Football in Tokyo

For a long time, Japan has been famous for miniaturising -and often improving- pre-existing ideas. The Walkman, the Haiku, the Capsule Hotel, and even the Tamagochi can be seen as a few examples of this trend. While the game of Futsal traces its roots back to early 20th Century Brazil and Uruguay, it perhaps comes as no surprise that this widely-enjoyed miniaturised version of football has taken hold in modern Japan.

Image

As a logical conclusion to a love of football coupled with a lack of space, many high-rise building owners in Tokyo began turing their rooftops into futsal pitches after the 2002 World Cup. Japan also formed its own professional futsal league, the F League, in 2007. The pitch pictured above is the Adidas Futsal Park, located on top of the Tokyu Building at Shibuya Station – right next to the famous scramble crossing. Looks like a lot of fun, but If you’re thinking of booking it for a kick about you better get in early – the last time I checked it was fully booked for the next 9 months!

Exploring Okayama

About two weeks ago I had the privilege to be able to travel to Okayama on a research trip for IJT. Okayama Prefecture is in the south-western part of Honshu, sandwiched between Hiroshima and Hyogo Prefectures and with a coastline facing toward Shikoku. I had never been there before, so was very excited to be taking on this trip!

My first task was visiting Kifu no Sato, a lovely ryokan in Yunogo Onsen – right in the heart of the countryside of Okayama. This ryokan has a fabulous onsen with several different types of baths and is justly famous for its wonderful ikebana flower arrangements, of which there are no less than sixty-five adorning the hotel at any one time. These are arranged using only wild plants and flowers from the surrounding mountains and are changed up to twice a week – which all told is a pretty mammoth undertaking!

Just one of the many Ikebana arrangements at Kifu no Sato

Just one of the many Ikebana arrangements at Kifu no Sato

A commitment to local crafts and produce is central to the philosophy at Kifu no Sato. They are proud to serve food made with local ingredients in their restaurant (incidentally some of the best food I’ve eaten in Japan), and to furnish their rooms with pieces made by local craftsmen.

Breakfast at Kifu no Sato

Breakfast at Kifu no Sato

 

With this philosophy in mind, Kifu no Sato also offer a wide range of amazing cultural experiences, through which guests can meet and converse with local artists and craftsmen who are real experts in their fields. Guided by the wonderful Hiromi-san, I was lucky enough to meet some of the people who would be offering these experiences. Guests can have a sushi-making lesson with the chef at the ryokan; an Iaido martial arts lesson with Trevor, a British expat who has studied the art for 30 years; a pottery experience with a Living National Treasure in the historical town of Bizen; pick tea leaves and package their own tea with Mr. Shimoyama at his tea plantation; try out natural dyeing with Takami-san in Ohara town… and the list goes on.

A kimono lesson at the ryokan

A kimono lesson at the ryokan

Having tea with Mr Shimoyama and his daughter

Having tea with Mr Shimoyama and his daughter

Enchanting Mitaki-en, restaurant by the river

Enchanting Mitaki-en, restaurant by the river

After leaving Kifu no Sato, I made my way to the town of Kurashiki in the south of the Prefecture. The train ride from Okayama station to Kurashiki takes you through some really wonderful countryside and is to be highly recommended, chugging at a lazy pace through hills and mountains, over rivers and past plenty of little towns and villages. Kurashiki itself is a beautiful town with a historical town centre that feels in some places like a little piece of Europe in Japan. Through the centre runs a tree-lined canal, and the surrounding streets are filled with Western-style buildings rubbing shoulders with white-walled, black-roofed Japanese storehouses that used to be used for the storage of rice during the Edo period.

Kurashiki Bikan historical area

Kurashiki Bikan historical area

The Ohara Museum, the first museum of Western art in Japan, is the centrepiece of Kurashiki - and deservedly so. Any visitor to the town must visit this wonderful gallery, where world-famous names in Western art mingle with modern and contemporary Japanese works, along with traditional crafts and antiques from ancient Egypt and China. Even without considering the museum’s artistic offerings – it is worth a visit for the buildings alone, which are wonderful and full of character.

Inside one of the galleries at the Ohara Museum

Inside one of the galleries at the Ohara Museum

Besides the Ohara Museum Kurashiki is a veritable goldmine of museums – from the Archaeological museum and the Museum of Folkcraft to the Toy Museum, the Kurabo Memorial Museum, the Kurashiki Local History Museum, the City Art Museum, the Insect Museum, the Senichi Hoshino Museum, the Yumiko Igarashi manga art museum (where you can even rent costumes and dress up as your favourite over-the-top Igarashi manga character)… there really is something for everyone.

I highly recommend the Toy Museum, packed full of old-fashioned Japanese toys, and the Piggy-bank Museum – which is located at the top of an antiques shop and stuffed to the gills with eccentric and interesting stuff.

Daruma dolls in the Rural Toy Museum

Daruma dolls in the Rural Toy Museum

Outside the Piggy-bank museum, with its hundreds of HMV dogs keeping watch

Outside the Piggy-bank museum, with its hundreds of HMV dogs (“wan-chan”) keeping watch

My favourite museum, however, was the Momotaro Museum. Momotaro, or “Peach Boy,” is a famous Japanese folk tale in which an old couple discover a boy inside a peach, floating down a river. They adopt the child, named Momotaro, and he grows up to vanquish a host of marauding demons. Several places in Japan claim ownership of the story – one of which being Okayama. At this museum you can find a whole range of optical illusions and visual tricks; some Momotaro comics, artwork, toys and memorabilia; a room showing old-fashioned Japanese cartoons on a projector; and – the piece de resistance – a demon grotto (in the style of the “haunted house” you find at fairgrounds). I won’t describe it in too much detail in case I ruin the surprise, but suffice to say that the group of young schoolchildren who were visiting the museum at the same time as me were quite literally terrified out of their wits. Watching children scream in terror is, of course, all part of the enjoyment.

The real Momotaro?

The real Momotaro?

The chap who works in the museum (pictured above) is also rather a character, and has the amazing ability to make flutes out of chikuwa (a type of fish-paste tube you usually find in Japanese “oden” hotpots). He has been on Japanese TV a few times exhibiting this extraordinary talent, and will be happy to give you a demonstration. Aptly, he also looks kind of like a real-life Momotaro.

Here in Kurashiki I was lucky enough to stay at the Ryokan Kurashiki, which was truly the jewel in the crown of my time in Okayama. Right on the canal in the centre of the old town, this ryokan takes some beating. It is housed in a wonderful old building with amazing character, the rooms are beautifully decorated with antiques, the restaurant and terrace look out over a picturesque Japanese garden, the food is a work of art – and I hardly need mention that Nakamura-san, the proprietress, is a paragon of Japanese warmth and hospitality – or “omotenashi.”

At the Ryokan Kurashiki

At the Ryokan Kurashiki

 

The ryokan garden from our dinner table. Beautiful!

The ryokan garden as seen from our dinner table. Beautiful!

Just one of the amazing dishes served at dinner - sashimi with a sakura garnish

Just one of the amazing dishes served at dinner – sashimi with a sakura garnish

Nakamura-san grates some fresh wasabi

Nakamura-san grates some fresh wasabi

Yum

Yum.

Really, I lack the adjectives to adequately describe my stay at this ryokan (and the pictures don’t do it justice), so you will just have to go and see it for yourself. I’m pretty sure that you’ll agree with me when I say that this is a little piece of paradise.

Japan Spring Elegance in pictures

My two week Spring Elegance tour around Honshu Island leading, 14 eager travellers from Switzerland, Germany, Australia, the US, Poland, Ukraine and the UK coincided with the stunning cherry blossom season. Here are a few of my favourite snapshots of a rewarding fortnight on the road, showing great people this great country!!

 

Tokyo’s Skytree, 634m of steel, concrete and glass – a striking feature of the capital’s skyline from many a district. Undoubtedly not the most aesthetically pleasing of architectural creations, a little sakura framing, however, creates an image of harmony in this sea of 33 million people.

Tokyo’s Skytree, 634m of steel, concrete and glass – a striking feature of the capital’s skyline from many a district. Undoubtedly not the most aesthetically pleasing of architectural creations, a little sakura framing, however, creates an image of harmony in this sea of 33 million people.

 

Tokyo Japan

Ueno district – market madness, where pickled giant octopus tentacles are on offer next to discount watches, traditional green tea, fish flakes, funky footwear and multi-coloured golf balls. Galleries and museums, a favourite sprawling park with gorgeous summer lotus pond and even a zoo make this another hotspot on any Tokyo itinerary. Here, Ueno Station’s main concourse pays tribute to its 2 most esteemed residents – the cherry blossoms of Ueno Park and the pandas of Ueno Zoo.

Architecturally - the most perfect historic building in Japan? Matsumoto Castle in full spring elegance – a glorious symbol of this wonderful little city perched on the plains to the east of the Northern Japanese Alps.

Architecturally – the most perfect historic building in Japan. Matsumoto Castle in full spring elegance – a glorious symbol of this wonderful little city perched on the plains to the east of the Northern Japanese Alps.

Springtime is a popular time to have the wedding photos taken, even if the ceremony is a long way off. This charming young couple were off, with photographer and assistant in tow, to the castle grounds of Matsumoto for those once-in-a-lifetime romantic shots.

Springtime is a popular time to have the wedding photos taken, even if the ceremony is a long way off. This charming young couple were off, with photographer and assistant in tow, to the castle grounds of Matsumoto for those once-in-a-lifetime romantic shots.

One of the key 6 features of the Kenrokuen, arguably Japan's finest strolling garden, is the incorporation of water in its layout. The falling sakura petals often fall and are clustered on the surface of the shallow streams which serenely trickle their way beneath beautifully sculpted pines or amongst the lilies.

One of the key  features of Kanazawa’s Kenrokuen, arguably Japan’s finest strolling garden, is the incorporation of water in its layout. The sakura petals often fall and are clustered on the surface of the shallow streams which serenely trickle their way beneath beautifully sculpted pines or amongst the lilies.

Kanazawa, within the former samurai domain of Kaga, is rich in tea ceremony history, its patronage of Noh Theatre, local crafts and a wonderfully rich seafood cuisine. Here, some of our small group travellers sample the delights of Kaitenzushi – a conveyor belt sushi restaurant in Edo Period Omicho Market, ordering by touch panel menus!

Kanazawa, within the former samurai domain of Kaga, is rich in tea ceremony history, its patronage of Noh Theatre, local crafts and a wonderfully rich seafood cuisine. Here, some of our small group travellers sample the delights of Kaitenzushi – a conveyor belt sushi restaurant in Edo Period Omicho Market, ordering by touch panel menus!

A proud local inspects his district’s float during Takayama’s  Sanno Matsuri, held April 14th and 15th of every year to offer prayers for the rice cultivating season. The parading of these centuries-old floats, adorned with gold, the finest lacquer finish and exquisite woodcarvings, is a highlight of the festivities.

A proud local inspects his district’s float during Takayama’s Sanno Matsuri, held April 14th and 15th of every year to offer prayers for the rice cultivating season. The parading of these centuries-old floats, adorned with gold, the finest lacquer finish and exquisite woodcarvings, is a highlight of the festivities.

Who would think that just 10 minutes from the lively centre of Takayama, home to the fabulous Spring and Summer float festivals, you could find yourself in such gloriously secluded nature? This is my favourite, and certainly least expected shot of the trip. A quiet mid-morning walk on Shiroyama Hill.

Who would think that just 10 minutes from the lively centre of Takayama, home to the fabulous Spring and Summer float festivals, you could find yourself in such gloriously secluded nature? This is my favourite, and certainly least expected shot of the trip. A quiet mid-morning walk on Shiroyama Hill.

Personally, of all the places in Japan that I regularly visit with groups – the ever-popular Ginkaku-Ji Temple in Kyoto, with its (non) Silver Pavilion and mesmerizingly calming gardens is among Japan’s most beautiful places. Even if crowded, serenity pervades all – if it fails first time round, do a second lap of the gardens, as the friendly temple staff will eagerly encourage you. Wherever you turn  another glimpse of beauty awaits!

Personally, of all the places in Japan that I regularly visit with groups – the ever-popular Ginkaku-Ji Temple in Kyoto, with its (non) Silver Pavilion and mesmerizingly calming gardens is among Japan’s most beautiful places. Even if crowded, serenity pervades all – if it fails first time round, do a second lap of the gardens, as the friendly temple staff will eagerly encourage you. Wherever you turn another glimpse of beauty awaits!

Together alone at last – a couple enjoy the solitude of early morning Ginkakuji Temple. How did they make it across that sand without leaving footprints? A spiritual journey, deep into Zen, indeed!

Together alone at last – a couple enjoy the solitude of early morning Ginkakuji Temple. How did they make it across that sand without leaving footprints? A spiritual journey, deep into Zen, indeed!

Kyoto Japan

Two seafood-loving customers chomp on baby octopus stuffed with quail’s egg – on a stick. Snack hunting Kyoto style, in the intriguing Nishiki Food Market, where every shop and stall reveals a new Japanese culinary delight!

The unashamed western opulence of the Fujiya Hotel is beautifully enhanced by its Japanese garden – featuring waterwheel, lanterns, streams and cascades. The perfect start to a busy day in Hakone? Looking down over the garden to the borrowed scenery of Hakone’s verdant hills beyond (actually a crater rim!). Then onto a day of volcanic landscapes, azul Lake Ashi, ancient Samurai Highways and, fingers crossed, spectacular views of Mt Fuji, resplendent in her white veil of snow. No luck this time but as you can see, Hakone has so much natural splendour to offer!

The unashamed western opulence of the Fujiya Hotel is beautifully enhanced by its Japanese garden – featuring waterwheel, lanterns, streams and cascades. The perfect start to a busy day in Hakone? Looking down over the garden to the borrowed scenery of Hakone’s verdant hills beyond (actually a crater rim!). Then onto a day of volcanic landscapes, azul Lake Ashi, ancient Samurai Highways and, fingers crossed, spectacular views of Mt Fuji, resplendent in her white veil of snow. No luck this time but as you can see, Hakone has so much natural splendour to offer!

Staying at the Asakusa View Hotel is always a treat. East or West facing, you are always sure to enjoy a spectacular view from your bedroom window. As dusk draws in, the frenetic energy of this popular tourist area, renowned for the bustling Sensoji Temple and surrounding traditional shops and eateries, fades into the calming orange hue of Tokyo’s cityscape as it bows towards the setting sun.

Staying at the Asakusa View Hotel is always a treat. East or West facing, you are always sure to enjoy a spectacular view from your bedroom window. As dusk draws in, the frenetic energy of this popular tourist area, renowned for the bustling Sensoji Temple and surrounding traditional shops and eateries, fades into the calming orange hue of Tokyo’s cityscape as it bows towards the setting sun.

Okinawa’s Haunted Hotel

View of the hotel from the Nakagusuku-jo Castle site

View of the hotel from the Nakagusuku-jo Castle site

This Halloween, some friends and I decided that before we followed the crowd to the photo-fest that is the costume party at Okinawa’s American Village, we would seek out a notorious abandoned (and reputedly haunted) hotel near the ruins of Nakagusuku-jo castle.

The Japanese are seriously superstitious, and when some of our Japanese friends heard about our plans they tried to deter us, assuring us that we would probably die – or at the very least be possessed by evil spirits. In the end we decided that the place sounded too interesting not to check out, and shrugging off warnings of death, doom and bloody exorcisms, we set off on our merry way.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There is a particularly creepy backstory to this never-finished hotel, which was reputedly begun in the 1970s by a businessman from Naha who wanted to capitalise on the location right beside a UNESCO world heritage site. Ignoring warnings from locals and monks that he was building too close to the site of ancient tombs and that his hotel would impinge on a sacred cave where restless spirits wandered, the unnamed businessman began his vast development right next to Nakahusuku-jo Castle. Over the course of the development several employees died under mysterious circumstances, and frightened workers abandoned the project believing that it was cursed.

Still undeterred, the businessman pledged to sleep at the hotel until the project was finished to prove that there was nothing to fear from bogeymen and restless spirits. After that, the story goes that he lasted three nights before he was driven insane, and reports disagree as to whether he killed himself or was committed to an asylum.

Of course, there are more realistic explanations for the hotel’s abandonment, but they’re not half as exciting!

View from the top of the hotel complex

View from the top of the hotel complex

Arriving at Nakagusuku-jo, it was easy to see why one might want to build in such a beautiful spot. Accessed through the site of the castle ruins, the development boasts incredible views of both the Pacific and the East China Sea, with the ruins spread out below it and jungle on all sides.

The building itself is a vast shell, which can be seen silhouetted on its hill from miles around. Inside is a maze of haphazard corridors and staircases littered with detritus, in the process of being reclaimed by the forest around it. I have to admit that, wandering around the place, it wasn’t hard to understand why locals were so spooked by it.

Whilst it may not be everybody’s cup of tea, the ruins of the Royal Hotel (Or Takara Hotel as it is also known) make an interesting and haunting juxtaposition to the very different ruins next-door. Enter at your own peril!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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!

Image

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.

Standing on the top of Tokyo

One of our recent Tokaido Trailers, Jenny Gillman, wanted to tell us about her trip to the Tokyo Skytree. Jenny was keen to go and see inside Tokyo’s newest addition to the Metropolis skyline for herself. Here is what she had to say about the 634 metre tower.

After a smooth flight and a warm welcome at the airport from my InsideJapan Tour’s tour leader (Harry Sargant), three of the group dropped bags off at the hotel in Asakusa and headed out to explore. We visited nearby Senso-Ji temple before the other two members of the group went off for a shop. I went off to discover the Tokyo Skytree which dominates the skyline in this part of Tokyo. One stop from Asakuka, with train guards to point me in the correct direction, I arrived at the Skytree on the Skytree train! After quite a few sets of escalators you arrive onto the 5th floor of the Skytree.

I queued for approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes and chatted to very friendly locals. After paying 200oyen we went up in a lift which opens onto the view of Toyko below – there was a collective “wow” when the doors of the lift opened to reveal Tokyo below. After seeing the whole of the city and a view of the bay (on a clear day you can see Mt Fuji) I waited another 10 minutes and paid another 1000yen which would get me to the very top! This lift ride would take me to the top of the worlds tallest freestanding building and reveal incredible view. It was well worth paying the extra money and I had lots of fun walking around the spiral walkway to the glass floor and standing 452.1 metres above the city!

The Skytree is a brilliant way the start any trip to Toyko, as it gives you a really good idea as to the huge scale of the city. There’s nothing like standing at the top of the world’s biggest tower in the worlds biggest Metropolis contemplating your trip beyond the horizon.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Iwate: A green and pleasant land.

Wedged up in the corner of North East Japan, Iwate prefecture is economically one of the poorest parts of the country.  But in terms of natural wealth, it`s one of the richest.  This week I visited its two stunning National Parks: the elevated volcanic marshlands at Hachimantai and the white beaches and towering cliffs on the tsunami-hit Sanriku coastline.

A 90 minute bus ride from Morioka, Iwate`s capital, took me to the entrance to Mount Chausu.  Then for 4 hours I followed a well-marked trail – in a biblical downpour.  I knew that craters filled with black, acidic waters were scattered around the Hachimantai peak – unfortunately I could barely see any of them.  The path soon turned into a river.  Choosing the rainy season to visit wetlands was perhaps not my best idea; but at least escpaing Tokyo`s humidity I could liberate my lungs.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

My second day in the north was like a fine English summer`s day, blue skies and warm.  This time I took a 2 hour bus ride from Morioka through densely forested valleys to the port of Miyako on the Sanriku coast.

Armed with a bag full of maps – all supplied by the grinning girls at Morioka Tourist Information - I was ready to explore.  I made my way by local bus to the modern Jodogahama Visitors Centre.  Clusters of excited tourists wandered about inside.  The displays, well-annotated in English, told the story of the Sanriku coastline:  “one of the most vulnerable areas to tsunamis in the world.”  The displays were written before the tragedy last March.

Out of habit, I found myself latching onto a tour group.  The energetic tour leader led us all onto the kanransen pleasure boat.  I quickly had to get off though – I needed to buy a ticket.

The boat survived the tsunami; it was out at sea when the main waves hit.  But sea conditions were so unstable, the boat could not return to shore for a day and a half.  The crew ended up eating all the bread normally reserved for feeding the umineko (seagulls).

On the cruise, the air hostess-dressed guide told us about a nearby hamlet called Aneyoshi, where the tsunami reached a record height of 40 metres – yet thanks to heeding the warnings of past disasters, none of the buildings were damaged.

Businesses continue to struggle in Iwate; thousands of people remain stuck in cramped temporary accommodation.  But the natural beauty still sparkles, and visitors are warmly welcomed.  I know I`ll be going back.

Make Holidays Greener – Part 1

July is ‘Make Holidays Greener‘ month, a campaign across the UK travel industry organised by the Bristol based charity, the Travel Foundation.

At InsideJapan Tours we like to think our holidays are pretty sustainable all year round. Here are some reasons why:

1. Our Small Group Tours have a minimum group size of 14. Better group dynamics, no ‘tour bus bubble’, instead you get close to the places and people you are visiting.

2. We encourage clients to visit rural areas, where tourist money helps to revitalise depopulated communities.

3. Think local: A stay in a family-run inn is a highlight of any Japan trip!

4. And don’t just think local; regional, seasonal Japanese food is amazing.

5. All of our trips make use Japan’s fantastic public transport.

6. We only include car hire for very off-the-beaten track locations, and then it’s a Toyota Prius.

7. All the hotels and ryokan we use complete our health & safety survey every other year. The survey includes Sustainable Tourism questions to encourage hotels and ryokans to conserve energy and resources, and reduce waste.

8. We encourage interaction with local people. On Self-Guided trips we recommend spending a day or two with a local private guide to give you the real lowdown on Japanese culture & history.

9. Japan’s traditional culture is unique and deserves to be preserved for future generations. We can include sumo tickets, ikebana lessons, tea ceremony and much more in any Japan holiday.

10. Japan has fantastic wildlife and we support the sanctuaries and charities that protect it like the Shinshu Asiatic Black Bear Conservation Group. We avoid bear parks or zoos in Japan where we feel wild animals are kept in cruel conditions.

11. Why not visit an eco-lodge or try your hand at local farming techniques on a rural farm stay?

Please click here to read more about our Sustainable Tourism policy at InsideJapan Tours.

Tsurui to Rausu: From cranes in the river to bears in the bath.

I recently finished leading the Winter Highlights tour of Hokkaido.   This spectacular tour features snow monkeys in Nagano, ice sculptures in Sapporo and maiko-spotting in Kyoto.  Those highlights get coverage elsewhere.  So I have chosen to write about a tour day in eastern Hokkaido, one of the lesser known parts of Japan, yet one full of incredible encounters.

Our lodgings were in the small inland village of Tsurui,  on the edge of the Kushiro marshland national park.  We woke at 6am with the outside temperature at minus 20.  Unaware of the cold outside, we were cocooned inside heated, wood-panelled bedrooms at the welcoming Woody Lodge.  Our early rise was for a 6:30am appointment with Ando-san, an expert on local wildlife and photography.

Ando-san, a proud owner of all the latest Swarovski and Nikon equipment, took us to some great spots to see tancho.  Tancho are rare red-crowned cranes that somehow survive -20 standing naked in the warmest parts of the river.  On his secret viewing spot above the river, Ando-san lent us his scope for close-ups of the tancho.

-20 was not as much of a problem as I expected.  None of our group suffered badly: there was no biting wind to chill our bones and everybody was well-prepared for arctic conditions.  Yet the thought of parting with even one of my 8 layers of clothing terrified me.  How the native Ainu survived winters up here without central heating, kairo heatpads and tight-knit long johns I`ll never know.

After seeing the tancho we returned to Woody lodge where the chef, a local girl and former New York resident, had prepared our breakfast.  Her time living overseas was not wasted, as well as speaking excellent English, she is an excellent cook, making us a superb breakfast.  Her Mum`s homemade champagne-flavoured apple jam is worth getting up at anytime for.

After breakfast our kind, jovial bus driver took us back to Ando-san at the bird sanctuary.  Tancho`s flew over our heads, landed twenty metres in front of us, then graciously danced for us.  Actually, Ando-san informed us, they were dancing for each other, an annual - kotoshi mo yoroshiku - please be nice to me this year dance.

We had plenty of time in the sanctuary for close-up photography before heading for a drive in the marshlands.  On the way, a kita kitsune, northern fox posed for photographs by the side of the road.  We then said goodbye to Ando-san, and headed further east, deeper into the snow-coated wilderness.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

After tempura and soba noodle lunch, we rode along the narrow Notsuke peninsula, a diversion recommended by Ando-san.  Looking out the bus window, eagles and northern foxes appeared in front of the dark, forbidding waves of the Okhotsk Sea with the snow-capped peaks of Kunashiri, the disputed Russian-held islands looming beyond.

Our final destination was Rausu, a small fishing port on the Shiretoko peninsula world heritage site.  Only the coast road in Rausu stays open in winter, the inland road gets cut off by heavy snowfall.  This remote peninsula really felt like the exposed edge of Japan.

Actually not all of the valley road is closed,  the snow is ploughed for 1km, up as far as Kumanoyu, the Bear Bath.  The Bear Bath, a 10 minute trudge up from our hotel, has two rotenburo, outdoor hot spring baths, one for men and one for women.  Free to enter, the bath, changing rooms and walkways are all maintained by locals, members of the Rausu Onsen Appreciation Society.

I will never have a bath like it.  Wearing hiking boots to trek through snow in the darkness, then shedding all 8 layers in a rickety wooden shed before stepping cautiously over icy concrete to get in a bath so hot I regretted not bringing a cup and teabag.

The intense heat quickly warmed me up, then slowly started to cook me.  For a while I took a masochistic pleasure in seeing how long I could last, then I feared the smell of burning flesh.

Kumanoyu is notoriously hot, the man working at the hotel reception had warned me about it when he lent me a torch.  Perhaps it is called the Bear Bath because bears are the only animals hardy enough to tolerate it. Eventually I had to plunge the cold water hose in to lower the temperature.

Nurui! Nurui! (It`s cold! It`s cold!),” a couple of locals who got in after me squealed out.  Cold?  Putting the cold water hose in for a few seconds may have taken the temperature down – but surely no more than half a degree.  I regretted not observing them closer, surely no human could ever complain of cold sitting in that bath, perhaps they were bears tired of the annual tedium of hibernation.

Tokyo Ghost Hunting – who ya gonna call?!

One of our Tokyo based tour leaders, Axel Derbouraix has recently been discovering a slightly scarier side of Tokyo. Here is what he had to say,

Like many boys of my generation, after watching ‘Ghostbusters’, I imagined myself chasing demons and goblins of all sorts. Eventually, fifteen years later, I contacted ‘Haunted Tokyo Tours’ and fulfilled my dream… in Tokyo. The monstrously huge metropolis is an ideal setting for ghost stories and urban legends of all sorts. Ask Lilly about it!

My host was not a nerdy university professor moonlighting as ghost hunting expert but a knowledgeable American lady resident of Tokyo for many years. Lilly has been running ghost tours in Tokyo for the past 99 years.

Tours run once a week, last 2-3 hours and could take you on a Goblin hunt or you may like to follow the trail of cursed samurais or meet the demons of the red light district. The tours are very informative and lively, yet it can get spooky at times. Don’t be afraid because Lilly is equipped with the latest Ghost tracking device (EMF).

These Gaulish tours of Tokyo are a great way of seeing an alternative side to the city and can be arranged by InsideJapan…..if you dare!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 213 other followers