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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.