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Reviewed by Emily-Jane Hills Orford for Readers' Favorite
Did you know there’s dog sledding in northern Japan? And there’s even a small town in Japan that hosts its own bullfight? So much to see and do across a nation that’s really no bigger than California. But to truly experience the uniqueness of Japan, its “cultural kaiseki,” one must venture beyond the usual tourist attractions and learn what is really Japan. For instance, kaiseki is a Japanese term associated with a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner, which is as much an experience as it is taste. However, the multi-course, or multi-layered, effect of kaiseki can be related to life, which “in many ways, is like a long kaiseki experience: a string of short, interrelated events that, layer upon layer, form who we are as individuals."
Phil Lee’s travel book, Cultural Kaiseki: A Journey Through Offbeat Japan, is much more than your usual travel guidebook. It’s a collection of stories, really, from the author’s experiences while traveling the length of Japan. Set on discovering the true heart of this nation, the author ventured beyond the usual tourist attractions and visited many out-of-the-way venues to experience the ultimate Japanese kaiseki. As he writes, “Beauty, balance, the seasons, and nature are all key ingredients to Japanese culture,” and there’s so much of this evident in the landscape, the people, and the culture, only waiting to be discovered.
I found the stories fascinating; from his visit to the Samurai sword-making factory to the skies full of beautifully ornate, highly creative kites to the underground cathedral, each story was packed with personal experiences as well as insight into the background and history of the area, the event, or the production, all told in the first-person narrative. I have to admit my favorite story was his visit to the tea farm. Being a tea drinker, I was intrigued by Phil Lee’s description of the tea-making process, from the farm to the finished product. I learned a lot from this entertaining story. The photographs add to the interest. This is a gem of a travel book, one not to be overlooked by those interested in visiting Japan or even those merely interested in learning more about the country itself.