble box lunch (bento) from a railway station or on a train will have been created with careful attention to color combinations and overall presentation.

Onsen (Hot Springs)

No doubt the Japanese love of bathing has something to do with the hundreds of onsen (natural hot springs) that bubble out of their volcanic islands. Many onsen are surrounded by resorts, ranging from overlarge Western-style hotels to small, humble inns; all are extremely popular among Japanese tourists. Traditionally the curative value of hot-spring water was strongly emphasized. Add to that today's need to get away from the frantic pace of life and relax. At resorts, onsen, water is usually piped in to hotel rooms or large, communal indoor baths. And some onsen have rotemburo (open-air baths) where you can soak outdoors in the midst of a snowy winter landscape.

Sumo

Sumo is Japan's traditional national pastime, and it remains tremendously popular, even at 2,000 years old. A Shinto-style roof is hung from the ceiling over a circular clay ring in which two enormous wrestlers face off. After various preliminary rites, some of which involve tossing handfuls of salt into the ring to symbolize purification, the actual wrestling begins. A match ends when any part of a wrestler's body (other than the soles of his feet) touches the ground or when he is pushed out of the ring. Wrestlers wear only a loincloth-type garment and have slick topknot hairstyles.

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