© Hoshino Resorts
Starting 2021 with a fresh mind, it’s time to take a look inside our 'tabigokoro' or our ‘travel hearts’ and see what's been hiding. According to a recent survey, in 2021 we will be more likely to go to places which have been on the top of our bucket lists for years, and for many people that is nowhere else than Japan! However, once we're there we shouldn’t feel rushed and pressured to visit as many places as possible.
Japan is all about celebrating those small experiences and little joys. The 100 soundscapes of Japan, understanding your 'ikigai' reason for living, 'kuidaore' self-indulgence, observing the passing of the 72 micro-seasons - these are the small appreciations that turn your whole trip into lasting memories shared with your loved ones. They are also one of the reasons behind Japan housing many record-breaking centenarians like Kane Tanaka - the oldest person alive!
This year we’re joining Japanuary, an initiative to celebrate these different aspects of Japan. As the movement grows, the people at Theobald Fox have created a series of events around weekly themes: cycling, adventure, wellbeing, the weird/wonderful world of Japanese sports, whilst Cakes with Faces has made a daily calendar with various fun Japan-related categories! Discover ways to celebrate yourself and get a fresh perspective on things and take a look at our list of Japanese customs and experiences that will top up your serotonin and let you hit that ‘refresh’ button!
Finding your own kind of Zen
Zen meditation has been a key element of Japanese life for centuries as a result of its close ties to Buddhism, Japan’s dominant religion. It’s not an experience only limited to few chosen people, anyone can try it to relax and find inner peace. That’s why we can wholeheartedly recommend Hakujukan nextdoor to Eiheiji Temple in Fukui, a mere three hour trip from Tokyo. Hakujukan is not just a ryokan hotel but a reserve for your mind where you can join the local monks during their morning prayers and other activities that will help you tap into long lasting peace of mind. Get a taste of fine dining with a Buddhist twist: Buddhist vegetarian cuisine which has sustained monks since the beginning of time, nourishes your body and soul. Hakujukan is also equipped with “Zen Concierges” who will be your spiritual guides through the experience and assist you with achieving your goals and getting the most out of your experience.
Try some 'zazen' seated meditation techniques with this DIY at-home video from Kyoto's Taizo-in, and, if you're a real pro, enrol yourself on a fully-fledged no holes barred intensive zen programme within Eiheiji Temple itself.© DEGAM Tsuruoka Tourism Bureau
And if that's not enough, take your zen to the water. The ultimate challenge for a curious soul is 'takigyo', waterfall meditation! It's a Buddhist purification ritual practiced across the country which will enable you to test your limits and clear your mind.
More than just mindfulness
Yoga is a worldwide phenomenon and outdoor pursuits are available anywhere, really. But in Japan, these common exercise and mindfulness activities are often combined with another wellness phenomenon - the 'power spot'. Described as a natural setting of rare beauty with strong, seemingly mystical energy, they've become hotspots for yoga fanatics all over Japan, and add an extra layer of motivation to get up and feel the endorphins.
Downward facing dog will never be the same after you place your palms on the firm ground overlooking Hiroshima city from Mt Futaba, and the idea of strapping on a wetsuit for a bit of sea-kayaking is more appealing when you're doing it around the floating Japanese gate at Shirahige Shrine. Rowing a boat along the thundering waterfalls of Takachiho Gorge or swimming in the natural ponds of moss-laden Yakushima island are just some of the other ways Japanese people are combining exercise with almost spiritual levels of fulfilment.
Looking to kick it up a knotch? What about a yoga lesson on a beach, or even a paddleboard in the presence of the island volcano of Sakurajima?
Beach yoga allows you to relax while listening to the rushing waves and feeling the texture of sand on your feet while finding your centre on a board is the ultimate concentration test. You can find activities like this on Kamakura’s Shonan beach and many other places across Japan including Okinawa's Risonare Kohamajima Resort. Check with your hotel, there might be a depth of experiences hiding just behind the corner!
Bringing the outside, inside
Shinrin-yoku is a Japanese word which means ‘forest bathing’, an activity that can slot seemlessly into a trip to the Japanese countryside. The practice combines the mental health benefits provided by nature-focused mindfulness and the physical benefits produced by exposure to ‘phytoncides’, natural substances released by plants and trees to ward off germs and predators.
As licensed guide and Nagano local Chris Gladden taught us, you can practice forest therapy in any season, even in parks and green spaces near you, but, visit one of Japan’s 62 certified forest therapy spots and you'll be able to celebrate a coexistence with nature and key into Japan's and Shinto culture's strong reverence for the great outdoors. Nagano’s Akasawa Forest is known as one of the top three most beautiful forests in Japan. Reconnect with nature as you stroll past 300-year old kiso hinoki cypress trees, close your eyes, and just be present. It’s a safe haven that allows you to experience the Earth’s green heart with all of your senses. While destressing with a forest therapy, discover Japan’s history of protecting natural spots that goes as far back as the 1600s! That’s one of the reasons why 69% of Japan is covered with a blanket of lush green forests. We still have a lot to learn in that department…
Behind the billowing steam© Hoshino Resorts
Known for its cleanliness, Japan is the hot spring centre of the world with a highly developed bathing culture and highest number of bathouses and natural sources. Places like Besho Onsen, where the temple sits next to the hot spring, show us how stepping outside of the daily grind to practice a little bit of purifying self-care is at the heart of hot spring philosophy and Japanese Buddhism, but taking a hot dip also reduces stress, can help prevent ageing, and is an important cultural experience! Not only that, but there is a sense of 'hadaka no tsukiai' or 'naked communication' born out of sharing a bath with other strangers in Japan's more communal 'sento' baths, promoting a sense of liberation and comfort in your own skin, with the unspoken rule that all bathers respect and accept each other as they are.
Visit one of Japan’s historical bathhouses and imagine yourself in the eras of old or visit a more modern onsen and take in the stunning penthouse views. Nothing beats the sound of flowing water and the slowly rising steam clouds in an outside bath, or ‘rotenburo’. Feel the breeze on your skin, breathe in the fresh mountain air, and warm yourself up with those healing waters. You can even rent a hotel or inn room with a private bath for your personal enjoyment! It’s the epitome of holiday happiness…
© Hoshino Resorts, suite room's hot spring at KAI Sengokuhara