What makes a good Japan souvenir?

The latest member of our Japan team to write something for the blog is Akiko san. One of our newest members in the Japan office, Akiko is a keen traveller. The Japanese people are always keen to buy gifts (Omiyage) for friends and loved ones when they head off somewhere on their holidays. Akiko is currently having a bit of trouble deciding what to take as Omiyage from Japan….

So what would you expect someone to give you as a souvenir from Japan?

When Japanese people say souvenirs, most of us would be imagining some local foods or delicacies but I don’t think that food is given as a souvenir in western cultures as often as it is in Japan.

Japan is an awesome destination for shopping and there are lots of unique products here.  Recently I have been looking for some souvenirs for people outside Japan and did some shopping around.

It is really difficult to find something nice for your friends if you aren’t sure what they want, especially if there are strict restrictions on what you can bring into foreign countries.

I think sweets in Japan (either Japanese traditional ones or western ones like chocolates, expensive patisserie made sweets or even something you can buy at convenience stores) would be great and I would love to introduce them to people in other countries, but this time my destination has quite strict rules about what you can take in with you so snacks and sweets are not a very good idea. I have to look for something light, not too expensive and reasonably Japanese.

I went to Tokyu Hands, Muji, Don Quijote (Donkihote), Village Vanguard and lots of different shops.  Here are some souvenirs I bought so far.

Bug killer - Not my choice!

Beer(real) & Sushi (Fake - Actually a stapler)

Rusk - Tasty but not good for this occasion

Kabuki pens and Japanese tea

There are expectation gaps between what I want to give and what people expect to receive, but I still want them to have a bit of a laugh or a little surprise from the souvenirs.

I have a week to go so if you know anything good, please let us know!

Not forgetting Aizu

“Aizu people are moku moku; we quietly put up with things”, the lady explained.   I listened while chewing.  She`d just served me a stick of deep-fried battered garlic cloves. 

Front image of Aizu-Wakamatsu Tourism Council Leaflet

 The lady was working in a stall on Iimoriyama hill.  It`s a popular sightseeing  spot.  On an autumn afternoon almost 150 years ago,  19 teenage boys committed harakiri there, an event now celebrated in Aizu folklore. 

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A Family Adventure in Japan

Whilst many people are considering where to take their families on holiday this summer, many of them will not have even considered Japan as a family destination. As the Organ family (James, Susana, Daniel and Anna) discovered when they travelled to Japan back in May, Japan is safe, nowhere near as expensive as they had imagined, an education  and above everything else, fun for families! James Organ has been kind enough to put a little blog together about his family trip to Japan, so here is what he had to say;

For our last non school holiday trip we wanted something that was different, interesting, out of the ordinary but also somewhere that a 4 1/2 year old and a 2 year old would enjoy and would be easy to enjoy with. Ideas came and went, but I am so glad we ended up choosing Japan.

Despite how easy InsideJapan made it to organise hotels and travel, I have to admit there was still a slight sense of trepidation as we set off. How would the children cope with such a long plane journey, would they like the food, how would they react to a country so different from home, how would the Japanese react to them, and most of all would they enjoy the places we had chosen to visit and stay in.

The reason I am writing this is that the holiday was fantastic and stays long in my and certainly Daniel’s (my 4 1/2yr old) memory. Most of the time it felt a little like travelling with celebrities and we were the overlooked security team. ‘Ooh isn’t he/she cute’ we heard every day from teenagers, adults, pensioners as they politely stopped us to say hello and admire the children – once or twice an older lady asking if she could take a photo. Children seem to be specially welcome everywhere, viewed as a bonus not an inconvenience. Our two aren’t the quietest, but I don’t remember even a raised eyebrow whether running down a hotel corridor or raising their voices in a bus. When they were behaving well they were worshipped and we were always helped.

The eclectic mix of highlights Daniel mentions, include taking their shoes off at every restaurant and hotel, visiting the castle in Matsumoto, sleeping on the futon mattresses, slurping noodles, bathing their feet in outdoor onsen, the bamboo forest in Arashiyama, eating octopus balls, the cartoon character Anpanman and the pirate ships in Hakone, and the water fountains in the gardens of Kanazawa, amongst many other things. There were so many things to enjoy that were quirky or different or just fun.

You always feel safe and welcome in Japan, which is a great start for anyone with children. Travelling around the country was made easy with the Info Pack and there is so much to see on Honshu, that our longest trip was 2.5 hours. Trains are fast, comfortable and reliable, as you would expect, and buses likewise. Destinations are flashed up in English as well as Japanese so it is hard to get lost – we manage it once though which resulted in a lady making origami toys for the children and inviting us to lunch!

Staying at a Minshuku, was their highlight. The airy tatami mat rooms and family run atmosphere, were ideal hotels to stay at with children. The rooms had a bit more space so we could easily sit and enjoy a drink at the end of the day. Sleeping on mattresses on the floor was a novelty for the children at bedtime and a place to play in the day. These hotels also had the wonderful hot baths for parents to relax in. First time I remember hoping there would be no one there, and there wasn’t, and it was days before someone else turned up while I was bathing. By then I barely noticed.

Traditional Japanese food is often uncomplicated and unfussy, meat skewers, noodles, tempura, making it ideal for children, and the huge range of food makes it easy to cater for all tastes, and at a reasonable cost. The Izakaya’s were a good choice because of their relaxed atmosphere and wide ranging menu, noodle bars are a good budget option and markets often had good snack stalls. Our best evening meals, a couple of times with 9 courses, were those in the Minshuku. Often preparing slightly more western food for the children, a meal at the Minshuku was an excellent way of enjoying a quality Japanese dinner without needing to search for a restaurant and be out late.

The biggest test of the holiday was the plane journey back home. On the way out was easy – we made sure we had bulkhead seats for play space and bags and Daniel was happy with the Disney channel – not so easy on the way back as Ana decided not to sleep for nearly 12 hours. A minor problem, but all in all, Japan is fascinating to visit and a great place to spend time as a family.

There is so much to see that engaged the children and when asked, Daniel says that he would like to go back to Japan. A relief for me, as I will be going back as soon as I can.

James Organ & family (Liverpool, UK)

The Organ’s spent more than two weeks in Japan visiting Tokyo and Kyoto as well as travelling through the Japan Alps stopping off in Matsumoto, Takayama and Kanazawa.  They also stayed in a ryokan in the hot spring region of Hakone close to Mt Fuji. Sounds like we have a whole family of new Japan fans there!

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1962 Fodor’s Guidebook to Japan

Clearing out some books at home I rediscovered an old friend, the 1962 Fodor‘s Guidebook to Japan (and East Asia), that I picked up in a charity shop a few years back. Looking back to see what was being recommended to Japan visitors nearly 50 years ago is fascinating. It is also interesting to see how much of the advice still holds true today, so although many aspects of Japan have changed completely, many essential experiences have remained the same.

The Japan Bible for Sixties travellers

Let’s start at the beginning – how to get there. Fodor’s 1962 quotes return flights from London (“Polar route or Middle East”) at £729, which is remarkably similar to what a ticket would cost you today – oh no, hang on, that’s £729 for First Class – if only! And why fly with a UK carrier when you can enjoy the following with Japan Airlines, according to their ad in the 1962 book: “When you come aboard as our guest, be prepared to be pampered as only a Japanese hostess knows how; sip hot sake or iced champagne, nibble on traditional Japanese tidbits or familiar hors d’oeuvres…”

Come fly with me...

What else? Well, how about some aspects of Tokyo that HAVE changed: “Earthquake laws limit the height of buildings to 100 feet, which is perhaps seven storeys, but they all seem quite as huge as in New York or Chicago.” Or, “From Tokyo there are a dozen limited express trains daily, taking less than six hours to reach Kyoto“.

But as I said, plenty of what was back then, still goes today – “Japanese trains leave on the dot – never a few seconds later than scheduled”, or the advice on geisha – “A great deal has been written in an attempt to explain the geisha (pronounced gay-sha, not gee-sha), but there actually isn’t a great deal to explain. They are, simply and purely, highly trained entertainment girls who usually perform at relatively small gatherings. They dance, sing, serve you, make conversation and join in foolish little party games.” Fifty years later and the world is still confused about geisha – I cannot think of a more accurate description than Fodor’s had back in 1962 – well done them!

Look out for more observations from the 1962 book coming soon. Does anyone out there have an even older Japan guide book…?

An Essential Honshu Photo Blog

Looking through all of the tours on the Inside Japan Tours website, I began to realise how hard it would be for me to choose a tour if I wasn’t leading them. There are so many fantastic places in this tiny country and every single one of them is completely different from the next. Still, I can say that one of my favourites is undoubtedly ‘Essential Honshu’….although the tour is now called, ‘Classic Japan’ staying at beautiful ryokan in Takayama and Kamikochi national park.  The cultural experiences are no less special!

By far the best pictures from this tour were the ones out at bars and restaurants, sitting around the campfire, dressed in yukatas… but, in an effort to protect the anonymity of an amazing group of individuals, I have refrained from posting those. Instead, here are some of my personal highlights from the last two weeks.

 

 

My 14th climb to the top of Mt. Fuji was as magical as all the others. Yes, there was some rain…. well, lots of rain. But it was worth it for the night time views of the surrounding area. Beautiful!

 

It is hard to stop and slow down when there is soooooo much to see. But every once in while it’s worth spending a half an hour in a Japanese cafe.

 

This is said to be one of the three most beautiful sights in Japan. You won’t get any arguments from me! (especially if you happen to be looking around sunset with a beer in your hand… ahhhh)

 

The bullet trains all look amazing from the outside but the Sakura is definitely the best on the inside. Why? you ask. Draft beer on the trolley cart. Yep, pretty nice. Could life get any better?

 

Some people like Kiyomizudera more than others. But I can promise you that the more times you visit the more you appreciate what an amazing monument this is. My 50th visit. オメデトウ!笑

 

Too mysterious for a caption…

This guy was clearly in charge. He couldn’t be bothered with the other monkeys or all of us silly humans trying to take his picture. Although, I will say that I liked him more this afternoon than I did the following morning at 5am when he and his mates were jumping on the roof of my cabin and squealing. Or was that Andy??? We shall never know.

In the heat of summer its tempting to want to get away from it all. What better place than Kamikochi? Views like this during the day, BBQ’s during the night. Ahhhhh.

Walking through the woods in Kamikochi…

Trying to cram two weeks of amazing experiences into a handful of photos is impossible. The above represent only the tiniest fraction of the great experiences that I was able to enjoy with a fantastic group from the UK and Australia. I thank you all for coming to Japan and truly hope that our paths cross again!

Tyler

The Spirit of the game

Two years ago, we blogged about the budding cricket league in Japan with the ‘gentleman’s game’ being promoted by a faithful few. With the success of England in the current test series against the mighty India, there have been a few talking points, but Trent Bridge provided one of the biggest.

The ‘spirit of the game’ has been mentioned on more than one occasion referring to the Mahendra Dhoni’s (India’s captain) decision to allow England’s Ian Bell to bat again after he had been controversially (some might say correctly) ruled run out. With this graceful act of sportsmanship, the spirit of cricket shone through in an exciting test in Nottingham. Meanwhile, committed cricket lovers are spreading the true spirit of the game in the tsunami hit rural region of Tohoku in Japan.

Alex Miyaji heads the not for profit Japan Cricket Association (JCA) promoting cricket across a country better known for its Sumo. After the tsunami devastated areas in the north east of the country rendering thousands of families homeless and children orphans, their lives are still in disarray as the rebuild continues. In response to the crisis, the ‘Cricket for Smiles’ programme was set up to take the spirit of the game to the children of Tohoku with the aim of bringing people together and providing enjoyment through the game of cricket.

The ‘Cricket for Smiles’ programme aims to run until the end of 2012 donating cricket equipment so that children in the region can continue enjoying the game of cricket and help the great game to spread across Japan. After a recent visit to Miyagi, these photos are testament to the true spirit of cricket proving that it can bring people together and help children smile.

Although Cricket is a long way behind sports such as Baseball in the popularity stakes, the JCA have done great work promoting the game and have made a lot of ground since the last blog piece two years ago. There are new cricket grounds in the city of Sanno in Tochigi prefecture which is a boost to the growing domestic league. Not to be outdone by the Women’s national football team, the Women’s national cricket team won the ICC East Asia Pacific Tournament in 2010 as well as winning the Bronze medal in the Asian games losing out to the massive cricketing nations of Pakistan (Gold) and Bangladesh (Silver) – not bad at all. This November the Women’s team travel to Bangladesh to play an ICC World Cup qualifier which will be massive.

All in all it looks as though the JCA have done a lot of good work promoting cricket in Japan and the spirit of the game looks to be in good health with the children of Tohoku.

Colorado Dragons!!

This past weekend (July 30/31st) I was invited to represent InsideJapan Tours at the annual Colorado Dragon Boat Festival. The Dragon Boat Festival is Colorado‘s largest Asian orientated event, and attracts close to 100 000 people. As the name suggests, the main focus are the spectacular boat races that take place just off shore on the idyllic Sloan’s Lake waters. There were also a great number of stalls selling a variety of goods and tasty foods from across Asia. The many visitors were kept further entertained at the various performance stages showing such diverse activities as taiko drumming, kick-boxing, shakuhachi, doll making, and break dancing!

The IJT stand formed part of the ‘Gateway to Asia’ tent. Normally shared by a couple of destinations, this year it was completely taken over by Japan, and I rubbed shoulders with the Japan America Society of Colorado, the Denver Buddhist Temple, the Japanese Association of Colorado and Denver Bonsai. Our tent proved very popular, partly because of our great decorations and displays, and partly because of the free iced green tea and mugicha (barley tea), which proved a godsend as temperatures approached 100 F (38 C)!

I enjoyed talking with all of the people who took time to stop by, and hope to be helping them explore the beauties of Japan soon!

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