Inside a traditional Japanese house

Tour leader Richard, has recently moved house in Japan. He is not in a city apartment, but he is way out in rural Japan and in a huge traditional house. Want to know what a traditional country house looks like?…read on…

When I am asked by Japanese people where I reside in Japan, my response is usually met with a combination of disbelief and amazement. You see, I live in a beautiful little village in a beautiful prefecture called Tottori. With the smallest population for a prefecture in Japan, Tottori is considered the most rural of them all. However, that’s why I love it and that’s why I choose to stay. Tokyo and Osaka are great places to visit, I often do, but they are not for me. Countryside all way, please.

Tottori, like many rural areas in Japan, is facing the double challenge of urban migration and an ageing population. Evidence is never far from sight. Most of my neighbours are in their 60’s and a few are in their 90’s. Younger Japanese are at a premium in these parts, with the lure of better jobs and wages nearer the major cities proving too irresistible for many. And empty buildings. Lots of them. However, if you ask around and the right people (i.e. NOT the government officials at city hall who are supposed to be in charge of such matters) its possible to find some really beautiful and huge places for the price it costs to rent a cupboard in Tokyo. And that’s what happened to me recently. I would like to share with you some photos and a brief description about some of the special points of a traditional, countryside Japanese house.

1) Large, attractive entrance area with wooden screen. The inside of a Japanese house is strictly a no shoes zone. The screen is useful as it’s normal for guests (expected and unexpected) to open the door and walk into the entrance area and announce their presence! Have never quite gotten used to that custom.

Japanese House Entrance Area

2) Speaker/tannoy system. One of the stranger features. Basically a public announcement system for the pocket of houses located together. Each announcement starts with the speaker (usually an older gentlemen) playing a few notes on a xylophone next to the microphone. Old skool.

Japanese Tannoy

3) Large Tatami room with low table. Tatami is type of straw matting, originally associated with the nobility and aristocrats. To be used when formally entertaining guests and having a party with friends and family. No red wine allowed on my tatami! My house also has two other tatami rooms for sleeping on.

Japanese Tatami Room

4) Shrine! Used to pray to your ancestors. The finer detail really is quite special.

Japanese Shrine

5) Last, but not least, Japanese homes are a toilet heaven! The main toilet comes with lots of bells and whistles including a washlet, bidet and a drying function. There is also a separate urinal and even a traditional squat style toilet in an outside room!

Japanese Toilet

 

 

The Joy of Sake

Richard Pearce is one of InsideJapan Tour’s knowledgeable tour leaders. When Richard is not taking people around Japan, he hides away in the mountains of deepest darkest rural Japan with his fingers in many cultural pies….

Living in rural Japan has many, many benefits, as I’ve touched on in previous posts. Clean air, cheaper housing, low-level celebrity status etc etc. However, parties, events and socializing opportunities in general are of course somewhat limited. I’ve found the best way to deal with this issue is to simply make the events yourself!

Want to go to a craft beer festival? Create a beer festival! Want to play football? Start a team!

The Daisenji beer festival is now in its third year and attracted 3500-4000 people in June. The football team, “Tottori Tigers”, were crowned West Japan Champions (all teams a mix of Japanese and non-Japanese) in 2013. In this spirit, whilst talking about the famous and huge Saijo Sake Festival near Hiroshima, the “Kurayoshi Sake Festival” was born.

The perceived benefits were four fold: to support local brewers, to network, to learn more about sake and, well, an excuse for a party! A great two days were had and 37 different types of sake consumed and, in the most part, enjoyed!

Sake Festival Japan

Generally speaking, premium sake can be put into two categories with three grades of quality. The two categories are those with no added alcohol (alcohol occurs naturally in the brewing process) and those with some added alcohol (known as “brewers alcohol”). Premium sake makes up about 20 percent of all sake made. The other 80 percent, “normal” sake if you like, is known in Japanese as “Futsuu” and is cheaper than the premium ones. Lots of distilled alcohol is added to futsuu to increase yields. Although cheaper and generally speaking of a lower quality, there are many delicious futsuu sakes on the market. The types and grades of premium sake are listed below.

What's your poison?

No Added Alcohol Type

Junmai Daiginjo-shu

Brewed with very highly polished rice (at least 50%) with labour intensive and precise methods. Considered to be “the pinnacle of the brewers’ art”. Generally light, complex and fragrant.

Junmai Ginjo-shu

Brewed using more traditional, labour intensive methods rather than machinery with highly polished rice (at least 60%). The fermentation period is relatively long and done at colder temperatures. Light and fruity.

Junmai-shu

Made using rice that is polished to at least 70%. Made with only rice, water and koji mold (Koji mold is a very special part of the sake brewing process, converting sake rice into sugar that can be fermented). Often crisp and full taste.

Sake wonderland
Some Added Alcohol Type

Daiginjo-shu

Brewed with very highly polished rice (at least 50%) with labour intensive and precise methods. Considered to be “the pinnacle of the brewers’ art”. Generally light, complex and quite fragrant.

Ginjo-shu

Brewed using more traditional, labour intensive methods rather than machinery with highly polished rice (at least 60%). The fermentation period is relatively long and done at colder temperatures. Light,
aromatic, fruity and refined.

Honjozo-shu

Made with rice, water, koji and a very small amount of pure distilled
alcohol, which helps to extract flavour and aroma. Light, mildly fragrant and easy to drink.

There are all sorts of sake or ‘Nihon shu’ and something for all palates. When in Japan, give it a go. Kanpai!!!

Sake Festival Japan

 

Kawaii History

Kawaii” is one word that every visitor to Japan is sure to pick up on. Loosely translated it means something like “cute,” but in reality kawaii is more than just cuteness.

Kawaii has gone from being an obscure subculture to a permanent part of Japanese mainstream culture, and it’s impossible to go anywhere in Japan without practically drowning in its sickly-sweet, big-eyed, button-nosed charm.

It’s there in the countless cuddly mascots devised to endorse literally everything (and I do mean literally in the most literal of senses: towns, prefectures, schools, zoos, businesses, products, the police force – even prisons).

The police force mascots of Japan: one for every prefecture

The police force mascots of Japan: one for every prefecture

It’s there in the ubiquitous Hello Kitty, Doraemon and Rilakkuma characters.

Hello Kitty, Doraemon & Rilakkuma lunchbags

Hello Kitty, Doraemon & Rilakkuma lunchbags

It’s there in the Maid Cafes and in the outlandish, colourful fashions of Harajuku.

Maids from the popular @home maid cafe - tagline: "Welcome home, master!"

Maids from the popular @home maid cafe – tagline: “Welcome home, master!”

It’s there in the weird falsetto voices and mannerisms of female shop assistants, and in almost every product on every shelf in every store. Kawaii is everywhere.

Shelves at Sunshine City in Tokyo

Shelves at Sunshine City in Tokyo

But why this obsession with kawaii? Where did it come from, and how did it become so outrageously prevalent?

Some researchers indicate early Disney films as precursors to kawaii culture. The author of Cool Japan, Tomoyuki Sugiyama, suggests that cute fashions can be traced back to the netsuke miniature sculptures of the 17th century. Meanwhile, Time Out Tokyo dates the beginning of kawaii culture back to 1914, when Yumeiji Takehisa opened a shop that sold innovative goods decorated with twee illustrations aimed at schoolgirls.

Nestuke animals - the precursors to phone charms?

Nestuke animals – the precursors to phone charms?

Disney's Bambi, made in 1942

Disney’s Bambi, made in 1942

Most people nowadays credit the artist and illustrator Rune Naito as one of the originators of kawaii culture, whose drawings in the 1950s – 1970s featured figures with large heads and baby-like features that moved away from the traditional Japanese standards of beauty.

Rune Naito figures from the 1970s

Rune Naito figures from the 1970s

There’s no doubt that shojo manga, or Japanese comic books aimed at girls, also fuelled the trend with their large-eyed, round-faced and decidedly kawaii heroines – for an example you need look no further than the immensely popular Candy Candy comic books by Yumiko Igarashi or the internationally famous Sailor Moon.

Typical illustration by Yumiko Igarashi

Typical illustration by Yumiko Igarashi

Global anime superstar: Sailor Moon

Global anime superstar: Sailor Moon

The runaway success of Sanrio’s Hello Kitty franchise in 1974 showed Japanese businesses that kawaii could mean big bucks, prompting all kinds of companies to jump on the cutesy bandwagon. 100 yen shops filled up with cheap “fancy goods” along these lines, and they’ve remained filled to this day.

Moreover, kawaii has begun a global takeover. American pop musicians are inspired by the kawaii fashions of Harajuku, Pokemon (which has been sweeping the playgrounds since I was I child) has proved an enduring phenomenon, and Hello Kitty enjoys international celebrity.

Who doesn't love Pikachu?

Who doesn’t love Pikachu?

So that’s roughly the when and the how of it. But as to why? That’s more difficult to answer…

Cycling Japan just got even better

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

Cycling Japan

Cycling in Chubu

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

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

Shimanamikaido

Shimanami Bridges

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

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

U2 room and rack

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

Shimanami Kaido

Shimanami Kaido

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

Alternative Tokyo – An afternoon in Shimokitazawa

“What’s your favourite area of Tokyo? – Shibuya, Shinjuku, Harajuku?”
These are places you have probably heard of.
When I am showing around friends and tourists Tokyo’s nightlife, one of my favorite places to show them has long been the area around Shimokitazawa station, a young and trendy neighborhood so full of cheap bars and restaurants that finding the best places takes either a lot of experience or a lot of luck! But while Shimokita shines its brightest after the sun goes down, a visit during the daytime reveals a completely different – but equally inviting – side. The pedestrian friendly streets are lined with used clothing shops, old record stores, video game halls, restaurants, cafes, theaters, galleries, markets and more beauty parlors and barber shops than you can shake a stick at. Best of all, unlike the hard work that goes into hunting down a good bar or restaurant at night, Shimokita during the day is great for anybody willing to stroll and unafraid of getting lost. All you need to do is take the train from either Shibuya or Shinjuku station to Shimokitazawa and start walking.

 

 

Upon exiting the station you’ll notice that there is no main boulevard, instead a web of tiny avenues spreads out in all direction, each one begging you to explore its various shops and alleyways. As with all cities in Japan, discovering hidden gems here will require you to think in three dimensions as there are just as many great places tucked into the basements of buildings or up two flights of stairs as there are on the ground floor. So don’t forget to look up and down. Of course, while my preferred method of touring Shimokitaza is simply getting lost in the energetic atmosphere and wandering around until you’ve had enough, there are definitely shops and cafes worth searching for. My personal favorite example would be the little hole-in-the-wall cafe run by the “world’s best barista”, check out their website by clicking here. Wherever you go and whatever your method of exploration, I promise it won’t be long before your visit to these windy back streets turns up some hidden gems that even the locals didn’t know about. Just remember, “Tokyo is yours!”.

 

Some thoughtful graffiti in Shimokitazawa

Some thoughtful graffiti in Shimokitazawa

Mt Fuji Competition

Mt Fuji

Fuji-san is one of the most famous mountains in the world. The 3,776 metre high volcano is revered in Japan, appearing in ancient Japanese art, written about in Haiku and now this mountain is an official UNESCO World Heritage site.

File:Great Wave off Kanagawa2.jpg

Hokusai – Great wave of Kanagawa (36 Views of Mt Fuji)

The official climbing season in Japan has begun (July 1st – September 1st) with huge numbers of people making the trek to the top of the mountain in time for sunrise. For those that are lucky enough to get a glimpse of Mt Fuji, she is always impressive.

The Competition

It’s simple. We would love to see your photo’s and video of this beautifully symmetric volcano. We will then put together a gallery of your Mt Fuji images.

Please post them on the InsideJapan Tours Facebook page or send to james@insideasiatours.com by September 1st 2014, to show them off.

Prizes

We have two little Fuji prizes on offer.

This very cool Mt Fuji T-shirt for the most stunning shot…

Mt Fuji Tshirt

and this amusing Mt Fuji toilet paper for Fuji photo with a difference.

Mt Fuji Toilet Paper

I am sure we can throw some other Japan related goodies in too.

Meanwhile, take a look video taken from our Tokaido Trail tour who conquered the majestic mountain.

Robot Restaurant: Where You Don’t Go for the Food

robot1

You don’t have to read katakana (ロボットレストラン) to know you’ve found the Robot Restaurant. Although it’s nestled in the bright lights of Shinjuku’s frenzied Kabukichō entertainment district, it doesn’t exactly blend in, and actually makes the surrounding area seem pretty calm by comparison.

robot2

There are four shows a day, the earliest starting at 4:20PM, and the last starting at 9:20PM. Reservations can be made online or by phone, and are recommended. You’ll be asked to arrive at least half an hour before showtime, and there’s a gaudy lounge where you can relax and enjoy drinks while you wait to be led to your seat in the basement. The staff at the entrance is friendly and speaks English, so there shouldn’t be any problems getting to the right place.

robot4

Children are not prohibited, but I could see the dress code of the female staff being deemed a bit too racy for some parents, although it’s nothing you wouldn’t see on a beach…well, a beach with pole dancing.

robot6

You are asked to cover any tattoos because of the association with mafia in the Japanese psyche, and not to wear sunglasses for the same reason. Interestingly enough, some of the dancers have tattoos, and Kabukichō itself is known as a hotbed of mafia activity, not that this should be of any concern to anyone not looking for trouble. The price per person is ¥6,000 for the show, and another ¥1,000 for the meal, should you opt for it.

robot8

As for the main event, the human mind can only take so much, and I think the length of the shows was capped at one hour more out of concern for customers’ long-term mental health than for either profit maximization or the seemingly limitless endurance of the staff.

robot9

There are many different acts to the show, comprehending an overall storyline should be considered a medical emergency, or at least disqualify you from operating heavy machinery. Classifying the whole affair as “cabaret with robots” is taking only a couple steps up Honesty Mountain. There are operatic ballads with robot musicians, some kind of recurring and elaborate festival procession, furry creatures fighting evil…things (?!) from the future, robot dances, robots wars, and a couple lucky customers can even battle a robot (safe and rigged in your favor). It’s sort of like every kind of spectacle wrapped into one.

robot10

I find “restaurant” a curious choice of words to use in the name of this place. I had to check the definition in a dictionary for the first time in my adult life to make sure the word meant what I thought it did. From what I found, I guess it is technically okay to use, as you can buy food and drinks here. However, this may be the only restaurant I would recommend visiting and not eating the food. Not only is the meal mediocrity perfected, but, and this was a new experience for me, it’s quite difficult to eat when you’re in a state of shock. And shock is what happens when relentless sensory bombardment makes your ears explode while your eyes try not to give your brain epilepsy.

robot11

I was speechless and confused as I rehabilitated myself up the stairs towards street level. My ears ringing and my mind a complete void, I asked myself a fair question, “What did I just witness?” I still don’t know, but you should see it too.

robot13

I would recommend a light meal beforehand, as all digestive function will be arrested for the duration of the show, at one of the small atmospheric restaurants in Omoide Yokochō (Memory Lane). It’s just to your left after you walk under the train tracks from Kabukichō. Afterwards, you might like to calm the nerves and reevaluate everything you think you knew about the universe at one of the 200 tiny bars of nearby Golden Gai.

robot14

http://www.robot-restaurant.com/E/top.html

InsideJapan can help you to experience the craziness of the Robot Restaurant on a tailored trip or if you take part on the HYPERJAPAN J-Pop&Go! tour.

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