As I sat sipping green tea in a Japanese ryokan, I gazed out at the zen garden with its koi carp and babbling brooks, revelling in the heat of the early- morning sun streaming through the window. It’s hard to think of a time I’ve ever felt calmer – and it certainly wasn’t what I’d expected to find in Japan, a country that to me had always seemed a bustling hub of technology and frenetic energy.
Travelling with one of my old university friends – both of us first-timers in Japan – we’d come to see bonkers game shows and Tokyo traffic crossings swarming with people, to eat sushi and buy brightly coloured kawaii pieces of plastic that I didn’t really understand. Maybe, I’d mused, I’d even fit in some kind of whirlwind romance, Lost in Translation-style. Winding down, on the other hand, was never part of the plan.
There’s something about the rituals of Japanese culture that makes a sense of calm almost inescapable. From gift-wrapping souvenirs in layers of tissue paper outside shrines to the simple act of checking tickets on a train, people here approach their jobs and daily activities with precision and an extraordinary amount of care. After a while, you inevitably start to pay your mind and body the same level of respect. After all, it’s hard to justify eating badly in a country where the diet is so cleansing and nutritious, and it’s easy to allow yourself a little time to relax when so much time is allowed for simple day-to-day tasks.
Tokyo, of course, is gloriously energetic, and I spent my first few days happily drinking it in through a jet-lagged haze. I visited Purinto Kurabu, Japanese photo-booths with wind machines and pop music blasting through the cubicles, and sat in cafés filled with Harajuku girls in outlandish costumes, gossiping over magazines and having their hair styled. At Disneyland, every Japanese tourist was dressed in exactly the same style as their contemporaries, and groups of identical Minnies, Mickeys and Goofys swarmed around me for photographs. So far, so chaotic.
Then we headed south, and everything changed. Japan’s high-speed trains are legendary, but nothing prepares you for how hushed and smooth they are. Watching the scenery fly by as we sped our way to the tip of the island felt wonderfully soothing. As dusk set in, we finally arrived at the tiny island of Miyajima, about an hour away from Hiroshima, and caught one of the very last ferries over to Itsukushima Shrine. Its famous red torii gate, designed in 1168, appeared to be floating in the water. We stayed on after the sun had set and the majority of the tourists had left, just to have the place to ourselves. It’s hard to imagine anywhere more picturesque – the arrival of tame deer nuzzling at my pocket only made the whole experience more magical.
There’s something about the rituals of Japanese culture that makes a sense of calm almost inescapable. It’s easy to relax when so much time is allowed for simple day-to-day tasks.
That night, we stayed in a traditional Japanese ryokan, a type of guesthouse that has existed since the 8th century AD and which often includes communal baths or hot springs known as onsen. Here, the sense of ceremony reached a new level of exquisite perfection.
We arrived at a spacious series of rooms, a living area that later transformed to become our dining room, a sleeping area, upstairs a traditional wooden bath already filled with hot water, and downstairs, a study opening straight out onto the ryokan’s famously beautiful garden.
Once we had changed into simple kimono-like tunics known as yukata, we were served a traditional kaiseki dinner as we sat on tatami mats in our room. There were ten tiny courses, each cooked in a different style – boiled, fried, grilled, in a broth and so on – and each was delivered with great delicacy by our hostess from behind a bamboo screen. Picking at microscopic tomatoes, delicate slivers of unfamiliar fish and sipping all manner of broths and teas was a masterclass in mindful eating. It’s easier to focus on what you’re eating when you’re trying to work out what it is. A traditional Japanese breakfast the next morning had a similar effect: though we were keen to race off for a day’s sightseeing, it’s impossible to gulp down not one but eight different dishes. You have no choice but to slow down and take your time – and that sets the pace for the rest of the day.