Naked Japanese Men

Just flicking through the channels last night, I came across the strangely familiar sight of naked Japanese men in nappy-like white loin cloths getting drunk and dancing through the streets. This isn’t an R-rated post, it was just one of the many many Japanese festivals which take place all over Japan throughout the year, allowing the usual somber veneer of the Japanese to be very quickly and very thoroughly stripped away for a night.

Known as Hadaka Matsuri or Naked Man Festival, this particular festival takes place all over the country, usually during the bitter winter months for added machismo. I had the pleasure of witnessing one (not allowed to partake as a woman unfortunately) during my time in Japan and as by many things in the country, was equally bemused and utterly won over. The evening went thus so: Guys got naked(ish), guys ran through streets and jumped around a lot, guys all jump on each other and then are cooled down by a hose, guys charge up the hill to the destination shrine where they jump around more under sprinklers. I had no idea what was going on, but it was a fantastic atmosphere and a great spectacle!


I think my friend wasn’t far off when she called it ‘slightly homoerotic’…

The premise of this programme on BBC was the presenter Stefan Gates immersing himself in ‘some of the most extraordinary feasts and festivals on earth’. This you will certainly find in abundance in Japan. The food we all know about but the festivals in Japan are something else – I can’t even begin to go in to them all here. They seem to happen almost every weekend and you come across them everywhere you go, from tiny little villages in the hills to the centre of the cities. They may not all involve naked men if that’s your thing, but they will usually involve a substantial amount of festival food, a considerable cultural encounter and the best welcome you will receive in a country.

If you are interested in travelling to this festival or any other in Japan, InsideJapan can help you plan the trip. Check out our festival pages.


I remember when the very first Tamagotchi came out in 1996. They were all the rage for a while, then like other fads (think rubiks cubes), they are now gathering dust in the back of wardrobes.
However, they did not fade away, like many people think. They have continued to be hugely popular in Japan, and have spawned models such as the Santagauch, a Christmas/Santa themed Tamagotchi, and the TamaOtch, a movie star Tamagotchi named after the the Japanese actress Tamao Nakamura.

I must admit to having a Tamagotchi about 3 years ago. When I was leading a tour in Japan, an American couple on my tour bought one for their young daughter. As it was all in Japanese, I kindly volunteered to give it a ‘test run’ so I could then translate it for them. After seeing how much I enjoyed this, they then bought me one as a gift.

I received an email from another couple recently who had bought the latest model for their daughter. Looks like I am going to have to get an upgrade!!

Tsukishima – The Little Village in the Heart of the Big City

You know how it is; you go to certain town city on a pretty regular basis. However you find yourself getting stuck into a rut of going to the same places each time – favourite parts of town, the regular bars, the usual restaurants. That’s kind of how I felt about Tokyo, so yesterday afternoon a took a stroll through Tsukishima, a small district of Tokyo close to Tokyo Bay, Odaiba and the famous fish market.

Despite its close proximity to central Tokyo it is very much a residential district, with houses, apartments, a supermarket, lots of shops, koban (police box) on the street corner and all the other little things that make you feel like you are part of a neighbourhood where people live their lives; not just their 9am-5pm working lives (or 9pm to 5am partying lives!) as you feel they in many districts of Tokyo.

The reason most visitors come to Tsukishima (99% Japanese, this place does not register on the foreign tourist radar) is to sample monjayaki (or just ‘monja’), one of Tokyo’s most famous culinary specialities. To give you an idea of monja’s standing in the gastronomic leagues, going out of your way to sample a specific monja is like touring the pubs of Britain to find the best pork scratchings. However the food itself is only a smal part of the experience. Monja is a cook-it-yourself meal, so groups of people gather round low tables each with a hot plate in its middle. The small of cooking wafts through the air, mixed with hearty conversation and laughter from the diners, facilitated by the mugs of beer used to wash down the meal.

Not exactly haute cuisine but a truly authentic Tokyo favourite

Not exactly haute cuisine but a truly authentic Tokyo favourite

Now just one of these restaurants makes for a fun experience, but Tsukishima has a whole street of them. Dozens of monja restaurants line both sides and small side alleys like rabbit warrens hide even more monja places, many of them no more than a kitchen itself and a couple of tables. The main street is even closed off to traffic allowing a wonderfully festive atmosphere to prevail. The atmosphere is further enhanced by the type of people milling around the streets.

Tsukishima, not your usual shops, offices and nightlife

Tsukishima, not your usual shops, offices and nightlife

Whereas many nightlife districts of Tokyo mean wave after wave of dark-suited salarymen, the fact that Tsukishima is a residential neighbourhood means that all manner of people are out on the streets and rubbing shoulders in the tiny restaurants; children, grandparents, students, families, friends etc. For anyone who thinks they have seen it all in Tokyo, or dismisses Tokyo as a soul-less business machine, I thoroughly recommend a visit to Tsukishima, preferably in the early evening, just as the sun is going down and the restaurant lanterns are lighting up – its monja time!

Toilet Talk Japanese Style

I was listening to Radio One this morning and Scott Mills was talking about toilets in Japan. I don’t think he did the toilets justice to be honest. The modern Japanese toilets are brilliant and a life saver if you have ever lived in the mountains of Japan through the long winter months. Most houses in Japan will not have central heating and are kept warm by kerosene heaters which are quite effective. However, my life saver in the mornings when snow was a metre deep outside was running to the toilet and having a sit down on a nice warm toilet seat – what a relief!

Toilet with controls!

Toilets with controls! - Only in Japan

As well as the hot seat, it did have a Star Trek Enterprise captain’s seat style control panel which had all sorts of controls including the jet of warm water button which would keep you clean (if needed). In my 10 years of Japan living/travelling, I have seen an array of super loos (not that I have gone out looking for them or anything) from automatic seats that lift up as soon as you walk into the room (Super Jet Foil to Matsuyama), to toilet seats that light up different colours as you use them (restaurant in Kyoto) to toilets that play the sound of running water and birds singing to disguise any “other” noises you might be making. We are talking hi-tech bogs here.

When on tour with people, dinner table talk about the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji) is often eclipsed by talk of an amazing toilet that was spotted. Forget the culture that oozes out of the ancient Imperial capital, look at the toilet!

Anyway, traditional style Japanese squat toilets apart, the modern Japanese toilets are brilliant – have a loo-k for yourself……sorry.

10 things not to miss – Part 2

Cos Play girls in Harajuku

Cos Play girls in Harajuku

5/ “Harajuku girls you got that wicked style” – Sundays in Harajuku
No one has done more to publicise the strange underworld of Japanese youth fashions and culture than Miss Gwen Stefani. After years of international success with her band No Doubt, Gwenni Gwen Gwen decided to say goodbye to the guys in the band and strike out alone. Clearly though she missed her boys and so just had to find a replacement. And what did she find to mend the hole in her heart? A small troupe of ultra-trendy cute Japanese girls from the uber-cool suburb of Harajuku. So what is all the fuss about? Well, pop down to Harajuku Station (JR Yamanote Line) on a Sunday morning and you will see for yourself. Just round the corner on the bridge over the tracks that leads to Meiji Shrine gather an extraordinary collection of young Japanese dressed in an incredible assortment of outfits. Some say that this movement grew out of a tiny clique of 80’s kids who loved Echo and the Bunnymen but I have no way of testing the veracity of this rumour. Anyway, today is a far cry from some pseudo-Gothic pop trend of recessionary Britain. Many of the outfits are based on favourite anime characters and form part of cos-play culture (short for costume play – there is even an annual world cos play summit held for the first time in summer 2008 in Nagoya). Others… well, I don’t know. I really ought to ask.

In short though this is an incredible display. Japanese youths are endlessly inventive, perhaps because of the similarity in basic appearance – straight black hair and dark brown eyes. Clearly many hours are spent on customising these amazing outfits and there is a clearly a sense of freedom afforded by dressing up in crazy clothes.

To be honest, I don’t think these are the real Harajuku girls of Gwen Stefani fame. They are tucked away in the side streets, buying their clothes in members-only boutiques and sipping outrageously priced lattes on Omotesandou – the Champs Elysee of Tokyo (apparently). All the same, this is a sight not to be missed when in the capital. And once you have checked this out you can head to the more serene surroundings of Meiji Shrine or to the lively scenes of Yoyogi Park, where Tokyo comes out to play.

Finding enlightenment at a Japanese Temple

I think it goes without saying that the meaning of life isn’t the easiest thing to pin down. People from all corners of the earth have looked to religion and poetry, abstinence and indulgence, and nearly everything in between in the hopes of finding the answers to those questions that puzzle us all. The people of Japan have turned to Buddhism for nearly 1500 years in an effort to achieve ‘enlightenment’. Japanese Buddhism has an almost endless variety of ways to train the spirit and achieve that unfailingly vague and ever elusive ‘enlightenment’. Among the most famous of these is the practice of standing under a bone-chillingly cold waterfall or sitting in the absolute stillness of Zen meditation, but if you don’t have the time to be trekking to waterfalls or joining Zen temples than the ancient practice of Shakyo might be just the path to enlightenment that you’re after.

Shakyo is the practice of copying Buddhist sutras. Shakyo was practiced in parts of India, China, and Korea long before it made its debut in Japan in 673, but there is no other country where the Buddhist sutras are practiced more regularly or as easily as in modern day Japan. At hundreds of temples across the country, people can sit on woven straw tatami mats in front of Buddhist alters and shut out the world as they concentrate on copying intricate Chinese characters on to a blank sheet of rice paper. Shakyo combines the well-refined art of Shodo, Japanese calligraphy, with the religious fundamentals of Buddhism.

For the average traveler to Japan, this is where one begins to wonder, what good could possibly be gained by copying characters that I can’t read at a temple whose religion I don’t really understand?

Interestingly enough, the practice of Shakyo was practiced for hundreds of years by illiterate people who were more interested in the merit gained by performing a religious duty than by understanding the contents of what is being copied. Furthermore, because many young Japanese are less than skilled at writing with a brush, many temples provide a scripture that has the Chinese characters lightly written on the paper and the practitioner, kyouji, merely traces the characters already on the page. If this still sounds like a bit too much, there are several temples that are used to foreign visitors and offer an intricate image of a fiercely grimacing Buddhist deity.

I recently practiced Shakyo at the seaside temple of Hase-dera in Kamakura and although I might not have found the meaning of life, the chance to forget about the realities of everyday life for an hour and a half while I concentrated on the graceful lines of Chinese characters in an ancient temple was an experience that I would certainly recommend to anyone!

Japanese Embassy Event – London

I went to an event at the Japanese Embassy on Thursday celebrating a selection of World Heritage Photo’s taken by renowned photographer Miyoshi Kazuyoshi.

I jumped on the train from Bristol to London to get there in good time for the opening and was looking forward to meeting a few people, seeing some good photo’s and perhaps snacking on a bit of sushi (if past embassy functions were anything to go by).

I was one of the first there and first thing I noticed was how hot the exhibition room was. Everyone came in sweating, apart from the Japanese of course – how do they do that?! It was a bit like Tokyo in July when you look around all the westerners are pouring with sweat and everyone else is dabbing one bead of sweat off their brow.

Anyway, back to the main event.

The photo’s highlighted a selection of Japanese World Heritage scenes including Kiyomizu Dera in Kyoto, Himeji Castle, Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido and Yakushima (which I visited about 4 weeks ago) to name a few. There were one or two stunning photo’s there but, (although not an expert) I didn’t think they were amazing. Perhaps my appreciation of the photo’s was affected by the lack of sushi available….not even a little bit….in fact there was only crisps which were definitely not enough to see me through the evening. Perhaps my hopes were too high?

Nevertheless, if you do want to go and have a look at the photo’s for yourself, I believe they are on show to the public until the 5th June (09.30-5.30) and it is absolutely free. Worth having a look if you are in the area with an interest in Japan and photography, but eat something before you go.

Kansai Airport

After finishing up my Spring tour leading stint, I was lucky enough to be able to fly back to the UK from Kansai Airport. My final tour, Hidden Japan, finished in Kyoto, and from there it is only a 90 minute train ride to the airport.
It was special for me because in February 2003, I set foot in Japan for the very first time at Kansai Airport. Like all my fellow colleagues at InsideJapan, I arrived in Japan to teach English. I was so excited and overwhelmed to finally be in Japan, that I didn’t take the time to study this amazing airport.
Built on an artificial island, Kansai is not only the longest airport concourse in the world, but at 1.7km long, it is the the longest building in the world!

The train journey out there is a treat, as you cross a massive bridge which connects the man-made island to the mainland. When you check-in, I definitely recommend getting a window seat so you can a good aerial view of this huge building.

Unfortunately, BA and JAL had stopped the direct flights from London to Kansai, however, there are some great indirect flights around. As our office is in Bristol, we mostly fly KLM via Amsterdam. Many airlines don’t charge much more if you fly into Tokyo and then out of Kansai, something worth thinking about when you are planning your next trip!

Tokyo Marathon 2010

The Metropolitan Government has announced that the 3rd Tokyo Marathon will be held on 28th February 2010. Our very own Harry Sargant kindly checked out the course in 2008 running a very respectable time of 3h27 and raising £1,216 for charity at the same time.

The course is mainly flat and starts amidst the skyscrapers of Shinjuku before heading past the Imperial Palace, Tokyo Tower, historic Asakusa and the Ginza on to the new harbourside Odaiba area. If you want more details then I am sure that Harry will be more than happy to run you through the course step-by-step!

30,000 places are up for grabs with the runners being looked after by some 13,000 volunteers. Last year the marathon was oversubscribed by more than 10:1 so, even though there are places ring-fenced for overseas applicants, it is important to apply early – contact IJT for more details.

An easier 10k run is also taking place on the same day – starting in Shinjuku and finishing up at the Emperor’s door-step in the Imperial Palace plaza.

Post run our advice is to head to the hot springs of Hakone National Park for a relaxing spa stay!

10 things not to miss in Japan – Part 1

It is the hardest question to be asked about Japan: “What do I have to see”? Given that every time I visit I find new ‘not to be missed’ places and experiences it is almost impossible to provide anything approaching an adequate answer. However, just to see if I could, I thought I would write some of them down and see if of all the myriad of extraordinary things to see and do in Japan I really could distill it down to just 10 ‘not-to-be-missed’ items. So, in no particular order, here we go:

1/ 4 am ramen after a night out in Osaka
Perhaps it says something about me that this is the first item I could come up with but there really is nothing like it. Osaka is an incredible place; an absolutely electric city with more energy than an 8 year old high on Sunny D. As the sun goes down the city comes out to play as salarymen pour out of the offices and into the bars and hostess clubs. The neon starts flashing and so the entertainment begins. You can have a lot of fun out in Osaka but after a night bar hopping there is only one way to round everything off – a steaming bowl of steaming cha-shu ramen noodles with a portion of gyoza on the side. This is truly food of the gods. There are no two ways about it. Add extra spoons of fresh crushed garlic, some chili spice and start slurping. And of course, order an ice cold nama biru to wash it all down with. This is the place to meet the locals; always intoxicated and always good natured. For me this is the perfect end to a great night out. Definitely one of the top 10 things to experience in Japan.

2/ Sunrise from the top of Mt. Fuji
This may not be for everyone. Well, I shall rephrase that. This really is for everybody but it is getting up there that might not be! Fuji-san is a true symbol of japan; a majestic, soaring volcano with a near-symmetrical form. At 3776 metres (12,388 feet) this is no walk in the park. The overnight climb is long and hard and although quite do-able for anyone with a reasonable level of every day fitness. Determination is the order of the day. There are four paths to choose from (Kawaguchi, Subashiri, Gotemba, Fujinomiya). Gotemba is the hardest climb by virtue of being the longest, the 5th station located just 1400 metres. At 2400 metres Fujinomiya is the shortest route but my personal favourite (and I have been up it 6 times) is Subashiri, which takes you up through the final forested areas before breaking out onto the barren slopes of volcanic rock. Be prepared for this climb. Make sure you have a warm hat, gloves, multiple layers (so you can add and remove as your body temperature changes), a torch, a climbing stick – you can get a wooden one at the 5th station and get it branded as you reach each mountain hut along the way – sturdy walking shoes or boots, plenty of water, some snacks and plenty of ‘gaman‘, meaning determination in Japanese. The climb is hard and you will get very short of breath towards the summit. But when it comes, the sunrise is breathtaking. In 2002, when I climbed with two customers from the States we watched the sunrise over Japan on the 4th of July. A special moment for them and a moment of such beauty as the world lights up that it brought tears to my eyes.

Climbing season runs from 1st July to 31st August. If you are going to be in Japan at this time and you are up for a challenge, then nothing beats ‘hinode’ sunrise from the roof of the Land of the Rising Sun!

3/ Sushi breakfast at Tsukiji Fish Market
Unsurprisingly (especially to anyone who knows me) food features heavily on my list of top things to do and in Japan you are spoilt for choice. However, without question my must-be-done-at-all-costs eating experience is a sushi breakfast at the world’s largest wholesale fish market. Tsukiji is like nowhere else on earth. I am sure this would not be allowed anywhere else in the world as it is chaos. Organised chaos but certainly a crazy place. If it comes out of the sea the Japanese will eat it and at Tsukiji you can see it all – most of it still alive. If you don;t like the site of fish wriggling their final wriggle then this is not the place for you! However, if you want to find out where all that sushi comes from then it is an essential stop. However, amazing though it is, I am more interested in eating it than looking at it. There are an array of restaurants to choose from but my favourite without question is Okame. Less famous than its next door neighbour Daiwa Sushi, Okame is in my humble opinion, the best sushi to be had anywhere. You will find this gem of a restaurant in building number 6 (you will see the numbered buildings when you visit). Don’t be fooled by the queues outside other places. They owe this to guidebook entries and TV coverage, not the quality of their food! Order the 2000 yen set meal and if you are still hungry top this up with a few extra items off the menu. With seats for just 13 at the counter you may have to wait but persevere and you will have a guaranteed top sushi experience.

Check Tsukiji opening days here

4/ Visit to a local bathhouse
Getting naked and jumping in the tub with a load of strangers probably isn’t at first mention the most appealing holiday activity for us reserved Brits. However, take the plunge and you will not be disappointed. This is without a doubt the single thing I miss most when I return to the UK after a stint working over in Japan. Bath houses come in all shapes and sizes. Some are natural hot spring, other just heated water from the mains. They can be huge complexes with 20 different baths, and saunas and steam rooms ; or they can be tiny one tub affairs in the narrow back streets of an old neighbourhood. All have their unique charms and after a single visit you will be hooked.

The Japanese have a saying – hadanaka no tomodachi – literal translation, ‘Naked Friendship’. And the bath house really is the perfect place to relax after a long hard day at work (or out seeing the sights). They are extremely friendly places. You will always encounter Japanese who want to chat and learn about where you are from and what you have been doing in Japan. A visit to a bath house is a vision into the heart of Japanese society and this single experience can help you get closer to the true essence of the Japanese than any other single thing. In short, you just can’t beat it! My favourites are the local places, still used by many for their daily scrub. If you go often enough you get to know the grandmother on the door and the regulars from the area. If you are worried about bath house etiquette you can scrub up on it by reading here. So don’t be shy! Find a bath house, pack your towel and off you go.

Okay, that’s it for part 1. I meant to put up 5 items but got carried away. And of course, these are just my personal tastes. If you disagree (or have some fabulous ramen restaurant tips for me or your own favourite bath house) then let me know! The thing in Japan is, you can never know it all.


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