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PONSHUKAN SAKE TASTING
You'll find sake breweries all over Japan, and many are prepared to offer tastings and tours to visitors; a fun exercise as you sample the different styles. The Niigata region is renowned as one of the leading sake producers and if you are really serious about learning about sake you head for a slightly bizarre tasting venue tucked away in Niigata Railway Station. Here you will find banks of vending machines offering tastings of over 100 sakes, each with information and a map to indicate exactly where your beverage came from. There are blackboards listing the sakes that are currently the most popular – and the staff recommendations. The locals at what is called a "kikizake" are happy to offer tips to visitors on a voyage of discovery and the machines are easy to operate. For 500 yen you get five tokens and a small tasting cup – that's five sakes to sample. And you can go back as many times as you like. Many of the sakes can be purchased in bottles in the store next door.
They are fast, safe and environmentally friendly. No wonder the rest of the world has copied Japan's "bullet trains", or shinkansen, which travel at speeds of up 320km/h and are preferred by many Japanese to air travel. The first line, the Tokaido Shinkansen between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka, opened in 1964. The Hokoriku Shinkansen, which serves the Japan Sea coast of Honshu Island, is the newest line with extensions still to be constructed. Japan was the world leader in building dedicated lines for high-speed trains so they are never delayed by goods or commuter trains. There are 2615km of Shinkansen tracks and trains offer a luxury experience with comfortable seats and smiling staff. There are regular cart deliveries of a range of food and drinks. The trains are known for their punctuality and there has never been a passenger fatality due to a derailment or collision. Shinkansens set the world standard in terms of safety, punctuality and cutting-edge technology and there are signs and announcements made in English.
OMIYA BONSAI MUSEUM
Bonsai is a Japanese discipline in which miniature trees are grown, and carefully shaped, in containers. It is purely an art form – but there is a whole lot more to it than you might imagine. A visit to the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum in Saitama Prefecture, just north of Tokyo, can be entertaining and rewarding. Opened in 2010, it is Japan's first public bonsai art museum and is home to 100+ artfully crafted masterpiece bonsai trees. The practice of bonsai dates back to the sixth century and is heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism. The displays (indoor and outdoor) at the museum are selected according to the seasons and there is a great deal of background and historical material on display in English, with related artefacts including bonsai pots, landscape stones called suiseki, as well as a library and woodblock prints of bonsai plants. English audio guides are also available – so any question you have ever had about bonsai can be answered here. Admission costs 300 yen.
SADO ISLAND TAIKO SCHOOL
Sado Island, in the Japan Sea, has been referred to as a "floating treasure chest" of traditional culture. Reached by ferry or hydrofoil from the city of Niigata, it is here that visitors can learn to play the massive Taiko drums as popularised by the famous Kodo cultural group, which performs concerts and at festivals around the world. The Taiko drum comes in many shapes and sizes and is described by the Kodo group as having "limitless rhythmic possibilities". Watching one of the drum maestros flashing hands is inspirational, and it does not take long to learn how to beat out a simple rhythm on one of the drums, which date back to the sixth century. At the Sado Island Taiko Centre, visitors are taught by a Shinchan-sensei (master) how to hold drumsticks and to stand ready, and are taught to drum on genboku-daiko (giant drums made of unprocessed wood), including completing a simple tune. The class lasts around 90 minutes and costs 2000 yen. Those who find themselves absorbed by the music can take a two-year apprenticeship as a musician, living communally on Sado Island with members of Kodo.
MINO WASHI AKARI ART GALLERY
From the outside, this small-town gallery in Mino City, Gifu Prefecture, looks nothing special, but it hosts an illuminating exhibition of lanterns made from hand-made paper, which is a regional cultural speciality. The lanterns are used in the annual Mino Washi Lantern Festival each October, when the lanterns are displayed on the streets. They represent stunning artistry, being displayed with clever lighting that filters through the washi paper. The museum is one of three in the town, the others being a former mansion that now serves as the Mino History Museum, and the Mino Washi Museum, which highlights the many artworks made from the local paper, and gives visitors a chance to create a sheet of paper for themselves. The same ancient and time-intensive process has been used to make paper in the region for 1300 years. There are still around 30 traditional paper makers in and around the town, using fibres from the kozo plant and water from two local rivers. A three-museum pass costs 800 yen.
FUKUI PREFECTURAL DINOSAUR MUSEUM
Dinosaur remains have been found all over Fukui Prefecture (including fukuiraptor, fukuisauraus and fukuititan, all named after the region). The locals decided to build a museum devoted to the prehistoric creatures at Katsuyama – including building an impressive collection of anatomically correct animated models. Kids love getting up close and personal with snarling, roaring replicas of the creatures that roamed the region 120 million years ago. Exhibits range from fossils, rocks and bones to 90 per cent of the skeleton of a camasauras. The museum shop sells a wide range of dinosaur souvenirs. It costs 720 yen for a day pass to a museum that is rated among the three leading dinosaur expos in the world. There are also several animatronic models outside Fukui Railway Station.
The writer was a guest of Tobu Top Tours and the Hokuriku Shinkansen bullet train. He was assisted by Qantas, which flies twice daily to Tokyo from Sydney. www.qantas.com.