Kyoto for Free! (part two)

Hello everyone. Here is part two of…

The Big List of Stuff to Do for Free in Kyoto!

6. Take a Free Walk

The best way to discover Kyoto is on foot. This is the only way to spot the tiny, beautiful details that set this city apart from any other in the world. For some handy help, you can now download free podcasts of walking tours.

7. See a Festival

There are so, so, so many festivals taking place in Kyoto. Honestly, an ancient ceremony or tradition of some kind is honoured almost every day. Get hold of the monthly Kyoto Visitor Guide from the tourist information centre in Kyoto Station. Here you’ll find up to date listings of all special events. Most of them don’t cost anything to watch. Festivals always draw a huge crowd though, so go early to get a good viewing spot.

A passing float at the Jidai Matsuri (Festival of the Ages)

A passing float at the Jidai Matsuri (Festival of the Ages)

8. Spot a Geisha

The Kyoto tourism industry offers many great, fascinating tours of the geisha districts. But if you are on a budget, it really isn’t hard to find a geisha by yourself. At dusk head to Shijo bridge and walk towards Yasaka Shrine. Turn right into one of the pretty side streets and with a bit of luck you’ll spot a geisha or maiko scurring to her evening appointment. …Or you’ll spot a Japanese girl dressed up as a geisha (tip: the fake ones will be giggling, gesturing a lot and followed by their boyfriends). Real or fake, your friends back home will be impressed by your geisha photos.

Maiko

Maiko

9. Visit Keage International Community House

Take a gander at The International Community House website. Located near Keage subway station this place is an amazing resource of free stuff for visitors and ex-pats. There are regular free cultural classes, such as manga drawing classes and kimono dress-ups. There’s also a message board, usually for Kyotoites wanting to make international friends, so why not arrange to meet up with a friendly local? (The House is closed on Mondays.)

10. Stroll through the Bamboo Groves

People often ask us at InsideJapan Tours where they can walk through a forest of bamboo trees. This, ladies and gentlemen, is in Arashiyama, a beautiful district of Kyoto. I absolutely love Arashiyama (‘storm mountain’) and highly recommend a stroll through the bamboo groves here.

An InsideJapan Tours' group in the Arashiyama bamboo groves

An InsideJapan Tours' group in the Arashiyama bamboo groves

Part three on its way :)

Hirado – Gem of Nagasaki

Hirado Rice Paddies

The island of Hirado has more than enough breathtaking scenery to attract plenty of visitors who are “in the know”, but it doesn’t hurt that this small southern island also has more than a few historic oddities. This is the first place beer was ever enjoyed on Japanese soil and the landing place of the English ‘samurai’ William Adams, the principle character in James Clavell’s “Shogun”, who made his way here nearly 400 years ago. Hirado is the first place in Japan that green tea plants were grown and the home to a Japanese castle that looks out over an island dotted bay. In Hirado one can still find Japan’s famous hidden Christians, whose ancestors were converted by Francis Xavier when he visited in 1550. (I was looking forward to a bit of hide and seek but, much to my surprise and slight dismay, they are no longer actually hiding, just practicing a form of Christianity that isn’t found anywhere else in the world.) If none of this piques your interest than maybe you will be more interested in the birthplace of a Chinese hero who is worshiped as a god in Taiwan. (Although don’t get your hopes up, his birthplace is little more than a rock with a plaque on it near one of Hirado’s swimming beaches. Still, you do get the feeling that this island has witnessed some amazing history.)

Walking Trails Along the Sea

As night settled in, I arrived at my ryokan with just enough time to have a dip in the onsen before dinner. Jumping in to a bath with a bunch of naked Japanese may not sound like an afternoon well spent but I assure you that it is more relaxing than it sounds and utterly addictive. A few minutes in the sauna and I was properly roasted and ready for dinner. I have had the benefit of living in Japan for a few years now so the thought of raw fish, octopus, egg custard with unidentifiable ingredients, and a soup of seaweed actually whets my appetite. If nothing’s moving then I generally don’t complain, but for my less adventurous companions a grill with Hirado’s home grown beef was prepared. After a bit of karaoke and a few beers with the kitchen staff I was more than ready for my futon.

View from Hirado Castle

The following day I went hiking on trails with 360-degree views of the surrounding islands and learned all about Japan’s whaling industry (like it or not) and “crybaby” sumo (a tournament unique to Hirado where the first baby to cry wins).  I spent lunch sitting on the beach where Christian martyrs had been killed and enjoyed a view that looked like a tropical scene from Thailand. (Although, the lack of fat western old men in speedos walking with young Thai women meant I was clearly not in Phuket.)  In the afternoon I hopped on to a converted fishing boat for a look at Hirado’s well-known “99 islands area”, a name used because it sounds better than the “208 islands area” (the actual number of islands just off the coast of Hirado). As the sun set and the lights on Hirado Bridge came on I sat down by the sea with a pint of the stuff that had first been brought here almost 400 years ago.

Since my first visit to Hirado last year, I have been back 7 times working as a tour leader and I can say with no exaggeration that I am looking forward to being back next week. Whether you are interested in Japanese history or just a bit of stunning scenery, I can’t imagine many places better than Hirado.

Where Buddhism and Christianity Mingle


Kyoto for Free! (part one)

Call me cheap, but I’m currently planning a long awaited holiday to New York and have been googling free things to do in the Big Apple. Which got me thinking… we all know Japan has a widespread reputation for being expensive. But in reality there is so much to see and do that won’t cost you much or often anything at all. That’s why I’m introducing…

The Big List of Stuff to Do for Free in Kyoto!

I lived there for two years, so I should know :)

By the way, I am not going to include any free stuff that you can only get if you buy something else. Such as free drinks if you buy a really expensive meal. Or a free tea ceremony if you have already paid the entrance fee into the garden. Those kind of “free” lists really annoy me…

1. Take in some Temples and Shrines

There are many stunning temples and shrines that do not cost a penny to look around. The sister shrines of Shimogamo and Kamigamo are two of my favourites, as is Fushimi Inari. Thousands and thousands of red shrine gates line up in tunnels across the mountain at Fushimi Inari. This temple never seems to be busy, so you’ll often have the place to yourself.

Fushimi Inari

Fushimi Inari

2. Get a Volunteer Guide

Kyoto is a big city and sometimes it can be hard to know where to start. Or you’ve seen pictures of certain temples, but you’re looking at the map and can’t work out where they might be hiding. A local guide is an invaluable resource if you only have a short time in Kyoto. Best of all, there are lots of volunteer guides in Kyoto who offer their services for free! Have a look at the list of contacts on the Japan National Tourist Organisation website.

3. Forget Kyoto Tower

I hate Kyoto Tower, which is a long rant that I will have another time. Anyway, save yourself from this expensive, tacky tourist trap, and climb to the top of Kyoto Station instead. The architecture is so much more impressive and the free skywalk gives you a great panorama inside the station and across the city. Plus on the west side of the station, you’ll find the ‘happy terrace’. Enough said.

Kyoto StationGood times

Good times at Kyoto Station

4. Learn some Nihongo

If you’d like a crash course in Japanese, check out ‘Klexon’ (Kyoto Language EXchange salON). This non-profit organisation runs free language exchange meetings on Tuesday nights. If you happen to be in Kyoto then, why not drop in? Beginners are very welcome and you’ll be paired up with a Kyotoite who can teach you the basics.

5. Party with the Locals

Kyoto bars are small, often with room for just four or five customers. Which is why in summer time huge crowds of Kyoto youngsters gather by the Kamo River at Sanjo bridge. Without paying a single yen, hear local bands play, watch fire dancers perform and mingle with the locals.

Kyoto's Kamo River. Much more lively at night.

Kyoto's Kamo River - much more lively at night

Parts two and three coming soon!

Rugby World Cup Comes to Japan

rugby2rugby 3

Yesterday the IRB confirmed that Japan will host the 2019 Rugby World Cup. This is fantastic news and will be a major step forward for a sport which has sometimes been regarded as elitelist, upper class and a wee bit cliquey. When Japan narrowly missed out on getting the right to host the 2011 World Cup (given to New Zealand), Japan’s top rugby chap accused the top rugby playing nations of simply “passing the ball around between themselves“. Japan will do an amazing job of hosting the World Cup and we can look forward to real breath of fresh air taking the tournament outside of the established rugby-playing nations, as we did when Japan co-hosted the football World Cup with South Korea in 2002. Japan is ready; it could host the World Cup tomorrow, with modern stadiums, fantastic transport links and thousands of hotel rooms already in place. Compare this to the problems of small stadiums, lack of transport infrastructure and hotel room numbers that saw Lions fans housed in cruise ships floating in Welllington Harbour during the 2005 Lions tour of New Zealand! Admittedly New Zealand is a rugby-mad country, but with such a small population they will struggle to meet the needs of the Rugbyand thousands of rugby fans who will descend on the “Land of the Long White Cloud” in 2011. But they deserve their chance to host it and good luck to them. However it will be 2019 that I will be looking forward to most, when the most hospitable country on earth plays host to the most gentlemenly sports fans in the world. I just wonder if the nomihodai (all you can drink) deals will be kept on the bar menus…

What do you think? Is Japan the right country to host the first Asian Rugby World Cup? Will there be much interest from the locals? Will the Japanese onsen culture clash with the muddy after-match baths of the rugby fans. Will Asahi, Sapporo and Kirin have enough beer stockpiled to keep all the fans happy? Look forward to hearing from you!

A Japanese Business Lunch in London

On a recent trip to London I decided to go along to Tsuru, a fairly new Japanese restaurant, just behind the Tate Modern on the South Bank. I had been recommended this place by a friend who had also lived in Japan, so was looking forward to an authentic Japanese meal (by London standards!) I was suitably impressed. What makes Tsuru different from most Japanese restaurants in London is that they focus on casual dishes, reasonably priced and served speedily. Part of the reason for this is that their main trade is lunchtime, not evenings. So rather than serving huge platters of overpriced and under-fresh sushi they offer a fantastic range of ‘bento’ boxes (commonplace in Japan), featuring a range of fresh contents, many of them healthy and wholesome, as goes the reputation for Japanese food. However as is often the case one of the most delicious options is one of the less healthy options!

One of their featured offerings is a range of ‘katsu bento’, a choice of meat, fish or veg breaded and fried to crisp finish, served over rice with a lovely mild curry sauce. ‘Kare-raisu‘ (have you worked that one out yet?) is actually claimed to be the most popular food in Japan, but rarely makes it onto the menu in overseas Japanese restaurants. I was impressed with Tsuru’s katsu (I went for chicken) and also with the other dishes I had, including gyoza (pan-fried dumplings), edamame (soya beans – great as a snack with beer!) and miso soup. I was there in the evening, and they do open until 9pm, so although lunchtime is their main trade you can still go along in the early evening and have a great casual meal. I will definitely be back to Tsuru. They are bringing another side of Japanese cuisine to London, and showing that the Japanese do fast food better (and generally healthier!) than anyone. If you are planning a trip to Japan, or have been there in the past and long for a taste of your favourites go along to Tsuru; you won’t be disappointed.

Tsuru, Fabulous & Affordable Japanese Food

Tsuru, Fabulous & Affordable Japanese Food

Asakusa

Asakusa

Asakusa is the best place in Japan. In fact, it could be the best place in the world.  Anyone who thinks otherwise needs to be stuffed full of pickled plums.

Sensoji at the heart of Asakusa

Sensoji at the heart of Asakusa

As well as the obvious appeal of Sensouji Temple and the souvenir shops of Nakamise-dori, Asakusa is packed with bizarre less talked about attractions. Asakusa Jinta, surely the 21st century’s only surviving burlesque bar (real burlesque, not the modern strip show variety), thrives here. The restaurants serving eels in Asakusa are not musty relics of old Japan; they are popular and packed with hungry punters.

Asakusa is famed for its plastic food models. Plastic food I tell you.  Well I suppose if eel is the only other option, many people might opt for plastic.

In many parts of Japan, not wearing a suit turns you into an outsider.  In parts of Asakusa not looking as if you have just got out of bed and dressed in the pitch black marks you out as an intruder. The bizarre is so normal it is almost universal. Why bother putting on shoes and socks when you can just wander around in your slippers?

The screaming contempt much of Asakusa has for contemporary fashion is its greatest charm. Asakusa keeps thing simple, it does not pretend to be what it is not. An award-winning French architect designed a building at the edge of Asakusa with a golden sculpture on top pretentiously calling it the building of the Golden Flame. Asakusans, giving a more accurate appraisal of its appearance, just call it the turd building.

No-one has a monopoly on weirdness in Asakusa. The competition is too intense. So if you are foreign or weird, or like me, foreign and weird, and you want to fit in, Asakusa is the ideal destination.

Japan most expensive country in the World?

Yesterday a story appeared on our company news channel reporting that yet again Tokyo and Osaka are the most expensive cities in the world, this time focusing on the cost of living for expats. This sort of story really gets my goat as I always feel they tell just half the story.

Japan the most expensive? Well, in some ways it is. For example, the Ginza in the heart of Tokyo is still has the highest market value per square meter of any business area in the world (approx 50 million yen – $500,000 USD) and that is down nearly four times from peak values in the early 1990′s. Rent in Tokyo is also high, especially if you wish to live within the inner circuit of the Yamanote Line.

However, for visitors Japan is nothing like the expensive destination it is often thought to be; Conveyor sushi restaurants serve plates from as little as 100 yen (approx $1 – and that is for pretty decent stuff) and a bowl of steaming ramen and a beer will rarely cost more than 1200 yen (approx $12). Entrance fees are low and there are lots of free attractions in every Japanese town and city. Hotels are also much more affordable than in London or New York which make Tokyo look cheap by comparison as a place for tourists to visit. There is also a failure to take into account cultural aspects of these reports. It is property value that often makes Tokyo and Osaka look very expensive. But this is based on what space you get for your money and fails to take into account that the Japanese traditionally live in smaller spaces than the British or even more markedly, the Americans.

Personally I am extremely interested in the comment in the news story from Nick Marr at Homesgofast.com who mentions significant increases in the cost of living. This is contrary to everything I have been hearing from my friends in Japan: Yes, money is tight because of wage freezes and unemployment but Japan has entered another period of deflation. Prices are falling, not rising!

Finally, Japan has actually just come out of a period of being the cheapest first world country in the world (I failed to see a glut of articles highlighting this fact back in 2007) and this statistic is purely driven by exchange rates. For example, two years ago £1 would buy 245 JPY. Now that figure is 150. Of course this makes Japan seem more expensive when measuring costs in dollars or pounds. However, at that time the yen was undervalued and a readjustment was inevitable. Now I feel the yen is over valued and a subsequent readjustment in the opposite direction will occur. Overall Japan should cost pretty much the same as any developed nation to live in.
All in all yes Japan is more expensive than the rest of Asia but Japan is a first world nation and the world’s second largest economic power. And in comparison with western nations of similar economic development it is not expensive at all.

If you are looking to visit Japan on a budget check out our Price Cruncher package which offers 7 nights in Japan from only £600 per person.

Learn Japanese! (Part Two)

I recently interviewed Peter Galante, the founder of JapanesePod101.com, to find out more about this online phenomenon. For the introduction to Peter and JapanesePod101.com please see last week’s blog, “Learning Japanese!”.

Peter Galante

Peter Galante

In what ways do you try to introduce learners to Japanese culture?

“Including culture and cultural insight in each lesson is a core part of our philosophy, and one of our unique selling points. In each lesson the hosts provide cultural insight on the conversation and related situations. We also have a Japanese culture class series of lessons discussing topics ranging from superstition to Japanese dialects. In addition, we have rich written blog. For each audio lesson a tremendous amount of research is done, and incorporated in the conversation. And in each lesson cultural insight provided by the hosts.”

“Recently we started to move toward video, and include footage from Japan to enhance the experience. A video on how to visit a shrine can be seen here on our YouTube channel.”

How do you feel that Japanesepod101.com compares to other Japanese language programs?

“There are so many great Japanese study websites, programs and books available now. We recommend you try as many as you can. After using many of them ourselves, we tried to improve upon them to create the easiest and most fun learning system out there.”

“We have audio lessons, video lessons, community, forum, and we’re lucky enough to be supported by our great community, so we can continue to innovate.”

“Recently we worked with the legendary Jim Breen to record his entire JDICT Japanese dictionary, 140,000 words. This is currently available on our site JapanesePod101.com and Mr. Breen’s site.”

“You can test out the audio dictionary by visiting JapanesePod101.com and registering for you FREE Lifetime account in less than 10 seconds.”

“This tool is absolutely incredible, and FREE to the Japanese language learning community.”

How many users/subscribers does Japanesepod101 currently have?

“Tens-of-thousands of users in 140 countries and territories, and several thousand subscribers.”

Would you recommend any other Japanese language learning programs to supplement the content of Japanesepod101.com?

“There are lots of well-made programs out there to help you study Japanese there are many of the books published by The Japan Times. An indispensable book for someone new to Japanese is A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar.”

“As for supplemental programs, I would say getting a speaking partner to practice is critical. Practicing what you learn is the biggest reward, and will enhance your passion for learning. We offer an online course, but we’re not currently accepting new students. So I would recommend trying to find someone to practice your Japanese with, an tutor, teacher, exchange partner, pen pal, either online or offline.”

In what ways do you try to keep Japanesepod101.com fresh and interesting for long time users?

“We use several strategies.”

“New members – were always adding new hosts and voice actors to give students and users exposure to different styles and methods.”

“New media – Not only do we have a large library of iPhone applications, do mini lessons and games on Twitter and have recently started a Facebook Fan Page to close the communication gap with our users.”

“Video – Recently we started to move toward video, and include footage from Japan to enhance the experience. Subscribe to our YouTube channel.”

“Feedback – we continually incorporate feedback from our listeners.”

“New tools and toys – new features like the audio voice recorder, iphone application like Pocket Japanese, Word Power Japanese and MyWords Japanese. You can try Free versions in iTunes right now.”

“Collaboration – working with others to create new more powerful tools. The project with Jim Breen to provide the Japanese language learning community with a Free audio dictionary was a great project to be a part of. And we’re hoping to work with many more people to provide bigger and better tools.”

“Visit JapanesePod101.com and get your Free Lifetime Account in less than 10 seconds.”

Learn Japanese!

JapanesePod101 - For students of Japanese everywhere

JapanesePod101 - For students of Japanese everywhere

Over the past few years there has been a massive boom in Japan’s popularity overseas. From manga and sumo to sushi and the tea ceremony, just about everything Japanese has gained an almost cult-like status and marked Japan as one of the world’s trend setting capitals. As Japanese culture has risen in popularity around the world so has the number of people trying to learn the language.

The Japanese language is one of the most difficult languages on earth. Japanese is famous for it’s 3 different intermingling scripts (one of which contains thousands of complex Chinese characters) and an honorifics system that will make your head spin! It is fair to say that Japanese isn’t the type of language that can be picked up in a few night lessons at the local university.

There are thousands of books, audio CD’s, and even computer software programs that have all been designed to help English speakers crack this enigmatic language.

So where do you start?

Well, there is one language program that has been gaining notoriety, and popularity, over the past few years.

JapanesePod101.com is a web-based learning program that uses a variety of media to help you learn Japanese as quickly and naturally as possible, making a name for itself by making an especially impressive effort to work with the iPod.

I recently talked to Peter Galante, who founded the company in December 2005, about JapanesePod101.com to find out more about how the website developed and what makes this program so different to all the other language tools in the market. I even got some tips on how to make the most of the site and “take your Japanese to the next level”!

What was the inspiration behind creating JapanesePod101.com and how was the format decided upon?

“JapanesePod101.com was designed to get people speaking and using Japanese right away so they would have great experiences and like Japan and the Japanese language more and more. We saw JapanesePod101.com as a way to provide Japanese language learners all over the world with a window to Japan and a look inside the Japanese language. We also wanted to teach practical Japanese, which is not taught in most classrooms around the world, to help people learn useful and practical Japanese to “wow” their friends, colleagues, teachers and others. Emphasis was also placed on including culture, pop culture, current events, and injecting fun into the lessons. In short, we wanted to show people how fun and interesting the Japanese language is.”

“The format was actually shaped by our amazing listeners. We incorporated their feedback and ideas to create the current format. Of course we used input from our academic staff and other staff, but many of the features and much of the format was community driven.”

What is the history of Japanesepod101.com?

“JapanesePod101.com started with 1 person in December 2005, and was made possible by the owner of Erklaren, a translation company. She provided support and resources. A desk and access to some translators at the company. In the first month, I was able to recruit a childhood friend to join the team, and he took control of the website and technical aspects. He was located in NY, so between him in NY and me in Tokyo, we covered 24 hours a day.”

“We were releasing lessons, and were fortunate to be well received by Japanese students around the world. Since then JapanesePod101.com has produced over 1,000 audio and video lessons, which have been downloaded over 40 million times in 140 countries and territories. Acting as the flagship brand of Innovative Language Learning, JapanesePod supported the expansion into 11 websites and 300+ iphone applications.”

“We hope to continue to provide Japanese language learners with fun and innovative tools to learn Japanese fast, and have fun doing so!”

What tips would you give a first time user of Japanesepod101.com?

“Next I would ask, ‘Have you tried the Fluency Fast Checklist and Weekly Schedule planner? These two simple, yet powerful tools will show you the hidden power of our system. By taking a few minutes to use the 2 simple tools just once, your experience will be enhanced 10 fold, and your results beyond your expectations.”

“Second, use what you learn as much as you can.”

“Japanese is a fun and rewarding language to learn, and with the language learning tools available to you today, you have a big advantage and can learn Japanese fast. The key is to use what you learn. For example, commenting on the lessons and participating in the forum are great ways to learn and use what you learn.”

This interview will be continued next week! (July 9th, 2009)

Japan is closer than you think!

Japanese culture has been gradually seeping its way into the consciousness of the UK public for year but in recent times the effects of this are a lot more visible; Japanese restaurants are to be found in every city in Britain and karaoke boxes are gradually appearing in city centres and entertainment areas everywhere, introducing the British public to a very Japanese night out. And of course, gaming continues to be the number one pastime for men between the ages of 15 and 35 with the vast majority of games being developed in Japan, the true home of the video game.

Here at InsideJapan Tours we are always on the look out for the best bits of Japanese culture to be found at home so we thought we might post up our finds on the blog for everyone to discover.

So for today’s starter welcome to KaraokeMe!, home of the best Japanese-style night out to be had in Bristol.

Located on St Stephen’s street in Bristol city centre, Karaoke Me! opened some two years ago, finally bringing the Karaoke box experience to the West Country. Having spent countless nights in Japan behind the mic deafening my friends with sub-standard renditions of Jumping Jack Flash and Wonderwall, this was an eagerly anticipated new arrival for me (and possibly my friends too).

So for those not in the know this is how it works: You hire a private room for an hour, or two, or three, or four or… well, you get the idea. Generally you hire a room suitable for the number of people in your group but there don’t seem to be any rules on piling as many people as you can into a room for a mass sing-a-long. Each room is equipped with a couple of wireless mics, a massive flat screen T.V. and a touch screen control panel. Search for what you wan to sing and more than likely the system will have it. In theory there are books with the songs in too but at Karaoke Me! they seem to have forgotten about this part (although you can download the current catalogue from there web-site). Each room features a phone to be used for ordering food and drink. Please note: Often the more alcoholic beverages consumed, the better the evening. For some reason karaoke seems to work like that. And that is that. Away you go.

Danger: Karaoke is addictive

Danger: Karaoke is addictive

Karaoke is addictive: Hire a room for one hour and you will be there for three before you are dragged away from the mic by the staff trying to close up, singing on long after the music has been turned off! And one thing you will never see at a Karaoke box is any aggro; just lots of happy people singing like Simon Cowell (and his genius) victims on the latest X-Factor auditions.

So there you have it: Karaoke Japanese-style available right here in the heart of Bristol. It isn’t quite the authentic experience: The selection of songs isn’t quite up to the huge phone directory like catalogues one is presented with at any Japanese karaoke parlour and perhaps the biggest disappointment, no ridiculous videos to accompany each song. That said, members do have access to a fabulous all you can eat and drink deal for just £20 per person for 2 hours. But then Japan is Japan so will always do things in its own unique and endlessly charming fashion.

So next time you fancy a different sort of night out, check it out and get down Karaoke Me! for a 100% guaranteed fun night out.

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