The Joy of Sake

Richard Pearce is one of InsideJapan Tour’s knowledgeable tour leaders. When Richard is not taking people around Japan, he hides away in the mountains of deepest darkest rural Japan with his fingers in many cultural pies….

Living in rural Japan has many, many benefits, as I’ve touched on in previous posts. Clean air, cheaper housing, low-level celebrity status etc etc. However, parties, events and socializing opportunities in general are of course somewhat limited. I’ve found the best way to deal with this issue is to simply make the events yourself!

Want to go to a craft beer festival? Create a beer festival! Want to play football? Start a team!

The Daisenji beer festival is now in its third year and attracted 3500-4000 people in June. The football team, “Tottori Tigers”, were crowned West Japan Champions (all teams a mix of Japanese and non-Japanese) in 2013. In this spirit, whilst talking about the famous and huge Saijo Sake Festival near Hiroshima, the “Kurayoshi Sake Festival” was born.

The perceived benefits were four fold: to support local brewers, to network, to learn more about sake and, well, an excuse for a party! A great two days were had and 37 different types of sake consumed and, in the most part, enjoyed!

Sake Festival Japan

Generally speaking, premium sake can be put into two categories with three grades of quality. The two categories are those with no added alcohol (alcohol occurs naturally in the brewing process) and those with some added alcohol (known as “brewers alcohol”). Premium sake makes up about 20 percent of all sake made. The other 80 percent, “normal” sake if you like, is known in Japanese as “Futsuu” and is cheaper than the premium ones. Lots of distilled alcohol is added to futsuu to increase yields. Although cheaper and generally speaking of a lower quality, there are many delicious futsuu sakes on the market. The types and grades of premium sake are listed below.

What's your poison?

No Added Alcohol Type

Junmai Daiginjo-shu

Brewed with very highly polished rice (at least 50%) with labour intensive and precise methods. Considered to be “the pinnacle of the brewers’ art”. Generally light, complex and fragrant.

Junmai Ginjo-shu

Brewed using more traditional, labour intensive methods rather than machinery with highly polished rice (at least 60%). The fermentation period is relatively long and done at colder temperatures. Light and fruity.

Junmai-shu

Made using rice that is polished to at least 70%. Made with only rice, water and koji mold (Koji mold is a very special part of the sake brewing process, converting sake rice into sugar that can be fermented). Often crisp and full taste.

Sake wonderland
Some Added Alcohol Type

Daiginjo-shu

Brewed with very highly polished rice (at least 50%) with labour intensive and precise methods. Considered to be “the pinnacle of the brewers’ art”. Generally light, complex and quite fragrant.

Ginjo-shu

Brewed using more traditional, labour intensive methods rather than machinery with highly polished rice (at least 60%). The fermentation period is relatively long and done at colder temperatures. Light,
aromatic, fruity and refined.

Honjozo-shu

Made with rice, water, koji and a very small amount of pure distilled
alcohol, which helps to extract flavour and aroma. Light, mildly fragrant and easy to drink.

There are all sorts of sake or ‘Nihon shu’ and something for all palates. When in Japan, give it a go. Kanpai!!!

Sake Festival Japan

 

Kawaii History

Kawaii” is one word that every visitor to Japan is sure to pick up on. Loosely translated it means something like “cute,” but in reality kawaii is more than just cuteness.

Kawaii has gone from being an obscure subculture to a permanent part of Japanese mainstream culture, and it’s impossible to go anywhere in Japan without practically drowning in its sickly-sweet, big-eyed, button-nosed charm.

It’s there in the countless cuddly mascots devised to endorse literally everything (and I do mean literally in the most literal of senses: towns, prefectures, schools, zoos, businesses, products, the police force – even prisons).

The police force mascots of Japan: one for every prefecture

The police force mascots of Japan: one for every prefecture

It’s there in the ubiquitous Hello Kitty, Doraemon and Rilakkuma characters.

Hello Kitty, Doraemon & Rilakkuma lunchbags

Hello Kitty, Doraemon & Rilakkuma lunchbags

It’s there in the Maid Cafes and in the outlandish, colourful fashions of Harajuku.

Maids from the popular @home maid cafe - tagline: "Welcome home, master!"

Maids from the popular @home maid cafe – tagline: “Welcome home, master!”

It’s there in the weird falsetto voices and mannerisms of female shop assistants, and in almost every product on every shelf in every store. Kawaii is everywhere.

Shelves at Sunshine City in Tokyo

Shelves at Sunshine City in Tokyo

But why this obsession with kawaii? Where did it come from, and how did it become so outrageously prevalent?

Some researchers indicate early Disney films as precursors to kawaii culture. The author of Cool Japan, Tomoyuki Sugiyama, suggests that cute fashions can be traced back to the netsuke miniature sculptures of the 17th century. Meanwhile, Time Out Tokyo dates the beginning of kawaii culture back to 1914, when Yumeiji Takehisa opened a shop that sold innovative goods decorated with twee illustrations aimed at schoolgirls.

Nestuke animals - the precursors to phone charms?

Nestuke animals – the precursors to phone charms?

Disney's Bambi, made in 1942

Disney’s Bambi, made in 1942

Most people nowadays credit the artist and illustrator Rune Naito as one of the originators of kawaii culture, whose drawings in the 1950s – 1970s featured figures with large heads and baby-like features that moved away from the traditional Japanese standards of beauty.

Rune Naito figures from the 1970s

Rune Naito figures from the 1970s

There’s no doubt that shojo manga, or Japanese comic books aimed at girls, also fuelled the trend with their large-eyed, round-faced and decidedly kawaii heroines – for an example you need look no further than the immensely popular Candy Candy comic books by Yumiko Igarashi or the internationally famous Sailor Moon.

Typical illustration by Yumiko Igarashi

Typical illustration by Yumiko Igarashi

Global anime superstar: Sailor Moon

Global anime superstar: Sailor Moon

The runaway success of Sanrio’s Hello Kitty franchise in 1974 showed Japanese businesses that kawaii could mean big bucks, prompting all kinds of companies to jump on the cutesy bandwagon. 100 yen shops filled up with cheap “fancy goods” along these lines, and they’ve remained filled to this day.

Moreover, kawaii has begun a global takeover. American pop musicians are inspired by the kawaii fashions of Harajuku, Pokemon (which has been sweeping the playgrounds since I was I child) has proved an enduring phenomenon, and Hello Kitty enjoys international celebrity.

Who doesn't love Pikachu?

Who doesn’t love Pikachu?

So that’s roughly the when and the how of it. But as to why? That’s more difficult to answer…

Alternative Tokyo – An afternoon in Shimokitazawa

“What’s your favourite area of Tokyo? – Shibuya, Shinjuku, Harajuku?”
These are places you have probably heard of.
When I am showing around friends and tourists Tokyo’s nightlife, one of my favorite places to show them has long been the area around Shimokitazawa station, a young and trendy neighborhood so full of cheap bars and restaurants that finding the best places takes either a lot of experience or a lot of luck! But while Shimokita shines its brightest after the sun goes down, a visit during the daytime reveals a completely different – but equally inviting – side. The pedestrian friendly streets are lined with used clothing shops, old record stores, video game halls, restaurants, cafes, theaters, galleries, markets and more beauty parlors and barber shops than you can shake a stick at. Best of all, unlike the hard work that goes into hunting down a good bar or restaurant at night, Shimokita during the day is great for anybody willing to stroll and unafraid of getting lost. All you need to do is take the train from either Shibuya or Shinjuku station to Shimokitazawa and start walking.

 

 

Upon exiting the station you’ll notice that there is no main boulevard, instead a web of tiny avenues spreads out in all direction, each one begging you to explore its various shops and alleyways. As with all cities in Japan, discovering hidden gems here will require you to think in three dimensions as there are just as many great places tucked into the basements of buildings or up two flights of stairs as there are on the ground floor. So don’t forget to look up and down. Of course, while my preferred method of touring Shimokitaza is simply getting lost in the energetic atmosphere and wandering around until you’ve had enough, there are definitely shops and cafes worth searching for. My personal favorite example would be the little hole-in-the-wall cafe run by the “world’s best barista”, check out their website by clicking here. Wherever you go and whatever your method of exploration, I promise it won’t be long before your visit to these windy back streets turns up some hidden gems that even the locals didn’t know about. Just remember, “Tokyo is yours!”.

 

Some thoughtful graffiti in Shimokitazawa

Some thoughtful graffiti in Shimokitazawa

Capsule Hotels in Japan

Typical Japanese-style accommodation, known as ‘ryokan’, are lavish and indulgent. The rooms are often a spacious spread of tatami mats, the meals are grand (and very filling!), and the bathing facilities allow space to relax in the natural hot spring water without worrying about touching skin with a fellow bather. In a nation of little space, a ryokan experience is the ultimate luxury for many Japanese. For a more modern take on Japanese accommodation, however, the element of personal space is all but disregarded.

Capsule hotels, offering a sleeping compartment little larger than a single bed, provide customers with all their basic needs. There are often large communal bathing facilities, a snack bar, breakfast, and provide an excellent location from which to see the heart of a city. For those wishing to relax after a long day of sightseeing, they also come with a miniature television set hanging inside your personal capsule. Coupled with the fact that they are cheaper than alternative accommodation, it is little wonder that capsule hotels are often the place of choice for businessmen who have missed their last train home.

Entrance to a Capsule Hotel

Entrance to a Capsule Hotel

The natural competitor to the capsule hotel is of course the internet café. At around the same price as a capsule hotel, you can get unlimited soft drinks, use of a small shower, and unlimited internet access with a large screen (presumably to watch blockbuster movies into the early hours). Internet cafés also have the bonus of offering much more personal space. Some rooms have soft floors the size of a double bed, others have reclining leather seats that double as beds. There are even ‘family rooms’. Unfortunately, while in an internet café you are blessed with more room than a capsule hotel, you also get far less privacy. The rooms have locks, but the walls are paper-thin, and often it is possibly to peer over the top of your ‘walls’ into the adjoining rooms, or even into the corridor. Save for the easy access to the internet, the travellers preferred option should be the capsule hotel.

Not Much Privacy...

Not Much Privacy…

Complete with Alarm Clock

Complete with Alarm Clock

...and Television Set

…and Television Set

The word ‘capsule’ in Japanese tends to carry a more positive meaning than its English counterpart. While native English speakers may think ‘small’, the word in Japanese has its origins in technological advancement. This was the intention of the original capsule hotel, when it was first conceived in Osaka (it also explains the vision behind the name of the gaming corporation ‘Capcom’, a shortening of ‘capsule computer’). This may also be the reason why Japanese companies have long had an obsession with innovative technology to ever smaller physical proportions. Tiny cars, small portions, and gadgets. In Japan, small is beautiful. In this sense, the capsule hotel provides an insight into Japanese culture that is conveniently affordable. While staying in accommodation arguably reminiscent of a coffin is certainly not for everyone (indeed, most capsule hotels are strictly ‘men only’), it may be worth a look if you are prepared to sacrifice a little comfort during your travels. Or, as with the scores of Japanese businessmen who arrive red-faced and with a hint of sake on their breath, you manage to miss the last train home to your larger, more conventional, Western-style hotel.

Capsule Corridor

 

 

 

Tokyo Okura- Jumping from the page to real life!

IQ84, Haruki Murakami’s swirling behemoth of a novel is chock full of the author’s classic themes; magical realism, food, music, sex and love. It’s a massive work full of pivotal moments and I just happen to be in the very location of one of those. Here is how Murakami describes it:

“With its high ceiling and muted lighting, the capacious lobby of the Hotel Okura’s main building seemed like a huge, stylish cave. Against the cave walls, like the sighing of a disemboweled animal, bounced the muted conversations of people seated on the lobby’s sofas. The floor’s thick, soft carpeting could have been primeval moss on a far northern island. It absorbed the sound of footsteps into its endless span of accumulated time

 

IMG_1405It’s an odd feeling being somewhere I first visualized in my mind, but now I’m here it’s amazing how vivid Murakami’s prose proves to be and perfectly describes the cavernous lobby of the historic Okura.IMG_1400

Opened in 1962 and located in a quiet section of Akasaka, adjacent to the US Embassy but only a short walk from heady heights of Roppongi this is an establishment that speaks of a bygone era of understated elegance. The large and open lobby as described by Murakami is certainly calming, and visually it’s unlike any other hotel I’ve seen in Tokyo. The décor and the furniture would be described as dated by many, and that’s no lie, it is. To me though it has great retro chic appeal, further enhanced by the now seemingly archaic world map (circa 1960’s) where LED lights glow marking major cities of the world. For some reason I keep imagining bumping into the Sean Connery James Bond sipping a martini, or smoking, or probably both.

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It’s certainly not the flashiest or indeed the most fashionable of the more luxurious Tokyo hotels but if you are looking for a place with character and a distinctly Japanese aesthetic whilst you follow in the footsteps of diplomats and dignitaries then it’s a top consideration. You had better be quick though because it’s just been announced that the Main Building will close for a major renovation from August 2015 and it’s likely that the retro chic will be lost to the annals of time…

Discovering Shizuoka green tea

While I was on my last Japan trip I had the opportunity to visit a tea farm in Shizuoka prefecture, along the Kurigatake mountain route. I stopped at Higashiyama-Ippuku-dokoro to find out more about Japanese green tea production, work in the tea fields, the ecosystem of the area, and how green tourism could support this cultural and economical landscape. Image
Shizuoka is the larger producer of green tea in Japan; tea farming in this area boomed after the end of the shogunate, in the mid 19th century. The secret to the local excellent and aromatic tea lies in the quality of this environment, the loving care lavished on the fields, and the careful processing of the leaves.
The steep sides of the mountains here are covered with “chagusa”, a type of reed that’s harvested, dried, crushed, and used as mulching between rows of evergreen tea plants.

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The landscape in this area revolves around tea: ideally there should be a 1:1; ratio between tea fields and grassland. Using this kind of mulching protects the soil from rain so that nutrients are not washed away too quickly, it softens the soil up as it decomposes, and improves the taste of tea too. It is a sustainable way to mulch that also helps preserve the biodiversity of this environment, as no chemicals are needed to control weeds.

Mulching usually happens once a year, around mid-January, so I had a chance to help too. You grab a bag full of chopped up chagusa, open it up at the start of a line, and walk backwards in between two rows of plants, shaking the bag as you go to distribute mulching evenly.
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This area receives lots of sunshine, and that influences the production of different kinds of tea as well. Exposure to the sunshine will cause the leaves to harden; they will then need to be steamed for longer, which results in a stronger tea. Otherwise it is possible to protect the young leaves with screens, to obtain delicate “gyokuro” tea.
In any case, only the top couple of inches of the plant are picked. The leaves are then steamed, rolled, and dried. Steaming preserves the vivid colour and nutrients of tea, which boosts a high vitamin C and antioxidants content amongst other benefits.
Rolling the leaves breaks down their tissues, and allows better extraction, for a fully flavoured, stronger infusion. The leaves are rolled on a low table: the surface is actually made of strong “washi” paper, and there’s a heating element underneath, to help evaporate moisture from the leaves. The surface of the table is silky smooth, slowly polished and rubbed by calloused hands and fragrant leaves.

There’s different ways to roll the tea leaves at different stages… and they all take a long time! The whole cycle takes several hours to complete, and by the end of our day one of the gentlemen rolling tea was complaining about his sore back and arms. He was 89 mind you, and had been rolling tea leaves since before you and I were born, so I think he had every right to complain.
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Tea that is harvested and processed by hand in small batches rather commands a rather high price of course, but it has a fuller flavour and much better taste… or so the tea experts say! All I know is that it was delicious!

High quality green tea is not as bitter or astringent as cheaper varieties, and goes beautifully together with traditional Japanese sweets. It can be used in different dishes too: on that day I enjoyed a delightful lunch that included buckwheat and green tea noodles, deep fried salmon coated in breadcrumbs and tea leaves, and of course copious amounts of jade green, aromatic tea.

As most rural areas in Japan, Higashiyama suffers from depopulation and ageing while younger generations leave to find jobs in the big cities. Green tourism could help keeping local traditions, products and cultivars alive, with renewed appreciation for these beautiful landscapes and the local high quality produce; so I hope this blog inspires you to take a little detour from the main tourist routes into new, rewarding experiences……anyone for tea?

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J-pop and Go!

We have a lot of very different tours and trips here at InsideJapan, taking in all kinds of interests and destinations. One of our most experience packed and certainly one of our most lively, is the J-pop&Go! Tour which was created in conjunction with HYPERJAPAN. The trip really does combine the modern wonders and the traditional culture of this unique country. Got to love Japan.

Here’s a little bit of video taken from on tour to give you a taster -

J-Pop and Going on a HYPERJAPAN Tour

Way of the Samurai(photos by Ken Francisco)

Our inaugural HYPERJAPAN J-Pop and Go! tour was a great reminder that even going back to places that I’ve visited a dozen or more times can bring unexpected experiences, new surprises and untold amounts of fun! Working with the folks at HYPERJAPAN, we created a tour for people with as much energy as a Japanese anime character. We trounced from Buddhist temple to maid cafe, from the insanity of the Robot Restaurant to the quietude of a traditional Japanese garden. We learned about geisha culture from one of the world’s foremost experts and we were taught Zen meditation from a Buddhist monk but we also dressed up in kimono for a samurai sword lesson and slept in a capsule hotel! Although you’ll read about the Japan as the land of contrasts in any and every guidebook, there has surely never been a tour where these contrasts are juxtaposed so vividly. If you’re interested in the full spectrum of Japanese culture, 10 days on this tour will have knowing more about Japanese pop culture than most people who stay for 6 months.

Men at work

KaraokeHiroshima Bay

Luckily I don’t need to ramble on about how good everything was because Kenneth Francisco – a skilled photographer and a passenger on the very first tour – has been kind enough to let us use his images for an exploratory journey through a few highlights of this great tour. Arigatou Ken!

MarioKiyomizu, Kyoto

Manga and Maids

At our visit to the maid cafe (pictured above) we sang songs, performed “magic” to enhance the deliciousness of our cute and cuddly meals and even had a birthday celebration for a very embarrassed young man! But in Kyoto we got to experience old Japan by visiting several UNESCO World Heritage Sites and rubbing elbows with many kimono clad locals. Walking through the romantic old buidlings in the geisha district on a quiet and warm spring night was the highlight for a couple who came on the tour for their honeymoon. For a few others, the maid cafe and capsule hotel came in with the top ranking!

Tour leader, Tyler

 

Romantic Dear

Life size anime

Miyajima Tori

In these shots Ken has caught me explaining sankinkotai with the picture of a samurai and also managed to find a couple of romantic deer whispering sweet nothings to one another on Miyajima island, the home of the massive floating Torii gate – although that only applies when the tide is in! But my personal favorite is Ken posing with Goku from Dragon Ball Z.

Osaka Castle

okonomiyakiCup noodles

We had great weather throughout this tour, as can be evidenced by the clear views from Osaka castle (above) and of Mt. Fuji (below). The shot on the left shows our okonomiyaki being grilled right in front of us in Hiroshima while the picture on the right is from the Ramen Museum in Osaka, where we got to design and make our very own Cup of Noodles to take home with us as a souvenir. I can’t speak for the rest of the group but mine were delicious! ;)

Fuji from Hakone

Sushiiii

Tsukiji fish market

Conveyor belt sushi in Kyoto is always a favorite on my tours but it couldn’t top the amazing stuff we had at the famous Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo! Our small group took up the entire restaurant.

Serious tour leader time

Karaoke tour leader time

Lets sing!

Bullet Train Bento

Showing my serious, and not-so-serious, sides above; no trip to Japan is completely without one crazy night of karaoke and a delicious bento box on the bullet train!

Deadly ladies

Samurai

I lost

Here we are learning the techniques of the samurai and looking very good in the process. These girls would give Uma Thurman a run for her money any day! Just ask Jeff, seen above before and after his bout with his spouse.

Capsule Hotel

 

Zen moments in Kyoto

Crazy Robot Restaurant, Toyko

And what better way to finish off than with pictures from three of my own personal favorite experiences from this great and varied tour. Here’s our capsule hotel, our Zen meditation session and the crazy but hilarious visit to the Robot Restaurant!

More HYPERJAPAN J-Pop & Go! to come….

 

 

My Favourite Places in Japan

As my time in Japan nears its end I thought I’d share with you some of my favourite places I’ve visited over the past eight months. Ranging from Okinawa in the far south to the peaks of Nagano, I think these places really demonstrate the diversity that Japan has to offer, and explain what keeps people coming back year upon year.

Once you’ve seen my favourite places so far, take a look at my wish list of the amazing places I have yet to visit in Japan. They’ll have to wait until next time for me – but hopefully they’ll inspire you to work some of them into your own plans!

My Top 5 Favourite places in Japan:

1. Okunion cemetery, Koya-san (Wakayama Prefecture)

No photo can do justice to the atmosphere of this vast and amazing place, tucked away in the mountains near Osaka. Despite it being recognised as a world heritage site, as I wandered around Okunoin I often felt as though I was the only person there – a very rare and wonderful occasion when travelling in Japan! If you can, visit early in the morning when the mists are still swirling.

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3. Kabira Bay, Ishigaki Island (Okinawa Prefecture)

Pack your snorkel, hop on the next 3-hour flight from Tokyo and check into the wonderful Iriwa guesthouse – a little bit of paradise in Japan’s southernmost prefecture. It may be budget-friendly, but the couple who run this beautiful, beachside guesthouse have thought of everything to make your stay in Ishigaki as relaxing as possible, and there can be no better backdrop to a holiday than the stunning views to be found just down the road at Kabira Bay. You’ll never want to leave.

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4. Hakuba Ski Resort (Nagano Prefecture)

As a keen skier perhaps I’m biased – but for me, three days in Hakuba was the perfect start to the New Year. Brilliant powder snow followed by a soak in an onsen – what’s not to love? And if (for some reason) you were to get bored of skiing, you can just hop on a bus and go to visit the snow monkeys at Yudanaka Onsen.

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4. Bizan District, Kurashiki (Okayama Prefecture)

I visited Kurashiki just a couple of weeks ago on a research trip for InsideJapan Tours and was enchanted by its mixture of Western and Eastern architecture, its beautiful canals, and its wonderful museums. Every visitor must be sure not to miss the Ohara Museum, the Rural Toy Museum and (for the young at heart) the Momotaro Museum – and if you get the chance, spend the night at the unparalleled Ryokan Kurashiki!

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5. The Dream Hole, Onna-son, Okinawa Island (Okinawa Prefecture)

On one of my last days in Okinawa, I was lucky enough to have the chance to dive at this 25-metre underwater tunnel, where a living curtain of fish swirls in the entrance and parts to let you pass as you swim through the entrance. On the same dive I even got the chance to swim with sea turtles – a pretty amazing experience!

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My Wish List Top Five:

1. Yakushima Island (Kagoshima Prefecture)

My biggest regret as I reach the end of my time in Japan is that I never managed to make it to Yakushima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture. As a big Miyazaki fan I can’t help but wish that I could visit the place that inspired “Princess Mononoke,” where you can hike amongst Japanese cedar trees several thousand years old and even camp on beaches where baby Loggerhead turtles hatch and make their way to the see. Next time.

yakushima_forest

 

Jomon Sugi: perhaps the oldest tree in the world

Jomon Sugi: perhaps the oldest tree in the world

2. Hokkaido

Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, rarely makes it onto the itineraries of first-time travellers to Japan (unless they’re going skiing in Niseko!). But everybody I know who has visited Hokkaido has been enchanted by its wonderful countryside, making me sad that I haven’t had time to visit it before I leave. I’ve promised myself that one day I’ll make it to the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri (snow festival) to see some of the amazing sculptures for myself.

hokkaido

sapporo_snow_festival

3. Takeda Castle (Hyogo Prefecture)

Takeda Castle is known as “the castle above the clouds” – for reasons that should be obvious when you see the amazing photos of it perched on top of a mountain, wreathed in mist. Yet another amazing place to add to my wish list.

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4. Yonaguni Ruins(?), Yonaguni Island (Okinawa Prefecture)

Located under the sea off the coast of what is perhaps Japan’s remotest island are – well, nobody really knows what they are. Are they naturally occurring rock formations, the ruins of some unknown civilisation, or the works of aliens? (Hint: it was probably aliens). The underwater structures appear strikingly regular, leading many people to believe that they are man-made. If they are, then they indicate a hitherto completely unknown civilisation that could have existed twice as long ago as the ancient Egyptians. Now that would be pretty cool.

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5. Dogo Onsen, Matsuyama (Ehime Prefecture)

Another location inspired by my love for Miyazaki films, Dogo Onsen is the oldest bath house in Japan and is rumoured to have been the inspiration for the bath house in “Spirited Away” – one of the films that first inspired my love of Japan. And not only do I love Spirited Away, but I am also a huge fan of onsens – so Dogo Onsen was always naturally going to make it onto my wish list.

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And finally, somewhere I wish I’d visited before it became a tourist destination…

Gunkanjima (Nagasaki Prefecture)

Gunkanjima, or “battleship island,” was once the most densely populated area in the world when it thrived as a coal-mining facility. Now it is an amazingly creepy, abandoned wasteland – empty except for Javier Bardem, who kicks about thinking evil thoughts and plotting the demise of his enemies. Not really.

james bond - skyfall - javier bardem - silva

There was a time when you could make your way out to Gunkanjima alone and explore it for yourself (albeit not exactly legally), but now it’s more strictly controlled and you can only visit with a guided tour that keeps you on the straight and narrow – away from falling masonry and the like. I suppose that’s sensible really, but it does ruin the fun just a little bit.

Gunkanjima-Japan-7

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Exploring Okayama

About two weeks ago I had the privilege to be able to travel to Okayama on a research trip for IJT. Okayama Prefecture is in the south-western part of Honshu, sandwiched between Hiroshima and Hyogo Prefectures and with a coastline facing toward Shikoku. I had never been there before, so was very excited to be taking on this trip!

My first task was visiting Kifu no Sato, a lovely ryokan in Yunogo Onsen – right in the heart of the countryside of Okayama. This ryokan has a fabulous onsen with several different types of baths and is justly famous for its wonderful ikebana flower arrangements, of which there are no less than sixty-five adorning the hotel at any one time. These are arranged using only wild plants and flowers from the surrounding mountains and are changed up to twice a week – which all told is a pretty mammoth undertaking!

Just one of the many Ikebana arrangements at Kifu no Sato

Just one of the many Ikebana arrangements at Kifu no Sato

A commitment to local crafts and produce is central to the philosophy at Kifu no Sato. They are proud to serve food made with local ingredients in their restaurant (incidentally some of the best food I’ve eaten in Japan), and to furnish their rooms with pieces made by local craftsmen.

Breakfast at Kifu no Sato

Breakfast at Kifu no Sato

 

With this philosophy in mind, Kifu no Sato also offer a wide range of amazing cultural experiences, through which guests can meet and converse with local artists and craftsmen who are real experts in their fields. Guided by the wonderful Hiromi-san, I was lucky enough to meet some of the people who would be offering these experiences. Guests can have a sushi-making lesson with the chef at the ryokan; an Iaido martial arts lesson with Trevor, a British expat who has studied the art for 30 years; a pottery experience with a Living National Treasure in the historical town of Bizen; pick tea leaves and package their own tea with Mr. Shimoyama at his tea plantation; try out natural dyeing with Takami-san in Ohara town… and the list goes on.

A kimono lesson at the ryokan

A kimono lesson at the ryokan

Having tea with Mr Shimoyama and his daughter

Having tea with Mr Shimoyama and his daughter

Enchanting Mitaki-en, restaurant by the river

Enchanting Mitaki-en, restaurant by the river

After leaving Kifu no Sato, I made my way to the town of Kurashiki in the south of the Prefecture. The train ride from Okayama station to Kurashiki takes you through some really wonderful countryside and is to be highly recommended, chugging at a lazy pace through hills and mountains, over rivers and past plenty of little towns and villages. Kurashiki itself is a beautiful town with a historical town centre that feels in some places like a little piece of Europe in Japan. Through the centre runs a tree-lined canal, and the surrounding streets are filled with Western-style buildings rubbing shoulders with white-walled, black-roofed Japanese storehouses that used to be used for the storage of rice during the Edo period.

Kurashiki Bikan historical area

Kurashiki Bikan historical area

The Ohara Museum, the first museum of Western art in Japan, is the centrepiece of Kurashiki – and deservedly so. Any visitor to the town must visit this wonderful gallery, where world-famous names in Western art mingle with modern and contemporary Japanese works, along with traditional crafts and antiques from ancient Egypt and China. Even without considering the museum’s artistic offerings – it is worth a visit for the buildings alone, which are wonderful and full of character.

Inside one of the galleries at the Ohara Museum

Inside one of the galleries at the Ohara Museum

Besides the Ohara Museum Kurashiki is a veritable goldmine of museums – from the Archaeological museum and the Museum of Folkcraft to the Toy Museum, the Kurabo Memorial Museum, the Kurashiki Local History Museum, the City Art Museum, the Insect Museum, the Senichi Hoshino Museum, the Yumiko Igarashi manga art museum (where you can even rent costumes and dress up as your favourite over-the-top Igarashi manga character)… there really is something for everyone.

I highly recommend the Toy Museum, packed full of old-fashioned Japanese toys, and the Piggy-bank Museum – which is located at the top of an antiques shop and stuffed to the gills with eccentric and interesting stuff.

Daruma dolls in the Rural Toy Museum

Daruma dolls in the Rural Toy Museum

Outside the Piggy-bank museum, with its hundreds of HMV dogs keeping watch

Outside the Piggy-bank museum, with its hundreds of HMV dogs (“wan-chan”) keeping watch

My favourite museum, however, was the Momotaro Museum. Momotaro, or “Peach Boy,” is a famous Japanese folk tale in which an old couple discover a boy inside a peach, floating down a river. They adopt the child, named Momotaro, and he grows up to vanquish a host of marauding demons. Several places in Japan claim ownership of the story – one of which being Okayama. At this museum you can find a whole range of optical illusions and visual tricks; some Momotaro comics, artwork, toys and memorabilia; a room showing old-fashioned Japanese cartoons on a projector; and – the piece de resistance – a demon grotto (in the style of the “haunted house” you find at fairgrounds). I won’t describe it in too much detail in case I ruin the surprise, but suffice to say that the group of young schoolchildren who were visiting the museum at the same time as me were quite literally terrified out of their wits. Watching children scream in terror is, of course, all part of the enjoyment.

The real Momotaro?

The real Momotaro?

The chap who works in the museum (pictured above) is also rather a character, and has the amazing ability to make flutes out of chikuwa (a type of fish-paste tube you usually find in Japanese “oden” hotpots). He has been on Japanese TV a few times exhibiting this extraordinary talent, and will be happy to give you a demonstration. Aptly, he also looks kind of like a real-life Momotaro.

Here in Kurashiki I was lucky enough to stay at the Ryokan Kurashiki, which was truly the jewel in the crown of my time in Okayama. Right on the canal in the centre of the old town, this ryokan takes some beating. It is housed in a wonderful old building with amazing character, the rooms are beautifully decorated with antiques, the restaurant and terrace look out over a picturesque Japanese garden, the food is a work of art – and I hardly need mention that Nakamura-san, the proprietress, is a paragon of Japanese warmth and hospitality – or “omotenashi.”

At the Ryokan Kurashiki

At the Ryokan Kurashiki

 

The ryokan garden from our dinner table. Beautiful!

The ryokan garden as seen from our dinner table. Beautiful!

Just one of the amazing dishes served at dinner - sashimi with a sakura garnish

Just one of the amazing dishes served at dinner – sashimi with a sakura garnish

Nakamura-san grates some fresh wasabi

Nakamura-san grates some fresh wasabi

Yum

Yum.

Really, I lack the adjectives to adequately describe my stay at this ryokan (and the pictures don’t do it justice), so you will just have to go and see it for yourself. I’m pretty sure that you’ll agree with me when I say that this is a little piece of paradise.

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