Spring Elegance in pictures

Tour leader Steve Parker just sent us over this set of images taken on a recent Spring Elegance tour giving an idea of what goes on tour. The trip did not dissapont in terms of cherry blossom. What happens on tour…doesn’t stay on tour.

Tokyo
Tokyo’s Skytree, 634m of steel, concrete and glass – a striking feature of the capital’s skyline from many a district. Undoubtedly not the most aesthetically pleasing of architectural creations, a little sakura framing, however, creates an image of harmony in this sea of 33 million people.

Tokyo Japan

Tokyo: Sky-blossom

Ueno district – market madness, where pickled giant octopus tentacles are on offer next to discount watches, traditional green tea, fish flakes, funky footwear and multi-coloured golf balls. Galleries and museums, a favourite sprawling park with gorgeous summer lotus pond and even a zoo make this another hotspot on any Tokyo itinerary. Here, Ueno Station’s main concourse pays tribute to its 2 most esteemed residents – the cherry blossoms of Ueno Park and the pandas of Ueno Zoo.

Tokyo Japan

Tokyo: Blossom indoors and out

Matsumoto
Architecturally – the most perfect historic building in Japan? Matsumoto Castle in full spring elegance – a glorious symbol of this wonderful little city perched on the plains to the east of the Northern Japanese Alps.

Matsumoto Japan

Matsumoto Castle under the Blossom

Springtime is a popular time to have the wedding photos taken, even if the ceremony is a long way off. This charming young couple were off, with photographer and assistant in tow, to the castle grounds of Matsumoto for those once-in-a-lifetime romantic shots.

Matsumoto Japan

Matsumoto: The Happy couple

Takayama
A proud local inspects his district’s float during Takayama’s  Sanno Matsuri, held April 14th and 15th of every year to offer prayers for the rice cultivating season. The parading of these centuries-old floats, adorned with gold, the finest lacquer finish and exquisite woodcarvings, is a highlight of the festivities.

Takayama Japan

Takayama festival

Who would think that just 10 minutes from the lively centre of Takayama, home to the fabulous Spring and Summer float festivals, you could find yourself in such gloriously secluded nature. This is my favourite, and certainly least expected shot of the trip. A quiet mid-morning walk on Shiroyama Hill.

Takayama Japan

Takayama: Away from the crowds

Kanazawa
One of the key 6 features of the Kenrokuen, arguably Japan’s finest strolling garden, is the incorporation of water in its layout. The falling sakura petals often fall and are clustered on the surface of the shallow streams which serenely trickle their way beneath beautifully sculpted pines or amongst the lilies.

Kenrokuen Gardens, Kanazawa: Fallen beauty

Kenrokuen, Kanazawa: Fallen beauty

Kanazawa, within the former samurai domain of Kaga, is rich in tea ceremony history, its patronage of Noh Theatre, local crafts and a wonderfully rich seafood cuisine. Here, some of our small group travellers sample the delights of Kaitenzushi – a conveyor belt sushi restaurant in Edo Period Omicho Market, ordering by touch panel menus!

Kanazawa Japan

Kanazawa fast food: Sushi – so good and so cheap

Kyoto
Personally, of all the places in Japan that I regularly visit with groups – the ever-popular Ginkaku-Ji Temple with its (non) Silver Pavilion and mesmerizingly calming gardens is among Japan’s most beautiful places. Even if crowded, serenity pervades all – if it fails first time round, do a second lap of the gardens, as the friendly temple staff will eagerly encourage you.

Kyoto Japan

Kyoto: Bamboo, water, blossom

Together alone at last – a couple enjoy the solitude of early morning Ginkakuji Temple. How did they make it across that sand without leaving footprints? A spiritual journey into Zen, indeed!

Kyoto Japan

Ginkakuji, Kyoto: Not just your ordinary garden gravel

Two seafood-loving customers chomp on baby octopus stuffed with quail’s egg – on a stick. Snack hunting Kyoto style, in the intriguing Nishiki Food Market, where every shop and stall reveals a new Japanese culinary delight!

Kyoto Japan

Kyoto: A quick snack

Hakone
The unashamed western opulence of the Fujiya Hotel is beautifully enhanced by its Japanese garden – featuring waterwheel, lanterns, streams and cascades. The perfect start to a stay in Hakone. Looking down over the garden to the borrowed scenery of Hakone’s verdant hills beyond (actually a crater rim!). Then onto a day of volcanic landscapes, azul Lake Ashi, ancient Samurai Highways and, fingers crossed, spectacular views of Mt Fuji, resplendent in her white veil of snow.

Hakone Japan

The mountains and blossom of Hakone

Tokyo
Staying at the Asakusa View Hotel is always a treat. East or West facing, you are always sure to enjoy a spectacular view from your bedroom window. As dusk draws in, the frenetic energy of this popular tourist area, renowned for the bustling Sensoji Temple and surrounding traditional shops and eateries, fades into the calming orange hue of Tokyo’s cityscape as it bows towards the setting sun.

Tokyo Skytree Japan

Tokyo: Old and new

 

 

 

Tour of Tokyo

I was recently asked to take some travelers on manga and anime inspired journey around Tokyo. Yet, like any of the world’s truly great cities, Tokyo simply can’t be seen in a day or even a week. There are far too many out of the way neighborhoods, back-street cafes, mind-blowing museums and unadvertised izakayas even for those of us who call Tokyo home to see it all; I still stumble across new experiences on an almost daily basis! Nevertheless, I was determined to give these keen adventurers a sense of what this great city is all about and that is exactly what we did!

Our day started in the Asakusa district. Although it is more famous for its traditional side, the area’s modern architecture is always impressive.

Starting early, we went straight to Senso-ji Temple to learn a bit about Buddhism and gain a better understanding of how it has interacted with Japan’s native Shinto religion throughout the country’s long and fascinating history. The centerpiece of this complex is the towering building of the temple’s main hall, we wandered around in the shadow of Senso-ji’s graceful 5-story pagoda and envisioned old Japan. Something that is surprisingly easy to do even while in the very centre of modern Tokyo. Nearby, we explored manga cafes, pachinko parlors and traditional Japanese comedy before making our way to the Sumida River where we caught our futuristic water bus to Odaiba, a man-made island with an artificial beach that sits right in the centre of Tokyo Bay.

The Gundam Front museum in Odaiba is well worth a visit even if you’ve never heard of Gundam or have no interest in anime. This is the perfect introduction!

Disembarking at Odaiba’s Seaside Park you realize quickly that this is a very different side of Tokyo. Aside from the long sandy beach, Odaiba also offers sweeping views of the elegant Rainbow Bridge and Tokyo’s skyline across the bay. For us, it was directly to Gundam Front, a theatre and museum celebrating one of Japan’s most popular anime. Even if the massive replica of the fighting robot (Gundam) fails to impress you, rest assured that the domed theatre will give you a perfect introduction into the artisan that is Japanese animation.

Just down the road is the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation; a fantastic museum that offers all the proof you could ask for that Japan is still as cutting edge as ever. Navigate your way through holograms of Japan’s seismic activity, see what happens to a Cup O’ Noodles container 6000 meters under the sea and watch the famous robot Asimov perform 3 times a day.

The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Odaiba.

Getting close to lunch time but not quite ready for our meal with maids (more to come on that…) we sat down to a delicious snack of octopus balls. Note: ‘balls’ refers to the shape of snack and not part of the octopi’s anatomy!

Taking the zippy Yurikamome monorail line, we got some great views of the rainbow bridge and made quick time to the modern and prestigious Shiodome district. As soon as we got off the train we came face-to-face with the massive Ghibli steampunk clock, designed by the Walt Disney of Japan himself, Miyazaki Hayao!

After all this excitement and modernity, we were more than ready for a bit of relaxation so we stopped off for a little peak at the tea ceremony and a dose of tranquility in the exquisitely manicured Hamarikyu Gardens. These Japanese gardens date back to the days of the shogun and are carefully looked after by a small army of gardeners.

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After our well-deserved stop at the gardens, we left rested and ready for more. Making use of Tokyo’s fantastic trains, we went straight to that mecca of manga and anime… Akihabara! This district is full of electronics and video games and manga and anime and toy models and has served as the colorful backdrop to many a travel show. But we came for lunch at a maid cafe! To be sure, this experience can be a little surreal to say the least but it is also quintessentially Japanese and a lot of fun. Not only are your servers dressed in maid outfits, they also put on dance performances and go through hand motions that are meant to make your food more delicious… though the efficacy of this is probably better left untested.

Whether it’s a bright green melon soda that you’re after or merely a Japanese om-rice with a picture of a bunny drawn in ketchup on it, this is the place!

Image

After our late lunch, we wandered around Akihbara taking in cosplay outfits, video game karaoke boxes and teenagers dancers working themselves into a frenzy for a new high score before making our way to Shibuya and the world’s busiest pedestrian intercrossing.

ImageEvery 30 seconds, when the traffic signals turn red and the green man reappears another wave of human bodies seemingly come from thin air and invade the giant zebra crossing. Like a choreographed dance, they zoom across the just in time for the whole process to repeat itself again and again.

But Shibuya has far more than just a big pedestrian intercrossing. This district has great shopping, cool cafes and plenty of amazing restaurants. Even better, it is also only a short walk away from Harajuku and Tokyo’s Meiji Jingu Shinto Shrine.

Much like Hamarikyu Gardens, this shrine is a bastion of quietude set in the middle of one of Tokyo’s most ‘buzzing’ districts. It was the perfect place for a bit of reflection on Japanese society and a great opportunity to compare and contrast with the Buddhist temple that we started at this morning. Explaining the intricacies of these two religions is something that I have come to love because I feel like it helps people get a grasp on this wonderful country and all the great things that they will be seeing as they travel around.

The sake casks at the entrance to Meiji Shrine.

The sake casks at the entrance to Meiji Shrine.

The iconic Tokyo Tower at sunset.

Beyond Godzilla – A Cinematic Tour of Japan on Film

The cinema might seem an unlikely source of inspiration of Japanese sightseers, but many famous films serve that purpose quite admirably. Examples include:

Shunjiku/Shibuya (Lost in Translation)lost in translationLost in Translation is as much as love letter to the Shinjiku and Shibuya areas of Tokyo as it is a love story between the characters played by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. Travelers can get that “you are there” feeling by springing for the deluxe accommodations at Shinjiku’s famous Park Hyatt Hotel, or they can put that money toward partying in Shibuya’s entertainment district, including Ichikan, the site of a dinner scene in the film. If you can’t afford a night in the Park Hyatt, then you might want to head up to the Bar & Grill, enjoy a cocktail and the views – very cool.

Lake Sayama (My Neighbor TotoTotororo) – Families the world over have been captivated by the magical animated films of Hayao Miyazaki, especially My Neighbor Totoro. This whimsical fantasy follows a pair of children who move out to the country and meet a variety of fantastic yet kindly creatures. Lake Sayama, located in the Tokorozawa City/Irumu City area of Saitama, is widely believed to be Miyazaki’s inspiration for the film’s setting; in fact, it is affectionately known as the “Totoro Woods.” This peaceful artificial lake surrounded by flora and fauna is accessible via the Seibu Line from Seibukyujo-mae Station.

Yakushima Island (Pricess Mononoke) – Another Miyazaki classic is Princess Mononoke which is said to be heavily inspired by the ancient forests of Yakushima Island in Kyushu. The anime is about the struggle between guardians and spirits of the forests and the humans of ‘Iron Town’ producing fantastic characters and a beautiful story. The magical forest scenery is very similar to the somewhat mystical island of Yakushima which is covered in largely untainted forests of huge 1000 and 2000 year old Cypress trees. Having visited the island a couple of hours jet foil ride from Kagoshima, it is easy to understand as to how the Ghibli Studios founder was influenced by its natural beauty.

if you are the one
Abashirii (If You Are the One)
If You Are the One, the romantic tale of a Chinese couple who tour Hokkaido, single-handedly launched a huge wave of interest among Chinese moviegoers for this beautiful northern island. The fishing village of Abashiri, in particular, received a lot of screen time for its gorgeous views of the Okhotsk Sea. The wetlands, numerous watering holes and hot springs of Kushiro also won viewers over. A tour of Hokkaido, whether based on this film or not, is a spellbinding experience for nature lovers and those who wish to see a Japan they might never glimpse on the mainland.

We haven’t even mentioned the James Bond classic, You Only Live Twicewhich takes in a huge number of locations from Tokyo to the volcano of Kirishima national park. There was the recent Bond movie, Skyfall in which the baddy lair was inspired by Gunkanjima Island in Nagasaki. This summer sees the latest release in the X-men series with Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine which should prove to be a huge success with scenes actually filmed across Tokyo.


Japan is a truly inspirational place in the movies and in real life. Go see for yourself!

Learn How to Make Sushi the Right Way

Sushi is a class of Japanese dishes that contains vinegared rice and other ingredients such as dried seaweed and raw fish. Tourists who visit Japan can take a short class in making sushi, although the training for a professional sushi chef requires at least 10 years. The rising popularity of sushi has resulted in the development of sushi dishes that appeal to western palates. Find out more about making Japanese dishes in Japan by visiting Inside Japan Tours.

sushi lessons in tokyoLesson Plan

A typical sushi dish begins with gently heating sheets of dried seaweed (nori). Place a rolling mat on a flat surface and place the nori sheet on top of it. Spread cooked rice on top of the nori sheet and spread it evenly with your hand, leaving a space of about 1 inch from one end of the sheet. Add other ingredients to the rice such as wasabi and gather the sushi filling into a line at the center of the nori sheet. Roll the mat so that the nori sheet wraps around the filling and squeeze the mat to pack the sushi roll tightly. Open the mat and remove the sushi roll, then cut the roll into equal sections. Serve with condiments such as pickled ginger, soy sauce and wasabi.

Varieties

The California roll is one of the most popular forms of sushi in the western world. It contains imitation crab, avocado, and cucumber, although premium brands may contain real crab. A California roll is often served with the rice outside the nori, a presentation known as uramaki in Japanese.

Classes

The ABC cooking studio in the Midtown district of Tokyo is a popular place for tourists to learn how to make sushi in Japan. It offers a one-day class in preparing Japanese party plates, which includes sushi. The Nara Cookery School is located in Ikoma, which is 1 hour from the Kyoto station. These classes are offered in English and last about 3 hours. The classes may contain 1 to 4 people and the lesson times are flexible.

[photo via ABC cooking School]

Tokaido Trailing Diaries – Past, Presents & Futuristic

The clement November temperatures saw Rob Harris and the other members of the Tokaido Trail with a ‘free day’ in Kyoto before travelling back to Tokyo and their final night in Japan. The ‘free day’ allows people to catch up with some of the many cultural sights in Kyoto, perhaps head to nearby Nara (just 45 minutes on the train), maybe go to Osaka for a bit of neon excitement and good food or head slightly further on the Shinkansen – The speed of the Bullet train makes even the long journeys short! Here is the final instalment of Rob’s Takaido Trailing Diaries….

Day 8, 9 & 10  Hiroshima, Tokyo and home

Day 8 – ‘Free Day’  Hiroshima

This was going to be one of those days that I both was looking forward to, and also treating with a slight sense of trepidation.

Peace Park & dome
Leaving the hotel early, we caught the Shinkansen for the two hour journey to Hiroshima. Once again, I was clocking the trains’ speed on my GPS, this time reaching a peak of 171mph. That seemed a pretty trivial piece of information however, once we alighted from the tram at the A-Bomb Dome. The enormity of what we were seeing had an immediate effect on me, and from that point onwards, I seemed to constantly have a tear at the corner of my eye.

Memorial
Modern-day Hiroshima is a very pretty, modern city with an almost European air to it, and it’s beyond comprehension to imagine the destruction which was inflicted upon it at 8.15am on August 6th, 1945. Walking around the Peace Memorial Park was a disquieting experience, taking in the many memorials erected to those affected by the bomb. Words failed me at how sobering and sombre the atmosphere at the museum was. Some of the images were very graphic and disturbing, but on a whole it has been executed in a sympathetic, non-judgemental fashion, simply stating the facts of why and how it unfolded. It holds nothing back in its portrayal of the events of that fateful day, and it largely acts as just a stark warning to learn from history and never, ever repeat it. It was far from a pleasant experience, but I felt it was a necessary one – to learn, to understand, and most importantly to pay my respects Once back in the park, I gently rang the Peace Bell as a final mark of respect, before meeting up with the others and heading off to hopefully lighten the mood a little.

Hiroshima A Bomb Dome
Catching the JR train once again, we travelled a few stops further down the coast, before boarding the ferry across to Miyajima Island. The tide was reasonably kind to us, meaning we got a good sight of the famous “floating” torii gate, which stands just offshore and leads to the islands’ Itsukushima Shrine. The island is obviously a haven for Japanese and foreign tourists alike and was heaving with people and the local semi-tame deer which are allowed to roam at will (the deer, that is – the tourists are probably a lot more restricted!). Not having long before having to head back to catch our Shinkansen back to Kyoto, we just had the time to grab a quick spot of lunch, grab a souvenir or two and some photographs at the floating torii, before re-boarding the ferry back to the train station.

Miyajima tori

Another totally efficient bullet train ride saw us back in Kyoto with just enough time for a quick wash and change of clothes, before heading in to the city for some ramen noodles, a last walk past the numerous bars, and a second session of karaoke. A very long, but very rewarding and at times, emotionally-charged day came to a close by having a final beer and a song!

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Day 9– Kyoto to Tokyo

So, our last full day in Japan was upon us. It was unbelievable to think that our tour was nearly at an end, we’d done so much, seen so much, and travelled so far, we’d become accustomed to it, it seemed inconceivable to think it was almost over.

Fuji!
Fate smiled kindly on us on the return trip to Tokyo, as the skies were blue and cloudless. About half an hour before arriving in Tokyo, we were finally blessed with stunningly clear views of the elusive lady herself, Mount Fuji in all her magnificence – yet another iconic image ticked off my list. Getting off the train at Shinjuku station, the world’s busiest train station, we were bombarded with yet another different aspect of Japan and Tokyo itself. Shinjuku has a more chaotic, slightly seedier feel to it than other districts we’d already visited in Tokyo – that’s not a criticism though, as it was still brilliantly insane and a lot of fun. Walking up to the hotel, we thankfully were able to check in slightly early. I think by this time, most people were starting to feel slightly travel-weary and glad to take the weight off our feet – and our shoulders, as it was a major relief to be able to dump my rucksack on to the floor of my room!

Shinjuku
I had intended at this point to take a trip up to Akihabara, the electronics district which I’d missed on our first visit to Tokyo, but I couldn’t bring myself to take another train journey quite so soon. Instead, a few of the group contented ourselves with grabbing a bento box (another “tick” on my list!) from a 7-11 store, scoffing that on the street, and then attempting to do some last minute gift shopping for the folks back home. Anyway, I reasoned that just like leaving the spire on top of a pagoda one ring short of the “perfect” ten, leaving myself one thing I hadn’t been able to tick off the list would give me the perfect excuse to come back to Japan just as soon as I could possibly manage.

Izakaya
Our last night’s meal was at an Izakaya restaurant just across from our hotel, and this was probably the longest time we spent in a restaurant the entire trip –  the Japanese don’t really seem to do the whole long-drawn-out dining experience like some European nations do, it’s more a case of “in, eat, out”. We all thanked Alain for his outstanding support and guidance during the trip, and passed on our gratitude to him. Having someone with his knowledge and passion for Japan really made our tour an unforgettable experience, and his enthusiasm proved infectious. Throughout, he had been nothing but attentive and efficient, giving us great confidence to get out there by ourselves and start exploring on our own. As last parting gift, Alain reckoned that we’d had a mild tremor whilst dining as he’d seen the tables shaking gently from side to side – nobody else had really noticed, but by this time, we trusted our tour guide implicitly!

Lights
There was one last thing I had to do, but was reluctant to part company with my new-found friends on the last night. I headed off on my own to take in the legendary Shibuya crossing for myself. Witnessing the neon-lit, well-mannered sheer insanity of hundreds of people crossing from all points of the compass, at the same time, was truly a sight to behold! I was amazed at how the swathes of people somehow managed to navigate their way through the oncoming crowds, all impeccably politely with no jostling, bumping, or grumbling.

Shibuya
Returning back to the hotel on the train, something else struck me – just how at ease and relaxed I felt. Despite being alone, in a foreign city, late at night, surrounded by people who probably had about as much English as I had Japanese, it felt remarkably natural and easy. There was no air of unease simmering beneath the surface that there might have been in the UK, and everyone still seemed friendly, well-mannered, and relaxed. I really did love this country and its people.

Day 10 – Back to reality

An early start, and what seemed a marathon walk through Shinjuku Station, to catch the Narita Express taking us to the airport and our flights home.

I was incredibly sad to be leaving Japan, and that our utterly brilliant time out there was at an end. The tour had been outstanding from start to finish, and had far exceeded my expectations. I’d experienced everything I’d wanted to (except Akihabara!), and the fact that I’d made some new friends along the way was an added and very welcome bonus – the people I’d met on the trip had, for me, made the tour truly special. Without a doubt, I had totally fallen for Japan, its people, and its charms, it is simply the best country I have ever visited, and it had left an indelible mark on me. I will miss it terribly until I return, but the memories I have will always be with me, and the country itself will forever be a part of me.

Thank you to InsideJapan Tours and everyone else on the Tokaido Trail. I am already planning and saving for my return in 2013!

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Thank you so much to Rob for sharing his Tokaido Trail experiences with us. It is really good to read through Rob’s Tokaido Trail diary and takes me back to my tour leading days. I often forget how much stuff actually goes into these trips. Even in a 10 day period, there is an incredible amount you can do and experience in Japan and it sounds like Rob did most of it….apart from Akihabara! Apparently, we have another Japan fan on board, which is always great to know. I sincerely hope that you get over there again soon Rob and I am sure that Japan will love to see you again soon.

Tokaido Trailing Diaries – Kyoto sights and delights

Rob Harris and the Tokaido Trail group continued their tour back in November from the hot springs of Hakone to the old capital of Kyoto where they were to stay the next 3 nights. There is so much to do in this city and so much that they did do on this tour. If you want to know a bit more about what does happen on tour, have a read of the Tokaido Trailing Diaries from Rob Harris….by the way always worth looking at the links….

Day’s 6 & 7 – Kyoto

Day 6
Feeling very much refreshed, we packed up our stuff and said a fond farewell to the ryokan staff. I was pretty sad to leave, as I’d felt very much at home in Hakone, with its laid-back atmosphere, warm welcome and stunning mountainous scenery. In this land of contrasts, Hakone had given us all yet another different aspect of this fascinating country. One thing remained constant though, as everyone we encountered on our travels appeared unfailingly polite, friendly and helpful. And if you were able to use even the most basic of Japanese phrases, and do so in a polite, respectful way, they responded with a big smile and even greater displays of gratitude. Something tells me I’ll be back there at some point in the future.

Hikari Shinkansen
Another bus took us back down the twisty mountain road to Odawara station to catch the 10.12am train – and not just any old train, this time it was going to be the long-awaited Shinkansen, the famous “Bullet Train”. Even queuing up on the platform is done in an orderly, polite, well-mannered Japanese fashion. You find the number on the floor matching the carriage your seats will be in, take your place between the painted lines, and then wait for the exact minute – and I mean, the EXACT minute!! – the train arrives, and then lo and behold, the door to your carriage comes to a halt precisely opposite the markings on the floor, almost to the inch. Considering some of these trains can be 16 carriages long and travel anything up to 190mph, that’s pretty impressive accuracy.

On board, the feeling is more akin to an airliner than a train carriage – smooth, quiet and very efficient. There was little sensation of the speeds we were travelling at, so I used a GPS speedometer app I’d downloaded on my smartphone, clocking an indicated 166mph as a peak speed. I don’t know how accurate that was, but it was the second fastest I’d ever travelled on land. The smooth ride gave us the chance to catch up on making notes of the trip so far, grab a quick catnap, or just stare idly out of the windows at the scenery flashing past – unfortunately we were again denied a clear glimpse of the elusive Mount Fuji due to cloud cover.

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Arriving in Kyoto Station with its dramatic main hall, we dumped our bags off in the storage lockers, and then caught a local train down to the Fushimi Inari Shrine. The bright sunshine reflected strongly off the luridly orange torii, another of those iconic Japanese images that I found fascinating. After doing the obligatory purification ritual, and also following the necessary procedure to make a quick prayer to the Gods at the Shrine, we took a shortened tour through the avenues of torii gates – the full hike up the hillside can take 2-3 hours.

I ticked another item off my “Things to do whilst in Japan” list at lunchtime, with a visit to a proper sushi bar, the kind with the conveyor belt of various dishes passing by in front of you, and the chefs preparing the food before your very eyes. I’m not the greatest lover of fish or seafood, but in the spirit of at least trying every new experience I could whilst in Japan, I tucked in – and I have to admit, it was pretty darned good!

Gion
After collecting our bags from the lockers, we had the first taxi of our time in Japan for the short trip to our hotel. I’ve mentioned before about how polite the locals are – Japanese taxis are so polite, they even open and close their own doors for you!! Quickly dumping off our bags and collecting the luggage which had been forwarded on from Kamakura, we had time for a short pit-stop, before another taxi-ride to the Minamiza kabuki theatre to meet Mie, our guide for the Geiko district tour. For me, this was one of the highlights of the whole trip. Mie was a brilliant host – witty, knowledgeable, with a well-practised patter, she brought the district to life and gave us a fantastic insight in to a world which is still largely secretive and unknown, even to the Japanese themselves. The Geiko themselves, along with their Maiko trainees, are very elusive and private people, keeping their customers and business on an extremely exclusive basis. Mie told us how hordes of paparazzi lurk outside the larger teahouses, hoping for a glimpse of a Geiko or Maiko, and how once spotted, they tend to walk very quickly out of sight – if we were fortunate, we might catch a glimpse ourselves too.

Maiko
We were fortunate indeed that night, as within minutes of starting the tour, we saw our first Maiko, followed by another three or four as the tour progressed through Gion district. Even Mie was taken aback at this, and said it had been an exceptional night. I claimed it was good luck brought on by my bright red fleece jacket!! (white and red are considered “lucky” colours in Japan) Saying farewell to Mie, we had our traditional multi-course kaiseki Japanese dinner, with each small dish comprising only the freshest, locally-sourced, seasonal foods and each complimenting the other.

It was then time to hit the town and sample some of the late-night attractions the bright lights of Kyoto had to offer. For the second time on tour, I hit the sack at about 3am – the next day was likely to prove challenging!!

Night out

Day 7

Today was to be a day of temples and pounding the pavements. First up was the Yasaka Shrine, before heading to the Kodai-ji Temple with its tranquil Zen gardens, huge bamboo grove and striking architecture – yet another archetypal image of Japan. Walking further on, through the timeless streets lined with restaurants and shops of all kinds, accepting the free samples of green tea and pickled plums as we went, we headed up towards the Kiyomizu-dera Temple. We were left to our own devices today and were confident that we’d learnt enough about Japan to get around by now.

After sipping some of the holy water (the “kiyo mizu” of the temple’s name), we walked back towards central Kyoto in the search of some much-needed food! At this point, I have to apologise to all my fellow tour members, and make the admission that I took the easy option and headed to McDonalds once more. Making our way back to the hotel, we met up with Claire and then took a further walk up to Nijo-jo Castle. This was definitely worth the extra pain in my feet, as the castle and its surrounding gardens are simply stunning. It was amazing value too, being just 600 yen to enter – we reckoned a similar experience in the UK would have been three times the cost.

A lot of people who I’d told I was coming to Japan had expected it to be expensive, but in my experience, it wasn’t really the case. OK, the beers in the evening weren’t exactly student bar prices, but the things which really mattered, the transport and the visitor sights, were all very reasonably priced. You could also grab a pretty decent meal for no more money than it would be at home too, plus you had the reassurance it was in all likelihood a whole lot fresher and better prepared!

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Tonight’s dinner was yet another new experience, with Alain taking us out to experience a hot pot meal. Dipping the thinly sliced pork and vegetables in to the hot bowls of citrus-based ponzu sauce was reminiscent of the shabu shabu we’d had on the second night in Tokyo, and very tasty – once all the pork and vegetables had been eaten, we mixed a little green curry paste in to the remaining sauce, and drank it as a fabulously spicy soup.

Walking back through the neon-lit streets of downtown Kyoto after dinner, it all felt very easy-going and relaxed, until we came across a Pachinko parlour. We ducked our heads in for a quick look, and were astonished at the noise! How on earth do the regulars there tolerate the din without going deaf? We’d had enough after about two minutes, and that was more than long enough to experience one more of those uniquely Japanese things I’d had on my list.

You are probaly wondering as to why there are only two nights from Kyoto here. There is another day, which is considered a ‘free day’ when travellers can choose to wither stay in the city or utilise the Rail Pass and head out to one of the many places which are easily reached via the sleek and speedy Shinkansen…but we will save that for another post. Thanks for sharing this Rob!

Tokaido Trailing Diaries – Hot springy mountains

Continuing along the Tokaido coast of Japan, the trip ventured into the mountainous Hakone national park famed for hot springs, black eggs, secret wooden boxes and samurai history. Don’t know what I am on about? – Read Rob’s  account of his next couple of days on the Tokaido Trail….

Day Four & Five – Hakone

Day Four

Hakone - Lake Ashi

Another day, another variation on the Japanese style of breakfast. By now, I was becoming more accustomed to the food on offer – the salmon this morning was particularly tasty. We said farewell to most of our luggage at this point, with the larger cases and rucksacks being forwarded on to our hotel in Kyoto with typical Japanese efficiency and security – at no point on the tour did I have any doubts whatsoever that the locals would treat both us and our belongings with the utmost of respect and decency.

We headed off towards Hakone, first on the JR train, and then a local bus. Being a little tight on space, this is why we had to travel a bit lighter on our feet.As a self-confessed petrolhead, the roads from Odawara up to Hakone had me almost drooling in anticipation. Stunning scenery, hairpin bend after hairpin bend as the road rose in continuous switchbacks higher and higher in to the mountains. This was the legendary kind of road where the craze for “drifting” high powered sports cars had blossomed, and I kept my eyes peeled for the sort of machinery which had my right foot twitching for an imaginary throttle pedal!

Our base for the next couple of days was the charming Fuji Hakone ryokan, a traditional family-run guesthouse, complete with futons, Tatami mats on the floor, sliding timber and paper screens, and of course, the onsen hot spring baths. The warmest of welcomes had it feeling like a home away from home; this was exactly the sort of accommodation I’d been looking forward to experiencing. With the mountains dominating the skyline above the small town, this was probably my favourite location we stayed in all tour.

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We hopped back on the bus, heading towards Gora for some lunch – pork ramen noodles this time, up until now the most delicious thing I’d eaten all tour, prompting me to use a new Japanese phrase “gochiso sama deshita” for the first time. Alain was babbling on excitedly about something he called the “Batman Wheel”, but would tell us nothing more, leaving us slightly baffled until we got to Gora and found a massive turn-table to spin the buses around!Another ingenious solution typical of Japanese engineering, it elegantly solved the problem of how to execute a three-point turn in a confined space. Why can’t we come up with these things in the UK?

Back on the bus after lunch, we were taken to the Hakone Open Air Museum, to see the modern art exhibitions. I really wasn’t expecting this to be my cup of tea, but do you know what? I really enjoyed it! OK, I can’t profess to understand the deeper meanings behind the majority of the pieces, but they were certainly striking to look at, set in a beautifully scenic location with a calm, relaxing atmosphere. We were lucky with our timing, as the trees were just starting their Autumnal change, providing us with a riot of colour. A little bit of culture can be good for you, it seems, helped by Joss and myself taking advantage of the hot stream foot bath to sooth the soles.

Dinner in Hakone that night gave me another excuse to use my newest Japanese expression. I’d thought the noodles I’d had at lunch time were pretty tasty, but the ginger pork with noodles, Japanese curry rice and draught Asahi I had that night were simply mouth-watering – another very fine recommendation from Alain! After a dip in the onsen hot spring bath, I retired to my futon for the night.

Day Five

Today we were to circumnavigate the Hakone “Loop”, so it was back on the bus to Gora to catch the funicular railway, climbing the slope to the first section of cable car ropeway taking us up to Owakundani. Looking down on the sulphuric hot spring vents looked more like the surface of an alien world than Planet Earth, and the bright yellow stains gave forewarning of the stench we were about to experience. Now that is a smell which permeates the linings of your nostrils, so strong you can almost taste it. Eating one of the local kuro-tamago (eggs, hard-boiled and blackened in the hot springs) is said to extend your lifespan by seven years, but I couldn’t bring myself to attempt one.

Pirate ship

The last section of ropeway took us down to Lake Ashi, and the pirate ship cruise – yep, you read that right – pirate ships! OK, they’re just modern cruise ships decked out to look like pirate ships, but it’s yet another typically over-the-top Japanese experience. Bizarrely, I got talking to a couple of lads from Nepal who wanted to know how far Scotland was from London, and asked whether we’d seen Mount Fuji yet – they said with a grin that they had proper mountains where they were from, not these mere hills!

Moto Hakone
Once docked in Moto Hakone, we paid a visit to the puzzle box shop. The proprietor came out and gave us a demonstration of the techniques involved in creating the wood block designs, the different styles of puzzle box and how they work. Despite him speaking no English, and Alain only being able to sporadically translate what he was saying, I managed to take on board most of what he was telling us. The skill in designing and fabricating these boxes is beyond belief, as not only do they look beautiful, they are incredibly intricate and superbly engineered. The smallest, simple boxes involve just one or two simple moves or taps of the box to open, but one larger box he demonstrated had an astounding 54 moves to unlock – you’d better be pretty sure of remembering the combination before securing your valuables inside!

Armour
After a quick lunch of noodles, we walked along a short section of the old Tokaido highway, before catching the bus back to the ryokan. Whilst the rest of the group headed in to the ryokan, I took a walk in to the town and tracked down the Samurai museum. I think I took them by surprise with my visit, as the girl behind the counter had to turn the lights back on so I could walk around. It was on the compact size, but they had some stunning exhibits, from katanas and other vicious looking weapons, to intricate suits of armour. This was something else I’d been keen on seeing on tour, as the Samurai are another iconic Japanese image.

I headed back home and rejoined the group at the ryokan. Before dinner, we were entertained by Mai Tsunemi and her traditional Japanese koto, a stringed instrument being a strange mix of guitar and harp. A few of the tour party were encouraged (some might say under extreme peer pressure!!) to have a go themselves, and they all performed with aplomb. Having the natural rhythm of a house brick, I declined the opportunity to embarrass myself in front of an audience. Once back at the ryokan, whilst some people headed for their allocated timeslots in the onsen baths, the rest mingled in the sitting room. It was a great way to round off another packed day, and I slept a whole heap better that night.

So there you have it from Rob. Another packed couple of days Tokaido Trailing in Japan. Next is Kyoto which is often considered the highlight of the trip….everyone is different aren’t they. Find out what Rob and co get up to in the old capital of Kyoto. Yoroshiku!

Tokaido Trailing Diaries – Rob’s Kamakura

After Rob’s Tokaido Trail Tokyo diary, day three heads to the small temple town and 12th century capital of Japan, Kamakura. If you want to get an idea as to what happens on our tours and what people get up to,  you might like to read on -

Day Three – Kamakura

Daibutsu

My major impression so far on this trip was one of how the Japanese are able to balance seemingly contradictory aspects of life. Each new experience was completely different to the one which went before; each new district we visited appeared had its own distinctly unique character. Japan manages to look to the future, whilst keeping one eye firmly on the past. For example, we could be walking in the shadow of the 21st Century neon-lit skyscrapers whilst rubbing shoulders with Tokyo-ites wearing traditional clothing largely unchanged for hundreds of years. If life is a journey, a line drawn between two points, then you cannot truly know where you are headed without fully understanding where you have come from. This is a concept the Japanese seem to grasp far better than any other nation, and I think it’s something we could all learn from.

Hase Dera
We had another of these changes in tempo after a short journey on the fantastically efficient JR network to Kamakura, a compact seaside town just along the coast from Tokyo. The rain from the previous night had blessedly cleared, leaving us with pleasantly warm clear blue skies. Kamakura itself provided a welcome change in pace from the bustling metropolis, and a chance to recharge our batteries after the exertions of the previous night. Our hotel, above a family-run sweet shop, gave us a very warm welcome, with complimentary green tea, ice creams, and small bags of delicious bite-size cakes. After a quick lunch of katsu-don, we headed to the sprawling Hasadera Temple. Climbing the hillside complex to the very top, we were rewarded with views over Kamakura and the Pacific Ocean beach front, the clear blue skies being reflected in the waters below.

Rob at hase Dera

Onwards to the Great Buddha at Daibutsu, an imposing sight for sure. Paying the small entrance fee, we clambered inside. I read with interest the details over the various techniques used to construct the massive figure, how the segments of bronze are jointed together. I love how the Japanese are able to combine clever, innovative engineering, with a strong sense of aesthetic beauty – form and function combining to stunning effect. This attention to detail permeates down to even the smallest, most innocuous items – Alain demonstrated to me how even a humble Japanese toothpick has been designed to have a removable end section with a small moulded recess, acting as a resting place for your toothpick to avoid it contaminating the table surface – genius!

Shonan coast

Whilst the United Kingdom was being battered with wind, rain, hail, and even a light smattering of snow, we had fun larking about on the beach and dipping our toes in the Pacific, being bathed in warm sunshine – looks like we’d picked a good week to come to Japan! We’re still not entirely sure what Alain’s impromptu beach sculpture was all about, but maybe it would have found a suitable home at one of the venues we were to visit the next day….

Not bad for November! Tomorrow see’s Rob and co heading to the Hakone National Park with its mountains and hot springs. I wonder how they get on with the onsen? We shall find out…..Thanks Rob!

Hidden Japan: A few highlights.

The highlights of a group tour always seem to vary.  Everybody has their own favourite thing or place.  These are occasionally predictable but more often surprising.  Drain covers?  Really?

In this post I have selected a few personal highlights from a recent Hidden Japan tour.

I start on day 3  in Himeji, a quiet town famous for its stately castle.  Unfortunately the main keep is still under restoration, but the mazy passageways and chunky earthen walls on the castle slopes remain a treat to trek around.  And even better than the castle was the neatly trimmed white-walled garden next door.  On our visit, we pretty much had the place to ourselves.

With the staff outnumbering visitors, we even got extra special service.  In a wooden one story building overlooking the garden, while sat on tatami mat floor, 3 kimono-clad ladies talked us through the tea ceremony.  We were treated like visiting lords – it was if they had been waiting for us all day.  Now I must admit, not all the group fell in love with the tea (typical problem: wrong colour + no milk), but everybody enjoyed listening to the teacher`s exquisitely polite explanation and demonstration.

 

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The day`s pleasant surprises were not over.  That evening we took a train to see a festival at a local shrine.  At the time, I was worried the event might be too small; I had never even heard of Kashima, the small town we were going to.  What if it was just a couple of old blokes standing around a candle?

As it turned out, the scale of the event did become an issue – the narrow streets were so jam-packed with people we barely had room to wriggle.  The atmosphere was like a rock concert.  The air carried around the smell of sake and the echo of the powerful drumbeat.  Giggling gaggles of young girls leant over the security ropes, closing in on the bare-chested men in loincloths carrying the colourful, towering mikoshis.

We even saw a rare glimpse of confrontation, two testosterone-charged members from rival mikoshi teams squaring up to each other.  The prolonged eyeballing and aggressive posturing was like a scene pulled from a yakuza film.

The next morning was more sobering but equally memorable.  A volunteer guide walked us around Hiroshima`s Peace Park.  Her cheery, relaxed, self-effacing manner concealed a quiet determination to tell us about the immediate and long-term impact of the A-bomb on Hiroshima and beyond.

Then came the whole day spent on the tiny green island of Miyajima.  We began the morning with a group hike to the top of Mount Misen.  Climbing at a gentle pace, we stopped regularly both to take a look into the woods and river alongside the trail, and also to erm…..breathe.   It is a steep climb, trust me.

From the observatory we had spectacular views out to the islands of the inland sea where the ferry would take us the next morning.

That afternoon was free for exploring.  A stay in Miyajima provides so many enticing options: the floating torii gate, the gnome-like statues at Daishoin, the map-eating deer, the chocolate-filled momiji sponge cakes and not forgetting the ryokan`s hot spring baths overlooking oyster farms in the bay.  My particular highlight was a dish in the evening banquet:  burdock root wrapped in conger eel – a magical mix of two of Japan`s finest, most underrated foods.

I have only mentioned 3 days of the tour.  There were so many more highlights, most of them unexpected:  the drunk, solitary salaryman`s haiku on the Matsuyama tram; the guided tour backstage of Japan`s oldest Kabuki theatre; the rainy morning on a forested, hilltop graveyard watching monks serve breakfast to a man 1200 years dead; the bizarre chat with the bubbly Moroccan chef about the BBC series, Birds of a Feather - “I lovvvvvvve Richard, ” he confessed.

These are only my highlights.  I am sure the group have different ones.

As the great man once said:  “A group tour is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you gonna get.”

Five reasons to visit the north of Japan

The beauty of Tohoku

Just fifteen minutes ago, before sitting down to write this, I was plunging into an outdoor hot-spring on the roof of my ryokan (Japanese Inn) watching the sun set over Sado Island, a lesser known destination off Japan’s north-west coast. With steam pouring into the cool air around me, I watched as the clouds and verdant hillside of Mount Kinpoku turned orange and then pink and purple as the sun dipped ever lower on the horizon, before finally disappearing into the distant Japan Sea. I was thoroughly lost in the moment, and I would have happily stayed that way had I not remembered that I was sharing this ‘magical moment’ with the four naked Japanese men who were also in the hot-spring. Strangely, and not necessarily for the better, I have grown all too accustomed to jumping into baths with naked strangers. Indeed, every night on my two week trip around Tohoku (northern Japan excluding Hokkaido) my companion and I have done as the locals do and finished off a long day of sightseeing with a dip in the onsen (hot-springs).

Yet this experience, as undeniably special as it was, has been only one among many. Which got me to thinking about what I like best about Tohoku.

A sample of what our nightly fare consisted of

Food! Food, food, food…. and food. At times it felt like we simply sightseeing in order to fill time until the next meal. Sure enough, delicious food can be found all over Japan but there is a plethora of local specialities in the north that make it different and exotic, even to a Japanese ‘foodie’ like myself. Staying in temples, hotels, and ryokans, every night has been a feast as artfully presented and as delicious as the one before. Fresh sashimi, whole crabs staring me in the face, tender slabs of marbled wagyu beef, oysters, nabe stews, noodles, tofu, black skinned pork, fried chicken, sushi… just to name a few.

A few shots from our time in the Ishinomaki area, still recovering and rebuilding from last year’s tsunami

A visit to one of the tsunami stricken areas is a harrowing experience but, for me, it was also one which inspired hope, reaffirmed my belief in the goodness of communities and their ability to come together in the face of disaster, and reminded me of just how many selfless organisations and individuals are working to rebuild the cities, houses, and neighbourhoods that were completely and utterly destroyed 19 months ago. The very short time that I spent volunteering in Ishinomaki is an experience that money simply can’t buy, and one that I would recommend to anyone with the desire to make a difference.

The nature of Nikko

Just a few short hours north of Tokyo is one of my favourite places to visit in all of Japan. Aside from the architectural masterpieces for which the area has become famous for, Nikko has great hiking, postcard perfect waterfalls, colourful foliage in autumn, wild monkeys and serrows, hot-springs, and cool summers. By all accounts, this is a “must-see” destination. Of course, as with most “must-see” spots, there is rarely a quiet day when you can get the best sights to yourself, which is all the more reason to make sure you spend the night at a traditional inn near the temples and go for a wander at night once all the crowds gone home to Tokyo.

Sado Island’s rugged coast

I ride on the comfortable Tokkaido shinkansen (the bullet train running between Tokyo and Fukuoka) weekly and spend much of that time gazing out the window watching as neat rows of exquisitely manicured green tea plantations and the many rice paddies squeezed between houses and cities whiz by. Some days even Mount Fuji makes an appearance. Yet every time I make this journey I am simply amazed at how developed this densely populated corridor of Japan is.

In northern Honshu (Japan’s main island) life moves at a slower pace, nature still reigns supreme, and small towns outnumber big cities. For anyone who has only been west of Tokyo, a trip up north will reveal a different side of Japan; and if you’ve never been to Japan at all, this might just be the Japan you’ve always imagined.

The natural and historic beauty of Haguro San is truly exquisite

The last on my list is most certainly not least; Haguro San is the smallest of three sacred peaks in Yamagata prefecture but it is far more than just another hill.

From what felt like a very ordinary road running through the middle of a small town, I stepped off the bus and walked no more than 20 metres through an old Buddhist gate and found myself in another world altogether. A bit like Narnia but without the talking animals. 2446 stone steps cut through giant cedars, lead me over an arched red wooden bridge, past a 1000 year old cedar tree, around a 600 year old ornate wooden five-storied pagoda, into a teahouse for a well deserved rest, and finally on to my accommodation, a Buddhist temple turned Japanese inn at the peak’s summit.

The quiet air and reverent atmosphere at the top of this pilgrimage destination left me forgetting completely about the cares and worries of my daily life in Tokyo. Instead of opening up my computer or flipping on the TV once the sun went down, I changed into my yukata (a light cotton kimono), had a boil in the temple’s bath and then sat down to a delicious almost-vegetarian feast and a large ice cold beer. This was surely the closest I was going to come to having a religious experience.

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