Refresh yourself with natural Japan

On this blog, we hear a lot about the experiences and views of the UK office who have all lived and worked in Japan as well as the tour leaders travelling in Japan, but we don’t hear much from the team of great girls in the Nagoya office….but that is about to change! Tetsuko san from our Japan office wanted to do a blog piece to let us know more about her and what she loves about her country.

How do you refresh your mind?
In my case, I go hiking in the forest! Forest Bath allows us to relax. The negative ions give our bodies’ energy. Last weekend, I went to “赤目四十八滝 – Akame forty-eight waterfalls” in Mie Prefecture.

It doesn’t literarily mean that there are 48 waterfalls! In this case, it means that there are many waterfalls. You can see magnificent natural beauty there;  The leaves are freshly green, the rivers are clear and white water foams as it  rushes over the scenic waterfalls. I really enjoyed three hours hiking here.

You can easily access to this spot. From Osaka, it takes about one hour by train and bus.

Another way to refresh my mind at the time of year (June) is “Hotaru-gari”, hunting for fireflies, which is a signature summer event to admire delicate fireflies’ lights.
Luckily my hometown is rich with nature, so I can see a lot of fireflies near my house.

I have heard that their light is considered to be an unlucky in the West, but in Japan they make us feel nostalgic and heal the heart – A cultural difference!
Fireflies have been effectively used in the Tale of Genji, which is the world’s first full-length novel in the early 11th century. In this era, men cannot meet women face to face, so Genji releases plenty of fireflies into the room to light women’s face through a bamboo blind. Fireflies have had close ties to Japanese culture from ancient times.

Japan in beautiful in every season, but early summer has a lot to offer.

Osaka at Dawn

I am currently lucky enough to be in Japan (Osaka as of right now) on a FAM trip organised by the Japan National Tourism Organisation. A FAM trip is basically a trip for travel professionals, run to showcase certain areas of Japan with the hope that it will help you sell these to eager clients back home.

Having taken off from Seattle on Thursday lunchtime arrived in Japan Friday evening (crossing west over that International Date Line sure does make time fly…) I woke up extremely early on Saturday morning with that bane of many the traveler; jet lag. However, this has turned out to be quite useful as it has enabled me to squeeze in something I was hoping and needing to do a few times whist in Japan-run.  A number of my colleagues in our UK office recently signed for a September Half Marathon in Bristol, in order to raise money for the Japan relief fund. Not wanting me to feel left out, they suggested that I sign up for a similar event on my side of the Pond, and low and behold I put my name down for the Boulder Half- Marathon, set to take place on September 5th.

Having never done anything like this before I am endeavoring to stick to a training plan, which is what lead me to gulp a couple of espressos, lace up my trainers and set out into the moisture laden early morning air of Japan’s second city. It was warm (27 degrees) but with a nice breeze the 8.5 mile plod was a great start to the day and a it was great to get a look at a more quiet side to the city.

Now I need some breakfast…

A visit to the Tanabe Ryokan in Hida-Takayama

Japan has hundreds of beautiful sights, famous landmarks, and unforgettable scenery but I have always argued that it is the little things that truly make this country such a special place to visit; the everyday things that surround you from morning to night. Whether it be the random (and sometimes unidentifiable) objects in the convenience store, the train attendant who bows to you as he leaves the carriage, or the old man in the bar who buys you a drink in an unspoken agreement that you will help him practice his English…  Everywhere I’ve been in Japan there is something that strikes me as ever-so-well-thought-out, wonderfully pleasant, and thoroughly Japanese. But nowhere is this more true than when visiting a Japanese Inn, or ryokan. The fusion of modern comfort and traditional beauty sweep through every detail of every room. Granted, there are beat down ryokans that have hardly changed in the last 50 years and there are frighteningly expensive ryokans that seem luxurious to the point of overkill, but they all have their strong points. And usually, it is the people who run these traditional inns that make the stay so special, certainly nothing could be more true about the Tanabe Ryokan in Takayama.

My room for the night. The floor is tatami, a woven straw mat, and in the alcove hangs a bit of traditional calligraphy and flower arrangement. But for those not interested in the traditional arts, a television sits just outside of the frame of this picture.

 

Rooms in ryokans are traditionally titled rather than numbered. The titles are almost always nature related; plants, trees, names of famous mountains or rivers, et cetera. The Tanabe has been kind enough to provide a transliteration as well as a number to each of their rooms for their visitors who haven't had time to master written Japanese.

 

Almost as famous as the geisha and Mt. Fuji, Japanese toilets are truly a sight to behold. Water sprays in all directions and there are often plenty of other features as well. Like heated seats. You'll notice the slippers that are provided just for when using the toilet!

 

Always the space-saving country. The bedding is kept in the closet during the day and laid out for you as you have dinner at night. This saves floor space and preserves the simple but elegant Japanese aesthetic.

 

In the closet awaits a light cotton Japanese robe, a yukata, which is traditionally worn to the bath and also to dinner. On top of it rest a towel and some toiletries, also for your visit to the bath.

 

The bathing facilities at most ryokans are lovely affairs. A place to relax after a long day of sightseeing. Although bathing etiquette may at first seem a bit daunting. The most important bit is to remember to thoroughly wash before getting in to bath itself. In the same room are showers (the Japanese traditionally show sitting down) and soap, shampoo, and conditioner. Then, after rinsing all the suds off, you can soak your bones in the rejuvenating waters.

 

A hanging curtain, noren, hangs outside each of the bath rooms. Once again, the Tanabe ryokan has taken pity on those who don't read Japanese and provided an English marking as well. Although, a nice general rule is "blue for boys, red for girls". Admittedly, it may take some time to get used to the idea of bathing in the same room as other men (or women) but its a custom that once enjoyed is hard to resist. Of course, if you're really not comfortable, there is a private shower and bath in each of the rooms.

 

Rest assured, I made sure that no one was around before barging in to the ladies' baths. At the Tanabe, as in many ryokans, the proprietors switch the men and women's baths daily so that everyone gets to experience the different baths. This one is made from cedar and gives off a gorgeous scent from the moment you enter the room.

 

Instead of the same old lobby, the Tanabe has a sitting room that looks out on a beautiful miniature Japanese garden. This is also where the free coffee and internet are to be found, and often where I spend my afternoons when I stay here. (with the company of a good book of course)

 

I'm sure that my mobile photos don't do the Tanabe ryokan justice but I hope that they will inspire you to visit for yourself. Lastly, I must plead ever-so-guilty to have not taken any photos of the exquisite dinners, a crime by my own admission; but also one more reason to make the journey and see for yourself.

 

 

 

 

 

Keep fit Japan style

I remember standing on the school playing field two and a half years ago, waiting for Sports Day to begin. It was my second week in the job, and I didn’t really know what was going to happen.

After a brief greeting by the headmaster, it was announced that we would warm up. The students arranged into perfect lines and the teachers filed onto the field and stood in a long line, facing the students. I was ushered into this line too. Someone turned on a CD and aerobic music started playing, with a Japanese commentary that was too fast for me to understand. And suddenly, at exactly the same time, everyone started doing warm up exercises. Quite apart from the uniformity of 600 people’s movements, what surprised me the most was that every single person knew exactly what to do, even though there was nobody to follow.

This was my first experience of Rajio Taiso, or Radio Calisthenics. After speaking to colleagues and friends, I learned that Rajio Taiso, a 15 minute programme of simple exercises, dates back to the 1920s. It is broadcast on national radio every morning at 6:30, and many people gather in parks to do the exercises together. According to the Japan Times, 20% of Japanese people take part in the exercises.

I began to see Rajio Taiso in other places too. On my morning train ride to my visiting school, I used to pass an office with large windows and I noticed that they would always be doing Rajio Taiso together before work.

As well as a universally known way to warm up for sporting events, you might see people doing Radio Taiso in parks, in offices, even at festivals!

So the next time you think about reaching for coffee to give you some energy, do as the Japanese and indulge in some Rajio Taiso instead!

Sludge shoveling in Ishinomaki

I recently completed seven days volunteer work with the Japan-based non-profit organization Peace Boat.  I was part of an international group of 6 volunteers – British, Japanese, Irish and Vietnamese.  Complete strangers at the start, the nature of our work and life in Ishinomaki brought us together.  We barely lost sight of each other all week.

Our team. Should note this was the muddiest I saw any of the volunteers get during the 7 days I was there. (All photos are courtesy of fellow volunteer Phuong Nguyen)

Our day started outside in the courtyard with rajio taiso, a slightly camp but addictive musical warm-up exercise.  We shoveled sludge from 8-5, then washed our tools and work-clothing before re-entering the base.  Most evenings we cooked and ate together.  For the benefit of others, I helped with eating rather than cooking.

Our home for the week was a square of small plastic-covered tatami mats in the corner of Kasuka Fashion, a two storey building which is a base for Peace Boat relief operations in Ishinomaki.  The base is just 1km from the sea, on the edge of a vulnerable flat bed of land that the tsunami swallowed up three months ago.

The homes around Kasuka have been affected in one of three ways: those completely washed away, those damaged but still standing, and those structurally unhurt but with hedoro (sludge washed in by the tsunami) piled up inside.

Cycling to work at the Endo`s home.

Our group specialized in removing this hedoro.  Handling hedoro is a curious experience.  It smells like seawater, can be toxic, and looks like dark chocolate mousse.  Carefully avoiding the temptation to taste some, we shoveled it into sandbags which we took onto the road to await collection.

It was not always straightforward work.  Hedoro is a stubborn elusive foe that lurks in every nook and cranny.  We needed support.  Peace Boat provided us with weapons to evict the unwelcome lodger.  We used a koatsu hosu (high pressure hose), neko (wheelbarrows), baketsu (buckets), chiritori (dustpans), joren (a cross between a shovel and a scythe) and sukopu (shovels).  In awkward areas, where none of these tools were suitable, we used our rubber-gloved hands.

In the house of the Endo family, hedoro had made a home amongst the pipes in a narrow culvert under the bathroom floor.  Wearing a head torch, helmet, facemask, goggles and taped-up rain suit we took turns to wriggle in and clear it out.  Nicknamed the SWAT job, it wasn`t a pleasant task, but it made for good photos and banter afterwards.

Hiro, a Japanese volunteer home for a holiday from Texas, takes on the SWAT job at the Endo family home.

The six of us took us 5 full days to clear beneath the floor of two homes and from the garden of another.  Our role was just one stage in the rehabilitation of these houses – professionals will have to complete the job.  When you consider more than a 100,000 houses were damaged or destroyed by the tsunami, both professionals and volunteers will be needed for a long time.

Three months after the event, many parts of Ishinomaki still resemble a war-zone.  It`s almost as if the tsunami happened just yesterday.  In some areas, apart from the roads, little seems to have improved since March 11th.  In no-go zones, the Self-Defence Force are still searching wreckage for bodies.

This snail-paced recovery is not down to tardiness, but because of the scale of the devastation.  Estimates suggest that the earthquake moved the east coast of Japan 8 feet, while parts of Ishinomaki sank by over one metre.  In a seaside town, this shift has serious consequences.  At high tide, roads now become rivers, and some coastal residential areas may be declared uninhabitable.

Ishinomaki seafront.

Our contribution felt tiny, inches of progress when there are miles to be travelled.  But tiny contributions are all that one person can make. When all these tiny contributions are added together you can see a difference.

The Endo family were gentle and kind to us, even though we were stomping around their home in filthy safety boots.  They have been stuck on the 2nd floor for almost three months, effectively living above a bog.

The father works while the mother looks after their young children, any free moments are spent cleaning their home.  Removing the toxic hedoro in a relatively short space of time, we were able to make a real difference to their quality of life.  It felt like we had helped them take a step back up a ladder they had been pushed off.

To show their gratitude, Mrs Endo regularly handed out sweet snacks.  This was appreciated.  It confirmed we were welcome guests, and more importantly, it took away the nauseating aftertaste of my cheese-filled fish sausage packed lunch.

On my final morning, before I boarded the bus back to Tokyo, a leading volunteer shook my hand and said “Hope to see you again”.  He`s not going home for a while, and neither is Peace Boat.  Manpower is still desperately needed in Ishinomaki, so much so that Peace Boat is now accepting volunteers for two-days.  The job has only just started.

Return to unique Japan

Annie and Andy Pezalla (Minnesota, USA) recently returned from their trip to Japan (May 12-19). The couple actually lived in Japan for a while, but were returning to the culture and country that they had come miss back home in the US. This time, they were to visit Tokyo, Hakone national park and Kyoto and took part in a range of experiences along the way. We are happy to report that they loved it.

Our memories of the trip are so vivid–and positive–and we have you to thank for that. The itinerary was perfect for us, from the cities to visit to the activities to experience within them. Hakone was a wonderful respite from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, and was a nice segue to Kyoto too. I had never been there while I lived in Japan but it is glorious. Taking the various modes of transportation around the city was a particular treat–especially the pirate ship.

The other activities we experienced were great, too. We ended up attending the sumo match in the morning, simply for logistical reasons, since we wanted to be across the city by Saturday afternoon, but even in the relatively empty sumo stadium, the wrestling was still so interesting and entertaining.

The sake tour was another treat. The tour we were given was, shall we say, incredibly thorough. We learned about the most minute details of the traditional inn at which sake had once been crafted, but juuuust when we were beginning to fight the urge to look at our watches, the tour ended and we were treated to an incredible wide array of food, sake and microbrewery beer. Really, both the tour and the sake tasting were great. The folks who ran that inn had spent a lot of time and effort in making us feel welcome, as did any Japanese shop or restaurant owner. It wasn’t uncommon for us to receive a small gift from our hosts, a gesture which seemed to convey a gratitude to us for travelling to Japan, even in the aftermath of the earthquake (whose effects could not have been less apparent).

The other activities were wonderful. Yuriko was such a sweet tour guide for Kyoto, and having her gave us a nice little breather from having to find our way around the city. Last, we had the cooking class, which only reaffirmed our belief in the complexities of Japanese cooking, and impressed upon us the skill required even to scramble an egg properly! All of it was great fun.

Andy and I are accustomed to doing our own thing when we travel, and it was nice to have our trip punctuated with those planned activities and tours. The itinerary books you provided us were such a helpful lifeline too;  Your detailed explanations about public transportation, hot spots around each city, and good restaurants were spot on.

We will wholeheartedly recommend Japan and Inside Japan Tours to our friends and family. Thanks again for making our trip so memorable!

~Annie and Andy

It doesn’t matter how many times you have been to Japan, there will always be something new to experience whether it be a cultural activity, a new place or a random meeting with a local. Each trip to Japan is very different, but it will be uniquely Japanese and full of experiences that you can only experience in Japan…..What a great country!

A big day out at the sumo in Tokyo

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the traditional sport of Sumo of late. There was match fixing involving players and officials which led to the extreme measure of cancelling the Spring bassho (tournament) in Osaka. These have been dark days for the Nihon Sumo Kyokai and the ancient sport synonymous with Japan and its culture. Revelations continued to flow from the Japanese newspapers and it was decided not to run the Tokyo tournament in May, but they would take the step of running a free technical exhibition at the Kokugikan sumo stadium to get the name of sumo back in headlines for the right reasons. Duncan Metcalfe recently travelled to Japan (May 8th-20th 2011) and didn’t need much persuading when it came to seeing the sumo in Tokyo. In his own words, here is what this sumo first timer thought.

When Natasha at IJT mentioned that my stay in Tokyo coincided with a Sumo tournament I jumped at the chance to go. To be honest I knew next to nothing about the sport, except that it involved one very large man trying to push another out of a ring! I was to finish the day there realising that as well as strength and weight strength there is a huge amount of technique and skill involved, and that the sport has as many elements of tradition and ritual as it does action.

My first impression was the striking appearance of the stadium interior. The ring (dohyo) sits beneath a canopy replicating that of a Shinto shrine – in fact Sumo originated as a religious ritual. After trying and failing to find my seat on my own I was shown directly to it by one of the traditionally clad stewards and found I had a great view, right at the front of the upper level of seating.

Before each bout a short ceremony took place with the wrestlers or rikishi, representing East and West divisions respectively, entering the ring, scattering salt about to purify it, balancing on one leg then the other and also generally glowering at each other! Other ceremonies announced the entry of the next group of rikishi, the day beginning with amateur matches in the morning and finishing with the elite makuuchi in the early evening. The wrestlers’ rank is marked by the ceremonial apron they wear to enter the ring.

The bouts themselves were short, often lasting just ten seconds or so, but full of action. A rikishi loses when he steps out of the ring or touches the ground with anything but his feet; the two wrestlers face off, crouch, then clash together with a noise that fills the stadium. The ringside seats must be fantastic but not always the safest places to sit when a rikishi is pushed or thrown from the ring! Some bouts last longer with the wrestlers struggling to gain an advantage, and then with a sudden move, a step, a throw, the match is over. The strength and skill on display were incredible.

The day was a fantastic experience, completely unlike any sporting event I’ve been to before. Looking around the stadium at one point I realised that I was the only westerner there (and in fact noticed a Japanese man a few seats away taking a photo of me, I guess I did stand out in the crowd a little!), and yet was treated with the hospitality that I was to find so typical in the rest of my trip to Japan. Sumo has found itself a new fan!

Duncan Metcalfe

It is great to hear that the July bassho in Nagoya (July 10th-24th) has got the go ahead from the officials and that NHK are resuming live coverage to build the great sport back up to its former glory. A day at the sumo is a fantastic cultural experience and an enjoyable day out whether you are interested in the sport or not.

That special trip

Japan is not your typical Honeymoon (Shinkon Ryoko) destination. Many couples planning their special trip will perhaps ponder a tropical island beach, a pampering spa resort or a wildlife adventure, but Japan has them all with a lot more to boot. The romantic appearance of Japanese culture to us westerners adds to the atmosphere along with exciting cities, beautiful countryside and wonderful people.

Anna and Mark Casas from California recently celebrated their marriage by heading to Japan on Honeymoon (April 20th-29th) and we are pleased to say that they loved it! Anna and Mark stayed for two nights in Tokyo, spent a day in the national park of Hakone close to Mt. Fuji, followed by three nights in Kyoto with Geisha and monkey! From Kyoto they took a train into the Hyogo countryside and relaxed for three nights in quiet hot spring town of Kinosaki Onsen before returning to capital for a final night of culture and fun. Here is what they said,

Our honeymoon to Japan in April 2011 was almost cancelled due to the earthquake, but risks seemed fairly small based on where we were visiting. We didn’t want to miss the opportunity to visit Japan and so decided to go anyway.

We started in Tokyo for 2 days, which is a truly overwhelming but an amazing place! We felt like the only tourists in the city, which made us feel very lucky to see and experience the culture in such an authentic way.  


We then headed to the Hakone region by train, tram and aerial tram, all of which were thrilling. The mountainsides were incredibly scenic and peaceful.  After a full day of traveling, we headed by bullet train onto Kyoto.  What a magical place!  It’s the quintessential small city and the most incredible mix of modern and classical culture, with high-end modern shopping malls just down the road from dozens of temples, shrines and the historic Geisha district.  We had a full-day tour guide who was incredibly knowledgeable and so pleasant to spend the day with!  We spent our next day in Arashiyama, a short subway ride from the city center.  We fed the monkeys and hiked the surrounding trails- it was an unusual and memorable experience!  

Our next journey was to Kinosaki Onsen, a mountain hotspring town for some relaxation.  This was truly a highlight of the trip, as it was such a new experience, and the service we received was unbelievably wonderful!  We stayed in a traditional ryokan, slept on floor mats and had breakfast and dinner served to us in our rooms.


The town could not have been more picturesque and the people were so friendly!  We rented bikes and rode up the coastline to Marine World, an amazing aquarium unlike anything we have in the U.S. We saw boat docks, a graveyard, and got to see what a true Japanese fishing village looked like. The hot springs at the ryokan were indoors, which I wasn’t expecting, but they were nonetheless relaxing and rejuvenating.  After 3 days of bliss, we returned to Tokyo for one night and headed back home.

It was the trip of a lifetime and we’ll never forget the hospitality of the people and the adventures of travelling through a country where we don’t speak the language. It was wonderful!

Anna & Mark

Each Honeymoon in Japan is different and heads to different places, but one message that comes from all our Honeymooners  is that Japan is special. Japan does not fail to disappoint and ensures that the happy couple remain happy returning home having had a very happy Honeymoon. Congratulations to you both!

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