Mt. Fuji Climbing Season!

Mt. Fuji, as seen from Kawaguchiko

Many may find it hard to understand why so many people make this gruelling trek up crowded hillsides in the freezing cold through thin air only to wait for a sunrise that may or may not penetrate the dense clouds that stick to Mt. Fuji throughout much of the year. Fortunately, the Japanese have no such difficulty. For them, climbing Mt. Fuji is a pilgrimage up sacred slopes to the symbolic heart of their homeland. The Japanese will be the first to tell you that there is much more to climbing Mt. Fuji than simply reaching the peak. On this sacred volcano it is the journey and not merely the destination that make this a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Fuji-san

Working as a Tour Leader, I have taken hundreds of tourists from all over the world to the far corners of Japan. To steaming hot springs in Shikoku, meandering back streets in Nagasaki, and geisha filled teahouses of Kyoto. But I have yet to find a destination that fills people with more awe, more respect for nature, and an overall closeness to Japan and the Japanese people than a trek to the sacred peak of Mt. Fuji. IJT has welcomed the Mt. Fuji climbing season with a brand new group tourdesigned for those intrepid souls looking to climb Japan’s tallest peak.

On the other side of the lake

Starting your climb from 2,300 metres above sea level at a mountain shack serving tea and selling walking sticks the locals send you on your way with cheers in Japanese of “good luck” and “come back safely”. Once you set foot in the dense forest that covers the bottom half of Mt. Fuji you will find yourself amongst fellow climbers, the vast majority of which are Japanese, all interested in what brought you here. It is impossible not to get caught up in the excitement of families on summer vacation or couples from Tokyo who have taken a rare few days off work to come to Fuji-san, the highest point in Japan. Whether it be in old wood-block prints or the backdrop to an Akira Kurosawa film, Mt. Fuji’s graceful silhouette has firmly taken hold of the hearts of foreigners and Japanese alike for as long as they have set eyes on it.Masses flock to Mt. Fuji every year, but you will be hard pressed to find pieces of litter spoiling this holy ground. Even the foreign tourists who come here can sense that there is something special about Mt. Fuji and, in the Japanese spirit, take special care to protect what nature has left for them.

Creeping ever closer to the mountain’s crater you will pass hut after hut, each offering a place to sleep or a bowl of noodles to weary pilgrims in need of a rest. As the air thins, so too do the trees, and you are left with sweeping views of the plains stretching out from Mt. Fuji’s base. Late in the afternoon the sun sets and turns the clouds, which are now far beneath you, a brilliant orange and you realise that it is time to take refuge from the night in one of the mountain huts dotting Mt. Fuji’s hillside. Leaving your hiking boots at the door and stepping on to a straw woven ‘tatami’ mat to be greeted by a deep bow is a sensation that can be found only in Japan and something that you will take away with you long after you have returned home. Sitting down for dinner with 30 Japanese pilgrims, it is understandable that the menu is limited 3,000 metres above sea level, but with a choice of Japanese curry and ramen noodles it’s hard to complain. Off to bed.

The few hours of sleep before waking up to watch sunrise are done on bunks lined with Japanese futons and large heavy blankets shared by 5 or more people. Rows of climbers are packed neatly next to one another and you may well find yourself sharing a blanket with a group of school kids or a family of four. At about 2 am an exodus of climbers begins, and the pitch-black trails of Mt. Fuji are filled with torch-clad climbers braving the cold mountain air. The moon and stars gently light the trail as you pass through Shinto Torii gates on your journey towards the peak.  When the sky begins to brighten with the promise of a rising sun the crowds stop and turn their backs to the mountain to watch a perfectly round sphere rise above thin morning clouds and over lake filled plains. The already red and barren volcanic landscape is turned a brilliant orange and Japanese cheers of “Bonzai!” can be heard piercing the quiet morning air.

There are many trails leading to the top of Mt. Fuji and, depending on which one you take, you may be met by a Shinto Shrine stamping people’s walking sticks with a rusty-red ink or by a tiny post office sending postcards from the roof of Japan to all corners of the world. The one-hour (4km) journey around Mt. Fuji’s massive crater is the perfect reminder of how massive this volcano really is, but it isn’t until you descend that you begin to realise just how special an experience you have been privy to. A rare opportunity to be accepted in to the fold of Japanese culture and a glimpse at a side of Japan that most travellers here don’t even know exist.

Few things are more Japanese than Mt. Fuji and the bullet train!

Volunteering in Ishinomaki

This Friday I will join a group of volunteers bound for tsunami-devastated Ishinomaki city in Miyagi prefecture.  Around hundred of us will take the bus from Shinjuku to spend a week helping with emergency relief activities.

Peace Boat volunteers working in Ishinomaki (Photo taken from Peace Boat facebook page)

It will make a strange contrast to tour leading, but I am glad of the opportunity to be doing something practical, rather than just watching the news and feeling helpless, and I am grateful that Inside Japan has given me the support, encouragement and time to do this.

Peace Boat, a Japanese nongovernmental organisation, will be the co-ordinator of my activities. They have been sending groups north for several weeks, during one week in April they sent 450 volunteers. But numbers have been dwindling, even though manpower is still desperately needed. 

The reality apparently, “is far more serious and shocking than what [you] may have seen on TV footage”. On Sunday`s orientation meeting we were told 36,000 homes in the city of Ishinomaki alone need cleaning out. The Peace Boat operation has managed 400 so far, at a rate of 5 or 6 a day. If that seems slow, it`s because the cleaning is not a simple operation; I know that from tidying my bedroom.  Overall, it is predicted to take two years.

As well as clearing out sludge, Peace Boat prepare 2,000 meals a day for local refugees, and they have a major role in processing and distributing relief supplies. I might be spending all my time shifting boxes.

Most of the people at Sunday`s orientation were Japanese, young and old; a few foreigners were sprinkled around the back seats. Native or not though, all of us were told that we will be outsiders in Ishinomaki. We are dogsbodies for the local authorities, there to help them lead their own recovery.

Our job is to listen and try to understand. We were told to avoid excessive expressions of sympathy or encouragement. Refugees do not want to hear `ganbatte` (fight / keep struggling) anymore, they have already been struggling long enough.

I have met my group of 6 already, we have been emailing each other this week to co-ordinate what food /equipment we will each bring. We have to be self-sufficent for all the time we are there to avoid burdening the local community.

Our team leader is Shinji, a bilingual Japanese salaryman, also in the group is an engineer from Dublin, an English teacher from Leicester and a bilingual Japanese teacher working in Texas. 3 women were also involved, but they have already withdrawn for various reasons, I hope it wasn`t anything I said.

Peace Boat Earthquake Emergency Relief facebook page

Mission Ishinomaki video  – the home video of a family of half-Japanese missionaries volunteering in Ishinomaki in late March

A volunteers story published in the Japan Times

A guide to drinking in Japan

InsideJapan Tours (IJT) is lucky to have a talented bunch of staff in Japan with our office staff in Nagoya, our tour leaders across Japan and our private guides. Ayako Kiyono san is one of IJT’s professional guides in the Kyoto area who has a great knowledge of the Kansai region, the country, its history, religion and culture in general. If you have any interest at all IJT can just about guarantee that Kiyono san will be able to give you the most interesting and fulfilling day of guiding during your time in Japan.

Kiyono san has just been doing some ‘personal’ research on in the Kansai area. In fact, Kiyono san has developed a little tour of the regions beer and whisky producers squeezing three breweries into one day….along with free drinks and snacks on the way. So for the thirsty traveller, here’s Kiyono sans ‘Beer and Whiskey sampling tour of Kansai’.

What better way to begin the day, than with a 0930am stop at the Asahi beer factory. Asahi is one of Japan’s most famous beers and the factory is found in the Osaka district of Suita, a short train ride from Osaka station. A 90 minute tour is followed by three complimentary glasses of Asahi Superdry and snacks (Otsumami).

After a lunch brake, why not opt for a change in palate and a 60 minute tour of the Suntory Yamazaki whisky distillery. It is only a 25 minute train ride from Suita, but you will probably be quite thirsty by the end of the informative tour. Don’t worry; you have approximately three complimentary glasses of Suntory single malt whisky to quench your thirst at the end of the tour with a few snacks to keep you ticking over.

Just a few minutes on the train and a short shuttle bus trip away, brings you to the Suntory beer factory in Nagaoka-kyo. You can take part in the 60 minute tour before enjoying complimentary Suntory Premium Malts beer along with some more snack food.

Having finished your brewery tour for the day, you can find yourself back at your hotel in Kyoto or Osaka by 5pm. You can freshen up before heading out to experience a fantastic food in a Japanese Izakaya (traditional pub) or perhaps head to one of hundreds of excellent restaurants for some wonderful food or even to a Tachi-nomi (standing and drinking bar) to continue as the day began.

All of the brewery tours are in Japanese and require advanced reservation.

IJT are proud of the commitment shown by Kiyono san in researching this trip and can guarantee that she will give you 100 percent when guiding you, wherever your interests lay. Kiyono san will be able to show you some of the popular tourist sights in the region, take you to secret local spots of interest and give you valuable cultural insights into life in Japan. A days itinerary is not fixed, but if you have anything in particular in mind that you would like to see or do, or maybe you have a specialist interest, let us know before you arrive and Kiyono san will help you get the most out your time in the Kansai region.
KANPAI!!

Japan Honeymoon

It’s the big moment in many couples lives – The Honeymoon. It has to be perfect and it will be remembered for ever….for better or for worse!

Japan is a fantastic destination for a Honeymoon; Romantic mountain top traditional guest houses, hot spring baths, beautiful scenery, sub-tropical beaches, great food and an attractive and romantic culture to boot. Whether your budget is relatively modest or ready to blow the bank, Japan will supply you with a beautiful and memorable special holiday. With all the recent events that have made the headlines, potential Honeymooners could be forgiven for having second thoughts about heading to the Land of the Rising Sun, but perhaps surprisingly, there have been quite a few Honeymooners who have decided to continue with their trip of a lifetime.

InsideJapan recently assisted newly-weds, Alissa Brussilovsky and Julien Bassignani  in organising their Honeymoon (April 10-28) to Japan. The couple based a lot of their stay in the exciting capital of Tokyo discovering the lively neon districts as well as the picturesque Japanese gardens. They also stayed in a traditional ryokan in the mountains of Hakone before moving on to the cultural capital of Kyoto.  They have provided us with some fantastic feedback and some even more stunning images.

We recently returned from our wonderful Honeymoon in Japan and had a fantastic time. We would like to say a huge THANK YOU for everything and for 3 fabulous weeks in Japan.

You made our honeymoon beautiful and everything sooo easy. The organisation was absolutely flawless. Your agency is fantastic, so professional and careful about people. We have been amazed how easy it was to travel through Japan and felt almost at home thanks to you.

We have been in Osaka, Kyoto, Hakone, Nara and Tokyo and there was no problem at all. Japanese people are keeping a normal life and we haven’t seen any problems. Please tell everybody that south is safe. It was not an easy decision for us when the tragedy happened in Japan. But we have talked with many people, have read much  information on very different web sites such as the British embassy in Tokyo, the French embassy in Tokyo, Twitter etc….and finally we decided to go. We do not regret it at all!

The sad point was to see that tourists have disappeared. Very very sad for Japanese people!

We would like to encourage everybody to go in this wonderful country.

Once again a big THANK YOU!

Alissa and Julien

InsideJapan are very happy to hear that you enjoyed your Honeymoon and fell in love with Japan. Congratulati0ns to you both and thank you for sharing your feedback and photos.
Suenagaku O shiawase ni! (Long and happy life)

Breakfast at Tsukiji fish market

On Tuesday, nine members of our Essential Honshu group got up for a 6am subway ride to Tsukiji fish market – the biggest in the world. The sights outside the market can be as interesting inside. Wandering amongst the closely-packed stores, we saw wasabi plants, beanpole-shaped burdock root and some rolling-pin-shaped daikon, then in the market itself, we saw live shellfish, wriggling eels and a 6 foot long tunafish being sawed up on a wooden table. 

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Trip of a lifetime surpasses all expectations

InsideJapan Tours have worked with many thousands of people over the years, doing our little to bit to help them to discover this amazing country as well as their own cultural experiences. Barrie and Marilyn Ellison from Derby recently travelled to Japan (April 22- May 2) to fulfill a lifetime travelling goal and to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary.

In the shadow of many negative news reports, the Ellisons decided that they would continue with their trip to Japan as planned. InsideJapan also saw no reason as to why they should cancel their trip and provided their travel agent (Carol at Ilkeston Travel) with the most up-to-date information about the actual situation in the country.

Mr and Mrs Ellison  had a great time and have very kindly allowed us to use the following feedback and photos.

In a nutshell, this was a once in a lifetime trip.

It had been Marilyn’s ambition to visit Japan since she was a child. We have been lucky enough to spend our married life travelling the world together and have visited countries as diverse as Borneo, Malaysia, America and Canada. The opportunity to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary in Japan was one we could not pass up. We decided eighteen months ago to plan this trip and continue with the two week itinerary in Japan.

The earthquake and tsunami in Japan did cause us to consider cancelling this itinerary, but we decided against this and we are so glad we didn’t change anything. We had the best holiday ever and there has never been a better time to visit Japan. Everywhere we went,we were greeted with open arms. The Japanese people were genuinely glad to see us and the lack of tourists meant we avoided queues and the large crowds you could expect in famous temples in Kyoto and Universal Studio’s in Osaka for example.


We started our trip in Japan in Tokyo; a fabulously vibrant city with a terrific mix of traditional and modern areas. Tokyo has some of the best shopping in the world, especially if you are into electronic gadgets.

After three days we caught a Shinkansen (bullet train) to Hakone for a complete change of pace. Here we had booked into a traditional Japanese Ryokan where we were treated like royalty and enjoyed a taste of Japanese life, sleeping on futons, wearing Yukata’s and eating traditional Japanese food, (after some instruction from a very kind Japanese waitress).

Whilst in Hakone, we travelled by mountain railway, funicular railway and cable car to see some of the most spectacular scenery, with views of Mount Fuji and sail across a volcanic lake by pleasure boat – an absolutely idyllic break. From here we caught another Shinkansen to Kyoto where we would spend the next four nights. From Kyoto, we were able to visit Universal Studios in Osaka & and the city of Hiroshima.

Unfortunately our time in Japan was coming to an end and from Kyoto, we travelled back to Tokyo for our flight back to UK. This felt far too early and we could happily have spent another four weeks in Japan.

In conclusion I would just like to thank Carol (Ilkeston Travel), Inside Japan and most of all the people of Japan. This was without doubt the best holiday Marilyn & I have ever had.  It surpassed all our expectations and was one of the most varied, exciting, friendly, safe and polite countries we have ever visited and we would have no hesitation in booking to go back.

Japan needs the support of tourism to help rebuild those parts so recently devastated by the earthquake & tsunami and to keep local economies going. Please don’t let the recent problems put you off travelling to Japan.

Regards Barrie & Marilyn Ellison

Japan continues to inspire and it is fantastic to hear more great words about the country contrasting the recent image portrayed by the press. We are very happy to see that the country has gained two more big fans.

Sendai and Matsushima after the tsunami

InsideJapan Co-Director, Simon King is currently travelling in Japan meeting up with colleagues, suppliers and business partners across the country. His travels included a trip to the Tohoku region which had areas very badly damaged as a result of the earthquake and tsunami on March 11th 2011. Simon was keen to meet with people that InsideJapan Tours had worked with over the last ten years and show InsideJapan’s support for this beautiful region of Japan, as well as survey the situation for himself. Here is what he had to say,

After a couple of nights staying in a really nice ryokan in the heart of Tokyo’s historic district of Asakusa, it was on to Sendai and Matsushima. These are both places I have been before although not for a good few years – the last time I stayed in Sendai was during the 2002 Football World Cup co-leading a group of 29 England fans. It was just me this time but, aware that our ‘Northern Soul’ tour visits this area, I was looking forward to seeing for myself how the city had fared.

Sendai has become synonymous now with pictures of complete devastation from the tsunami, the airport inundated, coastal areas destroyed. However, as was reassuringly apparent on my arrival, this is a big city and the city itself suffered very little damage.

The re-opened Tohoku Shinkansen carried me comfortably and quickly for the 217 mile journey from Tokyo’s Ueno station in a shade over 1 hour and 40 minutes. This is the same line that will soon be boasting bullet trains speeds of up to 260 miles an hours. I digress with train facts (easy to do in Japan). So, en-route I was looking for signs of damage – the only things I could spot were a number of house roofs where tiles had obviously come down and blue tarpaulin sheets were covering the apex. But that really was it.

On arrival at Sendai, the station was nicely full of hustle and bustle, shops busy and lots of people around. The tree lined main street Aoba Dori looked fine with its neat lines only spoilt by the ongoing construction of new subway line – started before the earthquake struck and scheduled to complete on time. Numerous taxis were waiting at the front of the station and the big departments stores Loft and S-Pal were both open.

The exterior of Sendai Station had been damaged and was covered with sheeting – impossible to tell from the inside and therefore clearly cosmetic rather than structural.

Next, by taxi, on to one of our frequently used ryokan, the Tenryu-kaku. Probably Sendai’s oldest ryokan it is located next door to Zuihoden, local hero Masamune Date’s mausoleum. I immediately recognised the very genki owner Yokoyama-san who was pleased to sit down and talk about business and the earthquake. It had certainly been a strong shake in Sendai but she re-iterated that damage in the city centre was very limited and her ryokan was fine. The city museum is open, the old castle remains can still be visited and the handy ‘loople’ bus is still doing its never ending circuit. The devastating damage had been far out of town in the coastal regions – real suffering here but well away from the city. What had also suffered was her business – with cancellations being hard to bear.

After a photograph with Yokoyama-san at the front desk, I headed back to the city and on to Matsushima. I took the JR Senseki line to Hon-Shiogama and the sightseeing boat from here to Matsushima. En-route there were definite signs of the Tsunami – 3 or 4 cars washed up along a river, a boat or two in rather unconventional mooring situations. There were also some mountains of rubbish and tangled steel – the clear up had obviously been a massive job and was now reaching its final stage. But houses and offices generally all looked fine and people were going about their daily lives, hopping on and off the small train, chatting about work and school.

It’s a 10 minute walk from Hon-Shiogama to the port and on the way there was some more damage with a major super market (the appropriately named ‘Max Value’) closed for repairs. The pavement had also clearly seen better days. At the port itself the restaurant complex had suffered but the Italian eatery was open for business and I had a great 500yen pasta lunch (vege version specially requested by awkward me!).

The boat journey was exactly as I remembered all those years ago – though without the football chants and, in fact, with far few people on board. The numerous islands for which the bay is famous had clearly acted as a breakwater and saved Matsushima from the worst of the wave. The islands are indeed beautiful and justifiably one of Japan’s ‘top three sights’.

At Matsushima itself I visited the famous Zuiganji temple and, for the first time, the lovely moss gardens at the neighbouring Entsuin Temple. Both were a delight! The sea facing front at Matsushima had clearly been hit and a number of restaurants were closed – but more than half open and the souvenir shops were doing a pretty good trade.

What was most markedly different on my trip ‘up north’, more so than the few bits of damage that I saw, more than the having to take one alternative train, was the lack of foreign tourists. This was Sunday in Golden Week and not a non-Japanese face to be seen. It is the local people and business affected by this fact that could be the tragedy after the tragedy.

Sendai and Matsushima need and want people to visit and as far as I could see there is every reason still to go.

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