Inspiring Ideas

Japan: Beyond Expectations

Inspiring Ideas

Japan: Beyond Expectations

When visiting Japan, examples of the country’s distinct traditions and philosophy can be seen everywhere from street markets to shrines, from hotels to hillsides. For business travellers seeking new perspectives, the unique ways Japan combines old with new cannot fail to inspire.

Walking through Nishiki market in the heart of Kyoto is a sensory journey into Japan’s culinary heritage. Tubs of pickled vegetables – a vibrant mix of orange, red, green, white and purple – encroach onto the market’s single, narrow street. There are chestnutty wafts of green tea and the char-grilled aroma of chicken skewers. Eye-catching displays of fresh seafood, tofu, mountain vegetables and ornately crafted sweets send visitors reaching for their cameras.

It’s not hard to understand why Nishiki has become a firm favourite among visitors, but allow yourself a break from the meeting room to explore all Nishiki has to offer, and you’ll see that the allure goes beyond food.

The city’s oldest market – established in the early 1600s – Nishiki is also home to a smaller number of stores specializing in goods such as lacquered chopsticks, accessories made with woven chirimen fabric, and handcrafted knives and kitchenware. All born from tradition. All at ease in modern Japan.

Navigate through the crowds to Nishiki’s eastern end and it connects with another historic arcade, Teramachi. In keeping with Teramachi’s name – temple town – there are stores here specialising in Buddhist paraphernalia and incense. Others sell calligraphy brushes, fine ceramics and antiques. But there are also glimpses of how centuries of craftsmanship can inspire new creations, with the way tinware artisans have used time-honoured techniques to craft chic sake cups and urushi artists have expanded the boundaries of their craft to produce lacquerware wristwatches and ornate cell phone cases.

Visiting a market might not sound as instructive as attending a business seminar, but like so many places in Japan where old meets new, Nishiki and Teramachi can inspire visitors to discover how their own traditions can be used to forge something new. And examples of the ancient informing the new are certainly not limited to Kyoto’s markets.

You can see elements of the past incorporated in modern accommodation, too. The concept of omotenashi – or intuitive hospitality – that defines the service in Kyoto’s finest traditional inns has been passed on to the city’s growing wave of hip design hotels and larger luxury properties. Sometimes tradition is repurposed, like the old machiya townhouses transformed into stylish guesthouses and rentals. Frequently, traditional Japanese design elements complement the ultra-contemporary, with touches like washi lampshades, decorative sliding doors, calligraphic wall hangings, and cotton yukata in place of dressing gowns serving as another reminder that the past doesn’t need to be cast aside when shaping the future.

Gion Shirakawa in Kyoto

Traditional philosophies that inspire

In recent generations, Japan has given the business world game-changing philosophies that inform processes and decision-making. Kaizen, the quest for continuous improvement, and jidoka, automation with a human touch, are two that will be familiar to many non-Japanese speakers.

More ancient ways of thinking and doing can also inspire, and one doesn’t need to go far from the business world or tourist trail to discover them. Take Japan’s second city, Osaka, which will host the 2019 G20 Summit and Expo 2025. With more than 400,000 businesses with a combined annual production of almost 40 trillion yen in the wider Osaka prefecture, according to data from the Osaka Business and Investment Centre, the Kansai region’s business hub is an ideal location for business meetings and exhibitions. Yet only a couple of hours from the bustle of the city is the cedar-clad calm of holy Mount Koya, or Koyasan, in neighbouring Wakayama prefecture, a perfect destination for unique incentive travel experiences, to motivate and delight your team.

The monk Kobo Daishi established the first monastery on Koyasan 1200 years ago, and today the spiritual base of Shingon Buddhism is home to 117 temples, almost half of which offer accommodation suitable for small-scale groups. With tatami mat guestrooms and futon mattresses, staying here has similarities to a night at a traditional inn, but these shukubo lodgings provide a more contemplative experience, allowing guests not just to enjoy the tranquillity of the temple grounds but also participate in temple rituals.

Unique is a word bandied about loosely. In Koyasan’s case, however, joining monks in an incense-filled prayer hall when they perform the morning fire ritual is like nothing else – the chanting, the beating of drums and the flames spitting as a sole monk burns pieces of wood to represent the 108 hurdles on the road to enlightenment. It’s unique and unforgettable.

In another part of the Kansai region, Hyogo Prefecture has similarly immersive experiences. This time with more indulgence than Koyasan. Not far from central Kobe – a major port city and growing conference and incentive travel destination – the inns of the Arima hot-spring area deliver another way to soak up Japanese traditions.

Called ryokan, Japanese inns afford a timeless experience. The shedding of your outside clothes for a yukata gown is like clicking a switch to transport yourself away from the stresses and pace of everyday life. The multi-course dinner, centred on in-season produce and served with artistic aplomb, is a study of Japanese culinary arts. The minimalist tatami mat rooms, complete with sliding paper screen doors, are a gateway into old Japan. Altogether, it’s a chance to experience omotenashi, to relax, to pamper yourself the traditional way. And there’s no better way to do that than soaking in an inn’s communal onsen baths, in mineral-rich water said to ease a plethora of ailments. Bathing in the piping-hot water is as good as meditation for opening the door to innovative thinking and creativity.

With such an array of distinctive cultural experiences and philosophies, whether visiting for business meetings or incentive travel events, Japan is certain to inspire new ideas among you and your guests.

This article was produced by BBC StoryWorks, the BBC's global commercial content division, on behalf of JNTO
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