It's my third trip to Tokyo. I've seen the beautiful Meiji Shrine, admired the designer shops in Aoyama and wandered the streets of teen-heaven Harajuku. I have a megacity and the most efficient train system in the world at my disposal. As I sip a fragrant green energy drink at my hotel (a delicious concoction of celery, melon and kiwi), I decide that
this visit will be different, focusing on
the city's less familiar sights.
On a previous visit I was fascinated by an incense ceremony, so with a little
help from my concierge, I opt for an afternoon's immersion in Edo culture. This was when the Tokugawa Shogunate ruled Japan from Tokyo (1603-1868) and led it into seclusion from the rest of the world. It was a period of peace when the arts flourished. Strange, then, that my afternoon starts with an introduction to Bushido — Samurai sword training.
Once I'm safely ensconced on a small tatami-matted platform inside the dojo (martial arts hall), a slender young woman wearing glasses enters — a teacher who has mastered the high-ranking seventh dan (grade) of skill. Silence falls and the class begins. Each student practises a set of movements under her watchful eyes. The more experienced students have real swords, perfectly scaled and weighted. They're classed as art works in Japan.
Next on my agenda is a tea ceremony at nearby The Koomon, an organisation that teaches different traditional skills. The ceremony evolved out of Zen-meditation techniques in the 16th century. Etiquette is central to its practice: the host must be selfless and ritualistically make and serve green powder tea. The guests must be humble and appreciative of each element of the ceremony, from the carefully selected rustic cup to the exquisite flower arrangement chosen to capture the moment. The Koomon's simple tearoom may be in a modern building but it exudes all the Zen ideals of tranquillity, harmony, purity and respect.
In order to experience a more provincial side of Japan, I visit Kobe the next day. A mere three hours away on the Hikari bullet train, Kobe is sandwiched between the sea and mountains. Its modern tree-lined avenues cling to the hillside, so that you can almost touch the harbour below. It's famous for, among other things, good food, beef, sake and one of Japan's oldest hot-spring resorts — Arima Onsen. I head there after a delicious kaiseki (classical Japanese cuisine) lunch featuring fragrant fish dumplings and grilled kamasu (like red snapper) with sea urchin.