Iwate: A green and pleasant land.

Wedged up in the corner of North East Japan, Iwate prefecture is economically one of the poorest parts of the country.  But in terms of natural wealth, it`s one of the richest.  This week I visited its two stunning National Parks: the elevated volcanic marshlands at Hachimantai and the white beaches and towering cliffs on the tsunami-hit Sanriku coastline.

A 90 minute bus ride from Morioka, Iwate`s capital, took me to the entrance to Mount Chausu.  Then for 4 hours I followed a well-marked trail – in a biblical downpour.  I knew that craters filled with black, acidic waters were scattered around the Hachimantai peak – unfortunately I could barely see any of them.  The path soon turned into a river.  Choosing the rainy season to visit wetlands was perhaps not my best idea; but at least escpaing Tokyo`s humidity I could liberate my lungs.

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My second day in the north was like a fine English summer`s day, blue skies and warm.  This time I took a 2 hour bus ride from Morioka through densely forested valleys to the port of Miyako on the Sanriku coast.

Armed with a bag full of maps – all supplied by the grinning girls at Morioka Tourist Information – I was ready to explore.  I made my way by local bus to the modern Jodogahama Visitors Centre.  Clusters of excited tourists wandered about inside.  The displays, well-annotated in English, told the story of the Sanriku coastline:  “one of the most vulnerable areas to tsunamis in the world.”  The displays were written before the tragedy last March.

Out of habit, I found myself latching onto a tour group.  The energetic tour leader led us all onto the kanransen pleasure boat.  I quickly had to get off though – I needed to buy a ticket.

The boat survived the tsunami; it was out at sea when the main waves hit.  But sea conditions were so unstable, the boat could not return to shore for a day and a half.  The crew ended up eating all the bread normally reserved for feeding the umineko (seagulls).

On the cruise, the air hostess-dressed guide told us about a nearby hamlet called Aneyoshi, where the tsunami reached a record height of 40 metres – yet thanks to heeding the warnings of past disasters, none of the buildings were damaged.

Businesses continue to struggle in Iwate; thousands of people remain stuck in cramped temporary accommodation.  But the natural beauty still sparkles, and visitors are warmly welcomed.  I know I`ll be going back.

Runaway Bride

We love Japan. We really do. Some people really really love it though. Sarah and Robbie love Japan so much, that they went and got married there! You may remember last year Sarah did a blog post for us about why she wanted to get married in Japan It wasn’t just words. Sarah and Robbie have recently returned from Japan from what can only be described as an amazing wedding day. People often try and do something a bit different at their wedding, but this is completely different. What is even better, is that Sarah wanted to share her experience with us.  Sarah and her husband look fantastic in their traditional wedding clothes and I am sure that they will never forget this special trip. Anyway, in her own words and pictures, here is how it all went..

My husband and I returned to Kyoto to do what most people find very intriguing. We went to Kyoto for our honeymoon…not that different you might think… We were newly weds yes, but decided to make our marriage extra special by indulging in another one!

We have been together nearly 10 years, not quite childhood but ‘teenage’ sweethearts. Our wedding day in England was very emotional and extremely special as it had been a long time coming!

When planning our honeymoon… (well I say planning. It was going to be Japan all along) I came upon Inside Japan’s wedding package. It was perfect! A wedding in Japan, a country which I have adored since I was a little girl and a place which embraced us so warmly on our first visit 2 years ago.

The wedding package included a three night stay at the Granvia hotel, three nights in a junior suite (overlooking Kyoto Tower by the way) and our breakfast/evening meals.

Our first day at the Granvia hotel involved choosing our wedding attire. I chose a beautiful ivory shiromuku ordained with cranes (the ones you see leaping in the air during the breeding season on the snowy plains of Hokkaido) and I opted for the traditional ‘wataboshi’, a white standing veil/hood which is held up by what can only be described as hair scaffolding. The purpose of the wataboshi is said to hide the horns of jealousy of the bride. Rob wore traditional Japanese groom ‘hakama’ which looks like long pleated skirt and a ‘haori’ a type of coat/jacket.

On the morning of the ceremony we were dressed by the Granvia staff (and you could tell they had done it all before!) The shiromuku I was wearing involved an under dress, several layers and lots of padding! It was very heavy (I had been warned by a Japanese friend of mine so I was prepared!). Before the wataboshi was put in place the hairdresser placed ‘kanzashi’ in my hair, beautiful dangly hair ornaments you often see framing the faces of maiko.

We were driven to the Kamigamo shrine, one of the oldest shrines in Kyoto. After a brief walk-through of the ceremony with one of the priests, we were lead to the shrine where the ceremony was to be held. Several people visiting shouted ‘omedetou gozaimasu’ or congratulations. This made the day extra special as we were being embraced by the Japanese people by having a traditional ceremony in their country.

Before we entered the shrine we did a purification ritual. Water was poured over our hands by the priest while he recited a purification prayer. A purification ritual was then performed by another priest at the shrine. We were then offered ‘Omiki’ or sacred sake. After sipping three times from three cups we exchanged rings (the same ones we exchanged all the way back in England) and offered a Tamagushi or a sacred branch to the alter. During the ceremony beautiful gagaku music was performed by priests (if you haven’t heard gagaku music please google it and watch the hairs on your arms stand up…simply beautiful).

After the ceremony which lasted around 30 minutes we were driven back to the Granvia hotel where we were lead to a large open area in the hotel grounds. A tradition of some Japanese weddings is to ring a large bell…so we did! The staff surrounded us and clapped. I did everything I could not to cry with happiness. That evening, we indulged in a 10 course wedding breakfast which included: sashimi, tempura, miso soup and beautiful tender beef, all brought to us on ornately decorated plates. Oishii!
I would recommend having a wedding ceremony in Japan if, like me, you are fascinated by different cultures or want a special way to exchange vows with the person you love… or you have an insane obsession with Japan in general (like me). The package was worth every penny. From the moment we stepped in to the hotel lobby we were treated like William and Kate and the attention to detail was just out of this world. I am proud to say I got married twice!

To all the staff at Inside Japan and the Granvia Hotel, Kyoto. Thank you so much for allowing Rob and I to share such a beautiful and perfect experience with each other. None of it would have been possible without your knowledge, passion and love for Japan. I look forward to the day we can show our children how beautiful and special Japan is and why I fell in love with a country so far away from a tiny village in Yorkshire.

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I haven’t actually met Rob or Sarah in person, but since their original trip a few years ago, their blog post last year and their wedding, it  has been an absolute pleasure dealing with them. It is great to know that other people love the country and culture that you love too….if not a little more! We were all very excited to see the photos from the wedding and I am sure you will agree that they both look amazing. We wish them all the best for the future . I am sure that this is not the last time that they will be visitng Japan.

Omedetou Gozaimasu!!!

My favourite place in Japan – Jocelyn

Jocelyn came to InsideJapan Tours almost four years ago, spreading news of her beloved Shizuoka in which she lived for two years. Joss is always keen to fit the prefecture known for its green tea and Mt. Fuji into her itineraries and insists that Shizuoka is more than a place people pass through on the Bullet Train. Jocelyn travelled extensively during her time in Japan and even managed to get herself to the sub-tropical Okinawan islands on a school trip – nice work if you can get it! We thought we would ask Jocelyn about her tips for travelling in Japan expecting the obvious, but she surprised us all and came out with a gem.

“Where is your favourite place in Japan?”

When asked to name my favourite place in Japan, my first reaction is undoubtedly Shizuoka – with dense green tea fields, sandy beaches and spectacular views of Mount Fuji. However, I understand that for most people, they will simply speed through the area at 300km/h, with sprawling cities to the right, an admittedly uninviting coast on the left, with a number of long dark tunnels on the way.

So for this occasion, I will choose my current favourite place, which inevitably changes each time I go back to Japan and presently is Ikuchijima, a small island scattered along the Shimanamikaido route in the Inland Sea. A destination once only accessible by boat, the recently built bridge has connected the islands, making it accessible to cars and bikes, and also makes it the perfect place to stop along the Inland Sea.

The island itself is small and hilly, decorated with ripening bushes of mikan (tangerine) in autumn and blossoming sakura (cherry blossom) in the spring. To the north of the island you will find the imposing Kosanji Temple, a large and rather obnoxiously kitsch structure built by a rich businessman and dedicated to his mother. The resulting temple and grounds however are brilliantly stunning, with rich colours and complex composition – well worth a couple of hours stroll.

Next door you will find the small but appealing Hirayama Art Museum, and a short bike ride away to the west is Sunset Beach, where you can grab a beer and as the name suggests, enjoy the sun sinking into the Seto Inland Sea – the perfect way to end the day.

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With the Travel Foundation’s ‘Making Holidays Greener’ month running in July, a cycling trip across the Shimanamikaido is a great experience to have in Japan. Thanks for sharing this little gem with us Jocelyn. I shall put in on this list…..really need to do something about that list.

Random cultural experiences – The Barbers

You find yourself in the middle of Tokyo with a free hour on your hands. You scratch your chin and ponder the question – where can I experience an immediate authentic cultural experience that is guaranteed to not be on any travel itinerary? Why not a local barber shop? After all – all that is required of you is that you sit back, relax and try not to snore.

In Japan, a visit to a barber’s can range from 1000 yen for a 10-minute special at one of the railway station quick-cut salons, where a swift chop is followed by a vacuum cleaner hose run over the head to suck up any loose hairs – job done; to 4000 yen at a shop run by a chain-smoking sole proprietor. As much as I would love to support the small fish (but not his smoking habit), I can hardly justify paying so much for a quick buzz over my 30-something balding scalp. I therefore normally go for the mid range deal – 1500-2000yen for a cut and then the all-important shave at a chain-barber shop.

Being follicly challenged, one might think that I rarely need to visit my local barbershop, however, keeping my beard in trim is something I sometimes leave to the professionals. And for a couple of thousand yen, I get to switch off completely and enjoy the pleasure of a little manly pampering, or whatever you want to call it!

Like anywhere in the world, the barbershop in Japan is a fascinating glimpse into local culture. On entering, I sit in strict order on the seating provided, shimmying along as the next person is called to the chopping chair – an example of the highly ritualistic queuing that the Japanese follow.

Of course the clientele are always varied – I may well find myself squeezed between a manga comic reading student and a businessman on his lunch hour, or the elderly gent who treats the experience more as a social occasion so has no qualms in ushering me to be seen to before him. He has already been there for an hour and will no doubt still be ushering away when I leave the shop an hour later!

Just as in the Japanese office environment, there is no small talk between coworkers about last night’s baseball match or the crazy Karaoke session whilst on the job – full focus is on the scalps lined up in front of the mirrors. My assigned cutter may ask where I am from but then will leave me in peace and doesn’t feel obliged to engage in inane conversation. Time to doze…

The whole cut/shave process is a prime example of what the Japanese are renowned for – teamwork. Someone will lead me to a chair and drape the protective anti-itchy hair gown over me, then hand the baton to a colleague who will take my “hair order” and religiously run the clippers over my head to produce a perfect 2-mm cut.

Then the shampoo application specialist jumps in and zealously rubs away, always careful to ask if the (luke warm) water is not scaldingly hot. A token towel run over my feeble pelt dries it in a single wipe and he hands over the reins to his superior, relaying my beard requirements.

Creams and hot towels are applied and left in place to soften the bristles, while eyebrows are trimmed and upper facial bum fluff (on forehead and ears!) is removed. Then comes the ritual of extreme concentration by the hygiene-masked barber as he sculpts my beard – I occasionally open my eyes to note him working away with the focused gaze of a surgeon. Then a post-shave cold towel and more lotion is applied before the final check for any errant hair. They always save the best for last though…

…now it is time to plug in the giant massager – pneumatic drill-like in appearance yet thankfully a little kinder on the back, although no less frenetic in its movement. This last shuddering massage feels great but is enough to awaken me from my dozy state. A token straw brush across the shoulders and we are finished. I pay, every worker in the shop shouts out thanks to me from across the room and I leave a happy customer.

As always, on later close inspection at home, my beard is perhaps never quite as I asked for it to be, but the visit to the barbershop always remains one of my favourite “local” experiences!


Make Holidays Greener – Part 1

July is ‘Make Holidays Greener‘ month, a campaign across the UK travel industry organised by the Bristol based charity, the Travel Foundation.

At InsideJapan Tours we like to think our holidays are pretty sustainable all year round. Here are some reasons why:

1. Our Small Group Tours have a minimum group size of 14. Better group dynamics, no ‘tour bus bubble’, instead you get close to the places and people you are visiting.

2. We encourage clients to visit rural areas, where tourist money helps to revitalise depopulated communities.

3. Think local: A stay in a family-run inn is a highlight of any Japan trip!

4. And don’t just think local; regional, seasonal Japanese food is amazing.

5. All of our trips make use Japan’s fantastic public transport.

6. We only include car hire for very off-the-beaten track locations, and then it’s a Toyota Prius.

7. All the hotels and ryokan we use complete our health & safety survey every other year. The survey includes Sustainable Tourism questions to encourage hotels and ryokans to conserve energy and resources, and reduce waste.

8. We encourage interaction with local people. On Self-Guided trips we recommend spending a day or two with a local private guide to give you the real lowdown on Japanese culture & history.

9. Japan’s traditional culture is unique and deserves to be preserved for future generations. We can include sumo tickets, ikebana lessons, tea ceremony and much more in any Japan holiday.

10. Japan has fantastic wildlife and we support the sanctuaries and charities that protect it like the Shinshu Asiatic Black Bear Conservation Group. We avoid bear parks or zoos in Japan where we feel wild animals are kept in cruel conditions.

11. Why not visit an eco-lodge or try your hand at local farming techniques on a rural farm stay?

Please click here to read more about our Sustainable Tourism policy at InsideJapan Tours.


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