Rediscovering Nikko (Part 1 of 2)

Kegon Falls in Nikko National Park

Kegon Falls in Nikko National Park

For me, there is almost nothing better than going to a part of Japan that I have never been to before and seeing yet another facet of this wonderful country. But I am always amazed at how much there is to be discovered even in destinations that I have been to multiples times before. As the title might imply, the place in question this time is Nikko. Less than two hours from Tokyo, the main draw for most visitors are Nikko’s spectacular shrines and temples, rightly deserving of their World Heritage status. But there is far more here than what most visitors ever get to see. This is partly because the ease of making a day trip from Tokyo is often preferred over the more rewarding but slightly more difficult option of staying overnight and getting out into the countryside to see a completely different side of Japan. This multiple part blog post is about some of the places worth visiting in Nikko National Park.

Serving up freshly cooked fish with style at the Ryuo Gorge

Serving up freshly cooked fish with style at the Ryuo Gorge

The Ryuo Gorge is not only beautiful, it’s also one of the easiest places in Nikko National Park to access by train. From the hot spring resort of Kinugawa Onsen, a jumbling little train whisks you through dense forests to a quiet little station near the entrance of a walking path that takes in lush scenery and will have you wondering if the bright neon of Tokyo was just a dream. But as the picture above can attest to, it’s not just the escape from concrete that makes this a deserved stop on your itinerary. The colorful locals and delicious freshly caught river fish make this an all-around cultural experience. Throw in a couple cups of sake and a dip in the hot spring at the end of a long walk and you can have a quintessentially Japanese experience all in an afternoon.

Just a taste of the wonderful scenery that can be enjoyed along the Ryuo Gorge.

Just a taste of the wonderful scenery that can be enjoyed along the Ryuo Gorge.

Speaking of sake, if you’re thinking of visiting a sake brewery, you’d be smart to be picky about the one who visit for, alas, not all sake breweries are created equal. But fear not, for Nikko has a sake brewery of unparalleled greatness. Not only are the brews here about as tasty as you’ll find, the owner is as nice a man as you’ll meet anywhere and will be happy to show in to parts of his brewery that most sake makers wouldn’t dream of letting tourists see. Although, if it’s busy you may well be asked to lend a hand! ;)

Katayama-san showing me and a few other visitors around his brewery

Katayama-san showing me and a few other visitors around his brewery

Katayama Brewery is named after it’s owner and is located not far from Shimoimaichi Train Station (a short taxi ride or a slightly long walk away). Here you can not only do tours of the brewery but you can enjoy free tastings of the sake that will have you seeing the brew more like fine wine than the rocket fuel like stuff that is often served overseas. If you are feeling like splashing out, try the specially made version of his best and most popular sake that has platinum and gold flakes in it. Though if you set off the metal detector at the airport upon your departure don’t blame me!

Slip into a yukata and enjoy some 'omotenashi' at one of Kinugawa's Hot Spring Resorts

Slip into a yukata and enjoy some ‘omotenashi’ at one of Kinugawa’s Hot Spring Resorts

At the end of a day of walking and sake tasting, I can think of few better things to do than relaxing in a hot spring and tucking into some Japanese fine cuisine. Luckily, there is no shortage of places to do this in Nikko’s National Park. The Kinugawa Grand Hotel (picture above and below) is just such a place. For a fraction of what a similar type of place would cost in Tokyo, you can be spoiled to your heart’s content. Though you aren’t likely to encounter many English speakers here, you can be sure that you will be welcomed with open arms and a deep bow upon your arrival. Enjoy some of Nikko’s craft beer and a big plate of sashimi and take in the beautiful surroundings in your Japanese style room.

Just one among many hot springs at the Kinugawa Grand Hotel in Nikko National Park.

Just one among many hot springs at the Kinugawa Grand Hotel in Nikko National Park.

 

Alternative Tokyo – An afternoon in Shimokitazawa

“What’s your favourite area of Tokyo? – Shibuya, Shinjuku, Harajuku?”
These are places you have probably heard of.
When I am showing around friends and tourists Tokyo’s nightlife, one of my favorite places to show them has long been the area around Shimokitazawa station, a young and trendy neighborhood so full of cheap bars and restaurants that finding the best places takes either a lot of experience or a lot of luck! But while Shimokita shines its brightest after the sun goes down, a visit during the daytime reveals a completely different – but equally inviting – side. The pedestrian friendly streets are lined with used clothing shops, old record stores, video game halls, restaurants, cafes, theaters, galleries, markets and more beauty parlors and barber shops than you can shake a stick at. Best of all, unlike the hard work that goes into hunting down a good bar or restaurant at night, Shimokita during the day is great for anybody willing to stroll and unafraid of getting lost. All you need to do is take the train from either Shibuya or Shinjuku station to Shimokitazawa and start walking.

 

 

Upon exiting the station you’ll notice that there is no main boulevard, instead a web of tiny avenues spreads out in all direction, each one begging you to explore its various shops and alleyways. As with all cities in Japan, discovering hidden gems here will require you to think in three dimensions as there are just as many great places tucked into the basements of buildings or up two flights of stairs as there are on the ground floor. So don’t forget to look up and down. Of course, while my preferred method of touring Shimokitaza is simply getting lost in the energetic atmosphere and wandering around until you’ve had enough, there are definitely shops and cafes worth searching for. My personal favorite example would be the little hole-in-the-wall cafe run by the “world’s best barista”, check out their website by clicking here. Wherever you go and whatever your method of exploration, I promise it won’t be long before your visit to these windy back streets turns up some hidden gems that even the locals didn’t know about. Just remember, “Tokyo is yours!”.

 

Some thoughtful graffiti in Shimokitazawa

Some thoughtful graffiti in Shimokitazawa

5 reasons Japan is the most convenient country

In Japan, possibly the most orderly country in the world, convenience is king. Here’s why…

1) Everything runs on time
Unlike certain other countries (mentioning no names… *cough*… England) you can actually rely on train and bus timetables in Japan. It’s possible to plan quite a full-on day of sightseeing and know that you should always be able to make your connection and catch the next bus or train. Of course, delays do happen occasionally, but every precaution is taken to ensure there is the least possible disruption to your journey.

Shinkansen

Trains on time for your convenience

2) No luggage worries
Japan has an incredible luggage forwarding service called ‘takuhaibin’ (most commonly referred to as ‘Takkyubin’, which is actually Yamato Transport’s version of the service). The service can be used to send just about anything from any part of the country to another over night. If you’re travelling to a rural part of the country or only stopping somewhere for one night, you don’t want to be carrying large cases, and ‘takuhaibin’ is the answer! Simply pack an overnight bag and forward your large suitcase on to another destination. As well as this overnight service, a few places in Japan offer a same day short distance forwarding service. Hakone’s ‘carry service’ is a great example of this: for around 700 yen you can send a bag from Hakone Yumoto Station to your hotel or vice versa, allowing you to get rid of your overnight bag whilst sightseeing. Of course, most stations have plenty of coin lockers too, and for a few hundred yen you can leave you bags securely for a few hours – just don’t forget where you left everything! In addition, if you do pack an overnight bag and forward your main luggage, you won’t need to take much with you – most hotels offer basic amenities such as a toothbrush and toothpaste, shower gel and shampoo, and there’s usually a yukata to wear in bed too, so you don’t even need your PJs!

Hakone Yumoto Station's 'Carry Service' office

Hakone Yumoto Station’s ‘Carry Service’ office

3) Easy eating
Even if you can’t read or speak Japanese, it’s not too difficult to order food in a restaurant. Most restaurants either have colourful menus full of pictures of the dishes on offer, or they have plastic replica food in the window, so you can always just see what looks good and point. A lot of restaurants and cafes, especially in major tourist areas, also offer English menus, although the staff won’t necessarily speak English.

Plastic food in a restaurant window in Tokyo

Plastic food in a restaurant window in Tokyo

4) Convenience stores really are convenient
Convenience stores in Japan sell just about everything you could need, including food that actually tastes good, and many are open 24 hours. As well as food and drinks, both hot and cold, convenience stores tend to sell basic overnight essentials and things to help out in any minor emergence (Ladder in your tights? Forgot to bring clean undies? Run out of hairspray? No worries!). If that’s not enough, there’s usually a drinks vending machine on every corner too, and even some vending machines selling food such as instant noodles!

7-Eleven: One of Japan's many convenient convenience stores

7-Eleven: One of Japan’s many convenient convenience stores

5) Public conveniences
Toilets are usually free to use, clean and they’re everywhere! Most stations will have perfectly usable toilets, usually with paper (although you sometimes need to use your own tissues, but tissues are often given out on the street for free with advertising pamphlets). Sometimes you might need to face a Japanese-style squat toilet, but that’s a small price to pay really for free loos!

 

 

I actually could go on – Japan is a pleasure to travel around, with reliable services, polite staff, and generally helpful and friendly people wherever you go! Wherever you’re from, when you return home you’ll be sure to miss the convenience of Japan!

An Introduction to Birding in Japan

Covering a total of 377,708 sq kms, Japan is three times larger than England. Located between 24° to 46° north latitude and from 123° to 146° east longitude, the island chain covers a wide climatic range: from the boreal climate zone in the north to the sub-tropical zone in the south. It also spans two ecological lines; the Blakiston’s Line (between Hokkaido and Honshu) and the Watase ‘s Line in the south.

Because of these rather unique geographical and ecological backgrounds, Japan’s avifauna is extremely diverse and interesting. 

Tsuru

More than 600 species have been recorded to date with around 60 being endemic or sub-regional endemic. The actual number of endemic species ranges from 12-23, depending on the source. These include the Copper Pheasant, Japanese Woodpecker, Japanese Scops Owl, Okinawa Rail, Amami Woodcock, Ryukyu Serpeant Eagle, Lidith’s Jay, Bonin Honeyeater and Japanese Skylark. However, most of Japan’s birds are migratory, with more than 60 percent being seasonal visitors.

When and where to go:

Hokkaido

Despite still being covered in snow and temperatures sometimes dropping below -15 degrees centigrade, Hokkaido in February is a birder’s paradise, with the chance to view up close the iconic Red-crowned cranes and the magnificent Steller’s Sea Eagles. If you look in the right places you might also see the Blakiston’s Fish Owl, White-tailed Eagles, the Ural Owl, Harlequin Ducks and Slaty-backed Gulls.

Honshu-Hokkaido Ferry

The rich waters of the north Pacific are a seabird fanatic’s paradise. On a good day on the ferry between these two islands you can see an exciting selection of seabirds including three species of albatross, rare species of storm petrels, aucs, Ancient Murrelet, Pacific Loon, Band-rumped Swinhoe’s and Streaked Shearwater. Check on what species are present at specific times of the year before you come.

White Tailed on drift ice

Hakata Bay

Hakata Bay, near the city of Fukuoka at the north of Kyushu, is another seabird fanatic’s winter paradise. It’s possible to see 100 species in a day as the bay supports an incredible 70,000 wintering birds. Look out for Baikel Teal, Black-faced Spoonbills and Pacific Loon. Summer in Hakata Bay is a great time to see a wide range of shorebirds including Little Curlew, Asian Dowitcher and Nordmann’s Greenshank.

Arasaki

With over 10,000 birds present between December and February, the paddy fields of Arasaki are home to one the most impressive gatherings of cranes in the world.  The area in the Kagoshima prefecture, southern Kyushu, hosts around 8,000 Hooded and 2000 White-naped cranes, as well as a number of other wintering and other seasonal and non-seasonal birds. These include the Ural Owl, Crested Kingfisher, grosbeaks, Japanese Skylark, Copper Pheasant and many, many more!

Bird spotting in Japan

Tokyo area

Even in and around this world famous metropolis, it’s possible to see a wide range of birds. The Lotus Pond (Shinobazunoike) at Ueno Park is home or occasional home to many birds including Northern Pintail, Common Pochard, Asian Spot-billed Ducks, Ring-necked Duck, American Wigeon and Lesser Scaup.

Tokyo Port Wild Bird Park near Haneda Airport has a number of hides and is well worth a visit. The area hosts a large number waterfowl and waders including Long-billed Dowitcher and Pied Avocet.

Japan is a birders paradise. Happy Twitching!

Richard Pearce and the members of this year’s Winter Highlights tour recorded a number of beautiful and exciting birds. These included Red-crowned Crane, Steller’s Sea Eagle, White-tailed Eagle, Ural Owl (Hokkaido sub-species), Harlequin Duck and Slaty-backed Gull.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

2013 to 2014: Three Things that have changed since I was last in Japan

Amy, from Inside Japan’s US office has been travelling back in Japan, visiting colleagues and seeing new places. Japan is one of those countries where traditions are strong and don’t change at all for years and years, but at the same time, things change so quickly. Amy reflects upon just three changes in Japan since her last trip in 2013. 

Smartphones

I have to admit that I called this one wrong when I told people that smartphones hadn’t quite caught on yet in Japan. They are EVERYWHERE, or at least everywhere I happen to look. There are still a few holdouts, of course, or people who prefer the flip-style cell phones (older folks, elementary school children, etc.), but it seems that if you want to be cool and hip now, you’ve got to have a smartphone. And it certainly is more entertaining when riding the train to watch your neighbor play the Japanese version of Candy Crush than it is to wonder if you were supposed to get off at the last station.

Softbank iPhone on Display by Women in Traditional Japanese Clothing

IC Card Credit Meters

Granted, I’ve only seen this device once at a “konbini” near JR Kamakura Station, but what a GREAT idea, as in why hasn’t someone thought of this sooner! Most of our customers are given IC cards as part of their package as they are convenient when travelling on local train in Tokyo for example. You can also use the cards to buy food and drinks at some vending machines.  However!!! Don’t have any cash on hand but also can’t remember if you have enough credit on your IC card to pay for your onigiri? Just hold your IC card to the back of the meter, push the black pad, and bam! Instant credit check. If this doesn’t become standard in every konbini in a few years, I’ll be shocked, simply shocked.

Technology in Japan

On-Call JR Operators

I went to JR Kyoto Station to reserve a seat on the Shinkansen using my JR Passand was resigned to waiting in the long, long line when a station attendant asked me why don’t I use the automated ticket machines instead. I explained that I had a JR Pass and had to use the ticket office only to be told that that wouldn’t be an issue since they had an on-call operator. “An operator?” I thought. “What could that possibly mean?” So I followed the attendant and was surprised to see that several ticket machines did indeed have an intercom/phone system where you could place your JR Pass under the camera, request a train reservation, and the operator would take care of it for you. This service is very new—from February, actually—and currently only in Japanese, but according to the station attendant they may offer it in English if there is enough demand. So everyone with a JR Pass, use this machine!

Japan Technology

Enjoying Tokyo for Free

Tokyo’s reputation as an expensive place to visit is slowly changing. The word is out that the hedonistic days and astronomical prices of Tokyo’s “bubble period” are a thing of the past. In their place is a city that is more interesting, more diverse and more inviting then ever. After the bubble burst, prices of things fell and standards of living have gone on steadily rising.

Tokyo17

These days, Tokyoites are more interested in their free time than they are in lifetime employment. And it’s hard to blame them when they have both sandy beaches and scenic mountains at their doorstep. Not too mention the fact that residents and visitors alike enjoy access to some of the world’s best cafes, shopping, museums, architecture and cuisine anywhere in the world. Indeed, even on a small budget, Tokyo’s delicious street food gourmet, extensive public transportation and endless shopping can feel like a bargain. But those in the know might be tempted to ask, why spend money at all when so much can be had for free? Here are some of my favorite free things to do in Tokyo (with plenty more to come in the future!).

photo01
Tokyo has fantastic museums of nearly every kind. From modern art and photography to emerging science and national treasures, there is truly something for everyone. Unfortunately, while free museums have become the norm in many of the world’s major cities, many of the Tokyo’s best museums still charge for the privilege of admission. However, if you’re willing to visit slightly lesser known museums, you will have a plethora to choose from. Places like the Tokyo Water Science Museum and the Japanese Stationary Museum are sure to show you something that few travelers to Japan’s capital ever see.  Or, you could check out the Japan Police Museum.

4_2

Even though it’s short on English explanation, exploring these hallowed halls makes for a fascinating hour of browsing. As you go through the building floor by floor you glimpse of what crime fighting in Japan is all about. Computer games, a driving simulator and plenty of cool vehicles make this a great place to visit with kids. The museum is just a two minute walk from Exit 7 of Ginza-Itchome Station and equally near from Exit 1 of Kyobashi Station.

Alternatively, if the Police museum is a bit too mainstream for your tastes, how about checking out a museum dedicated entirely to parasites! The Parasitological museum near Meguro Station is the world’s only parasite museum, somewhat unsurprisingly if you ask me. Nevertheless, it’s more interesting than it probably sounds and the gift shop is fantastic!

Tshirts

The Mitsubishi Ichigokan is only a two or three minute walk from Tokyo station and the perfect place to escape from the hustle and bustle of nearby Ginza and Marunouchi. A faithful reconstruction of one of the first Western style buildings in Tokyo, the Ichigokan Museum has a beautiful courtyard with popular and well-known restaurants and ever changing exhibitions of art, usually from overseas. But instead of paying for the temporary exhibits, you can head in to the ‘archive room‘ to learn a bit about the history of Japan’s Marunouchi district – an area whose importance dates back to when this city housed the powerful Shogunate and was still known as Edo. Models, videos, and state of the art touch screen tours await.

thumb

Of all the free activities in Tokyo, it’d be hard to beat an afternoon taking in some of the cities eclectic but always talented street performers. From the rockabilly dancers of Yoyogi to the popular Ani Zo, there’s always a free show to be had. Many of these relatively unknown groups have small cult followings that come to see their favorite performers on a regular basis and sing along with every chorus – my personal favorite is a rock and roll shamisen player! The best places to catch live performances tends to be in Shinjuku and Harajuku. In Shinjuku, wait until after the sun has gone down and then have a wonder around the station’s West Exit. In Harajuku, you’re better off waiting until the weekend to catch the many performers that gather in Yoyogi Park, adjacent to Harajuku Station. Midday on Saturday tends to be the best.

If it’s works of art that you’re after, Tokyo has plenty to choose from. While museums like the Mori are well worth a visit, if you want to check out work by lesser know artists, have a look at some of the city’s many galleries. Both plentiful and well-curated, Tokyo’s galleries have plenty to impress even the most demanding connoisseurs. The following are just a few to get you started but rest assured, the list of world class galleries in Tokyo is a long one.

miyajima_tatsuo_01-thumb-728xauto-306

SCAI The Bathhouse is everything that you could want from a contemporary art gallery – the work of some of Japan’s most intriguing up-and-coming artists exhibited in a traditional Japanese bath house. The Fuji Film Square Photo Salon stands as a reminder that photography remains an art form that goes far beyond the point and shoot world that most of us live in. In the heart of Ginza lies what is often referred to as Japan’s oldest gallery, at the Shiseid0 gallery, a wide range of art goes on display for any who care to visit. At AKAAKA, a more avante garde selection of artists is on display; my personal favorite raises money for the victims of 2011s tsunami – see the video below to learn more about Munemasa Takahashi’s ‘Lost & Found Project’.

 

And finally… I saved the best for last. On you next visit to Tokyo, how about stopping by the Yebisu Beer Museum? While there is little doubt that the so-called tasting salon tends to be peoples’ favorite, the history of the beer is fascinating. Not only does it give a glimpse into Japan’s uneasy fascination with the West, it gives a very good sense of how beer came to flourish in what was once a sake drinkers dominion. Don’t miss it!

img02

5 things you didn’t know about Japan

I recently put this together for a good travel agent of ours, but thought I would share it on our very own blog…

IshigakiFact 1 – Japan is made up of over 6000 islands

There are four main islands, but the country is actually made up of 6852 islands (big and small). The main island of Honshu is home to the Tokyo Metropolis and the cultural capital of Kyoto. The ‘wild frontier’ of Hokkaido sits in the far north, with rural Shikoku and historical Kyushu in the south.
Mt Fuji
Fact 2 – Japan is 70% mountainous

Japan is certainly not just big cities. Most people envisage big neon lit cities such as Tokyo, but approximately 70% of the country is covered in lush green mountains. A tenth of the worlds active volcanoes are also in Japan. Perhaps the most famous of these is the 3776 metre Mt Fuji.

Niseko Skiing
Fact 3 – Japan has tropical beaches and great skiing

Japan is a country of contrasts which can be seen everywhere in its architecture and culture. It also has a contrasting landscapes and environments. Okinawa in the far south (approximately 1000 miles from Tokyo) consists of a string of tropical islands with white sand beaches, jungle islands and some of the best diving in the world, Meanwhile the far northern island of Hokkaido has some of the best skiing in the world with almost guaranteed buckets of powder snow everyday during the winter months.

Tokyo Sushi

Fact 4 – Japan has the most Michelin starred restaurants in the world

You think of Japan and you probably think of sushi, but it is not all about the raw fish here. There will be dishes that you will have not seen anywhere else in the world adding to the cultural adventure, but there will be a lot of things you do recognise too, suitable for every palette. Tokyo also has the most three star rated restaurants in the world and more Michelin stars than Paris. Japan is a foodie paradise.

…and last but defintely not least….

Taxi

Fact 5 – Japan is not expensive

Japan is not expensive. It was expensive in the 1980’s during the economic boom, but is now generally cheaper than the UK. In the last year, the yen has dropped considerably in value against the pound/dollar and Japan is now about 30% cheaper than it was back at the beginning of 2013.  You can buy a three course lunch for approximately £6, buy a plate of sushi from about 60pence or have an eat and drink as much as you like session at a Izakaya (traditional Japanese pub) for approximately £15. And, one of the best things about Japan is that you get some of the best service in the world, but there is no tipping! – it is almost offensive to do so. Japan is not only cheaper than it was, it is great value meaning more bang for your Yen.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 228 other followers