Tsukiji Fish Market: How to do it right

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

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

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

Map of Tsukiji Market (source: Japanguide)

Map of Tsukiji Market (source: Japanguide)

What does the future hold?

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

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

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

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

The inner market

How do I visit the market now?

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

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

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

Produce at Tsukiji Market

Produce at Tsukiji Market

Visiting just the inner market:

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

Tsukiji Inner Market

Tsukiji Inner Market

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

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

Restaurant at the outer market

Restaurant in the outer market

Visiting the auctions:

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

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

Frozen tuna at the tuna auction

Frozen tuna at the tuna auction

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

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

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

Filleting tuna

Filleting tuna

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

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

Auctioneers in action

Auctioneers in action

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

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

10 great reasons to visit Japan in the summer

Kamikochi in summertime

Kamikochi in summertime

Spring is sprung, the snow has melted, the blossom is on the trees, and the Japanese are out in full force to celebrate the end of a long old winter. Yes, everybody loves a bit of spring.

But I’m sick of hearing about spring already. I already know about all the great reasons to travel to Japan in the spring. What about summer?!

Perhaps it’s the sweltering heat, or the humidity so thick you could spread it on toast – or perhaps it’s just that everyone goes so ga-ga for spring that they forget there was ever any other season. For whatever reason, summer in Japan tends to get a bit of a bad rap, and it’s totally undeserved.

NEWSFLASH! Summer (June – August) is actually an awesome time to travel to Japan, and here’s why:

Fewer crowds & discount prices

Now I’m not going to lie to you here, it will be a cold day in hell before you do not encounter at least some crowds on your Japan holiday. In a country where domestic tourism is such a big thing, spots like Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion in Kyoto or Senso-ji in Tokyo will always be bustling with visitors. But for the most part there will be many fewer people in summer than either spring or autumn, when the weather is more temperate and visitor numbers swell. The only place where this rule does not apply is at the beach!

You can also travel much more cheaply in the summer, as hotel prices are much lower out of season.

Crowds in Osaka

Crowds in Osaka

Beaches

When you think of Japan, the likelihood is that golden beaches, glittering waves and sunbathing do not immediately spring to mind – but with nearly 30,000 km of coastline it stands to reason that Japan should have a few great beaches.

Some of the very best Japanese beaches are to be found in the subtropical islands of Okinawa (a short and easy domestic flight from the mainland), but if you don’t have the time to make it that far there are great beaches up and down the length of Japan.

Yours truly enjoying the sunrise on Ishigaki Island (part of Okinawa)

Yours truly enjoying the sunrise on Ishigaki Island (part of Okinawa)

Hiking & climbing Mount Fuji

Though the heat may be on in Japan’s sea-level cities, up in the mountains the temperature remains cool and manageable – perfect for a bit of hiking. Some of Japan’s most stunning geography is to be found in high-altitude spots like the Japan Alps, Kamikochi, and the mountains of the Kii Peninsula, and in the summer everything is at its lushest and most beautiful.

And if you fancy a real challenge, Mount Fuji’s climbing season begins at the beginning of July and ends in early September, giving you a chance to have a crack at this Japanese icon. Though the ascent is tough, you need no technical mountaineering experience and you will routinely find children and senior citizens tackling it without a hitch!

Above the clouds on top of Mount Fuji

Above the clouds on top of Mount Fuji

Scuba diving

Unbeknownst to most, Japan is home to some world-class scuba diving. Again, some of the best spots are to be found in the Okinawan archipelago, where the visibility is spectacular and divers have the opportunity to swim with manta rays, hammerhead sharks and sea turtles amongst beautiful coral reefs. One of the most impressive and perplexing dive sites of all is off the coast of Yonaguni, where strange underwater rock formations have given rise to the theory that these are the ruins of some ancient, hitherto unknown Atlantis. The jury’s still out, but the columns, stairs, passageways and plazas of this “underwater city” make an incredible dive nonetheless!

If you want to fit in a bit of diving but are not planning to visit Okinawa, we also recommend Yakushima, the Izu Peninsula (close to Tokyo), or the remote Ogasawara Islands.

Enjoying some scuba diving off Okinawa main island

Enjoying some scuba diving off Okinawa main island

Fireworks

For the Japanese, summer is a time for fireworks – and there are many fantastic displays up and down the length of the country. One of the most famous is the Sumida River Firework Display in Tokyo, which happens on the last Saturday of July. In August, Miyajima Island also has a great display, illuminating its famous torii gate – while Toya Onsen in Hokkaido holds a lakeshore firework display every single night throughout the season.

These are just a few examples – wherever you happen to travel in Japan, you’re sure to find a firework display happening near you.

(Photo: JNTO)

(Photo: JNTO)

Festivals

With about one billion festivals happening every month of every year, every day is festival day in Japan – but some of the biggest and best happen in summer. In the northern Tohoku region, the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri sees giant, light-up floats travel through the city of Aomori; Akita holds the Kanto Matsuri, during which performers balance giant poles festooned with paper lanterns on parts of their bodies; and Sendai celebrates the Tanabata Matsuri, where festivities include traditional decorations, dances and entertainments.

Further south, Kyoto’s famous Gion Matsuri continues for the entire month of July, including a massive parade and plenty of festivities, and Tokushima on Shikoku Island celebrates the Awa Odori Matsuri – the largest dance festival in Japan.

These really are just the tip of the iceberg – there’s also the countrywide Obon festival, Kyoto’s spectacular Daimonji fire festival, Yamagata’s Toro lantern festival… the list goes on and on.

Float at Nebuta Matsuri, Aomori

Float at Nebuta Matsuri, Aomori

Amazing vending machines

You might think that vending machines are no big deal, but I can assure you that when you visit Japan you will change your mind. These are not your average automated drink dispensers. Oh no.

Japan’s crazy vending machines are no less awesome in any other season – but in summer they are really worth their weight in gold. Japan has vending machines in spades – more per capita than any other country in the world ever – and they are packed full of all kinds of weird and wonderful drinks to keep you cool AND entertained in the heat. Whether you want beer, wine, iced coffee, jasmine tea, grape-flavoured fizzy jelly, sweetcorn soup or pancake-flavoured milkshake – Japanese vending machines can provide. And they also do hot drinks – not that you’d really want those in the summer.

Hello Kitty vending machines

Hello Kitty vending machines

Summer foods & insane ice creams

It would be absolute insanity to suggest that Japanese food isn’t delicious on every day of the year (it is. So. Delicious), but summer brings some excellent speciality dishes that most certainly merit a mention in this blog piece. My own personal favourite is zarusoba, which is essentially a dish of cold noodles served on a bamboo tray with a dipping sauce called tsuyu. You may think that this sounds less than palatable, but in fact it is incredibly delicious and exceedingly refreshing.

Japanese ice creams are also a real treat and come in all kinds of flavours. And I mean Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans kind of all kinds of flavours. My personal favourites include kurogoma (black sesame), beni-imo (Okinawan sweet potato) and matcha (green tea). My personal least favourite is wasabi, which should absolutely not be ice cream. Ever.

A delicious lunch of zarusoba that I ate in Karuizawa

A delicious lunch of zarusoba and tempura in Karuizawa

Music festivals

Another light that Japan likes to hide underneath its bush (along with its beaches, scuba diving, and beautiful mountain scenery), are its music festivals. Though barely known amongst music aficionados in Europe or the US, Fuji Rock (which takes place at Naeba resort on the last weekend of July) is world-class, attracting line-ups packed with international household names as well as Japanese acts that are little known outside of Japan. This year, the festival boasts the Foo Fighters and Muse as headliners – while previous events have hosted The Cure, Bjork, Radiohead, Elvis Costello, Arctic Monkeys, Oasis, Massive Attack and many more.

If you can’t make it to Fuji Rock, Summer Sonic is another excellent Japanese music festival, taking place simultaneously in Osaka and Chiba (near Tokyo) in early August.

Fuji Rock Festival

Fuji Rock Festival

Beer gardens and nomihodai

Last, but certainly not least, are beer gardens: Japan’s summer entertainment staple. As our Viv noted in a 2013 post, Sapporo is home to the king of beer gardens for a month in July, when the whole of Odori Koen Park is transformed into a giant beer garden – but beer gardens are a firm fixture of the summer scene across Japan. Often located on the tops of buildings, these beer gardens often operate the delightful Japanese tradition of nomihodai: “all-you-can-drink” (for a set price).

Drunkenness and high buildings? I can’t think of any better reason to head to Japan than that.

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”!

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