Cool things to do in Tokyo – 47 Ronin

Amy from Inside Japan‘s US office was recently travelling around Japan doing a bit of research. We all know Tokyo pretty well, but there is always something new to discover….even if it is old….

As visitors soon discover, Tokyo is a big place—it would take decades of sightseeing and wandering to say that you had seen everything it had to offer, and even then you will have been defeated as something is always opening or closing or “under renewal.” As a one-time resident and now re-occurring tourist, I like to mix and match my time in Tokyo so that I see my favorite spots, or places I have good memories of, with ones that I’ve never seen.

You may have heard of the 47 Ronin…even if it is only the recent Keanu Reeves version of the classic Japanese mpvie.

 

Inspired by recent client requests for samurai-related places in Tokyo, I made the trek out to Sengakuji Temple, better known as the final resting place of the “47 Ronin.” Like most places in Tokyo, the original temple burned down during World War Two, but fortunately the graveyard survived intact and is about 300 years old.

47 Ronin - Tokyo‘Trek’ is a bit misleading, though, as the temple is located just about 5 minutes on foot from Sengakuji Station on the Toei Asakusa subway and was easy to find after I stopped following people going to a nearby graduation ceremony. I had the temple almost to myself as it was Sunday, so I could wander as I pleased trying to decipher all the Japanese information (only later did I find the English pamphlet, sold alongside the incense, for a very reasonable 10yen). With this in hand, I found out that not only was this the temple where the 47 Ronin had brought the head of enemy lord to present before the grave of their former lord (washing it in the well), but also that the trees just beginning to bloom were, in fact, NOT sakura but plum trees, to my immense consternation as I had taken about 20 pictures of them. Thank goodness I had the pamphlet to save me from disgrace of announcing wrongfully that the sakura were blooming in Tokyo—best 10yen I’ve ever spent.

47 Ronin - Tokyo

There’s also a memorial museum on the grounds dedicated to the 47 Ronin (or ‘Ako Gishi’ as they’re called in Japanese). If you wasnt added ambience, visit in December for the festival remembering the 47 Ronin.

 

 

Inuyama Matsuri – Blossom and festivals

Last weekend, Nate, Pepijn and I (all from the IJT Nagoya office!) headed to Inuyama festival (犬山祭り). Inuyama is a town just 20 minutes train journey from Nagoya, and is rapidly growing into a really vibrant tourist destination. It is home to Japan’s oldest castle (Well, sort of! Construction actually began on Matsumoto castle before Inuyama, but Inuyama was completed first – you decide which takes the prize!).

View from the top of Inuyama castle

View from the top of Inuyama castle

Leading through the town centre from the castle is a lovely street lined with Edo-style frontages housing a variety of shops, cafes, restaurants and museums. On an ordinary day this is pleasantly quiet, but during the festival it was packed to the gills with people. Food stalls, or “yatai,” line the streets all the way from Inuyama Station to the castle, selling everything from chocolate-coated bananas and chicken skewers to delicious “dango” dumplings and bean-paste mochi. Of course, we made sure to take advantage of the full range of culinary offerings – and were even forcibly bought a round of beers by a strange old Japanese man. Bonus!

Ready to roll: the festival floats after being hung with their lanterns

Ready to roll: the festival floats after being hung with their lanterns

We tried our hand at throwing ninja shuriken (throwing stars), and I think it’s probably safe to say that I’m never going to qualify as a ninja, as much as it pains me to admit it. Childhood dream smashed. There were also a couple of stalls where you could win your own baby terrapin – a far cry from the goldfish-in-a-bag combo of my own childhood!

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Finally, when twilight came, the huge, lantern-laden floats that are the real focus of the festival were paraded through the streets. At the very top of the floats are “karakuri” puppets, which you inspect up close at the museum of Japanese toys on the approach to the castle, and at the bottom tier were children chanting and banging drums to the tune of eerie flute music. The costumes they were are incredibly elaborate, and can cost millions of yen. Most impressively of all, however, each float was decorated with hundreds of lanterns, each lit with a real candle – no cheating here!

Children being carried towards the floats before the parade begins

Children being carried towards the floats before the parade begins

Parade in full swing

Parade in full swing

The castle, which has just finished undergoing refurbishment, was also looking very photogenic in the floodlights, surrounded by sakura.

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Inuyama festival, though becoming steadily more and more frequented, has yet to reach the heights of popularity attained by similar events such as Takayama festival, but it’s every bit as good. If you’re staying in Nagoya or anywhere nearby during April, make sure you come down and check it out!

Sakura by the light of the festival lanterns. Beautiful!

Sakura by the light of the festival lanterns. Beautiful!

My Favourite place in Japan – Halley Trujillo

Halley is one of our star team members, currently based in the Boulder office, but soon to be based back in Japan and our Nagoya office. Like all at InsideJapan, Halley spent a number of years living and working over there. It’s no surprise that the places that we’ve lived during our time in Japan, have an influence over us with regards to our favourite place in the country. Halley is no different. So, here’s Halley’s favourite place in Japan….

Halley

Only a 1 hour train ride separates the bustling metropolis of Nagoya and the peaceful mountain town of Komono. Nestled within the Suzuka Mountain Range in northern Mie Prefecture, Komono offers a refreshing wealth of nature.

Komono

Upon arrival, Mt. Gozaisho greets you on the west as the crisp clean air rejuvenates city worn travelers. The town motto of “Genki up!”  or “High Energy!” describes this burst of vitality and is embodied by Komono locals. When encountered, they will gladly take you to the see the view from the top of town hall then get to know you while soaking in the free footbaths. If you’re lucky they will take you to a café to try makomo desserts made from Komono’s namesake grass root, just don’t let the green color put you off! It is well known that Komono locals are very excited to share their beloved hometown.

Komono lifeYou will be excited yourself when heading toward the mountain area of Yunoyama Onsen. Adventurous hiking routes snake up Mt. Gozaisho with a rewarding view at the top for challengers. There is also the option to enjoy the scenery as you ride the longest ropeway in Japan up the rocky slope. Be sure to keep an eye out for the elusive kamoshika deer and monkeys. Once you reach the peak, you can appreciate the breathtaking 360 degree view where on clear days it is even rumored you can see all the way to Mt. Fuji! While at the summit, you can enjoy outdoor activities and the seasonal sights of stunning spring wild flowers, fiery autumn colors and wintry ice sculptures.

Komono OnsenWhether coming down from a hike or ropeway journey, you will surely enjoy relaxing in one of the hot springs awaiting you. The historical “Kibousou” hot spring offers an unbeatable mountain night view. If you are looking for a modern hot spring experience, the recently renewed “Iqua x Ignis” offers a chic new feel to onsen. Next door is a delicious world renowned bakery that offers a variety of locally inspired unique cakes and sweets. They sell out quickly, so line up early to get a taste!

Komono FestivalsNo doubt that Komono is most spirited during its festivals throughout the year. The “Touka festival” in July is a display of teamwork where individually designed lanterns are combined to create an inspiring illumination. This is paired with the big town obon dance to celebrate those who have passed and keep them connected. Komono’s most famous festival is the “Souhei Festival” in October. Good fortune is brought to businesses along the mountain slope as a shrine set aflame is carried up by local young men. True town spirit is felt through the bravery and strength the men show.

Komono StrengthThough not yet well known throughout worldwide or even within Japan, Komono is undoubtedly worthy of the pride felt by its citizens. With gorgeous scenery, delicious treats, and unmatched spirit, Komono offers something for mind, body and soul. Please come and genki up in Komono!

A Cock and Boob Story

Everyone knows how much the Japanese love their festivals – from the biggest tug-of-war in the world Okinawa to setting an entire mountain on fire in Nara. According to my sources, there are probably about 200,000 festivals held in Japan each year. This seems a reasonable – perhaps even a conservative – estimate if you take into account that there are about 100,000 shrines and temples in Japan and each holds at least 1 festival and up to 70 festivals per year. And that’s not even including all the national and local festivals.

There are naked festivals (Hadaka Matsuri) where thousands of naked men scramble over each other to grab a pair of lucky sticks; snow festivals (Yuki Matsuri) with amazing snow sculptures; a whole bunch of fire festivals (which I wrote about here a few weeks ago); festivals where sumo wrestlers hold up babies to see which one will cry first while priests try to scare them; a belly-button festival in Hokkaido where participants paint faces on their stomachs and hide their heads under giant hats… there is even a festival where a sumo wrestler has a sumo match with the spirit of the rice plant (AKA with himself).

You know those nicely decorated wooden plaques (Ema 絵馬) that you write wishes on at Shinto shrines? Well you'll never look at them in the same way again...

You know those nicely decorated wooden plaques (Ema 絵馬) that you write wishes on at Shinto shrines? Well you’ll never look at them in the same way again…

A few weekends ago, I discovered that not only was there a Fertility “penis” Festival happening only a few minutes away by train from Nagoya – but that it was in the very same town as the boob temple I have been meaning to visit ever since I got here! There could be no better reason for combining two types of sexual-organ-themed entertainment in one day, so off I trotted to the unassuming, genitalia-loving town of Komaki.

The blueprint for Japanese festivals is essentially: stuff your face with food from all the stalls that spring up around the temple, mill around for a bit, then watch a parade – and this one was no different. Except that the food was shaped like willies and instead of praying to your standard altar, you were praying to a giant wooden penis.
The parade itself had everything I could have wished for from a penis parade. After the various old men dressed in traditional clothing and throwing salt around the place, there was this guy:

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There were young ladies cradling wooden willies and inviting members of the crowd to stroke them for luck:

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There was this extraordinary banner, slowly undulating in the wind:

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And finally, the piece de resistance, a giant wooden penis being carried in its own portable shrine, which every so often would be swung around wildly on the spot by its bearers:

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Oh, and there were also people giving out free sake. Perfect.

After all that excitement we still had the Boob Shrine (Mamma Kannon) to look forward to! And this was perhaps even stranger. Anyone who has been to Japan will know that shrines dedicated to penises are really not that unusual, but this appears to be the only temple in the whole of Japan that is dedicated to the humble woman’s breasts.

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After passing these delightful lactating ladies, the rest was basically standard temple fare – but boob-themed. The way to worship here seemed to be to kneel down in front of a pair of granite boobies, massage them with a sort of brush-like object and then touch it on your own head. People seemed to be taking it very seriously, anyway.

Mamma Kannon’s “Ema” were, of course, breast- and fertility-themed too. Some were hoping for a healthy baby or for a relative’s safe recovery from breast cancer, but most of them just seemed to be requests to the boob-gods for more covetable chesticles.

Mamma Kannon's collection of "Ema"

Mamma Kannon’s collection of “Ema”

A typical "ema"

A typical “ema”

A shrine patron here wishes for her humble AA cups to become C cups...

A shrine patron here wishes for her humble AA cups to become C cups…

Even if you don't understand Japanese, you can still look at the diagrams

Even if you don’t understand Japanese, you can still look at the diagrams

I don't really know what to say about this one

I don’t really know what to say about this one

And at last, as we were leaving, we came upon this – where you can have your photo taken as a baby groping your mother’s breast. Why not?

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And that is that for my fun-filled Saturday in Komaki! I hope you enjoyed it.

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There are many interesting aspects to Japanese culture. We can help you discover it.

Japan Goodies Competition

This is our busiest season. Everyone wants to get out to see the magnificent cherry blossom, which is of course understandable. In fact we have over 1200 people travelling with InsideJapan and our sisters at InsideVietnam through March and April, with 137 people flying off to Tokyo this weekend alone!

Anyway, with all this Japan fever going on, we thought we would run a little competition in order to win a few Japanese goodies. We have four prize lots fresh from Japan.

Japanese sweets
With their cute little packaging, we are offering chocolate baby bamboo, chocolate koalas, green tea chocolate and more.

Japanese Sweets

Japanese Sweets

Japanese character goods
Here we have a small selection including Hello Kitty sweets and towel ,Pikachu keyring and a Doraemon mobile phone strap.

Japanese Character goods

Japanese Character goods

Japanese savoury snacks
A few packs of prawn flavoured crisps and dried fish…mmm…

Japanese savoury snacks

Japanese savoury snacks

Japanese odd
These are a bit random. We have eyelid-makers (?), teeth-whitening set (more like tipex) and a nice fan (actually quite nice).

Japanese odd

Japanese odd

We are asking you for your ‘selfies’ from Japan or if you are not heading to Japan any time soon, your Japan inspired ‘selfie’ ie. Wearing a yukatta, eating sushi etc.

Spin the chopsticks

Spin the chopsticks

Please send us your “selfies” via Facebook or Twitter, mention us and we will pick the best four selfies. We will then spin the chopsticks to reveal your prize.

Geisha selfie

Geisha selfie

What you need to do:

Take a selfie (picture of you taken by yourself) in Japan or inspired by Japan.

Post it on our Facebook page OR Tweet the picture mentioning @insidejapan #Japanselfie

Deadline: April 11th 2014

More prizes to give away soon!

Japanese mascot mania

Yura-KyaraPeople often link Japan with the cute and kitsch. Japan is also known for its manga and anime and a love of characters. Mascots are a big deal in Japan. You will see oversized mascots everywhere representing official government bodies, corporations and even whole cities and prefectures. ‘Yura-Kyara’ or ‘Loose Characters’ (called so, because the characters are imperfect, oversized versions of what they should be) have become big business as the characters popularity is associated with the organisation/area that they represent and can generate a lot of income.


The most recent Yura-Kyara of note is Kumamon – a cuddly bear who represents the prefecture of Kumamoto. The mascot is said to have generated over 124 billion yen in revenue since it won the ‘Yura-Kyara Grand Prix back in 2011. The city of Kumamoto is famous for its historical castle, but the bear was responsible for huge amounts of merchandising and an influx of Japanese tourism to the city.

By the way, that was “grand prix” I mentioned. Every year there is an all-Japan cuddly character competition where local governments and organisations nationwide submit their cute entry in the hope that they will take the country by storm. Bari-san the egg shaped bird from Imabari was one winner back in 2012 and 2013 saw Funasshi, the slightly overactive “pear fairy” representing Funabashi in Chiba prefecture stole the hearts of the voting Japanese public. Unfortunately, my favourite, Gunma-chan has finished 3rd placed in the Grand-prix over the last two years. Ganbare Gunma-chan!


Whether you like the mascots or not, they are most definitely a part of Japanese culture and you will see them all over. We often refer to the food specialities or ‘meibutsu’ from around Japan, but perhaps you might consider doing a tour of Japan’s Yura Kyara. Could provide plenty of great photos.

Enjoying Tokyo for Free

Tokyo’s reputation as an expensive place to visit is slowly changing. The word is out that the hedonistic days and astronomical prices of Tokyo’s “bubble period” are a thing of the past. In their place is a city that is more interesting, more diverse and more inviting then ever. After the bubble burst, prices of things fell and standards of living have gone on steadily rising.

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These days, Tokyoites are more interested in their free time than they are in lifetime employment. And it’s hard to blame them when they have both sandy beaches and scenic mountains at their doorstep. Not too mention the fact that residents and visitors alike enjoy access to some of the world’s best cafes, shopping, museums, architecture and cuisine anywhere in the world. Indeed, even on a small budget, Tokyo’s delicious street food gourmet, extensive public transportation and endless shopping can feel like a bargain. But those in the know might be tempted to ask, why spend money at all when so much can be had for free? Here are some of my favorite free things to do in Tokyo (with plenty more to come in the future!).

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Tokyo has fantastic museums of nearly every kind. From modern art and photography to emerging science and national treasures, there is truly something for everyone. Unfortunately, while free museums have become the norm in many of the world’s major cities, many of the Tokyo’s best museums still charge for the privilege of admission. However, if you’re willing to visit slightly lesser known museums, you will have a plethora to choose from. Places like the Tokyo Water Science Museum and the Japanese Stationary Museum are sure to show you something that few travelers to Japan’s capital ever see.  Or, you could check out the Japan Police Museum.

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Even though it’s short on English explanation, exploring these hallowed halls makes for a fascinating hour of browsing. As you go through the building floor by floor you glimpse of what crime fighting in Japan is all about. Computer games, a driving simulator and plenty of cool vehicles make this a great place to visit with kids. The museum is just a two minute walk from Exit 7 of Ginza-Itchome Station and equally near from Exit 1 of Kyobashi Station.

Alternatively, if the Police museum is a bit too mainstream for your tastes, how about checking out a museum dedicated entirely to parasites! The Parasitological museum near Meguro Station is the world’s only parasite museum, somewhat unsurprisingly if you ask me. Nevertheless, it’s more interesting than it probably sounds and the gift shop is fantastic!

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The Mitsubishi Ichigokan is only a two or three minute walk from Tokyo station and the perfect place to escape from the hustle and bustle of nearby Ginza and Marunouchi. A faithful reconstruction of one of the first Western style buildings in Tokyo, the Ichigokan Museum has a beautiful courtyard with popular and well-known restaurants and ever changing exhibitions of art, usually from overseas. But instead of paying for the temporary exhibits, you can head in to the ‘archive room‘ to learn a bit about the history of Japan’s Marunouchi district – an area whose importance dates back to when this city housed the powerful Shogunate and was still known as Edo. Models, videos, and state of the art touch screen tours await.

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Of all the free activities in Tokyo, it’d be hard to beat an afternoon taking in some of the cities eclectic but always talented street performers. From the rockabilly dancers of Yoyogi to the popular Ani Zo, there’s always a free show to be had. Many of these relatively unknown groups have small cult followings that come to see their favorite performers on a regular basis and sing along with every chorus – my personal favorite is a rock and roll shamisen player! The best places to catch live performances tends to be in Shinjuku and Harajuku. In Shinjuku, wait until after the sun has gone down and then have a wonder around the station’s West Exit. In Harajuku, you’re better off waiting until the weekend to catch the many performers that gather in Yoyogi Park, adjacent to Harajuku Station. Midday on Saturday tends to be the best.

If it’s works of art that you’re after, Tokyo has plenty to choose from. While museums like the Mori are well worth a visit, if you want to check out work by lesser know artists, have a look at some of the city’s many galleries. Both plentiful and well-curated, Tokyo’s galleries have plenty to impress even the most demanding connoisseurs. The following are just a few to get you started but rest assured, the list of world class galleries in Tokyo is a long one.

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SCAI The Bathhouse is everything that you could want from a contemporary art gallery – the work of some of Japan’s most intriguing up-and-coming artists exhibited in a traditional Japanese bath house. The Fuji Film Square Photo Salon stands as a reminder that photography remains an art form that goes far beyond the point and shoot world that most of us live in. In the heart of Ginza lies what is often referred to as Japan’s oldest gallery, at the Shiseid0 gallery, a wide range of art goes on display for any who care to visit. At AKAAKA, a more avante garde selection of artists is on display; my personal favorite raises money for the victims of 2011s tsunami – see the video below to learn more about Munemasa Takahashi’s ‘Lost & Found Project’.

 

And finally… I saved the best for last. On you next visit to Tokyo, how about stopping by the Yebisu Beer Museum? While there is little doubt that the so-called tasting salon tends to be peoples’ favorite, the history of the beer is fascinating. Not only does it give a glimpse into Japan’s uneasy fascination with the West, it gives a very good sense of how beer came to flourish in what was once a sake drinkers dominion. Don’t miss it!

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Family Adventures in Japan

After several weeks in the Nagoya office researching and writing about Japan for our destination guides, this month I finally had the chance to travel to some of the places I’d read so much about! Joining me on my travels  (which were planned and organised here at IJT to include a little bit of something for everyone) were my family and my boyfriend, Adam.

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Like so many travellers, we chose to begin our adventure in Tokyo. Unlike most travellers, however, we found our first-day plans thwarted by the worst snowstorm seen in the city for nearly fifty years! After having spent several weeks assuring my Mum that Japan wasn’t going to be that cold, this threatened to throw a spanner in the works. Looking out over Tokyo from the new Skytree tower isn’t as great in a blizzard, I’ve heard. Nevertheless we managed to fight our way out of the hotel for an Izakaya-style dinner and a few drinks in Ginza to toast the start of the trip.

Day One. uh-oh.

Day One. uh-oh.

On our second day the weather gods smiled upon us, the skies cleared, and Tokyo was transformed into a sparkling white landscape quite unlike the city I had visited many times before. After surveying the transformation from the top of the Metropolitan Government Buildings our guide took us on a whistle-stop tour of the city – beginning at a Shinto wedding at the Meiji Shrine, on through the candy-coloured shops of Harajuku to Shibuya’s scramble crossing and finally the dubious delights of Akihabara. Here we opted to end our tour with a coffee in a Maid Café – an experience that left most of us rather bemused, and left my sister convinced that she had found her dream profession.

A plastic food-making workshop at Kappabashi-dori, a visit to Odaiba’s giant Gundam statue and the Studio Ghibli Museum, an Okonomiyaki lunch and shopping spree in Asakusa later, it was time for us to hop on the Shinkansen bound for the other end of Honshu – and Hiroshima.

Making plastic food on Kappabashi-dori

Making plastic food on Kappabashi-dori

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Here we spent the afternoon mulling over the contents of the peace museum before making our way to Miyajima by ferry, where we spent two lovely nights at the Yamaichi Bekkan. The food here was delicious (especially the Oysters – a local speciality), the owner incredibly friendly, and the peaceful island atmosphere the perfect tonic after a frenetic few days in the capital.

For anyone planning to walk to the top of Miyajima’s Mt. Misen, however, a word to the wise: when the IJT destination guide describes the route as “arduous,” you’d better believe it! We lost count of how many steps we climbed (and how many slips on the ice!) by the time we reached the top, but the views over the Seto Inland Sea were well worth it in the end.

View from the top of Mt. Misen

View from the top of Mt. Misen

The highlight of our time in Miyajima was coming across the biggest shamoji (rice paddle) in the world. Truly a covetable accolade:

Adam, Mum, Wolfie, and the world's largest rice paddle.

Adam, Mum, Wolf, and the world’s largest rice paddle.

The next stop on our journey was Kyoto, and yet more snow! As our guide whisked us from temple to shrine, we were impressed with the ingenuity of Nijo Castle’s “Nightingale floor” – which was devised as a sort of feudal-era burglar alarm to forewarn the inhabitants of intruders, and today makes a rather eerie accompaniment to a tour of the castle. Unfortunately we found the Ryoan-ji rock garden had been transformed by the snow into more of a white rectangle with lumps – but this disappointment was made up for by a visit the Golden Pavilion in all its snowy glory, a sight that few tourists are lucky enough to experience. Add to this a wander through through Gion to the Yakasa Shrine, a stroll to Kiyomizu Temple, a stop at Ninna-ji and another uphill ramble at Fushimi Inari Shrine – and by the end of our stay in Kyoto we were well and truly templed out!

Kinkakuji in the snow

Kinkakuji in the snow

On leaving Kyoto, we swapped the bullet train for a more leisurely ride through the beautiful mountain and river scenery leading us to the last (and snowiest) leg of our journey, which would take in stops at Takayama, Matsumoto, Nagano and finally Yudanaka Onsen.

At the Yamakyu hotel in Takayama we were greeted by a stuffed horse at the keys of a tiny electric piano, and treated to more delicious Japanese food than we could possibly eat. Here we spent a morning exploring the Hida no Sato folk village with its “gassho zukuri” (or “praying hands”) houses and had particular fun attempting to master the old-fashioned bamboo skis and sleds provided. It wasn’t long before curiosity drew us to the Sukyo Mahikari World Shrine, whose unmistakable profile can be seen from all over the valley. Haunting music drifts across the town from the shrine at intervals throughout the day, and inside the vast entrance hall is decked out in an eclectic mix of religious iconography, fake foliage and a giant fish tank – certainly nothing like any other shrine we’d seen in Japan!

Later on, in search of a watering hole, Adam and I stumbled upon a bar roughly the size of a postage stamp, with space for three punters at best and a shelf housing a row of whiskey bottles labeled with their owners’ names. As the elderly proprietress plied us with bowls of unidentifiable vegetables and harangued us to know why we were not married yet, it was easy to feel as though we had inadvertently wandered into a Japanese obaachan’s front room by mistake!

Sukyo Mahikari World Shrine

Sukyo Mahikari World Shrine

Testing the skis at Hida no Sato Folk Village

Testing the skis at Hida no Sato Folk Village

From Takayama we headed (via Matsumoto’s “Black Crow” castle) to Nagano and yet another temple – this time Zennkoji, where we would be staying the night and sampling traditional Buddhist fare, or “Shojin ryori.” At the crack of dawn the next day, some of us even managed to drag ourselves out of bed and into the cold to catch the monks at prayer, before being ushered down into a pitch-dark passage beneath the temple to experience one of the stranger religious customs I’ve encountered in Japan. Here we were instructed to find the key to paradise by feeling our way along the walls of the passage. We found the key, but paradise was not forthcoming.

Matsumoto's Black Crow

Matsumoto’s Black Crow

Finally we made our way to Yudanaka Onsen for the last night of our trip. At Jinpyokaku Ryokan we were provided with the nicest accommodation we’d had so far, and could hardly bring ourselves to leave our beautiful, cozy rooms. But, of course, we had to make our way out to see the famous snow monkeys! Only the day before we arrived the park had been inaccessible due to heavy snow, but we were lucky enough to find that the paths had been reopened just before our arrival – and so I was able to fulfill my long-held ambition to see the monkeys relaxing in the hot spring waters.

Me and Adam at Jigokudani snow monkey park

Adam and me at Jigokudani snow monkey park

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All good things must come to an end, and after prizing ourselves away from the warmth of our kotatsus we made our way back to Tokyo to go our separate ways.

A great big thanks to IJT from all the Cloutmen (and Adam) for a fantastic family trip and some wonderful memories!

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Valentines – Japan with love

Happy CoupleWe have had many happy couples travel with InsideJapan for their Honeymoon and even a few people tie the knot in a traditional Japanese wedding ceremony. But, it all starts way before that with 14th February being the important day of any relationship – Valentines. Of course Valentines holds great meaning across the World right!?….Not exactly. Many think it is a corporate creation exploiting the love of happy couples. Well, in Japan they do Valentines Day a bit different – twice in fact.

Valentines Day in Japan

Valentines Girls

The date is the same, but the practice is a little different. Valentines day in Japan is very much a one way thing. The girls are expected to buy chocolate for the men in their lives. This is not to mean that they only buy chocolates for their Boyfriend/Husband/Partner, but they will buy ‘Giri-choco’ (Lit. Obligation chocolates) for their colleagues and friends too. This is almost expected by their male co-workers too.

What about the men?

A month later on March 14th, men are expected to buy gifts and chocolate on an extra day of commercialism exploiting young love – White Day. The men that had received ‘Giri-choco’ or even ‘Honmei-Choco’ (lit real feeling chocolate). White Day was created in Japan back in 1978 and is often a chance for the girls to make sure they get a good return on the gifts they presented back on Valentines day.

Who says romance is dead. They do Valentines twice in Japan…sort of.

5 things you didn’t know about Japan

I recently put this together for a good travel agent of ours, but thought I would share it on our very own blog…

IshigakiFact 1 – Japan is made up of over 6000 islands

There are four main islands, but the country is actually made up of 6852 islands (big and small). The main island of Honshu is home to the Tokyo Metropolis and the cultural capital of Kyoto. The ‘wild frontier’ of Hokkaido sits in the far north, with rural Shikoku and historical Kyushu in the south.
Mt Fuji
Fact 2 – Japan is 70% mountainous

Japan is certainly not just big cities. Most people envisage big neon lit cities such as Tokyo, but approximately 70% of the country is covered in lush green mountains. A tenth of the worlds active volcanoes are also in Japan. Perhaps the most famous of these is the 3776 metre Mt Fuji.

Niseko Skiing
Fact 3 – Japan has tropical beaches and great skiing

Japan is a country of contrasts which can be seen everywhere in its architecture and culture. It also has a contrasting landscapes and environments. Okinawa in the far south (approximately 1000 miles from Tokyo) consists of a string of tropical islands with white sand beaches, jungle islands and some of the best diving in the world, Meanwhile the far northern island of Hokkaido has some of the best skiing in the world with almost guaranteed buckets of powder snow everyday during the winter months.

Tokyo Sushi

Fact 4 – Japan has the most Michelin starred restaurants in the world

You think of Japan and you probably think of sushi, but it is not all about the raw fish here. There will be dishes that you will have not seen anywhere else in the world adding to the cultural adventure, but there will be a lot of things you do recognise too, suitable for every palette. Tokyo also has the most three star rated restaurants in the world and more Michelin stars than Paris. Japan is a foodie paradise.

…and last but defintely not least….

Taxi

Fact 5 – Japan is not expensive

Japan is not expensive. It was expensive in the 1980′s during the economic boom, but is now generally cheaper than the UK. In the last year, the yen has dropped considerably in value against the pound/dollar and Japan is now about 30% cheaper than it was back at the beginning of 2013.  You can buy a three course lunch for approximately £6, buy a plate of sushi from about 60pence or have an eat and drink as much as you like session at a Izakaya (traditional Japanese pub) for approximately £15. And, one of the best things about Japan is that you get some of the best service in the world, but there is no tipping! – it is almost offensive to do so. Japan is not only cheaper than it was, it is great value meaning more bang for your Yen.

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