June 2003 issue

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Japan consists of a number of islands, the largest being Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushi and Shikoku, where the majority of the population live. Its geographical location above the meeting point of a number of continental plates in the Pacific Ocean gives rise to a range of volcanic features, such as Mount Fuji, which is Japan's highest mountain and a focal point for climbers, and natural hot springs - or onsen - which are popular with both tourists and locals due to the healing properties attributed to the minerals dissolved in the water.

The oldest spring is reputed to be Dogo onsen in Ehima that, according to tradition, was once the bathing spot of many legendary and early historic emperors. Japanese springs have to meet certain standards regarding temperature and mineral composition to be recognised by the Japanese government and many are part of large-scale resort complexes.

The capital city of Tokyo provides a mix of the old and new as ancient monuments rub shoulders with modern buildings and skyscrapers. The Zozoji Temple, which dates from 1393, is the main temple of the Jodo Buddhist sect and is situated next to the 333-metre high Tokyo Tower. This tower is the largest self-supporting steel tower in the world and an observation platform at 250 feet provides panoramic views of the city, with Mount Fuji in the background, on fine days. An aquarium and wax museum can be found on other floors.

The cities of Nara and Kyoto are Japan's religious centres and many beautiful temples and religious monuments can be found there. Nara is home to the Todaiji Temple, which is one of the earliest and most powerful Buddhist temples in the country, containing a 16-metre tall bronze statue of Buddha. Wooden pagodas, which originally represented the burial place of Buddha within a Buddhist temple compound, are a common sight in this area of Japan and are all constructed with an odd number of storeys as even numbers are considered unlucky.

The majority of Japanese live in Japan's many large cities, but the natural world plays a special role in the life of the Japanese people. In spring every year, celebrations are held for the blooming of the many different varieties of cherry tree, which occurs for a few days each year. Blossom viewing (hanami) parties are held under the cherry trees in local parks.

Festivals are a common occurrence in Japan as each shrine has its own particular celebration to mark events such as the coming of the farming season or to commemorate historical events. Festivals usually last several days and sometimes consist of processions of floats carrying people playing traditional Japanese instruments. The Tanabata Matsuri - Star Festival - is celebrated in Sendai City in August. The festival originates from a legend whereby a couple who spent more time with each other than on doing their jobs were punished by being sent to become stars in the Milky Way. Today festival-goers pray to the stars for the improvement of their skills.

Tea ceremonies are an important part of Japanese culture and many Japanese people take tea ceremony lessons with a teacher. Every movement of the tea-making process is prescribed and must be learnt by heart. The host and guests kneel around a low table in a special room (chasitsu) and the whole ceremony is a way of expressing the highest level of hospitality to guests.

Etiquette and rules governing the correct way of doing things play a large role in the Japanese way of life and visitors should make themselves aware of some of these to avoid giving offence. When eating out, guests are traditionally required to take off their shoes before stepping into the seating area and food should not be passed around using chopsticks. Also, when drinking alcoholic drinks, it is the custom for people to serve each other rather than fill their own glass themselves.

Japanese cuisine is famous worldwide and there are a great many traditional dishes to try. One of the greatest delicacies in Japanese cuisine is the blowfish (fugu), which contains a deadly poison in its organs. Only licensed cooks are allowed to prepare the fish as it can cause instantaneous death in diners. Despite this, over 10,000 tonnes of blowfish are consumed in Japan each year. Other dishes include sushi, which must be eaten in one mouthful, sashimi, thin slices of raw seafood dipped in soy sauce, and miso soup, which is usually consumed by drinking as out of a cup.

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