Travel & Culture

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Japanese culture and lifestyles through the eyes of NHK WORLD personalities

October 22, 2015

How to Enjoy Japanese Culture

Peter Lyon / Motor Journalist / Author / Chairman, World Car Awards
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Peter Lyon is a professional motor journalist who often appears in the Japanese media. On NHK WORLD, he cohosts SAMURAI WHEELS.

When my Japanese friends say they think I am more Japanese than Australian, I don't argue anymore. They're right. Having lived in Tokyo for more than half my life, I can immediately associate to Japanese sensitivities in food, art, music, humor, culture and language, but find that harder to do with my mother country Down Under.

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In Tokyo in summer, I will follow local logic and have several plates of 'unagi' (Japanese eel), a dish which is rumored to replenish energy. In the fall, I will join the millions of Japanese enjoying seasonal delicacies like 'matsutake' mushrooms, persimmon and 'sanma' (protein-packed Pacific saury that's often confused with blue mackerel), and make time to go to the mountains near Tokyo to see 'koh-yoh', or the reds and yellows of the autumn leaves.

Then in December, I will go to see at least two performances of Beethoven's 9th because it's considered a cultural activity to do at year's end. In fact, in Buddhist Japan, it may come as a surprise to learn that Christmas Day is a normal working day, and a trip to hear Beethoven's 9th might be considered a more religious experience for many Japanese than a visit to the local church.

But all year-round, however, foreign art shows run in tandem with Japanese art displays at the dozens of museums and galleries that honeycomb Tokyo. Many of you would be aware of Japanese manga comics and anime, but did you know that Japanese art made its mark on several European painters?

Art from Japan made a huge impact on the international stage in the late 19th century when Ukiyo-e landscape paintings influenced early impressionists like Monet, Degas and van Gogh. Painted by Japanese master Hokusai, The Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa is one of the country's best-known works and a must-see for any student of art.

Speaking of landscapes, another activity highly recommended is the custom of group bathing in the great outdoors – in a rotenburo or outdoor hot spring. While the idea of group bathing is not that popular in the West, I have found the sulfur-charged waters of 'rotenburo' bathing to be some of the most soothing, healing experiences you will ever have.

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Actually, if there were three things I could take away from Japan, the first would be a rotenburo, the second would be a lifetime supply of green tea and wasabi, and the third is a Japanese washlet toilet.

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Some visitors may have already experienced the wonders of this universal product,but if you have not, then you must add this to the top of your list. Now we all have to do our business each day, and the washlet offers the most hygienic, convenient and effective way to clean and dry your business section. Total efficiency at the switch of a button, and with the choice of several floral fragrances and environmental music to further enhance the experience, you too will think about how to take one home.

For centuries, Japan has developed its own unique food culture, a fact which I believe has led to the country's people realizing the world's most delicate palate. The Japanese desire to excite the taste buds and their meticulous focus on food presentation will give you one of the best gastronomic experiences of your life.

Using ingredients like wasabi, soy sauce, mirin (fermented sweet sake) and miso, Japanese are able to produce delicious, healthy dishes boasting one or more of the five basic flavors. And you thought there were only four: sweet, sour, salty and bitter? But what about 'umami?' This fifth basic taste was discovered by a Japanese chemist in 1908 and finally recognized by the international community in the 1980s. Described as a pleasant brothy or meaty taste with a long-lasting, mouth-watering finish, its effect is to balance taste and round out the overall flavor of a dish. If you're curious about umami, why not try a dish with shiitake mushrooms or maybe even 'unagi' or Japanese eel. That's one of my favorites!

But don't just expect to try the best Japanese cuisine in the world. Their love of food and attention to detail means that they are able to create some of the best Italian, French, Indian, Chinese and Thai dishes you will ever have as well. It might surprise you to know that the world's best pizza chef is Japanese.

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Peter Lyon / Motor Journalist / Author / Chairman, World Car Awards

Based in Tokyo since 1988, Lyon contributes car-related stories to magazines and websites in the U.S., U.K., Italy, Australia and writes in Japanese for three domestic publications. From April 2015, he has co-hosted a TV series called SAMURAI WHEELS which introduces Japan's car culture on the national broadcaster NHK WORLD. In 2014, he authored a book in Japanese called 'Flashing Hazards' based on the country's car culture. He is chairman of the World Car Awards and a juror for Japan Car of the Year. In late 2010, he piloted a Lexus IS-F in the Nurburgring 24-hour endurance race, placing 4th in class, and came 2nd in the 2011 Mazda MX-5 Media Race in Japan.

Question How long have you been in Japan?
27 years
Question What was your original reason for coming to Japan?
I was invited to come and write for a Japanese car magazine.
Question What's your favorite scenic spot in Japan?
I love the wide expanses of Hokkaido and the Oirase Road near Aomori but my favorite spot would have to be the Hakone area 90 minutes south of Tokyo.
Question What's the one thing that's essential to your life in Japan?
An open and congenial relationship with friends and neighbors.
Question What is your favorite Japanese word? Please briefly describe what it means in English.
"Komorebi" - it means sunlight shining through the trees. It's a very poetic word.

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