Our top 10 tips for travel in Japan

Between them, our staff have well over a century’s experience living and working in Japan, and have travelled every inch of this wonderful country – from the snowswept plains of northern Hokkaido to remote Yonaguni Island in the far southwest.

As you might expect, our band of intrepid explorers have picked up all kinds of invaluable hints, tips and advice along the way. From getting hopelessly lost in the backstreets of Tokyo to making all kinds of cultural faux pas – we’ve made all the mistakes there are to make in Japan and lived to tell the tale. It’d be a shame not to pass on our insider knowledge so that you don’t have to do the same!

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After surveying all 64 current members of the InsideJapan staff and plumbing the depths of their Japan knowledge, I came up with this list of top tips and recommendations to help you get the most out of your Japan holiday:

  1. Keep an open mind and an open schedule

When speaking to the InsideJapan team, this piece of advice came up more than any other tip.

Whilst it’s definitely useful to do your research and have an itinerary planned before you travel (see point eight), don’t get so caught up in your plans that you don’t have a chance to enjoy the unexpected things that make travelling in Japan so exciting. Japan is a country where even the most mundane tasks (going to the loo, getting a drink from a vending machine) can be exciting to the uninitiated – and everyone on our team will agree that the most fascinating and memorable moments from their time in Japan could never have been planned.

With this in mind, don’t be afraid of having ‘gaps’ or ‘empty spaces’ in your holiday plans. Take it slowly and throw yourself into every new situation and you’ll find that this is when you have the chance encounters and experiences that you’ll always remember.

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  1. Forget about the ‘language barrier’ 

Learn a few words in Japanese. Now, we’re not suggesting that you become an expert in the language – in fact, you don’t even need to learn a complete sentence. Simply learning the words for ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank you’ will really go a long way. The Japanese are generally so impressed and pleased that you have made any effort at all to master their language that you don’t need any more!

On a similar note, don’t be put off travelling to Japan because of the perceived ‘language barrier’. Though you may well find that not that many Japanese people can speak English – that doesn’t mean that people won’t go a thousand miles out of their way to help you, even if it is through gestures and pointing.

Good advice when trying to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak much English is to speak in short sentences (or even one-word sentences). “Ginza”, for example, is much more likely to get you to where you want to be than “excuse me kind sir, but could I trouble you to direct me to Ginza subway station, if you’d be so very kind?” – not that you’d say that, but you know what I mean.

Oh – and talk to people, even if they don’t speak good English. Don’t be shy. Anyone on the InsideJapan team will tell you that you don’t need a common language to make a friend!

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  1. Don’t worry about ‘doing the wrong thing’

Japan has become famous as a place of obscure cultural rules and impenetrable social codes – so much so that some travellers are put off visiting for fear that they will accidentally make a boob of themselves by trampling insensitively over the cherished customs of their hosts.

It’s true that Japan’s etiquette can be somewhat confusing – and you are almost inevitably going to ‘do the wrong thing’ at some point – but the key thing to remember is this: no-one cares. Nobody is going to be offended if you forget to take off your shoes in the right place, or if you’re not aware of the intricacies of chopstick etiquette. As a foreigner, you’re not expected to know everything (and actually, some Japanese people will be surprised that you know anything). As long as you’re not being deliberately culturally insensitive, you’ll be fine.

As a rule, the Japanese take great pleasure in teaching others about their culture, so in making a faux pas you could even be making a new friend.

 

  1. Have an onsen experience 

We asked all our staff what they loved most about living in Japan, and we got some interesting answers. Possibly the most popular response (after the delicious cuisine, which took the top spot without a fight) was onsen culture.

Onsen are Japanese hot spring baths, and thanks to the high level of volcanic activity in Japan they can be found up and down the country. From steamy baths in the snow in Hokkaido and the Japanese Alps to rustic onsen villages deep in the forest; from onsen on the beach to time-honoured bathhouses like Matsuyama’s Dogo Onsen – hot spring bathing is an integral (and extremely enjoyable) aspect of Japanese culture that should not be missed.

What’s not to love about a hot bath? Well, there is one catch: you have to do it in your birthday suit. In front of complete strangers. This is the part that puts most people off – and quite understandably. But if there’s anything InsideJapan staff could say to prospective onsen-goers it’s this: just do it! It’s only strange to start with – before long you’ll have forgotten your reservations and will wonder why you ever hesitated.

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  1. Stay at a ryokan inn

Like bathing in an onsen, staying at a traditional ryokan inn is one of those intrinsically Japanese experiences that no visitor to the country should miss out on. Japan is famous for its hospitality, and at a ryokan you really experience this at its best.

Sleep on comfortable futon laid out by a kimono-wearing attendant on a tatami mat floor, look out over exquisite Japanese gardens, tiptoe through shoji sliding paper doors on geta sandals, wrap yourself in a traditional yukata bathrobe to visit the in-house onsen baths, and sample delicious regional food at breakfast and dinner.

You simply haven’t been to Japan until you’ve stayed at a ryokan – trust us. You won’t regret it.

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  1. Get off the beaten track

It’s one of those hackneyed travel phrases that you’ll find lurking in every Lonely Planet guide and travel blog, used to describe every broken-down shack and one-horse town across the globe. And yet – loath as we are to peddle clichés – it is only by ‘getting off the beaten track’ that you can really get a rounded impression of Japan.

The big cities and famous sights are ‘on the beaten track’ for a reason. They’re the iconic views, the celebrated historical monuments and the locations that you’ve always dreamed of visiting. But it is by heading away from these destinations – into the countryside, the mountains, and the remote islands – that you’ll discover a side of Japan you never expected.

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Here’s a nice little video from one of our customers who spent a couple of weeks in Japan seeing some incredible places and meeting wonderful people in some of the more famous places and the lesser known places….a good taste of Japan.

  1. Visit an izakaya

One of the pieces of advice that cropped up time and time again in conversation with the InsideJapan team was to visit an izakaya. It’s hard to explain just what an izakaya is if you’ve never been to one, but they are most often described as the Japanese version of a British pub – a description that doesn’t quite do them justice.

Izakaya are where the Japanese go to eat, drink and be merry. They range from the cheap and cheerful (every dish 240 yen/£1.30) to the super-duper top-end cuisine, but what they all have in common is that they serve a wide range of small, tapas-style dishes to be shared amongst your group, and plenty of beer and sake.

It can be daunting to walk into an izakaya straight off the street – especially if it’s a tiny local establishment with no English menu or English-speaking staff – but if you’re brave enough, this is the best way to get chatting to the locals and try some delicious regional foods.

But don’t worry – if you’re too chicken to go it alone, InsideJapan can arrange an izakaya experience where one of our tour leaders can show you the ropes.

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  1. Do your research 

In our experience, the more you know about Japan the more it will intrigue you. Before you travel, have a look into the history of the areas you’re planning to visit and find out a bit about the culture – both contemporary and traditional. Doing things like watching a sumo match, meeting a geisha, visiting a Zen temple or exploring a shogun’s mausoleum will be that much more fascinating if you know a little about the background.

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  1. Hire a bike. Or a car. Or a motorbike.

We have nothing but excellent things to say about the clean, efficient, convenient and downright wonderful public transport system in Japan. There’s nothing quite like taking a ride on the bullet train, or navigating by the Tokyo subway.

But if you want to see a bit more and really get out of the main tourist traps, sometimes it’s best to go under your own steam. Hiring a bicycle will really allow you to explore bits of Japanese cities and countryside that you’d never have discovered otherwise, whilst renting a car or a motorbike will allow you to be even more adventurous and really get out into the unknown.

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10.  Bring plenty of cash (but not because Japan is expensive!)

Surprising as it may seem for a country that is world-famous for being technologically advanced, Japan is still very much a cash-based society and many places will still not accept plastic. It can even be difficult to withdraw cash from an ATM at the weekend or after 5pm – so instead of wasting time exchanging travellers’ cheques or hunting for a cash machine that accepts foreign cards, be sure to bring plenty of yen! Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, so there’s no need to fret about having pockets bulging with cash either.

And while we’re on the subject of money, don’t be put off visiting Japan because of its reputation for being expensive. It’s not the cheapest country in the world, but Japan is certainly not as a dear as most people think. Food, for example, is very cheap and extremely good quality – you can easily have an excellent meal for no more than 1,000 yen (about £5.50). Subway travel is also reasonable (the most you’ll pay for any journey on the Tokyo underground is a couple of quid), and capsule hotels offer a night’s sleep for less than 4,000 yen (about £20). Whatever anyone else tells you, it is possible to do Japan on a shoestring.

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These are only our top ten tips – between them the InsideJapan staff came up with many more – enough to flesh out a follow-up post, in fact! Watch this space…

A Very Japanese Christmas

Humber family in Kyoto

The Humber family travelled to Japan on a fully tailored trip over Christmas and New Year last year and had a fantastic time. Here, Paul Humber has kindly written us a blog piece about their experience – and why they’ll definitely be going back to Japan again!

Before we flew out to Japan, a French colleague took me to one side and said, “No matter what your pre-conceptions of Japan, no matter what you think will happen; Japan will exceed all your expectations, and then some.” To which I lamely replied, “Gosh!” My colleague’s words were proved to be correct; and this was due in no small measure to the help we received from InsideJapan Tours.

My original instinct when planning the trip was to simply make Tokyo our base for two weeks and take the occasional day trip out of the city to see other sights: this was the format suggested by a major ‘household name’ tour operator and it transpired that it would have been a big mistake. InsideJapan suggested we start in Tokyo for two days and then take in Hakone National Park for two nights, Kyoto for three nights, see Nara, and then travel onto Osaka for two nights, before returning to Tokyo for a final couple of days. This plan turned out to be far better than my original idea: much as we loved Tokyo and all it had to offer, ultimately we probably preferred Kyoto and Osaka, and it was a definite treat to see the countryside in Hakone.

Mount Fuji seen from Hakone National Park

Mount Fuji seen from Hakone National Park

The highlights are too numerous to mention but can be glimpsed in our photographs. In Tokyo on day one we came across a traditional wedding in full swing at the Meiji-jingu Shinto shrine, and we went to Japan’s oldest amusement park, called Hanashiki, which thanks to a preservation order has the same rides it had in the 1950s: the ‘Surprising House’ was
particular fun. In the same breath we could take in the marvellous Senso-ji Temple and make wishes in the smoke and have our fortune told by ‘sticks’. That evening we went to the ‘Robot’ restaurant/bar/cabaret which was relentlessly neon and fun and, like a lot of Japan, surprisingly good value.

Shinto wedding ceremony at Tokyo's Meiji Shrine

Shinto wedding ceremony at Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine

We had taken up InsideJapan Tours’ suggestion of having the services of guides to help us in each city and our original motivation to do this was that we feared we would have trouble understanding the local transport systems and would not be able to decipher street signs and so on. In the event it transpired that Japan’s transport system is incredibly advanced and easy to navigate and it has an ‘Oyster card’ style system that worked regardless of which city we were now in. One tiny example of how well designed their transport system is: when you leave a subway station there is usually a flagstone set in the pavement that shows you where north, south, east and west is. It is the kind of simple but effective attention to detail at which the Japanese excel and it can make such a difference for a tourist trying to get their bearings.

So the joy of having guides turned out to be that they were able to tell us 101 things about the cities and about Japan that we wouldn’t otherwise know. All three guides sourced by InsideJapan were great, but I would particularly recommend the ‘street food’ tour in Osaka where the lady took us to one street restaurant for a first course, then a second establishment for a second course and so on, so that we could experience and learn about a variety of cuisines in one evening and see how the locals were living. Osaka has really embraced the kind of fluorescent screens and lit up buildings that we stereotypically associate with Japan and when these are reflected in their waterways, it makes for great photos and even greater memories. There is also a top quality aquarium in the city that is worth checking out.

 

 

Spiritual Enlightenment

Kyoto is famous for its temples and, as my colleague said, they exceeded expectations. But over and above the temples it would be crucial not to miss the 1001 gilded statues at Sanjusangen-do that date back to the 13th century. Simply breathtaking. Kyoto also has some unexpected 1920s architecture, some ancient avenues of tea houses, a Manga museum, a bamboo forest, and a kilometre long alleyway of brilliant restaurants. One of our ‘treats’ was to go to a genuine tea ceremony. Kyoto generally has got more of a boho feel to it, with a large student population and a more laid back style. In a rare break from Japanese food, we had a great quality cheap meal in the basement of an ex 1920s printworks called Café Independents, and some excellent cocktails in the bar of the hotel that InsideJapan Tours had recommended.

Nara made a great trip out from Kyoto with its famous temples and deer park, and Hakone National park was an interesting break from the cities with its ancient roads and walks, its trip across the lake and its open-air art gallery/sculpture park. We stayed in an ancient lodge and were waited on by a traditional housekeeper, bathed in the natural hot springs, and were fed traditional foods. It is the first time I have ever had raw lobster on Christmas day.

Santa Motorbikes

Back in Tokyo we visited Roppongi Hills to see how the rich live, which initially we thought might have been a mistake (after all, I have seen Prada shops before), but when we went up to the top floor to take aerial views of the city we had an unexpected treat when we discovered a comprehensive (temporary) exhibition of Tim Burton’s art and films. There were hand written notes from Tim Burton to Johnny Depp, there were doodles that Tim Burton had done on restaurant napkins which formed ideas for his later films; there was a sea of his private artwork. It formed – and this was a recurrent theme on our trip – an unexpected surprise that had to simply take its place alongside all the other unexpected surprises we experienced every day.

We visited the famous Shibuya crossing where the Japanese dutifully wait for the green light to cross the road, then dash across and stop halfway to take ‘selfies’ of themselves standing on what is thought to be the busiest pedestrian crossing in Japan. Shibuya and Harajuku afford excellent chances to take photos of the local teenagers who love to dress up and pose, and it was in Harajuku that we chanced across a ‘rabbit’ café where the locals dressed up as bunnies to have afternoon tea that was, err, bunny shaped. Only in Japan.

What's up doc?

Sadly, after two weeks, we had to come home to England and within a day we had all vowed to return when work and life allows. There were temples we hadn’t had time to see; we never got to a kitten café or a sumo wrestling event or to their theatres, their national photographic gallery was closed for a refurb, and there were towns we hadn’t been able to visit; and all this despite our packed and varied itinerary.

Japan is evidently a country that enjoys doing things well; whether it is when they rebuild a temple, run a public transport system, put on a cabaret on, or serve you a meal. My French colleague had been wrong: our trip didn’t exceed expectations. Every hour of every day of our trip exceeded expectations and this was thanks in no small measure to the advice, knowledge and attention to detail of InsideJapan Tours. We cannot thank them, and the Japanese, enough.

Seal at Osaka Aquarium

Seal at Osaka Aquarium

1 Country, 2 Worlds – A Winter & sun adventure in Japan

What is there to do in the winter in Japan?

Surely it’s out of season, there are no cherry blossoms, so come on?

Who would bother? Here’s a little something to provoke a little thought…

As a Tour Leader with IJT, I have been on a bit of a winter break. Given the low bookings, that is normal for this time of the year, however instead, my parents decided that they would come and endure my tour leadership for a couple of weeks. And what a 2 weeks it has been. Certainly, like all tourists, my folks have their amusing foibles – inevitably emphasized as always in the flight of travel, but their decision to leave the wet, grey of the UK to experience something a little different, and extremely varied, left me once again in awe of this great country.

In 14 days we enjoyed the crisp, blue skies of Tokyo – perfect for a photography addict like my dad; bussed just an hour and a half out of Tokyo to enjoy rural walks with constant clear views of Mt Fuji; walked (alone) on the snowy Nakasendo highway in the central Nagano region; hung out with the famous Macaque Monkeys in Jigoku Valley; visited the gloriously maintained castle town of Matsumoto; dipped in outdoor baths in Hirayu Onsen’s snow world; marveled at the frozen Otaki waterfall; rode the Shin-Hotaka cable car to enjoy the best views possible of the Northern Alps; and walked trails cut into 3m of snow, before heading back to the capital. The only way to really show how extraordinary this all was is of course with a photo blog…

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Sumida River Cruiser the “Himiko” glides by Tokyo’s 634m Skytree and Asahi Beer Brewery with its unique “La Flamme D’Or”.

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Tokyo’s Hamarikyu Gardens in reflective mood, late afternoon.

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Even before the neon is switched on, wild and whacky Shinjuku shines bright in the Tokyo winter sun.

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Cable car ride above Kawaguchiko Lake, just an hour and a half from the capital!

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Fuji basks in late afternoon sun.

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Kawaguchiko Town at sunset.

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Into snow country – Magome town, the centuries’ old post town on the Nakasendo Highway.

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Dad has no problems avoiding cables or other tourists in his quest for the perfect shot in Magome – we passed just 5 people in the entire village!

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Mum realizes that we still have a long way to go until Tsumago Village, across the Prefectural border in Nagano.

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Happy snow hikers on the Nakasendo.

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A sole local wanders through Tsumago Village early morning.

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Deep snow of Nagano

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This young monkey enjoys a little attention from mum and the tourist visitors to the monkey reserve in Jigoku Valley, Nagano.

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Parents and monkeys with a sprinkling of snow.

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The perfect Matsumoto Castle. Renovated a tad since its completion in the early 1500s, however still a perfect example of Japanese castle architecture.

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Looking north on the Hotaka Cable Car towards Hotaka Dake Peak and the spearhead peak of Mt Yari, Nagano prefecture.

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Snow clings to the resilient pines.

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The breathtaking Hotaka Ridgline.

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Why not one more?

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Mum finds herself dwarfed by the deep Nagano snow.

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More snow-coated flora

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Hotaka’s unique double decker cable car.

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Hirayu Onsen’s little gem – the Otaki Falls which completely freeze in the deep winter months. Of course, we had the whole valley to ourselves again!

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How many photos of a waterfall? Glad I won’t be around to see all 200 at the next family barbecue:)

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The hospitable Hirayu No Mori Japanese Inn. A warm escape from the freezing conditions.

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Time for an outdoor hot spring bath in the snow. It may be minus 15 outside but who cares when you can relax in 42 degree water and take in the views!

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A little traditional “Hida Gasshozukkuri” architecture in Hirayu Onsen. Deep snow requires steep thatched roofs!

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Time for a little snowboarding of course, Hirayu Onsen. And yes, I had the resort literally to myself!!

Oh, did you think that was the end of the trip?

Not quite. After a brief repose in my Koenji home in West Tokyo, we then stepped on a plane in the wonderfully designed and smoothly functioning Haneda Airport for a 3 hour flight down to the Yaeyama Island chain of Okinawa Prefecture, namely to stay on Ishigaki Island. Here was a quite different experience I might add: guitars on the beach (private no less by default); snorkeling in cobalt shores – observing sea turtles, sea snakes and the rare blue coral; walking rocky coastlines; marveling at the tropical flora and fauna; touring the easily-navigable island by car; oh and at night enjoying the seafood hospitality and Karaoke talents of some retired Ishigaki gentlemen, including exclusive shamisen (3-stringed lute) performance – friends for life!  In contrast to all the previous week, Ishigaki looked something like this:

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Our traditional little Okinawan home for the week!

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Ishigaki mangrove and shoreline

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The snow melted here about 10,000 years ago. Time for shorts and sunglasses in the jungle!

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One of the many varieties of Hibiscus flowering on Ishigaki in January.

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Room with a view.

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Even my guitar enjoyed a little basking in the sun!

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My mum hogs the whole beach to herself – not a soul in sight until…

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…2 locals turn up, a little chilled in their “deep of winter” – it was only 24 degrees, after all! What do they expect if they don’t wear a scarf and gloves!

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However, even during the winter “chill” in Okinawa, the smiles are as warm as ever. Famed for their long life expectancy, elderly Okinawan women are renowned for their seemingly eternal energy. This young lady in her early 80s is testament to that – oh and, yes, she drank me under the table!

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The Toujin Tombs – in memory of 128 Chinese seafarers who lost their lives off the coast of Ishigaki, shipwrecked enroute to America in 1852.

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Sugar cane is cultivated on the island – producing molasses, syrups and fueling the islands popular confectionary industry.

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Getting around by car is very easy in January – for just 60 pounds for 2 days (including fuel), we were able to take in the whole island.

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Looking out from the observatory at Banna Park, just outside Ishigaki town.

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Rugged Sakieda Bay in NW Ishigaki.

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Kabira Bay – a place to marvel at the white sands and clear waters, then take a glass bottomed boat to view the coral and the teeming sea life.

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Rare blue tipped Coral.

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Fishes and coral of Kabira Bay.

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A lone visitor takes in the colour and tranquility of Kabira Bay.

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One more beach for the day – Ibaruma Bay. And, yes, yawn, we had it all to ourselves!!

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Cave view, Ibaruma Bay.

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A new day, a new island. A 15 minute boat ride took us out to the tiny island of Taketomi.

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Traditional drystone walls and housing on Taketomi Island.

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Local Wildlife on the tiny island of Taketomi

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Taketomi’s west pier – famed for its breathtaking sunsets. Its a shabby place in the daytime as you can see:)

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Glorious sea views from Kondoi Beach, Taketomi Island.

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A friendly local takes the salt from my sweaty hand.

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Talking of friendly locals – these folks are enjoying a sip or 2 of the local firewater, Awaomori. 42% ABV of head splitting, mind bending hooch. I suggest stick to a local Orion beer or something a little less potent! Ichiriki bar in Ishigaki Town has been run by its owner for 40years and is a great place to meet older local folk…

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…who you may find yourself eating with as guest of honor the following night – I was lucky to be able to take dad along for a seafood barbecue.

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Wonderful “Otonashi” (warm Japanese hospitality), especially important to the folks of Ishigaki.

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The sun sets on an amazing stay on Ishigaki. I will be back, hopefully my parents will consider the idea, too!

So there you have it – 2 weeks, a wealth of experiences, hot and cold, sunny and snowy. Don’t wait for the spring to arrive with the masses, get out here during the winter and REALLY experience something a little different – you’ll feel like you have Japan all to yourself!

Owl always love you

Claire Brothers is a travel consultant in our Bristol office. As well as having spent seven years in Germany and three in California, Claire lived in Kyoto, Japan, for five years – where she especially enjoying eating street food, trawling antiques markets and visiting Osaka SpaWorld. Though she is now based in the UK, she recently returned to Japan to do some research for InsideJapan Tours – including a very important visit to a Fukuoka Owl Café… 

Who doesn’t love a good owl? With their appealing expressions and inherent charm it is hard to believe these feathery delights are in fact skilled predators and considered by many cultures to be a bad omen. Surely an omen of impending adorableness would be more reasonable? However, defence of the owl’s good name was far from my mind as I recently strolled through the streets of Fukuoka, one of Kyushu’s most vibrant cities. It was my first visit and I decided on an afternoon of exploring, by which of course, I mean shopping.

As I walked through a covered shopping street I found a shop selling butsudan, the shrines that Japanese families keep at home. Inside was a grandmother and two little girls dressed in stunning kimono. Obachan was too shy but the girls happily posed for a photo.

A special day indeed when this is not maximum cuteness.

A special day indeed when this is not maximum cuteness.

As I continued along the street I noticed a queue outside a café with an owl logo. Being both British and a fan of owls, I was compelled to join the queue. The curtains were closed but after a short wait the door opened and a member of staff stepped outside. It was in this moment that I saw them. Through the crack in the door I spied an oasis of owls. Large owls with pointy ears, tiny owls with teddy bear faces, owls as far as my far-too-excited eyes could see.

This guy.

This guy.

With my owl-loving heart beating wildly in my chest I approached the member of staff and asked if it would be possible for me to make a reservation. She explained that they only take reservation on the day and that the next available slot was in one hour. She also handed me a leaflet to read with prices and instructions.

Fukuro no Mise (Owl shop) is an owl café where you can pay either 1,000yen (about £5.50) for a soft drink or 1,200yen (about £7) for a beer. This includes an hour of time with the owls. About 15 people are allowed at the café at a time and both adults and children are allowed. The leaflet explained that we would have time to drink our drinks and hear instructions on how to handle the owls on the upper level of the café before we could interact with the owls on the lower level.

And so, I was in. Whilst the description of how to handle the owls was in rapid-fire Japanese, they provided a handout with instructions in English too. The most important point when handling owls is not to touch their face, chest or feet. You must also hold your arm at a right angle to your body and with one finger extended if the owl is small. This helps the owls to keep balance so they can relax. You stroke the owls gently with the back of your hand. Before stroking a small owl, you should make one of your fingers into a hook shape and show it to the owl. A human hand looks gigantic to a small owl so doing this convinces the owl you are only touching it with a small finger and you are not about to crush it with your human monster paw.

An owl the size of my hand. YES.

An owl the size of my hand. YES.

After drinking my iced coffee in record-breaking time I proceeded down to the owls. There were five owls, each being handled by a member of staff, and the other owls were
“holiday owls”. This meant they were hanging out and we could photograph them but were told strictly not to touch or disturb them otherwise. From there everyone patiently waited for whichever owl they wanted to interact with. You could hold the larger owls on your arm and the smaller ones could go on your arm, shoulder or head.

I met them all. Excited faces ahead….

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This one was the daddy. Or mummy, it’s hard to sex an owl.

This one was the daddy. Or mummy, it’s hard to sex an owl.

This one knew I was too excited.

This one knew I was too excited.

I’m aware of the issues surrounding any kind of animal café and I can understand the objection some people may have to a café which houses wild animals. All I can say is that the owls seemed relaxed and at ease with the environment and did not display any typical signs of stress in captivity like pulling out feathers. The staff seemed to genuinely care for the owls and the emphasis was on always being respectful and considerate of them as animals. As it should be!

Sorry Machu Picchu, this is the best place I've ever been.

Sorry Machu Picchu, this is the best place I have ever been.

The Guide to Christmas in Japan

Merry Christmas everyone! Or “Meri Kurisumasu”, as they have it over in Japan.

Ho ho ho

Ho ho ho…

It’s estimated that less than one percent of Japan’s population in Christian, and so it should come as no surprise that Christmas is not an official national holiday in Japan. New Year is an important family occasion (and the Japanese have about a billion-and-one other festivals to keep them busy throughout the year), but on Christmas business generally continues as usual.

Yet, to say that Christmas isn’t celebrated in Japan would not be entirely accurate. On the contrary, to quote Bill Nighy, Christmas is all around.

Pretty much as soon as the Halloween decorations come down (and of the fact that the Japanese celebrate Halloween there can be no doubt), Christmas is almost immediately EVERYWHERE. Shop windows, department stores, television adverts and the streets of every town are festooned with Christmas decorations, Christmas trees, Christmas songs and Christmas lights. Touts dressed as Santa harangue passersby on every corner to buy convenience store Christmas cake or rent out a karaoke room, and most self-respecting cities will have their own Christmas market offering mulled wine, mince pies and all kinds of other horrendously overpriced festive treats.

So for a non-Christian country, the Japanese really do go quite overboard on Christmas – but not as we know it. The following aspects of a Japanese Christmas may surprise y

1. The Christmas lights are incredible

Tokyo tower

Most impressive of all Japanese festivities are the Christmas “illuminations”, as you will know if you checked out David’s photos last week. In comparison with my hometown in Hertfordshire, England, where the council won’t put up Christmas lights because “we have the wrong type of lampposts” (yeah, right); pretty much every city, town and hamlet in Japan has its own dazzlingly over-the-top light display that frankly puts our efforts over here in the UK to shame. As I mentioned in a post a few weeks back, there are a great number of illuminations to choose from if you’re planning a trip to Japan in the winter – some consisting of literally millions and millions of lights.

For an idea of the popularity of Christmas illuminations in Japan, you need only click here.

2. Christmas is actually Santa’s birthday

Unlike everywhere else in the world, Christmas in Japan is wholly commercialised (Haha. Only kidding).

But joking aside, as Tofugu has astutely pointed out, whilst most Japanese people do realise that Christmas is a celebration of Jesus’s birthday – a significant proportion of actually believe that it is in fact a celebration of Santa’s birthday.

Nevertheless, I think that we can safely say that while the religious element may not have made it to Japan, the “true meaning” of Christmas (presents) has not been lost in translation

3. Christmas is actually Valentine’s Day

Whilst Christmas in Europe and indeed most of the Western world is all about being with your family (AKA getting presents); Christmas in Japan is all about couples.

Christmas Eve in Japan is on par with Valentine’s Day as a lovey-dovey, soppy, sappy, materialistic vom-fest, during which it is de rigueur for you and your other half to spend extravagant amounts of money on each other, wander about ooh-ing and aah-ing at illuminations, and spend the evening gazing into one another’s eyes over a glass of wine and a romantic… bucket of KFC. (Yes, KFC. More on this in a moment.)

It is also apparently “a thing” for a young gentleman to book a hotel room for himself and his young lady on Christmas Eve – which perhaps explains the existence of Christmas-themed love hotels. (FYI, love hotels are Japanese hotels that you can rent out by the hour. They come in a range of incredible, tacky-as-hell themes – Christmas apparently being one of them.)

Hotel Chapel Christmas, Osaka (photo: www.weirdandwonderfulhotels.com)

Hotel Chapel Christmas, Osaka (photo: http://www.weirdandwonderfulhotels.com)

4. Christmas cake ain’t Christmas cake. And women are also Christmas cakes.

Christmas cake is also a big Christmas thing in Japan, having made its way to Japan over hundred years ago, courtesy of the Fujiya confectionary company. But while in the UK Christmas cake is an alcohol-laden fruit cake covered in marzipan and icing, Japanese Christmas cake is usually a vanilla-flavoured sponge with whipped cream and strawberries.

Japanese Christmas cake (photo: blogs.transparent.com)

Japanese Christmas cake (photo: blogs.transparent.com)

Another interesting (and now, thankfully, largely outdated) factoid about Christmas cake in Japan is that it can also be slang for a woman over the age of 25. This is because, as the saying goes, a woman over 25 is like Christmas cake after the 25th: on the shelf. Brutal.

5. Christmas dinner is KFC

This has to be the strangest aspect of Christmas in Japan. Instead of roast turkey and Brussels sprouts, in Japan Kentucky Fried Chicken is the order of the day. Here’s the proof:

But why? Well, according to KFC’s official line, it all began in the early 70s when an unwitting foreigner, unable to find a Christmas turkey in Japan, decided that KFC was the next best thing. KFC employees (who were apparently eavesdropping at the time) took note, and in 1974 the brand launched a wildly successful advertising campaign propagating the slogan クリスマスはケンタッキー “Kurisumasu wa Kentakki”: “Christmas is Kentucky”.

"Christmas is Kentucky"

“Christmas is Kentucky”

And whaddya know? It stuck. A combination of Japan’s amazing ability to take any foreign import and make it their own (kitkats, toilets, vending machines… it was only a matter of time before they Japanified Christmas), the fact that there are no turkeys in Japan, that most Japanese houses don’t have an oven in which to cook a roast dinner, and that Colonel Sanders kinda looks like Santa – a Kentucky Christmas just really worked for Japan. In fact, eating fried chicken is now such an ingrained part of Christmas in Japan that KFC restaurants are booked up literally months in advance, and most Japanese don’t realise that the rest of us don’t go to KFC at Christmas.

So there you have it. We hope you enjoyed our guide to Christmas in Japan – and if you know of any other unusual Japanese Christmas traditions, let us know in the comments below! Meri Kurisumasu!

Japanese Hamsters

We are keen to expose all things Japanese on our blog. This doesn’t just mean features about travel, but all elements of interesting and sometimes quirky culture from the Land of the Rising Sun….and so I come on to something that I never thought I would be blogging about…Hamsters. Yes. I do mean those little furry creatures that make popular pets. The reason that I am writing about hamsters, is all down to my latest favourite Twitter feed from Japan.

@kawamabesatou has a massive 58k followers on Twitter. Why so popular you may ask?….Who doesn’t want to see lots of pictures of various breeds of hamster in a miniature bar or perhaps a tatami room with miniature bottles of alcohol, sushi, kitchen utensils and more. This guy has gone to a lot of trouble making miniature models for his little hamsters to set them up in little hamster versions of the human world that we live in. Forget hamster wheels – pah!

This picture gives you an idea as to the scale of @kawamabesatou’s work.

Minature

I suppose that this all goes back to IJTBen’s piece on Japan’s obsession with miniaturising things.

This guy means business though and his pictures are hilarious. Here’s the life of of @kawamabesatou’ s hamsters at the bar, at various restaurants and at home…

A bit of food

Yakisoba

hamster10

Sandwhich

Hamster and sake

Over done it again

Time for coffee

Spot of reading

hamster9

hamster home

All pictures are from @kawamabesatou Twitter feed. Otsukare sama!

11 reasons to visit Japan in the winter

In the autumn there are the turning leaves, in the summer there’s hot sun and lush green landscapes, and in the spring there is (of course) the famous cherry blossom.

When there are these wonderful seasons to travel to Japan, why choose to come in the bitter depths of winter? Well, I’ll let you in on a secret: winter is actually the best time to travel to Japan.

Shibuya in the snow

Shibuya in the snow

OK – so the claim isn’t unqualified. Winter in Japan has its attendant inconveniences, just like any other season. For instance, on the day my family arrived in Tokyo in February for their winter Japan holiday, it was the heaviest snowstorm the city had seen for fifty years (which is just typical). If you can’t put up with cold weather, the chances are that winter in Japan is not for you. But if you’re anything like me, the following reasons will be more than enough to persuade you that winter in Japan is the best season of all.

 

1) There are no crowds

It is a fact universally acknowledged that in Japan, there are crowds. Lots of them. It’s part of the charm of the experience: Tokyo’s Shibuya scramble crossing wouldn’t be quite the same without the swarms of pedestrians, and would the cherry blossom be as enjoyable without the festive atmosphere and parties gathered beneath the trees?

But if you are allergic to queues and the thought of a squashed subway carriage sends you running for the hills, consider travelling in the winter. Throughout the colder months you will find many of the country’s most iconic sights almost completely deserted – and none the worse for being wreathed in snow or touched with a hint of frost.

Kinkaku-ji's Golden Pavilion is at its best in the snow, as we found in Kyoto.

Kinkaku-ji’s Golden Pavilion is at its best in the snow, as we found in Kyoto.

A dusting of snow on Mount Koya added to the eerie atmosphere of  Okunoin Cemetery.

A dusting of snow on Mount Koya added to the eerie atmosphere of Okunoin Cemetery.

 

2) Snowsports

Japan is over 70% mountainous, boasts over 500 ski resorts and receives some of the world’s most reliable snowfall thanks to icy winds blowing in across the sea from Siberia. All this considered, it’s pretty much the most epic snowsports location in the universe.

Japan’s ski resorts go from the absolutely minuscule to the world-class, with incredibly long, sweeping runs and superb powder snow. Having hosted the Winter Olympics in 1972 and 1998 and the Asian Winter games numerous times – and Japan being Japan – ski resort infrastructure and hospitality is generally top-notch – with après-ski to rival anywhere in the world.

Enjoying the slopes in Hakuba ski resort in Nagano Prefecture for New Year 2014

The author enjoying the slopes in Hakuba ski resort in Nagano Prefecture for New Year 2014

View over Hakuba, one of the locations for the 1998 Winter Olympics

The view over Hakuba on the first day of 2014. Hakuba was one of the locations for the 1998 Winter Olympics.

Lots of Japanese people go skiing at the weekend, so it’s super easy to incorporate a day of skiing into a winter itinerary – but I recommend a week or more!

 

3) Snow monkeys

No winter trip to Japan would be complete without a visit to the hot spring-bathing snow monkeys of Yudanaka, in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture.

Monkeys in the hot spring at Jigokudani Monkey Park

Monkeys in the hot spring at Jigokudani Monkey Park, Feb 2014

Yudanaka is a tiny, quaint hot spring town with some lovely traditional inns and plenty of onsen hot spring baths for the chilly traveller to warm up in. It is about an hour’s walk along icy, wooded paths from the town to Jigokudani monkey park, but when you finally arrive you’re rewarded with a flock (gaggle? what’s the collective noun for monkeys?) incredibly cute Japanese macaques hanging out in their hot spring and even throwing the odd snowball or two.

A baby Japanese macaque at Yudanaka's Jigokudani Monkey Park

A baby Japanese macaque at Yudanaka’s Jigokudani Monkey Park.

 

4) Warm sake

When there’s snow on the ground and you’re huddled inside your traditional ryokan inn or an izakaya pub, what better excuse to order a bottle of hot sake to warm the cockles of your heart?

Sake is Japan’s native rice wine (known as nihonshu in Japanese), and comes in a huge variety of types and qualities. It can be served warm or cold, and there’s nothing better than coming in after a long day in the cold for a lovely warming brew (or two, or three, or four).

Warm sake poured from a ceramic bottle - designed to keep the liquid warm for the longest amount of time.

Warm sake poured from a ceramic bottle – designed to keep the liquid warm for the longest amount of time.

 

5) Onsen hot spring baths

It doesn’t have to be chilly to enjoy a nice soak in a hot spring, but in my opinion there’s simply nothing like sinking into a lovely, steamy rotenburo (outdoor bath) when there are snowflakes falling all around you.

Hot springs (or onsen as they are known in Japanese) are an integral part of Japanese culture, and there are resorts dedicated to onsen bathing up and down the country – ranging from traditional cedar-panelled bathhouses to huge, themed hot spring complexes where you can bathe in red wine or milk and honey.

The onsen hot spring bath at Jinpyokaku ryokan in Yudanaka.

The onsen hot spring bath at Jinpyokaku ryokan in Yudanaka.

Watch this space for a post on Japan’s most magical onsen baths!

 

6) Kotatsu

Japan gets bloody cold in the winter, but the Japanese have come up with a great solution: the kotatsu.

A kotatsu is a low table fringed with a thick quilt with a heater underneath the top. The idea is that you sit cross-legged with the quilt over your knees to warm up your toesicles – but they are also great for napping underneath! In winter you’ll find kotatsu in most traditional Japanese-style inns, and some bars will even have them outside so you can combine 4) and 6) whilst watching the world go by!

Kotatsu at Jinpyokaku ryokan inn, Yudanaka

Kotatsu at Jinpyokaku ryokan inn, Yudanaka

 

7) Sapporo Yuki Matsuri 

If you are in the habit of reading the InsideJapan blog, you’ll know that festivals abound in Japan. One of the most impressive of all takes place in Sapporo, capital city of the comparatively little-visited northern island of Hokkaido.

The Sapporo Yuki Matsuri, or snow festival, is a winter celebration of epic proportions. For a few days every year, the streets and open spaces of the city are filled with giant snow and ice sculptures up to 20 metres tall and 30 metres wide, with toboggan runs, games, ice bars and all sorts of fun for all ages to join in. If you’ve ever fancied seeing a giant replica of the pyramids of Giza in snow, this is the festival for you.

YM2

YM3

YM4

Please note that this festival is very popular (because it’s very awesome), so you’ll need to book accommodation in Sapporo well in advance.

 

8) Red-crowned cranes

crane2

If you’re in Hokkaido for the Yuki Matsuri, why not make your way to Tsurui to witness one of Japan’s most enchanting natural events? Every winter Japan’s red-crowned crane population congregates in Tsurui to mate, performing intricate and seemingly choreographed mating dances together. It’s an amazing sight, and you can be privy to it at the Tsurui-Ito Tancho Sanctuary.

crane1

Mating dance of the red-crowned crane at Tsurui crane reserve, Hokkaido.

 

9) Illuminations

In Japan, where the national love of festivals is surpassed only by the love of lighting stuff up, illuminations are another winter must-see. The Halloween decorations are barely down before every city centre in Japan is suddenly flooded with thousands of twinkling fairy lights. Throughout the season my walk home from work through Nagoya was a winter wonderland, and attending illuminations is a favourite romantic pastime for loved-up Japanese couples.

There are some pretty spectacular illuminations throughout Japan in the winter, so if you’re planning a trip there’s bound to be something awesome going on near you. In Tokyo you should head to Tokyo Midtown to see the ‘starlight garden’; in Kanagawa you can visit the Kanto region’s largest light show at the Sagamiko Resort Pleasure Forest; and for the biggest show in all Japan, make your way to Mie Prefecture for the Nabana no Sato Winter Illumination, which boasts around 7 million LED bulbs.

Illuminations at Mie Prefecture's Nabana no Sato

Illuminations at Mie Prefecture’s Nabana no Sato

nabana2

10) Shirakawago

A preserved, traditional village in the Japanese Alps that was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1995 for its wonderful collection of original thatched farmhouses, Shirakawago is a superb place to visit at any time of year – but it’s particularly spectacular in the winter.

The farmhouses are called gassho zukuri, or ‘praying hands’ because of the steep pitch of their roofs – designed to cope with the heavy snowfall in this alpine region. If you decide to visit, I highly recommend arranging to spend the night at one of these farmhouses (some of which have been converted into traditional inns) for a totally unique experience that you won’t find anywhere else!

A gassho zukuri farmhouse

A gassho zukuri farmhouse

And, of course, you can’t leave without seeing the view from the observation point above the village. On certain days in January and February each year (click here for this year’s dates) the village is illuminated (see, I told you they like lighting stuff up), creating one of Japan’s most picturesque winter scenes.

Shirakawago illuminated in the winter

Shirakawago illuminated in the winter

 

11) You can actually see Mount Fuji

This article was going to be called ’10 reasons to visit Japan in the winter’ – but then I went and thought of another one!

Now, I’m going to have to put my hands up and confess, I have never been blessed with a glimpse of Fuji-san. Not from the pirate ship across Lake Ashi, not from the plane, not from the bullet train – nada. The fact is, Mount Fuji may be a Japanese icon, but she is also notoriously shy – hiding her face behind clouds and haze for most of the year.

If you want the best chance of seeing Fuji-san, guess what? You have to go in the winter!

Fuji looking her finest with clear winter skies

Fuji looking her finest against clear winter skies

InsideJapan Tours organised my family’s fantastic winter holiday to Japan in February, and can organise any (or all) of the items on this list. (Well, we can’t guarantee a sighting of Mount Fuji, so anything apart from that). Get in touch to find out how you can visit snow monkeys, sweep down ski slopes, soak in a hot spring and snuggle up under a kotatsu this winter!

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