How to experience Japan like a local

Art historian James Fox explains why you should eat in a shopping centre and bathe with strangers

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In his new BBC4 series on Japan, art historian Dr James Fox looks at the way the Japanese drink their tea and eat their ramen noodles as well as art and architecture.

“It really does feel like a parallel universe,” he says. “It’s a very developed country and has a lot in common with the West – a lot of similar architecture, for instance – but at the same time it’s completely different.

“There’s a distinct worldview about what’s beautiful, and aesthetics govern many things in Japan. If you go into a train station and buy a bento box – which is just a little packed lunch – a huge amount of effort has gone into making that really beautiful.”

For a taste of Japanese life, here are six things Fox suggests you don’t leave without trying.

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1. Take time for tea

Tea is a really important part of Japanese life and it’s worth trying a tea ceremony, which is a specific way of drinking tea – usually bright green matcha tea. Teahouses are often simple, small places that you have to crouch down to access. First, flowers are arranged in a particular way. Then you have to drink the tea in a very precise manner. You have to sit in the right way, examine the tea bowl and hold it in the correct manner. There are lots of these places in Kyoto and you can also do tea ceremony classes.

2. Eat in a shopping centre

Japan has an extraordinarily sophisticated cuisine. Bizarrely for Brits, the best restaurants are often in shopping centres and train stations. When people think of Japanese food, they usually think of sushi, but we only ate it three times in six weeks of filming. I loved the ramen noodle bars, which are everywhere and serve really fatty, salty, porky noodle soup for a couple of pounds. But my favourite was a thing called ishiyaki, where you sit around a stone built into your table and get served a huge dish of wagyu beef – beautifully marbled beef cut into very thin slices. You cook it yourself on the stone and it’s absolutely delicious.

3. Drink in a den

There’s a fantastic place in Tokyo called Golden Gai. It’s a network of little alleys filled with hundreds of tiny cafes, bars and restaurants. Some of them are probably only big enough to seat two people. This little corner of the city really gives you a sense of what old Tokyo was like before it was rebuilt after the earthquake of 1923 and the Second World War. I really recommend having a drink or a bowl of ramen noodles and feeling like you’re in a 1960s Japanese film. It’s so atmospheric.

4. Take the bullet train

You can’t go to Japan and not go on the bullet train, the shinkansen. Most people get one from Tokyo to Kyoto. Before you get on, pick up a bento box and watch the conductors doing a little dance on the platform out of respect to the train. Make sure you’re sitting on the right-hand side of the train so you get a great view of Mount Fuji, which has been worshipped by the Japanese for thousands of years. Kyoto’s train station is the biggest I’ve ever seen. It has five hotels, an enormous shopping mall and hundreds of restaurants.

5. Meditate in a rock garden

Kyoto is the great cultural centre of Japan: beautiful Zen gardens, Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, wonderful craft shops, palaces. It has 17 Unesco World Heritage sites and more than 2,000 temples and shrines. Don’t miss one of the most mysterious gardens in the world: the rock garden at Ryoan-ji. It’s 15 rocks organised on gravel in a little courtyard, with a bit of moss growing around them. No one really knows what its meaning is. Go early in the morning before the tourists arrive, sit down and meditate on the meaning of the world.

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James Fox at the most revered dry zen garden in the world, Ryoan-ji temple, Kyoto; main picture: with a 300-year-old bonsai 

6. Bathe with strangers

You really must try and stay for at least one night in a ryokan – these are the traditional inns that still exist all over Japan. The rooms have paper screens, straw mats and little furniture and you sleep on a futon. They usually won’t even have a shower or bath. Instead there will be an onsen – a hot spring bath – where all the guests in the hotel bathe together, the men in one bath and the women in another. We spent several nights in ryokan where all the crew had to bathe together in the nude!

Even in these old inns, you will have your own loo, and the toilets are amazing in Japan. They are electrically powered, have 15 different buttons and do everything under the sun.

The Art of Japanese Life is on Mondays on BBC4 at 9pm


Radio Times Travel

Land of the Rising Sun tour, 12 nights from £2,999pp. Japan is an ancient culture of emperors, fierce shoguns, samurais and brutal martial arts. Yet it’s also a place of gentle geishas, colourful kimonos, exquisite garden design and Zen Buddhism. What’s included:

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  • Return scheduled flights
  • Stay in hand-picked four-star hotels, with daily breakfast and three meals
  • See the famous sights of Tokyo – the Meiji shrine, Omotesando Street, fashion-setting Harajuku and the Akihabara electronic town
  • Visit the stunning Nikko National Park, with its outstanding Shogun-era architecture and a UNESCO World Heritage site
  • Take a scenic boat trip from Tokyo’s traditional Asakusa district to the luxury shops of Ginza
  • Enjoy astonishing views of Mt. Fuji from Lake Kawaguchi and the hot-spring mountain spa resort of Hakone
  • Travel at 189 mph on the incomparable bullet trains Reflect on the horrors of war at Hiroshima’s Peace Park and museum
  • Experience the spectacular 300-foot Kegon Falls and Lake Chuzenji, stunning examples of Japan’s world-renowned natural beauty
  • Tour Kyoto, former Imperial capital and essence of traditional Japan with wooden houses, geishas, stunning temples and Zen gardens
  • Guided tour of Nara, Japan’s first capital with its huge bronze Buddha
  • Opportunity to stay the night in a ‘Ryokan’, a traditional Japanese Inn
  • Opportunity to learn origami, traditional flower arranging or Japanese cooking
  • Click here for more details and to book