Himeji Castle revisted

Wonderful Himeji-jo, Japan’s biggest and best preserved original samurai castle is now back on our radar, hurrah!

Himeji-jo

Himeji-jo

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Tokyo Halloween

Our guide Masa was taking some customers around Tokyo introducing them to some of the sights and experiences of this great city. They visited Shiba Rikyu garden, contrasted it with a trip through Akihabara, admired some Ikebana flower arranging at Meji Jingu, shopped in Harajuku and then went to Shibuya.

Today was no normal day in Shibuya. The date is October 31st….HALLOWEEN.

Halloween is of course a festival adopted by the Japanese from the west. What ever we can do, they often tend to do better. This is what they saw – Zombies take over in Shibuya.

Halloween in Tokyo

Halloween in Tokyo

Halloween in Tokyo

Halloween in Tokyo

Halloween in Tokyo

Happy Halloween from Tokyo!

InsideJapan and the Japanese Ministry of Environment

Kirishima Kinkowan National Park

Kirishima Kinkowan National Park is famous for it’s beautiful and otherworldly volcanic scenery.

As a representative of InsideJapan Tours, I’ve been working with the Japanese Ministry of Environment to help them promote overseas tourism in their National Parks. Together with loads of great local people, several of us longtime expat foreigners have been traveling around to various National Parks in Japan to see just what’s on offer. As with my visit to Nikko National Park a few weeks ago, I am beginning to realize that even in places I’ve been to multiple times before, there is still so much more to see.

Friendly people

As is so often the case in Japan, we were met by friendly people every step of the way.

Because InsideJapan Tours believes in getting travelers beneath the surface of Japan when they visit, I’m always happy when I can help find new ways to make that vision become reality. And it’s finding lesser visited destinations like this one that allows one to see the Japan of the past and just what it is that makes the country so special. This week I went to Kirishima-Kinkowan National Park with an amazingly talented group of individuals including the great photographer Everett Brown, the publisher of the fantastic Japanese language travel magazine Kyushu no Mura, the supremely talented Brad Towle – director of the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau, and the fine folks from Umari – one of the coolest operations in Japan that I know of.

Romance and water

Thinking of honeymooning in Japan? How about following the trail of the very first honeymoon couple in Japan. The famous samurai Sakamoto Ryoma came here after his wedding, a long time before he became an instrumental figure in overthrowing the government.

Edo station

This little old train station hasn’t changed much over the years. There’s no ticket machine and there’s no one here to check your ticket even if you had one. But what really makes it special is that a local family sells a bento here with food that is reminiscent of what people were eating 100 years ago. It has been voted the best bento in Kyushu but I will go on the record as saying it is the best bento I’ve had anywhere in Japan!

onsen

At almost every onsen town in Japan you will hear stories about why that onsen is better than onsens in other parts of the country, but if you come to this part of Kagoshima you will find so many varieties of hot spring that there are local people who can recommend you an onsen depending on exactly what ails you. I opted for the hangover onsen.

Land  of the Gods

In Japanese mythology, this area is where it all begins. The true land of the gods. While visiting some of Kirishima’s famous shrines I was struck not only by the elegant Shinto architecture but especially by the beautiful surroundings. Each shrine we visited was more secluded than the last and all of them were beautifully interwoven with the island’s vast natural surroundings.

Ryokan

If you have yet to experience Japanese hospitality, you are in for a treat! Scenes at traditional ryokans – Japanese inns – like this one turn the everyday into the extraordinary.

Pure water

At cleansing stations near the entrance to most shrines and temples in Japan you will find intricately crafted dragons with crystal clear water pouring from their ferocious looking mouths, but I think I like this home made version almost as much.

Food

A twist on traditional Japanese incense, the tea placed on top of this small porcelain lamp gave off just the slightest perfume. The owner of the soba restaurant where I found this explained to me that although traditional incense can overpower the taste of the food, the smell of green tea compliments their dishes. Wonderful!

134 year old direction

What I love best about this 134 year old direction marker is that the carvers chose a hand with its pointer finger extended rather than a simpler arrow to direct travelers (like myself) in the right direction.

Shrines and temples

This shrine was on a big hillside overlooking a couple of mist covered volcanos and a big blue lake. Completely deserted, we took our time to enjoy it’s every last detail.

Duck!

These little ducks acted like they were our best friends… until they realized we didn’t have any food. ;)

Thinkers stream

Just minutes before returning to the airport, Everett and I were looking at a beautiful little stream that was running in between peoples’ houses. At first we thought it was just a regular river born of rain coming down from the surrounding mountains but a local took us up to its source (pictured here) and we learned that it is actually a spring. We could literally see the water gushing up from out of the ground. Everett said it best, “heaven on earth”!

Taking part in a Japanese festival

Japanese festivals – matsuri – are an important part of life in Japan. You will find them in every region of the country during every season of the year. But the best time for catching matsuri is undoubtedly in summer, when festivals are so plentiful that it’s not uncommon to come across them by chance as you travel through the country. Even in Tokyo, a haven for fashion trendsetting, young people are seen on the underground heading off to fireworks festivals and other matsuri in yukata, a sort of light cotton kimono. Yet amongst the thousands of matsuri, there a handful that stand out among the rest. One such matsuri is the 350 year old Fukagawa Matsuri.

Fukagawa Matsuri from above

The great Fukagawa Matsuri!

Once every three years this huge water throwing festival is held in downtown Tokyo. Over 100,000 people gather to watch as 53 mikoshi (portable shrines) weighing from around 2 tons to 4.5 tons are boisterously carried 8 kilometers through local neighborhoods on the shoulders of men and women in traditional costume. This alone would be a site worth coming to Japan for but what makes this festival particularly special is the fact that water is being thrown on to the shrines as they slowly move through Tokyo’s streets. While some of this comes in the form of children with buckets and water pistols, the fire department also joins in at tens of locations to dowse the participants with fire hoses!

Our mikoshi being "cleansed" by some of Tokyo's finest!

Our mikoshi being “cleansed” by some of Tokyo’s finest!

Here is a brief description of what it is like to participate in one of Tokyo’s three “great” festivals. I awoke at 4:30am and took the train to Monzennakacho, a station that is truly at the heart of the Fukagawa Matsuri. Although there was no traffic at this early hour, there was plenty of activity. Hundreds of locals could be seen scurrying around the streets in their happi Japanese tops, white shorts and split-toed shoes. As not just anyone can participate in the festival, I was met by the family who gave me the “introduction” to partake. Each of the giant mikoshi (portable shrines) is associated with a particular district of the local area. There are 53 in total.

Dressed for the festival

After quickly changing in to my costume I gathered with the other participants and we ate onigiri – rice balls with different fillings – and got ready for the days event. At 7:30am we moved down the street to where the mikoshi for our district was set up and waiting for us (see below).

Mikoshi

We carried this float 8 kilometers through Tokyo and back to the local neighborhood.

As our turn came, around 40 of us heaved the 2 ton float up on to our shoulders and began the 8 kilometer walk through Tokyo. Slowly marching through the streets as we chanted “washoi!!” and bounced the float up and down. But what really made this festival a day to remember was the water that was poured on our mikohsi – and us! – as we walked about. Kids and adults alike splashed us from all angles. Any spectator is able to join in on this aspect of the matsuri and so the day ends up feeling like a giant water fight!

IMG_1480Water!

At splash stations like the one above we lift the mikoshi above our heads so that other participants can drench the mikoshi and us below with cold but refreshing water. But the 53 shrines being paraded around are not the only thing that this festival has going. There are multiple places where traditional Japanese music is being played and even several large taiko drumming areas where the loud drums set the pace of the chanting of the shrine bearers like myself. In order to show respect to the musicians we lift the mikoshi above our heads as we pass. There are also floats along the route selling beer and shaved ice for the onlookers, those of us carrying the shrine have to wait till the afternoon.

Taiko drummers at one of many stations along the festival route.

Taiko drummers at one of many stations along the festival route.

We all take turns carrying the float and there is a morning rest stop and a midday break for lunch but even so by the afternoon my shoulders are bruised and battered. And my feet are sore from the massive weight crushing down on them.

Yours truly at the head of the pack. My shoulder and arms sore from a long but fun day.

Yours truly at the head of the pack. My shoulder and arms sore from a long but fun day.

Of course, my personal favorite part of the matsuri is after we finish and I can sit down with my friends for a few well deserved beers.

A long time friend. The man who allowed me to partake in the festival treated me to lots of shochu and beer after we finished. He also brought me some Otoro tuna sashimi from Tsukiji Fish Market to help replenish all the energy spent walking through Tokyo's cordoned off streets.

A long time friend. The man who allowed me to partake in the festival treated me to lots of shochu and beer after we finished. He also brought me some Otoro tuna sashimi from Tsukiji Fish Market to help replenish all the energy spent walking through Tokyo’s cordoned off streets.

Seeing matsuri in Japan is truly a “once in a lifetime” type experience. The friendly and fun-loving nature of such festivals ensures that all are welcome. Aside from some fantastic pictures, you are likely to go home with some new friends as well!

There are thousands of festivals all over japan throughout the year. You may just stumble across a small festival on your travels in Japan, but if they are on and we know about them, we can help you catch a Japanese festival during your trip.

 

Rediscovering Nikko (Part 1 of 2)

Kegon Falls in Nikko National Park

Kegon Falls in Nikko National Park

For me, there is almost nothing better than going to a part of Japan that I have never been to before and seeing yet another facet of this wonderful country. But I am always amazed at how much there is to be discovered even in destinations that I have been to multiples times before. As the title might imply, the place in question this time is Nikko. Less than two hours from Tokyo, the main draw for most visitors are Nikko’s spectacular shrines and temples, rightly deserving of their World Heritage status. But there is far more here than what most visitors ever get to see. This is partly because the ease of making a day trip from Tokyo is often preferred over the more rewarding but slightly more difficult option of staying overnight and getting out into the countryside to see a completely different side of Japan. This multiple part blog post is about some of the places worth visiting in Nikko National Park.

Serving up freshly cooked fish with style at the Ryuo Gorge

Serving up freshly cooked fish with style at the Ryuo Gorge

The Ryuo Gorge is not only beautiful, it’s also one of the easiest places in Nikko National Park to access by train. From the hot spring resort of Kinugawa Onsen, a jumbling little train whisks you through dense forests to a quiet little station near the entrance of a walking path that takes in lush scenery and will have you wondering if the bright neon of Tokyo was just a dream. But as the picture above can attest to, it’s not just the escape from concrete that makes this a deserved stop on your itinerary. The colorful locals and delicious freshly caught river fish make this an all-around cultural experience. Throw in a couple cups of sake and a dip in the hot spring at the end of a long walk and you can have a quintessentially Japanese experience all in an afternoon.

Just a taste of the wonderful scenery that can be enjoyed along the Ryuo Gorge.

Just a taste of the wonderful scenery that can be enjoyed along the Ryuo Gorge.

Speaking of sake, if you’re thinking of visiting a sake brewery, you’d be smart to be picky about the one who visit for, alas, not all sake breweries are created equal. But fear not, for Nikko has a sake brewery of unparalleled greatness. Not only are the brews here about as tasty as you’ll find, the owner is as nice a man as you’ll meet anywhere and will be happy to show in to parts of his brewery that most sake makers wouldn’t dream of letting tourists see. Although, if it’s busy you may well be asked to lend a hand! ;)

Katayama-san showing me and a few other visitors around his brewery

Katayama-san showing me and a few other visitors around his brewery

Katayama Brewery is named after it’s owner and is located not far from Shimoimaichi Train Station (a short taxi ride or a slightly long walk away). Here you can not only do tours of the brewery but you can enjoy free tastings of the sake that will have you seeing the brew more like fine wine than the rocket fuel like stuff that is often served overseas. If you are feeling like splashing out, try the specially made version of his best and most popular sake that has platinum and gold flakes in it. Though if you set off the metal detector at the airport upon your departure don’t blame me!

Slip into a yukata and enjoy some 'omotenashi' at one of Kinugawa's Hot Spring Resorts

Slip into a yukata and enjoy some ‘omotenashi’ at one of Kinugawa’s Hot Spring Resorts

At the end of a day of walking and sake tasting, I can think of few better things to do than relaxing in a hot spring and tucking into some Japanese fine cuisine. Luckily, there is no shortage of places to do this in Nikko’s National Park. The Kinugawa Grand Hotel (picture above and below) is just such a place. For a fraction of what a similar type of place would cost in Tokyo, you can be spoiled to your heart’s content. Though you aren’t likely to encounter many English speakers here, you can be sure that you will be welcomed with open arms and a deep bow upon your arrival. Enjoy some of Nikko’s craft beer and a big plate of sashimi and take in the beautiful surroundings in your Japanese style room.

Just one among many hot springs at the Kinugawa Grand Hotel in Nikko National Park.

Just one among many hot springs at the Kinugawa Grand Hotel in Nikko National Park.

 

Alternative Tokyo – An afternoon in Shimokitazawa

“What’s your favourite area of Tokyo? – Shibuya, Shinjuku, Harajuku?”
These are places you have probably heard of.
When I am showing around friends and tourists Tokyo’s nightlife, one of my favorite places to show them has long been the area around Shimokitazawa station, a young and trendy neighborhood so full of cheap bars and restaurants that finding the best places takes either a lot of experience or a lot of luck! But while Shimokita shines its brightest after the sun goes down, a visit during the daytime reveals a completely different – but equally inviting – side. The pedestrian friendly streets are lined with used clothing shops, old record stores, video game halls, restaurants, cafes, theaters, galleries, markets and more beauty parlors and barber shops than you can shake a stick at. Best of all, unlike the hard work that goes into hunting down a good bar or restaurant at night, Shimokita during the day is great for anybody willing to stroll and unafraid of getting lost. All you need to do is take the train from either Shibuya or Shinjuku station to Shimokitazawa and start walking.

 

 

Upon exiting the station you’ll notice that there is no main boulevard, instead a web of tiny avenues spreads out in all direction, each one begging you to explore its various shops and alleyways. As with all cities in Japan, discovering hidden gems here will require you to think in three dimensions as there are just as many great places tucked into the basements of buildings or up two flights of stairs as there are on the ground floor. So don’t forget to look up and down. Of course, while my preferred method of touring Shimokitaza is simply getting lost in the energetic atmosphere and wandering around until you’ve had enough, there are definitely shops and cafes worth searching for. My personal favorite example would be the little hole-in-the-wall cafe run by the “world’s best barista”, check out their website by clicking here. Wherever you go and whatever your method of exploration, I promise it won’t be long before your visit to these windy back streets turns up some hidden gems that even the locals didn’t know about. Just remember, “Tokyo is yours!”.

 

Some thoughtful graffiti in Shimokitazawa

Some thoughtful graffiti in Shimokitazawa

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….

 

 

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