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!

5 Reasons to Visit Kamakura

Amy, from Inside Japan’s US office is traveling around Japan! She’s currently in Kamakura, and should you need a reason to visit, she has plenty!

Kamakura

The small seaside town, temple town of Kamakura is just a one hour trip from the Tokyo Metropolis and an excellent day trip or place to stay, brimming with history and culture. Here are 5 good reasons to visit Kamakura.

Kamakura, Japan

1) Temples and Shrines
To see one of the best examples Shinto shrines in Japan at Tsurugaoka Hachiman-jingu, which is also a birder’s destination with all the hawks, herons, and possibly “sacred” white pigeons purifying themselves.

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2) Big Buddha
To see the bronze “Daibutsu” at Kotokuin Temple—anything that has survived earthquakes and tsunami and is still standing watch serenely unlike the temple house that once housed it is worth seeing in my book!

Kamakura, Japan

3) Cool cafes
There are some nice cafes in Kamakura and you can even get your coffee from the back of a van in a driveway! Because you can’t do that just anywhere and actually get good coffee.

Kamakura, Japan

4) Cats
To see many cat-themed products, art pieces, and actual cats sleeping on the merchandise who could care less if you wanted to buy it or not.

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5) The beach
Kamakura has some very nice beaches and some of the best surf in Japan. If you visit the town, you can say that you went and stood in the Pacific Ocean…and didn’t get hypothermia even though the water was as cold as glacier run-off! It is March.

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.

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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!).

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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The Importance of Travel Insurance While Traveling in Japan

While travel insurance isn’t anything new, it’s still as essential to international travelers today as it was years ago. Specifically, travel insurance is designed to cover you abroad were you to get sick or become injured. Yes, many travelers already have healthcare plans, but each country’s healthcare system works differently, so there’s no guarantee that the insurance plan that covers you in the U.S. will cover you in Japan. Travel insurance, on the other hand, has you covered, both in terms of major medical situations, emergency evacuations and minor medical cases that need treatment.

Medical coverage is just one reason behind the importance of travel insurance, but there are other areas of coverage as well. Here’s a look:

Trip cancellation:

Aside from coverage for medical situations, trip cancellation travel insurance is the most popular type of policy. Specifically, it protects policyholders in the event that they need to cut a trip short, for whatever the reason. When you’re traveling in Japan – let alone anywhere abroad – things can change quickly, whether it’s the weather, your medical condition, your business schedule, etc. Trip insurance makes sure that you’re not on the hook financially for changes made to your plans.

Accidental death/flight accident:

Nobody ever thinks they’re going to die on a trip or – God forbid – be involved in a type of travel accident. But the accidental death/flight accident type of travel insurance is essentially a life insurance plan that pays a designated beneficiary benefits should you meet a tragic fate on your trip. It’s nothing that anyone likes to think about, but it’s an option for travelers who would rather be safe than sorry.

Travel insurance can typically be purchased on a per-trip or annual basis, although about 80 percent of all travel insurance is purchased on a per-trip basis. In terms of cost, travelers purchasing it on a per-trip basis can expect to pay somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 to 9 percent of their total trip cost on such insurance.

For more information on travel insurance and to book your Japanese adventure, contact Inside Japan Tours today or view more Japanese travel tips.

Exploring Japan’s Inland Sea: The Setouchi Art Triennale

During my trip in August, I took a few days out to visit the beautiful Island of Naoshima in the Seto Inland Sea. The island has become renowed in recent years for its art exhibitions – particularly the Art House Projects and Benesse House.

This year, Naoshima, along with a dozen islands in the Inland Sea area, has played host to the Setouchi Art Triennale where some 150 artworks have been on display over the three sessions in addition to the permanent exhibitions. I was lucky enough to visiting during the Summer session when the weather was wonderful. Aside from the art, I was charmed by the island’s laid back atmosphere and stunning scenery.

 

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Exploring the island is best done by bike – although the hills around Benesse House are a little tough (the views were well worth it!). With some lovely little cafes to lunch in, the island makes a fantastic day trip or a couple of nights stay.

One of the most famous (and well photographed) art works is the Yellow Pumpkin by the brilliant Yayoi Kasuma. Aside from this, Chichu Museum and Benesse House are home to works by some other huge names including Andy Warhol, Takao Ando and Claude Monet to name a few.

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The islands are worth a visit any season at any time of year, but the festival this year continues until November 4th. Of course, you will only have another 3 years to wait until the next festival.

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Tomonoura – The Real Japan

Tomonoura
“Have a nice…memory…in Japan”, said the smiling bus driver as I stepped off the bus from Fukuyama station, at the charming port town of Tomonoura. I had just spent a week working in Nagoya, so my overnight trip to the sea was something I had been looking forward to for a while.

Soaking up life
Tomonoura does not feature much in the major guidebooks to Japan, and part of me wants to keep it that way. Perhaps I should not tell you about the winding narrow lanes, lined with traditional wooden buildings.

The old streets

I should maybe keep quiet about the various viewpoints over the town from the surrounding hills, where you can watch the ships go to and fro.

Pretty port

And I should certainly not say anything about the fresh seafood and the friendly locals who welcome you as a rare foreign visitor.

Tomo in Tomonoura
I guess the cat is already out of the bag though, as Tomonoura features in the latest Wolverine movie, and is also considered the inspiration for the Miyazaki animated film, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea. So do stop by Tomonoura next time you are in Japan. But promise me one thing – don’t tell anyone!

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A day in Hakone

Having spent most of my time in Kyushu, I had yet to visit the Hakone and Mt Fuji National Park. On a recent visit to Japan, I finally had the chance properly explore the beautiful moujntains and hot springs of the region. Here are some photos of a lovely day travelling around on the scenic buses, trains and cable cars in the area, including the Open Air Sculpture Park, Owakudani with its active sulphur vents and Lake Ashi. Beautiful views even though Mt. Fuji was being shy!

The Hakone Open Air Sculpture Park is quite special.

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The steaming sulphur vents at Owakudani is perfect for boiling eggs…and the best place to eat eggs….that are black. 7 years good luck apprarently.

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Cables cars, bus and of course a pirate ship take you around the beautiful mountains and the crater lake Ashi.

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The best thing is that after a day in Hakone, I get to go back to my ryokan and sit in my own private hot spring bath (onsen)

Ryokan onsen
A day in Hakone is well recommended. Spending a night there in a ryokan enabling you to enjoy the hot springs and hospitality is the best way to experience Hakone.

Lucky 7 reasons to Visit Japan in the Autumn

1. Witness the koyo:
Whilst the springtime cherry blossom season (sakura) has become a famous symbol of Japan, the blazing autumnal foliage is an often overlooked spectacle. The turning of the leaves paints the scenery a flaming red and gold, and ‘koyo’- the viewing of the changing leaves- takes the place of sakura as an event to be celebrated.

2. Jidai and Daimyo:
Both of these festivals celebrate Japan’s feudal ancestry with an enchanting display of historical re-enactments and traditional clothing. The Jidai festival or ‘Festival of Ages’ takes place in Kyoto in October and the Hakone Daimyo festival in early November.

3. Watch a sumo match:
Fukuoka plays host the November sumo tournament, where you can see the various divisions compete – A great day out and a rare chance to see the big guns of this sport do their thing….Why not sample the favoured dish of sumo wrestlers; chanko nabe – Oishii!….in fact….

Sumo practice

4. Autumn Food and autumn beer:
Japanese food often reflects the seasons. Chanko nabe, or nabemono is a delicious one-pot dish that is served in the cooler seasons. Many people will hold nabe parties to welcome in the season with friends. There are also plenty of ‘autumn flavoured ‘ (Aki aji) beers avaialble to refesh and accompany the food too!

5. Take in some art and culture:
The Setouchi Art Festival this year celebrates the seasons of the 12 islands of the Sento Inland Sea. Each season of the festival is unique, and in autumn only you can explore the Honjima, Takamijima, Awashima, and Ibukijima islands. Activities and exhibitions are held to highlight each island’s uniqueness and preserve it against modern homogenization. In short – A great festival in a beautiful setting at a lovely time of year.

Naoshima Pumpkin

6.  Enjoy the temperate climes:
After the sticky hot summer, autumn provides a comfortable respite before winter sets in. Warm and dry, it’s an ideal season for walks and seeing Japan at its best.

Kyoto in Autumn

7. Have a soak under the sky:
The temperate weather makes it all the better to enjoy an outdoor Onsen, the traditional hot steam bath. Bathe whilst admiring the stunning koyo.

Zao Onsen hot spring

So!  Just 7 reasons here as to why Japan is a great place to travel in the Autumn months. There are many more where that came from….

Tour of Tokyo

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

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

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

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

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

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

The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Odaiba.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sake casks at the entrance to Meiji Shrine.

The sake casks at the entrance to Meiji Shrine.

The iconic Tokyo Tower at sunset.

High Style but Low Ceilings – A Guide to Japan’s Capsule Hotels

Japan has a reputation as being an expensive country to visit, and it’s true that you could blow through a lot of yen quickly if you are the type who enjoys staying in five-star hotels or dining in Michelin-rated restaurants. However, it’s actually quite easy for a budget traveler to enjoy Japan in style and without going broke.  There are great business hotels often in good locations and offering compact, functional and a relatively cheap rooms (approx $80 per night), there are minshuku offering relatively cheap options at a per person price, but perhaps the most interesting option is the unique and innovative  capsule hotel.

Nakagin Capsule

 

What is a capsule hotel?
Well, in general, capsule hotels feature tiny but stylish capsules or pods that are typically just big enough for a person to sleep or to sit up in. These coffin-like rooms, which are stacked on top of each other in rows, were originally intended to be used by businessmen who had been working late or had partied too long at happy hour and had somehow missed the last train home.

The capsule

Nowadays, the capsule hotel has also caught on with some travelers as an inexpensive and interesting alternate to a hotel room. Typically, these futuristic-looking capsules will set a traveler back about $35 to $65 for a night. Most of the units even provide some form of entertainment for their guests, such as a small television or a radio…..some of the TV is not for everyone…

In addition to the pods, capsule hotels also offer shared bathroom facilities, lockers for your belongings. Some may also feature a large communal area for relaxing as well as. Although a majority of these capsule hotels cater only to men, there are also some available that offer separate floors for men and women.

Of course, these little pods aren’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea. The Japanese, especially those living in big cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, are used to living and sleeping in tight quarters, but for many foreigners, these pods may be just too claustrophobic for their tastes. In addition, the walls tend to be thin, so your neighbor’s snoring may be a problem but, then again, that is also true of hostels. Capsules are a fun ‘cultural’ experience for a night, but not recommended for your entire trip.

There are some modern ‘designer’ capsules these days offering a more relaxing and good looking capsule for your money. Here’s a video from the cool, yet functional 9 Hours Capsule in Kyoto.

A good experience…perhaps not for everyone.

 

 

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