Top things to learn in Japan from mastering samurai swords to the art of tea making

When in Japan, I suggest always wearing good-quality socks. Because you’ll be taking your shoes off… a lot.

It’s the custom here to keep the floors super-clean because they eat and sleep so much closer to the ground than we do.

So I was mortified after a morning walking on the beach to see a pink toenail poking through my cheap socks when I removed my shoes for lunch on the first day.

From blushing to flushing – who knew how complicated it could be to use the lavatory here?

Everywhere you go, from cafes to five-star hotels, you get computerised bidet loos which, depending on the button you push, will warm up the seat, wash your nether regions, deodorise and more. How my hubby would love to blame a computer for leaving the toilet seat up.

These quirks and more make Japan one of the most ­fascinating places in the world to visit.

I decided to shun the main hubs and head to the island of Kyushu, Japan’s third largest.

Jacqui learns mastering the samurai sword

After a two-hour flight from Tokyo, we landed in the very modern city of Fukuoka, actually closer to Seoul than Tokyo. Its harbour has been the scene of many battles, including the landing point for the Mongol invasion in the 13th century.

This is a place where ancient Japanese and modern ­traditions sit side by side with many still very much alive today.

During a cultural tour around the north of the island, we stopped to watch the ­painstaking craftsmanship that goes into making famous Samurai swords at Shiro Kunimitsu, and how the skills have been adapted to create the precision kitchen knives the company is known for today.

 

I was definitely out of my comfort zone in Japan. I wished I’d taken a few yoga classes beforehand as getting into the local culture means dining at tables only inches from the floor while kneeling on cushions.

As if that’s not difficult enough, I had to master the art of using chopsticks while in this position.

The sleeping arrangements also took a bit of getting used to – buckwheat-stuffed pillows, and I’d never slept on a futon before. Imagine having to scramble up from the floor in the night – and contend with the toilet.

Which can be a frequent problem, judging by the amount of green tea the Japanese drink.

Jacqui learned the art of making tea

And making the tea is an art in itself, as we learned at the Ureshino Tea Exchange. The water MUST be “soft” and the temperature should be no more than 70C, otherwise the taste becomes bitter.

Fans of PG tips take note: make sure not to shake or swirl the teapot and pour into the cup in short, sharp bursts.

As time went on, we discovered that Kyushu is a hub for arts and crafts too. We tried our hand at painting a porcelain plate at the Arita Pottery Gallery, which happens to be the birthplace of Japanese porcelain.

I also tried decorating a fan with gorgeous pieces of Nao Rice Paper, which we had earlier seen being made.

The kimono is, of course, the traditional Japanese costume, and we certainly enjoyed the chance to be transformed into “visions in silk”.

Decorating a fan with Nao Rice Paper

With the help of an expert dresser, we were teased, tightened and pinned into our favourite, picked from an array of bright coloured choices at Yosooidokoro Futaba in Saga City. We then got the chance to strut around town in our finery.

The island is also home to a beach with “singing sand”. Itoshima’s Anego no Hama beach in the Fukuoka ­Prefecture is one of only 20 singing beaches left, thanks to environmental changes.

Apparently in certain conditions Anego makes a squeaking, ­whistling sound, but sadly it suffered stage fright that day and disappointed its audience.

 

Further along the coast at Futamigaura beach, we saw the sacred Married Couple Rocks – two large boulders, linked by a rope of rice straw which is replaced several times a year at special ceremonies.

This area is renowned for its stunning sunsets.

Obviously there was plenty of new food to try in Japan – known mainly for sushi – balls of cold rice served with a garnish of vegetables, egg or raw seafood.

I didn’t think I liked raw fish but I soon began to appreciate the tender texture and the delicate flavour of the accompanying sauces. Which is just as well because it was served up for breakfast, lunch and dinner.


Food presentation is glorious – ­individual bites served in beautiful little dishes. We pushed the boat out at three-star Michelin restaurant Sagano in Fukuoka where we enjoyed a ­traditional Kaiseki (multi-course) menu.

Later during my trip, I enjoyed a soak in the hot springs in my outdoor tub at the Onyado Chikurintei hotel in Takeo. Overlooking the magnficent Mifuneyama Garden, I realised that I’d fallen in love with Japan.

It’s custom in this country to bow and nod heads rather than shaking hands. After my wonderful week, they can certainly take a very big bow.

Jacqui in front of one of the many breathtaking landscapes

Book the holiday

  • Expedia offers seven nights in Kyushu, Japan from £1,423per person, based on two sharingand including China Eastern Airlines flights from Heathrow to Fukuoka via Shanghai. Find out more at expedia.co.uk.

  • To book tours: fukuokawalks.com

  • Tourist info: seejapan.co.uk

Top tips for the Rugby World Cup

Japan is hosting the ninth Rugby World Cup from September 20 to November 2 with 48 matches scheduled.

The 12 venue cities are Chōfu, Yokohama, Fukuroi, Higashiosaka, Fukuoka, Sapporo, Kumamoto, Kobe, Kumagaya, Kamaishi, Toyota and Ōita, with the final being held in Yokohama.

Thousands of supporters from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland are expected to head to Japan.

See  rugbyworldcup.com  for tournament info and visit  seejapan.co.uk  for tourism ideas.

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