A world apart

JAMIE LAFFERTY
Last updated 11:36 20/12/2013
Japan
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GRACIOUS: A guest with a gift for her host.

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There are times when Japan feels too perfect - its aesthetic and beauty, the meticulousness and supreme organisation...

Take the train system. The famed Shinkansen, or bullet train, is never late, nor is it early - it arrives precisely when it is meant to. People are quick to praise Swiss rail for its time-keeping, but Japan's population is 16 times larger and its trains more efficient.

With 128 million potential customers, that alone is a miraculous feat of co-ordination and engineering. It's down to extreme hard work, ingenuity and striving to become more perfect through an admirably pure kind of logic.

But then there are the puppy cafes. As with the Shinkansen, they are expressions of Japanese culture - extraordinary and unforgettable to visitors - yet eerily logical.

Their purpose is two-fold: places the Japanese can take their dog so it can enjoy (hilariously expensive) treats from a canine menu; and places for people to hire a dog, by the hour, for play. Bunny and cat cafes are also available.

In a country equally obsessed with hard work and kawaii (cute) culture, it's hard to argue against the pink, fluffy logic of these places.

I've spent almost five months in Japan, the majority of it as part of a volunteer blogging project that took me to each of its 47 prefectures. Just why Japan is so different and why it is one of the world's most remarkable holiday destinations, I attribute to its Sakoku policy.

From the mid-17th century, Japan fended off unwelcome advances from foreigners, its ports open only to a few Chinese and Dutch traders.

The policy, under which no other foreigners could enter nor the Japanese leave the country, meant that while much of the Western world enjoyed the progress of the Industrial Revolution, Japan evolved in a different way.

The policy lasted until American commodore Matthew Perry sailed his black ships up and down Japan's east coast in 1853, threatening to cannonball the doors down.

Such isolation helped cement some enduring elements of Japanese culture, both extraordinary and mundane.

For example, a single piece of fruit, beautifully boxed, being given as a traditional gift (and costing more than $30); people bowing even when speaking on the phone rather than face to face; fully automated toilets that spring open when you approach; and, in northern Honshu's Akita Prefecture, adults pretending to be Namahage (ogres) so as to terrify children into behaving better.

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In Wakayama Prefecture, you can visit Jison-in, a Buddhist temple dedicated to breasts. In Kishi, a few kilometres away, is a train station where the stationmaster is a cat. Not a toy - an actual cat.

Many Japanese cities opt for a cartoon equivalent, a yuruchara, to represent them. Somehow these cutesy mascots manage to capture the essence of a town, as well as provide locals with a sense of belonging.

Each year there's a national competition to find which yuruchara is best. This year's champion is Imabari City's Barysan, a fat chicken that has a bridge on its head - for a tiara.

His (or her) headwear represents the island of Shikoku's connection with the mainland of Honshu, as well as the Imabari region's obsession with yakitori (grilled chicken).

As national champion, the chicken figure has made public appearances this year and its image is found on everything from mobile phone covers to towels.

Barysan is extremely kawaii but isn't alone in being an edible mascot. Kochi Prefecture is represented by a bonito (fish), Kagawa Prefecture has a character called Udon No, representing the region's udon noodles.

It should not be a surprise that food is never far away from the Japanese way of being. There are culinary conversations I can have nowhere else in the world.

"Do you like eye-socket of tuna?" "Will you try some natto?" Natto is a form of fermented soybean the Japanese vehemently maintain is good for one's health.

It is popular as a breakfast food, but to me it tastes somewhere between tear-gas and a headbutt, and even if eating it could give me the ability to fly, I still wouldn't try it again.

Yet Japan is home to some of the world's best seafood and to a plethora of Michelin-starred restaurants. Beyond Tokyo's restaurants are many more treats, including Iwate Prefecture's wanko soba (buckwheat noodles), which are presented in tiny bowls and continuously served.

Alongside the practice of omotenashi - Japan's flawless culture of hospitality - having a holiday means accumulating many odd little experiences that form treasured memories, from taking part in tea ceremonies in centuries-old buildings to seeing a traditional geisha show to exploring a wooden castle.

The writer travelled courtesy of The Real Japan, real-japan.com.

WHAT NOT TO MISS

WRESTLING Consistently one of the most popular attractions for first-time visitors to Japan, sumo wrestlers are athletes, and violent, speedy ones at that. Tournaments are held in Tokyo (January, May and September), in Osaka (March), Nagoya (July) and Fukuoka (November). Each tournament lasts for 15 days. Book at sumo.or.jp.

PETTING The Sun Walk shopping centre in Palette Town on Tokyo's Odaiba has several dog cafes. Dog hire is available. Deco's Dog Cafe, in the Daikanyama district, is where to see owners indulging their dogs with birthday parties.

BLESSING On New Year's Eve, actors dressed as ogres go from door to door on the Oga peninsula in Akita Prefecture undertaking an ageless ritual of "scaring" children and blessing a family. If you can't be in that part of northern Honshu on December 31, see this Namahage ritual year-round at the Oga Shinzan Folklore Museum. Open daily, 8.30am to 5pm. Entry ¥500 ($5.9). See namahage.co.jp/namahagekan.

- FFX Aus

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