When to stand on ceremony

From sake shrines to tea temples, the role of ritual in Japanese culture is an eye-opening experience. By Rhiannon Batten

It's a sight for bloodshot eyes. Tucked into the base of a mountain, surrounded by cool, dark forest, sits row after row of intricately painted casks. Each is poised precariously on top of the other like a stack of barrel-shaped pick-up-sticks. To one side is an elaborate rock garden, its asymmetric boulders covered in velvety moss; to the other, a man bows before a small shrine.

"He's praying not to get a hangover," jokes my guide, explaining that this is Matsuo Taisha, Kyoto's shrine to the God of sake, as important to the lives of visiting drinkers as it is with the country's rice wine producers.

As well as a small sake museum, the shrine also boasts a small gourmet pickle shop and a case displaying one of the shrine's most precious inhabitants: a 1,200-year-old statue whose cracked but doll-like face still boasts pale crimson lips and a bouffant frame of hair. The one thing you won't actually find here, however, not even in those casks, is a drop to drink. For a sip of the real thing, you're better off heading west, to Kobe.

Aside from some of the most deluxe steaks on the planet (pounds 25 per 100g is the current going rate), Kobe is known among Japanese gourmands for the quality of its sake. Around 30 minutes by Bullet Train from Kyoto, the city's Nada district is the headquarters of the local brewing industry. Armed with a packet of aspirin, you could happily spend a day drinking your way around the area's various producers. The one I visited, Nada Izumi, is best known for its architecture. The ancient cedar planks that make up the main building were originally slotted into place 250 years ago. While much of the brewery had to be rebuilt following the huge earthquake that struck the city 10 years ago, the damage hasn't had a lasting effect. Nada Izumi is one of the few hand-made sake brands in business and the brewery's cheerful owner, Izumi Yunosuke, still works the enormous old wooden rice vats himself.

The resulting sake is a credit to him. A mix between light, foamy vodka and a very still cider, it is so moreish that it would be easy to overdo it if we didn't have a booking for lunch around the corner. Fortunately, the restaurant at Shu-Shin-Kan, one of Nada's other respected breweries, is designed specifically to off-set the effects of the national drink.

With elegant tables scattered through an old wooden brewing hall and a view out over a manicured Japanese garden, this is no average factory cafeteria. The food looks more like art than cooking: two tiny strips of fried chicken come accessorised with a sliver of lime; grilled salmon is wrapped in a crisp handkerchief of knotted paper and soba noodles are served in bowls delicate enough to snap at the tap of a wayward chopstick - even if it's designed to be sturdy enough to soak up the accompanying alcohol.

Not that this should have been a surprise. Beauty is everything in Japan, where the most mundane objects are presented with the kind of care normally reserved for treasured family heirlooms back home. Take tea, for example. Simply boiling a kettle and throwing a slosh of milk in with a teabag wouldn't really cut it in a country where, centuries ago, samurai warriors were taught mental discipline through careful preparation of the stuff.

The Japanese obsession with tea ceremonies is thought to have been around since they were first practised by Buddhist monks in the 8th century. Five hundred years later, the concept had developed into an elite pastime for the aristocracy (and trainee samurai) and a task so skilled that several different schools of etiquette had developed. Today, green tea may be available in every guise from exquisitely wrapped cakes to scoops of Mr Whippy-style ice cream, but the tea ceremony is still the ultimate way to take it.

This isn't as intimidating as it sounds, though. Back in Kyoto, first- timers can take a less demanding lesson in chanoyu, or "the way of the tea" at Tenryu-ji temple. This was established in the 14th century on the site of the first Zen temple in the country. Many of the original buildings have been reconstructed following fire, but one of the temple's oldest features is its gardens. These follow the same form as they did 800 years ago, and as with many other monuments in Kyoto, the gardens are a World Heritage Site. As my guide for the afternoon explained, this is a particularly fitting location in which to drink tea, given that tea ceremonies always traditionally took place within landscaped gardens.

I was ushered, shoes off, by my guide into an elegant Japanese-style room. It was lined with tatami mats and decorated with a single vase of flowers and a simple, solitary scroll. Its message to visitors is to appreciate that this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

This was a message I thought about the following day when I wandered into the belly of another of Kyoto's spectacular temples. Beneath Kiyomizu's Zuigo-Do temple, across on the eastern side of the city, is a pitch black space likened to the womb of Bosatsu - a motherly Buddhist saint who supposedly grants any wish. You slip off your shoes, totter down the steps and pad through the silent darkness, grasping a rope tied to the side of the wall until it leads you to a huge stone. When you reach the stone, you walk around it, slowly spin it as you make your wish, and then wander carefully back up again. As the daylight hits you, it's meant to feel like a new beginning but, after a lively evening out in Kyoto, the most striking effect it had on me was to bring out a sake-induced headache.

The Matsuo Taisha shrine is open 9am-4.30pm daily; admission is Y500 (pounds 2.50) for adults, Y400 (pounds 2) for students, Y300 (pounds 1.50) for children; From Kyoto station take the subway to Shijo-Karasuma. From there, take the Hankyu Railway Arashiyama line to Matsuo Station.

The Nada Izumi sake brewery is at 1-2-7, Mikage-tsuka-machi, Higashinada- ku, Kobe (00 81 78 851 2722; www.nadaizumi.co.jp); open 9am-5pm, closed Saturday, Sunday, national holidays; admission free.

Tea ceremonies are arranged by the Women's Association of Kyoto (00 81 75 212 9993; www.wakjapan.com), which offers a variety of half-day activity courses. Prices start at around Y3,150 (pounds 16) per person.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Company Commercial / Company Property Solicitor

    £30000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This south Warwickshire based s...

    Selby Jennings: Leveraged Finance - Senior Associate - International Bank - Frankfurt

    Competitive + bonus: Selby Jennings: My client, a growing European CIB are loo...

    Savvy Media Ltd: Media Sales executive - Crawley

    £25k + commission + benefits: Savvy Media Ltd: Find a job you love and never h...

    Austen Lloyd: Corporate Solicitor NQ+ Oxford

    Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CORPORATE - Corporate Solicitor NQ+ An excelle...

    Day In a Page

    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
    Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

    Greens on the march

    ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

    Through the stories of his accusers
    Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

    The Meaning of Mongol

    Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible