Halley is one of our star team members, currently based in the Boulder office, but soon to be based back in Japan and our Nagoya office. Like all at InsideJapan, Halley spent a number of years living and working over there. It’s no surprise that the places that we’ve lived during our time in Japan, have an influence over us with regards to our favourite place in the country. Halley is no different. So, here’s Halley’s favourite place in Japan….
Only a 1 hour train ride separates the bustling metropolis of Nagoya and the peaceful mountain town of Komono. Nestled within the Suzuka Mountain Range in northern Mie Prefecture, Komono offers a refreshing wealth of nature.
Upon arrival, Mt. Gozaisho greets you on the west as the crisp clean air rejuvenates city worn travelers. The town motto of “Genki up!” or “High Energy!” describes this burst of vitality and is embodied by Komono locals. When encountered, they will gladly take you to the see the view from the top of town hall then get to know you while soaking in the free footbaths. If you’re lucky they will take you to a café to try makomo desserts made from Komono’s namesake grass root, just don’t let the green color put you off! It is well known that Komono locals are very excited to share their beloved hometown.
You will be excited yourself when heading toward the mountain area of Yunoyama Onsen. Adventurous hiking routes snake up Mt. Gozaisho with a rewarding view at the top for challengers. There is also the option to enjoy the scenery as you ride the longest ropeway in Japan up the rocky slope. Be sure to keep an eye out for the elusive kamoshika deer and monkeys. Once you reach the peak, you can appreciate the breathtaking 360 degree view where on clear days it is even rumored you can see all the way to Mt. Fuji! While at the summit, you can enjoy outdoor activities and the seasonal sights of stunning spring wild flowers, fiery autumn colors and wintry ice sculptures.
Whether coming down from a hike or ropeway journey, you will surely enjoy relaxing in one of the hot springs awaiting you. The historical “Kibousou” hot spring offers an unbeatable mountain night view. If you are looking for a modern hot spring experience, the recently renewed “Iqua x Ignis” offers a chic new feel to onsen. Next door is a delicious world renowned bakery that offers a variety of locally inspired unique cakes and sweets. They sell out quickly, so line up early to get a taste!
No doubt that Komono is most spirited during its festivals throughout the year. The “Touka festival” in July is a display of teamwork where individually designed lanterns are combined to create an inspiring illumination. This is paired with the big town obon dance to celebrate those who have passed and keep them connected. Komono’s most famous festival is the “Souhei Festival” in October. Good fortune is brought to businesses along the mountain slope as a shrine set aflame is carried up by local young men. True town spirit is felt through the bravery and strength the men show.
Though not yet well known throughout worldwide or even within Japan, Komono is undoubtedly worthy of the pride felt by its citizens. With gorgeous scenery, delicious treats, and unmatched spirit, Komono offers something for mind, body and soul. Please come and genki up in Komono!
Who is this Dr. Kanji, this master (or mistress) of the Japanese language?
There have been suggestions that this mysterious Dr. Kanji is actually related somehow to the legendary Big Foot. It has also been said that he use to swim in Loch Ness…with the monster. It has also been said that Dr Kanji is actually The Stig from BBC’s Top Gear. Either way, Dr. Kanji knows his/her stuff when comes to the tricky Chinese characters.
Each year Japan announces the official most popular word/Kanji character of the year. Dr Kanji suggests the following Kanji as the front runners –
This character means double or twice.
富 ‘Fu’ or ‘Tomi’ This is the chrachter meaning wealth
輪 ‘Wa’ or ‘Rin’ This charachter means ring or circle
With the huge announcement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Dr. Kanji plucks for 輪 with 五輪 literally meaning ‘five rings’.
The Olympics news was a huge result for Tokyo and international backing for a country that had seen media hype about the effects of Fukushima and the Tsunami. Tokyo will be a fantastic host and it is a fantastic city.
2012′s most popular Kanji (picture above) was ‘Kin’ or ‘Gold’ which was said the represent the year with the countries gold medal haul at the London Olympics as well as a Japanese winner of the Nobel Prize and the wealth brought by the new Tokyo Skytree.
2020 seems like such a long way off, but the announcement for most popular Kanji 2013 will be made on December 12th.
Will Dr Kanji be right? – He/She might even be the judge?!
STOP PRESS 12/11/13
The Kanji of the year has been revealed at Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto and Dr Kanji was correct!….wait a minute…is that Dr Kanji?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Today, the 11th of March 2013, marks the two year anniversary of the Great Tohoku Earthquake. It is hard to believe that two years have passed since the east coast of Tohoku was devastated by enormous tsunami waves, destroying hundreds of thousands of homes and taking tens of thousands of lives.
For me that day is etched permanently in the memory. I remember very distinctly hearing the first reports on the Today programme shortly after 6:30am followed by the more extensive and more horrifying 7am bulletin (listen to the edited bulletin below). And then shortly afterward that receiving an email from our office manager in Japan, Ayako, saying there had been a large earthquake but the situation was not clear. I remember arriving into the office, calling everyone over and discussing together what we could do and how we would look after our customers in Japan and our clients waiting to travel in the upcoming spring season.
That day our team work was the best it had ever been. We called next of kin to let them know their loved ones were safe; we spoke to clients with imminent departures, reassuring them their money was safe even if they were unable to travel; I was interviewed on local radio and James was interviewed live on BBC World. We did our best to answer the barrage of questions whilst remaining reassuring and professional at all times. I was extremely proud of our team both on that day and during the weeks that followed.
That was my immediate experience of the Tohoku earthquake, from thousands of miles away. That day I asked the team not to watch the news on their computers. To ignore the rolling news headlines, the images of horror and destruction. We are a company made up of people who care very deeply about Japan. For each of us our time spent living in Japan has left an indelible mark on who we are. I knew that if we allowed ourselves to be drawn to that then the emotional strain would be too much and we wouldn’t have the focus needed to keep it together for our clients and for the business.
On the 11th, after everyone had gone home, I sat back and watched my screen, the coastline burning as fires raged out of control in the darkness of the Tohoku night. I cried at my desk and felt utterly useless. I still remeber being surprised at the intesity of the grief I felt for people I had never met. It was heartbreaking.
For the business and for the whole team the weeks that followed were extremely tough as the situation worsened in Japan and it became apparent that this was a disaster on an unprecedented scale. I knew it would be many months before people felt they could travel safely to Japan. I worried about how we could keep everyone in their jobs, about whether the business we had built could survive.
After the immediate crisis passed we channelled our efforts into fund raising for disaster relief and on improving our systems and business materials. The whole company went down to a four day week and it felt a little like a period of hibernation; a slowing down whilst we waited for recovery to begin. But at no time did we give up and in our own way were inspired by the Independent’s enduring front cover from Saturday 12th March – “Gambare Nihon, Gambere Tohoku” – “Don’t give up Japan, Don’t give up Tohoku”. I don’t know who at the Independent came up with that or which editor took the decision to run with that front cover, but it was inspirational and extremely moving. It expressed what we were all feeling and for many months adorned our work notice board, reminding us all that we had to play our own small part.
The Independent ‘s front cover. Saturday 12th March, 2011
It seems perhaps insignificant when one considers the magnitude of the disaster, but getting visitors over to Japan and showing them what an extraordinary country it is has been an important part of the recovery process. For the Japanese, the return of foreign visitors has helped provide a psychological boost; an affirmation that the nation is back on its feet and foreign visitors again feel it is a safe and exciting destination to visit.
But whilst business at InsideJapan Tours is again strong and visitor numbers to Japan from the UK have almost reached 2010 levels, it is important not to forget those whose lives were changed forever two years ago. There are still over 300,000 people living in temporary accommodation. Whole families living in a space that is little more than a well equipped shipping container. And whereas their basic physical needs have been met by the state, the emotional scars will never heal. Levels of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism are high in the regions affected. Along with the devastating personal loss, many also lost their homes and their jobs. Japanese are extremely proud people and not having paid employment is an extra psychological as well as economic burden. Children struggle to come to terms with the horror of that day and although counselling services are available the numbers affected are just too great for everyone to have access.
InsideJapan’s Ruth Hubbard Volunteering at It’s Not Just Mud
It is hard to know what we can do to assist those whose lives are still in limbo. For whom the reality of the Great Tohoku Earthquake is part of their everyday life. We have sent a few volunteers to ‘It’s Not Just Mud’, a small non-profit working near Ishinomaki. Our staff have been to help out and we have raised a small amount of cash. Small gestures but we hope ones that have made a difference to somebody’s life.
As a tour operator and travel company I still believe that encouraging our clients to visit Tohoku is the best thing we can do to help. Tourism brings jobs and economic recovery will help. We are still focused on recommending Tohoku to our clients. It is a beautiful region of Japan with friendly people and great food. For those who wish to visit the affected areas we always encourage them to do so. Far from shunning visitors, those who travel here receive the warmest of welcomes.
The world moves on and the world forgets. New disasters happen; turn on the television news and suffering is everywhere. But for the people of Tohoku the disaster is still very close at hand. And on this day of remembrance I would like to encourage everyone to stop and spend a few moments to reflect on what happened on that dreadful Friday in 2011. “Gambare Nihon, Gambare Tohoku”. – “Don’t give up Japan, Don’t give up Tohoku” and never forget.
We have some pretty good talent on the ground in Japan in our Nagoya office and leading tours around the country.One of our new tour leaders is Bostonian, Jen Snow. I would give you a little of Jen’s Japan background, but I will let her tell you herself.
Hello readers! My name is Jen, and I’m a new Tour Leader here at IJT. A little about myself – I first came to Japan during university through a study abroad program based in Kyoto, which is still my favourite city in the country, and one that I appreciate more and more each time I visit.
Not only can you appreciate the best of traditional culture in Kyoto, but as a college town, it is still a youthful and contemporary city – yet more laid back than the hustle-and-bustle atmosphere of Tokyo (although Tokyo is fun too for that very reason!).
Dragon stairs at Eikan-do Temple – one of my favourite temples in Kyoto
In fact, along with discovering new aspects of temples and shrines and taking excursions to Nara to visit the adorable deer, sometimes my favourite things to do in Kyoto are searching for good deals in the shopping arcades and relaxing with friends along the riverbank that runs near the centre of town.
Deer grazing in front of an art museum in Nara
I decided to continue pursuing my interest in Japanese culture in graduate school, where I received Masters degree in East Asian studies with a focus on Japanese cultural studies. As part of my degree, I participated in an intensive Japanese language and home stay program in Hakodate, Hokkaido, famous as the second city opened to the West in the 19th century and a great place to experience the fusion of Japanese and Western architecture that emerged in the late 19thcentury.
Following the disasters in Tohoku, I was eager to help my second-home in any way that I could, having volunteered in disaster areas in my own country quite a few times, and after completing my Masters , I went to the affected are to stay as a long-term volunteer at It’s Not Just Mud. I was inspired by locals who worked so diligently to rebuild their lives in the face of such devastating events and came to appreciate the natural beauty of the Northern Japanese countryside.
Like all our tour leaders, Jen is obviously passionate about Japan which comes across when you speak to her. Jen is keen to introduce the magic of Japan and the culture to anyone on her tour.
After a roaring Year of the Dragon, we have wriggled into the Year of the Snake and the winter is slipping by. Just in case you really need a reason to travel to Japan, I thought I would list a few very good reasons as to why you should slide off to Japan in 2013.
Ice cold welcome -
Get your (snow) boots on and get out to Japan now for some of the world’s best snow and some great festivals. The winter sees some of the craziest festivals in Japan with the Nozawa Dosojin (fire festival) in January and the Hadaka Matsuri (Naked Man festival) at Sadaiji shrine, Okayama in February.
One of the more mainstream festivals though is the impressive Yuki Matsuri (5-11 Feb) in Sapporo.
Go and enjoy some ‘proper’ snow in Hokkaido with some of the best powder skiing available, but the island’s capital is taken over by huge snow sculptures at the beginning of February. The sculptures range from life-size models of famous landmarks to overgrown Disney figures taking over the city along with a party atmosphere, music, great food and drink – Kanpai! There are also a number of smaller lesser know ‘snow festivals’ that take place in towns across Hokkaido.
Blooming alternatives -
If you want something a bit warmer, then the cherry blossom is a favourite. Late March and early April is the height of the Sakura (cherry blossom) when pink fills the parks and temple gardens. This is a truly beautiful time of year and very sociable with friends and colleagues out eating food and drinking sake under the trees – great fun….but busy! Avoid the crowds of Kyoto in April and catch the late blossom in the far northern Tohoku region and Hokkaido which hits in May. Maybe you cannot wait for the blossom? – If this sounds like you, head to the subtropical islands in the south where the blossom comes out at the end of January! Either way, the blossom is pretty, but the Hanami parties are what makes this time of year such fun – another chance to Kanpaiiii!
Culture vulture -
One of the most exciting festivals to look forward to this year is the Setouchi Triennial Arts Festival which takes place over 14 of the islands on the Seto Inland Sea between Honshu and Shikoku including the ‘art island’ of Naoshima. Contemporary art combines with traditional rural island life providing some stunning sculptures and spectacles. The great thing about this festival is that it will cover 108days in total during Spring, Summer and Autumn embracing the different seasons. There are extra ferries and a pass that allows you to travel at your leisure between the islands taking in the art, landscapes and traditional festivals that are due to coincide with the event. Can’t wait to get down to the islands at some point in 2013….of course, the islands and Naoshima in particular are stunning any time of year.
If you are into anime and manga, you just need to go to Japan. There are plenty of events on in 2013 to give you even more reason to go though. The International anime Fair takes place at the end of March (23-24) showcasing the crème de la crème of Japanese anime. The World cosplay takes place in our home town of Naogya (May 31-June 2) home bringing some really interesting people and outfits from across Japan and the world together. The Tokyo Game Show highlights the latest games and developments in the computer world in September (21-22). Head to Odaiba in Tokyo for the huge Gundam statue and the relatively new Gundam Front museum. Or you could save it for the brand new Shonen Jump theme park featuring characters from ‘One Piece’, ‘Dragon Ball Z’ and more which opens this summer at the brilliant Sunshine City Building in Ikubukero.
These are just a few reasons as to why I would go to Japan in 2013. I haven’t even mentioned the huge summer festivals in Tohoku or the splendid autumn leaves…or even Fuji Rock and the other cool music festivals that go on. After the release of Hugh Jackman’s ‘Wolverine’ filmed largely in Toyko and Keanu Reaves’ remake of ’47 Ronin’ you won’t want anything else other than to head to Japan……unless you wanted to go to Vietnam of course.
Loads more to come on all of that so kongoto mo yoroshiku onegai shimasu!
This 480m x 150m island was home to approximately 5000 people up until 1974 which is when the island and the Mitsubishi owned coal mines that brought people there, were suddenly abandoned…by everyone. The island has been out of bounds since 1974 but in 2009 a boat dock was added allowing paying tourists to get near the island for a glance at the heavily built up island. However, a ‘friend of IJT’ (who shall remain nameless) hired a fisherman to travel to the island in the early hours of the morning to see the island for themselves – true James Bond style.
The intrepid traveller (we shall call them Bond), snapped some sneaky pics from the hospital, the pachinko parlour, onsen and school. Bond also visited apartments which still had washing in sinks, kids toys on the floor and even a bottle of sake with cups lined up ready for pouring in one. It was as though people had left the island in a hurry and there is no indication as to why. Since the adventure, Bond has been told that such actions would have warranted deportation if caught. People in Nagasaki are seemingly uninterested about answering questions on the subject or are perhaps a little cagey.
Why did people leave the island in such a rush?
Why have people not been allowed to visit the island?
Why is the island still standing and the buildings not demolished?
These days you can visit the island which is approximately a 50 minute boat ride from Nagasaki. People are allowed to visit the island for about 45 minutes, but exploration of the island is strictly prohibited because of the dangers provided by the typhoon torn buildings….but is that the real reason??……
Our Mark from the UK office spends quite a bit of his time tour leading in Japan too. He recently headed out to Japan to lead a coulpe of tours along with doing a bit of volunteering in Tohoku and partying at the huge traditional summer festivals in the region. Mark also went to Osaka. Mark was famed within IJT for not being an Osaka fan, but he had admitted himself that possibly hadn’t given it much of a chance. Here’s the story of how Mark got on with Osaka.
I’ll be honest, I have been guilty of overlooking Japan’s third largest city for far too long. My previous experiences of visiting one of Japan’s most loved cities resulted in trying to like a place I found to be an underwhelming concrete jungle. I concede that I was missing out all the time and I was being arrogant and stubborn. Whenever I received a new enquiry asking about Osaka I would hesitantly say it is a “vibrant city” with character and is “down and dirty”… Although I had visited about 5 times before, my first impressions were very wrong… here’s why:
Finally this summer I had the chance to really get beneath the surface and explore the city I had loved to hate. During leading Essential Honshu (another awesome IJT group tour) I made a concerted effort to “do Osaka” as best as I could in 48 hours…
Here are my top tips for a short stay (in no particular order):
1. Dotonburi – the down and dirty drag. A great street vibe with flamboyant fashion, sprawling buildings of all shapes and sizes broken up by a network of canals, young businessmen being offered all sorts of escort services and some amazing street food. Here’s where you really get a feel for the city. Must see at night.
2. Hep5 – not a lethal strain of disease but a cool ferris wheel perched on top of a building. Random! Think more fairground than London Eye.
3. Okonomiyaki (mixed up savoury pancake cooked on a hot plate in front of you). Almost as good as Hiroshima style but having lived in Yamaguchi for three years I prefer watching the layers build up! Plenty of choice in Dotonburi and a must try culinary experience.
4. Tacoyaki Octobus balls (stuffed doughy balls filled with small pieces of octopus and cooked on a hot plate topped with mayo, scattered with katsuobushi (moving fish flakes!) and herbs). Osaka wins hands down on taste when it comes to this unique Japanese favourite fast food. Available on every good street corner.
5. Osaka Castle. I have seen a million castles in Japan (well not quite). Although it’s another remake atop the original stone foundations (impressive in itself – just how did they get the stones there?) the castle houses an excellent and very informative walk through history. By the time you leave you will have given up on who was trying to fight who and for what! A great place to check out the lay of the city from the top.
6. Sky Building – Fantastic views from the top of this looming masterpiece of modern architecture. A walk across the Skywalk (when it’s not being hit by lightning as in my case) I’m sure would be awesome too.
7. USJ (Universal Studios, Japan) OK, I also confess to being somewhat of a theme park luddite but USJ rocks and makes a welcome break from temples. You can’t fail to enjoy the Spiderman ride. Kids will really appreciate a day off from a hectic schedule of sightseeing.
8. Osaka Aquarium – who doesn’t like watching one of the world’s few whale sharks in captivity in a massive tank? The building itself is a another great example of modern Osakan architecture.
9. Shopping – not high on the list of priorities for everyone when travelling around Japan, but Osaka has so much choice and a sprawling network of underground shopping malls perfect for getting lost in.
10. Love Hotels – just swipe your card and you’re in. Swipe your card on the way out and you’re a few thousand yen down and hopefully all the better for that moment of passion shared! Seedy … who me? Never tried it! ;)
11. Summersonic Festival… I wish my colleagues would stop rambling on about how great Fuji Rock is! Summersonic is more your V-Festival than Glastonbury so more “glamping” than wallowing in mud but here you see some top acts and lots of Japanese bands for a reasonable price. DO not I repeat DO NOT turn up without a ticket!
A few final thoughts…
Osaka is all about the atmosphere, the quirky people (what other country in the world is divided by people that queue on the right side of the elevator everywhere else and on the left in one city?). Osaka = people with attitude, people with a purpose, people who tell it like it is and people who are not afraid. Don’t be intimidated – the friendly, laid back atmosphere is very welcoming and strangely appealing. Stand clear and let the Osakans get on with their business – after all they are also the fastest walkers in the world (apparently). Take the jabs and jibes from the obaasans (feisty older Osakan ladies) when queuing and forgive the small amount of litter (a welcome sight in Japan that prides itself on being uber clean), graffiti (who doesn’t like a good Banksy or two) and lack of coherent English signing.
You will enjoy if…
You’re fun loving, open minded. Don’t go expecting more historic sights and temples… there aren’t many of noteworthy importance since Osaka is a modern city largely rebuilt after the heavy bombing during WWII.
You’re a kid – it’s one of Japan’s most child friendly cities with so much to keep the kids entertained.
You’ll hate it if…
You’re stubborn, pedantic and fussy like me!
A cool way to arrive…
If you’ve made it all the way down to Kyushu and want an interesting trip back to Osaka then take the overnight ferry from Kitakyushu. The tatami flooring is cheapest but unless you want to cuddle up to the random stranger next to you then don’t go during busy holiday periods. Head up on deck when passing under the bridges that span across to Shikoku.
I think that means Mark is converted. It is not always easy to tell, but I think that this is generally a positive piece from Mark. In my own opinion, Osaka is a great city for getting to grips with down-to-earth Japan. The city has a lot of surprises and I think that most people will be pleasantly surprised by the Kansai capital. I love Shinsekai for example and I think different people will like different things about this place, but they will like it. Why not go and take a look.