The early cherry blossom report for 2015

sakura blossom

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

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

Hanami party with geisha in Kyoto

Hanami party with geisha in Kyoto

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

Nachi falls framed by sakura branches

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

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

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

Tokyo's Senso-ji Temple with cherry blossom

Tokyo’s Senso-ji Temple with cherry blossom

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

sakura

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

Illuminated sakura tree

Illuminated sakura tree

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

Crowds gather beneath the sakura trees in Tokyo

Crowds gather beneath the sakura trees in Tokyo

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

Our top 15 favourite ryokan inns

Ryokan experience

Last week I explained why you haven’t been to Japan until you’ve stayed in a ryokan inn. For those who can’t quite be bothered to go back and read it, it’s quite simple: the food, the baths, and a little something the Japanese call omotenashi (which is kind of like hospitality, but BETTER).

Now, to celebrate fifteen years of InsideJapan, we would like to introduce you to our fifteen favourite ryokan inns in all of Japan (and let me tell you, we’ve visited a few in our time). These are the places we’ve revisited time and time again over the past fifteen years – whether it’s for the divine baked oysters at dinner, stunning onsen overlooking the sea, the beautifully decorated guest rooms or just for the wonderful welcome we always receive.

Although some of the ryokan on this list are super-deluxe, super-exclusive, and super-out-of-the-price-range-of-your-average-Joe; many of them are not, and here you’ll find establishments to cater for every price range.

To demystify a bit of travel jargon before we begin – Japan’s hotels and inns do not operate using a “star” rating system, so we have sorted these ryokan into four categories: Budget, Moderate, Superior and Deluxe – Budget being (obviously) the least pricey, and Deluxe being the most.

And so, without further ado, here are the pick of the bunch – in no particular order:

Yamaichi Bekkan, Miyajima Island (Moderate)

InsideJapan's Harry and James with Yamaichi Bekkan's perennially lovely proprietress

InsideJapan’s Harry and James with Yamaichi Bekkan’s perennially lovely proprietress

Where better to begin than with one of our best and longest-loved establishments, the Yamaichi Bekkan on Miyajima Island? Located in an unassuming building looking out over the port, the Yamaichi is a small, family-run establishment with simple, comfortable rooms. You may not be paying top dollar for a swanky suite and private onsen, but you will be treated like royalty by the ryokan’s eternally lovely proprietress (pictured). Not to mention you’ll get to try some of the most delicious food imaginable. You know those oysters I keep mentioning? The ones I still dream about sometimes? You’ll find those here.

 Ichinoyu Honkan, Hakone (Moderate)

Exterior of the Ichinoyu Honkan

Exterior of the Ichinoyu Honkan

Another great value ryokan, the Ichinoyu Honkan is located in the beautiful Hakone National Park – AKA Mount Fuji’s back yard – and has been welcoming guests for nearly 400 years. The original inn was opened in 1630 and essentially pioneered the hot spring industry of Hakone – now one of the most popular onsen getaways in Japan. It even appears in ukiyo-e prints by the famous artist Ando Hiroshige! We recommend the Ichinoyu for its bar facilities (unusual for a ryokan) and excellent hot spring baths, which can be reserved for private use if you’re feeling a bit shy.

Koemon, Shirakawago (Budget)

Exterior of the Koemon

Exterior of the Koemon

The Koemon in Shirakawago may be a low-cost accommodation option, but that certainly doesn’t mean that you’re losing out. In fact, staying at the Koemon is such a great experience that we recommend it to many of our top-level customers too. Here you have the chance to experience life in one of the traditional farmhouses – known as gassho-zukuri (“praying hands”) for the steep pitch of their thatched roofs – that have made the alpine village of Shirakawago famous, and earned the area its World Heritage status.

Do not expect: creature comforts, a place to charge your iPhone, or en suite bathrooms. Do expect: a memorable and authentic experience, a warm welcome and great home-cooked food.

Iwaso, Miyajima Island (Superior)

onsen hot spring bath at the Iwaso ryokan

Onsen hot spring bath at the Iwaso ryokan

Giving the Yamaichi Bekkan a run for its money, the Iwaso is another excellent ryokan in one of our favourite Japan destinations – Miyajima Island. Located in a lovely part of the Momijidani Park – well off the beaten track for most visitors to Miyajima – the Iwaso was the first establishment to open its doors on the island back in 1893. When previous guests have included famous authors, artists, and members of the Imperial family – you know you can expect something pretty special! We especially recommend visiting during autumn, when the surrounding maple trees become a blaze of reds and oranges.

Yumoto Kansuiro, Hakone (Superior)

InsideJapan's Enfys and Matt enjoying tea at the Yumoto Kansuiro on a recent visit

InsideJapan’s Enfys and Matt enjoying tea on a recent visit to the Yumoto Kansuiro

The second of three Hakone ryokan to feature on this list, the Yumoto Kansuiro ryokan is located in the Motoyu district and is one of the region’s most historic establishments – dating all the way back to 1614. Like the Iwaso, the Kansuiro has seen many illustrious guests pass its threshold – from artists and politicians to samurai and sumo wrestlers – and manages to convey a sense of history and authenticity through its carefully maintained antiques, beautiful painted screens and old, wooden buildings.

We especially love the hot spring baths and the delicious seasonal meals, which are served privately in your guest room by kimono-clad attendants.

Ryokan Kurashiki, Kurashiki (Deluxe)

Breakfast at the Ryokan Kurashiki

Breakfast at the Ryokan Kurashiki

In our opinion, the Ryokan Kurashiki is one of the very best accommodations in Japan. Pay a visit here and you really are in for a treat! Nakamura-san, the ryokan’s proprietress, is the most elegant and lovely of hosts (and speaks impeccable English to boot); the ryokan itself is full of character, with each maisonette filled with beautiful antiques; and there is a private indoor hot spring bath that can be booked for private use. In the spring and autumn, there’s nothing better than sitting at dinner with the restaurant’s sliding doors thrown open, looking out over the ryokan’s tastefully lit, beautifully landscaped garden.

What’s more, the ryokan is located right in the centre of Kurashiki’s lovely Bikan canal district; one of my personal favourite places in Japan. We particularly recommend this ryokan to those who prefer not to sleep on the floor, as each maisonette contains comfortable Western-style double beds instead of futon bedding.

Yoshimizu Ryokan, Kyoto (Budget)

A tatami room at the Yoshimizu Ryokan

A tatami room at the Yoshimizu Ryokan

This ryokan is an oasis in the heart of the city of Kyoto, and the perfect place for any traveller on a restricted budget who would like a taste of authentic Japanese accommodation. Located in Maruyama Park, surrounded by maple trees and bamboo groves, it’s just a short walk from this idyllic little inn to the hustle and bustle of the city – making it the perfect combination of peace, quiet and convenience. To keep costs down, dinner is not served at this ryokan - but you will enjoy a delicious, home-cooked breakfast with real handmade bread (a rarity in Japan!) prepared by the establishment’s incredibly lovely proprietor.

Gora Kadan, Hakone (Deluxe)

Covered corridor overlooked by mountains at the Gora Kadan

Covered corridor overlooked by mountains at the Gora Kadan

The third of our three Hakone ryokan favourites, the Gora Kadan is one of the finest deluxe ryokan in Japan – and perhaps one of the most exclusive accommodations in the world. The main building was once the summer residence of the Kaninnomiya Imperial Family (which says it all, really), while the newer wing boasts beautiful tatami rooms with cypress baths, a heated indoor swimming pool, a luxury spa, a Jacuzzi and a restaurant serving food prepared by one of Japan’s top chefs.

No mere words can do it justice really – you just have to go there and experience it for yourself!

Minshuku Daikichi, Tsumago (Moderate)

Minshuku Daikichi

Minshuku Daikichi

A minshuku is a small, family-run, traditional-style bed and breakfast – and they don’t come much better than the Daikichi. Located in the small, former post town of Tsumago in the Kiso Valley – where the streets are packed with preserved wooden buildings and there’s not a concrete slab or electricity pylon in sight – here you can be sure of a warm welcome, a comfortable room and a delicious meal of local cuisine. Keep an eye out for the friend grasshoppers!

Hanafubuki, Izu Peninsula (Superior)

Ornate hot spring baths at the Hanafubuki

Ornate hot spring baths at the Hanafubuki

Set among the trees of a woodland grove on the Izu Peninsula, the Hanafubuki is a luxurious ryokan that is especially noted for its impressive selection of seven different hot spring baths (of varying shapes and sizes) and its lovely location in the Japanese countryside. Here you’ll feel light years away from the manic buzz of Tokyo, even though it’s really just a short journey away! Dinner is served in your choice of three different dining rooms, each beautifully decorated and looking out over the lantern-lit trees and pathways surrounding the ryokan. We highly recommend joining the ryokan manager in the morning for a complimentary guided walk along the lovely nearby coastal path!

Lamp no Yado, Noto Peninsula (Superior)

A hot spring bath overlooking the ocean at Lamp no Yado

A hot spring bath overlooking the ocean at Lamp no Yado

Lamp no Yado is a very special, luxury ryokan located on the isolated Noto Peninsula, about 150km by car from the city of Kanazawa. The ryokan is located right on the coast, with an amazing infinity pool looking out across the ocean and private open-air onsen baths attached to each luxurious guest room. As you’d expect, you’ll also find delicious kaiseki cuisine, polished-wood hallways and lovely tatami rooms – with friendly, helpful service. This is the perfect place to relax and get away from it all in a beautiful, traditional setting.

 Jiji no Ie, Boso Peninsula (Superior)

A beautiful sunlit room at Jiji no Ie

A beautiful sunlit room at Jiji no Ie

Jiji no Ie is a very unusual ryokan. Run by the well-known essayist and macrobiotic cooking teacher Deco Nakajima and her husband, writer and photographer Everett Kennedy Brown (with whom InsideJapan has the pleasure of working on specialist photography tours); Jiji no Ie gives both domestic and international guests the chance to unplug, slow down and reconnect with the simple life.

Along with a team of craftsmen, architects and gardeners, Deco and Everett built this ryokan from scratch using local timber, earth, bamboo and straw, with a beautiful onsen bath made from Aomori hiba wood and a garden designed by award-winning classical gardener Yosuke Yamaguchi. Breakfast and dinner are also a real treat, featuring Deco’s fantastic macrobiotic cooking – using only seasonal ingredients and local seafood.

We recommend staying at Jiji no Ie as an alternative to Tokyo at the beginning or the end of your trip, as a beautiful and peaceful introduction (or farewell) to Japan.

Nishimuraya Ryokan, Kinosaki Onsen (Deluxe)

Traditional room at the Nishimuraya Ryokan

Traditional room at the Nishimuraya Ryokan

This stunning, deluxe ryokan located at the heart of the Kinosaki Onsen hot spring area first opened its doors to visitors more than 100 years ago and is guaranteed to be a real treat. The wooden buildings here were partially designed by the famous architect Masaya Hirata, each room with its own personal flourish, set in the middle of a beautiful landscape garden. There are (of course) a range of wonderful onsen hot spring baths in which to relax and enjoy your peaceful surroundings, and a delicious kaiseki meal promises to provide the piece de resistance to a wonderful experience.

Kifu no Sato, Yunogo Onsen (Superior)

Ikebana flower arrangement at the Kifu no Sato

Ikebana flower arrangement at the Kifu no Sato

Located in a modern building in the small town of Yunogo in rural Okayama Prefecture, Kifu no Sato is a lovely Japanese-style ryokan, boasting a wonderful landscaped garden at its centre and tatami matting throughout. Kifu no Sato is particularly noted for its ikebana flower arrangements (of which there are a staggering 65 throughout the hotel) and its onsen baths, which are truly superb and comprise several different types of bath (including some private rotenburo outdoor baths) and a “hot stone” sauna. The ryokan also has an exceptional commitment to reinvigorating the local environment and businesses, to which end almost all its furniture and decorative displays represent the work of local craftspeople. Finally, to complete this list of accomplishments, the elaborate seasonal kaiseki menus served in the restaurants are nothing short of outstanding – as I can personally attest!

Jinpyokaku, Yudanaka Onsen (Superior)

Guest suite at the Jinpyokaku

Guest suite at the Jinpyokaku

The final ryokan on our list is the wonderful Jinpyokaku, located in the small hot spring town of Yudanaka in Nagano Prefecture (best-known for its simian residents, the onsen-bathing snow monkeys). With luxurious, spacious rooms; heated kotatsu tables to keep your feet warm as you sip your green tea; and (very unusually) a large open-air hot spring bath that is not segregated by sex (don’t worry, there are separate baths for men and women for those who want them!) – this ryokan is so nice that you’ll never want to leave.

This is merely a selection of our favourite traditional ryokan covering various grades. The one thing that links these ryokan together is great food and wonderful service. If you are thinking of heading to Japan, we would certainly recommend staying at any of the above to experience a slice of Japanese culture and hospitality at its best….and if there isn’t any room for you at the inn, we know many other fantastic places (better than Trip Advisor!).

Five great ways to celebrate 2015: The Year of the Sheep

According to the Chinese zodiac (which is still used extensively in Japan), 2015 is the year of the sheep (or occasionally goat, depending on who you ask). That’s “Hitsujidoshi” 未年 in Japanese.

So how best to pay homage to this duodecennial event? Below are a few sheepish suggestions to get you started:

1. Climb the “Hill of Sheep”

Located to the southeastern side of Sapporo City on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido is Histuji-ga-oka 羊ヶ丘: the “Hill of Sheep”. Though it’s generally pretty rare to see a sheep in Japan, here you’ll find them grazing on hillsides stretched out before you – an especially striking sight at sunset, when the fields turn gold in the dying light.

Whilst here, don’t forget to check out the bronze statue of Dr William S Clark, an American professor who was instrumental in establishing Hokkaido University, and whose advice to his students: “Boys, be ambitious”, is famous throughout Japan. Not particularly sheep-related, but interesting nonetheless.

Hitsuji-ga-oka (Photo: lifetoreset.wordpress.com)

Hitsuji-ga-oka (Photo: lifetoreset.wordpress.com)

2. Eat “Genghis Khan”

Not content with being the founder of the largest contiguous empire of all time, Genghis Khan also lent his name to a Japanese grilled mutton dish: “Jingisukan” ジンギスカン.

The dish consists of strips of mutton grilled on a dome-shaped metal grill in the centre of your table. The dish is so-named because in Japan, lamb is traditionally thought to have been the meat of choice among the Mongol forces, and the dome-shaped grill is meant to represent the soldiers’ helmets, which they supposedly used to cook their food.

You can find “Jingisukan” restaurants in various parts of Japan, but they are most common in Hokkaido – the only area of Japan where sheep continue to be farmed.

Genghis Khan lamb being grilled (Photo: bemall.jp)

Genghis Khan lamb being grilled (Photo: bemall.jp)

3. Go on a Wild Sheep Chase

Figuratively, of course. Delve into some of Japan’s finest contemporary literature and read “Hitsuji o meguru boken” 羊をめぐる冒険 – A Wild Sheep Chase – by Haruki Murakami.

First published in Japan in 1982, the book forms part of Murakami’s celebrated “Trilogy of the Rat” and won the Noma Literary Newcomer’s Prize that year. Combining elements of American and English literature, Japanese animism, mystery, magical realism and postmodernism; the novel follows its protagonist from Tokyo to Hokkaido on his hunt for a sheep that has not been seen for years and will give you an excellent introduction to one of Japan’s finest modern writers.

Haruki_murakami_a_wild_sheep_chase_9780375718946
4. Send a sheepy New Year card

It is customary in Japan to send New Year cards, or “Nengajo”, to family, friends and business associates. Most people use nengajo sold by the Japan Postal Service with pre-printed, decorative postage stamps – and this year’s cards follow a very special sheep-related theme.

Whereas the Western zodiac runs on a twelve-month cycle, the Eastern zodiac cycles every twelve years – meaning that the last year of the sheep was in 2003. Accordingly, in 2003, the Japan Postal Service produced a card featuring a sheep knitting a scarf. Now, in 2015, their cards feature the same sheep, proudly wearing his finished scarf. This adorable story captured the heart of the world’s media, and has even appeared in international news!

On the Japan Postal Service website the following explanation appears: “The scarf, which was in the middle of being made twelve years ago, is now complete.” Cute!

New Year cards 2003 & 2015

Sheepish New Year cards 2003 & 2015

5. Visit a goat cafe

A slightly tenuous one this, but what the heck. The Japanese are currently having a boom in pet cafes, popular in cities where residents do not have the space or the time to keep animals. First came cat cafes (sooo last season), then rabbits, and then it escalated to owls and eventually to its logical conclusion: goats.

Sakuragaoka, which we mentioned in a post some time ago, is one such cafe (in fact, to our knowledge, the only one), and is located in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. It is home to Sakura and Chocolat, two extremely cute goats who are available for customers to feed and pet.

Feeding Sakura at the the Sakuragaoka goat cafe (Photo: ajw.asahi.com)

Feeding Sakura at the the Sakuragaoka goat cafe (Photo: ajw.asahi.com)

Take your sheep on holiday…… not.

Hold the phone! Put down that sheep passport and step away from the easyjet website.

Contrary to a widespread report that appeared on Yahoo news a couple of years back, “Hotel Sheep”, an exclusive hotel where the rich sheep-lovers of Japan could check in their woolly companions while they went on holiday, was unfortunately a very well-executed and successful hoax. Which is, of course, a huge and continuing incovenience to sheep-lovers everywhere.

So unfortunately, 2015 may be the year of the sheep, but it is not yet the year to take little Shaun to Japan. Who knows, maybe in 2027?

There are of course plenty of non-sheep related places and reasons as to why you should make this years trip Japan here…and we haven’t even mentioned cherry blossom in spring, summer festivals, autumn leaves, great food, unique experiences and places etc etc.

Himeji Castle revisted

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

Himeji-jo

Himeji-jo

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InsideJapan and the Japanese Ministry of Environment

Kirishima Kinkowan National Park

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

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

Friendly people

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

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

Romance and water

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

Edo station

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

onsen

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

Land  of the Gods

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

Ryokan

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

Pure water

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

Food

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

134 year old direction

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

Shrines and temples

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

Duck!

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

Thinkers stream

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

Why Wi-Fi in Japan?

Japan is a leader in world tecnology. Everyone knows about the Bullet Train, hi-tech toilets, interesting gadgets and Japan also has super fast internet speeds as pretty much standard. However, this hi-tech country has not been quite as forward thinking in terms of its Wi-fi services with many hotels still offering internet services through LAN cables. Things are changing though, with some cities providing a free service….but this is by no means standard at the moment.
If you want to stay connected in Japan, what’s the best way to do it?

PuruPuru

When I travelled to Japan recently, I got myself a Puru Puru Emobile Wi-fi device. I received the device  in a nice little pack at my first hotel and never looked back. I stayed connected just about everywhere.

Puru puru kit

In the old tea district of Kanazawa…

Kanazawa Puru On the Shinkansen…

Shikansen PuruOn top of Tokyo…

Puru Puru above Tokyo

On a small island…

naoshima puru

and on a beach, on an even smaller, small Okinawan island…although there were parts of the island it didn’t work on…

AkajimaIn general, it worked pretty much everywhere. Whether it was 35 floors up or underground on the subway, the signal was pretty much perfect.

It was not incredibly cheap, but was a whole lot cheaper than using roaming Wi-fi on my phone. I needed to stay in contact with work and family and Puru Puru was perfect…it also allowed me to show off to friends back in the UK as I posted pics  to Facebook and Twitter.

At the end of the trip, I just put it back in the provided envelope and put it in the post box, before I checked-in for my flight home. Easy.

Taking part in a Japanese festival

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

Fukagawa Matsuri from above

The great Fukagawa Matsuri!

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

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

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

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

Dressed for the festival

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

Mikoshi

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

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

IMG_1480Water!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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