8 Things to look out for when in Akihabara

Akihabara is truly the Japan’s capital of “otaku” – often translated as ‘someone who has obsessive interests in video games, manga, anime, electronics and the like’. There’s more manga and anime in this little district of Tokyo than exists anywhere else in the world. But whether you consider yourself a fan of such things completely misses the point; this neighborhood is a traveler’s dream because it is unlike anywhere else any of us have ever been and will ever go to. And isn’t that why we travel in the first place?

Akihabara

In a simple stroll through “Akiba” (as it is commonly and affectionately known by most Tokyo-ites) there are more things to point out, talk about and be astonished by then would ever fit in a single blog post so instead I’ve chosen 8 things that I love about this quirky part of town. If you are coming to the area be sure to keep an eye out for the following!


Oden Vending Machine

1) Japan has become famous for vending machines and they can now be found throughout the country. Indeed, I’ve seen them in the middle of rice paddies and on top of Mount Fuji. I’ve seen banana vending machines, french fry vending machines, flower vending machines and some others too sorted and seedy to mention here. But there’s nothing quite like a hot cup of oden or ramen noodles from a vending machine (pictured above). The perfect place for a pick-me-up during a day of sightseeing in Akihabara.

One Person Karaoke

2) In Japan, as in most places, karaoke tends to be a social event. Something you do with your friends or even family to have a bit of fun and enjoy one another’s company, if not their singing voice. But in a neighborhood known as a haven for nerds and outcasts it is no surprise that you can find one person karaoke booths. The perfect place to let out your inner rock star or let off some steam, perhaps by belting out a few Journey songs (an advert for the booths is pictured above).

All girl sushi

3) Sushi in Japan is a craft, even an artform at times. It has spread throughout the world but there is nothing like the sushi that can be had in one of Tokyo’s premier upscale sushi shops. Unfortunately, sushi chefs have traditionally been and remain almost entirely male. This is largely said to be because most women’s hands are too hot and this in turn affects the flavor of the sushi. But in Akihabara you can put that myth to the test at this all girl sushi restaurant (pictured above is Nadeshiko Sushi – http://www.nadeshico-sushi.com).

Shrine in Akihabara

4) Akihabara is closely associated with electronics and it is known for being at the cutting edge of manga, anime and the Japanese video gaming world so it can be quite a surprise to see all the traditional culture that remains side by side the bright and brash billboards and advertisements. Visit a local Shintō shrine or stop off at a traditional eatery while strolling about.

Live Idol Show

5) One of the things that brought Akihabara to the forefront of otaku culture was the ability to see live music shows by “idol” groups on a daily basis. Although these no longer take place on the street like they used to, you can still see some talented and fun shows every day of the year. Both during the day and at night are venues where you can let your inner fan shine. Find an idol club and dance your cares away while waving different coloured light sticks (the venue pictured above is called Dear Stage and typically has live shows everyday from 5-6pm till around 11:30pm – http://dearstage.com).

6) Not pictured but entirely worth checking out are Akihabara’s retro video game arcades. Sure it’s fun to come and see the newest gadgets and most up-to-date driving and shooting games but nothing will bring you back to your childhood faster than a go at one of the games you grew up playing!

Traces of the past

7) A bit different from number 4, try looking for traces of Akihabara’s past as you wander throughout the area. Though not always traditional, there is plenty of evidence of what the electronic district was like before manga, anime and pornography took over. After all, a place as unique as Akihabara isn’t made overnight!

Assemblage

8) Assemble your own electronics. As you leave Akihabara JR Station on the ‘Electric City’ side, continue under the tracks and you will find a plethora of vacuum tubes, radio innards, computer wires, various kits and loads of speciality shops selling the pieces that make our electronics tick. Although you might not have the confidence to put one of these kits together on your own, you can get some help at the Assemblage desk. Make a little radio, assemble a robot or throw together a blinking doodad. (The staff won’t be fluent in English but they always make an effort and they certainly know what they are doing. Make sure to leave plenty of time for this.)

Akihabara

8) You’d have a hard time missing the colorful billboards and advertising that dons the various buildings of Akihabara but surprisingly few people take the time to really look at these and appreciate the aesthetic – and even artistry – that is so uniquely Akiba. From adverts for maid cafes to posters announcing the latest video game release, you’ll know that you are a long way from home when take a little bit of time to look towards the sky and admire the scenery.

 

As I said at the beginning of this post, you don’t need to be an “otaku” to enjoy a day out in Akihabara!

Inside our Hidden Japan

These photos, taken by tour leader William last November, capture just a few moments from our  ‘Hidden Japan’ tour which begins and ends in glorious Kyoto before discovering lesser known Japanese treasures and experiences from Honshu and rural Shikoku…
The ancient temple community of Koya

The ancient temple community of Koya

As you probably know (because we witter on about it quite a lot), every member of our team at InsideJapan Tours has lived in Japan. We are a family of dedicated Japan buffs whose local knowledge extends far beyond the bounds of Tokyo and Kyoto – into the far-flung and little known regions from chilly Hokkaido all the way down to subtropical Okinawa.

Okonomiyaki savoury pancakes in Hiroshima

Okonomiyaki savoury pancakes in Hiroshima

Given that we’re all such Japan nuts, it’s no surprise that unusual, in-depth, off-the-beaten-track trips are our forté – and our customers come to us for an experience of Japan that will take them away from the tourist traps and deep into “real Japan”.

William prepares to tuck into a beautiful kaiseki meal

William prepares to tuck into a beautiful kaiseki meal

Beautiful and mysterious geisha in Kyoto

Beautiful: Wannabe Geisha, Kyoto

Hidden Japan is one of our best Small Group Tours if you want to really discover a side of this fascinating country that rarely features in the guide books. Yes, it covers the must-see ancient city of Kyoto and famous Hiroshima – but it also ventures to the atmospheric temple community of Koya, deep in the mountains of the Kii Peninsula and to the amazing “Art Island” of Naoshima on the Seto Inland Sea, and various great locations on the little-visited island of Shikoku.

Yayoi Kusama's yellow pumpkin on Naoshima Island

Yayoi Kusama’s yellow pumpkin on Naoshima Island

You’ll spend the night at a real temple lodging, attending morning prayers and sampling traditional, Buddhist shojin ryori cuisine; you’ll cross vertiginous vine bridges built by samurai across the lush Iya Valley; you’ll have the opportunity to bathe at Japan’s oldest hot spring bathhouse, favoured by the Imperial Family; and you’ll ascend by cable car to the top of Mount Bizan for spectacular views across Shikoku.

Sunset over the Seto Inland Sea

Sunset over the Seto Inland Sea

A happy traveller in the beautiful Iya Valley

A happy traveller in the beautiful Iya Valley

You’ll also visit one of Japan’s most famous landscape gardens, Ritsurin; climb the steps to the top of one of Shikoku’s most venerated shrines, Konpira-san; explore beautiful Miyajima with its iconic “floating” gate, one of Japan’s most famous images; see a traditional ‘Bunraku’ puppet show in the town of Tokushima; and experience true Japanese hospitality at a traditional ryokan inn.

Dogo Onsen, the bathhouse of Japan's royal family

Outside Dogo Onsen, the bathhouse of Japan’s royal family

Hidden Japan brings an adventurous spirit and a desire to really get beneath the surface of this amazing country. Our tour leaders are Japanophiles who speak fluent English and Japanese, have an extensive knowledge of the country’s culture and customs, and have made their home here in Japan.

Crossing an Iya Valley vine bridge

Crossing an Iya Valley vine bridge

Just a few of our previous customers!

Just a few of our previous customers!

‘Hidden Japan’ is an insight into parts of Japan and its culture that most visitors do not to get experience.  And as one of the tour customers said, ” Overall, I LOVED my experience…I loved the culture, gardens and temples we saw. Just amazing” – there you have it.

There’s a last-minute place on our spring Hidden Japan, departing on 26th of March – but we also have departures in the summer months into the mild autumn – both with their benefits. Drop us a line to help you get ‘lost’ in Japanese culture too!

Girl’s Day in Japan – A little bit about Hina Matsuri

Princess In Japan, every year on the 3rd of March comes a traditional celebration known properly as momo-no-sekku (桃の節句) but more casually referred to as Hina Matsuri (雛祭り) or, in English, as Girl’s Day. Which is rather appropriate since the holiday is focused on a family’s hope that their daughter or granddaughter will grow up healthily, happily and successfully. An intrinsic part of Girl’s DaAkiba Hina Dolls (1 of 1)y are Hina Ningyō (雛人形), the dolls that grace a family’s home from mid-February to March 4th. And not a day longer because leaving the dolls out past March 4th is said to delay the girl’s chance at marriage. Though as a new father who can’t bear the thought of giving his daughter away, I plan to leave ours out until at least April! Although the superstition of days past has largely faded away, the tradition comes from an old belief that dolls could contain bad spirits and unfortunate luck. The dolls of ancient Japan (around 1000 years ago) were made of straw and paper and floated on streams to take this bad fortune far away. For any Ghibli fans, this is also said to be the origin of the paper dolls that make a brief appearance in Spirited Away. For those lucky enough to travel in Japan during February – when nearly every day is sunny, the skies are clear, and the tourists sites less crowded than any other time of year – large sets of Hina Dolls can be found throughout the country in restaurants, shops, homes and even in train stations. The photo on the left was taken at a busy electronics store in central Tokyo, probably the last place one would expect to see such a traditional and elegant display. As might be expected, each of the different dolls has a particular position and rEmperor (1 of 1)epresents something and someone. The two on top represent the Emperor and Empress, on the second tier are three court ladies, the third has five male musicians with their various instruments, the fourth platform has two ministers on it but is also commonly decorated with small tables and stands of rice cakes, on the fifth – and generally final – platform are three protectors of the Emperor and Empress (one sad, one angry and one in good spirits). For the truly elaborate Hina Doll stands there can be seven layers and the bottom two layers in this case are used for miniature furniture or old world travel goods like a small palanquin. Not surprisingly, the above setup is a bit too elaborate for the average home, not to mention too expensive. As you may be able to tell from the detail shot at the right, these dolls are not your average play things. Craftsmen and women spend months making each and every piece of the dolls by hand. The 12 layer silk kimonos that adorn the Emperor and Empress are reminiscent of those worn by royalty during weddings in the Heian Period (794 – 1185) and still worn by the Imperial family for formal weddings today. The last time being in 1993 when Princess Masako wedded the CrownHina Bears Prince. The Heian Period is also the period from which Girl’s Day has its origins. There are often pieces of lacquer and working lights and trees and flowers made of fabric and silk. The fans and swords are crafted singularly and the dolls expressions are unique to each artisan’s tastes and preferences. Quite simply, these so-called “dolls” are rightly considered works of art. Accordingly, the full sets can cost over 10,000 US dollars! Even sets of only the Emperor and Empress – by far and away the more popular choice for modern Japanese families – often costs thousands of dollars (USD). For this reason many doll makers and companies are getting creative and finding affordable compromises that allow the average person to celebrate the birth of a new daughter without having to take out a loan. Disney characters, anime heroTemarizushi Dinneres, wood carved dolls and even teddy bears (like those pictured here) have become fun and easy alternatives. On the actual holiday, March 3rd, the family celebrates with traditional food and a small at-home party. Although there are regional differences, one common dish that is served on Hina Matsuri is chirashizushi, a delicious sushi recipe where a bed of vinegared rice is topped with fresh fish and other ingredients. Also popular is a fermented rice drink called shirozake and diamond shaped tricolored rice cakes called hishimochi. Green for long-lasting good health, red for good fortune and white for purity.

Although I’ve lived in Japan for many years, I’m looking forward to celebrating my first Hina Matsuri with my daughter this March. We chose to make temarizushi (round sushi balls – see picture to the right) as it is both somewhat traditional and also very cute – perfect for Girl’s Day!Home set (1 of 1)

10 fantastic places to see cherry blossom in Japan

It’s nearly the end of winter and spring is just around the corner – which means it’s nearly cherry blossom season!

To celebrate, we’ve produce a super-duper new cherry blossom infographic to keep you interactively up-to-date with when and where the sakura will be blooming this year. Click the link above and slide the slider to see when the sakura is expected in each destination. Check it out!

Our cherry blossom guide

Our brand new cherry blossom guide!

To the Japanese, cherry blossom is much more than just a few flowers. It’s hard to explain to those who haven’t experienced it, but during the sakura (cherry blossom) season, the whole country is swept by a sort of festival atmosphere that lasts from the first flowering down in southerly Okinawa until the last petal drops in northern Hokkaido. As the blossom front sweeps along the length of the archipelago over the course of several months, the shops fill with sakura-flavoured drinks and snacks, the blossom report becomes more important than the weather forecast, and people flock in their droves to the most popular hanami (flower-viewing) points to lay out tarpaulins beneath the trees and generally eat, drink and be merry.

All this means that although it is the busiest time of year for tourism in Japan, it’s also one of the nicest – with lovely weather, beautiful landscapes and a relaxed, party-like atmosphere everywhere from the biggest city to the smallest of rural villages.

But where best to make the most of the phenomenon of sakura?

Well, it depends who you ask. Everybody tends to have their own favourite spot, whether it’s one of the famous destinations or just their family garden, so this is not a “top ten” list – only a few suggestions. You’ll have to find your own favourite by yourself!

1. Mount Yoshino

View from Yoshino's main viewpoint

View from Yoshino’s main viewpoint

One must either be very brave or very stupid to venture to Yoshino during peak cherry blossom season. Covered in over 30,000 cherry trees, it’s the most famous sakura viewing spot in Japan and has been for hundreds of years. The route most visitors take to view the blossoms snakes from the railway station at the foot of the mountain ridge, passing through four distinct sections (the Shimo Senbon, Naka Senbon, Kami Senbon and Oku Senbon), with various parks and viewpoints as well as lots of yatai food stalls along the way.

Though it does get overwhelmingly busy, I visited Yoshino on a weekend in peak season in 2014 and I do think that it’s worth the effort – especially if you take a few pieces of advice along with you! Firstly, arrive as early as possible to avoid the worst of the crowds. You might even consider staying at a ryokan on the mountain itself so that you can enjoy the blossom in peace, just after sunrise. If you’re planning to eat lunch at a local restaurant, eat early to avoid the massive queues at lunchtime – or do what I did and just buy lots of delicious snacks from the yatai food stalls along the way. Bringing a picnic is another great alternative. Lastly, be sure to reserve a seat on the train home! Standing up all the way back to Nara or Kyoto after a day of hiking is not the one – as I found out to my detriment.

Check out my post from last year for more tips!

2. Shinjuku Gyoen, Tokyo

Shinjuku Gyoen, Tokyo

Since the vast majority of people who visit Japan will visit Tokyo, where better to suggest than the capital’s very own Shinjuku Gyoen – a large park located right at the heart of the city, within walking distance of one of its largest and busiest entertainment and business hubs.

Tokyo is famous the world over as a hyper-modern metropolis packed with high-rise buildings and flashing neon lights, and whilst this is true – there is also a surprising wealth of green spaces where you can take time out from the hustle and bustle of the city to relax. One of the best places to see cherry blossom in Tokyo is undoubtedly Shinjuku Gyoen, which is home to over one thousand cherry trees of both early- and late-blooming varieties, meaning that the sakura season here lasts longer than elsewhere in the city.

Other lovely sakura spots in the city include the Imperial Palace Gardens, Hamarikyu Gardens and Ueno Park – so be sure to try out a few.

3. Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle in the cherry blossom

Fully re-opened this year after a five-year facelift, Japan’s largest and most impressive castle is also a wonderful place to see the cherry blossom. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has survived fires, wars, earthquakes and the Meiji Restoration to be one of only a handful of original feudal castles still standing in Japan – and 2015 is an especially good year to visit following its hiatus from the tourist trail. Surrounded by sakura trees, Himeji is undoubtedly at its best in the spring!

If Himeji isn’t on your itinerary this spring, don’t worry – nearly all Japanese castles (whether original or reconstructed) make excellent hanami locations as they are traditionally surrounded by cherry trees

4. Mount Fuji

Mount Fuji framed by sakura

The only thing better than one Japanese national icon is two Japanese national icons – and for a couple of months each year you can get two for the price of one as Mount Fuji is surrounded by cherry blossom. There are numerous places from which to view Mount Fuji, but our favourites are Hakone and the Fuji Five Lakes region. Fuji Five Lakes is perhaps better than Hakone when it comes to sakura, and two of the best spots are the northern shores of Lake Kawaguchiko and the Chureito Pagdo, built in the hills of Fujiyoshida City.

5. Philosopher’s Path, Kyoto

Spring Elegance; David Lovejoy; IJT Staff; Kyoto

Geisha in Kyoto

Kyoto’s Philosopher’s Path is a lovely stone walkway that follows a canal through the northern part of the city’s Higashiyama district. It gets its name from a particular philosopher – Nishida Kitaro – who was said to wander down the path in meditation on his way to Kyoto University. The path runs for about two kilometres and as well as plenty of restaurants, cafes and shops it is lined all the way with cherry trees, which explode into colour in early April – providing one of Kyoto’s most popular hanami spots.

Hanami parties in Maruyama Park

Hanami parties in Maruyama Park

Other famous hanami locations in Kyoto include Maruyama Park, with its giant weeping cherry tree; the Arashiyama district on the outskirts of the city, famous for its bamboo groves and monkey park; and Heian Shrine, where the weeping cherry trees bloom a few days later than in the rest of Kyoto – making it a great option for visitors who have missed peak season!

6. Kenrokuen Garden, Kanazawa

Kenrokuen Gardens with cherry blossom, Kanazawa

Acknowledged as one of the top three landscape gardens in Japan (and widely considered to be the best of the three), Kenrokuen Garden in Kanazawa is a beautiful place to visit at any time of year – but especially so during the cherry blossom season. The garden is so large that you could easily spend a couple of hours wandering through it, and at closing time if you listen very carefully you may hear the voice of InsideJapan’s Richard Farmer over the loudspeaker politely asking you to leave!

As well as having lots of sakura trees within the garden, there are plenty more surrounding it – especially at nearby Kanazawa Castle. Kanazawa itself is one of the hottest Japan destinations for 2015, what with its shiny new bullet train line, beautiful station, beautifully preserved traditional districts and cutting edge 21st Century Museum of Art – so there’s no excuse not to make it part of your itinerary.

7. Miharu Takizakura

Miharu Takizakura

Miharu Takizakura (photo: JNTO)

Miharu Takizakura, (lit. “Waterfall cherry tree of Miharu”) is located near the small town of Miharu in Fukushima Prefecture, in the northern Tohoku region of Japan’s Honshu main island. Over one thousand years old, 12 metres tall and with a trunk circumference of 9.5 metres, this massive weeping cherry tree is probably Japan’s most famous tree – and is thought by many to be its most beautiful.

As the Japanese do very much like to rank things in lists, it comes as no surprise that Miharu Takizakura tops both the “five great cherry trees of Japan” and the “three giant cherry trees of Japan”. Furthermore, according to Wikipedia, “polls frequently rank it as the number one tree in all of Japan”. One does have to wonder how often Japan needs to take polls about its trees, but anyway. It’s a pretty nice tree, I’m sure you’ll agree.

8. Hirosaki Castle

Hirosaki Castle with sakura

Considered to be one of the top three cherry blossom viewing spots in Japan (here we go again with the lists), Hirosaki Castle at the northern tip of Honshu main island is a wonderful place to see in the sakura. Since it’s so northern, the blossoms come out rather later here than in more southerly regions, making this a great spot for those who arrive in Japan too late to hit peak season elsewhere.

From around late April each year, Hirosaki Park is tranformed into a pink wonderland with over 2,500 cherry trees, cherry blossom tunnels, evening illuminations, moats turned completely pink with petals, lovely picnic areas, and rental rowing boats combining to create a truly magical hanami location. If you visit between April 23 and May 5, you will also catch the Hirosaki cherry blossom festival.

A pink, petal-filled moat at Hirosaki Castle (photo: Japanguide.com)

A pink, petal-filled moat at Hirosaki Castle (photo: Japanguide.com)

Unfortunately Hirosaki Castle is currently undergoing renovations planned to last around a decade, but the park will be a lovely place to see the sakura this year nonetheless.

9. Hanamiyama Park, Fukushima

Hanamiyama Park (photo: Japanguide.com)

Hanamiyama Park (photo: Japanguide.com)

Another entry from the northern Tohoku region of Japan,  Hanamiyama Park (lit. “flower viewing mountain”) lies on the slopes surrounding a rural farming community in Fukushima Prefecture. The park was started by local farmers who began planting ornamental plants and trees in the area, and was opened to the public in 1959. The variety of types of cherry tree and other flowering trees mean that there are actually a wide range of spring colours in the area, with lovely views of the Azuma Mountains in the distance.

Visit the visitors centre at the entrance of the park to pick up maps with suggested walking courses and viewing points that look out over Fukushima city and the surrounding valley.

10. Takato Castle Ruins, Nagano

Takato Castle Ruins surrounded by cherry blossom (Photo: bigglobe.ne.jp)

Takato Castle Ruins Park in full bloom (Photo: bigglobe.ne.jp)

Last but certainly not least on our list is the Takato Castle Ruins Park in Nagano Prefecture, the last of the official top three cherry blossom spots in Japan (along with Mount Yoshino and Hirosaki Castle). Located on a hill in Ina City, Nagano, the park is about 60 km from Matsumoto (where the “Black Crow” Castle also provides a great hanami location). Visit during the month of April and you’ll find yatai stalls set up all around the park for the annual cherry blossom festival, and there are lovely illuminations held every evening from sunset until 10pm.

As with many of the spots on this list Takato Castle Park gets super busy during sakura season, so you’d be well advised to visit early in the morning and to avoid weekends unless you don’t mind crowds! Within the park, the curved Onkyo Bridge is one of the nicest points during cherry blossom – but there are plenty of other beauty spots if you take the time to wander around.

The Yamazaki Whisky Distillery is Pretty Neat!

A favourite pastime in Japan in summer is to get together with friends and while away the balmy nights around a habachi barbecue with some ice cold beers. In February however, what with the frequent snowfall and early sunsets, those long evenings can seem a distant memory. Beer is not called for at this time of year. This season calls for something a little stronger, and what tipple could be more fitting than a wee dram of whisky?

Slightly more than a wee dram here...

Slightly more than a wee dram here…

Although whisky production has a history going back nearly 100 years in Japan, until recently Japanese whisky hasn’t had widespread recognition within the international market. Over the last decade this has begun to change, and this year with a Japanese whisky named as the best in the world, Japanese whisky is finally getting the appreciation it deserves.

Although we might not all be able to afford a bottle of the award winning Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 (only 18,000 bottles were produced and it retails for US$160 a bottle), the Yamazaki distillery also produces some more affordable whiskies. As a bonus, the distillery is just a short 15 minute minute train ride from Kyoto (a destination which features on the majority of our Small Group Tours and Self Guided Adventures) and there are free daily guided tours of the distillery.

I recently visited the distillery to experience one of their guided tours, and of course to have a wee tipple! Here’s a brief look at what I saw and learnt!

After a short train ride from Kyoto station, you will arrive at JR Yamazaki station. Much smaller then Kyoto station!

After a short train ride from Kyoto station, you will arrive at JR Yamazaki station. Much smaller then Kyoto station!

The distillery is less than 10 minutes walk from the station and is clearly signposted.

The distillery is less than 10 minutes walk from the station and is clearly signposted.

Although Yamazaki station is in Kyoto prefecture, you will actually walk across the prefectural boundary in to Osaka prefecture on your way to the distillery.

Although Yamazaki station is in Kyoto prefecture, you will actually walk across the prefectural boundary into Osaka prefecture on your way to the distillery.

Before long the distillery looms into view! As you can see, it was a slightly wet and dreary day. But I just imagined myself in the Scottish Highlands and suddenly it didn't seem half as bad!

Before long the distillery looms into view! As you can see, it was a slightly wet and dreary day. But I just imagined myself in the Scottish Highlands and suddenly it didn’t seem half as bad!

After reporting to the customer reception and confirming your appointment, you will be directed to the Yamazaki Whisky Museum (the white building on the right), which is where the tours start.

After reporting to the customer reception and confirming your appointment, you will be directed to the Yamazaki Whisky Museum (the white building on the right), which is where the tours start.

I advise arriving about 30 minutes before your tour appointment, which will allow you to have a quick look around the exhibits in the museum. There were many old bottles on display charting the history of Suntory Yamazaki whisky from its birth in 1923 to the present day.

I advise arriving about 30 minutes before your tour appointment, which will allow you to have a quick look around the exhibits in the museum. There were many old bottles on display charting the history of Suntory Yamazaki whisky from its birth in 1923 to the present day.

Before the tour started I was also offered an English language audio guide. The tour guide will tell you which number to press and you can follow along with the tour even if you can't speak Japanese!

Before the tour started I was also offered an English language audio guide. The tour guide will tell you which number to press and you can follow along with the tour even if you can’t speak Japanese. Marvellous!

My tour started right on time from the meeting point on the 2nd floor of the Whisky Museum. First we were greeted by these statues in the courtyard. The sitting statue on the left is Shinjiro Torii, who founded the distillery. I'm not sure who the chap on the right is, but I've got a feeling he likes whisky.

My tour started right on time from the meeting point on the 2nd floor of the Whisky Museum. First we were greeted by these statues in the courtyard. The sitting statue on the left is Shinjiro Torii, who founded the distillery. I’m not sure who the chap on the right is, but I’ve got a feeling he likes whisky.

From the courtyard we ventured into the distillery itself and were given a chronological tour of the creation of whisky, starting with this room where the malting, mashing and fermentation takes place.

From the courtyard we ventured into the distillery itself and were given a chronological tour of the creation of whisky, starting with this room where the malting, mashing and fermentation takes place.

From here we ventured into the distillation hall, where three different shapes of 'pot stills' are used to create 'new-make spirits' of different characters.

From here we ventured into the distillation hall, where three different shapes of ‘pot stills’ are used to create ‘new-make spirits’ of different characters.

From there we continued to the rather chilly storehouse where the ageing of the spirit takes place in oak casks. Casks of different ages impart different flavours.

From there we continued to the rather chilly storehouse where the ageing of the clear spirit takes place in oak casks. Casks of different ages impart different flavours and also give whisky its colour.

Each cask has the year of production printed on the front. This one is quite a young one compared to some that I saw!

Each cask has the year of production printed on the front. This one is quite a young one compared to some that I saw!

We left through the back entrance of the storage hall and walked past the distillery's very own Shinto shrine!

We left through the back entrance of the storage hall and walked past the distillery’s very own Shinto shrine!

The aromas floating around throughout all of the places we had visited so far had really whet my appetite for this part - the tasting hall!

The aromas floating around throughout all of the places we had visited so far had really whet my appetite for this part – the tasting hall!

The first whisky on offer for tasting was their signature whisky - Yamazaki 12 Years Old Single Malt. They recommend drinking it as a highball (mixed with soda water). It's not how I usually drink my whisky, but as it was free I was happy to go along with their suggestion. I was pleasantly surprised and was really enjoying my highball and packet of nuts when...

The first whisky on offer for tasting was their signature whisky – Yamazaki 12 Years Old Single Malt. They recommend drinking it as a highball (mixed with soda water). It’s not how I usually drink my whisky, but as it was free I was happy to go along with their suggestion. I was pleasantly surprised and was really enjoying my highball and packet of nuts when…

... another whisky was offered! This time from Yamasaki's sister distillery, Hakushu, located in Yamanashi prefecture, home of Mt. Fuji. I actually preferred the fresher and smokier flavour of this whisky...

… another whisky was offered! This time from Yamasaki’s sister distillery, Hakushu, located in Yamanashi prefecture, home of Mt. Fuji. I actually preferred the fresher and smokier flavour of this whisky…

... but when we were given the chance to have yet another try of either the Yamazaki or the Hakushu in a form other than 'highball', I felt I had to represent the home team and tried the Yamazaki 12 Years Old neat. And jolly good it was, too!

… but when we were given the chance to have yet another try of either the Yamazaki or the Hakushu in a form other than ‘highball’, I felt I had to represent the home team and tried the Yamazaki 12 Years Old neat. And jolly good it was, too!

Next stop was of course the gift shop. Three whiskies down and my purse strings were feeling slightly looser than usual, but I resisted and headed straight on through to the Whisky Library.

Next stop was of course the gift shop. Three whiskies down and my purse strings were feeling slightly looser than usual, but I resisted and headed straight on through to the Whisky Library.

The Whisky Library contains 7,000 bottles of single malt whisky all created at the distillery.

The Whisky Library contains 7,000 bottles of single malt whisky all created at the distillery.

Each bottle has detailed information about when it was created and tasting notes. Unfortunately the bottles in the library are not available for purchase or tasting.

Each bottle has detailed information about when it was created and tasting notes. Unfortunately the bottles in the library are not available for purchase or tasting.

However, don't be disheartened! The Whisky Library also has a tasting counter where you can sample a large number of whiskies created by both the Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries. They also have a  number of other whiskies not just from Scotland but from Ireland, America and Canada as well.

However, don’t be disheartened! The Whisky Library also has a tasting counter where you can sample a large number of whiskies created by both the Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries. They also have a number of other whiskies not just from Japan, but from around the globe.

As everything up until this point had been totally free of charge, I felt duty bound to at least spend some of my money in return for the wonderful services I had received. I opted to sample the Yamazaki 18 Years Old Single Malt. After sampling its loveliness, I almost felt duty bound to sample some others, but felt that this could be a rather slippery slope, and so decided it was safer to begin my journey home!

As everything up until this point had been totally free of charge, I felt duty bound to at least spend some of my money in return for the wonderful services I had received. I opted to sample the Yamazaki 18 Years Old Single Malt. After sampling its loveliness, I almost felt duty bound to sample some others, but felt that this could be a rather slippery slope, and so decided it was safer to begin my journey home!

And so my experience at the Yamazaki Distillery was concluded and I headed back to Yamazaki station. The distillery is actually located adjacent to the train line, so if you're arriving into Kyoto from Kansai International Airport or travelling between Osaka and Kyoto, keep an eye out for it on the way!

And so my experience at the Yamazaki Distillery was concluded and I headed back to Yamazaki station. The distillery is actually located adjacent to the train line, so if you’re arriving into Kyoto from Kansai International Airport, or travelling between Osaka and Kyoto, keep an eye out for it on the way!

I highly recommend a visit to the Yamazaki distillery. You’re sure to learn something new, and who can say no to a bombardment of free whisky? Although participation is free, appointments for the guided tours are essential and need to be arranged well in advance. If you would like to find out more about how to include a tour of the Yamazaki distillery into your trip to Japan, please check out the experience page on our website. This experience could easily be included into a Self Guided Adventure and could also be combined with some other fantastic gastronomic experiences as part of your trip.

Sláinte and kanpai!

Japanese etiquette 101: How to Onsen

Ask almost anybody at InsideJapan Tours what is their favourite thing about Japan, and they will probably list the people, the food, and the onsen. Heck, ask any Japanese person what is their favourite thing about Japan and they’ll most likely say the same.  And yet for such a well-loved pastime, onsen are also probably the scariest part of Japanese culture for most foreigners.

But don’t worry – after reading this guide, you too will be an onsen master!

Senninburo, a giant outdoor onsen bath carved into the riverbed at Kawayu Onsen (photo: Kumano Travel)

Senninburo, a giant outdoor onsen bath carved into the riverbed at Kawayu Onsen (photo: Kumano Travel)

What’s an onsen?

First things first! An onsen 温泉 (lit. “hot water spring”) is a natural hot spring bath, and thanks to its plentiful volcanic activity Japan has lots of them.

Onsen water is geothermally heated beneath the ground and rises to the surface bubbling hot. The prerequisites of an official onsen are that the water must contain at least one of the 19 designated chemical elements that naturally occur in hot spring water, and it must be at least 25C when it comes out of the ground. Rotenburo is another word you may hear in Japan and refers to an outdoors onsen (the best kind!).

Sento, on the other hand, are indoor public bathhouses supplied by ordinary heated water. Whilst onsen are generally looked on as something as a treat, sento are the everyday bathhouses of ordinary Japanese people – and as such make a very interesting experience in themselves, although sometimes it can be a bit daunting to enter on your own as very few foreigners take the time to seek them out.

Nevertheless, the rules of etiquette are the same for both onsen and sento, so with your newfound skills you’ll be able to tackle any bathhouse with aplomb.

Onsen and sento entrances are marked by half-length curtains. Red means women; blue means men! (Photo: Kifu no Sato)

Onsen and sento entrances are marked by half-length curtains. Red means women; blue means men! (Photo: Kifu no Sato)

What’s so great about them?

Communal bathing doesn’t exactly sound appealing to most gaijin (foreigners), but in Japan it is a beloved part of traditional culture.

Onsen water has been believed to have a multitude of healing properties basically since time began, and is packed full of minerals that are thought to be good for your skin, circulation and general health. Onsen baths can be beautiful objects in themselves – made from materials such as cypress wood, marble and granite – and are often situated in areas of outstanding natural beauty or attached to lovely traditional inns, which enhances their appeal.

There really is nothing more relaxing or therapeutic than lying back in a hot bath after a long day – especially when you’re surrounded by falling snow, on a beach, overlooking a beautiful mountain view, or listening to a river rushing past. Once you’ve done it, you’ll never look back!

Nyuto Onsen's famous outdoor bath

Nyuto Onsen’s famous outdoor bath

So what do I need to know?

There are quite a few rules of etiquette surrounding onsen bathing, and this can make the whole thing seem a little scary and uncomfortable when you’re not sure what you’re doing – but once you’ve done it once you’ll realise that it’s really not that complicated after all.

THE RULES:

1. Birthday suits only!

Yep – you heard me. No speedos allowed! This (unsurprisingly) is the bit that puts most people off, and anybody at InsideJapan will tell you that they all felt the same anxiety the first time they tried it. Once you dare to bare, however, it really doesn’t take long to get used to it – and when you see that the Japanese don’t bat an eyelid you’ll soon lose your self-consciousness. (N.B. I have heard tell that a fair bit of staring is par for the course in the mens’ onsen, but I can vouch that it’s very civilised in the ladies’!)

For those who really can’t stomach the idea of stripping off in public, there are a number of ways you can get around it. For one, there are many traditional ryokan inns where the guest rooms have private rotenburo baths attached (these will be amongst the more expensive rooms), and in some inns the public baths are available for private use on request. Another alternative is to visit an onsen with milky water – once you’re in, nobody can see anything!

A makeshift onsen dug from the riverbed at Kawayu Onsen (Photo: Kumano Travel)

A makeshift onsen dug from the riverbed at Kawayu Onsen (Photo: Kumano Travel)

2. Shower before you bathe.

To the Japanese, the Western practice of washing yourself in the bath is, well… pretty gross actually! Even when bathing in the privacy of their own home, the Japanese always clean themselves under the shower before having a soak in the bath – and this is even more important when you’re visiting a communal sento or onsen – to keep the water as clean as possible.

To this end, every onsen has a row of showers around the outside of the bath. Soap, shampoo and conditioner are usually provided (though you can bring your own if you prefer), and you are expected to sit down on one of the stools provided while you wash. It’s considered bad manners to stand up while you wash, as you might splash one of the people next to you – and you must remember to rinse thoroughly so as not to get soap in the bath water.

Though it’s less important than showering before you bathe, most Japanese will have a quick rinse under the shower after a soak in the onsen – and if they are returning to the bath after using a sauna or steam room.

Typical bucket and stool used for washing at an onsen (Photo: Kifu no Sato)

Typical bucket and stool used for washing at an onsen (Photo: Kifu no Sato)

3. Towels

At any onsen, you will either be provided with a small and a large towel, or there will be some available to rent. This is not always the case at local sento baths, so you are advised to bring your own.

The large towel is for drying yourself and should be left in the changing room (along with your clothes), while the small towel is for washing and can be taken into the bathing area. You can take your small towel into the bath with you (in fact, many people put them on their heads!) but you mustn’t let it go in the water.

Enjoying Nyuto Onsen

Enjoying Nyuto Onsen

4. Hair & head

If you have long hair, always remember to bring a hairband or to wrap your hair in a small towel, as even if you’ve just washed your hair under the shower – you should take care to make sure that it doesn’t go in the bath water. You wouldn’t want to be sitting around amongst other people’s hairballs, would you? Well that’s why.

In fact, even if you don’t have any hair you should refrain from putting your head underwater, as there is always a small chance that shared water may carry infection, and putting your head underwater increases your risk of catching something.

Onsen overlooking the mountains at Mount Tokachidake

Onsen overlooking the mountains at Mount Tokachidake

5. Tattoos

As I explained in a recent post, tattoos are something of a taboo in Japan – thanks for the most part to their association with Japanese organised crime (the yakuza). Unfortunately, this means that most onsen and sento ban tattoos completely – even if it is blatantly clear that you are not part of the mafia. It doesn’t make much sense, but rules is rules!

If you have a small tattoo, you may well get away without anybody noticing – or you can cover it up with a sticking plaster or bandage. If you have a larger tattoo that’s difficult to cover you may have more problems. Some solutions are to stay at ryokan inns where there are private rotenburo baths or onsen that can be rented for private use, or to head to the hotel onsen late at night after the other guests have dispersed. If you’re very brave, you could even find out where the real yakuza bathhouses are – but we’re not going to recommend it!

Sign forbidding tattoos at (Photo: spoon-tamago.com)

Sign forbidding tattoos at Tobu Super Pool (Photo: spoon-tamago.com)

6. Noise

Bathhouses are social places, and most onsen-goers like to have a bit of a chat while they relax – so as long as you’re not being rowdy you certainly don’t need to worry about making too much noise.

Indoor bath at Nyuto Onsen

Indoor bath at Nyuto Onsen

7. Alcohol

Onsen and sento will generally display signs indicating that you should not drink and bathe – for pretty obvious reasons I think. That said, a cup of sake or a cold beer while you soak can be divine, so if you’ve got your own private rotenburo then I say go right ahead!

(Photo: Kifu no Sato)

(Photo: Kifu no Sato)

Our Infopack does contain the low-down on ‘How to Onsen’ so that you can relax and enjoy this cultural activity – bliss.

The early cherry blossom report for 2015

sakura blossom

It’s nearly here! The season that everyone has been waiting for, sandwiched between the long, cold winter months and the sweltering humidity of summer: spring! And spring means cherry blossom.

The early cherry blossom forecast was published on the 4th of February 2015 by the Japan Weather Association, which is exciting news for Japan!

Hanami party with geisha in Kyoto

Hanami party with geisha in Kyoto

The cherry blossom front sweeps along the length of the country each year, beginning with Okinawa in the far south and working its way along Japan to Hokkaido in the north. A variety of factors can affect when the cherry blossom comes into bloom: a particularly cold winter can mean that the flowers come out late, unseasonably mild weather can usher them out sooner, and heavy rain can mean that the trees drop their petals much quicker than otherwise. For this reason, the forecast is followed avidly throughout the sakura season!

Nachi falls framed by sakura branches

Nachi falls framed by sakura branches (photo: Kumano Travel)

This year, the weather association predicts that the cherry blossom will be pretty much on schedule, with both Tokyo and Kyoto expecting to see their first blooms open around March 26-27, with the best viewing period expected to fall between April 2 and April 10.

Kumamoto and Fukuoka on Kyushu Island will see their blossom arrive slightly earlier, around March 21, while mountain locations such as Nagano won’t see their first blooms until around April 12.

Tokyo's Senso-ji Temple with cherry blossom

Tokyo’s Senso-ji Temple with cherry blossom

Our exciting new cherry blossom infographic is currently in the pipeline, and should be released in a matter of days. You’ll be able to use it to check whether the sakura is heading your way while you’re in Japan – so watch this space! In the meantime, here is an estimated schedule to give you an indication of what to expect in some key destinations:

sakura

If you are lucky enough to be in Japan during cherry blossom season, it is de rigueur to head out into the local parks and gardens, bring a selection of picnic food and drinks and join the locals for a hanami – which means “flower-viewing”. It is during this period that the Japanese are at their most relaxed, and the party atmosphere in public places at this time is infectious – whether you hit the parks in the daytime or in the evening, when lanterns hang around parks and gardens turning the canopy a glowing pink.

Illuminated sakura tree

Illuminated sakura tree

The tradition of hanami has a history stretching back over many centuries, thought to have begun during the Nara Period (710-794), so by getting involved you will be joining in one of Japan’s best-loved and most time-honoured rituals!

Crowds gather beneath the sakura trees in Tokyo

Crowds gather beneath the sakura trees in Tokyo

InsideJapan’s 2016 tour dates have just been released, so get in there now to make sure you don’t miss the beautiful blossom for another year.

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