Japan, like many of my favorite destinations, is a thriving paradox. If I were to inherit a limitless sum of money, I’d easily be able to make a dent in it here. Onsens, serene mountain inns, Kobe beef and Michelin star sushi, top-shelf sake — you name it, it’s all on offer.
What really intrigues me about the Japanese lifestyle, however, is its concept of ikigai. Ikigai translates as, “that which most makes one’s life seem worth living.” Having direction or purpose has been partly attributed to the long lifespans of the Okinawan people. It denotes qualities of simplicity, stillness, care, and community.
A country that boasts dizzying urban development yet produces leagues of artists and products that appear to slow time with exquisite detail, will always capture my curiosity.
Here are eight places in Japan where I’d cash my newfound wealth. It’s a list that will tantalize hedonists and Zen novices alike.
Vodka and Vowz, Tokyo
Nearly twenty years ago, two monks sought to revitalize the Buddhist tradition of gathering people together to socialize and hear sermons. This was adapted for the modern age by swapping the temple setting for a Tokyo bar. Vowz, located in Tokyo’s Yotsuya district, is known for its surprisingly relaxed atmosphere and a wide selection of cocktails. One can order an “Infinite Hell” and “Enslavement to Love and Lusts,” with a more wholesome side of prayers and advice.
True to the monks’ vision, Vowz offers no TV, karaoke, or live music. Instead, patrons can attend regular sermons and ceremonies, which are met with a receptive audience. Unlike in traditional temples, there is no pressure to stick around if one gets bored or uncomfortable.
Dream of Sukiyabashi Jiro, Tokyo
If there is any renowned Japanese food we expect to find in Tokyo, it’s world-class sushi. Where we might not expect to find it is in a little ten-seater restaurant near a subway station. Sukiyabashi Jiro is run by culinary master Jiro Ono (of the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi) and his son Takashi. The two of them are daily practitioners of ikigai and achieve a state of joyful flow in their cooking.
In their book Ikigai, authors Garcỉa and Miralles explain how Jiro begins his work “at the source.” For over eighty years, he’s bought the freshest ingredients from the Tsukiji fish market, before crafting his dishes in a peaceful environment that allows his team to focus. Even when awarded three Michelin stars, he did not expand his business.
Jiro and Takashi are not in this to make money. They are artists adhering to their purpose. Only through this dedicated refinement can they produce sushi that takes the culinary world by storm.
Binge on Bullet Train Bento
Satisfied with my fill of sermons and sushi, I’m onto the next move in my itinerary. My next steps lead me around the corner from Jiro’s is Ginza station, where I can get myself to a bullet train. Aside from investigating the quirky vending machines, I wouldn’t be able to resist sampling many kinds of ekiben during my journey: lunchbox meals commonly consumed on trains.
These are no typical, barely-edible commuter meals. Ekiben (also known as bento boxes) are beautifully plated in convenient containers and created with pride and a sampling of the surrounding area. Meals usually consist of rice or noodles, vegetables, some form of protein, and sometimes sushi or beverages.
No soggy sandwiches make for more pleasurable train travel. This is great because I’ve five more destinations to explore.
Walk Like an Author in Kyoto
Kyoto has been luring visitors for years with its abundant culture; honestly, more than one can detail without hours and pages at their disposal. Pico Iyer, the author of The Art of Stillness who has hours and pages at his disposal, has described his devotion to Kyoto in books and TED Talks. I wouldn’t dream of exploring the city any other way than he has done since 1992: on foot.
Sound dreamy? Conduct your own walking tour along the Philosopher’s Path in Higashiyama, which links up a host of museums, temples, and gardens. Feel engulfed in nature and history with a wander through the bamboo forest and torii (shrine gates). Cafe- and teahouse-hop through the traditional geisha district of Gion. And, always, replenish lost calories with customized vending machine ramen.
See Life as Art at Monet’s Pond, Seki City
Though not a local artist, the adoration of Claude Monet’s paintings has extended far beyond his native country of France. Just outside of Seki City in Gifu prefecture is a natural homage to his Water Lily series: a small, strikingly clear and colored pond filled with carp. The water is so crystalline because its source, Mt. Koga, is made from volcanic rock that lacks nutrients for microbes to form.
Monet’s Pond was nameless and relatively unknown until a few years ago. The rise of image sharing platforms meant art lovers across the globe remarked on its similarity to the paintings, drumming up tourism. Nowadays it attracts thousands of visitors per day but is no less captivating.
Transforming with the seasons, Monet’s Pond is said to be particularly stunning in early summer when the flowers bloom, and autumn when the leaves of surrounding trees turn red.
Soak in Sake at Yunessun Spa Resort
With all this appreciation of simplicity, it’s important to remember I’ve hard cash to spend. Japan tourism is not without extravagance, one example being Yunessun Spa Resort in Kanagawa prefecture. Aside from the usual onsen, weary and open-minded travelers can be treated to a dip in uniquely themed spas. These include green tea, red wine, coffee, sake, and even ramen broth.
Yes, you read that correctly. These pools are no optical illusion. Tea and coffee are brewed in pots and poured in barrel by barrel. Large imitation noodles dangle over the ramen pool. Wine and sake flow from gigantic bottles. It goes without saying that while swimming at this spa resort could invoke serious thirst, avoid consuming that which is cleaning you!
Eat Soba Noodles in Niseko
I’m no fan of snow sports or cold weather. However, I’ll venture to chilly Hokkaido exclusively to eat soba noodles from the ski town of Niseko. Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain originally drew my attention to the area, where there are several reputable and family-run restaurants specializing in preparing these noodles from scratch.
They’re made from 100% buckwheat flour, elaborately kneaded and rolled, and served simplistically with dipping sauce. This is the kind of simple yet masterful Japan foodie experience that gets me salivating — a true taste of ikigai.
Learn to Live Forever (Almost) in Okinawa
Nowhere in the country is ikigai more present than in Okinawa, one of the world’s blue zones. Blue zones are regions where a large proportion of people live ably into their nineties and beyond, largely untroubled by chronic diseases. The Okinawans’ long lifespans are attributed to a variety of healthy lifestyle habits: eating clean, unprocessed diets with lots of plant diversity, frequent communal and physical activity, and a clearly defined sense of purpose.
This can be as simple as the daily tending of a garden (every Okinawan studied for the book Ikigai grew their own vegetables). Or, as significant as a life spent refining whatever craft brings you peace, flow, and joy. Whatever the people of Okinawa do, they do it slowly, deliberately, and often surrounded by family and friends.
I can’t think of a better way to savor the end of this slow journey through Japan. As members of a modern society that is relentlessly busy and overstimulated, we could do with lessons from those who’ve attained the wisdom of limitless youth; masters of quiet success and humble pleasures.