Inside our Hidden Japan

These photos, taken by tour leader William last November, capture just a few moments from our  ‘Hidden Japan’ tour which begins and ends in glorious Kyoto before discovering lesser known Japanese treasures and experiences from Honshu and rural Shikoku…
The ancient temple community of Koya

The ancient temple community of Koya

As you probably know (because we witter on about it quite a lot), every member of our team at InsideJapan Tours has lived in Japan. We are a family of dedicated Japan buffs whose local knowledge extends far beyond the bounds of Tokyo and Kyoto – into the far-flung and little known regions from chilly Hokkaido all the way down to subtropical Okinawa.

Okonomiyaki savoury pancakes in Hiroshima

Okonomiyaki savoury pancakes in Hiroshima

Given that we’re all such Japan nuts, it’s no surprise that unusual, in-depth, off-the-beaten-track trips are our forté – and our customers come to us for an experience of Japan that will take them away from the tourist traps and deep into “real Japan”.

William prepares to tuck into a beautiful kaiseki meal

William prepares to tuck into a beautiful kaiseki meal

Beautiful and mysterious geisha in Kyoto

Beautiful: Wannabe Geisha, Kyoto

Hidden Japan is one of our best Small Group Tours if you want to really discover a side of this fascinating country that rarely features in the guide books. Yes, it covers the must-see ancient city of Kyoto and famous Hiroshima – but it also ventures to the atmospheric temple community of Koya, deep in the mountains of the Kii Peninsula and to the amazing “Art Island” of Naoshima on the Seto Inland Sea, and various great locations on the little-visited island of Shikoku.

Yayoi Kusama's yellow pumpkin on Naoshima Island

Yayoi Kusama’s yellow pumpkin on Naoshima Island

You’ll spend the night at a real temple lodging, attending morning prayers and sampling traditional, Buddhist shojin ryori cuisine; you’ll cross vertiginous vine bridges built by samurai across the lush Iya Valley; you’ll have the opportunity to bathe at Japan’s oldest hot spring bathhouse, favoured by the Imperial Family; and you’ll ascend by cable car to the top of Mount Bizan for spectacular views across Shikoku.

Sunset over the Seto Inland Sea

Sunset over the Seto Inland Sea

A happy traveller in the beautiful Iya Valley

A happy traveller in the beautiful Iya Valley

You’ll also visit one of Japan’s most famous landscape gardens, Ritsurin; climb the steps to the top of one of Shikoku’s most venerated shrines, Konpira-san; explore beautiful Miyajima with its iconic “floating” gate, one of Japan’s most famous images; see a traditional ‘Bunraku’ puppet show in the town of Tokushima; and experience true Japanese hospitality at a traditional ryokan inn.

Dogo Onsen, the bathhouse of Japan's royal family

Outside Dogo Onsen, the bathhouse of Japan’s royal family

Hidden Japan brings an adventurous spirit and a desire to really get beneath the surface of this amazing country. Our tour leaders are Japanophiles who speak fluent English and Japanese, have an extensive knowledge of the country’s culture and customs, and have made their home here in Japan.

Crossing an Iya Valley vine bridge

Crossing an Iya Valley vine bridge

Just a few of our previous customers!

Just a few of our previous customers!

‘Hidden Japan’ is an insight into parts of Japan and its culture that most visitors do not to get experience.  And as one of the tour customers said, ” Overall, I LOVED my experience…I loved the culture, gardens and temples we saw. Just amazing” – there you have it.

There’s a last-minute place on our spring Hidden Japan, departing on 26th of March – but we also have departures in the summer months into the mild autumn – both with their benefits. Drop us a line to help you get ‘lost’ in Japanese culture too!

10 fantastic places to see cherry blossom in Japan

It’s nearly the end of winter and spring is just around the corner – which means it’s nearly cherry blossom season!

To celebrate, we’ve produce a super-duper new cherry blossom infographic to keep you interactively up-to-date with when and where the sakura will be blooming this year. Click the link above and slide the slider to see when the sakura is expected in each destination. Check it out!

Our cherry blossom guide

Our brand new cherry blossom guide!

To the Japanese, cherry blossom is much more than just a few flowers. It’s hard to explain to those who haven’t experienced it, but during the sakura (cherry blossom) season, the whole country is swept by a sort of festival atmosphere that lasts from the first flowering down in southerly Okinawa until the last petal drops in northern Hokkaido. As the blossom front sweeps along the length of the archipelago over the course of several months, the shops fill with sakura-flavoured drinks and snacks, the blossom report becomes more important than the weather forecast, and people flock in their droves to the most popular hanami (flower-viewing) points to lay out tarpaulins beneath the trees and generally eat, drink and be merry.

All this means that although it is the busiest time of year for tourism in Japan, it’s also one of the nicest – with lovely weather, beautiful landscapes and a relaxed, party-like atmosphere everywhere from the biggest city to the smallest of rural villages.

But where best to make the most of the phenomenon of sakura?

Well, it depends who you ask. Everybody tends to have their own favourite spot, whether it’s one of the famous destinations or just their family garden, so this is not a “top ten” list – only a few suggestions. You’ll have to find your own favourite by yourself!

1. Mount Yoshino

View from Yoshino's main viewpoint

View from Yoshino’s main viewpoint

One must either be very brave or very stupid to venture to Yoshino during peak cherry blossom season. Covered in over 30,000 cherry trees, it’s the most famous sakura viewing spot in Japan and has been for hundreds of years. The route most visitors take to view the blossoms snakes from the railway station at the foot of the mountain ridge, passing through four distinct sections (the Shimo Senbon, Naka Senbon, Kami Senbon and Oku Senbon), with various parks and viewpoints as well as lots of yatai food stalls along the way.

Though it does get overwhelmingly busy, I visited Yoshino on a weekend in peak season in 2014 and I do think that it’s worth the effort – especially if you take a few pieces of advice along with you! Firstly, arrive as early as possible to avoid the worst of the crowds. You might even consider staying at a ryokan on the mountain itself so that you can enjoy the blossom in peace, just after sunrise. If you’re planning to eat lunch at a local restaurant, eat early to avoid the massive queues at lunchtime – or do what I did and just buy lots of delicious snacks from the yatai food stalls along the way. Bringing a picnic is another great alternative. Lastly, be sure to reserve a seat on the train home! Standing up all the way back to Nara or Kyoto after a day of hiking is not the one – as I found out to my detriment.

Check out my post from last year for more tips!

2. Shinjuku Gyoen, Tokyo

Shinjuku Gyoen, Tokyo

Since the vast majority of people who visit Japan will visit Tokyo, where better to suggest than the capital’s very own Shinjuku Gyoen – a large park located right at the heart of the city, within walking distance of one of its largest and busiest entertainment and business hubs.

Tokyo is famous the world over as a hyper-modern metropolis packed with high-rise buildings and flashing neon lights, and whilst this is true – there is also a surprising wealth of green spaces where you can take time out from the hustle and bustle of the city to relax. One of the best places to see cherry blossom in Tokyo is undoubtedly Shinjuku Gyoen, which is home to over one thousand cherry trees of both early- and late-blooming varieties, meaning that the sakura season here lasts longer than elsewhere in the city.

Other lovely sakura spots in the city include the Imperial Palace Gardens, Hamarikyu Gardens and Ueno Park – so be sure to try out a few.

3. Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle in the cherry blossom

Fully re-opened this year after a five-year facelift, Japan’s largest and most impressive castle is also a wonderful place to see the cherry blossom. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has survived fires, wars, earthquakes and the Meiji Restoration to be one of only a handful of original feudal castles still standing in Japan – and 2015 is an especially good year to visit following its hiatus from the tourist trail. Surrounded by sakura trees, Himeji is undoubtedly at its best in the spring!

If Himeji isn’t on your itinerary this spring, don’t worry – nearly all Japanese castles (whether original or reconstructed) make excellent hanami locations as they are traditionally surrounded by cherry trees

4. Mount Fuji

Mount Fuji framed by sakura

The only thing better than one Japanese national icon is two Japanese national icons – and for a couple of months each year you can get two for the price of one as Mount Fuji is surrounded by cherry blossom. There are numerous places from which to view Mount Fuji, but our favourites are Hakone and the Fuji Five Lakes region. Fuji Five Lakes is perhaps better than Hakone when it comes to sakura, and two of the best spots are the northern shores of Lake Kawaguchiko and the Chureito Pagdo, built in the hills of Fujiyoshida City.

5. Philosopher’s Path, Kyoto

Spring Elegance; David Lovejoy; IJT Staff; Kyoto

Geisha on Kyoto’s Philosopher’s Path

Kyoto’s Philosopher’s Path is a lovely stone walkway that follows a canal through the northern part of the city’s Higashiyama district. It gets its name from a particular philosopher – Nishida Kitaro – who was said to wander down the path in meditation on his way to Kyoto University. The path runs for about two kilometres and as well as plenty of restaurants, cafes and shops it is lined all the way with cherry trees, which explode into colour in early April – providing one of Kyoto’s most popular hanami spots.

Hanami parties in Maruyama Park

Hanami parties in Maruyama Park

Other famous hanami locations in Kyoto include Maruyama Park, with its giant weeping cherry tree; the Arashiyama district on the outskirts of the city, famous for its bamboo groves and monkey park; and Heian Shrine, where the weeping cherry trees bloom a few days later than in the rest of Kyoto – making it a great option for visitors who have missed peak season!

6. Kenrokuen Garden, Kanazawa

Kenrokuen Gardens with cherry blossom, Kanazawa

Acknowledged as one of the top three landscape gardens in Japan (and widely considered to be the best of the three), Kenrokuen Garden in Kanazawa is a beautiful place to visit at any time of year – but especially so during the cherry blossom season. The garden is so large that you could easily spend a couple of hours wandering through it, and at closing time if you listen very carefully you may hear the voice of InsideJapan’s Richard Farmer over the loudspeaker politely asking you to leave!

As well as having lots of sakura trees within the garden, there are plenty more surrounding it – especially at nearby Kanazawa Castle. Kanazawa itself is one of the hottest Japan destinations for 2015, what with its shiny new bullet train line, beautiful station, beautifully preserved traditional districts and cutting edge 21st Century Museum of Art – so there’s no excuse not to make it part of your itinerary.

7. Miharu Takizakura

Miharu Takizakura

Miharu Takizakura (photo: JNTO)

Miharu Takizakura, (lit. “Waterfall cherry tree of Miharu”) is located near the small town of Miharu in Fukushima Prefecture, in the northern Tohoku region of Japan’s Honshu main island. Over one thousand years old, 12 metres tall and with a trunk circumference of 9.5 metres, this massive weeping cherry tree is probably Japan’s most famous tree – and is thought by many to be its most beautiful.

As the Japanese do very much like to rank things in lists, it comes as no surprise that Miharu Takizakura tops both the “five great cherry trees of Japan” and the “three giant cherry trees of Japan”. Furthermore, according to Wikipedia, “polls frequently rank it as the number one tree in all of Japan”. One does have to wonder how often Japan needs to take polls about its trees, but anyway. It’s a pretty nice tree, I’m sure you’ll agree.

8. Hirosaki Castle

Hirosaki Castle with sakura

Considered to be one of the top three cherry blossom viewing spots in Japan (here we go again with the lists), Hirosaki Castle at the northern tip of Honshu main island is a wonderful place to see in the sakura. Since it’s so northern, the blossoms come out rather later here than in more southerly regions, making this a great spot for those who arrive in Japan too late to hit peak season elsewhere.

From around late April each year, Hirosaki Park is tranformed into a pink wonderland with over 2,500 cherry trees, cherry blossom tunnels, evening illuminations, moats turned completely pink with petals, lovely picnic areas, and rental rowing boats combining to create a truly magical hanami location. If you visit between April 23 and May 5, you will also catch the Hirosaki cherry blossom festival.

A pink, petal-filled moat at Hirosaki Castle (photo: Japanguide.com)

A pink, petal-filled moat at Hirosaki Castle (photo: Japanguide.com)

Unfortunately Hirosaki Castle is currently undergoing renovations planned to last around a decade, but the park will be a lovely place to see the sakura this year nonetheless.

9. Hanamiyama Park, Fukushima

Hanamiyama Park (photo: Japanguide.com)

Hanamiyama Park (photo: Japanguide.com)

Another entry from the northern Tohoku region of Japan,  Hanamiyama Park (lit. “flower viewing mountain”) lies on the slopes surrounding a rural farming community in Fukushima Prefecture. The park was started by local farmers who began planting ornamental plants and trees in the area, and was opened to the public in 1959. The variety of types of cherry tree and other flowering trees mean that there are actually a wide range of spring colours in the area, with lovely views of the Azuma Mountains in the distance.

Visit the visitors centre at the entrance of the park to pick up maps with suggested walking courses and viewing points that look out over Fukushima city and the surrounding valley.

10. Takato Castle Ruins, Nagano

Takato Castle Ruins surrounded by cherry blossom (Photo: bigglobe.ne.jp)

Takato Castle Ruins Park in full bloom (Photo: bigglobe.ne.jp)

Last but certainly not least on our list is the Takato Castle Ruins Park in Nagano Prefecture, the last of the official top three cherry blossom spots in Japan (along with Mount Yoshino and Hirosaki Castle). Located on a hill in Ina City, Nagano, the park is about 60 km from Matsumoto (where the “Black Crow” Castle also provides a great hanami location). Visit during the month of April and you’ll find yatai stalls set up all around the park for the annual cherry blossom festival, and there are lovely illuminations held every evening from sunset until 10pm.

As with many of the spots on this list Takato Castle Park gets super busy during sakura season, so you’d be well advised to visit early in the morning and to avoid weekends unless you don’t mind crowds! Within the park, the curved Onkyo Bridge is one of the nicest points during cherry blossom – but there are plenty of other beauty spots if you take the time to wander around.

Japanese etiquette 101: How to Onsen

Ask almost anybody at InsideJapan Tours what is their favourite thing about Japan, and they will probably list the people, the food, and the onsen. Heck, ask any Japanese person what is their favourite thing about Japan and they’ll most likely say the same.  And yet for such a well-loved pastime, onsen are also probably the scariest part of Japanese culture for most foreigners.

But don’t worry – after reading this guide, you too will be an onsen master!

Senninburo, a giant outdoor onsen bath carved into the riverbed at Kawayu Onsen (photo: Kumano Travel)

Senninburo, a giant outdoor onsen bath carved into the riverbed at Kawayu Onsen (photo: Kumano Travel)

What’s an onsen?

First things first! An onsen 温泉 (lit. “hot water spring”) is a natural hot spring bath, and thanks to its plentiful volcanic activity Japan has lots of them.

Onsen water is geothermally heated beneath the ground and rises to the surface bubbling hot. The prerequisites of an official onsen are that the water must contain at least one of the 19 designated chemical elements that naturally occur in hot spring water, and it must be at least 25C when it comes out of the ground. Rotenburo is another word you may hear in Japan and refers to an outdoors onsen (the best kind!).

Sento, on the other hand, are indoor public bathhouses supplied by ordinary heated water. Whilst onsen are generally looked on as something as a treat, sento are the everyday bathhouses of ordinary Japanese people – and as such make a very interesting experience in themselves, although sometimes it can be a bit daunting to enter on your own as very few foreigners take the time to seek them out.

Nevertheless, the rules of etiquette are the same for both onsen and sento, so with your newfound skills you’ll be able to tackle any bathhouse with aplomb.

Onsen and sento entrances are marked by half-length curtains. Red means women; blue means men! (Photo: Kifu no Sato)

Onsen and sento entrances are marked by half-length curtains. Red means women; blue means men! (Photo: Kifu no Sato)

What’s so great about them?

Communal bathing doesn’t exactly sound appealing to most gaijin (foreigners), but in Japan it is a beloved part of traditional culture.

Onsen water has been believed to have a multitude of healing properties basically since time began, and is packed full of minerals that are thought to be good for your skin, circulation and general health. Onsen baths can be beautiful objects in themselves – made from materials such as cypress wood, marble and granite – and are often situated in areas of outstanding natural beauty or attached to lovely traditional inns, which enhances their appeal.

There really is nothing more relaxing or therapeutic than lying back in a hot bath after a long day – especially when you’re surrounded by falling snow, on a beach, overlooking a beautiful mountain view, or listening to a river rushing past. Once you’ve done it, you’ll never look back!

Nyuto Onsen's famous outdoor bath

Nyuto Onsen’s famous outdoor bath

So what do I need to know?

There are quite a few rules of etiquette surrounding onsen bathing, and this can make the whole thing seem a little scary and uncomfortable when you’re not sure what you’re doing – but once you’ve done it once you’ll realise that it’s really not that complicated after all.

THE RULES:

1. Birthday suits only!

Yep – you heard me. No speedos allowed! This (unsurprisingly) is the bit that puts most people off, and anybody at InsideJapan will tell you that they all felt the same anxiety the first time they tried it. Once you dare to bare, however, it really doesn’t take long to get used to it – and when you see that the Japanese don’t bat an eyelid you’ll soon lose your self-consciousness. (N.B. I have heard tell that a fair bit of staring is par for the course in the mens’ onsen, but I can vouch that it’s very civilised in the ladies’!)

For those who really can’t stomach the idea of stripping off in public, there are a number of ways you can get around it. For one, there are many traditional ryokan inns where the guest rooms have private rotenburo baths attached (these will be amongst the more expensive rooms), and in some inns the public baths are available for private use on request. Another alternative is to visit an onsen with milky water – once you’re in, nobody can see anything!

A makeshift onsen dug from the riverbed at Kawayu Onsen (Photo: Kumano Travel)

A makeshift onsen dug from the riverbed at Kawayu Onsen (Photo: Kumano Travel)

2. Shower before you bathe.

To the Japanese, the Western practice of washing yourself in the bath is, well… pretty gross actually! Even when bathing in the privacy of their own home, the Japanese always clean themselves under the shower before having a soak in the bath – and this is even more important when you’re visiting a communal sento or onsen – to keep the water as clean as possible.

To this end, every onsen has a row of showers around the outside of the bath. Soap, shampoo and conditioner are usually provided (though you can bring your own if you prefer), and you are expected to sit down on one of the stools provided while you wash. It’s considered bad manners to stand up while you wash, as you might splash one of the people next to you – and you must remember to rinse thoroughly so as not to get soap in the bath water.

Though it’s less important than showering before you bathe, most Japanese will have a quick rinse under the shower after a soak in the onsen – and if they are returning to the bath after using a sauna or steam room.

Typical bucket and stool used for washing at an onsen (Photo: Kifu no Sato)

Typical bucket and stool used for washing at an onsen (Photo: Kifu no Sato)

3. Towels

At any onsen, you will either be provided with a small and a large towel, or there will be some available to rent. This is not always the case at local sento baths, so you are advised to bring your own.

The large towel is for drying yourself and should be left in the changing room (along with your clothes), while the small towel is for washing and can be taken into the bathing area. You can take your small towel into the bath with you (in fact, many people put them on their heads!) but you mustn’t let it go in the water.

Enjoying Nyuto Onsen

Enjoying Nyuto Onsen

4. Hair & head

If you have long hair, always remember to bring a hairband or to wrap your hair in a small towel, as even if you’ve just washed your hair under the shower – you should take care to make sure that it doesn’t go in the bath water. You wouldn’t want to be sitting around amongst other people’s hairballs, would you? Well that’s why.

In fact, even if you don’t have any hair you should refrain from putting your head underwater, as there is always a small chance that shared water may carry infection, and putting your head underwater increases your risk of catching something.

Onsen overlooking the mountains at Mount Tokachidake

Onsen overlooking the mountains at Mount Tokachidake

5. Tattoos

As I explained in a recent post, tattoos are something of a taboo in Japan – thanks for the most part to their association with Japanese organised crime (the yakuza). Unfortunately, this means that most onsen and sento ban tattoos completely – even if it is blatantly clear that you are not part of the mafia. It doesn’t make much sense, but rules is rules!

If you have a small tattoo, you may well get away without anybody noticing – or you can cover it up with a sticking plaster or bandage. If you have a larger tattoo that’s difficult to cover you may have more problems. Some solutions are to stay at ryokan inns where there are private rotenburo baths or onsen that can be rented for private use, or to head to the hotel onsen late at night after the other guests have dispersed. If you’re very brave, you could even find out where the real yakuza bathhouses are – but we’re not going to recommend it!

Sign forbidding tattoos at (Photo: spoon-tamago.com)

Sign forbidding tattoos at Tobu Super Pool (Photo: spoon-tamago.com)

6. Noise

Bathhouses are social places, and most onsen-goers like to have a bit of a chat while they relax – so as long as you’re not being rowdy you certainly don’t need to worry about making too much noise.

Indoor bath at Nyuto Onsen

Indoor bath at Nyuto Onsen

7. Alcohol

Onsen and sento will generally display signs indicating that you should not drink and bathe – for pretty obvious reasons I think. That said, a cup of sake or a cold beer while you soak can be divine, so if you’ve got your own private rotenburo then I say go right ahead!

(Photo: Kifu no Sato)

(Photo: Kifu no Sato)

Our Infopack does contain the low-down on ‘How to Onsen’ so that you can relax and enjoy this cultural activity – bliss.

The early cherry blossom report for 2015

sakura blossom

It’s nearly here! The season that everyone has been waiting for, sandwiched between the long, cold winter months and the sweltering humidity of summer: spring! And spring means cherry blossom.

The early cherry blossom forecast was published on the 4th of February 2015 by the Japan Weather Association, which is exciting news for Japan!

Hanami party with geisha in Kyoto

Hanami party with geisha in Kyoto

The cherry blossom front sweeps along the length of the country each year, beginning with Okinawa in the far south and working its way along Japan to Hokkaido in the north. A variety of factors can affect when the cherry blossom comes into bloom: a particularly cold winter can mean that the flowers come out late, unseasonably mild weather can usher them out sooner, and heavy rain can mean that the trees drop their petals much quicker than otherwise. For this reason, the forecast is followed avidly throughout the sakura season!

Nachi falls framed by sakura branches

Nachi falls framed by sakura branches (photo: Kumano Travel)

This year, the weather association predicts that the cherry blossom will be pretty much on schedule, with both Tokyo and Kyoto expecting to see their first blooms open around March 26-27, with the best viewing period expected to fall between April 2 and April 10.

Kumamoto and Fukuoka on Kyushu Island will see their blossom arrive slightly earlier, around March 21, while mountain locations such as Nagano won’t see their first blooms until around April 12.

Tokyo's Senso-ji Temple with cherry blossom

Tokyo’s Senso-ji Temple with cherry blossom

Our exciting new cherry blossom infographic is currently in the pipeline, and should be released in a matter of days. You’ll be able to use it to check whether the sakura is heading your way while you’re in Japan – so watch this space! In the meantime, here is an estimated schedule to give you an indication of what to expect in some key destinations:

sakura

If you are lucky enough to be in Japan during cherry blossom season, it is de rigueur to head out into the local parks and gardens, bring a selection of picnic food and drinks and join the locals for a hanami – which means “flower-viewing”. It is during this period that the Japanese are at their most relaxed, and the party atmosphere in public places at this time is infectious – whether you hit the parks in the daytime or in the evening, when lanterns hang around parks and gardens turning the canopy a glowing pink.

Illuminated sakura tree

Illuminated sakura tree

The tradition of hanami has a history stretching back over many centuries, thought to have begun during the Nara Period (710-794), so by getting involved you will be joining in one of Japan’s best-loved and most time-honoured rituals!

Crowds gather beneath the sakura trees in Tokyo

Crowds gather beneath the sakura trees in Tokyo

InsideJapan’s 2016 tour dates have just been released, so get in there now to make sure you don’t miss the beautiful blossom for another year.

A Fiery Festival and a Red Hot Tip for a Nara Day Trip

Fire FestivalI’m lucky enough to call the historic city of Kyoto my home, but it’s also a destination that features on the majority of our Small Group Tours and also in the tailored Self Guided Adventures that we put together for independent travellers. Not only is Kyoto a fantastic place to spend a few days exploring, but it’s also a great base for making day trips, and the ancient capital of Nara is probably the easiest and most popular option.

I visited Nara last weekend to check out the annual Wakakusa Yamayaki festival, in which Mt. Wakakusa in Nara is set ablaze! This is an event that takes place on the 4th Saturday in January every year (although it’s re-scheduled for the following Saturday in cases of heavy rain), so you’ll need to wait until January 23rd 2016 if you want to attend (although there are some pictures below to whet your appetite!). In the meantime, I’d also like to let you know my top tip for enhancing a day trip to Nara that you can enjoy year round!

Nara is located just 45 minutes from Kyoto by train (and if you’re travelling with a Japan Rail Pass, you can use your pass to make the journey at no extra cost). Although there’s plenty to see and do in Nara, it’s possible to see the main sights in half a day, so my top tip is to stop off on the way at Obaku station to visit one of Kyoto prefecture’s hidden treasures – Manpuku-ji.

Manpuku-ji is a Zen temple belonging to the Obaku school of Zen. There are three schools of Zen; Rinzai, Soto, and Obaku. The Rinzai and Soto schools are the largest, with Rinzai temples traditionally having had more of a stronghold in the cities (most of the Zen temples in Kyoto belong to the Rinzai school) and the Soto school being more prevalent in rural areas. The Obaku school is a much smaller and lesser known school, and although all schools of Zen made their way to Japan via China, the Obaku school retained far more of its Chinese characteristics, which is reflected in much of the temple’s architecture. This makes it a particularly interesting temple to visit. Let’s have a look why… Let the photo blog begin!

From Kyoto station it takes just 25 minutes to get to Obaku station on the JR Nara Line. Make sure you take a 'Local' train (rather than the faster 'Rapid' service, which sails through Obaku and heads straight on to Nara!)

From Kyoto station it takes just 25 minutes to get to Obaku station on the JR Nara Line. Make sure you take a ‘Local’ train (rather than the faster ‘Rapid’ service, which sails through Obaku and heads straight on toward Nara!)

From directly outside the station, Mampuku-ji is clearly signposted. It takes less than 10 minutes to walk there from the station.

From directly outside the station, Manpuku-ji is clearly signposted. It takes less than 10 minutes to walk there from the station.

On entering the temple complex, you'll be greeted by the Sanmon - the 'Mountain Gate'. Even though many temples in Japan are not actually located on mountains, they are regarded as being on metaphorical peaks in keeping with the fact that most of the first Zen temples in China were located in such environs.

On entering the temple complex, you’ll be greeted by the Sanmon – the ‘Mountain Gate’. Even though many temples in Japan are not actually located on mountains, they are regarded as being on metaphorical peaks. This is in keeping with the fact that the first Zen temples in China were located in such environs.

After passing through the Sanmon (and paying the entrance fee - 500yen for adults), the first building you will encounter is the Tennouden, where you will find this chap enshrined. Many people will recognise him as the 'Laughing Buddha', so often found in Chinese restaurants, although in fact he's not a representation of the historical Buddha. He's actually Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future, known as Hotei in Japan and Budai in China. His bulging belly emphasises his association with good luck, wealth and happiness.

After passing through the Sanmon (and paying the entrance fee – 500yen for adults), the first building you will encounter is the Tennouden, where you will find this chap enshrined. Many people will recognise him as the ‘Laughing Buddha’, so often found in Chinese restaurants, although in fact he’s not a representation of the historical Buddha. He’s actually Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future, known as Hotei in Japan and Budai in China. His bulging belly emphasises his association with good luck, wealth and happiness.

Throughout the temple complex you will find architecture that's a little different to that found at other Buddhist temples in Japan. These white walls and curvaceous doorways are an example of the temple's lingering Chinese influence.

Throughout the temple complex you will find architecture that’s a little different to that found at other Buddhist temples in Japan. These white walls and curvaceous doorways are an example of the temple’s lingering Chinese influence.

Dotted around the complex you will also come across various instruments which are used to regulate the daily schedule. This is the 'Umpan', or 'Cloud Plate'. It's rung at a variety of times during the day, but is primarily used to announce mealtimes, therefore you will usually find it outside the 'Kuri', the temple's kitchen.

Dotted around the complex you will also come across various instruments which are used to regulate the daily schedule. This is the ‘Umpan’, or ‘Cloud Plate’. It’s rung at a variety of times during the day, but is primarily used to announce mealtimes, therefore you will usually find it outside the ‘Kuri’, the temple’s kitchen.

Another instrument that you'll come across is the 'Mokugyo' or 'Wooden Fish'. The fish is hollow and struck with a wooden mallet, which produces a pleasing clonking sound. The Mokugyo at Mampuku-ji is prized as a particularly fine specimen - not least for its impressive size!

Another instrument that you’ll come across is the ‘Mokugyo’ or ‘Wooden Fish’. The fish is hollow and struck with a wooden mallet, which produces a pleasant  ‘clonk’ sound. The mokugyo at Manpuku-ji is prized as a particularly fine specimen – not least for its impressive size!

One final temple instrument to look out for is the 'Han', a solid wooden block struck with a mallet, which produces a hard 'clack' sound. The main use of this instrument is to announce that 'Zazen' seated meditation will begin shortly. Inscribed on the Han is a reminder of the importance of the monastic life: 'Birth and Death is a great matter. Life is fleeting.  Wake up to this fact! And do not allow yourself to waste time!' A great motto for everyone, Buddhist or not!

One final temple instrument to look out for is the ‘Han’, a solid wooden block struck with a mallet, which produces a hard ‘clack’ sound. The main use of this instrument is to announce that ‘zazen’ seated meditation will begin shortly. Inscribed on the han is a reminder to the monks of the importance of the monastic life:
‘Birth and Death is a great matter.
Life is fleeting.
Wake up to this fact!
And do not allow yourself to waste time!’
A great motto for everyone, Buddhist or not!

One final thing that Mampuku-ji is famous for are the fences that surround the buildings, which are based on swastika designs. Although the swastika now has sinister associations in the west following it's appropriation by the Nazi party, it has a history going back thousands of years in Asia. It began as a sacred Hindu symbol of auspiciousness that was later adopted by Buddhism. Although it's a little tricky to make out the swastika pattern in this fence...

One final thing that Manpuku-ji is famous for are the fences that surround the buildings, which are based on swastika designs. Although the swastika now has sinister associations in the West following its appropriation by the Nazi party, it has a benign history going back thousands of years in Asia. It began as a sacred Hindu symbol of auspiciousness that was later adopted by Buddhism. Although it’s a little tricky to make out the swastika pattern in this fence…

... it's much easier in this one!

… it’s much easier in this one!

All in all, Mampuku-ji is highly worth a visit. The grounds are large and extensive, and the borrowed scenery is beautiful. Another huge bonus is that compared to the large crowds that are drawn to the major temples in central Kyoto, you're likely to have this wonderful site almost to yourself!

All in all, Manpuku-ji is highly worth a visit. The grounds are large and extensive, and the borrowed scenery is beautiful. Another huge bonus is that compared to the large crowds that are drawn to the major temples in central Kyoto, you’re likely to have this wonderful place almost to yourself!

Having stopped off in Obaku to visit Manpuku-ji, it’s just a short walk back to Obaku station to continue on to Nara. Although you can take a local line train from Obaku station straight there, you can shave 10 minutes off your journey by getting off at Uji, the next station, and hopping onto the next Rapid Service train, which takes less than half an hour.

Even though I stopped off at Manpuku-ji, I still made it to Nara just before lunchtime. There are lots of great restaurants offering great value lunch deals lining the roads from JR Nara station to Nara Park in the centre of the city, where you will find the majority of Nara’s sights.

Although I was visiting Nara for the Wakakusa Yamayaki festival, I still had time to visit Nara’s main attractions before the main event kicked off. Let the photo blog re-commence!

Todai-ji temple (the largest wooden structure in the world!) looked as beautiful as ever, even with my ugly mug blocking the view!

Todai-ji temple (the largest wooden structure in the world!) looked as beautiful as ever, even with my ugly mug blocking the view!

I recommend swinging by the Nigatsu-do, one of Todai-ji's sub-temples. It has a balcony on stilts that gives a great view over Nara Park...

I recommend swinging by the Nigatsu-do, one of Todai-ji’s sub-temples. It has a balcony on stilts that gives a great view over Nara Park…

...and entrance is free! Always a bonus!

…and entrance is free! Always a bonus!

After taking in some of Nara's year-round attractions. I headed over to Mt. Wakakusa (more of a very large hill, really!) to watch one of the festivals rather unique events...

After taking in some of Nara’s year-round attractions. I headed over to Mt. Wakakusa (more of a very large hill, really!) to watch one of the festival’s rather unique events…

... This is the 'Deer Cracker Throwing Tournament'. Hundreds of people line up to throw giant 'Senbei' rice crackers frisbee style to crowds of eagerly awaiting deer. People whose crackers travel furthest are eligible for a prize!

This is the ‘Deer Cracker Throwing Tournament’. Hundreds of people line up to throw giant ‘senbei’ rice crackers frisbee style to crowds of eagerly awaiting deer. People whose crackers travel furthest are eligible for a prize!

The next event in the festival schedule takes place at a big bonfire, the fuel for which is provided by members of the public bringing their New Year's decorations from their recently completed winter festivities to be burnt.

The next event in the festival schedule takes place at a big bonfire, the fuel for which is provided by members of the public bringing their New Year’s decorations from their recently completed winter festivities to be burnt.

After a short ceremony, a torch is lit from the fire...

After a short ceremony, a torch is lit from the fire…

... and from the torch three lanterns are lit. There is one lantern representing each of Nara's main religious sites; Todai-ji temple, Kofuku-ji temple, and Kasuga shrine. The lanterns are then paraded through the city towards the Mt. Wakakusa.

… and from the torch three lanterns are lit. There is one lantern representing each of Nara’s main religious sites; Todai-ji temple, Kofuku-ji temple, and Kasuga shrine. The lanterns are then paraded through Nara Park towards Mt. Wakakusa.

Along the way, Shinto priests in fabulous outfits accompany the procession and play music using conch shells. Although it might be hard to believe from listening to it, the noises aren't random - that's sheet music tucked into the conch case!

Along the way, Shinto priests in fabulous outfits accompany the procession and play music using conch shells. Although it might be hard to believe from listening to it, the noises aren’t random – that’s sheet music tucked into the conch case!

On arrival back at the base of Mt. Wakakusa, there were 300 of Nara's firefighters getting ready to do the exact opposite of their job - to set fire to the mountain!

On arrival back at the base of Mt. Wakakusa, there were 300 of Nara’s firefighters getting ready to do the exact opposite of their day job – to set fire to the mountain!

While we were waiting for the sun to set, there were fantastic views across Nara to be had from the side of the mountain!

While we were waiting for the sun to set, there were fantastic views across Nara to be had from the side of the mountain!

Once it was dark, the fire from the three lanterns was used to set fire to another bonfire! The whole festival is essentially a big fire relay!

Once it was dark, the fire from the three lanterns was used to set fire to another bonfire! The whole festival is essentially a big fire relay!

While the bonfire got going, we were treated to a truly spectacular 15 minute firework display... Did I mention entrance is free? Bonus!

While the bonfire got going, we were treated to a truly spectacular 15 minute firework display… Did I mention entrance is free? Bonus!

Of course an event like this is bound to attract the crowds! But that's what provides the festival atmosphere!

Of course an event like this is bound to attract the crowds, but that’s what provides the festival atmosphere! Luckily I managed to get a spot right at the front!

With the fireworks finished, it was time to get down to the main business of setting the mountain on fire. In the next stage of the fire relay, the firefighters took torches lit from the bonfire and set fire to the grass on the edge of the mountain. It started off slow...

With the fireworks finished, it was time to get down to the main business of setting the mountain on fire. In the next stage of the fire relay, the firefighters took torches lit from the bonfire and set fire to the grass on the edge of the mountain. It started off slow…

... but thanks to the dry conditions, the fire quickly spread to envelop the whole mountainside!

… but thanks to the dry conditions, the fire quickly spread to envelop the whole mountainside!

Although the fire can sometimes last for nearly an hour, the dry conditions meant that the whole mountain was scorched within about 15 minutes, and it was time to head home.

Although the fire can sometimes last for nearly an hour, the dry conditions meant that the whole mountain was scorched within about 15 minutes, and it was time to head home.

The origins of the Wakakusa Yamayaki festival are a little obscure. Some say that it evolved as a means of settling boundary conflicts between the different temples in Nara, while another view holds that it was a method to keep away wild boars. In any case, it’s a unique and spectacular event, and well worth attending if you’re in the Kansai area at the end of January. Of course, at any other time of year Nara is still a great place to visit as a day trip from Kyoto, but don’t forget to stop off at Obaku to visit Manpuku-ji on the way!

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!

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