The Railway Museum

Last year Japan Railway celebrated 50 years since the inauguration of the world-famous Shinkansen (Bullet Train). Originally built in time for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the Shinkansen made travel faster (cutting the travel time between Tokyo and Osaka in half) as well as rapidly expanding the number of passengers between the two major economic hubs of Japan. The Shinkansen is still going strong today. It runs in an almost ridiculously timely manner. It is still considered a major event not merely in Japanese railway history, but as an announcement to the world of Japanese capabilities less than two decades after emerging from the ashes of the Second World War. In light of this fifty-year benchmark, I made my way to the Railway Museum (tetsudo-hakubutsukan, entrance 1000yen) at Omiya Station, 35 minutes north of Shinjuku Station, Tokyo on the Saikyo Line.

The railway museum at Omiya Station

The museum itself is extremely impressive. It stands within an enormous modern structure, and the moment you get off the ‘New Shuttle Line’ (one stop north from Omiya Station, 3 minutes), you step into an entirely railway-themed world. The walkway leading towards the main entrance is lined with historical Shinkansen timetables. The timetable for my local line has barely changed in the three decades since I was born. In order to enter you must pay with either your regular train card, or purchase a day ticket from a dispenser, before walking through the exact same gates you would see in any train station in Japan. The rest areas include platform-style seating. And so on. Outside there is an area for children, as well as empty train carriages, which have been heated to allow space for eating lunch. Many people who travel to Japan come to love the ‘ekiben’ (eki meaning station, and ben short for bento, or ‘lunchbox’) which are sold in the museum and can be enjoyed within these carriages.

The railway museum at Omiya Station

Inside the museum there is one hall full of original train carriages stretching throughout the entirety of Japanese railway history. This exhibition includes the first Shinkansen train of course, but also the first passenger carriage, the first refrigerated carriage, and perhaps most interestingly, the Imperial Train carriages used exclusively by the Emperor and his family. As an Englishman, I was taken by the amount of Meiji period trains that were built by English companies. Preston, Leeds, Lancashire. 1881, 1878, 1871. The Meiji government of this period essentially selected the best assets of other nations to imitate in order to aid its modernization. A German-style military, French-style Law, and evidently British railways (as well as a British Parliamentary system, of course). The spirits of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and George Stephenson would be beaming with pride.

The railway museum at Omiya Station

Aside from the numerous train carriages on display, there is an hourly exhibition by staff in which an (incredibly loud) steam locomotive horn is blown at full blast and three drivers dressed in traditional train uniform wave to the crowd while the entire train rotates. There are scale models, and plenty of information on the history of trains in Japan. Most exciting of all, however, are the train simulators. In this section of the museum you are able to feel the thrill of operating one of half a dozen actual trains on real life routes. I simulated the route of the Yamanote train that circles the major stations of inner Tokyo. In a just a handful of bleary seconds I moved from utterly confused to a sort of James Bond figure exuding confidence to the detriment of my imaginary passengers. I went for a quick sit down afterwards.

The railway museum at Omiya Station

Where the Railway Museum truly comes into its own is in its versatility. It is a perfect spot not only for those interested in trains or history in general, but also for families with children. There is space to run, its interactive, informative, and there are plenty of places to eat. It is really a marvelous museum. Omiya itself is also well worth a visit if you are interested in visiting the Bonsai Tree Museum or Hikawa Shrine (Emperor Meiji’s favourite shrine) and is famous for both football and rugby. Since Omiya Station is a bullet train stop en route from Tokyo to Nagano and Kanazawa, it makes a good option to stop by at the Railway Museum before continuing your onward journey to either of those cities. Give it a go and discover the geek in new – you will love it.

Tokyo vs. Kyoto: Clash of the Titans

 

Just to set the record straight before I begin, if you’re umm-ing and ahh-ing about whether you should visit Tokyo or Kyoto on your trip to Japan, you can stop right away. The answer is simple: you should visit both.

But what if it doesn’t tie in with your holidays plans? What if you don’t have time to do both? In that is the case, this blog post is your whistle-stop tour of Japan’s two greatest cities and their multitude of attractions. I warn you, though, it won’t make the decision any easier!

History in a nutshell

Tokyo

Ever since Japan’s economic bubble of the 1980s, Tokyo has been a byword for high modernity and space-age technology. Think of Tokyo and you’ll probably imagine a Bladerunner-esque landscape of soaring skyscrapers, neon lights and overhead flyovers – and there are certain times (when soaring across Tokyo Bay on the monorail to Odaiba Island, or when standing in the midst of the clamour of Akihabara, for example) when Tokyo seems to live up to its futuristic reputation. But it wasn’t always like this.

Tokyo began life as a small fishing village called Edo (meaning “estuary”). Fortified by the Edo clan in the late 12th century, it boasted a castle by 1457, and was chosen to become the centre of the military government of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (the founder of Japan’s most powerful shogunate) in 1603. Over the course of the long and peaceful Edo Period (1603-1868) to which it gave its name, the city of Edo became one of the largest and most populous cities in the world: Japan’s capital in all but name.

In 1867 the last Tokugawa shogun was overthrown, and in 1869 the young Emperor Meiji moved his imperial capital from Kyoto to Edo – renaming it Tokyo (meaning “eastern capital”).

In the 20th century, Tokyo suffered two major catastrophes: the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which killed 140,000, and World War II, which saw the city’s population dwindle from 6.7 million to just 2.8 million. Both events wrought widespread destruction on the mainly wooden buildings of the city.

Following the war, Tokyo defied all expectations to make a spectacular recovery, culminating in the economic bubble of the 1980s, which brought the breakneck development and massive building projects that made Tokyo what it is today.

Asakusa district, Tokyo

Asakusa district, Tokyo

Kyoto

Often posited as the yin to Tokyo’s yang, the city of Kyoto is considered by many to be the custodian of Japan’s traditional culture – with a beautiful temple, shrine or garden seemingly hidden behind every corner and sliding door. This reputation is the legacy of more than a millennium as Japan’s imperial capital, which, as you might expect, left the city with an incredible repository of cultural and historical treasures.

Kyoto (or Heian-kyo, as it was originally known) was established as imperial capital by Emperor Kammu in 794, inaugurating the Heian Period (794-1159) of Japanese history. The city was based on the grid-style capital of Chang’an (now Xi’an) in China, and remained the political as well as the cultural heart of the country until power shifted to Kamakura in 1185.

Despite suffering destruction in various conflicts over the centuries, Kyoto was spared bombing during WWII and survives today in better condition and with more pre-war buildings than most Japanese cities.

Kyoto’s reputation as historical treasure-hoard leads many first-time visitors to expect a quaint, wood-panelled town with quiet, traditional streets – but don’t be fooled. Kyoto did not escape from modernisation unscathed, and today you will find a bustling, modern city that hides its cultural gems beneath a veneer of concrete, steel and glass.

Kyoto Station area

Kyoto Station area

See and do

Tokyo

Tokyo has pretty much everything, if I’m honest. The way the city grew over the years to absorb neighbouring towns means that there is no one “city centre”, but a number of different centres, each with its own character and attractions.

Shinjuku is the entertainment and business hub, packed with skyscrapers; Akihabara “electric town” is the home of flashing neon, Maid Cafes and otaku counterculture; Asakusa is the city’s traditional district, home to Senso-ji Temple and souvenir shops; while Harajuku is the mecca for Japan’s outrageously-attired youths and atmospheric Meiji Shrine. These are just a few of Tokyo’s many districts – there’s also cosmospolitan Roppongi, exciting Shibuya, seedy Kabukicho, futuristic Odaiba, upmarket Ginza… you could stay in Tokyo for years and feel as though you haven’t seen it all.

What are the highlights? Of course, that’s a very subjective question – and in a city that offers so much, you could choose almost anything. These are a handful of great sights and experiences to start with:

Tsukiji Fish Market – the largest seafood market in the world, Tsukiji welcomes tourists every morning for the tuna auctions and fascinating main market. Go now, as it’s due to move to a new location soon – and will stop accepting visitors!

Golden Gai – hidden in the middle of Shinjuku, Golden Gai is a totally unexpected slice of old Edo slap-bang in the skyscraper district. With just six narrow alleyways groaning with over 200 tiny clubs and eateries, bar-hopping here is an unmissable Tokyo experience in my book.

Hamarikyu Gardens – Sipping green tea at the teahouse in the serene centre of Hamarikyu Gardens, quite literally an oasis at the heart of the metropolis, is a definite must. Even Prince William thinks so!

Tokyo Skytree – Tokyo’s 634m Skytree is the tallest tower in the world, and the views from the top are incomparable. If you’re strapped for cash, however, you can take in your surroundings for free from the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.

Senso-ji Temple – Located at the heart of Asakusa, Tokyo’s most traditional district, the bright red Senso-ji is the city’s oldest temple. Be sure to wander the surrounding market stalls and grab a bite to eat from a roadside stand!

Studio Ghibli Museum – For fans of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated masterpieces, the Studio Ghibli Museum in the Tokyo suburbs is a must-visit.

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Kyoto

What’s to see in Kyoto? Temples, temples, temples. And maybe a garden or two….so much more!

A visit to Kyoto is a chance to see some of Japan’s finest historical architecture, and with over 2,000 temples and shrines to choose from – we’re sure the city won’t disappoint! If you get tired of temples, moreover, there is plenty more to keep you busy, from a rickshaw ride through the bamboo groves of Arashiyama to a morning spent sampling the delights of Nishiki food market. Here are just a few of Kyoto’s highlights:

Fushimi Inari Shrine – my own personal favourite, Fushimi Inari’s tunnels of red torii gates have been immortalised in countless travellers’ photographs and are even more impressive in the flesh.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple – Located on a hillside above the city, drinking from one of Kiyomizu’s three streams is said to improve your luck in either brains, love or money.

Kinkaku-ji Temple – This golden pavilion at the centre of a lake is one of Kyoto’s most famous sights. It’s even more beautiful in the snow, as I found out last winter.

Ryoan-ji Temple – Japan’s most famous Zen rock garden – Ryoan-ji is most definitely not more beautiful in the snow. As I found out last winter.

Nijo Castle – Quite unlike an ordinary Japanese samurai castle, Nijo is famous for its “nightingale floors”, which squeak to warn the inhabitant of intruders.

Gion – Gion is Kyoto’s traditional teahouse district, home to the city’s elusive geisha population. InsideJapan Tours can arrange for you to have a private audience with a trainee geisha – a truly rare and privileged experience!

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Day trips

It’s not just what’s in the city that counts – it’s also the side trips you can make as part of your stay. For me, Kyoto really takes the biscuit in terms of nearby attractions, but many of my colleagues would insist that Tokyo wins! Decide for yourself…

Tokyo

Nikko – Perhaps the best side-trip from Tokyo is Nikko, a national park that’s home to a shrine and temple complex built in honour of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Kamakura – A small city that once served as Japan’s de facto capital, Kamakura is famous for its lovely beaches and giant bronze Buddha.

Hakone – Japan’s most popular hot spring resort, located in the shadow of Mount Fuji. A great place to stay in a traditional ryokan inn.

Tokyo Disney – Boasting Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea, if you’re after a Disney fix in Tokyo you’ll be spoilt for choice.

Kyoto

Mount Koya – Though you could just about do Koya in a day from Kyoto, an overnight stay is much better. This atmospheric mountaintop temple community is my favourite place in all Japan, and a great chance to stay the night at a temple lodging!

Nara – One of Japan’s ancient capitals, Nara boasts a wide open park, a resident population of friendly deer, the largest wooden building in the world and an amazing giant Buddha, too.

Osaka – Big, brash, bold Osaka is one of Japan’s most exciting cities, and is known for its colourful Nanba district and delicious street food. Universal Studios Japan is also located here.

Himeji – Just a short hop on the Shinkansen line is Himeji, home to Japan’s largest and most impressive original castle – recently reopened after a five-year facelift!

This is just the tip of the iceberg of things that can be done with a little time and inclination in Tokyo and Kyoto. Already I’ve rambled on longer than I should, and without even touching on food, nightlife, museums, transport, accommodation…

Brief as it is, I hope this short introduction will help you understand a little of the character of Tokyo and Kyoto, and why these are indispensable destinations on any Japan itinerary!

Tsukiji Fish Market: How to do it right

Tsukiji Fish Market is one of my tip-top favourite Tokyo experiences, but what with increasingly unstable relations between the vendors (for whom this is their livelihood) and tourists (for whom it is a fascinating attraction), it is important to know how to “do” Tsukiji properly.

Located right in the middle of Tokyo, next-door to Hamarikyu Gardens and near the upmarket Ginza district of town, Tsukiji is the largest seafood market in the world, and makes a fantastic (and free) addition to any Tokyo itinerary.

And since it was announced that Tsukiji will soon be moving from its current location to a site in Toyosu (a 20-minute bus or train ride from its current spot), you really will have to get in there quick – before it changes for good!

Map of Tsukiji Market (source: Japanguide)

Map of Tsukiji Market (source: Japanguide)

What does the future hold?

As of yet, exact details about the new arrangement for Tsukiji Fish Market are elusive – and what information we’ve been able to glean so far has been vague at best.

The Toyosu Tsukiji Market (run by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government) is scheduled to open in November 2016, and will continue to function as a wholesale market for Tokyo’s restaurants. In addition to this, it seems that there will be an area dedicated to the general public (including tourists), where you will be able to see and buy fresh seafood and vegetables, and perhaps even take cooking lessons or attend special events. The tuna auctions will also be taking place here, but it is not yet clear whether the public will be allowed to watch them or not.

What is to become of the current Tsukiji site is even more unclear. Whilst most news sources on the suggest that the reason for the move is to free up prime real estate for profitable development, one of our sources in Tokyo indicated that there has been talk of plans for a new Tsukiji Market (run by the local ward) to be built where the “inner” market currently resides, while the existing shops in the “outer” market will remain as they are.

So, in short, it’s not certain what the future holds for Tsukiji.

The inner market

How do I visit the market now?

Until these mysterious changes come into effect, it is still possible to visit Tsukiji Market – and I would certainly urge you to do so if you get the chance. If you do decide to visit, you have two options: either get up before the crack of dawn to see the tuna auctions for which the market is famous; or mosey on down at about 9am to catch a bit of market action.

When you get there, you’ll find that the market has two sections: inner and outer. The outer market is much smaller, has plenty of great sushi restaurants, and lots of shops selling vegetables, spices, cooking implements and various other things.

The inner market, meanwhile, is the really interesting bit. This is where you’ll find all the wholesale seafood sellers – as well as some of the very best sushi restaurants in Japan, where people queue for literally hours for just a few minutes at the bar.

Produce at Tsukiji Market

Produce at Tsukiji Market

Visiting just the inner market:

9am is still pretty early in the morning when you’re on holiday (if you ask me), so I will not be the one to judge if you just don’t care enough about dead fish to get up for the tuna auctions. Tsukiji is still most definitely worth a visit if you can only make it to the main market – in fact, at InsideJapan we think this is the best bit. You will get to see massive tuna being skilfully carved up, as well as plenty of other weird and wonderful produce – and you can feel secure in the knowledge that your presence is welcomed rather than resented.

Tsukiji Inner Market

Tsukiji Inner Market

At this time in the morning the trains will be running, so getting to the market is much easier than if you decide to see the auctions. All you need to do is catch the subway to Tsukiji Station (on the Hibiya subway line, 8 mins walk from inner market) or Tsukijishijo Station (on the Toei Oedo Line, 3 mins walk from inner market). Follow the crowds and you should end up at the market, where guards on the entrances can usually provide you with a free map.

Once inside, you are free to wander amongst the stalls freely – but look out for speedy buggies zipping past, as they will not get out of your way! The market is still very crowded at this time, so try your best not to get in the way of vendors trying to do their jobs – once again, this is a working market, not a tourist attraction. Remember not to smoke, touch anything, bring large bags or luggage, or wear inappropriate footwear (the ground is very uneven, wet and dirty). Young children are also not allowed.

Restaurant at the outer market

Restaurant in the outer market

Visiting the auctions:

If you really want the full Tsukiji experience and don’t mind getting up at silly o’clock to get it, you can visit the tuna auctions, which take place between 3.30am and 6am every day (except Sunday and some Wednesdays) and are completely free of charge.

We suggest that you think carefully before deciding to visit the tuna auctions. Though they are fascinating, relations between tourists and buyers/sellers at the auction have become quite fractious in recent years, and there is a sense that you presence here is grudgingly tolerated rather than openly welcomed.

Frozen tuna at the tuna auction

Frozen tuna at the tuna auction

If you do decide to visit the auctions, take care to do so in a respectful fashion. Follow the rules to the letter, and absolutely do not head over there after a night on the tiles! Since trains do not run this early in Tokyo, your options are either to stay somewhere within walking distance of the market, or order a taxi from your hotel.

Public access to the auction is limited to two tour groups, each of 60 people, and places are strictly first come, first served. The first group are allowed to watch the auction from 5.25am until 4.45am, while the second group is allowed to watch from 5.50am until 6.10am. To be in with a good chance of getting a place in one of the groups, most people recommend turning up at about 4am. This means that you should be prepared for a long, cold wait before you can actually get into the auction!

After all this effort, you are still not guaranteed entry into the market. It really depends as to how many people are going to turn up that day.

Filleting tuna

Filleting tuna

Make sure you wrap up warm (the waiting room is unheated), and bring something to amuse yourself while you wait. Once inside, you can take photos and films to your heart’s content, but remember not to use flash – or you will be unceremoniously removed from proceedings.

After the auction, we recommend heading to the outer market for a sushi breakfast (the best sushi breakfast you will ever have) and to explore the market stalls here before returning to the inner market to see the wholesale vendors in action. Tourists are not allowed into the inner market until 9am, when the morning’s hustle and bustle is beginning to wind down. Though you can technically enter before this if you intend on buying something, and you will read some sources suggesting that you use this as an excuse to get in, we highly recommend that you don’t do this, as you will be getting in the way and obstruct the normal operation of business.

Auctioneers in action

Auctioneers in action

The following video should give you a good insight into the tuna auctions at Tsukiji. If you’re interested in seeing more background on the Tokyo restaurant scene, I also highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which gives a fascinating insight into the life and craft of one of the city’s best sushi chefs.

If you would like any more advice or information about visiting Tsukiji Fish Market, please don’t hesitate to contact us in the comments below, via Facebook, Twitter or through our website.

5 Reasons to give group travel a second thought

Solo travel slide
From the outside looking in, one might think that going a group tour is like travel with training wheels, or a watered-down version of adventure. You say, “Hey, I’m a confident and capable individual, with a very full passport to validate my travel prowess. Why in the world would I want to risk the enjoyment of my long-awaited (and pricey) holiday by tying myself down to a group of complete strangers?”

Until I began working as a tour leader for InsideJapan, I echoed the sentiments above. I’d never been on a tour nor considered going on one, but after being hired by the company that all changed. Since then I’ve come to realize that everyone should give travel with a group tour a second thought, and here are some of the reasons:
Social aspect_share your firsts

Firsts are better when shared. For many, travel means stepping outside of your comfort zone, trying something new, or fulfilling a dream. Your first pro-baseball game (enjoyed with a hotdog), your first bowl of mind-blowingly awesome ramen, facing your fear of the mic and truly setting “Fire To The Rain” at karaoke: all better when shared, trust me.

Social aspect_food tastes better
Food tastes better with friends.

When traveling solo, I often found that mealtimes were when I wished that I wasn’t alone. Sure, you can try and strike up a conversation with a stranger, or try to find some other lone traveler to share a meal with, and those can be great experiences. However, I find that breaking bread with friends generally means the drinks flow more freely, the food is more savory, and the laughter and good conversation envelop us all.

Social Aspect_someone to listen to your stories
Stories to share.
When traveling in a group, you’re all in the same boat, at the same time, having similar but different experiences. Digesting, laughing, lamenting, and reminiscing with your tour mates is one of the most enjoyable aspects of traveling with others. We all have stories to share and experiences to process, and I think our journeys are enriched through their exchange.

You have a tour leader with you.
Which is a benefit to you how? Let me count the ways! Though there are many, I’ll give you what I consider to be some of the top reasons.

There’s someone to make a recommendation
So many choices and so little time! How quickly choice can end up being more of a burden than a freedom. Fortunately, your tour leader is there to help shed some light on your options and hopefully leave you better informed to make final decision.

TL benefit_reccommendation
For example, if you’re visiting Kintaikyo Bridge in Iwakuni and you decide to have some ice cream from the shop with over 100 flavors available (Musashi, it’s famous!), I don’t recommend having the miso ice cream, unless you like very salty caramel with chunks of fermented bean a decent hint of “funky.”

TL benefit_organize last minute2

There’s someone to try their best for those last-minute things –
Client: “I really want to see the ferris wheel that was in the Manic Street Preachers’ video! Is it possible for me to see it before I leave?”
**Note: the client leaves Japan in less than 24 hours and we’re currently in the mountains, in the middle of Honshu, over 200 km away from this ferris wheel.
Me: “Possibly! Let me have a quick think and I’ll get back to you.”
In the end they were able to make it out to see the ferris wheel, which made his trip, and even join the rest of the group for the farewell dinner later that evening.

Inspiration can strike you at any time, and your tour leader may be able to help you put together some last-minute activities or experiences. Though not everything can be arranged on short notice, they will certainly try their best to see if something can be worked out for you.

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 11.00.07 AM
There’s someone to worry about logistics –
As the saying goes, “time is money.” Unless you truly relish the idea of spending your evenings and mornings pouring over maps and timetables while on holiday, your time (and money) are better spent letting someone else take care of those things for you. You’ve traveled halfway around the world and you deserve to enjoy being here, instead of trying to figure out how to get there.

TL benefit_take the road less traveled
There’s someone to show you a different perspective –
A tour leader doesn’t just take you from point A to B; they can also share their experiences and insights of life in Japan. All of the IJT tour leaders have lived in Japan for many years, and have done so by choice. Most of us have left for a period of time and returned, we’ve worked on learning the language, invested ourselves in the communities we live in, and love to share what we’ve learned.

The people

The people –
They might all be strangers when you meet the first evening of the tour, but I guarantee they won’t be by the time it comes to say sayonara. Of course you might not get along so well with everyone, but you have an incredibly good chance of meeting some amazing people and forming new friendships. The odds are in your favor for this one, really!

So there you have it!

Does this mean I’ve signed off of solo travel? Oh no, by no means, and neither should you. But I have changed my opinion of group travel and wager that you might, too.

This was posted by Tour Leader, Mark Fujishige

8 Things to look out for when in Akihabara

Akihabara is truly the Japan’s capital of “otaku” – often translated as ‘someone who has obsessive interests in video games, manga, anime, electronics and the like’. There’s more manga and anime in this little district of Tokyo than exists anywhere else in the world. But whether you consider yourself a fan of such things completely misses the point; this neighborhood is a traveler’s dream because it is unlike anywhere else any of us have ever been and will ever go to. And isn’t that why we travel in the first place?

Akihabara

In a simple stroll through “Akiba” (as it is commonly and affectionately known by most Tokyo-ites) there are more things to point out, talk about and be astonished by then would ever fit in a single blog post so instead I’ve chosen 8 things that I love about this quirky part of town. If you are coming to the area be sure to keep an eye out for the following!


Oden Vending Machine

1) Japan has become famous for vending machines and they can now be found throughout the country. Indeed, I’ve seen them in the middle of rice paddies and on top of Mount Fuji. I’ve seen banana vending machines, french fry vending machines, flower vending machines and some others too sorted and seedy to mention here. But there’s nothing quite like a hot cup of oden or ramen noodles from a vending machine (pictured above). The perfect place for a pick-me-up during a day of sightseeing in Akihabara.

One Person Karaoke

2) In Japan, as in most places, karaoke tends to be a social event. Something you do with your friends or even family to have a bit of fun and enjoy one another’s company, if not their singing voice. But in a neighborhood known as a haven for nerds and outcasts it is no surprise that you can find one person karaoke booths. The perfect place to let out your inner rock star or let off some steam, perhaps by belting out a few Journey songs (an advert for the booths is pictured above).

All girl sushi

3) Sushi in Japan is a craft, even an artform at times. It has spread throughout the world but there is nothing like the sushi that can be had in one of Tokyo’s premier upscale sushi shops. Unfortunately, sushi chefs have traditionally been and remain almost entirely male. This is largely said to be because most women’s hands are too hot and this in turn affects the flavor of the sushi. But in Akihabara you can put that myth to the test at this all girl sushi restaurant (pictured above is Nadeshiko Sushi – http://www.nadeshico-sushi.com).

Shrine in Akihabara

4) Akihabara is closely associated with electronics and it is known for being at the cutting edge of manga, anime and the Japanese video gaming world so it can be quite a surprise to see all the traditional culture that remains side by side the bright and brash billboards and advertisements. Visit a local Shintō shrine or stop off at a traditional eatery while strolling about.

Live Idol Show

5) One of the things that brought Akihabara to the forefront of otaku culture was the ability to see live music shows by “idol” groups on a daily basis. Although these no longer take place on the street like they used to, you can still see some talented and fun shows every day of the year. Both during the day and at night are venues where you can let your inner fan shine. Find an idol club and dance your cares away while waving different coloured light sticks (the venue pictured above is called Dear Stage and typically has live shows everyday from 5-6pm till around 11:30pm – http://dearstage.com).

6) Not pictured but entirely worth checking out are Akihabara’s retro video game arcades. Sure it’s fun to come and see the newest gadgets and most up-to-date driving and shooting games but nothing will bring you back to your childhood faster than a go at one of the games you grew up playing!

Traces of the past

7) A bit different from number 4, try looking for traces of Akihabara’s past as you wander throughout the area. Though not always traditional, there is plenty of evidence of what the electronic district was like before manga, anime and pornography took over. After all, a place as unique as Akihabara isn’t made overnight!

Assemblage

8) Assemble your own electronics. As you leave Akihabara JR Station on the ‘Electric City’ side, continue under the tracks and you will find a plethora of vacuum tubes, radio innards, computer wires, various kits and loads of speciality shops selling the pieces that make our electronics tick. Although you might not have the confidence to put one of these kits together on your own, you can get some help at the Assemblage desk. Make a little radio, assemble a robot or throw together a blinking doodad. (The staff won’t be fluent in English but they always make an effort and they certainly know what they are doing. Make sure to leave plenty of time for this.)

Akihabara

8) You’d have a hard time missing the colorful billboards and advertising that dons the various buildings of Akihabara but surprisingly few people take the time to really look at these and appreciate the aesthetic – and even artistry – that is so uniquely Akiba. From adverts for maid cafes to posters announcing the latest video game release, you’ll know that you are a long way from home when take a little bit of time to look towards the sky and admire the scenery.

 

As I said at the beginning of this post, you don’t need to be an “otaku” to enjoy a day out in Akihabara!

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 in Kyoto

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.

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