Japan Family Travels according to the Ford Family

The Ford family in Japan

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

 

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

The Ford family in Tokyo

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Travelling with a baby in Japan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you breastfeed in public?

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

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

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

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

Rie and Jun

Rie and Jun

Should I bring nappies (diapers)?

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

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

What else should we bring?

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

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

Florence waits for the bullet train in Tokyo!

Florence waits for the bullet train in Tokyo

 

What should we do?

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

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

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

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

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

What about accommodation?

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

Some useful Japanese for travelling with a baby:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anpanman

Jun and Anpanman

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

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

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

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

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

Max & mum Vanessa sampling okonomiyaki

Max & mum Vanessa sampling okonomiyaki

・nappy / diaper おむつ (Omutsu)

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

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

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

・Bib よだれかけ (yodarekake)

・Crayons クレヨン (crayons)

・Child’s menu キッズメニュー (kids menu)

・Whole milk 牛乳 (gyunyu)

・Formula 粉ミルク (kona milk)

・Nursing room 授乳室  (junyu shitsu)

・Wipes おしりふき (oshirifuki)

・Cot / crib ベビーベッド (baby bed)

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

Mark, Rie & Jun

Mark, Rie & Jun

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

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

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

InsideJapan and the Japanese Ministry of Environment

Kirishima Kinkowan National Park

Kirishima Kinkowan National Park is famous for it’s beautiful and otherworldly volcanic scenery.

As a representative of InsideJapan Tours, I’ve been working with the Japanese Ministry of Environment to help them promote overseas tourism in their National Parks. Together with loads of great local people, several of us longtime expat foreigners have been traveling around to various National Parks in Japan to see just what’s on offer. As with my visit to Nikko National Park a few weeks ago, I am beginning to realize that even in places I’ve been to multiple times before, there is still so much more to see.

Friendly people

As is so often the case in Japan, we were met by friendly people every step of the way.

Because InsideJapan Tours believes in getting travelers beneath the surface of Japan when they visit, I’m always happy when I can help find new ways to make that vision become reality. And it’s finding lesser visited destinations like this one that allows one to see the Japan of the past and just what it is that makes the country so special. This week I went to Kirishima-Kinkowan National Park with an amazingly talented group of individuals including the great photographer Everett Brown, the publisher of the fantastic Japanese language travel magazine Kyushu no Mura, the supremely talented Brad Towle – director of the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau, and the fine folks from Umari – one of the coolest operations in Japan that I know of.

Romance and water

Thinking of honeymooning in Japan? How about following the trail of the very first honeymoon couple in Japan. The famous samurai Sakamoto Ryoma came here after his wedding, a long time before he became an instrumental figure in overthrowing the government.

Edo station

This little old train station hasn’t changed much over the years. There’s no ticket machine and there’s no one here to check your ticket even if you had one. But what really makes it special is that a local family sells a bento here with food that is reminiscent of what people were eating 100 years ago. It has been voted the best bento in Kyushu but I will go on the record as saying it is the best bento I’ve had anywhere in Japan!

onsen

At almost every onsen town in Japan you will hear stories about why that onsen is better than onsens in other parts of the country, but if you come to this part of Kagoshima you will find so many varieties of hot spring that there are local people who can recommend you an onsen depending on exactly what ails you. I opted for the hangover onsen.

Land  of the Gods

In Japanese mythology, this area is where it all begins. The true land of the gods. While visiting some of Kirishima’s famous shrines I was struck not only by the elegant Shinto architecture but especially by the beautiful surroundings. Each shrine we visited was more secluded than the last and all of them were beautifully interwoven with the island’s vast natural surroundings.

Ryokan

If you have yet to experience Japanese hospitality, you are in for a treat! Scenes at traditional ryokans – Japanese inns – like this one turn the everyday into the extraordinary.

Pure water

At cleansing stations near the entrance to most shrines and temples in Japan you will find intricately crafted dragons with crystal clear water pouring from their ferocious looking mouths, but I think I like this home made version almost as much.

Food

A twist on traditional Japanese incense, the tea placed on top of this small porcelain lamp gave off just the slightest perfume. The owner of the soba restaurant where I found this explained to me that although traditional incense can overpower the taste of the food, the smell of green tea compliments their dishes. Wonderful!

134 year old direction

What I love best about this 134 year old direction marker is that the carvers chose a hand with its pointer finger extended rather than a simpler arrow to direct travelers (like myself) in the right direction.

Shrines and temples

This shrine was on a big hillside overlooking a couple of mist covered volcanos and a big blue lake. Completely deserted, we took our time to enjoy it’s every last detail.

Duck!

These little ducks acted like they were our best friends… until they realized we didn’t have any food. ;)

Thinkers stream

Just minutes before returning to the airport, Everett and I were looking at a beautiful little stream that was running in between peoples’ houses. At first we thought it was just a regular river born of rain coming down from the surrounding mountains but a local took us up to its source (pictured here) and we learned that it is actually a spring. We could literally see the water gushing up from out of the ground. Everett said it best, “heaven on earth”!

Taking part in a Japanese festival

Japanese festivals – matsuri – are an important part of life in Japan. You will find them in every region of the country during every season of the year. But the best time for catching matsuri is undoubtedly in summer, when festivals are so plentiful that it’s not uncommon to come across them by chance as you travel through the country. Even in Tokyo, a haven for fashion trendsetting, young people are seen on the underground heading off to fireworks festivals and other matsuri in yukata, a sort of light cotton kimono. Yet amongst the thousands of matsuri, there a handful that stand out among the rest. One such matsuri is the 350 year old Fukagawa Matsuri.

Fukagawa Matsuri from above

The great Fukagawa Matsuri!

Once every three years this huge water throwing festival is held in downtown Tokyo. Over 100,000 people gather to watch as 53 mikoshi (portable shrines) weighing from around 2 tons to 4.5 tons are boisterously carried 8 kilometers through local neighborhoods on the shoulders of men and women in traditional costume. This alone would be a site worth coming to Japan for but what makes this festival particularly special is the fact that water is being thrown on to the shrines as they slowly move through Tokyo’s streets. While some of this comes in the form of children with buckets and water pistols, the fire department also joins in at tens of locations to dowse the participants with fire hoses!

Our mikoshi being "cleansed" by some of Tokyo's finest!

Our mikoshi being “cleansed” by some of Tokyo’s finest!

Here is a brief description of what it is like to participate in one of Tokyo’s three “great” festivals. I awoke at 4:30am and took the train to Monzennakacho, a station that is truly at the heart of the Fukagawa Matsuri. Although there was no traffic at this early hour, there was plenty of activity. Hundreds of locals could be seen scurrying around the streets in their happi Japanese tops, white shorts and split-toed shoes. As not just anyone can participate in the festival, I was met by the family who gave me the “introduction” to partake. Each of the giant mikoshi (portable shrines) is associated with a particular district of the local area. There are 53 in total.

Dressed for the festival

After quickly changing in to my costume I gathered with the other participants and we ate onigiri – rice balls with different fillings – and got ready for the days event. At 7:30am we moved down the street to where the mikoshi for our district was set up and waiting for us (see below).

Mikoshi

We carried this float 8 kilometers through Tokyo and back to the local neighborhood.

As our turn came, around 40 of us heaved the 2 ton float up on to our shoulders and began the 8 kilometer walk through Tokyo. Slowly marching through the streets as we chanted “washoi!!” and bounced the float up and down. But what really made this festival a day to remember was the water that was poured on our mikohsi – and us! – as we walked about. Kids and adults alike splashed us from all angles. Any spectator is able to join in on this aspect of the matsuri and so the day ends up feeling like a giant water fight!

IMG_1480Water!

At splash stations like the one above we lift the mikoshi above our heads so that other participants can drench the mikoshi and us below with cold but refreshing water. But the 53 shrines being paraded around are not the only thing that this festival has going. There are multiple places where traditional Japanese music is being played and even several large taiko drumming areas where the loud drums set the pace of the chanting of the shrine bearers like myself. In order to show respect to the musicians we lift the mikoshi above our heads as we pass. There are also floats along the route selling beer and shaved ice for the onlookers, those of us carrying the shrine have to wait till the afternoon.

Taiko drummers at one of many stations along the festival route.

Taiko drummers at one of many stations along the festival route.

We all take turns carrying the float and there is a morning rest stop and a midday break for lunch but even so by the afternoon my shoulders are bruised and battered. And my feet are sore from the massive weight crushing down on them.

Yours truly at the head of the pack. My shoulder and arms sore from a long but fun day.

Yours truly at the head of the pack. My shoulder and arms sore from a long but fun day.

Of course, my personal favorite part of the matsuri is after we finish and I can sit down with my friends for a few well deserved beers.

A long time friend. The man who allowed me to partake in the festival treated me to lots of shochu and beer after we finished. He also brought me some Otoro tuna sashimi from Tsukiji Fish Market to help replenish all the energy spent walking through Tokyo's cordoned off streets.

A long time friend. The man who allowed me to partake in the festival treated me to lots of shochu and beer after we finished. He also brought me some Otoro tuna sashimi from Tsukiji Fish Market to help replenish all the energy spent walking through Tokyo’s cordoned off streets.

Seeing matsuri in Japan is truly a “once in a lifetime” type experience. The friendly and fun-loving nature of such festivals ensures that all are welcome. Aside from some fantastic pictures, you are likely to go home with some new friends as well!

There are thousands of festivals all over japan throughout the year. You may just stumble across a small festival on your travels in Japan, but if they are on and we know about them, we can help you catch a Japanese festival during your trip.

 

Rediscovering Nikko (Part 2 of 2)

As I touched on in the first part of this post, Nikko National Park is not far from Tokyo and so with even a one night stay here you can pack in two full day’s of “off the beaten path” sightseeing. Sure, you’ll see a good number of tourists at the most famous sites in Nikko (like Kegon Waterfall or the Unesco World Heritage listed Shrines and Temples) but if you dare to put in just a little bit of extra effort to get beneath the surface of Nikko’s natural and cultural history you will be amply rewarded. Continuing on from part 1, here are some more can’t miss sites that aren’t in the guidebooks just yet.

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A working waterwheel in Nikko National Park. This is one of only a handful of waterwheels that is not simply there for nostalgia’s sake but actually working to produce incense.

What better place to start your journey in Nikko National Park than with a visit to the area near Takao Shrine (pictured above). Altering shades of green roll across the landscape of verdant evergreens and giant sheets of rice paddies divided by small ditches that can be walked along for an experience that will completely surround you.

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The proud and friendly owner of the incense producing water wheel.

A highlight of visiting this area is a small hut with a water wheel that is near the shrine’s entrance. You might even hear the clickety clank of the water wheel’s gears before the old shack comes in to view. Surprisingly, this isn’t simply a water wheel that has been leftover from more rustic times,an old man uses the power of an irrigation stream to assist in making incense – a ubiquitous good in Japanese homes and temples.

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Wooden gears spin as the waterwheel turns. The noise is unforgettable!

The nearby Takao Shrine is equally interesting. Like the shrines and temples seen in Japanese movies, this one is surrounded by nature and sees only a few dozen visitors each day so you can often get it to yourself. The beauty of architecture is complemented nicely by the tall cedar trees that line the entrance. But unlike some of the masterpieces that you’ll find in Nikko proper, it’s the small details at this shrine that are most likely to stick with you.

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It may not look like much but if you take a ladle of that crystal clear water and pour it over the rocks, you will hear a beautiful ringing as the water drips into a massive brass bowl that resonates the sound below. Magical!

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Before you leave the area make sure to stop at the small restaurant at the bottom of the hill for some naturally produced shaved ice. Before I had tasted it, I questioned whether there was much of a difference between this “natural” shaved ice and the stuff my refrigerator churns out back in Tokyo but after having a few bites of the green tea sweet I have become a convert for life! If you want to see what goes in to make such a treat for the senses, check out the process with this video from Youtube.

 

The hard work is a labour of love for the 4th and 5th generation ice makers that oversee this process. They are Nikko locals and run their operations in the National Park so, if you’re there during the right time of year you can go and see this ice making process in person. And if you’re there in the summer you can simply enjoy some of the best shaved ice (kakigori) that you’ll find anywhere!

Moving on, we head to Heike no Sato a place of cultivated and natural beauty that is full of history. This collection of folk houses from around the area recreates the atmosphere of 800 years before, when a battle between rival clans sent the Heike warriors into refuge in Nikko’s mountains. If you aren’t making it to any other folk villages over the course of your trip to Japan then this is a must-see sight in Nikko National Park. You will come away with a far better understanding of the type of lifestyle that was still common up until the 1900’s.

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The picturesque entrance to Heike no Sato.

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The world renowned Akiko Sakurai performs at Heike no Sato. In the background you can see a Torii gate where the Heike clan worshiped in place of the original in their homeland – which they couldn’t go to because they were hiding from the victors whom had driven them here.

There is great food to be found in Nikko and plenty of variety to boot. But the one thing that you shouldn’t miss is surely yuba – a tofu like sheet that Nikko has become famous for. A particularly tasty yuba dish is available at Heike no Sato (pictured below).

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Enjoying some yuba, green tea and mochi at Heike no Sato.

Having already covered some of Nikko’s best sights you could easily relax at a cafe overlooking one of Nikko’s lakes or head to an onsen (hot spring) but if you still have a bit of energy left, why not go for a walk through the wilderness in Senjogahara. The path here is an easy walk with sweeping vistas of the National Park. Best of all, if you visit in different seasons you will find entirely new seasons waiting for you.

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The boardwalk keeps you safely above the marsh beneath and, most importantly, protects the local habitat at the same time.

Trying to decide where to go in Japan is a difficult task to say the least. I’ve lived and worked here for nearly a decade and traveled extensively but there are so many places that I’m still longing to visit. But if you find yourself in Tokyo and your looking for a side of Japan that simply can’t be found in the city, head up to Nikko for a few days; you won’t be disappointed!

 

Rediscovering Nikko (Part 1 of 2)

Kegon Falls in Nikko National Park

Kegon Falls in Nikko National Park

For me, there is almost nothing better than going to a part of Japan that I have never been to before and seeing yet another facet of this wonderful country. But I am always amazed at how much there is to be discovered even in destinations that I have been to multiples times before. As the title might imply, the place in question this time is Nikko. Less than two hours from Tokyo, the main draw for most visitors are Nikko’s spectacular shrines and temples, rightly deserving of their World Heritage status. But there is far more here than what most visitors ever get to see. This is partly because the ease of making a day trip from Tokyo is often preferred over the more rewarding but slightly more difficult option of staying overnight and getting out into the countryside to see a completely different side of Japan. This multiple part blog post is about some of the places worth visiting in Nikko National Park.

Serving up freshly cooked fish with style at the Ryuo Gorge

Serving up freshly cooked fish with style at the Ryuo Gorge

The Ryuo Gorge is not only beautiful, it’s also one of the easiest places in Nikko National Park to access by train. From the hot spring resort of Kinugawa Onsen, a jumbling little train whisks you through dense forests to a quiet little station near the entrance of a walking path that takes in lush scenery and will have you wondering if the bright neon of Tokyo was just a dream. But as the picture above can attest to, it’s not just the escape from concrete that makes this a deserved stop on your itinerary. The colorful locals and delicious freshly caught river fish make this an all-around cultural experience. Throw in a couple cups of sake and a dip in the hot spring at the end of a long walk and you can have a quintessentially Japanese experience all in an afternoon.

Just a taste of the wonderful scenery that can be enjoyed along the Ryuo Gorge.

Just a taste of the wonderful scenery that can be enjoyed along the Ryuo Gorge.

Speaking of sake, if you’re thinking of visiting a sake brewery, you’d be smart to be picky about the one who visit for, alas, not all sake breweries are created equal. But fear not, for Nikko has a sake brewery of unparalleled greatness. Not only are the brews here about as tasty as you’ll find, the owner is as nice a man as you’ll meet anywhere and will be happy to show in to parts of his brewery that most sake makers wouldn’t dream of letting tourists see. Although, if it’s busy you may well be asked to lend a hand! ;)

Katayama-san showing me and a few other visitors around his brewery

Katayama-san showing me and a few other visitors around his brewery

Katayama Brewery is named after it’s owner and is located not far from Shimoimaichi Train Station (a short taxi ride or a slightly long walk away). Here you can not only do tours of the brewery but you can enjoy free tastings of the sake that will have you seeing the brew more like fine wine than the rocket fuel like stuff that is often served overseas. If you are feeling like splashing out, try the specially made version of his best and most popular sake that has platinum and gold flakes in it. Though if you set off the metal detector at the airport upon your departure don’t blame me!

Slip into a yukata and enjoy some 'omotenashi' at one of Kinugawa's Hot Spring Resorts

Slip into a yukata and enjoy some ‘omotenashi’ at one of Kinugawa’s Hot Spring Resorts

At the end of a day of walking and sake tasting, I can think of few better things to do than relaxing in a hot spring and tucking into some Japanese fine cuisine. Luckily, there is no shortage of places to do this in Nikko’s National Park. The Kinugawa Grand Hotel (picture above and below) is just such a place. For a fraction of what a similar type of place would cost in Tokyo, you can be spoiled to your heart’s content. Though you aren’t likely to encounter many English speakers here, you can be sure that you will be welcomed with open arms and a deep bow upon your arrival. Enjoy some of Nikko’s craft beer and a big plate of sashimi and take in the beautiful surroundings in your Japanese style room.

Just one among many hot springs at the Kinugawa Grand Hotel in Nikko National Park.

Just one among many hot springs at the Kinugawa Grand Hotel in Nikko National Park.

 

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