Shimane: Rural Japan

Situated in the Sea of Japan, to the north of Shimane Prefecture (south-west of mainland Honshu), the Oki Islands have a natural and cultural landscape unlike anywhere else. If you are looking for a truly unique Japanese adventure, look no further than the remote Oki Islands.

By considering the geohistory of the area, we can begin to understand the sui generis nature of its landscapes and cultural traditions. Developed through a series of stages, the land from which the Oki Islands consists was once part of the Eurasian Continent. Over time it sank first to the bottom of a lake, then to the bottom of a deep sea. Large-scale volcanic activity saw eruptions thrust the land up from upon deep and the islands were brought into existence. They became connected to mainland Japan during the glacial ages, before separating once more and taking their current form. In September of 2013, the Oki Islands were granted Global Geopark status. Geoparks are “designated areas of significant geographical heritage”, an initiative supported by UNESCO.

Bridge to Heaven

The relatively recent history of Oki is interesting, too. Its geographical location resulted in Oki being an important port of call for traders sailing around Japan, and for those en route to mainland Asia, since ancient times. Obsidian (a type of naturally occurring volcanic glass) is believed to have been an Oki export for as long as 30,000 years.

Due to its remoteness, the Oki Islands were a place of exile for court nobles for around 900 years. These nobles introduced court culture and traditions that failed to reach less secluded places on the mainland. The most famous and celebrated exile was the Emperor Go-Toba. Following his defeat in the Jōkyu Rebellion, he was sent to the islands in 1221 to see out his days. In 1331, following the Gēnko Incident. Emperor Go-Daigo was also exiled to the Oki Province, as it was known at the time. However, with some assistance from powerful friends, he escaped to the neighbouring Tottori Prefecture on the mainland. Here, at Funigama Mountain (present day Senjo-san), he built an army, returned to Kyoto and re-took the throne from Emperor Kōgon.

Bridge to Heaven, the Oki Islands

The beautiful and interesting features of the Oki Islands are many and varied, and thus selecting just a few to describe is a difficult task. However, listed below are 5 sites and traditions of particular interest.

Dogō Island

1) Ushitsuki

Ushitsuki (Bull Sumo), is one of the oldest cultural practices in Japan, with a history of more than 800 years. It has been practiced on Oki since the time of Emperor Go-Toba and can still to this day be observed on Dogō Island. As with regular sumo, much of the spectacle is concerned with Shinto rituals and traditions. The island is split into bull sumo fighting sides that contest for honour, not financial gain. The well-cared-for bulls lock horns and push against other until one of them turns away. The bulls are then separated by their handlers and one of them pronounced the victor.

Ushitsuki, on Dogo Island

2) Chichi-sugi

There are many majestic Japanese cedar trees on Dogo Island. The Oki Islands are where the Ura-sugi type last originated, as the species was able to survive in Oki during the last glacial age. One famous example on Dogo is the Chichi-sugi, which means “Breast cedar” due to its unusual shape. The tree itself is a shrine dedicated to a maternal deity and is about 800 years old.

Chichi-sugi, on Dogo Island

3) Shirashima Coast Lookout

Stunning coastal views can be enjoyed from this popular viewpoint. The white cliffs here contrast wonderfully against the clear blue sea and deep green of the pine trees carpeting the coastline. Shirashima is a good spot to observe Streaked shearwater birds and hydrangeas, which bloom until November.

Nishinoshima Island

Nishinoshima Island

4) Mt. Takuhiki

At 452 metres, Mt. Takuhiki is the tallest mountain on the island and is the central pyroclastic cone of the Dōzen Caldera. From the parking area, take a pleasant 15 minute hike through the forest to the mysterious Takuhi Shrine, the oldest structure of its type in the Oki Islands and designated as an Important Cultural Property of Japan. Built partially into a cave, the shrine is dedicated to the deity of safe sea voyages and has attracted sailors and fishermen praying for maritime safety for hundreds of years.

Takuhi Shrine on Nishinoshima Island

5) Kuniga Coast

The Kuniga Coast is arguably the most photogenic spot on the Oki Islands and is not to be missed. A 2.3km walking trail winds its way down from a height of 257 metres, past various interesting rock structures formed as a result of volcanic activity and subsequent coastal erosion, all the while offering spectacular coastal views. The trail, considered one of the Top 100 Walking Trails in Japan, takes you past a natural rock arch known as the Tsūtenkyō (Bridge to Heaven) and a grouping of oddly shaped rocks called Tenjyō-kai (Heavenly World). Horses and cows share the route with the walkers, adding an extra element to an already photogenic setting. The whole, breathtaking scene can be viewed from the Akao Lookout.

The Kuniya coast, on Nishinoshima

* The Oki Islands can be reached by ferry in approximately 2½ hours from Sakaiminato (Tottori) and Shichirui (Shimane) Ports. The Rural Japan Explorer Tour runs for the first time this May and is completely sold out. Don’t miss out on this beautiful place at this beautiful time of year for 2016 with a tour set for 16th May.

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!

An Autumn Tour of Japan – Day by Day In 17 Syllables

This autumn’s Japan Enchantment was certainly one that provided my group with natural enchantment. As a Tour Leader, I am often barking instructions, explanations, giving meeting times and imparting the nitty-gritty in order to get the job done. However, I  do still get the opportunity to step back and acknowledge life’s sublime moments, even at work. Haiku and photos should more than capture those moments, so here goes…

Day 1 TokyoTokyo scene

The Tangerine Dawn

Punctured by Tokyo’s Needle

Promise of color

Day 2 Nikko
Across the mountains

Clouds settle and rest

As dying flames lick rockface

Autumn Zen Landscapes

Day 3 Nikko

Waterfalls in Nikko

Majestic Kegon

Her Hair of Silken Water

Nikko’s Hyrdro Queen

Day 4 Karuizawa

Autumn leaves

Reflective Maples

Tearful ripples sketch the pond

Soon to fade away

Day 5 Karuizawa

Fallen

Wet Ancient Timepiece

Witness to history’s course

Records nature’s death

Day 6 Nagano

Snow monkey

The elderly Man

Life patterns scarred on calm face

We have felt his pain

Day 7 Kanazawa

Waiting for food

Beady eyed heron

Focus fixed in driving rain

Meal time swims closeby

Day 8 Kanazawa

Koyo colours

Lacquered Storehouse woos

Simplicity wrapped in gold

Nature Holds its own

Day 9 Kyoto

Fun with Geisha

Entrancing beauty

An autumn bird in full flight

The Maiko holds Court

Day 10 Kyoto

Sun and Gardens

The mountain beckons

Spirituality rays

Zen in the morning

 

Day 11 Kyoto

Reflecting 

Rain meets old bamboo

Sepia Kaleidoscope

A trick of nature

Day 12 Hakone

Fuji leaves

She teases keen eyes

Her leafy veil drip-blood red

Mt Fuji on fire

Day 13 Hakone

Natural sculptures

Sculpture meets nature

Spiritual awakening

Saturates the mind

Three Reasons To Choose a Small Group Tour

Getting into local life
As an independent traveller, I’ll admit I was slightly hesitant about joining a small group tour. I’ve been on tours before, but it wouldn’t normally be my number one choice to travel with a group. However, having joined InsideJapan’s Japan Unmasked tour for a few days, I can now see that there are massive benefits to joining a small group tour instead of going it alone.

1. Stress-free sightseeing
Your full-time Tour Leader will take all of the stress out of travelling around from place to place, and will be there to either show you the sights or point you in the right direction if you wish to do your own thing. You have the best of both worlds, in that there is an expert to deal with all the logistics of travel, and yet you have the freedom to do as you please and don’t have to be herded around in a massive group or squeezed uncomfortably onto a hot bus at any point during the trip. Yes, you can have your matcha roll cake and eat it too!

Our Tour Leader sharing some brief Japanese history with the group

Our Tour Leader sharing some brief Japanese history with the group

2. The Group
Travelling in a group of people you don’t know can be slightly intimidating at first, especially as a solo traveller. However, InsideJapan’s small group tours attract all different kinds of customers from all over the world, and joining a tour group is a great way to make new friends and share experiences. You all have Japan in common, and probably all have different reasons for wanting to visit Japan. For some it will be another country to tick off their list of places visited, and for others it will be a life-long dream come true to visit Japan because of a particular interest in some aspect of Japanese culture. Together you can share experiences and knowledge, and try new things!

Tour Group at Sensoji

Your Tour Leader might turn out to be something of a celebrity…

3. Getting beneath the surface
InsideJapan’s motto is ‘get beneath the surface’, and there’s no better way to do that than with an expert Tour Leader by your side. As someone who has travelled in Japan quite extensively I would consider myself something of an expert. However, after just one evening with our expert Tour Leader I realised there was still so much to learn! Whether it was finding new items on the menu in the izakaya, hearing a snippet of history for the first time, or simply visiting somewhere new, your Tour Leader will certainly help you to get the most out of your time in Japan!

Cultural experiences in an izakaya...

Cultural experiences in an izakaya…

Finally, if like me, you’re quite an independent traveller but like the idea of joining a small group tour, why not do both? No matter how much you fit in whilst you are on tour, you will always wish you had just a little more time in Tokyo or the chance to visit just one more destination, so why not add on a few extra nights of independent travel after your tour. By the time the tour finishes you’ll be something of an expert yourself, and ready to take on Tokyo alone (armed with your tailor-made Info-Pack of course!).

J-pop and Go!

We have a lot of very different tours and trips here at InsideJapan, taking in all kinds of interests and destinations. One of our most experience packed and certainly one of our most lively, is the J-pop&Go! Tour which was created in conjunction with HYPERJAPAN. The trip really does combine the modern wonders and the traditional culture of this unique country. Got to love Japan.

Here’s a little bit of video taken from on tour to give you a taster –

J-Pop and Going on a HYPERJAPAN Tour

Way of the Samurai(photos by Ken Francisco)

Our inaugural HYPERJAPAN J-Pop and Go! tour was a great reminder that even going back to places that I’ve visited a dozen or more times can bring unexpected experiences, new surprises and untold amounts of fun! Working with the folks at HYPERJAPAN, we created a tour for people with as much energy as a Japanese anime character. We trounced from Buddhist temple to maid cafe, from the insanity of the Robot Restaurant to the quietude of a traditional Japanese garden. We learned about geisha culture from one of the world’s foremost experts and we were taught Zen meditation from a Buddhist monk but we also dressed up in kimono for a samurai sword lesson and slept in a capsule hotel! Although you’ll read about the Japan as the land of contrasts in any and every guidebook, there has surely never been a tour where these contrasts are juxtaposed so vividly. If you’re interested in the full spectrum of Japanese culture, 10 days on this tour will have knowing more about Japanese pop culture than most people who stay for 6 months.

Men at work

KaraokeHiroshima Bay

Luckily I don’t need to ramble on about how good everything was because Kenneth Francisco – a skilled photographer and a passenger on the very first tour – has been kind enough to let us use his images for an exploratory journey through a few highlights of this great tour. Arigatou Ken!

MarioKiyomizu, Kyoto

Manga and Maids

At our visit to the maid cafe (pictured above) we sang songs, performed “magic” to enhance the deliciousness of our cute and cuddly meals and even had a birthday celebration for a very embarrassed young man! But in Kyoto we got to experience old Japan by visiting several UNESCO World Heritage Sites and rubbing elbows with many kimono clad locals. Walking through the romantic old buidlings in the geisha district on a quiet and warm spring night was the highlight for a couple who came on the tour for their honeymoon. For a few others, the maid cafe and capsule hotel came in with the top ranking!

Tour leader, Tyler

 

Romantic Dear

Life size anime

Miyajima Tori

In these shots Ken has caught me explaining sankinkotai with the picture of a samurai and also managed to find a couple of romantic deer whispering sweet nothings to one another on Miyajima island, the home of the massive floating Torii gate – although that only applies when the tide is in! But my personal favorite is Ken posing with Goku from Dragon Ball Z.

Osaka Castle

okonomiyakiCup noodles

We had great weather throughout this tour, as can be evidenced by the clear views from Osaka castle (above) and of Mt. Fuji (below). The shot on the left shows our okonomiyaki being grilled right in front of us in Hiroshima while the picture on the right is from the Ramen Museum in Osaka, where we got to design and make our very own Cup of Noodles to take home with us as a souvenir. I can’t speak for the rest of the group but mine were delicious! ;)

Fuji from Hakone

Sushiiii

Tsukiji fish market

Conveyor belt sushi in Kyoto is always a favorite on my tours but it couldn’t top the amazing stuff we had at the famous Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo! Our small group took up the entire restaurant.

Serious tour leader time

Karaoke tour leader time

Lets sing!

Bullet Train Bento

Showing my serious, and not-so-serious, sides above; no trip to Japan is completely without one crazy night of karaoke and a delicious bento box on the bullet train!

Deadly ladies

Samurai

I lost

Here we are learning the techniques of the samurai and looking very good in the process. These girls would give Uma Thurman a run for her money any day! Just ask Jeff, seen above before and after his bout with his spouse.

Capsule Hotel

 

Zen moments in Kyoto

Crazy Robot Restaurant, Toyko

And what better way to finish off than with pictures from three of my own personal favorite experiences from this great and varied tour. Here’s our capsule hotel, our Zen meditation session and the crazy but hilarious visit to the Robot Restaurant!

More HYPERJAPAN J-Pop & Go! to come….

 

 

Land of the Gods | Kamikochi Japan

The Historic Mountain Trail tour recently travelled through Kamikochi. Here’s tour leader David to tell us more…

1

Nestled deep in the Alps, Kamikochi seems worlds away from the urban sprawl most people associate with Japan.  The air is fresh, the waters crystal clear, and the mountains majestic. The name can mean “high above earth” or “where the gods descended” and is apt both literally and figuratively.

2

Located a little less than two hours from either Matsumoto or Takayama (both worthy of a visit), makes it a comfortable escape and return to the wild. Due to the increasing popularity of the national park, private vehicles are no longer allowed inside the resort, meaning the only means of vehicular access is limited to either bus or sanctioned taxis. This is more of a blessing than an inconvenience for those basking in the peacefulness of what many refer to as their favorite place in Japan.

6

At the bus terminal, there is a tourist information center where visitors can purchase pocket-sized maps of the area for 100 yen.  There is also a rest area where you can plan your route while enjoying refreshments from one of the many nearby shops. Those who need a toilet are encouraged to show their appreciation for cleanliness by placing a tip in a box with a note stating the average amount is 100 yen. There are about seven other equally clean toilets scattered throughout the park that deny you this privilege, forcing the use of their facilities for free.

14

Walking towards the azure waters of the Azusa River, it’s easy to see Kappabashi (not to be confused with the popular “Kitchen Town” in Tokyo), the most famous bridge in the area, and a popular landmark where many visitors like to take pictures. The view from there of the nearby mountains towering above is, in a word, stunning. Both sides of the bridge offer a number of accommodation and refreshment options.

4

A relaxed half-hour walk downstream brings you to the Hotaka and Tashiro bridges, which are joined by a small island. Another twenty minutes or so from there, either by a river or forest path, brings you to Taisho Pond, which was formed when nearby Mount Yake, an active volcano, erupted in 1915. The ever-present smoke plume coming out the top can serve as a reminder to be respectful of nature, especially in its most pristine state. Speaking of which, visitors are expected to leave only footprints, bringing all trash home with them (most opt for a rubbish bin in the nearest major town, but some, like my roommate, actually do maintain an impressive alter to the god of refuse in their house).

3

Those who would rather not retrace their steps, and don’t mind paying four or five hundred yen, can catch a bus at the nearby Taisho Bus Stop bound for the terminal, where they can start again.

16

Myojinbashi is the next bridge upstream from Kappabashi, and can be reached in about an hour by either a boardwalk across marshes and streams on the north side of the river, or via a footpath through a campsite with toilets on the south side. Keep your eyes open for macaques. Nearby Myojin Pond (entry ¥300) is a must-see. There are rest areas either side of the bridge with toilets and refreshments available.

10

Another hour or so upstream, on the south side, is a grassy meadow dotted with elm trees. This used to be a pasture, but is now Tokusawa campsite. There are more lodging, toilet and refreshment opportunities here as well. For day-trippers, this would be a good place to turn around and head back to the bus terminal. Serious hikers staying in the area will want to continue on a few hours to the peaks.

8

There is plenty of gorgeous scenery to be enjoyed by all fitness levels, making Kamikochi a fantastic destination for all age groups. The usual outdoor common sense applies (stay on paths, don’t feed wildlings). Dressing in layers with waterproof gear is recommended as the weather can change from a warm sunny day to hail in a couple hours.

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More information can be found here: www.kamikochi.or.jp/english

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