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.

 

Cycling Japan just got even better

With the 101st Tour de France battling through the French Alps and after the success of the recent British leg in Yorkshire, cycling is seemingly rising in popularity amongst men and women in the UK. Japan is another place that cycling is growing in popularity and it just got even better.

Cycling Japan

Cycling in Chubu

For the visitor, a cycling tour of Tokyo or Kyoto for example is a great way to sight-see and gather a different perspective. A bike ride through temples, shrines and paddy fields in the Chubu region or by the sea on the Noto Peninsula always gives the sense of being somewhere very different.

For the more hardcore there are cycle routes through the mountains of Shikoku Island, but the crème-de-la-crème of cycling is arguably the Shimanami Kado.

Shimanamikaido

Shimanami Bridges

The Shimanami Kaido is a 60km ride across six islands of the Seto Inland Sea from a small temple town called Onomichi on the mainland Honshu coast to Imabari on the rural island of Shikoku. The islands are connected by bridges and is geared up especially for cyclists.

A new hotel called ‘U2’ has just opened in the small town of Onomichi. The hotel is unique and especially aimed at cyclists. This is probably one of the only hotels in the world where cyclists are able to check in whilst on their bike, they can eat at the café whilst on their bike and sleep soundly in the knowledge that their beloved bike will not get stolen as it is parked on a rack on the bedroom wall.

U2 room and rack

There is of course bike repair services at the hotel and a bike shop enabling you to upgrade if you wish. This hotel is stylish and the perfect place for one (wo)man and her/his bike and a great place to start or finish your cycle across the beautiful Shimanami Kaido cycle route.

Shimanami Kaido

Shimanami Kaido

If you can’t wait until the Tour of Japan (May 2015) we can help you discover Japan by bike….

J-pop and Go!

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

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

J-Pop and Going on a HYPERJAPAN Tour

Way of the Samurai(photos by Ken Francisco)

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

Men at work

KaraokeHiroshima Bay

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

MarioKiyomizu, Kyoto

Manga and Maids

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

Tour leader, Tyler

 

Romantic Dear

Life size anime

Miyajima Tori

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

Osaka Castle

okonomiyakiCup noodles

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

Fuji from Hakone

Sushiiii

Tsukiji fish market

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

Serious tour leader time

Karaoke tour leader time

Lets sing!

Bullet Train Bento

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

Deadly ladies

Samurai

I lost

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

Capsule Hotel

 

Zen moments in Kyoto

Crazy Robot Restaurant, Toyko

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

More HYPERJAPAN J-Pop & Go! to come….

 

 

My Favourite Places in Japan

As my time in Japan nears its end I thought I’d share with you some of my favourite places I’ve visited over the past eight months. Ranging from Okinawa in the far south to the peaks of Nagano, I think these places really demonstrate the diversity that Japan has to offer, and explain what keeps people coming back year upon year.

Once you’ve seen my favourite places so far, take a look at my wish list of the amazing places I have yet to visit in Japan. They’ll have to wait until next time for me – but hopefully they’ll inspire you to work some of them into your own plans!

My Top 5 Favourite places in Japan:

1. Okunion cemetery, Koya-san (Wakayama Prefecture)

No photo can do justice to the atmosphere of this vast and amazing place, tucked away in the mountains near Osaka. Despite it being recognised as a world heritage site, as I wandered around Okunoin I often felt as though I was the only person there – a very rare and wonderful occasion when travelling in Japan! If you can, visit early in the morning when the mists are still swirling.

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3. Kabira Bay, Ishigaki Island (Okinawa Prefecture)

Pack your snorkel, hop on the next 3-hour flight from Tokyo and check into the wonderful Iriwa guesthouse – a little bit of paradise in Japan’s southernmost prefecture. It may be budget-friendly, but the couple who run this beautiful, beachside guesthouse have thought of everything to make your stay in Ishigaki as relaxing as possible, and there can be no better backdrop to a holiday than the stunning views to be found just down the road at Kabira Bay. You’ll never want to leave.

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4. Hakuba Ski Resort (Nagano Prefecture)

As a keen skier perhaps I’m biased – but for me, three days in Hakuba was the perfect start to the New Year. Brilliant powder snow followed by a soak in an onsen – what’s not to love? And if (for some reason) you were to get bored of skiing, you can just hop on a bus and go to visit the snow monkeys at Yudanaka Onsen.

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4. Bizan District, Kurashiki (Okayama Prefecture)

I visited Kurashiki just a couple of weeks ago on a research trip for InsideJapan Tours and was enchanted by its mixture of Western and Eastern architecture, its beautiful canals, and its wonderful museums. Every visitor must be sure not to miss the Ohara Museum, the Rural Toy Museum and (for the young at heart) the Momotaro Museum – and if you get the chance, spend the night at the unparalleled Ryokan Kurashiki!

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5. The Dream Hole, Onna-son, Okinawa Island (Okinawa Prefecture)

On one of my last days in Okinawa, I was lucky enough to have the chance to dive at this 25-metre underwater tunnel, where a living curtain of fish swirls in the entrance and parts to let you pass as you swim through the entrance. On the same dive I even got the chance to swim with sea turtles – a pretty amazing experience!

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My Wish List Top Five:

1. Yakushima Island (Kagoshima Prefecture)

My biggest regret as I reach the end of my time in Japan is that I never managed to make it to Yakushima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture. As a big Miyazaki fan I can’t help but wish that I could visit the place that inspired “Princess Mononoke,” where you can hike amongst Japanese cedar trees several thousand years old and even camp on beaches where baby Loggerhead turtles hatch and make their way to the see. Next time.

yakushima_forest

 

Jomon Sugi: perhaps the oldest tree in the world

Jomon Sugi: perhaps the oldest tree in the world

2. Hokkaido

Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, rarely makes it onto the itineraries of first-time travellers to Japan (unless they’re going skiing in Niseko!). But everybody I know who has visited Hokkaido has been enchanted by its wonderful countryside, making me sad that I haven’t had time to visit it before I leave. I’ve promised myself that one day I’ll make it to the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri (snow festival) to see some of the amazing sculptures for myself.

hokkaido

sapporo_snow_festival

3. Takeda Castle (Hyogo Prefecture)

Takeda Castle is known as “the castle above the clouds” – for reasons that should be obvious when you see the amazing photos of it perched on top of a mountain, wreathed in mist. Yet another amazing place to add to my wish list.

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4. Yonaguni Ruins(?), Yonaguni Island (Okinawa Prefecture)

Located under the sea off the coast of what is perhaps Japan’s remotest island are – well, nobody really knows what they are. Are they naturally occurring rock formations, the ruins of some unknown civilisation, or the works of aliens? (Hint: it was probably aliens). The underwater structures appear strikingly regular, leading many people to believe that they are man-made. If they are, then they indicate a hitherto completely unknown civilisation that could have existed twice as long ago as the ancient Egyptians. Now that would be pretty cool.

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5. Dogo Onsen, Matsuyama (Ehime Prefecture)

Another location inspired by my love for Miyazaki films, Dogo Onsen is the oldest bath house in Japan and is rumoured to have been the inspiration for the bath house in “Spirited Away” – one of the films that first inspired my love of Japan. And not only do I love Spirited Away, but I am also a huge fan of onsens – so Dogo Onsen was always naturally going to make it onto my wish list.

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And finally, somewhere I wish I’d visited before it became a tourist destination…

Gunkanjima (Nagasaki Prefecture)

Gunkanjima, or “battleship island,” was once the most densely populated area in the world when it thrived as a coal-mining facility. Now it is an amazingly creepy, abandoned wasteland – empty except for Javier Bardem, who kicks about thinking evil thoughts and plotting the demise of his enemies. Not really.

james bond - skyfall - javier bardem - silva

There was a time when you could make your way out to Gunkanjima alone and explore it for yourself (albeit not exactly legally), but now it’s more strictly controlled and you can only visit with a guided tour that keeps you on the straight and narrow – away from falling masonry and the like. I suppose that’s sensible really, but it does ruin the fun just a little bit.

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Adventures in Kansai

As you may know, I have been working in the IJT Nagoya office for the past few months as an intern. Although part of my job has consisted of support for the Japan team (not making the coffee, thankfully), most of my time has been spent working to improve the IJT Destination Guides. This has involved researching all of the major (and many of the not-so-major) tourist destinations in the country, Google mapping literally thousands of attractions and restaurants, checking reviews, updating prices and contact details, reading hundreds of blogs and travel websites and so on and so forth. All this has given me a knowledge of Japan roughly equivalent to having swallowed a Lonely Planet travel guide – although I won’t lie, I think some of the pages might have got a bit mixed up on the way down.

With only three weeks left in Japan, however, it was time to put away Google maps and do some research “in the field,” starting with an action-packed three days exploring Nara, Yoshino and Hikone – some of the best travel that Kansai has to offer…beyond Kyoto…and Osaka…and Mt Koya…the region has a lot to offer.

On the way to Nara I stopped in at Uji, which is about 20 minutes on the train from Kyoto and 40 minutes from Nara, so makes a good stopping point between the two. Uji is primarily known for Byodoin Temple. Even if you haven’t heard of it the chances are you’ve seen its likeness hundreds of times before since it’s on the back of the 10 yen coin. Since the temple has recently undergone renovation I decided to call in here to check it out, and I must say it was looking rather photogenic in the sunlight.

Byodoin Temple

Byodoin Temple

Unfortunately, even though it wasn’t even 10am yet there was over an hour’s wait to be able to go inside the temple’s “Phoenix Hall.” This hall is a veritable monument to longevity – still standing after almost 1,000 years! Sadly I didn’t have the time to wait around so I didn’t get to see it this time. Nonetheless, Uji is a lovely town and well worth the visit to have a wander down the banks of the river and down some of the quieter side streets.

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After stopping at Uji I continued my journey to Nara, which is a wonderful city and well deserving of any tourist’s attention. I had visited in February for the Wakakusa Yamayaki fire festival, during which time I met some of Nara’s furry residents, saw the amazing great Buddha and explored Nara Park’s incredible temples and shrines.

One for the Japan-inspired selfie competition?

One for the Japan-inspired selfie competition?

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They say that if you can pass through the hole in this pillar in Todaiji Temple you'll become wiser. They say.

They say that if you can pass through the hole in this pillar in Todaiji Temple you’ll become wiser. They say.

This time, however, my mission was to check out Naramachi – the “old town” area of the city – and to improve our section on Nara’s cafes and restaurants. Not bad for a day’s work.

In Naramachi you can find the atmosphere of old Japan preserved without the crowds of the country’s more well-known tourist haunts. Edo buildings line the streets, packed with oddball museums full of trinkets and crafts and wonderful little cafes housed in old-fashioned, “machiya” houses. I visited on a Friday during peak tourist season (with fabulous weather into the bargain) and I saw barely a soul – although the town’s most popular spots are always buzzing.

I highly recommend the 1,300yen lunch set with a drink, served at "Kanakana"

I highly recommend the 1,300yen lunch set with a drink served at Kanakana, one of Naramachi’s trendiest lunch spots

My hosts at the Guesthouse Naramachi (a hostel-cum-guesthouse in an old machiya with a wonderful atmosphere) were a lovely couple full of excellent recommendations and advice for the area. They disagreed on which local “sento” (public bathhouse) was the best, so of course I had to try them both. For the record, my favourite was Asahi Sento as it had the best selection of baths of different temperatures. The other was too scalding hot for my delicate foreign constitution!

My room at the Guesthouse Naramachi

My room at the Guesthouse Naramachi

On Saturday I made the two-hour journey into the mountains to Yoshino, which is claimed by many to be Japan’s best spot for cherry blossom viewing. By the end of the day I certainly felt that I had seen enough cherry blossom to last a lifetime!

View from the Hanayagura Viewpoint

View from the Hanayagura Viewpoint

Of course, it was busy. I arrived before most of the crowds and still considered it busy – little did I know that by lunchtime there would be at least ten times as many people! Nevertheless the lovely spring weather, scores of food stalls and general festival-like atmosphere mean that it is well worth the trip despite the crowds. A friendly Japanese couple even bought me a cup of sake for no other reason than to be nice!

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It is possible to catch a cablecar up the first section of the mountain or to take the bus to the top and walk down, but not wanting to queue for either (and emboldened by my cup of sake, perhaps) I decided to walk both ways. The way up takes about 3 to 4 hours at a leisurely pace, but isn’t too taxing and can be tackled by people of all ages. Along the way are several interesting temples, lots of nice restaurants and cafes, and abundant photo opportunities!

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Yoshino is a great place to include in your itinerary if you’ve just missed the cherry blossom season in Kyoto, since because of the altitude full bloom occurs here a couple of weeks later than in surrounding areas. Just make sure that you book a reserved seat on the Kintetsu express back to civilisation – I can tell you that the last thing you’ll want to be doing at the end of the day is standing on a crowded train for two hours!

The final stop on my research trip was Hikone, a castle town in Shiga Prefecture located conveniently on the shinkansen line between Tokyo and Osaka. Hikone is famous for two things: Hikone Castle, one of only four castles designated a national treasure, and Hikonyan, the town mascot.

I was surprised to find that the cherry blossom was still out in Hikone too, meaning that the castle was attractively wreathed in pink and white. Photogenic though that may be, this did also mean that it was heaving with visitors and there was a very long wait to get inside the castle donjon.

Hikone Castle

Hikone Castle

Nonetheless, Hikone is a very picturesque town and the castle site is a lovely place to wander around – a good alternative to visiting Himeji Castle, which is currently undergoing major renovations. The recently revitalised “Old New Town” area is also lovely, and visitors can wander amongst nicely fitted-out boutiques and cafes along the Edo-style Castle Road.

Hikone Castle Moat

Hikone Castle Moat

The undisputed hero of Hikone, however, is “Hikonyan,” a charismatic cartoon cat who has stolen the hearts of the Japanese public. You’ve heard about Japanese mascot mania from IJT before – well, Hikonyan is the embodiment of that mania. Hikonyan is so outrageously popular in Japan that it’s estimated that he single-handedly increased tourism to Hikone by about 200,000 people per year, and that his overall economic effect on the area so far is thought to have been upwards of 3 billion yen (about 30 million USD). Hikonyan merchandise sales alone are supposedly worth 1.7 billion yen. Now that is impressive.

"Hiko" comes from "Hikone" and "nyan" is the sound Japanese cats make

“Hiko” comes from “Hikone” and “nyan” is the sound Japanese cats make.

In my next post I’ll be exploring Okayama in south-western Honshu – where I encountered a man who has a very unique kind of edible musical instrument. Stay tuned!

Japan Goodies Competition

This is our busiest season. Everyone wants to get out to see the magnificent cherry blossom, which is of course understandable. In fact we have over 1200 people travelling with InsideJapan and our sisters at InsideVietnam through March and April, with 137 people flying off to Tokyo this weekend alone!

Anyway, with all this Japan fever going on, we thought we would run a little competition in order to win a few Japanese goodies. We have four prize lots fresh from Japan.

Japanese sweets
With their cute little packaging, we are offering chocolate baby bamboo, chocolate koalas, green tea chocolate and more.

Japanese Sweets

Japanese Sweets

Japanese character goods
Here we have a small selection including Hello Kitty sweets and towel ,Pikachu keyring and a Doraemon mobile phone strap.

Japanese Character goods

Japanese Character goods

Japanese savoury snacks
A few packs of prawn flavoured crisps and dried fish…mmm…

Japanese savoury snacks

Japanese savoury snacks

Japanese odd
These are a bit random. We have eyelid-makers (?), teeth-whitening set (more like tipex) and a nice fan (actually quite nice).

Japanese odd

Japanese odd

We are asking you for your ‘selfies’ from Japan or if you are not heading to Japan any time soon, your Japan inspired ‘selfie’ ie. Wearing a yukatta, eating sushi etc.

Spin the chopsticks

Spin the chopsticks

Please send us your “selfies” via Facebook or Twitter, mention us and we will pick the best four selfies. We will then spin the chopsticks to reveal your prize.

Geisha selfie

Geisha selfie

What you need to do:

Take a selfie (picture of you taken by yourself) in Japan or inspired by Japan.

Post it on our Facebook page OR Tweet the picture mentioning @insidejapan #Japanselfie

Deadline: April 11th 2014

More prizes to give away soon!

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