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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Christmas in Japan: Similarities and Differences

KFC Christmas

Christianity is not a common religion in Japan. In fact, only about one half of one percent of the population is Christian. Japan is traditionally a Shinto-Buddhist country. However, visitors may be surprised to learn that Christmas is still very popular in Japan….although it is not quite the same as the Christmas you may know. Here are a few similarities and differences…

Christmas is still observed on December 25 in Japan, but it is not a national holiday so schools and businesses remain open as usual.

People like to eat a Christmas dinner, but it is not a turkey or ham that is eatern….oh no…Due to a bit of clever marketing, Kentucky Fried Chicken is the usual place for people to enjoy a taster of western culture. KFC’s around the country often see packed waiting lists for their “Christmas dinner” consisting of a roast /fried chicken, a few potatoes and gravy. The Colonel is often dressed up as Santa as early as November.

Whilst the Christmas food isn’t exactly of the highest quality, Japan does the Christmas lights extremely well indeed. Huge illuminations are very much part of winter in Japan and many of them will have a Christmas element to them. Considering this is not a Christian country, Tokyo feels very Christmassy in the winter months with all sorts of stunning displays. In Japan, Christmas is believed to be a day of romantic miracles, more akin to Valentine’s Day than a religious or family holiday. Couples often exchange romantic gifts or go walking to enjoy Christmas lights.

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If you are not a “Christmas person” you can easily get away from the season. Perhaps head off into the mountains and stay in a Buddhist temple lodging to meditate with the monks or maybe head to the subtropical Okinawa islands and sit back in the warm weather.

Whatever sort of person you are, Japan is as unique as ever in the winter months. You can get a bit of festive holiday cheer with a twist, or avoid it altogether. “Meri Kurisumasu!” For more information about Japanese religion and culture, visit InsideJapan Tours.

For those Crimbo lovers out there, here’s ‘We wish you a Merry Christmas’…in Japanese.

Family travels in Japan

The Basford family originally from the UK and now in Australia travelled to Japan in the Summer. Mum, Dad and 13 year old Tyler dropped us a line and took off to Nippon for a big family adventure. We asked Mum, Julie and Tyler what they thought of Japan…..

Japan has been on our bucket list for a while and as our son is now 13 we felt that he was old enough to appreciate this amazing country and enjoy the travelling.

Family shot from Asakusa

As we had little intention of spending much time in hotels IJT adapted the basic ‘Price Cruncher‘ to take in some extra locations that we had never even heard of before but proved to be one of our highlights. For anyone thinking of a trip to Japan with teenagers here are some of our observations about the trip:

Awesome Shinkansen
Shinkansen and transport generally
We were concerned before leaving about how we would find our way around Japan and get on the right train. It was in fact a good balance between being enough of a challenge to feel like we were on an adventure but not to the extent that it was stressful. The 7 day pass and the Info Pack were awesome and helped us plan ahead and find the right train. Transport was clean, punctual and very comfortable. We generally bought Bento boxes at the station which were cheap and delicious and there was also a trolley service on most trains. We also used buses and trams in most places and once we had figured out the ticketing systems which vary from City to City we were fine. Taxis were reasonable but nowhere near as much fun.

Hearty breakfast

Food
We are not fussy eaters but not great lovers of fish and seafood so we were a bit apprehensive about the food. To say that Japanese food is a culture shock is a complete understatement! The smells, textures and tastes were so different from how we normally eat and we tried some strange and wonderful dishes. We quickly came to enjoy our rice, miso and pickled vegetable breakfasts. For lunch we normally had noodles or bento. In two of our hotels we had the set evening meals which was a real highlight as we tried things we would never normally have ordered including eel sashimi, fish guts pickled in salt and soybean and a whole small blowfish for breakfast.

Black belt tea master!There are vending machines everywhere selling a huge range of drinks – including beer. We booked onto a private tea ceremony in Kyoto which was a magical experience.

Our bath!

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Japanese attitude to bathing is very different from what we are used to in the west so it is as well to check the customs before ending up in the hot water! These may vary from place to place but where we stayed included getting washed thoroughly on little stools before getting into the very hot baths for a soak only, not to get washed. Bathing costumes are not allowed and generally the baths are segregated male and female but are also used privately by families. We are far to Westernised to bath naked with our teenage son so he enjoyed private session to himself!

Green Tea onsen, Hakone

The Hakone Kowakien Yunessun onsen spa resort is a strange and magical place where you bathe in baths containing green tea, red wine and coffee and was a fun day out!

Tyler and Nijo

Temples, shrines and castles
There are numerous fantastic historical buildings and grounds to visit. We went to a large selection with our favourite being the Golden Pavilion, Nijo Castle, Eikan-do Temple, Fushimi Inari Shrine, Daisho-in Temple and Narita Temple.

Kyoto roads

The Philosophers path in Kyoto was a great way to see a variety of different places and a beautiful walk with plenty of refreshment stops along the way. We were also amazed at the lack of crowds but perhaps because it was mid-summer. Don’t forget to take off your shoes at the entrance.

Miyajima and deer

Hiroshima and Miyajima
These palces were not included in our original plans but suggested to us. Visiting ground zero at Hiroshima was a moving experience and the excellent museum gave us context and an appreciation of the devastation. We spent 2 nights on Miyajima which is a magical laid back little island with excellent temples, shrines and scenic views. As we visited in mid-summer it was very hot and humid but on the upside was that it was relatively quiet.

Mount Misen

The trip up Mount Missen was great fun and the climb to the top a challenge in the heat. We stayed in the lovely Benton no Yado ryokan where we had the most amazing food and a fabulous Japanese tatami room.

Other tips
Try the Japanese toilets – Quite an experience. The toilets at the Peace Museum in Hiroshima even had a little button to press to play water sounds to cover up any embarrassing noises!

The Tokyo subway surprisingly quiet except at rush hour where it was hilarious watching commuters squash into trains. The best technique was to enter a completely packed carriage backwards, lean back and push and try not to get any extremities caught in the closing door!

Luggage forwarding – we forwarded luggage from Miyajima to Tokyo taking just small day packs for our 2 nights in Hakone. This made travelling on the buses much easier and all of the bags arrived safely in Tokyo.

Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo is well worth a trip. To guarantee a place at the tuna auctions you need to arrive very early – we had a lie in and went around the wholesale market at 9:00 and were not disappointed.

We packed light and washed clothes as we went. All of our hotels had washing machines which were cheap to use. We just took comfortable shorts and t shirts and never felt under dressed.

Don’t overlook Narita. We spent our last night there to save an early trip from central Tokyo and found it to be a charming little town with a great park and temple complex. We stayed in the very traditional and quirky Kirinoya Ryokan which we loved but may not be to everyone’s taste. Very friendly owner and superb Japanese meals.

Most people spoke reasonable English. We did learn a few basic phrases but didn’t find the language barrier much of a problem.

Samurai Tyler

Luckily we had a few days to rest before going back to work and school as it was not a relaxing holiday. We didn’t do much in the way of shopping, arcades or theme parks but our 13 year old was never bored and had a fantastic experience of a very different culture.

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How to travel with a toddler in Japan

InsideJapan Director, Simon King took the step of visiting Japan with his family which includes a two year old! It was a bold move, but on the back of my trip with my two year old in 2011, they all took the plunge…

This was always going to be a very different visit to Japan – it was to be all about my 2 year daughter old Florence. I am not sure how much of it she will remember but it was certainly memorable for us!

The Kings in Japan

From this 2 week trip I wanted to be able to show Florence a bit of my second home – A bit of modern city life, some of the beautiful Japanese countryside, a good smattering of historic Japan and a bit of the culture that makes this place so special.

First was the dreaded flight…which wasn’t actually that bad. We flew to Japan with Virgin and the flights there and back went pretty much as well as could be expected. 12 hours is a long time in a small space for a 2 year old…but with a good mixture of snacks, toys (a new toy each hour) and strolling up and down it worked pretty well. We had a bassinet and were in the bulk head seats meaning a bit of extra space and even a short sleep.

Whilst in Japan we stayed at a great range of accommodation. The Shiba Park in Tokyo treated us to one of their best rooms with a baby cot, lots of space and views too. In Karuizawa we stayed at the luxurious Hoshinoya Resort were we were treated like Kings (no pun intended). In Nagoya we stayed in a simple but practical apartment – A short walk to the centre. Our stay in Kyoto was at a Machiya, a traditional Kyoto town house beautifully renovated – Lots of space, great cooking facilities and a nice supermarket around the corner with really friendly owners who were happy to advise on everything! We finished off back in Tokyo at the 5 star Shangri-La where we had a nice big room again – Florence enjoyed looking out over Tokyo. We were lucky to be able to stay at these places, but there are all sorts of options for all levels. One thing is prevalent – friendly staff and great service.

Top activities were the Tokyo SkyTree where we loved the views of Mt. Fuji and the huge Tokyo metropolis. Sanrio Puroland where Florence got to meet Hello Kitty  – a big hit. We strolled around the Imperial Palace East Gardens which was nice and relaxing and a good chance for flo to run about – there are lots of nice gardens that double up as parks for kids in Tokyo! In Karuizawa and Kyoto we had two great days on hire bicycles complete with baby seats. Kyoto also saw us visit the must-see temples and enjoy a morning at the new aquarium. In Nagoya, Florence enjoyed a morning at the Kido Kido soft play centre before heading off to Nagoya castle.

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We were blessed with fabulous weather and had a great time. Florence even slept pretty normally after the first few days. Japan is great fun for families with little kids. A trip to Japan with toddlers is also helped hugely that the country is completely safe, spotlessly clean, the people are very tollerant of little kids, public transport works and you can find most things from home in Japan….but better. Here are my tips from our trip -

  • Bring some favourite baby / toddler food with you
  • Plenty of snacks needed at all times – convenience stores are great.
  • Prepare picnics instead of eating at restaurants all the time
  • Use Japanese fast food places – good quality and cheap
  • Just bring nappies for flight and first few days – easy to buy more in Japan
  • Needed 4 days at first location to settle in
  • Don’t try and do everything that you would usually want to do without kids -  one area / activity per day
  • Allow plenty of time to get around
  • You must pre-book cots / family rooms at accommodation
  • Take a baby carrier / back carrier too for ease of getting around
  • Use luggage forwarding

What to do in Japan if…. You’re a Kid!

Traveling to Japan can take on a whole different perspective if you’re a kid. Most travelers from English-speaking countries are intrigued by the country’s different language, dress, architecture and customs, even in modern Japan. If you’re headed with your family to Nippon for a vacation or holiday after school gets out, here are some things that will help your kids learn about Japanese culture while having fun at the same time:  kids in japan

1. Ride a bullet train. Japan’s high-speed trains travel at speeds of up to 320 km/h (200 mph), pretty cool if you’re a kid. These trains are also an efficient way to tour the country.

2. Visit an electronics store. Some of the electronics stores in Tokyo are as big as a New York City or London apartment block. Plus, there stores have items that aren’t yet for sale overseas. They are a teenager’s paradise.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH3. Gaze at the neon lights. The neon billboards in Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood are colorful, fanciful and intriguing, for kids of any age.

4. Master the art of origami. Japan’s paper art is a fascinating and fun way to learn about Japanese culture.

5. Sleep in a traditional Japanese accommodation. Sleeping on the floor, stand-up bath tubs, and paper walls: what’s not to love?

6. Sample ramen noodles. Ramen noodles, one of Japan’s favorite inexpensive foods, are available on practically every street corner. Slurp these delicious noodles with your kids. They’ll never want to have the grocery store variety again.

7. Visit a temple. The many Buddhist and Shinto temples, large and small, that dot the Japanese landscape combine art, religion and culture.

Going on holiday to Japan has plenty of exciting activities for the whole family!  When you look at the country for a child’s point of view, you might just see Japan in a whole new light.

Family festival fun and remembering the tsunami

This is the final instalment from Uday and the Kanitkar family who travelled to the Tohoku region for the ‘Big Three’ festivals in August this year. By the way, we haven’t mentioned that before the family had headed north for the large dose of festival action, they had already been in the cultural capital of  Kyoto for the massive Gion festival. These guys wanted festivals and they got festivals and much more.

For anyone wanting to experience Japanese culture at its best, amazing Japanese hospitality and something you won’t find anywhere else in the world, then this is the way to do it. Having partied at the Kanto festival in Akita, enjoyed the fun and hospitality of the Neputa festival in Hirosaki, they headed to Aomori for the huge Nebuta festival and then on to Sendai for Tanabata. Along with the festivals, they also discovered some of the harsh realities of the Tohoku tsunami which hit the region in March 2011.

The Nebuta festival in Aomori was massive! Words will not do it justice, so it is better described in pictures.

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Having had another fantastic time in Aomori, we headed to Sendai for the most famous Tanabata festival in Japan. There were lanterns everywhere beginning at the Railway Station and just a ten minutes walk away was a covered arcade where at least a thousand colourful lanterns were hanging off the ceiling creating a very festive atmosphere.

People were out shopping and partying dressed in all kinds of colourful clothing. Food stalls were everywhere and we wondered around not finding any trace of the disaster that I had seen on the news four months ago.We had lunch at the Date-no-gutan restaurant at the mall above the train station in Sendai which offers the local delicacy, Beef Tongue, in different recipes. After we took our first bite all the reluctance and hesitation was gone -We were quite happy to have tried something new and tasty.


We checked in at the Tenryu-Kaku Ryokan for yet another delightful experience in Japanese style living and amazing variety of food. The room was well appointed, spacious and offered some beautiful views of the river below and amazing views of the sunset.

 

 

On our second day we decided to do a day trip to the Matsushima Bay Area and I am glad we did. As soon as we got out of the train station on our way to the ferry terminal at Shiogama evidence of Tsunami damage was all around. Heaps of cars and debris was noticeable, boats washed inland lay where the tsunami had carried them.

Matsushima bay offered some very picturesque views from the ferry as we lazed through all the little island outcrops with scenic vegetation while snacks, sake and beer kept flowing. By the time we got to Matsushima I stood on the jetty feeling nice and tipsy for a few minutes trying to figure out the controls on my camera.

 

We walked down Matsushima Kaigan Street enjoying all the delicious sea food at the stalls along the road.  GodaidoTemple and ZuiganjiTemple are very beautiful places to visit with a relaxing atmosphere and beautiful landscape.

 

After taking in enough of pretty Matsushima, we walked up to the Tourist Information office to see what else we could do. We asked the very friendly and helpful lady there if we could visit the Tsunami hit areas. For 6000 yen, she arranged a taxi to take us there, show us around and bring us back in abut 90 minutes. We had not really witnessed any of the huge tsunami damage that had filled our TV screens in the west until now.

We got into the taxi and half an hour later we were in Okumatsushima smack in the middle of the disaster zone. The taxi driver took us to what was his little township of 90 houses along the beach and listened in horror as he narrated how he managed to grab his two children, wife and run up the hill behind their house, seconds before the Tsunami washed away all 90 houses, some as far as half a kilometre away inland from where they stood.

Clearing crews were busy trucking away debris. Only the foundations of houses remained in place with Asian style toilets open to the sky. Large trees lay snapped like twigs, Steel poles lay bent like match sticks, the clock at the train station had stopped at 3.48pm when the Tsunami struck, ghostly houses damaged and empty with owners dead stood along the roads. Schools, Hospitals, factories lay wrecked and deserted.

We stood there contemplating a twenty foot tall wave of water many miles long and many miles deep approaching us at 300 km/hr. I still shiver with the thought of its savage force and my heart goes out to the thousands of victims who are still struggling in Tsunami Shelters trying to bring some sense back into their lives having lost everything and loved ones in a blink of an eye. With a stoical approach they go about their business rebuilding whole towns.

Despite the huge devastation and size of this disaster, the people that we have met up and down the Tohoku region have shown little sign of misery and despair. In fact these wonderful people have been more generous and kinder than we could have ever imagined and shown us an amazing region in a very special country. Arigato!

Having spoken with Uday since his trip, it certainly sounds as though this trip was one which will live in their memories for ever and for all the right reasons. Uday’s blog pieces have focused on the family’s time in Tohoku, but they visited many other stunning places in Japan. It is obvious though that it was their experiences in this rural region, the positivity from the festivals and the warmth of the people that they met that will have a lasting impression on their lives.

Baby loves Tokyo

I lived in Japan for four years and have travelled there many many times over the last 7 years since living back in the UK, but this was the first time to travel as a family – Me (James), Vanessa and little Max. We decided to travel to New Zealand to see family and thought we would break up the journey by stopping in my ‘second home’ of Tokyo for 5 days.

We were slightly worried about the prospect of a one year old on longhaul flights, but the 11 hour flight to Tokyo went extremely well which was a relief. Max slept well for the flight and there was the added bonus of seeing the spectacular northern lights somewhere over north east Europe!

We arrived into Narita Airport and made the easy transfer into Tokyo and painless trip to our hotel in Shiodome. The November sun was shining, it was about 23C and little Max was loving the train. He also loved the glass-sided elevator up to the 25th floor reception (Vanessa wasn’t so keen) and the room which was on the 33rd floor. The stunning view over Tokyo soon warmed Vanessa to life on the 33rd floor.

Once we had finished gawping at the view, we ventured out for some food in one of the areas many eateries. After spending about 1000yen on lunch for us all (not as cheap as it use to be, but still approx £10) we were refuelled for a day in the Metropolis.

It was slightly different travelling around with a kid as it took longer to go anywhere…mainly because everywhere we went, we were stopped by people saying ‘kawaiiiii’ (cute) with the odd one or two people taking photos. Luckily Max is pretty sociable and loves the attention.


The beautiful Hamarikyu gardens were next to our hotel which seemed to be the perfect place to relax. Where as most people tend to appreciate the gardens for their tranquillity, Max found ducks to quack at, pigeons to chase, trees to swing around,  rocks to jump off and other children to play with – When they barely speak any language at all, there is no communication barrier. One of the great things about Japan for little kids is that it is such a clean place. There are no concerns about picking up something that they shouldn’t or treading in something messy as there is none of that which makes life a lot easier.

As the city began to light up, one of the most stunning images of the holiday was provided in the hotel. The city lights glowed as far as the eye could see and the Tokyo Tower shone in the foreground reminding us where we were every time that we looked out the window.It was also a great image to wake up to in the morning especially in the sunny month of November.


There is so much to see in Tokyo and literally everything is new, different and exciting, especially if you are a toddler. However, we did take a day trip out of the city to head to the seaside and the temple town of Kamakura (one hour from Tokyo). Another beautifully warm sunny day allowed us to get away from the hustle of the capital and enjoy the more relaxed atmosphere of this historic town.

We strolled around shops, ate our convenience store bentos (filling, delicious and cheap) by the lake at Hachimangu shrine before enjoying a green tea ice cream in the gaze of the giant Buddha. Although Max was not of age or smart enough, there were plenty of kids to talk to as there were many 3, 5 and 7 year olds dressed in kimono for the Shicho-go-san festival blessings – very cute indeed.

After a play on the beach, we jumped back on the train back to Tokyo for a well earned rest and another look at the Tokyo Tower – “ooooh. Bright” quote Max Mundy.

I was hoping to fit everything into one blog piece, but Tokyo is always full of surprises and worthy of another blog piece. More to come soon!

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