Tsukiji Fish Market: How to do it right

Tsukiji Fish Market is one of my tip-top favourite Tokyo experiences, but what with increasingly unstable relations between the vendors (for whom this is their livelihood) and tourists (for whom it is a fascinating attraction), it is important to know how to “do” Tsukiji properly.

Located right in the middle of Tokyo, next-door to Hamarikyu Gardens and near the upmarket Ginza district of town, Tsukiji is the largest seafood market in the world, and makes a fantastic (and free) addition to any Tokyo itinerary.

And since it was announced that Tsukiji will soon be moving from its current location to a site in Toyosu (a 20-minute bus or train ride from its current spot), you really will have to get in there quick – before it changes for good!

Map of Tsukiji Market (source: Japanguide)

Map of Tsukiji Market (source: Japanguide)

What does the future hold?

As of yet, exact details about the new arrangement for Tsukiji Fish Market are elusive – and what information we’ve been able to glean so far has been vague at best.

The Toyosu Tsukiji Market (run by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government) is scheduled to open in November 2016, and will continue to function as a wholesale market for Tokyo’s restaurants. In addition to this, it seems that there will be an area dedicated to the general public (including tourists), where you will be able to see and buy fresh seafood and vegetables, and perhaps even take cooking lessons or attend special events. The tuna auctions will also be taking place here, but it is not yet clear whether the public will be allowed to watch them or not.

What is to become of the current Tsukiji site is even more unclear. Whilst most news sources on the suggest that the reason for the move is to free up prime real estate for profitable development, one of our sources in Tokyo indicated that there has been talk of plans for a new Tsukiji Market (run by the local ward) to be built where the “inner” market currently resides, while the existing shops in the “outer” market will remain as they are.

So, in short, it’s not certain what the future holds for Tsukiji.

The inner market

How do I visit the market now?

Until these mysterious changes come into effect, it is still possible to visit Tsukiji Market – and I would certainly urge you to do so if you get the chance. If you do decide to visit, you have two options: either get up before the crack of dawn to see the tuna auctions for which the market is famous; or mosey on down at about 9am to catch a bit of market action.

When you get there, you’ll find that the market has two sections: inner and outer. The outer market is much smaller, has plenty of great sushi restaurants, and lots of shops selling vegetables, spices, cooking implements and various other things.

The inner market, meanwhile, is the really interesting bit. This is where you’ll find all the wholesale seafood sellers – as well as some of the very best sushi restaurants in Japan, where people queue for literally hours for just a few minutes at the bar.

Produce at Tsukiji Market

Produce at Tsukiji Market

Visiting just the inner market:

9am is still pretty early in the morning when you’re on holiday (if you ask me), so I will not be the one to judge if you just don’t care enough about dead fish to get up for the tuna auctions. Tsukiji is still most definitely worth a visit if you can only make it to the main market – in fact, at InsideJapan we think this is the best bit. You will get to see massive tuna being skilfully carved up, as well as plenty of other weird and wonderful produce – and you can feel secure in the knowledge that your presence is welcomed rather than resented.

Tsukiji Inner Market

Tsukiji Inner Market

At this time in the morning the trains will be running, so getting to the market is much easier than if you decide to see the auctions. All you need to do is catch the subway to Tsukiji Station (on the Hibiya subway line, 8 mins walk from inner market) or Tsukijishijo Station (on the Toei Oedo Line, 3 mins walk from inner market). Follow the crowds and you should end up at the market, where guards on the entrances can usually provide you with a free map.

Once inside, you are free to wander amongst the stalls freely – but look out for speedy buggies zipping past, as they will not get out of your way! The market is still very crowded at this time, so try your best not to get in the way of vendors trying to do their jobs – once again, this is a working market, not a tourist attraction. Remember not to smoke, touch anything, bring large bags or luggage, or wear inappropriate footwear (the ground is very uneven, wet and dirty). Young children are also not allowed.

Restaurant at the outer market

Restaurant in the outer market

Visiting the auctions:

If you really want the full Tsukiji experience and don’t mind getting up at silly o’clock to get it, you can visit the tuna auctions, which take place between 3.30am and 6am every day (except Sunday and some Wednesdays) and are completely free of charge.

We suggest that you think carefully before deciding to visit the tuna auctions. Though they are fascinating, relations between tourists and buyers/sellers at the auction have become quite fractious in recent years, and there is a sense that you presence here is grudgingly tolerated rather than openly welcomed.

Frozen tuna at the tuna auction

Frozen tuna at the tuna auction

If you do decide to visit the auctions, take care to do so in a respectful fashion. Follow the rules to the letter, and absolutely do not head over there after a night on the tiles! Since trains do not run this early in Tokyo, your options are either to stay somewhere within walking distance of the market, or order a taxi from your hotel.

Public access to the auction is limited to two tour groups, each of 60 people, and places are strictly first come, first served. The first group are allowed to watch the auction from 5.25am until 4.45am, while the second group is allowed to watch from 5.50am until 6.10am. To be in with a good chance of getting a place in one of the groups, most people recommend turning up at about 4am. This means that you should be prepared for a long, cold wait before you can actually get into the auction!

After all this effort, you are still not guaranteed entry into the market. It really depends as to how many people are going to turn up that day.

Filleting tuna

Filleting tuna

Make sure you wrap up warm (the waiting room is unheated), and bring something to amuse yourself while you wait. Once inside, you can take photos and films to your heart’s content, but remember not to use flash – or you will be unceremoniously removed from proceedings.

After the auction, we recommend heading to the outer market for a sushi breakfast (the best sushi breakfast you will ever have) and to explore the market stalls here before returning to the inner market to see the wholesale vendors in action. Tourists are not allowed into the inner market until 9am, when the morning’s hustle and bustle is beginning to wind down. Though you can technically enter before this if you intend on buying something, and you will read some sources suggesting that you use this as an excuse to get in, we highly recommend that you don’t do this, as you will be getting in the way and obstruct the normal operation of business.

Auctioneers in action

Auctioneers in action

The following video should give you a good insight into the tuna auctions at Tsukiji. If you’re interested in seeing more background on the Tokyo restaurant scene, I also highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which gives a fascinating insight into the life and craft of one of the city’s best sushi chefs.

If you would like any more advice or information about visiting Tsukiji Fish Market, please don’t hesitate to contact us in the comments below, via Facebook, Twitter or through our website.

10 great reasons to visit Japan in the summer

Kamikochi in summertime

Kamikochi in summertime

Spring is sprung, the snow has melted, the blossom is on the trees, and the Japanese are out in full force to celebrate the end of a long old winter. Yes, everybody loves a bit of spring.

But I’m sick of hearing about spring already. I already know about all the great reasons to travel to Japan in the spring. What about summer?!

Perhaps it’s the sweltering heat, or the humidity so thick you could spread it on toast – or perhaps it’s just that everyone goes so ga-ga for spring that they forget there was ever any other season. For whatever reason, summer in Japan tends to get a bit of a bad rap, and it’s totally undeserved.

NEWSFLASH! Summer (June – August) is actually an awesome time to travel to Japan, and here’s why:

Fewer crowds & discount prices

Now I’m not going to lie to you here, it will be a cold day in hell before you do not encounter at least some crowds on your Japan holiday. In a country where domestic tourism is such a big thing, spots like Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion in Kyoto or Senso-ji in Tokyo will always be bustling with visitors. But for the most part there will be many fewer people in summer than either spring or autumn, when the weather is more temperate and visitor numbers swell. The only place where this rule does not apply is at the beach!

You can also travel much more cheaply in the summer, as hotel prices are much lower out of season.

Crowds in Osaka

Crowds in Osaka

Beaches

When you think of Japan, the likelihood is that golden beaches, glittering waves and sunbathing do not immediately spring to mind – but with nearly 30,000 km of coastline it stands to reason that Japan should have a few great beaches.

Some of the very best Japanese beaches are to be found in the subtropical islands of Okinawa (a short and easy domestic flight from the mainland), but if you don’t have the time to make it that far there are great beaches up and down the length of Japan.

Yours truly enjoying the sunrise on Ishigaki Island (part of Okinawa)

Yours truly enjoying the sunrise on Ishigaki Island (part of Okinawa)

Hiking & climbing Mount Fuji

Though the heat may be on in Japan’s sea-level cities, up in the mountains the temperature remains cool and manageable – perfect for a bit of hiking. Some of Japan’s most stunning geography is to be found in high-altitude spots like the Japan Alps, Kamikochi, and the mountains of the Kii Peninsula, and in the summer everything is at its lushest and most beautiful.

And if you fancy a real challenge, Mount Fuji’s climbing season begins at the beginning of July and ends in early September, giving you a chance to have a crack at this Japanese icon. Though the ascent is tough, you need no technical mountaineering experience and you will routinely find children and senior citizens tackling it without a hitch!

Above the clouds on top of Mount Fuji

Above the clouds on top of Mount Fuji

Scuba diving

Unbeknownst to most, Japan is home to some world-class scuba diving. Again, some of the best spots are to be found in the Okinawan archipelago, where the visibility is spectacular and divers have the opportunity to swim with manta rays, hammerhead sharks and sea turtles amongst beautiful coral reefs. One of the most impressive and perplexing dive sites of all is off the coast of Yonaguni, where strange underwater rock formations have given rise to the theory that these are the ruins of some ancient, hitherto unknown Atlantis. The jury’s still out, but the columns, stairs, passageways and plazas of this “underwater city” make an incredible dive nonetheless!

If you want to fit in a bit of diving but are not planning to visit Okinawa, we also recommend Yakushima, the Izu Peninsula (close to Tokyo), or the remote Ogasawara Islands.

Enjoying some scuba diving off Okinawa main island

Enjoying some scuba diving off Okinawa main island

Fireworks

For the Japanese, summer is a time for fireworks – and there are many fantastic displays up and down the length of the country. One of the most famous is the Sumida River Firework Display in Tokyo, which happens on the last Saturday of July. In August, Miyajima Island also has a great display, illuminating its famous torii gate – while Toya Onsen in Hokkaido holds a lakeshore firework display every single night throughout the season.

These are just a few examples – wherever you happen to travel in Japan, you’re sure to find a firework display happening near you.

(Photo: JNTO)

(Photo: JNTO)

Festivals

With about one billion festivals happening every month of every year, every day is festival day in Japan – but some of the biggest and best happen in summer. In the northern Tohoku region, the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri sees giant, light-up floats travel through the city of Aomori; Akita holds the Kanto Matsuri, during which performers balance giant poles festooned with paper lanterns on parts of their bodies; and Sendai celebrates the Tanabata Matsuri, where festivities include traditional decorations, dances and entertainments.

Further south, Kyoto’s famous Gion Matsuri continues for the entire month of July, including a massive parade and plenty of festivities, and Tokushima on Shikoku Island celebrates the Awa Odori Matsuri – the largest dance festival in Japan.

These really are just the tip of the iceberg – there’s also the countrywide Obon festival, Kyoto’s spectacular Daimonji fire festival, Yamagata’s Toro lantern festival… the list goes on and on.

Float at Nebuta Matsuri, Aomori

Float at Nebuta Matsuri, Aomori

Amazing vending machines

You might think that vending machines are no big deal, but I can assure you that when you visit Japan you will change your mind. These are not your average automated drink dispensers. Oh no.

Japan’s crazy vending machines are no less awesome in any other season – but in summer they are really worth their weight in gold. Japan has vending machines in spades – more per capita than any other country in the world ever – and they are packed full of all kinds of weird and wonderful drinks to keep you cool AND entertained in the heat. Whether you want beer, wine, iced coffee, jasmine tea, grape-flavoured fizzy jelly, sweetcorn soup or pancake-flavoured milkshake – Japanese vending machines can provide. And they also do hot drinks – not that you’d really want those in the summer.

Hello Kitty vending machines

Hello Kitty vending machines

Summer foods & insane ice creams

It would be absolute insanity to suggest that Japanese food isn’t delicious on every day of the year (it is. So. Delicious), but summer brings some excellent speciality dishes that most certainly merit a mention in this blog piece. My own personal favourite is zarusoba, which is essentially a dish of cold noodles served on a bamboo tray with a dipping sauce called tsuyu. You may think that this sounds less than palatable, but in fact it is incredibly delicious and exceedingly refreshing.

Japanese ice creams are also a real treat and come in all kinds of flavours. And I mean Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans kind of all kinds of flavours. My personal favourites include kurogoma (black sesame), beni-imo (Okinawan sweet potato) and matcha (green tea). My personal least favourite is wasabi, which should absolutely not be ice cream. Ever.

A delicious lunch of zarusoba that I ate in Karuizawa

A delicious lunch of zarusoba and tempura in Karuizawa

Music festivals

Another light that Japan likes to hide underneath its bush (along with its beaches, scuba diving, and beautiful mountain scenery), are its music festivals. Though barely known amongst music aficionados in Europe or the US, Fuji Rock (which takes place at Naeba resort on the last weekend of July) is world-class, attracting line-ups packed with international household names as well as Japanese acts that are little known outside of Japan. This year, the festival boasts the Foo Fighters and Muse as headliners – while previous events have hosted The Cure, Bjork, Radiohead, Elvis Costello, Arctic Monkeys, Oasis, Massive Attack and many more.

If you can’t make it to Fuji Rock, Summer Sonic is another excellent Japanese music festival, taking place simultaneously in Osaka and Chiba (near Tokyo) in early August.

Fuji Rock Festival

Fuji Rock Festival

Beer gardens and nomihodai

Last, but certainly not least, are beer gardens: Japan’s summer entertainment staple. As our Viv noted in a 2013 post, Sapporo is home to the king of beer gardens for a month in July, when the whole of Odori Koen Park is transformed into a giant beer garden – but beer gardens are a firm fixture of the summer scene across Japan. Often located on the tops of buildings, these beer gardens often operate the delightful Japanese tradition of nomihodai: “all-you-can-drink” (for a set price).

Drunkenness and high buildings? I can’t think of any better reason to head to Japan than that.

8 Things to look out for when in Akihabara

Akihabara is truly the Japan’s capital of “otaku” – often translated as ‘someone who has obsessive interests in video games, manga, anime, electronics and the like’. There’s more manga and anime in this little district of Tokyo than exists anywhere else in the world. But whether you consider yourself a fan of such things completely misses the point; this neighborhood is a traveler’s dream because it is unlike anywhere else any of us have ever been and will ever go to. And isn’t that why we travel in the first place?

Akihabara

In a simple stroll through “Akiba” (as it is commonly and affectionately known by most Tokyo-ites) there are more things to point out, talk about and be astonished by then would ever fit in a single blog post so instead I’ve chosen 8 things that I love about this quirky part of town. If you are coming to the area be sure to keep an eye out for the following!


Oden Vending Machine

1) Japan has become famous for vending machines and they can now be found throughout the country. Indeed, I’ve seen them in the middle of rice paddies and on top of Mount Fuji. I’ve seen banana vending machines, french fry vending machines, flower vending machines and some others too sorted and seedy to mention here. But there’s nothing quite like a hot cup of oden or ramen noodles from a vending machine (pictured above). The perfect place for a pick-me-up during a day of sightseeing in Akihabara.

One Person Karaoke

2) In Japan, as in most places, karaoke tends to be a social event. Something you do with your friends or even family to have a bit of fun and enjoy one another’s company, if not their singing voice. But in a neighborhood known as a haven for nerds and outcasts it is no surprise that you can find one person karaoke booths. The perfect place to let out your inner rock star or let off some steam, perhaps by belting out a few Journey songs (an advert for the booths is pictured above).

All girl sushi

3) Sushi in Japan is a craft, even an artform at times. It has spread throughout the world but there is nothing like the sushi that can be had in one of Tokyo’s premier upscale sushi shops. Unfortunately, sushi chefs have traditionally been and remain almost entirely male. This is largely said to be because most women’s hands are too hot and this in turn affects the flavor of the sushi. But in Akihabara you can put that myth to the test at this all girl sushi restaurant (pictured above is Nadeshiko Sushi – http://www.nadeshico-sushi.com).

Shrine in Akihabara

4) Akihabara is closely associated with electronics and it is known for being at the cutting edge of manga, anime and the Japanese video gaming world so it can be quite a surprise to see all the traditional culture that remains side by side the bright and brash billboards and advertisements. Visit a local Shintō shrine or stop off at a traditional eatery while strolling about.

Live Idol Show

5) One of the things that brought Akihabara to the forefront of otaku culture was the ability to see live music shows by “idol” groups on a daily basis. Although these no longer take place on the street like they used to, you can still see some talented and fun shows every day of the year. Both during the day and at night are venues where you can let your inner fan shine. Find an idol club and dance your cares away while waving different coloured light sticks (the venue pictured above is called Dear Stage and typically has live shows everyday from 5-6pm till around 11:30pm – http://dearstage.com).

6) Not pictured but entirely worth checking out are Akihabara’s retro video game arcades. Sure it’s fun to come and see the newest gadgets and most up-to-date driving and shooting games but nothing will bring you back to your childhood faster than a go at one of the games you grew up playing!

Traces of the past

7) A bit different from number 4, try looking for traces of Akihabara’s past as you wander throughout the area. Though not always traditional, there is plenty of evidence of what the electronic district was like before manga, anime and pornography took over. After all, a place as unique as Akihabara isn’t made overnight!

Assemblage

8) Assemble your own electronics. As you leave Akihabara JR Station on the ‘Electric City’ side, continue under the tracks and you will find a plethora of vacuum tubes, radio innards, computer wires, various kits and loads of speciality shops selling the pieces that make our electronics tick. Although you might not have the confidence to put one of these kits together on your own, you can get some help at the Assemblage desk. Make a little radio, assemble a robot or throw together a blinking doodad. (The staff won’t be fluent in English but they always make an effort and they certainly know what they are doing. Make sure to leave plenty of time for this.)

Akihabara

8) You’d have a hard time missing the colorful billboards and advertising that dons the various buildings of Akihabara but surprisingly few people take the time to really look at these and appreciate the aesthetic – and even artistry – that is so uniquely Akiba. From adverts for maid cafes to posters announcing the latest video game release, you’ll know that you are a long way from home when take a little bit of time to look towards the sky and admire the scenery.

 

As I said at the beginning of this post, you don’t need to be an “otaku” to enjoy a day out in Akihabara!

The Yamazaki Whisky Distillery is Pretty Neat!

A favourite pastime in Japan in summer is to get together with friends and while away the balmy nights around a habachi barbecue with some ice cold beers. In February however, what with the frequent snowfall and early sunsets, those long evenings can seem a distant memory. Beer is not called for at this time of year. This season calls for something a little stronger, and what tipple could be more fitting than a wee dram of whisky?

Slightly more than a wee dram here...

Slightly more than a wee dram here…

Although whisky production has a history going back nearly 100 years in Japan, until recently Japanese whisky hasn’t had widespread recognition within the international market. Over the last decade this has begun to change, and this year with a Japanese whisky named as the best in the world, Japanese whisky is finally getting the appreciation it deserves.

Although we might not all be able to afford a bottle of the award winning Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 (only 18,000 bottles were produced and it retails for US$160 a bottle), the Yamazaki distillery also produces some more affordable whiskies. As a bonus, the distillery is just a short 15 minute minute train ride from Kyoto (a destination which features on the majority of our Small Group Tours and Self Guided Adventures) and there are free daily guided tours of the distillery.

I recently visited the distillery to experience one of their guided tours, and of course to have a wee tipple! Here’s a brief look at what I saw and learnt!

After a short train ride from Kyoto station, you will arrive at JR Yamazaki station. Much smaller then Kyoto station!

After a short train ride from Kyoto station, you will arrive at JR Yamazaki station. Much smaller then Kyoto station!

The distillery is less than 10 minutes walk from the station and is clearly signposted.

The distillery is less than 10 minutes walk from the station and is clearly signposted.

Although Yamazaki station is in Kyoto prefecture, you will actually walk across the prefectural boundary in to Osaka prefecture on your way to the distillery.

Although Yamazaki station is in Kyoto prefecture, you will actually walk across the prefectural boundary into Osaka prefecture on your way to the distillery.

Before long the distillery looms into view! As you can see, it was a slightly wet and dreary day. But I just imagined myself in the Scottish Highlands and suddenly it didn't seem half as bad!

Before long the distillery looms into view! As you can see, it was a slightly wet and dreary day. But I just imagined myself in the Scottish Highlands and suddenly it didn’t seem half as bad!

After reporting to the customer reception and confirming your appointment, you will be directed to the Yamazaki Whisky Museum (the white building on the right), which is where the tours start.

After reporting to the customer reception and confirming your appointment, you will be directed to the Yamazaki Whisky Museum (the white building on the right), which is where the tours start.

I advise arriving about 30 minutes before your tour appointment, which will allow you to have a quick look around the exhibits in the museum. There were many old bottles on display charting the history of Suntory Yamazaki whisky from its birth in 1923 to the present day.

I advise arriving about 30 minutes before your tour appointment, which will allow you to have a quick look around the exhibits in the museum. There were many old bottles on display charting the history of Suntory Yamazaki whisky from its birth in 1923 to the present day.

Before the tour started I was also offered an English language audio guide. The tour guide will tell you which number to press and you can follow along with the tour even if you can't speak Japanese!

Before the tour started I was also offered an English language audio guide. The tour guide will tell you which number to press and you can follow along with the tour even if you can’t speak Japanese. Marvellous!

My tour started right on time from the meeting point on the 2nd floor of the Whisky Museum. First we were greeted by these statues in the courtyard. The sitting statue on the left is Shinjiro Torii, who founded the distillery. I'm not sure who the chap on the right is, but I've got a feeling he likes whisky.

My tour started right on time from the meeting point on the 2nd floor of the Whisky Museum. First we were greeted by these statues in the courtyard. The sitting statue on the left is Shinjiro Torii, who founded the distillery. I’m not sure who the chap on the right is, but I’ve got a feeling he likes whisky.

From the courtyard we ventured into the distillery itself and were given a chronological tour of the creation of whisky, starting with this room where the malting, mashing and fermentation takes place.

From the courtyard we ventured into the distillery itself and were given a chronological tour of the creation of whisky, starting with this room where the malting, mashing and fermentation takes place.

From here we ventured into the distillation hall, where three different shapes of 'pot stills' are used to create 'new-make spirits' of different characters.

From here we ventured into the distillation hall, where three different shapes of ‘pot stills’ are used to create ‘new-make spirits’ of different characters.

From there we continued to the rather chilly storehouse where the ageing of the spirit takes place in oak casks. Casks of different ages impart different flavours.

From there we continued to the rather chilly storehouse where the ageing of the clear spirit takes place in oak casks. Casks of different ages impart different flavours and also give whisky its colour.

Each cask has the year of production printed on the front. This one is quite a young one compared to some that I saw!

Each cask has the year of production printed on the front. This one is quite a young one compared to some that I saw!

We left through the back entrance of the storage hall and walked past the distillery's very own Shinto shrine!

We left through the back entrance of the storage hall and walked past the distillery’s very own Shinto shrine!

The aromas floating around throughout all of the places we had visited so far had really whet my appetite for this part - the tasting hall!

The aromas floating around throughout all of the places we had visited so far had really whet my appetite for this part – the tasting hall!

The first whisky on offer for tasting was their signature whisky - Yamazaki 12 Years Old Single Malt. They recommend drinking it as a highball (mixed with soda water). It's not how I usually drink my whisky, but as it was free I was happy to go along with their suggestion. I was pleasantly surprised and was really enjoying my highball and packet of nuts when...

The first whisky on offer for tasting was their signature whisky – Yamazaki 12 Years Old Single Malt. They recommend drinking it as a highball (mixed with soda water). It’s not how I usually drink my whisky, but as it was free I was happy to go along with their suggestion. I was pleasantly surprised and was really enjoying my highball and packet of nuts when…

... another whisky was offered! This time from Yamasaki's sister distillery, Hakushu, located in Yamanashi prefecture, home of Mt. Fuji. I actually preferred the fresher and smokier flavour of this whisky...

… another whisky was offered! This time from Yamasaki’s sister distillery, Hakushu, located in Yamanashi prefecture, home of Mt. Fuji. I actually preferred the fresher and smokier flavour of this whisky…

... but when we were given the chance to have yet another try of either the Yamazaki or the Hakushu in a form other than 'highball', I felt I had to represent the home team and tried the Yamazaki 12 Years Old neat. And jolly good it was, too!

… but when we were given the chance to have yet another try of either the Yamazaki or the Hakushu in a form other than ‘highball’, I felt I had to represent the home team and tried the Yamazaki 12 Years Old neat. And jolly good it was, too!

Next stop was of course the gift shop. Three whiskies down and my purse strings were feeling slightly looser than usual, but I resisted and headed straight on through to the Whisky Library.

Next stop was of course the gift shop. Three whiskies down and my purse strings were feeling slightly looser than usual, but I resisted and headed straight on through to the Whisky Library.

The Whisky Library contains 7,000 bottles of single malt whisky all created at the distillery.

The Whisky Library contains 7,000 bottles of single malt whisky all created at the distillery.

Each bottle has detailed information about when it was created and tasting notes. Unfortunately the bottles in the library are not available for purchase or tasting.

Each bottle has detailed information about when it was created and tasting notes. Unfortunately the bottles in the library are not available for purchase or tasting.

However, don't be disheartened! The Whisky Library also has a tasting counter where you can sample a large number of whiskies created by both the Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries. They also have a  number of other whiskies not just from Scotland but from Ireland, America and Canada as well.

However, don’t be disheartened! The Whisky Library also has a tasting counter where you can sample a large number of whiskies created by both the Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries. They also have a number of other whiskies not just from Japan, but from around the globe.

As everything up until this point had been totally free of charge, I felt duty bound to at least spend some of my money in return for the wonderful services I had received. I opted to sample the Yamazaki 18 Years Old Single Malt. After sampling its loveliness, I almost felt duty bound to sample some others, but felt that this could be a rather slippery slope, and so decided it was safer to begin my journey home!

As everything up until this point had been totally free of charge, I felt duty bound to at least spend some of my money in return for the wonderful services I had received. I opted to sample the Yamazaki 18 Years Old Single Malt. After sampling its loveliness, I almost felt duty bound to sample some others, but felt that this could be a rather slippery slope, and so decided it was safer to begin my journey home!

And so my experience at the Yamazaki Distillery was concluded and I headed back to Yamazaki station. The distillery is actually located adjacent to the train line, so if you're arriving into Kyoto from Kansai International Airport or travelling between Osaka and Kyoto, keep an eye out for it on the way!

And so my experience at the Yamazaki Distillery was concluded and I headed back to Yamazaki station. The distillery is actually located adjacent to the train line, so if you’re arriving into Kyoto from Kansai International Airport, or travelling between Osaka and Kyoto, keep an eye out for it on the way!

I highly recommend a visit to the Yamazaki distillery. You’re sure to learn something new, and who can say no to a bombardment of free whisky? Although participation is free, appointments for the guided tours are essential and need to be arranged well in advance. If you would like to find out more about how to include a tour of the Yamazaki distillery into your trip to Japan, please check out the experience page on our website. This experience could easily be included into a Self Guided Adventure and could also be combined with some other fantastic gastronomic experiences as part of your trip.

Sláinte and kanpai!

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.

 

Wacky Dining: Tokyo’s Top Ten Weirdest Restaurants

Strange fads, outrageous fashions, incomprehensible crazes… Japan has achieved worldwide fame for being “weird.”

Say this to some people and they will roll their eyes and assure you that Japan is not as strange as you think. And many ways they are right: the famously crazy fashion trends of Harajuku have long passed their zenith and the notorious knicker-vending machines are (thankfully) now nowhere to be seen. Japan is a place of abundant culture and fascinating heritage – perhaps focusing too much on the “weird” is reductive. What with the boom years long behind it, is Japan no weirder than any other country?

If such is the case, then somebody evidently forgot to tell Japan’s restaurant scene. Tokyo has a dazzling array of fine dining options and holds more Michelin stars than Paris – but it is the city’s themed restaurants that really take the biscuit. Starting with the prison-hospital-themed Alcatraz E.R. about fifteen years ago, Tokyo’s madcap diners have gone from strength to strength, running the gamut from Thunderbirds-themed diners to restaurants where you catch your own dinner, to eateries where you nibble at pieces of sushi plucked delicately from gashes in the side of a papier maché corpse.* Now tell me that’s not weird.

This extraordinary culinary eccentricity is unmatched worldwide, and shows no sign of abating. The following is my personal pick of the ten weirdest, funniest and most downright nauseating out of some quite surprisingly stiff competition:

Sakuragaoka

Ever since the first branch opened in London in 2013, cat cafés are decidedly old hat. Dog cafés and rabbit cafés – been there, done that. For those seeking a more unusual furry companion with whom to share some lettuce and maybe a cup of coffee, why not visit Sakuragaoka – a goat café in the heart of Shibuya?

Feeding on of the goats (named Chocolat and Sakura) at Sakurgaoka

Feeding on of the goats (named Chocolat and Sakura) at Sakurgaoka

Modern Toilet 

OK, so this restaurant chain didn’t originate in Japan – it actually started in Taiwan (itself a frontrunner in the utterly bizarre dining experience stakes). Nonetheless, Modern Toilet has spread to Japan and is apparently a roaring success in Tokyo, though I for one am at a loss to understand why. As part of this frankly rather repugnant culinary experience, customers eat their food seated on actual (non-working) loos and eat their food (which, naturally, all resembles poo or vomit) out of a variety of loo-shaped receptacles. I can’t say that eating faecal matter is at the top of my to-do list, so maybe some other time…

Yummy...

Toilet humour

The Lockup

Along the same lines as the venerable Alcatraz E. R., the Lockup is Tokyo’s prison-themed restaurant du jour. If being dragged screaming and handcuffed through a genuinely terrifying house-of-horrors-style corridor, locked in a cell and fed plates of food shaped like eyeballs with cocktails served in syringes, this is the dining experience for you. And if you really like eating body parts, why not head to Tachibana Shinsatsushitsu (that’s “Examination Room” to you and me) in the Golden Gai area of Shinjuku for a medical-themed drink and some tasty sides served up in kidney dishes?

 

Robot Restaurant 

Reportedly kitted out to the tune of 10 billion yen, the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku is the all-flashing, breast-wielding, epilepsy-inducing dining experience that everyone is talking about. In terms of food you’re decidedly not in for a treat (you’ll find better fare at your local convenience store for a fraction of the price), but boy is the show worth it. Scantily-clad women, scantily-clad robots, tanks, sharks… you name it, the Robot Restaurant has it wearing a bikini and covered in lights. This is Japan as it was in the boom years, and we love it.

robot

Christon Café

Nothing says a great night out like the Catholic Church, so why not pull up a pew or sequester yourself in a confessional at Christon Café? Here you’ll find fancy Asian-European fusion cuisine, a variety of religious iconography, the occasional all-night fetish party and, if you were raised a Catholic, possibly a sensation of mild dread. If that doesn’t appeal to you, then you obviously don’t know how to have a good time.

christon

Vowz 

Sticking with the religious theme, Vowz is a Tokyo bar serving a heady mixture of booze and Buddhism with blue neon backlighting. Run by real robe-wearing, shaven-headed monks, this is a place where Tokyoites can come to drink cocktails and listen to some good old-fashioned chanting and sermons instead of that rubbish music that everyone else seems to be so keen on. Different strokes, different folks.

Buddha Bar

Maid Cafés 

The archetypal Japanese themed dining experience, Maid Cafés have long moved past the realm of faddishness and into permanent fixture territory. You only have to take a few steps through nerdtastic Akihabara to stumble across a maid enticing you to her establishment, and the offerings range from the cutesy and innocent to the very odd indeed. Be treated like the master of the house, say some magic words over your smiling ketchup-decorated food, play board games, pose for a photo – the maids at some Maid Cafés will blow on your food and feed it to you, or even ask you maths questions and give you a slap round the face when you get them wrong. (This, apparently, does float some people’s boats, and who am I to judge them?)

mad
 cutefood

Mr. Kanso

Mr. Kanso started in Osaka in 2002 and became so inexplicably successful that it now boasts seventeen outlets across Japan – including, of course, Tokyo. Mr. Kanso has no menus, only shelves stacked with hundreds of different types of canned food from across the globe. Customers choose from such delicacies as “Todo niku kare” (sealion curry), canned cocktail sausages, French salad, and whale meat (tut tut, Mr. Kanso) – all served cold in a can and gobbled up with plastic cutlery. Apparently it’s the variety that keeps customers coming back for more… Well it must be something.

Mr Kanso

Zauo

At Zauo, customers are seated in a giant, fake wooden boat and have to reel in their own meal from the surrounding “ocean” using fishing rods. After you’ve landed your catch, you can choose how to have it cooked! It may be gimmicky, but it’s definitely fantastic fun, and can be found in several cities across Japan.

zauo

Ninja Akasaka

Ninja Akasaka combines top-notch Japanese cuisine with (you guessed it) a ninja theme. Waiters and waitresses dressed as assassins sneak up on you with menus and the wood-panelled restaurant is kitted out to resemble the inside of a Japanese castle. The in-house magician will keep you entertained with a repertoire of tricks whilst you wait – the whole enterprise is just extremely enjoyable and very well geared for tourists. Not the cheapest of themed restaurants in Tokyo, but a great one for families!

 

Some of the restaurants and bars that didn’t make it on to this top ten include the video game-themed Capcom Bar and a Gundam Café, the train-themed Little TGV, the Vampire Café, an Alice in Wonderland restaurant, sumo and samurai restaurants, Yurei Izakaya with its ghostly waiters, a school lunch-themed eatery, Biohazard Café and Grill, Arabian Rock (from the loons who brought you Alcatraz E. R.), The Wizard of the Opera, Princess Heart (the names speak for themselves really) – not to mention the themed diners across the rest of Japan.

Try some out next time you’re in Japan!

 

* OK, so the corpse sushi turned out to be a hoax. But in the context of the above it wouldn’t be entirely surprising!

The Joy of Sake

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

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

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

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

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

Sake Festival Japan

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

What's your poison?

No Added Alcohol Type

Junmai Daiginjo-shu

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

Junmai Ginjo-shu

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

Junmai-shu

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

Sake wonderland
Some Added Alcohol Type

Daiginjo-shu

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

Ginjo-shu

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

Honjozo-shu

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

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

Sake Festival Japan

 

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