Inspirational Ishinomaki – 3 years on from the Tsunami

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Recently, I led our A Northern Soul Tour through the wonderful Tohoku region of Japan, following in the footsteps of arguably its greatest poet, Matsuo Basho, who took 6 months of life to hike what became known as Oku No Hosoi Michi, the Narrow Road to the Deep North. The 1200-mile odyssey spawned prolific travel writing and poetry and highlighted this truly wondrous region of Japan.

Although the Japanese themselves are well aware of the region’s many appealing attractions, the (undiscerning) majority of foreign travel companies and travelers overlook it. That was to our advantage recently – it was our own adventure, exclusive in that we met just one Taiwanese group in 2 weeks after leaving Tokyo and heading north!

However, herein lies the sad legacy of the 2011 Great Northeastern Earthquake, which still deeply affects the golden people of Tohoku, both emotionally, economically and in their daily lives. Unfortunately, in an industry where awards are collected like pin badges, somehow validating the quality and trustworthiness of a company, the responsible tourism bandwagon is a crowded bus that every travel firm seems to claim a seat on. Some firms hold, however, suspect credentials.

Therefore, at Insidejapantours, we felt it crucial that during a 2 week trip of World Heritage Sites, Nature Trails, zen gardens, sumptuous Japanese feasts and traditional Japanese accommodation with its immaculate service, that we should drop in on one of the afflicted towns of the ensuing tsunami.

Ishinomaki is one such place – a fishing town that, for a while at least, became known to the world. Youtube satiated the voyeuristic lust for the devastating – a disaster unwinding before our very eyes, was satiated as the earth’s assertiveness over humanity was. It was hard-hitting, for some maybe even entertaining, and then it was forgotten. For the people of Ishinomaki, every day touches on that fateful event in some way, for all who survived. 4761 perished, and some 420 people are to this day unaccounted for. The eternal pain and grief that this lack of closure must cause is unimaginable. The sense of loss that this town has had to endure is immense, yet, as perhaps you can imagine, you will not meet a finer community of smiling, warm, welcoming people who can claim to have a clearer perspective on life than someone like myself.

My first visit with the group was a non-scheduled side excursion. We arrived late afternoon so the sun had already set. Although dark, I believe my group understood the reasons to be there. We grabbed 2 taxis and I asked  both drivers, who were on duty on that day, to take us where they felt we should see. One driver relayed how he had been parked in the station- front taxi rank at 2:46pm, March 11, 2011, when the huge 8.9 temblor struck off the Tohoku coast. An hour later and the station area, some 3km away from the seafront was inundated with waist high water.

Perhaps the fate of this lucky driver was sealed by falling debris in the station due to the quake. He and other taxi drivers offered comfort and warmth by allowing the injured to sit in the cab until the shaking stopped. He was then involved in helping those (numbers unknown) and so was off duty, away from the coast, and therefore relatively safe.

We were driven to the seafront, peered out into the still darkness which permeated a chillingly menacing presence in the cold darkness. Then onto the famous memorial and logo board, painted just after the disaster. An eternal lantern remains lit, and flowers are regularly laid. The words Ganbarou Ishinomaki (Let’s Go Ishinomaki) are emblazoned upon timber panelling as a motivator and a 6.9metre wave height marker gives context in an area that had 1800 buildings – the majority completely destroyed.

After wracking up 60 pounds in taxi fares, we asked to be dropped in the restaurant area of town. I wanted to put a little money into the pockets of a locally-run business. A little disappointing, yet ironically of course immensely heartening was the fact that I could not find anywhere for my group on a Saturday night – all fully booked. Good to see people are eating out, socializing and enjoying each others’ company – moving on and up. Hence, with the cold and time running out, it was time to leave and head back to the city of Sendai.

For me that encounter was not enough though, and so the week after my tour finished, I made the trip back to the town to spend a day interacting and exploring, in order to put more context to everything. Partly for personal reasons, partly for work, I needed to return to talk to more people, spend a little more money and see the town in the light of day. I rented a cycle and took most of the afflicted areas in.

Next year, I hope to have Insidejapantours groups and individual travelers staying in Ishinomaki for a night – the local community will warm to you, you will bring a smile to faces, perspective on life will be gleaned, and hey, if you feel a little good about yourself – well great! Please go to Ishinomaki when you get the chance!

Here are some the few photos that I took on that moving day:

Left to Die

This former shop, right on the Kitakami River remains derelict and contorted, untouched since the disaster.

Lost Home, Lost Hope

House and garden in ruins. On the Kitakami RIver, a mile from the seafront.

Deleted Edo House 2

Some buildings received more renovation and maintenance than others. In the background, the manga artist, Ishinomori Shotaro-inspired Manga Museum is open for visitors, and is one of the tourist attractions of the town.

The Hill that saved lives - Hiroriyama

This charming little girl was playing in the park on Hiroriyama Hill with her grandparents. The sign designates the hill as an official disaster evacuation point. It saved 100s of lives as many climbed the hill to avoid the incoming mass of seawater.

Hand Written Daily Paper - post tsunami

For days, the local Hibi Newspaper could only inform the community by handwriting 6 large sheets of headline news and posting them at city hall and at convenience stores in the afflicted area.

Ishinomaki High School Baseball team - playing for lost schoolmates

I happened across Ishinomaki High School baseball team members. They were running up and down the steps of the shrine complex. These students are truly playing the game in memory of lost friends and family.

6.9 Metre Tsunami Wave Marker

A young woman peers up to the top of the wave marker, just 500 metres from the shore. The tsunami reached 6.9 metres at this point. Kadonowaki District had pretty much all of its 1800 houses and businesses completely destroyed.

Kashima Mikou Shrine

The abandoned Kashima Mikou Temple, 500metres from the shoreline

Wasteland Where 5000 once Lived

Wasteland where once was…

A Business Grows

Heartening to see the young folks of Ishinomaki starting their own businesses. This cafe was remodeled and a new venture started after the original went out of business.

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The same slogan of encouragement, 3 years on. The surrounding area remains a barren wasteland of grass and weeds.

Shoreline 2014

High on Hiyoriyama Hill – this was the point from where extended footage of the disaster was shot.

Sunset on Kitakami River, Ishinomaki

The calm of the Kitakami RIver at sunset – the chaos of the disaster seems impossible to fathom on such a beautiful evening.

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A Tohoku smile to touch the heart of the most hardened. This is the welcome you get in Ishinomaki!

The Tokyo Apartment Rental Game

After recently seeing the 2 years on my apartment rental agreement come to an end, I had to reengage in activity with my Tokyo Estate Agents– and oh how the memories of 2 years prior came flooding back, when my bank account was completely drained.

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The realities of life in Tokyo – rich or poor, Japanese or expat – is that there is very little space. So, while average rental costs may not exceed other great cities across the world, living space is typically very limited and you end up with very little for your hard-earned yen.

 I decided to stay put in my little ferroconcrete den for another 2 years for reasons that may become clearer as you read on…

 As in my home country of the UK, (real) estate agents in Japan are not the most popular organisations, and likewise, the image of the money-grabbing landlord holds true for many here in Tokyo, too.

So, you need a roof over your head: first the apartment hunting game. The majority of property owners wishing to rent out to tenants prefer to channel all the contractual and legal wrangling through the estate agents. Hence, pretty much any area of Tokyo will have a wealth of (wealthy) agents around the so-called Ekimae (station front) area.

 All display “great deals” in the shop window for what I call “ghost apartments” – ones which have always (coincidently?) just been rented out, when you enquire…

”But what about this one, Sir?” So, you are lured into the shop by the marketing hook and start to trawl through the dozens of rooms on offer.

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40,000 yen (4万)/ 250 pounds for a studio apartment, no deposit, no key money required – something is fishy – haunted, a murderer’s former abode, railway tracks running through it or simply disgusting? Don’t worry, its already unavailable anyway!

And when I talk of rooms, the Tokyo singleton on an average white-collar salary is often only able to afford the one room – a tiny single room studio apartment. Unlike in London, house sharing is also not an option in Japan’s capital, so your room is where you eat, sleep, watch TV, entertain… At least you have privacy, well, that is if your walls are not paper thin!

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Early afternoon in this dark 6 tatami mat room and the light needs to be on already!

Apartments are very often still measured using the old Japanese system of counting tatami mats. These traditional rush straw mats are, sadly, increasingly giving way to vinyl flooring or timber parquet, however they are still the way to gauge living space.

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A typical plan of a (large) apartment, showing the balcony on the left, even the 2 gas rings and sink in the kitchen (K) and each tatami mat in the 2main rooms(6畳)

Tokyo tatami mats (a little smaller than their equivalents in western Japan) are 1.76m x 88cm. A typically-sized main room for single occupancy is therefore a mere 6 ”Jo”, i.e. 6 mats, so pretty tight at just under 10 square metres! This one main room will often (but not always) have a small built in wardrobe, and your one source of light – hopefully sliding glass doors which give out onto a little balcony space (perhaps itself the size of a single mat). You certainly need to know where the sun is going to be when choosing – north facing is not a good way to go unless you want to live under artificial lighting whenever you are at home, day or night.

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Making the most of a balcony – fake ivy, astroturf and cactuses, along with a few herbs

Other areas in the apartment – the genkan; a tiny square area a little lower than the rest of the apartment floor, which has room to park 4 pairs of shoes orderly by the front door; a kitchenette with one or, if you are lucky 2 gas/ electric cooking rings; and a prefab, plastic bathroom where you can literally shower whilst on the toilet. Don’t expect to stretch out in the bath either – Japanese style is box like and deep.

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No need to worry about getting the bathroom floor wet!

What about heating? Typically a joint AC/heating unit is fixed on the wall, up by the ceiling – great in the summer but as rudimentary physics dictates, warm air rises, so not so perfect on cold winter nights in a country that lives on the floor!

So there you have it – otherwise no fittings, curtains, furniture, bedding, oven, fridge, TV or washing machine, (by the way – you may have to have that on your balcony!) Essentially, a box with little character and questionable insulation.

What other criteria are people looking at closely when apartment hunting? Aspects such as aspect (inevitably) – one worry being that your wonderful view, above the Tokyo cables and poles, may disappear if construction of a neighbouring building starts (some seemingly appear overnight here). You may soon find a towering, shadow-spewing edifice which extinguishes any natural light that you ever had.

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At least there is a view – even if not the finest!

Equally important – how far is the nearest overground or underground railway station on foot? The great majority of the millions of Tokyo commuters use what has to rank as one of the finest public transport systems in the world. Getting to your nearest train station is key in the dash to and from the workplace, and people are keen to reduce the commute in light of long working days. Too close though and your room will be shaking from 5am till past midnight every day of the year!

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2 train stations within walking distance – 7 or 8 minutes on foot, an ideal distance.

Another consideration – is the building a flimsy walled “apato” (often found in smaller and older apartment blocks)? The better option is modern robust, ferroconcrete “mansion” (a far from a country manor house), which is far better if you don’t want to hear the clicking of your neighbour’s chopsticks as they eat, let alone any nocturnal activity.

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The so called “designer’s mansion” – sturdy, functional and coolly expensive

Oh, and of course, there is cost to consider! In Japan, the process does not simply involve a deposit payment, your first month’s rent and you’re set. Other quite substantial costs are incurred depending on the landlord’s decision on how much reikin – (key money) to demand. This often irks the foreign tenant in Japan, as it seems to serve essentially a way of saying “thank you, almighty landlord for allowing me to pay you most of my salary for a dingy box provided with gas water and electricity for the next 2 years”. 2 months’ of deposit is quite common, and this is often non-returnable, no matter how spotless you leave a dwelling on vacating it. A guarantor company may even be required, which essentially covers your missing rent if you decide to make a run for it – another month’s rent. Oh, and of course, there is the friendly agent’s fee – take a month’s worth why don’t you?

 

So let’s break it down using a tiny apartment example to really emphasize what many single Tokyoites require to secure 6 tatami mat place, an hour by train from the (huge) central Tokyo area. Let’s assume a modest 80,000yen (500 pounds) rent per month. Initial costs to get a contract signed, may work out as expensive as follows:

 

2 month’s rent upfront

2 month’s deposit

1 month’s reikin (thank you/key money)

1 month to a guarantor company

1 month to the agent

Add in a little change for insurance payments and you are possibly heading towards a figure of 600,000 (around 4000pounds) to be paid in order to get a rental agreement signed. And remember, this is for a box of around 20 square metres, which you can do very little to – no redecorating, no car, no motorbike, maybe even no bicycles (where are you going to park it – on your bed?) no pets, no musical instruments, no life..?

I hasten to add that I have decided to sacrifice a large proportion of my salary to actually have a 2nd room to live in – an excess indeed but living out of hotel rooms for a fair part of the year, my need for more than one unit within which to exist is very important for my sanity. The sacrifice is well worth it and having just paid my friendly agent an extra month’s rent to re-sign the contract for another 2 years, I won’t be moving for a while.

 

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Yes, this was the money I handed over to the estate agent in order to simply secure a rental agreement!

Sacrifices, sacrifices, but of course, I have all the attractions of one of the most bedazzling cities on the planet on my doorstep. That’s another story, but I say, who needs space when you have Tokyo?!

Mount Fuji Gallery

Back at the beginning of the Mt Fuji climbing season (Jul 1 – Sep 1), we asked our customers to post their own pictures of the impressive mountain.We got a great response and some great photos from our UK, US and Australian travellers – thanks very much! We have also posted these on the InsideJapan Tours Facebook so take a look there and vote for your favourites.

 

Mount Fuji Gallery

Hazel Wilson
“Taken through the window of the Shinkansen as we sped towards Kyoto 3 years ago”

Mount Fuji Gallery

Ali Muskett
A surreal shot of Fuji from the nearby Safari Park (hence the elephant). IJT team member, Ali, is not allowed to win the prize, but we thought it was worth putting this one up.

Mount Fuji Gallery

Matthew Young
Mt. Fuji in Autumn from Misaka Pass

Mount Fuji Gallery

Alison Sandlands
…and her husband found a great viewing spot in Hakone.

Mount Fuji

Louise Marston
Fuji from an alternative angle
“Did go to Hakone on first IJT trip to Japan in 2010, but it was hazy. However British Airways obliged on the way home”

Mount Fuji Gallery

Richard Hanson
“Mt. Fuji from seen from Oishi park across Lake Kawaguchi-ko on a cold winter’s morning.” Taken on tour in 2013.

Mount Fuji Gallery

Andy Potter
Spectacular photo of Fuji in the mist.

Mount Fuji Gallery

Ed and Dot Jaasma
Love this shot of Fuji in crystal clear skies, taken on their tour back in 2008.

Mount Fuji Gallery

Dirk
A perfectly framed shot of the great snowy peak .

Mount Fuji Gallery

Jim Cripps
Taken from the hotel room in Tokyo during our 2012 ‘Japan Unmasked’ tour.

Mount Fuji Gallery

Harry Bossert
“The day before my Inside Japan tour started, I went up the Skytree first thing in the morning and was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Mt Fuji in the distance…I never got to see it up close though, I’ll have to come back one day to do that.”

Mount Fuji Gallery

Gary McTeer
“My sister and I completed Japan Unmasked in November 2013 (Tyler was the tour guide). The day before the tour started, we made a day trip to Hakone, we were very lucky with the weather”

Mount Fuji Gallery

Grace Marquez
This was taken from the Shinkansen on her way back to Tokyo whilst doing a ‘Price Cruncher’ trip in January this year.

Mount Fuji Gallery

Graham Winkles
Fuji looking exceptionally peaceful last November.

Mount Fuji Gallery

Jamie
Still some mist lingering on the Ochudo Trail up the mountain.

Mount Fuji Gallery

Julie and Scott
On the way to the top of Fuji in 2012.

Mount Fuji Gallery

Sara Newman
“My Mt Fuji photo taken during the Spring Elegance Tour in March/April 2012. This photo was taken whilst I was on the Bullet Train to Hakone. Miss Japan so much”.

Mount Fuji Gallery

Kirsten Adele Faulkner
Another nice Fuji shot

Mount Fuji Gallery

Kirsty Wells
“This photo was taken from the sumit of Mt Tenjo in Kawaguchiko. In the foreground on the left of the photo you can see the red Eejanaika rollercoaster at Fuji-Q Highland theme park”.

Mount Fuji Gallery

Rob Harris
Taken from the Shinkansen heading back to Tokyo on the Tokkaido Trail tour in November ’12.

Mount Fuji Gallery

Jessica Collins
“We saw Fujisan while riding the cable car to the observatory. We were on the Tokaido Trail tour – One of the best trips of my life”.

Mount Fuji Gallery

Tingo Sudjai
A Beautiful photo of his daughter celebrating in front of Fuji!

Mount Fuji Gallery

Carol Fraser
“We were very, very lucky to her on many occasions on our tour Nov/Dec 2013 but this is one of my favourite views from Owakudani.” -

Wow. Thanks for these. Doesn’t matter how many times I see this mountain, I am always impressed by her. Who’s going to win the prizes?

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.

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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.

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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!

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