Japan Family Travels according to the Ford Family

The Ford family in Japan

Janne Ford and her family recently visited Japan at peak cherry blossom time, taking in the shades of pink in Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Takayama,giving them a good taster of the country.  It is often quite a task for anyone planning a family holiday, to get something that everyone in the family will enjoy, but Japan easily came up with the goods for Mum, Dad, the 18 and 16 year old lads and 11 year old girl.  Enough from me, here’s Janne and the Ford family Japan adventure…

 

As I sit here writing on this showery April day I wish I could be transported back to that first exciting afternoon at Zozo-ji temple, just ten minutes walk from our hotel at Shiba Park. Blue skies and cherry blossom…. everything we could have hoped for on our first day in Tokyo. Everywhere we looked was a visual feast.

The Ford family in Tokyo

With Tokyo tower making a dramatic backdrop to the temple and the smoke wafting through the cherry blossom from the huge incense burner, it was difficult to know where to look first. I spotted someone in a kimono; the boys spied ‘pocari sweat’ in a vending machine. As is the way with our family, camera phones were out and we instantly split in several different directions!

 

We only had a few days to spend in Tokyo. The city is vast and we realized we couldn’t possibly see everything on our list. We decided to investigate Asakusa, home to Tokyo’s most sacred temple. We all loved it. Not only is the temple simply spectacular in terms of its colour, its garden, its pagoda and shrines, but also for the hustle and bustle of the surrounding ancient streets full of traders, tourists and worshippers. It feels authentic and timeless to visit shops that only sell hairpins or paper crafts – or to take a ride in a rickshaw through the back streets eating a green tea ice cream!

We chose a tiny restaurant at random for lunch and were shown to a table for tempura. It seems to be the area for tempura restaurants and it was delicious. We are all still craving it!

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Whilst in Japan, we wanted to experience an authentic stay in a traditional ryokan. For this, the Ichinoyu Gora in Hakone, our next stop, was perfect. With paper screens, roll-out futons and cotton yukata to wear, we were all set for the ryokan experience! We all agreed that the food was amazing. Would we choose rice and miso soup for breakfast at home? No, definitely not! But at Ichinoyu Gora, a tray full of exquisitely presented pickles, algae, fish, rice and steaming bowls of miso made a perfect start to the day. That and the hot spring tub on our balcony! We have to thank the InsideJapan Info-Pack for recommending a bakery just down the track at Miyanoshita though. Our Western cravings for something doughy and a cappuccino had kicked in by mid morning.

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Although Mt Fuji was shrouded in cloud during our visit, we still took the cable cars to the viewing area and visited the Hakone Outdoor Sculpture Park on the way back. This has to be one of the best art museums we have ever been to. The mountains make a dramatic backdrop rain or shine; this is an easy way to spend a day with children of all ages and has the added bonus of a large canteen-style buffet restaurant with western food options for those craving it.

Kyoto was our next stop and again we had opted for an authentic experience in a traditional Japanese house rather than a hotel. We had booked for a guide on our first morning, and the lovely Kimmee took us to the beautiful Nijo Castle. She was very knowledgeable and we learnt more from her about the history of Nijo than we would have by going it alone. After the castle, she took us to a kimono shop in the old part of town (because we asked) and recommended a lovely restaurant for lunch.

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We had long planned to visit Himeji Castle from Kyoto, and we were just so lucky that our visit coincided with the reopening after years of refurbishment. About an hour away by train, the ‘white egret’ castle is stunning, particularly when surrounded by blossom and blue skies. As it was the weekend, hanami (flower-viewing) parties were in full swing, but we braved the crowds and all the wonderful distractions and headed straight for the castle. We weren’t disappointed – it was one of our most memorable days in Japan.

Of all the cities we visited, we felt we could have spent longer in Kyoto (Kyoto Station itself is worth spending a good couple of hours in). Unfortunately, our two days were soon over and it was time to head back to the station and on to Hiroshima and Miyajima Island.

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My 16-year-old would say this was his favourite place. The Peace Memorial museum was ‘eye-opening’ and very poignant. Whilst my husband and teenage boys were totally absorbed in the history, it was too much for our 11-year-old daughter so we whiled away the time in the Peace Park. Whilst you couldn’t have a trip to Hiroshima without acknowledging the absolute devastation of the past, the city has so much else to offer in terms of restaurants and shopping and we had lots of fun here.

Miyajima Island, just a short ferry ride away, was a real highlight of the whole trip (and the main reason we chose to stay in Hiroshima). Again, shrouded in mist, (we never saw the top of the mountain here either) the island is picture-perfect with the torii gate and Itsukushima Shrine being the main draw. The tame deer that eat anything (including our map) wander amongst the tourists, and the craft shops are filled with lovely artisan products that we hadn’t seen on the mainland. Away from the touristy waterfront, the Misen trail takes you to Daishi-on temple, which is as intriguing as it is beautiful. We reluctantly left Miyajima Island at nightfall and headed back to the mainland.

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Takayama was our home for the next two days. It was refreshing to leave behind the urban sprawl for a smaller town. We opted not to visit any temples whilst here as everyone was a bit ‘templed out’, but instead concentrated on the Hida Folk Village, which was great for kids. We were slightly out of season so seemed to have the place to ourselves. However, it had snowed that morning which may have had something to do with the lack of other tourists! We kept warm by making our own souvenirs in the craft centre. Again this was a really enjoyable hour or so, learning from two local women and chatting about the town.

Sadly, our holiday was nearly at an end and it was back to Tokyo for another two nights. This time on the Shinjuku side of the city, which is all bright lights and nightlife. To make the most of our last day, we followed an InsideJapan suggested itinerary from the Info-Pack, which took us back to Asakusa (more souvenir shopping and tempura) and a trip down the river. We finished the evening in Starbucks with our noses and cameras pressed to the window watching the madness of the famous Shibuya crossing. We left Tokyo knowing we couldn’t physically have packed any more in to the two weeks.

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I have only mentioned just a few of the highlights from each place and the InsideJapan Info-Pack proved invaluable for all kinds of tips and ‘must-sees’. There are countless more and we left Japan knowing we must go back. There is too much yet to be discovered!

 

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Travelling with a baby in Japan

Congratulations are in order to our Sales Manager Harry Sargant and his wife Sveta, who welcomed baby Matthew into the family on the 4th of April!

If the idea of travelling in a foreign country is a daunting prospect for many, the idea of travelling in a foreign country with a baby in tow is enough to give anyone the heebie jeebies. But don’t worry – parenthood does NOT mean the end of exciting holidays! We promise!

At InsideJapan we have years of experience organising fantastic holidays for parents and babies in Japan, so we know that travelling with kids doesn’t need to be scary or stressful. Plus, as our clutch of InsideJapan babies steadily grows, we’ve been gathering some excellent first-hand experience ourselves!

In this blog post, we’ve collated some hints, tips and advice from our various InsideJapan mums and dads, gleaned from their experiences travelling with sprogs in Japan. If there’s anything we’ve neglected to cover, please don’t hesitate to let us know in the comments below.

Mark & Rie, both members of the InsideJapan team, in Japan with baby Jun

Mark & Rie, both members of the InsideJapan team, in Japan with baby Jun

Can you breastfeed in public?

It is quite uncommon to see women breastfeeding their children in public in Japan, but there are good nursing rooms available in many places. Here you’ll find curtained booths for privacy, and hot water machines for mixing formula too.

If you are riding the bullet train, there is a multipurpose room that can be used for nursing – but you will need to ask an attendant to unlock it.

When we picked Rie’s brain on the subject, she told us that if you have a baby carrier that you wear on your front, you can often get away with breastfeeding completely unnoticed in any public place. This goes for whether it’s on the train, in a restaurant, while walking down the street or even when running across a pedestrian crossing!

Rie also recommends avoiding taking the subway at busy times of day if you’re travelling with a baby, as it can be very crowded and you can’t assume that you will be given a seat.

Rie and Jun

Rie and Jun

Should I bring nappies (diapers)?

We suggest bringing a supply of nappies for the flight and for the first few days of your trip, but it’s very easy to buy more in Japan so you don’t need to worry about stuffing your case with the buggers.

Matsumoto Kiyoshi
If you need to buy nappies, then keep an eye out for drug stores such as ‘Matsumoto Kiyoshi’ for nappy supplies.

What else should we bring?

Our company Co-Director, Simon, travelled to Japan with their young daughter, Florence, in 2013. Simon recommends that parents bringing young children to Japan pack both a child carrier and a pushchair, as he and his wife Bethan found both extremely useful on their trip. Pushchairs are particularly handy, as they are free to take on board most aircraft and you can wheel them as far as the plane door. They also provide a good opportunity for your beloved sprog to have a little nap during the day, or even to sleep in while you’re out in the evening.

Simon also recommends bringing a stash of baby food from home, since although baby food is available everywhere in Japan, it can sometimes be difficult to coax your child into eating the local version! Games and toys are a great idea for the plane journey, too.

Florence waits for the bullet train in Tokyo!

Florence waits for the bullet train in Tokyo

 

What should we do?

The main piece of advice our InsideJapan parents could offer in this department is not to try to pack too much in – take your time, go slowly, and don’t expect to keep up the pace you would if you weren’t with kids! Of course, it depends on the age of your little one – but what we’ve found is that the thing they enjoy most is having lots of attention from Mum and Dad, so in actual fact it doesn’t matter a huge amount what you do.

Ordinary sightseeing and everyday activities like riding the train or visiting a garden provide excitement enough without the need to worry about packing in specifically “child-friendly” activities – although there are plenty of adventure playgrounds, aquariums, theme parks and activities available for those who do want to fit them in.

Interacting with other people can also be one of the most enjoyable aspects of bringing your sprog to Japan, and you may well find that your baby is treated as something of a minor celebrity during your trip!

Max Mundy, offspring of PR & Marketing Manager Jim Mundy, makes friends in the park

Max Mundy, offspring of PR & Marketing Manager Jim Mundy, makes friends in the park

What about accommodation?

Japan is very well geared-up for family travel, with a great variety of family-orientated accommodation options, from self-catered apartments to family rooms in hotels and traditional inns. Do be aware that you will need to pre-book cots or family rooms before you travel.

Some useful Japanese for travelling with a baby:

・my child / baby is x months / x years old
私の子供は x ヶ月/ x 才です
(Watashi no kodomo wa x kagetsu/ x sai desu?

・child chair / baby chair (e.g. at a restaurant) / do you have a baby chair?
ベビーチェア/ ベビーチェアはありますか?
(Baby chair / baby chair wa arimasuka?)

・push chair / can I take my push chair?
ベビーカー/ベビーカーを持ち込んでもいいですか?
(Baby car/ baby car o mochikondemo iidesuka?)

・Bottle warmer / can you warm this milk?
哺乳瓶ウォーマー/ミルクを温めてもらえますか?
(Honyubin warmer/ Miruku o atatamete moraemasuka?)

・Where can I get baby food?
どこで離乳食が手に入りますか?
(Dokode rinyushoku ga teni hairimasuka?)

・Do you have any antiseptic / a plaster?
消毒液/ばんそうこうはありますか?
(Shoudokueki/bansoukou wa arimasuka?)

Anpanman

Jun and Anpanman

・Do you have child minding service?
託児所はありますか?
(Takujisho wa arimasuka?)

・Do you have child medicine for temperature/pain?
小児用の解熱剤(げねつざい)/鎮痛剤(ちんつうざい)はありますか?
(Shouniyou no genetsuzai/chintsuzai wa arimasuka?)

・Where can I find a doctor? my baby is ill…
小児科はどこですか?子供が病気なんです。
(Shounika wa dokodesuka? kodomo ga byoukinandesu.)

・Can I take a picture of my child here?
子供の写真をここで撮ってもいいですか?
(Kodomono shashin o kokode tottemoiidesuka)

・Do you have a cold compress/ice pack?
アイスパックはありますか?
(Ice pack wa arimasuka?)

Max & mum Vanessa sampling okonomiyaki

Max & mum Vanessa sampling okonomiyaki

・nappy / diaper おむつ (Omutsu)

・baby change facilities おむつ交換用ベッド (Omutsu koukanyou beddo)

・baby meals / child meals 離乳食 / キッズメニュー (Rinyushoku/ kids menu)

・Straw/sippy cup ストローのついた乳幼児用カップ (Straw no tsuita nyujiyou kappu)

・Bib よだれかけ (yodarekake)

・Crayons クレヨン (crayons)

・Child’s menu キッズメニュー (kids menu)

・Whole milk 牛乳 (gyunyu)

・Formula 粉ミルク (kona milk)

・Nursing room 授乳室  (junyu shitsu)

・Wipes おしりふき (oshirifuki)

・Cot / crib ベビーベッド (baby bed)

・Cutlery/spoon for my child 子供用のナイフ・フォーク・スプーン (kodomo you no knife, folk, spoon)

Mark, Rie & Jun

Mark, Rie & Jun

If you need any more information about travelling with young children in Japan, don’t hesitate to get in touch and we’ll do our best to answer your questions.

For more on travelling with kids in Japan, see our previous blog posts: How to travel with a toddler in Japan and Baby loves Tokyo.

Tattoos in Japan: Taboo?

So you want to travel to Japan but – uh-oh – you’ve read in the forums that tattoos are a no-go. Thanks to that ill-advised tribal you got when you were seventeen you’re going to be banned from swimming pools, hot springs and waterparks and kicked out of shops, hotels and restaurants. But you’ve already bought your plane ticket! What are you going to do?!

"I knew this was a bad idea!" (Photo: bigtattooplanet.com)

“Damn! I knew this was a bad idea.” (Photo: bigtattooplanet.com)

Well, don’t panic just yet.

Tattoos are indeed something of a taboo in Japan. The reason is simple: for many years, tattoos = yakuza, and yakuza = criminal.

traditional Japanese tattoo

A traditional Japanes tattoo by Horiyoshi III (photo: pinterest.com)

Some history

To give a bit of background on the matter, Chinese records dating back thousands of years indicate that tattooing might have been a part of Japanese culture since the Jomon Period (12,000-300 BC).

Later in history, however, tattooing seems to have gained a certain level of stigma – probably beginning when the Japanese began tattooing criminals to mark them out as offenders. However it wasn’t until the mid-19th century, when Japan finally ended its long period of isolation, that they were banned altogether.

As Kotaku reports, this is because the Japanese government was worried that the practise of tattooing might be seen as barbaric by the outside world, exposing the Japanese to ridicule at a time when they wanted very much to be taken seriously. Though this ban was lifted after World War II, it was by then too late for the stigma to be reversed.

Tattooed yakuza members (Photo: listverse.com)

Tattooed yakuza members (Photo: listverse.com)

The yakuza, often called the “Japanese mafia”, have their roots in the Edo Period (1603-1868) and traditionally sport full-body tattoos, called irezumi. The associative links between tattoos and crime thus remain very strong in Japan, and even though the popularity of tattoos has increased in recent years due to Western influence (especially amongst the Japanese youth), your ink is likely to draw a few disapproving stares!

Will my tattoos be a problem for me in Japan?

Not necessarily. Opinions are steadily changing, and the majority of Japanese people are now aware that tattoos are much more acceptable abroad than they are at home. You will even see young Japanese people with discreet tattoos out and about in Tokyo, Osaka or indeed any Japanese city. Nonetheless, hundreds of years of stigma are not easily forgotten (as recently as 2012, for example, the mayor of Osaka launched a controversial campaign to force employees of the city to declare their tattoos to their employer) – so to avoid causing offence we recommend covering up your tattoos if you can.

Places where your tattoos may well be an issue are in hot springs (onsen), on beaches, at theme parks, at water parks and in swimming pools. It is still the norm at these establishments to ban tattoos entirely, and where a ban exists you will see prominent signs informing you of it.

Signs forbidding tattoos at Tobu Super Pool

(Photo: spoon-tamago.com)

If you have a very small tattoo, it will most likely go unnoticed in most onsen (I have a tiny tattoo on my back, and have never been asked to leave a hot spring in Japan). Still, if you can cover your ink with a plaster or a bandage, you should probably do so just to be on the safe side.

If you are heavily tattooed, however, or have a tattoo that’s too large to cover – it is pretty likely that you may be asked to leave by staff.

But that’s not fair! I was looking forward to my first onsen experience…

Yes, it does suck. Especially because these bans usually only affect foreigners and those who obviously have no connection with organised crime. (If a real yakuza member walked into an onsen or a swimming pool, would you want to be the one to ask them to leave?).

Nonetheless it is a fact of Japanese culture, and there’s not much you can do about it. If you are heavily tattooed and would like to have an onsen experience (and we do highly recommend it!), we suggest booking a stay at a Japanese inn with private rotenburo baths, or where the communal baths may be booked out for private use. Alternatively, when my (heavily tattooed) brother came to visit me in Japan, he found that visiting the ryokan’s onsen late at night when most visitors had gone to bed was a great solution.

Meanwhile, if you’re feeling very bold, there are also bathhouses throughout Japan that cater specifically to yakuza members – though we certainly won’t be recommending any of those!

Horiyoshi III: a former gang member and one of Japan's greatest living tattoo artists.

Horiyoshi III: a former gang member and one of Japan’s greatest living tattoo artists. (Photo: Wikimedia.org)

STOP PRESS –

Highend Hoshino Resorts, who run a number of beautiful ryokan across Japan, have recognised the problem with Japanese perceptions of tattoos and the fact that many foreigners have them. It was announced the other day that Hoshino Resorts would allow guests to bathe in the hot spring baths, so long as their tattoo could be covered by a 8 x 10 cm white sticker. Is this the start of a changing in attitudes?

15 fantastic onsen hot springs to visit in Japan

If you read my recent post on hot spring bathing etiquette a couple of weeks ago, it might well have got you wondering where in Japan to whip out your new-found skills and cultural know-how.

OnsenIf you were – you’ve come to the right place. The following is a list, compiled by dedicated Japan experts who have denuded and submerged themselves in every prefecture of this fine archipelago, represents our pick of 15 fabulous onsen hot spring baths in Japan. Don’t forget – there are many onsen just as marvellous as these that we have yet to discover, so this list is far from exhaustive! I’ve listed our favourites in no particular order.

N.B. Onsen purists beware – this list includes sento bathhouses as well as official onsen (if you want to know the difference, read my last post). Deal with it.

  • Nyuto Onsen

Located in the Akita Prefecture in Japan’s northern Tohoku Region, Nyuto Onsen is one of Japan’s most famous hot spring areas. The name means “nipple hot spring” (apparently it’s named after the shape of a nearby mountain), and the water here is a milky colour – almost blue in some lights.

Nyuto Onsen

Nyuto Onsen

 

  • Tsuboyu (Yunomine Onsen)

Tsuboyu is the only hot spring bath in Japan to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Given this status, you’d be forgiven for imagining an idyllic, steaming pool surrounded by spectacular views, with water the consistency of milk and honey. In actual fact, what you get is a gloomy stone shack about the size of a commode, which overhangs a river and stinks to high heaven of sulphur. But it’s an experience, you have to give it that!

Tsuboyu

Tsuboyu

 

  • Kurama Onsen

Just 30 minutes by train from the heart of Kyoto, the beautiful little hot spring village of Kurama Onsen is the perfect option for those who don’t have time to trek right into Japan’s deepest countryside in search of a nice soak. For the best experience, head to the onsen after hiking from the neighbouring village, across the mountain pass.

Kurama Onsen

Kurama Onsen

 

  • I Love Yuu Bathhouse

Rustic, traditional onsen are lovely – but the I Love Yuu Bathhouse on Japan’s art-tastic Naoshima Island really is a breath of fresh air. The name is a multilingual play on words, as yuu is the Japanese word for “hot water”, and inside you’ll bathe in kitschy baths decorated with erotic art, pink palm trees, a giant elephant statue and much more. Don’t miss it!

I Love Yuu

I Love Yuu

 

  • Dogo Onsen

This venerable bathhouse in Matsuyama City is the oldest surviving bathhouse in Japan, and is said to have inspired Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece Spirited Away. The current building was opened in 1894, but the spa has a history stretching back over a millennium. Commoners such as ourselves can bathe here in the main baths, there is a special bath set aside for the sole use of the Japanese royal family!

Dogo Onsen

Dogo Onsen

 

  • Funaoka Bathhouse

In a similar vein to Dogo Onsen, the Funaoka is one of Kyoto’s most famous and best-loved bathhouses. Opened in 1923, the dressing rooms are decorated with wood carvings depicting the Japanese invasion of Manchuria (controversial), and the bathhouse boasts a great array of indoor baths, outdoor baths, cypress baths, herbal baths, and even a bath with an electric current running through it! Funaoka is technically a sento, not an onsen.

Funaoka Onsen carvings (photo: Kyo1010.com)

Funaoka Onsen carvings (photo: Kyo1010.com)

 

  • Osaka Spa World

Osaka Spaworld is essentially an onsen theme park, with several different floors offering restaurants, beauty treatments, shops, swimming pools – and, of course, baths. There is an Asian floor and a European floor, each with baths running the gamut from a Grecian bath with columns and fountains, to a milk-and-honey bath in a cave, to a bath with giant fish tanks in the walls, to a Finnish sauna complete with model wolves – and much, much more besides. Spa World is so amazingly epic, in fact, that Claire Brothers of InsideJapan Tours declares it her favourite place in the entire world. High praise indeed from a lady who has visited an owl café.

Islamic bath at Osaka Spa World (photo: Kansaiscene.com)

Islamic bath at Osaka Spa World (photo: Kansaiscene.com)

 

  • Kinosaki Onsen

Located in Hyogo Prefecture in the southwest of Japan, Kinosaki Onsen is a classic hot spring town sandwiched between mountains and sea. Hot springs were discovered here in the eighth century, and today visitors still come here to stay in the beautiful traditional inns and take the waters at the seven lovely bathhouses, connected by lantern-lit wooden bridges.

Kinosaki Onsen in the winter (photo: JNTO)

Kinosaki Onsen in the winter (photo: JNTO)

 

  • Jigokudani Monkey Park

A monkey park? But this is an article about hot spring baths?! Indeed it is, and no discussion of hot springs could possibly be complete without mentioning the onsen-bathing snow monkeys of Jigokudani. They. Are. Adorable. Unfortunately you can’t just jump into the monkey spring, but there are human springs aplenty in the nearby town of Yudanaka Onsen.

Monkeys relaxing at Jigokudani

Monkeys relaxing at Jigokudani

 

  • Hirayu Onsen

A new addition to our list of favourite onsen, Hirayu Onsen is one of five onsen towns in the Okuhida area of the northern Japan Alps. Of the five, Hirayu is the oldest and largest, and is said to have been discovered in the 1560s. We highly recommend heading to the onsen after a long day of skiing on the slopes nearby!

InsideJapan Tours customers enjoying Hirayu Onsen in the snow

InsideJapan Tours customers enjoying Hirayu Onsen in the snow

 

  • Kawayu Onsen

Located on the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route, deep in the countryside of the Kii Peninsula, Kawayu Onsen is a hot spring town not far from Yunomine Onsen (mentioned above). Our favourite hotel in the town, the Fujiya Ryokan, sits on the banks of the Ohto River and is famous for its giant senninburo bath, carved from the riverbank. The senninburo (meaning thousand-person-bath) is only there during the winter months, but in summer you can dig your own hot spring bath instead!

The senninburo in Kawayu Onsen (Photo: Kumano Kodo Tourist Board)

The senninburo in Kawayu Onsen (Photo: Kumano Kodo Tourist Board)

 

  • Takaragawa Onsen

Takaragawa Onsen is located in rural Gunma Prefecture, slap-bang in the middle of nowhere on the banks of a river surrounded by trees. This is a beautiful, peaceful onsen in a stunning location – in fact, you’d have to try pretty hard to do better than this!

 

  • Kusatsu Onsen

Though most foreigners will never have heard of it, Kusatsu is one of Japan’s favourite onsen towns. Also located in Gunma (home to Takaragawa Onsen), the town is built around the Yubatake (hot water field) – the single largest source of hot spring water in Japan, providing 5,000 litres per minute.

Yubatake at the centre of Kusatsu Onsen

Yubatake at the centre of Kusatsu Onsen

 

  • Lake Kussharo

One of our favourite hot spring spots on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido is Lake Kussharo, the largest of the three caldera lakes that make up Akan National Park. Here you can soak in one of the area’s lovely hot spring baths, or even dig your own from the steaming lakeshore.

Lake Kussharo

Lake Kussharo

 

  • Hakone

Our final hot spring favourite is Hakone, a famous hot spring resort in the shadow of Mount Fuji – just a stone’s throw from Tokyo. Here there are no end of excellent ryokan inns with their own lovely hot spring baths, and if you eat a black egg boiled in the bubbling owakudani it’s said that you’ll extend your life by seven years.

View across Lake Ashi, Hakone

View across Lake Ashi, Hakone

Tsukiji Fish Market: How to do it right

Tsukiji Fish Market is one of my tip-top favourite Tokyo experiences, but what with increasingly unstable relations between the vendors (for whom this is their livelihood) and tourists (for whom it is a fascinating attraction), it is important to know how to “do” Tsukiji properly.

Located right in the middle of Tokyo, next-door to Hamarikyu Gardens and near the upmarket Ginza district of town, Tsukiji is the largest seafood market in the world, and makes a fantastic (and free) addition to any Tokyo itinerary.

And since it was announced that Tsukiji will soon be moving from its current location to a site in Toyosu (a 20-minute bus or train ride from its current spot), you really will have to get in there quick – before it changes for good!

Map of Tsukiji Market (source: Japanguide)

Map of Tsukiji Market (source: Japanguide)

What does the future hold?

As of yet, exact details about the new arrangement for Tsukiji Fish Market are elusive – and what information we’ve been able to glean so far has been vague at best.

The Toyosu Tsukiji Market (run by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government) is scheduled to open in November 2016, and will continue to function as a wholesale market for Tokyo’s restaurants. In addition to this, it seems that there will be an area dedicated to the general public (including tourists), where you will be able to see and buy fresh seafood and vegetables, and perhaps even take cooking lessons or attend special events. The tuna auctions will also be taking place here, but it is not yet clear whether the public will be allowed to watch them or not.

What is to become of the current Tsukiji site is even more unclear. Whilst most news sources on the suggest that the reason for the move is to free up prime real estate for profitable development, one of our sources in Tokyo indicated that there has been talk of plans for a new Tsukiji Market (run by the local ward) to be built where the “inner” market currently resides, while the existing shops in the “outer” market will remain as they are.

So, in short, it’s not certain what the future holds for Tsukiji.

The inner market

How do I visit the market now?

Until these mysterious changes come into effect, it is still possible to visit Tsukiji Market – and I would certainly urge you to do so if you get the chance. If you do decide to visit, you have two options: either get up before the crack of dawn to see the tuna auctions for which the market is famous; or mosey on down at about 9am to catch a bit of market action.

When you get there, you’ll find that the market has two sections: inner and outer. The outer market is much smaller, has plenty of great sushi restaurants, and lots of shops selling vegetables, spices, cooking implements and various other things.

The inner market, meanwhile, is the really interesting bit. This is where you’ll find all the wholesale seafood sellers – as well as some of the very best sushi restaurants in Japan, where people queue for literally hours for just a few minutes at the bar.

Produce at Tsukiji Market

Produce at Tsukiji Market

Visiting just the inner market:

9am is still pretty early in the morning when you’re on holiday (if you ask me), so I will not be the one to judge if you just don’t care enough about dead fish to get up for the tuna auctions. Tsukiji is still most definitely worth a visit if you can only make it to the main market – in fact, at InsideJapan we think this is the best bit. You will get to see massive tuna being skilfully carved up, as well as plenty of other weird and wonderful produce – and you can feel secure in the knowledge that your presence is welcomed rather than resented.

Tsukiji Inner Market

Tsukiji Inner Market

At this time in the morning the trains will be running, so getting to the market is much easier than if you decide to see the auctions. All you need to do is catch the subway to Tsukiji Station (on the Hibiya subway line, 8 mins walk from inner market) or Tsukijishijo Station (on the Toei Oedo Line, 3 mins walk from inner market). Follow the crowds and you should end up at the market, where guards on the entrances can usually provide you with a free map.

Once inside, you are free to wander amongst the stalls freely – but look out for speedy buggies zipping past, as they will not get out of your way! The market is still very crowded at this time, so try your best not to get in the way of vendors trying to do their jobs – once again, this is a working market, not a tourist attraction. Remember not to smoke, touch anything, bring large bags or luggage, or wear inappropriate footwear (the ground is very uneven, wet and dirty). Young children are also not allowed.

Restaurant at the outer market

Restaurant in the outer market

Visiting the auctions:

If you really want the full Tsukiji experience and don’t mind getting up at silly o’clock to get it, you can visit the tuna auctions, which take place between 3.30am and 6am every day (except Sunday and some Wednesdays) and are completely free of charge.

We suggest that you think carefully before deciding to visit the tuna auctions. Though they are fascinating, relations between tourists and buyers/sellers at the auction have become quite fractious in recent years, and there is a sense that you presence here is grudgingly tolerated rather than openly welcomed.

Frozen tuna at the tuna auction

Frozen tuna at the tuna auction

If you do decide to visit the auctions, take care to do so in a respectful fashion. Follow the rules to the letter, and absolutely do not head over there after a night on the tiles! Since trains do not run this early in Tokyo, your options are either to stay somewhere within walking distance of the market, or order a taxi from your hotel.

Public access to the auction is limited to two tour groups, each of 60 people, and places are strictly first come, first served. The first group are allowed to watch the auction from 5.25am until 4.45am, while the second group is allowed to watch from 5.50am until 6.10am. To be in with a good chance of getting a place in one of the groups, most people recommend turning up at about 4am. This means that you should be prepared for a long, cold wait before you can actually get into the auction!

After all this effort, you are still not guaranteed entry into the market. It really depends as to how many people are going to turn up that day.

Filleting tuna

Filleting tuna

Make sure you wrap up warm (the waiting room is unheated), and bring something to amuse yourself while you wait. Once inside, you can take photos and films to your heart’s content, but remember not to use flash – or you will be unceremoniously removed from proceedings.

After the auction, we recommend heading to the outer market for a sushi breakfast (the best sushi breakfast you will ever have) and to explore the market stalls here before returning to the inner market to see the wholesale vendors in action. Tourists are not allowed into the inner market until 9am, when the morning’s hustle and bustle is beginning to wind down. Though you can technically enter before this if you intend on buying something, and you will read some sources suggesting that you use this as an excuse to get in, we highly recommend that you don’t do this, as you will be getting in the way and obstruct the normal operation of business.

Auctioneers in action

Auctioneers in action

The following video should give you a good insight into the tuna auctions at Tsukiji. If you’re interested in seeing more background on the Tokyo restaurant scene, I also highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which gives a fascinating insight into the life and craft of one of the city’s best sushi chefs.

If you would like any more advice or information about visiting Tsukiji Fish Market, please don’t hesitate to contact us in the comments below, via Facebook, Twitter or through our website.

Inside our Hidden Japan

These photos, taken by tour leader William last November, capture just a few moments from our  ‘Hidden Japan’ tour which begins and ends in glorious Kyoto before discovering lesser known Japanese treasures and experiences from Honshu and rural Shikoku…
The ancient temple community of Koya

The ancient temple community of Koya

As you probably know (because we witter on about it quite a lot), every member of our team at InsideJapan Tours has lived in Japan. We are a family of dedicated Japan buffs whose local knowledge extends far beyond the bounds of Tokyo and Kyoto – into the far-flung and little known regions from chilly Hokkaido all the way down to subtropical Okinawa.

Okonomiyaki savoury pancakes in Hiroshima

Okonomiyaki savoury pancakes in Hiroshima

Given that we’re all such Japan nuts, it’s no surprise that unusual, in-depth, off-the-beaten-track trips are our forté – and our customers come to us for an experience of Japan that will take them away from the tourist traps and deep into “real Japan”.

William prepares to tuck into a beautiful kaiseki meal

William prepares to tuck into a beautiful kaiseki meal

Beautiful and mysterious geisha in Kyoto

Beautiful: Wannabe Geisha, Kyoto

Hidden Japan is one of our best Small Group Tours if you want to really discover a side of this fascinating country that rarely features in the guide books. Yes, it covers the must-see ancient city of Kyoto and famous Hiroshima – but it also ventures to the atmospheric temple community of Koya, deep in the mountains of the Kii Peninsula and to the amazing “Art Island” of Naoshima on the Seto Inland Sea, and various great locations on the little-visited island of Shikoku.

Yayoi Kusama's yellow pumpkin on Naoshima Island

Yayoi Kusama’s yellow pumpkin on Naoshima Island

You’ll spend the night at a real temple lodging, attending morning prayers and sampling traditional, Buddhist shojin ryori cuisine; you’ll cross vertiginous vine bridges built by samurai across the lush Iya Valley; you’ll have the opportunity to bathe at Japan’s oldest hot spring bathhouse, favoured by the Imperial Family; and you’ll ascend by cable car to the top of Mount Bizan for spectacular views across Shikoku.

Sunset over the Seto Inland Sea

Sunset over the Seto Inland Sea

A happy traveller in the beautiful Iya Valley

A happy traveller in the beautiful Iya Valley

You’ll also visit one of Japan’s most famous landscape gardens, Ritsurin; climb the steps to the top of one of Shikoku’s most venerated shrines, Konpira-san; explore beautiful Miyajima with its iconic “floating” gate, one of Japan’s most famous images; see a traditional ‘Bunraku’ puppet show in the town of Tokushima; and experience true Japanese hospitality at a traditional ryokan inn.

Dogo Onsen, the bathhouse of Japan's royal family

Outside Dogo Onsen, the bathhouse of Japan’s royal family

Hidden Japan brings an adventurous spirit and a desire to really get beneath the surface of this amazing country. Our tour leaders are Japanophiles who speak fluent English and Japanese, have an extensive knowledge of the country’s culture and customs, and have made their home here in Japan.

Crossing an Iya Valley vine bridge

Crossing an Iya Valley vine bridge

Just a few of our previous customers!

Just a few of our previous customers!

‘Hidden Japan’ is an insight into parts of Japan and its culture that most visitors do not to get experience.  And as one of the tour customers said, ” Overall, I LOVED my experience…I loved the culture, gardens and temples we saw. Just amazing” – there you have it.

There’s a last-minute place on our spring Hidden Japan, departing on 26th of March – but we also have departures in the summer months into the mild autumn – both with their benefits. Drop us a line to help you get ‘lost’ in Japanese culture too!

Girl’s Day in Japan – A little bit about Hina Matsuri

Princess In Japan, every year on the 3rd of March comes a traditional celebration known properly as momo-no-sekku (桃の節句) but more casually referred to as Hina Matsuri (雛祭り) or, in English, as Girl’s Day. Which is rather appropriate since the holiday is focused on a family’s hope that their daughter or granddaughter will grow up healthily, happily and successfully. An intrinsic part of Girl’s DaAkiba Hina Dolls (1 of 1)y are Hina Ningyō (雛人形), the dolls that grace a family’s home from mid-February to March 4th. And not a day longer because leaving the dolls out past March 4th is said to delay the girl’s chance at marriage. Though as a new father who can’t bear the thought of giving his daughter away, I plan to leave ours out until at least April! Although the superstition of days past has largely faded away, the tradition comes from an old belief that dolls could contain bad spirits and unfortunate luck. The dolls of ancient Japan (around 1000 years ago) were made of straw and paper and floated on streams to take this bad fortune far away. For any Ghibli fans, this is also said to be the origin of the paper dolls that make a brief appearance in Spirited Away. For those lucky enough to travel in Japan during February – when nearly every day is sunny, the skies are clear, and the tourists sites less crowded than any other time of year – large sets of Hina Dolls can be found throughout the country in restaurants, shops, homes and even in train stations. The photo on the left was taken at a busy electronics store in central Tokyo, probably the last place one would expect to see such a traditional and elegant display. As might be expected, each of the different dolls has a particular position and rEmperor (1 of 1)epresents something and someone. The two on top represent the Emperor and Empress, on the second tier are three court ladies, the third has five male musicians with their various instruments, the fourth platform has two ministers on it but is also commonly decorated with small tables and stands of rice cakes, on the fifth – and generally final – platform are three protectors of the Emperor and Empress (one sad, one angry and one in good spirits). For the truly elaborate Hina Doll stands there can be seven layers and the bottom two layers in this case are used for miniature furniture or old world travel goods like a small palanquin. Not surprisingly, the above setup is a bit too elaborate for the average home, not to mention too expensive. As you may be able to tell from the detail shot at the right, these dolls are not your average play things. Craftsmen and women spend months making each and every piece of the dolls by hand. The 12 layer silk kimonos that adorn the Emperor and Empress are reminiscent of those worn by royalty during weddings in the Heian Period (794 – 1185) and still worn by the Imperial family for formal weddings today. The last time being in 1993 when Princess Masako wedded the CrownHina Bears Prince. The Heian Period is also the period from which Girl’s Day has its origins. There are often pieces of lacquer and working lights and trees and flowers made of fabric and silk. The fans and swords are crafted singularly and the dolls expressions are unique to each artisan’s tastes and preferences. Quite simply, these so-called “dolls” are rightly considered works of art. Accordingly, the full sets can cost over 10,000 US dollars! Even sets of only the Emperor and Empress – by far and away the more popular choice for modern Japanese families – often costs thousands of dollars (USD). For this reason many doll makers and companies are getting creative and finding affordable compromises that allow the average person to celebrate the birth of a new daughter without having to take out a loan. Disney characters, anime heroTemarizushi Dinneres, wood carved dolls and even teddy bears (like those pictured here) have become fun and easy alternatives. On the actual holiday, March 3rd, the family celebrates with traditional food and a small at-home party. Although there are regional differences, one common dish that is served on Hina Matsuri is chirashizushi, a delicious sushi recipe where a bed of vinegared rice is topped with fresh fish and other ingredients. Also popular is a fermented rice drink called shirozake and diamond shaped tricolored rice cakes called hishimochi. Green for long-lasting good health, red for good fortune and white for purity.

Although I’ve lived in Japan for many years, I’m looking forward to celebrating my first Hina Matsuri with my daughter this March. We chose to make temarizushi (round sushi balls – see picture to the right) as it is both somewhat traditional and also very cute – perfect for Girl’s Day!Home set (1 of 1)

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