Crossing the Pacific Ocean was something I was embarrassed to admit I’d never done before. Even after 15 years in the travel industry, I had not given myself the opportunity to do so. As I prepared to check this important item off my bucket list, I collected my impressions of what Japan would be like. All of the common conceptions came to mind: delicious sushi, extremely polite people, dozens of temples and bustling cities thriving on the latest technology. During my trip I came across little known facts that gave me a deeper understanding and appreciation for this island nation. Without further adieu, here are my top 5 little-known facts about Japan:
No One Knew About Ninjas Until Centuries After They Ceased to Exist
During the days of feudal Japan, in particular the Sengoku period (15th – 17th centuries), ninjas or shinobis were covert agents or mercenaries who were hired to carry out acts of espionage, sabotage, assassination, infiltration and guerilla warfare: things that samurais would not do as they prided themselves in fighting openly and with honour. Ninjas on the other hand, depended on stealth and the element of surprise. Most of the shinobis came from the Iga and Kaga clans who were named after the regions they came from. The remoteness and lack of access to the surrounding mountains in these regions most likely played a role in their secretive development. Because of their elusive nature, exaggerated tales of supernatural powers were spread throughout Japan. Legends of flight, shapeshifting, invisibility and other superhuman powers were often inaccurately associated with the ninja. One thing is for sure, they were great at going unnoticed. So good in fact, that the majority of the people didn’t learn about their existence until after the Edo period that ended in 1868.
Geishas Are a Dying Art Form
Also known as Geikos or Geigis, Geishas are traditional Japanese female entertainers who have been trained for centuries to host guests by learning skills such as playing various instruments, dancing and becoming masters of carrying conversations. Training begins from an early age when the girls are sent to live in geisha houses or okiya to begin their apprenticeship and are given the title of “maiko”. A maiko is bonded under contract to her okiya that provides food, board, kimonos and other tools to aid in her training which is very expensive. Debts to okiyas have to be repaid with the money made once maikos begin working as geishas. Daughters of geishas are often brought up to become geishas themselves as their mother’s successor.
I had the pleasure of visiting Kanazawa’s Higashi Chaya-Gai District where I learned that not long ago, during the peak of the geisha’s popularity, there were approximately over 200 geishas residing in the area. Today, only about 50 geishas are still active in the three districts in Kanazawa due to the problem of finding successors.
Rice – the Ultimate Cash Crop
During the Edo period in Japan, a system for determining land value was introduced and was referred to as Kokudaka. One koku represented the equivalent of rice to feed one person for a year. It was during this period that Samurais were paid in kokus and often granted hundreds, if not thousands of kokus when given a promotion. While in Kanazawa, I visited the Nomura Samurai Family residence, where at the entrance, was a plaque stating, “The Nomuras were bestowed 1200 koku of rice by the Kaga clan,” indicating that Nomura Denbei Nobusada, a high-ranking follower, was granted a promotion. To put it into perspective, one gold ryo (or gold coin) weighed about 18 grams and one ryo was roughly the equivalent one koku. Japanese middle school textbooks often refer to one ryo being the approximate equivalent 100, 000 yen or approximately $1200 CDN by today’s standards. Of course, like most currency, the value fluctuated and it is said that one ryo was worth up to as much as 4 kokus during its peak.
How to Pick the Perfect Sake
While on the topic of rice, sake is a Japanese wine made with rice that has been polished or milled down. The rice polishing ratio is the percentage of rice left after the husk or outer portion of the rice has been removed. The husk of the kernel contains protein and fats that can give the sake undesirable aromas and flavours. For that reason, it’s best to identify the rice polishing ratio often found on the label of the bottle. The lower the percentage, the cleaner, lighter-bodied and expensive the sake tends to be and is often served cold. A high rice polishing ratio gives the sake a more savoury, fuller-bodied taste and tends to be served warm. Kanpai!
Tokyo’s Drastically Declining Population
With nearly 46% of the current population past retirement age, Tokyo – which presently is one the most inhabited cities in the world – is set to have its number of residents reduced to half by 2100. And it’s not just Tokyo that faces this problem, all of Japan is on the brink of a population crisis. According to the 2015 census, Japan’s population declined by almost 1 million people in comparison to the previous census conducted in 2010. It’s the first time that the census showed declining numbers since the first one was conducted in 1920. Aside from the growing elderly population and falling birth rate, social factors come into play as well. It is widely-known that Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, but there’s another problem plaguing the city as well as the country – women and men are drifting further apart. Marriage and having kids have taken a backseat to developing a career and frankly, it appears that men have become quite timid, if not uninterested in women. I was in Tokyo for “White Day” which occurs on March 14th, exactly a month after Valentine’s Day. In Japan, Valentine’s Day is observed by women giving men gifts of chocolate as an expression of love and affection. On White Day, the exact opposite happens and it serves as an opportunity for men to return the favour. The thing is, while there were many women out and about on White Day, they appeared to be either alone or with a group of women. As a result, host clubs have become a very popular destination for women after they end their work day. At these clubs, women typically pay for male company. Male hosts pour drinks, light cigarettes and often flirt with their clients who are usually wives of wealthy men or women working as hostesses themselves who have ended their shift at a hostess club. How’s that for irony?
After spending 10 days in Japan, it was clear that this was a country unlike any I’ve seen in my travels. From its rich history, delicious gastronomy, extremely hospitable people, heated toilet seats and everything in between, Japan quickly became one of my favourite destinations.
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