A Beginner’s Guide to Japan

We were lucky enough to have the lovely Rachel Schraer join us for a 2 month intern programme with Bristol University. Rachel is a talented writer who also pens her own blog (during her time here, a piece she wrote on Bristol went viral), so we asked her to pen a few thoughts about her feelings towards Japan…..

 

I came to InsideJapan two months ago, as an intern and total Japan novice in an office of Japanophiles, ex-residents and ex-perts. I had only the haziest image of suited businessmen on shiny trains, pretty painted fans and crazy hi-tech gadgets (it’s still something of a childhood trauma that I was never allowed one of those robot dogs that were a thing in the late ‘90s.)

Coming as an outsider, and Far East rookie, the Japan I’ve discovered seems tinged with magic and has been an immediate addition to my travel bucket list – sorry Student Loans company. I discovered the aching beauty of cherry blossom-swathed vermillion temples; volcanic, primeval green landscapes alight with golden foliage and futuristic cities fizzing with neon and life. Not to mention the quaint ancient elegance of Japanese manners and hospitality; the hysterically blue seas and white sand beaches; the samurais and castles straight out of a picture book, and the mysterious living artwork that is the Geisha.

Here is a list of things I’ve discovered that attracted this Japan newbie to a country half the world away:

1.    Snow and Sand:

Extremes of climate and landscape are always exciting, and Japan is so diverse that within one country you can experience both ends of the spectrum. See desolate-seeming icy landscapes, complete with swooping birds of prey and perfect powder snow, at one end. Meanwhile the other end of the country will offer you glistening white beaches with warm, coral-packed seas to snorkel in and lush jungles to explore.

2.    Castles, Samurai and Ninjas:
These seem like the trappings of an adventure story, but you can see them come to fascinating life when you visit some of Japan’s ancient historical sites- and I wanna.

3.    Bullet trains:
I love trains. I’m sorry, but I do- I love a good train journey; sometimes the train from Bristol to London excites me. I know this is not normal. But there is something truly exciting about the idea of whizzing in a super sleek, beam-me-up-Scotty, 200+ mph Bullet train past ancient mountains and paddy fields.

Shink_Odawara (1)

4.    Kawaii:
The culture of all that is super cutesy and kitsch from food packaging to the outrageous Lolita fashion in Tokyo’s Harajuku district.

5.    Capsule hotels:
Part of the fun of traveling is going somewhere things are just done differently, and this is a quality Japan clearly has in spades. Capsule hotels are just one example of all of the different and exhilarating experiences on offer. Totally unique, slightly creepy and morgue-like, but definitely something you’d have to try once for the experience. Unless you’re a chronic claustrophobe in which case, maybe best steer clear.

6.    Geisha:
Even after 8 weeks of staring at pictures of them, I still can’t get over the picturesque beauty of these mysterious characters. To see Geisha in the flesh, wending their way through Kyoto backstreets would be a bit too good to be true.

Thanks Rachel. We’ll miss you!

How to make it big in Japan

When you join one of the InsideJapan Tours, you will probably be wondering what your tour leader will be like – will they be knowledgeable, will they be interesting, will you like them, will they have a secret life and rock star alter-ego?!?!?! Perhaps you won’t be considering the last question there, but with tour leader, Steve Parker, that’s what you’ll get. Steve, is interesting, knows his stuff and is a likeable chap, but he also has band in Tokyo. If you are thinking of making it big in Japan, here are a few tips from Steve..

Having spent a good few years of my life in Japan, the land that brought the world “karaoke” (empty orchestra), I have long strutted my stuff and strained the vocal cords to David Bowie, Muse, Billy Joel, The Kaiser Chiefs and endured painful renditions by 50-something tone deaf British men of  Bohemian Rhapsody (vocally, no problem apparently) and the 12-plus minute long Stairway to Heaven (which rapidly descends into a fast track to hell!).

Hence 18 months ago, I really was starting to feel the emptiness of the orchestra and the urge to create something of my own. The obvious solution? Start a band.

studio time

A year and a half on, with limited success, I can proudly introduce myself as the vocalist of the completely unknown rock band, “The Cinders”, dedicated to introducing the locals to a little dark indie Brit-rock.

It has been a challenge to get to this stage, least of all the search for members in a city of millions. Thankfully the eternally painful task of finding a bassist was made easy with my friend, Justin’s, coincidental return to live in Tokyo.

Tokyo Acoustic Troubadour

We then uploaded online ads for “musicians sought” and they eventually appeared in the form of a male Japanese drummer and a lead guitarist. It took us around 8 months to become a 4-piece band, but a major part of the struggle was, of course, over. Now it was onto the easy stuff – the music and maintaining harmonious human relations within the band!

The Obligatory Serious Look

To practice in Japan is majorly hassle-free. In most Japanese cities there are underground bunker-like rehearsal studios or multi-storey affairs with 4 soundproof practice rooms or so on each floor. For around 2000yen (15 pounds) each you get a decent drum kit, guitar and bass amps, as many mikes as you can throw a (rhythm) stick at, and even a mirror on the front wall to see how you look when you are set up and playing!!! And, most importantly, 3 hours to make an aural mess!

So with hours of practice under our belts we were next ready to show the world what we had created. And herein lies the eternal challenge of performing live in Japan. Tokyo, being a megacoolopolis, suffers no lack of venues, however, there are 1000s of rock and punk, jazz and funk bands, troubled acoustic troubadours and colourful keyboard wizards vying to procure a night slot to play in.

All Areas - Backstage Loo and Loo Shaped Changing Room
Once you have an invite to play, unlike in your home countries perhaps, in Tokyo, it is the BAND that ends up paying to play. If, as we have been lucky enough to do recently, you manage to get on a bill with 3 or 4 other bands, the venue usually stipulates that you owe around 40,000yen (300 pounds) to start with. Any guests of yours that turn up pay nominally 1500yen (ten pounds) to hear your noise.  That amount is subtracted from your final bill, so as in life in general, it’s good to have friends around, and friends that like your noise!!!. Oh, and they must buy at least one obligatory drink too, so as a band, we never expect to be bought a congratulatory drink after a gig!!

Trancy Guitars

So there you have it – your band is part of the Tokyo scene. I have recently been putting up posters all over and contacting all I know in order to have someone to share our music with at gigs. People have come and the usually reticent crowd (unless at their favourite band’s gig, when they crowd surf to ballads), are always a little difficult to get moving to music that they are unfamiliar with. However, our confidence is growing, our wallets may be shrinking but Tokyo is starting to move to our music, even if it is for now just an embarrassed foot tap or head sway! I think we are on the road to a minor part in the Tokyo rock scene. Whatever our limited status, we still DON’T and never will however, do requests for old Queen or Led Zeppelin tracks!

The Cinders play live in and around the Tokyo Metropolitan area. Their only release to date is the Evenings EP – available on itunes.

Japanophile Englishman in the USA

Mat Eccles is our marathon running Englishman in Colorado. Mat has a huge passion for Japan and his American home in and wanted to share a bit about IJTUSA. So, here he is!

Back in 2010 InsideJapan Tours decided to spread its wings across the Pond and open a US Branch. At that time I was already living in beautiful Colorado, having left London in mid 2009 after enjoying four years working for an Asia specialist tour operator.

Colorado scenery

Colorado style

Often people I meet assume the US office would be based on either coast, but Colorado works perfectly. Not only does it fit with the overall ethos of the company as a whole, but being located in Mountain Time ensures that we can chat to clients all over the continent with ease.

Boulder

Boulder

As with most things, even the most grand of plans start small, and so for a little under a year the office was based in my home, where I toiled alone spreading the word of IJT and building our already substantial base of North American (and a few Central and South American) clientèle. Being able to communicate with clients in a similar time zone is invaluable, and I was also able to attend various industry events and even appear on local radio espousing the many great things about an IJT vacation.

IJTUSAHQ

IJTUSAHQ

By early 2011 business was chugging along well, and, with an eye to expanding staff, we took a small office in downtown Boulder. For those who are unfamiliar with Boulder, it is a fantastic college town with a stunning mountain backdrop, great restaurants and bars, a wide variety of street performers and the penchant for attracting the slightly odd! In these respects it is not dissimilar to Bristol, where the UK Head Office is located. Just after the Boulder office was established, the tragedy of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami ravaged Japan. All thoughts of expansion were put on hold whilst we adjusted to the significantly altered Japan tourism landscape post March 11th.

IJT Crew

IJT Crew

As we begin 2013 I am happy to report that, through the collective hard work of many, 2012 was a pretty successful year for IJT USA, and we now have a staff of three! Amy joined in June and Hagino in December. We have expanded into the neighbouring office suite, and now have an area for staff downtime, as well as a meeting place for local clients who want to pop in to say hello and chat all things Japan.  The new space also allows us to expand our team which we expect to do in 2013, and continue to design the best, most interesting and fulfilling customized vacations to Japan.

Mat the man

Mat the man

Volunteering with It’s Not Just Mud

Konbanwa! I’m currently in Ishinomaki, a fishing port on the coast of Miyagi Prefecture that suffered the full force of the Tohoku Tsunami 20 months ago.

20121105-203610.jpg
I’m spending four days volunteering with the non-profit organisation, It’s Not Just Mud. Here’s my photo blog:

20121105-203702.jpg
Day 1 was on oyster duty assisting a local fisherman who lost lots of equipment in the tsunami. You’ve got to love my red overalls, right?

20121105-204142.jpg
We had to separate the shells, rooting out the curved ones. Pretty labourious…

20121105-204624.jpg
The curved shells will be used in the production of “Hoya” or sea pineapple – a creature that grows in shallow water attached to the shells. Apparently it’s pretty horrible tasting for a Western palette, but a delicacy to others, best served as sashimi and washed down with sake. It’ll take 5 years for the first production cycle, but in the long run this will be a real boast to the local economy.

20121105-204825.jpg
Day 2 took me closer to the coast, to the town of Onagawa. In the above picture the tsunami waves reached right up to the bottom of the trees on the left hand side. The area on either side of the road used to be full of houses. Hard to imagine what was once here.

One in ten people in Onagawa were killed in the tsunami. 80% of buildings were destroyed.

20121105-205030.jpg
Our job was helping to clear out this old, deserted house. The plan is to convert it into an office for a fishing company. The company will buy fish, crab and other seafood from Onagawa fishermen, then sell it on to buyers in other parts of Japan. Because the tsunami caused such a lots of damage to infrastructure, it’s been very difficult for Tohoku fisherman to transport and sell their catch.

20121105-205445.jpg
The before photo…

20121105-205544.jpg
…and after the demolition job.

20121105-205655.jpg

20121105-205742.jpg
Above, fellow volunteers Kenji and Stephen with Nakada-San who’s setting up the fishing company. He told us how just before the tsunami struck he got on a boat and headed out to sea; the safest place to be. The boat tackled two 5m high waves, then stayed out at sea for two days while they waited for contact from the coast guard. They knew the tsunami was a big one, but had no way of finding out if their families were safe until they could get back to land.

20121105-210108.jpg
Nakada-San rewarded our work with some of the local catch.

20121105-210344.jpg

Blog your way to Japan

2012 has been a huge year for us in the UK. Continued medal success at the London Olympics, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and of course the best is yet to come….InsideJapan Tours’ 12th birthday!

To celebrate this and all the good things about the number 12, we have joined up with Virgin Atlantic to give away an amazing trip to Japan  and invite you Blog to Japan!

We want people to show us what they can do with photo, video and words with their blog. Give us 12 good reasons as to why you be going to Japan in the most innovative, imaginative and exciting way and we will be sending you to Japan for two and a half weeks.

If you have always wanted to go to Japan, then this is your chance!

The winners will win a trip that will take them from the Tokyo Metropolis to the old Imperial capital of Kyoto, a crazy cultural festival in Osaka, the chance to reflect at a  Buddhist temple lodging on sacred Mt. Koya, the serene Miyajima Island, the stunning Kamikochi national park and more. All of this will happen at a time of year when the mountains and temple gardens are lit up by red and gold autumn leaves and the temperature very pleasant. The winner will also have a whole host of cultural experiences included adding to this adventure of a lifetime which would usually cost you in the region of £4000pp.

As the winner, all we ask is that you blog each day during your trip providing us with inspirational posts full of exciting video and provoking images giving us an insight into the country, culture and people as well as your first experience of this unique destination.

What you need to do….

So, all you need to do is blog 12 good reasons as to why you and your blogging partner should be travelling to Japan. For example, what are your preconceptions of Japan; why have you always wanted to go; Have you have always liked sushi and sumo; Perhaps you  are a fan of Tadao Ando and his architecture or you like Enka folk music or maybe you are into Hayao Miyazaki anime. Give us something interesting and show us what you can do.

Once you have created your blog, send a link to blogtojapan@insidejapantours.com  between now and August 31st and you will be one step closer to travelling to Japan.

InsideJapan Tours will pick their top three blogs from the entries sent in. We will ask you for your proposal as to what you will be able to provide for us with on this trip in terms of content. InsideJapan will then put the vote to fans on the InsideJapan Tours Facebook page to help pick the winner.

Keep an eye on the InsideJapan Tours Facebook page or follow @insidejapan on Twitter to keep an eye on what is going on.
Please have a look at the details here – http://www.insidejapantours.com/blog-to-japan

Have a look at Travelllll.com  or perhaps take a look at Vimeo for a few ideas. Don’t expect anything quite as good as this, but I love this Japan video and wanted an excuse to add it to the blog.

GOOD LUCK!!!

 

 

 

The New Bristol Office!

I started work at InsideJapan one year and five days ago (how time has flown!), and I remember in my and Natasha’s induction week, we were told that we would be moving offices very soon. Due to events this year, we didn’t move quite as soon as we had imagined, but I am delighted to say that last weekend we moved into our shiny new office! It feels like such a journey, from when Al and Simon were going to look at offices, to being told that we had a new  ‘tea solution’ to be revealed  (it is a boiling water tap – how posh!) and being shown around whilst it was still being fitted out, to where we are sat now. We are so excited about the new office so I wanted to bring you on a guided tour.

When you first walk into the office, there is a client seating area. There much more space for welcoming clients in this office, so please do come and see us! On the window sill is the newest member of the IJT team, Neko-chan, who came back from Japan with Alastair a few weeks ago. He’ll be visiting lots of places across the UK in the coming months, so watch this space!

This is the main office area, with a beautiful Japanese maple tree on the feature wall. This is getting us in the mood for all the autumn trips we have coming up! The seat in the foreground is David’s…he is always getting nagged for not tucking his chair in!

At the other end of the office, The directors their own office at the end of the room. And you can see we are all enjoying ice-creams in the beautiful weather we’ve had this week!

If you have seen our brochure or our business cards, these images on the windows to the staff room and  the meeting rooms might be familiar

Finally, we have no less than three balconies in our penthouse office; with views such as this one

I’m sure you can see why we are so pleased with our new office. A huge thank you to Al and Simon for sorting it all out for us. If you’re ever in Bristol, please stop by! We might even make you a brew with the hot water tap…

Boulder Backroads Half Marathon- Raising Money for Japan!

In an attempt to raise a little bit more money for the Japan Relief fund, a number of us at IJT signed up to take on the challenge of a Half Marathon. The Bristol Crew has one more week to get their legs ready, but mine happened to be today, in the form of the Boulder Backroads Half. Taking place in the environs of the beautiful Boulder Reservoir, the weather was lovely, if a tad too hot after mile eight, and the event pulled in many runners from all over Colorado and beyond. There were four races on the calendar; Marathon, Half Marathon (the most popular with about 650 running), Relay Marathon and a 10K.

The run went well, I beat my goal time and then enjoyed a complimentary Boulder Beer on finishing! My legs are certainly getting their own back now from the pounding I put them through so it may be a while attempt this again, but a big thank you to all those who were kind enough to sponsor my run.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 227 other followers