Making Sunday very special in Bristol

Here at the Bristol office of InsideJapan Tours we had our very own mini matsuri on Sunday 7th September at Bristol’s Make Sunday Special event. We donned our yukata and jinbei, and with the help of our local friends Yume Kitchen and Kagemusha Taiko set about sharing Japanese culture with the good people of Bristol.

Make Sunday Special

Yuki & James running the chopstick challenge whilst Yume Kitchen get the sushi rolling

Throughout the day, we had performances and workshops from Devon-based Kagemusha Taiko, sushi-making demos and tutorials from Bristol’s own Yume Kitchen, origami lessons, and the mighty chopstick challenge (picking up dried adzuki beans with shiny chopsticks – a challenge indeed!).

Kagemusha Taiko

Kagemusha Taiko

Kagemusha Taiko workshop

Kagemusha Taiko workshop

Making sushi with Yume Kitchen

Making sushi with Yume Kitchen

We chatted about Japan with anyone and everyone who stopped by, and it was wonderful to see how many local people have an interest in Japanese culture and travelling to Japan. Some had already been to Japan, for others it was a lifelong dream, and some just really enjoyed making origami!

Proud paper folders!

Proud paper folders!

InsideJapan Tours has customers from all over the world, and we’re happy to communicate with you all by any possible means, but there’s nothing like a face-to-face conversation. Make Sunday Special was a really good chance for us to meet some great people from the great city of Bristol and talk Japan to all who have an interest in learning a bit more about Japan and it’s unique culture   – thanks for coming along, and we hope to see you at the next event!

J-Pop and Going on a HYPERJAPAN Tour

Way of the Samurai(photos by Ken Francisco)

Our inaugural HYPERJAPAN J-Pop and Go! tour was a great reminder that even going back to places that I’ve visited a dozen or more times can bring unexpected experiences, new surprises and untold amounts of fun! Working with the folks at HYPERJAPAN, we created a tour for people with as much energy as a Japanese anime character. We trounced from Buddhist temple to maid cafe, from the insanity of the Robot Restaurant to the quietude of a traditional Japanese garden. We learned about geisha culture from one of the world’s foremost experts and we were taught Zen meditation from a Buddhist monk but we also dressed up in kimono for a samurai sword lesson and slept in a capsule hotel! Although you’ll read about the Japan as the land of contrasts in any and every guidebook, there has surely never been a tour where these contrasts are juxtaposed so vividly. If you’re interested in the full spectrum of Japanese culture, 10 days on this tour will have knowing more about Japanese pop culture than most people who stay for 6 months.

Men at work

KaraokeHiroshima Bay

Luckily I don’t need to ramble on about how good everything was because Kenneth Francisco – a skilled photographer and a passenger on the very first tour – has been kind enough to let us use his images for an exploratory journey through a few highlights of this great tour. Arigatou Ken!

MarioKiyomizu, Kyoto

Manga and Maids

At our visit to the maid cafe (pictured above) we sang songs, performed “magic” to enhance the deliciousness of our cute and cuddly meals and even had a birthday celebration for a very embarrassed young man! But in Kyoto we got to experience old Japan by visiting several UNESCO World Heritage Sites and rubbing elbows with many kimono clad locals. Walking through the romantic old buidlings in the geisha district on a quiet and warm spring night was the highlight for a couple who came on the tour for their honeymoon. For a few others, the maid cafe and capsule hotel came in with the top ranking!

Tour leader, Tyler

 

Romantic Dear

Life size anime

Miyajima Tori

In these shots Ken has caught me explaining sankinkotai with the picture of a samurai and also managed to find a couple of romantic deer whispering sweet nothings to one another on Miyajima island, the home of the massive floating Torii gate – although that only applies when the tide is in! But my personal favorite is Ken posing with Goku from Dragon Ball Z.

Osaka Castle

okonomiyakiCup noodles

We had great weather throughout this tour, as can be evidenced by the clear views from Osaka castle (above) and of Mt. Fuji (below). The shot on the left shows our okonomiyaki being grilled right in front of us in Hiroshima while the picture on the right is from the Ramen Museum in Osaka, where we got to design and make our very own Cup of Noodles to take home with us as a souvenir. I can’t speak for the rest of the group but mine were delicious! ;)

Fuji from Hakone

Sushiiii

Tsukiji fish market

Conveyor belt sushi in Kyoto is always a favorite on my tours but it couldn’t top the amazing stuff we had at the famous Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo! Our small group took up the entire restaurant.

Serious tour leader time

Karaoke tour leader time

Lets sing!

Bullet Train Bento

Showing my serious, and not-so-serious, sides above; no trip to Japan is completely without one crazy night of karaoke and a delicious bento box on the bullet train!

Deadly ladies

Samurai

I lost

Here we are learning the techniques of the samurai and looking very good in the process. These girls would give Uma Thurman a run for her money any day! Just ask Jeff, seen above before and after his bout with his spouse.

Capsule Hotel

 

Zen moments in Kyoto

Crazy Robot Restaurant, Toyko

And what better way to finish off than with pictures from three of my own personal favorite experiences from this great and varied tour. Here’s our capsule hotel, our Zen meditation session and the crazy but hilarious visit to the Robot Restaurant!

More HYPERJAPAN J-Pop & Go! to come….

 

 

West Meets East – A response to the UK TV show ‘JLC: Turning Japanese’

InsideJapan Tours staff have all lived and worked in Japan and love the place, people and culture. We all get excited with the prospect of seeing a new Japan film or television programme. The upcoming adaptation of Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood” is one to watch but the current Channel 5 broadcast, “Justin Lee Collins Turning Japanese” promised so much but was a bit of a let down. JLC who is usually full of enthusiasm seemed to give a negative slant on some of the different aspects of Japanese culture. Perhaps Japan is a bit too far East for the West Country comedian.

Slightly concerned that JLC is giving off the wrong message about Tokyo and Japan, I have compiled a list of the more positive aspects of Japanese culture referred to in the programme in response.

Japan really is great.

Tokyo
Shibuya and Shinjuku fit the stereotypical image of Japan with neon lights, high rise buildings and lots of people. Each district has their own buzz and excitement, but this aspect of Tokyo life is not for everyone, but Tokyo is massive and has a huge variety of areas; old districts with traditional wooden buildings, quiet temple grounds, local shrines and serene Japanese gardens. It is safe city with relatively no crime and as such is a breath of fresh air.

Tokyo trains
So long as you do not travel at peak rush hour (approx 730-0900) or on the last train from Shibuya/Shinjuku (approx 0030), you will not experience crammed trains. The Tokyo subway system is immense, but it is relatively easy to use. Trains are on time, clean and can get you just about anywhere you want to go. Trains are also cheap with the average journey costing just over £1. A pleasure to travel on.

Tokyo people
Tokyoites and Japanese in general do work hard, but they also play hard. It is fun experience to go to a Japanese Izakaya (bar/restaurant) in the early evening where you will probably meet salary men winding down after a long day. You may be invited to join the locals for a drink or bite to eat and you will see beyond the stony faced exteriors and a warm hospitable people.


Capsule Hotels
They are not everyone’s cup of tea and you certainly wouldn’t stay in one if you were claustrophobic, but they are fit for purpose. A capsule will have enough room to sit up and lie down. You leave your belongings in a locker when you arrive and change into a yukatta (Japanese dressing gown). There are usually nice Japanese baths to enjoy and rooms to relax in, prefect if you have missed your last train home. Alternatively, Japan does have some superb western style hotels as well as some of the most luxurious traditional Japanese accommodation to choose from and the full rang in between.

Japanese food
Japan is a foodie’s paradise. From back street noodle bars to Michelin star restaurants, Japan has it all. Tokyo itself has more Michelin star restaurants than any other city in the world. Wherever you go in the city and indeed Japan, there is a fantastic choice of restaurants to suit all budgets and tastes. You can choose to eat very fresh fish that is still moving, but you may prefer your fresh melt-in-the-mouth sashimi or sushi not moving, cooked succulent meat, noodles, tempura or even western style food. Oishi!

Tokyo Getaways
The seaside temple town of Kamakura is a short train ride from Tokyo as is the mountainous Hakone national park region close to Mt. Fuji (both approx. 1 hour). JLC flew to Hakodate in Hokkaido for a ‘get away’. Hakodate is a nice small coastal city compared to Tokyo, but there is a wealth of wilderness, wildlife and natural scenery that covers the northern island of Hokkaido, all a flight away from Tokyo.

We shall look forward to seeing the rest of JLC’s series on Japan and I hope that he puts more of a positive spin on it. Tokyo is not necessarily everyone’s favourite place, but Japan has a lot more to offer with its mountains, tropical beaches,  cultural heritage and its wonderful people. Japan is just a very different place to the UK or anywhere else in fact and this is part of the attraction. So long as you go to Japan with a good attitude, I am sure it will reach and far exceed your expectations.

Bringing Japan Home

I seem to have a slight obsession about festivals in Japan – but that’s ok, because they are awesome. They have the best food, the best fireworks, the best random costumes, and the best atmosphere. They bring together families and communities, allow people to dress up in their best Yukata, and showcase the best and occasionally worst of the Japanese people letting their hair down.

Having been back in the UK for a couple of years now, it’s been a while since I got my festival fix and I often lament the fact that we British just don’t seem to have the same community events that come naturally to the Japanese. Whilst we are drowning in the British ‘summer’ over here, the Japanese are sitting on hot beaches, watching stunning fireworks, eating amazing food and generally having themselves a good time.

But being back in the UK doesn’t mean I have to miss out completely of course. There is always so much going on here if you look for it, and other people looking for the same thing. There’s over 19,000 Japanese living in London, and almost 40,000 in the UK which means that Japanese culture and influence is easily found. Indeed, the flashiest restaurants are often Japanese and Japan still keeps a rather exotic image to many people. We’ve talked about Japanese restaurants in London before, and here in Bristol, we have a number of great Japanese restaurants also – so there’s always the chance for a spot of sushi at lunchtime – as some of my colleagues know well!

And to top it all off, in London next month, they’re holding what is claiming to be a proper Japan Matsuri, with food stalls, crafts and even Nodojiman – a popular Japanese ‘X-Factor’ type TV show – you have to sing in Japanese and entries close soon – so best get in there quick!

So, no excuses for those missing a bit of Japanese culture – the festival is on next month, it’s sure to be a soggy september here in the UK, but that doesn’t mean we can’t put on our finest yukata, snack on some dango, and warm up our voices for some karaoke – maybe see you there!

And finally – a little more Nodojiman to get you in the matsuri mood.

A Japanese Business Lunch in London

On a recent trip to London I decided to go along to Tsuru, a fairly new Japanese restaurant, just behind the Tate Modern on the South Bank. I had been recommended this place by a friend who had also lived in Japan, so was looking forward to an authentic Japanese meal (by London standards!) I was suitably impressed. What makes Tsuru different from most Japanese restaurants in London is that they focus on casual dishes, reasonably priced and served speedily. Part of the reason for this is that their main trade is lunchtime, not evenings. So rather than serving huge platters of overpriced and under-fresh sushi they offer a fantastic range of ‘bento’ boxes (commonplace in Japan), featuring a range of fresh contents, many of them healthy and wholesome, as goes the reputation for Japanese food. However as is often the case one of the most delicious options is one of the less healthy options!

One of their featured offerings is a range of ‘katsu bento’, a choice of meat, fish or veg breaded and fried to crisp finish, served over rice with a lovely mild curry sauce. ‘Kare-raisu‘ (have you worked that one out yet?) is actually claimed to be the most popular food in Japan, but rarely makes it onto the menu in overseas Japanese restaurants. I was impressed with Tsuru’s katsu (I went for chicken) and also with the other dishes I had, including gyoza (pan-fried dumplings), edamame (soya beans – great as a snack with beer!) and miso soup. I was there in the evening, and they do open until 9pm, so although lunchtime is their main trade you can still go along in the early evening and have a great casual meal. I will definitely be back to Tsuru. They are bringing another side of Japanese cuisine to London, and showing that the Japanese do fast food better (and generally healthier!) than anyone. If you are planning a trip to Japan, or have been there in the past and long for a taste of your favourites go along to Tsuru; you won’t be disappointed.

Tsuru, Fabulous & Affordable Japanese Food

Tsuru, Fabulous & Affordable Japanese Food

Japan is closer than you think!

Japanese culture has been gradually seeping its way into the consciousness of the UK public for year but in recent times the effects of this are a lot more visible; Japanese restaurants are to be found in every city in Britain and karaoke boxes are gradually appearing in city centres and entertainment areas everywhere, introducing the British public to a very Japanese night out. And of course, gaming continues to be the number one pastime for men between the ages of 15 and 35 with the vast majority of games being developed in Japan, the true home of the video game.

Here at InsideJapan Tours we are always on the look out for the best bits of Japanese culture to be found at home so we thought we might post up our finds on the blog for everyone to discover.

So for today’s starter welcome to KaraokeMe!, home of the best Japanese-style night out to be had in Bristol.

Located on St Stephen’s street in Bristol city centre, Karaoke Me! opened some two years ago, finally bringing the Karaoke box experience to the West Country. Having spent countless nights in Japan behind the mic deafening my friends with sub-standard renditions of Jumping Jack Flash and Wonderwall, this was an eagerly anticipated new arrival for me (and possibly my friends too).

So for those not in the know this is how it works: You hire a private room for an hour, or two, or three, or four or… well, you get the idea. Generally you hire a room suitable for the number of people in your group but there don’t seem to be any rules on piling as many people as you can into a room for a mass sing-a-long. Each room is equipped with a couple of wireless mics, a massive flat screen T.V. and a touch screen control panel. Search for what you wan to sing and more than likely the system will have it. In theory there are books with the songs in too but at Karaoke Me! they seem to have forgotten about this part (although you can download the current catalogue from there web-site). Each room features a phone to be used for ordering food and drink. Please note: Often the more alcoholic beverages consumed, the better the evening. For some reason karaoke seems to work like that. And that is that. Away you go.

Danger: Karaoke is addictive

Danger: Karaoke is addictive

Karaoke is addictive: Hire a room for one hour and you will be there for three before you are dragged away from the mic by the staff trying to close up, singing on long after the music has been turned off! And one thing you will never see at a Karaoke box is any aggro; just lots of happy people singing like Simon Cowell (and his genius) victims on the latest X-Factor auditions.

So there you have it: Karaoke Japanese-style available right here in the heart of Bristol. It isn’t quite the authentic experience: The selection of songs isn’t quite up to the huge phone directory like catalogues one is presented with at any Japanese karaoke parlour and perhaps the biggest disappointment, no ridiculous videos to accompany each song. That said, members do have access to a fabulous all you can eat and drink deal for just £20 per person for 2 hours. But then Japan is Japan so will always do things in its own unique and endlessly charming fashion.

So next time you fancy a different sort of night out, check it out and get down Karaoke Me! for a 100% guaranteed fun night out.

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