My Favourite Place in Japan – Caitlin

What is your favourite place in Japan?

Hi, I’m Caitlin, and I just started working for the US office of InsideJapan. When asked about my favourite place in Japan I can never come up with just one answer. So many jump into my head, from Asahiyama Zoo in Hokkaido to Himeji’s best ramen shop, ‘Koba & More’, and the various venues that make up the music scene in Kobe. Today, I want to talk a little about what’s so great about the little town I lived in for 3 years, Aioi.

Aioi is a little city in south western Hyogo Prefecture, just 20 minutes away from Himeji and its beautiful castle on the JR Sanyo Line. At first glance there’s not much to do in Aioi—unlike many small cities, it doesn’t even have a shopping arcade near the station. But day-to-day life in Aioi is very charming, and it’s festivals are hidden treasures.

In late May, when it’s starting to feel like summer without the stickiness that comes post-rainy season, dragon boats line up in the harbour in preparation for the Peron Festival. The festival is two days long, and these dragon boats will race on the mornings of both days. There’s also a fantastic parade where the locals dress up as samurai and ninjas!

Caitlin and friends in a park in Aioi.

Caitlin and friends in a park in Aioi.




Keeping the birds away

Keeping the birds away


Fireworks at the Peron Festival.

Fireworks at the Peron Festival.

The Peron Festival Parade.

The Peron Festival Parade.

But the real main event is the fireworks show, which happens on the first night. So many people gather to watch these fireworks shoot up from the harbour that some have to take their seats two miles away! As soon as the show ends, the train station is just as packed as Tokyo on a weekday morning. If you’re staying in Himeji, it’s a better idea to stop by a bar or an izakaya for a drink and take a later train than to brave the post-show crowds.

Another lovely event is the Autumn Leaves festival in early November, which is more often referred to by locals as the Scarecrow Festival. In the weeks before this quiet celebration of the season, Aioi’s students, workers, and farmers carefully construct scarecrows representing their favourite persons and characters from the past year. Local politicians walk around and judge the scarecrows, and the winners get a small monetary prize. It’s a fascinating opportunity to see some amateur art and get a feel for what is popular in Japan!

It may not be the most exciting place to go, but I think Aioi has a lot to offer those who are curious about real daily life in Japan.

My Favourite place in Japan – Halley Trujillo

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.

Komono lifeYou 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.

Komono OnsenWhether 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!

Komono FestivalsNo 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.

Komono StrengthThough 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!

Dr Kanji – Kanji of the Year 2013

Who is this Dr. Kanji, this master (or mistress) of the Japanese language?

Dr Kanji

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 –

倍 ‘Bai
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’.

This is of course very apt with the Olympics and the huge wave of positivity that swept across Japan after the announcement back in September 2013.

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.

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?

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.



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.

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

2 years on – a personal look back from InsideJapan’s director, Alastair Donnelly

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

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.

Click to view Alastair’s images from a visit to Tohoku in August 2011


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