What’s hot in Japan for 2015

There are plenty of reasons to make it to Japan in 2015, but here are a few really good ones.

KANAZAWA

Journeys to the garden city of Kanazawa will be quicker than ever when the new Shinkansen line opens in March 2015 cutting journey time from Tokyo to 2.5hrs (was 4hrs). A beautiful laid back and historical city with samurai houses and traditional tea districts, Kanazawa is well worth a visit.

Kanazawa_OldTownxxx

 

HIMEJI CASTLE

After five years of renovation work, the scaffolding is off and we can’t wait to get back to Himeji. Just in time for the cherry blossom and ‘hanami’, the castle will be back to its full glory on March 27th.

Himejxxi

 

FUKUOKA

“Ramen city” has always been a favourite with the InsideJapan team. Now KLM offer daily flights from Amsterdam to Fukuoka, so it’s easier than ever to get there.

Untitled-1

 

HIROSHIMA

Visit Hiroshima on 6th August 2015 to mark the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing. Today, it’s a great little city full of good food!

Japan

 

NAGASAKI

Similarly Nagasaki will be commerating the anniversary of the second atomic bombing which happened on 9th August 1945. Nagasaki is arguably one of the most attractive and historically-rich cities in the whole country.

Nagasaki Peace Gdn

ONOMICHI

With cycling getting seemingly more and more popular, head to Onomichi and the home of the first purpose built cycle hotel. The small town has lots of little temples and is the gateway to the Shimanamikaido cycle route.

Onomichi_Viewpoint (4)

 

UNIVERSAL STUDIOS JAPAN, OSAKA

It has been around for a while, but Harry Potter world opened in the summer of 2014 – a must visit for any Potter fan. If you are not a Potter fan, just stick to Osaka…

Potter pad

OSAKA CASTLE

Another reason for heading to Osaka (apart from the food and it being a great place) is to celebrate the castles important role in Japanese history. 2015 is the 400th anniversary of some important battles and the castle is celebrating with a massive 3-D display from 13th December – 1st March. Very impressive.

Osaka CastleHere’s a preview –

 

 

ECHIGO, NIIGATA

The peaks and rural villages of the Japanese Alps provide inspiration and back drop for the triennial arts festival held in the region (Jul 26-Sep 13). Contemporary art installations combine with the heart of tradtional Japan for some beautiful sites in a beautiful part of Japan.

View from summit of a moutain in Yuzawa

 

YONAGUNI

The ‘Iseki’ stones have got to be one of the most intriguing and unique dive spots in the world. Is it the oldest man-made structure in the world, is it geological phenomenon..or was it built by aliens!? Either way, it is an incredible dive off a remote island.

Yonaguni

 

The Guide to Christmas in Japan

Merry Christmas everyone! Or “Meri Kurisumasu”, as they have it over in Japan.

Ho ho ho

Ho ho ho…

It’s estimated that less than one percent of Japan’s population in Christian, and so it should come as no surprise that Christmas is not an official national holiday in Japan. New Year is an important family occasion (and the Japanese have about a billion-and-one other festivals to keep them busy throughout the year), but on Christmas business generally continues as usual.

Yet, to say that Christmas isn’t celebrated in Japan would not be entirely accurate. On the contrary, to quote Bill Nighy, Christmas is all around.

Pretty much as soon as the Halloween decorations come down (and of the fact that the Japanese celebrate Halloween there can be no doubt), Christmas is almost immediately EVERYWHERE. Shop windows, department stores, television adverts and the streets of every town are festooned with Christmas decorations, Christmas trees, Christmas songs and Christmas lights. Touts dressed as Santa harangue passersby on every corner to buy convenience store Christmas cake or rent out a karaoke room, and most self-respecting cities will have their own Christmas market offering mulled wine, mince pies and all kinds of other horrendously overpriced festive treats.

So for a non-Christian country, the Japanese really do go quite overboard on Christmas – but not as we know it. The following aspects of a Japanese Christmas may surprise y

1. The Christmas lights are incredible

Tokyo tower

Most impressive of all Japanese festivities are the Christmas “illuminations”, as you will know if you checked out David’s photos last week. In comparison with my hometown in Hertfordshire, England, where the council won’t put up Christmas lights because “we have the wrong type of lampposts” (yeah, right); pretty much every city, town and hamlet in Japan has its own dazzlingly over-the-top light display that frankly puts our efforts over here in the UK to shame. As I mentioned in a post a few weeks back, there are a great number of illuminations to choose from if you’re planning a trip to Japan in the winter – some consisting of literally millions and millions of lights.

For an idea of the popularity of Christmas illuminations in Japan, you need only click here.

2. Christmas is actually Santa’s birthday

Unlike everywhere else in the world, Christmas in Japan is wholly commercialised (Haha. Only kidding).

But joking aside, as Tofugu has astutely pointed out, whilst most Japanese people do realise that Christmas is a celebration of Jesus’s birthday – a significant proportion of actually believe that it is in fact a celebration of Santa’s birthday.

Nevertheless, I think that we can safely say that while the religious element may not have made it to Japan, the “true meaning” of Christmas (presents) has not been lost in translation

3. Christmas is actually Valentine’s Day

Whilst Christmas in Europe and indeed most of the Western world is all about being with your family (AKA getting presents); Christmas in Japan is all about couples.

Christmas Eve in Japan is on par with Valentine’s Day as a lovey-dovey, soppy, sappy, materialistic vom-fest, during which it is de rigueur for you and your other half to spend extravagant amounts of money on each other, wander about ooh-ing and aah-ing at illuminations, and spend the evening gazing into one another’s eyes over a glass of wine and a romantic… bucket of KFC. (Yes, KFC. More on this in a moment.)

It is also apparently “a thing” for a young gentleman to book a hotel room for himself and his young lady on Christmas Eve – which perhaps explains the existence of Christmas-themed love hotels. (FYI, love hotels are Japanese hotels that you can rent out by the hour. They come in a range of incredible, tacky-as-hell themes – Christmas apparently being one of them.)

Hotel Chapel Christmas, Osaka (photo: www.weirdandwonderfulhotels.com)

Hotel Chapel Christmas, Osaka (photo: http://www.weirdandwonderfulhotels.com)

4. Christmas cake ain’t Christmas cake. And women are also Christmas cakes.

Christmas cake is also a big Christmas thing in Japan, having made its way to Japan over hundred years ago, courtesy of the Fujiya confectionary company. But while in the UK Christmas cake is an alcohol-laden fruit cake covered in marzipan and icing, Japanese Christmas cake is usually a vanilla-flavoured sponge with whipped cream and strawberries.

Japanese Christmas cake (photo: blogs.transparent.com)

Japanese Christmas cake (photo: blogs.transparent.com)

Another interesting (and now, thankfully, largely outdated) factoid about Christmas cake in Japan is that it can also be slang for a woman over the age of 25. This is because, as the saying goes, a woman over 25 is like Christmas cake after the 25th: on the shelf. Brutal.

5. Christmas dinner is KFC

This has to be the strangest aspect of Christmas in Japan. Instead of roast turkey and Brussels sprouts, in Japan Kentucky Fried Chicken is the order of the day. Here’s the proof:

But why? Well, according to KFC’s official line, it all began in the early 70s when an unwitting foreigner, unable to find a Christmas turkey in Japan, decided that KFC was the next best thing. KFC employees (who were apparently eavesdropping at the time) took note, and in 1974 the brand launched a wildly successful advertising campaign propagating the slogan クリスマスはケンタッキー “Kurisumasu wa Kentakki”: “Christmas is Kentucky”.

"Christmas is Kentucky"

“Christmas is Kentucky”

And whaddya know? It stuck. A combination of Japan’s amazing ability to take any foreign import and make it their own (kitkats, toilets, vending machines… it was only a matter of time before they Japanified Christmas), the fact that there are no turkeys in Japan, that most Japanese houses don’t have an oven in which to cook a roast dinner, and that Colonel Sanders kinda looks like Santa – a Kentucky Christmas just really worked for Japan. In fact, eating fried chicken is now such an ingrained part of Christmas in Japan that KFC restaurants are booked up literally months in advance, and most Japanese don’t realise that the rest of us don’t go to KFC at Christmas.

So there you have it. We hope you enjoyed our guide to Christmas in Japan – and if you know of any other unusual Japanese Christmas traditions, let us know in the comments below! Meri Kurisumasu!

Tokyo Christmas

Tokyo in lights

Japan does not celebrate Christmas as a Shinto Buddhist nation, but it does Christmas lights better than most Christian countries. Tour leader, David Lovejoy, went to Tokyo Midtown and Roppongi Hills this weekend and took a few little snaps of the huge Christmas light displays around.

Tokyo lights

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Happy Christmas!

Bunny Bliss in Harajuku

In recent years there has been something of a boom in pet cafes across Japan. Starting with cats, these themed cafes have now extended to other creatures, including rabbits, owls, and even goats.

Japanese houses are small, and keeping a pet is difficult for most people. So, whenever a Tokyoite feels the need to get out of their tiny apartment and spend some time playing or simply sitting with a cute four-legged friend, a pet café is the place to head to!

Naturally, tourists have also shown an interest in these cafes. Whether it’s because they miss their pet from home, or perhaps they are just curious about the concept, visiting a pet café has started to creep on to the list of ‘things to do in Japan’.

Being allergic to cats, I decided rabbits were the pet for me, and during my last trip to Tokyo I decided to head to Ra.a.g.f. ‘Rabbit and grow fat’ – a rabbit café in trendy Harajuku.

Ra.a.g.f.

After a bit of lost wandering through the boutiques and backstreets of Harajuku, I finally stumbled upon ‘Rabbit and grow fat’ (brilliant name!). It wasn’t the most fragrant of Harajuku buildings, but once inside the café I was in a little haven of bunny bliss.

Ra.a.g.f.

The staff spoke no English, but welcomed me warmly and presented me with a list of rules and prices. For a small fee I could stay for 30 minutes (700 yen) or an hour (1,100 yen), have a drink, and choose a rabbit to play with and feed (150 yen for rabbit snacks).

Ra.a.g.f.

Feed me!

The rabbits are all kept in cages, and guests can look at them and stroke them and choose one to play with. If you get bored of the rabbit you’ve chosen, you can ask to switch it for another one (which I felt kind of bad doing, although I’m sure the rabbits don’t mind!).

Ra.a.g.f.

I chose this little chap to keep me company. He was very ‘genki’ (energetic) and dashed about the café having the time of his life.

Ra.a.g.f.

Play with me!

Animal welfare is a concern of mine, but all of the rabbits at Ra.a.g.f. seemed happy and healthy. The staff clearly loved the animals and enjoyed their jobs, and the atmosphere in the café was one of being in someone’s home.

So, next time you’re in Tokyo why not take a break from the hustle and bustle of the shops and chill out with a cup of tea and a fluffy friend?

Ra.a.g.f.

Inspirational Ishinomaki – 3 years on from the Tsunami

IMG_1619

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.

IMG_1645

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.

SONY DSC

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

7 Stars: Cruising in Kyushu

The 7 Stars or Nanatsuboshi (ななつ星) cruise train started operating in October 2013 and has proved a huge hit, both with the domestic market and international travellers alike. The concept, design and course have been very carefully thought out to provide a wonderful and relaxing experience of travelling Japan’s third largest island, Kyushu.

All aboard!

The significance of the name is three fold: Firstly, the train travels around Kyushu which has seven prefectures- though ironically, both the courses which are offered only visit five prefectures.You can either take a shorter course of 1 night and 2 days, or a longer version which is 3 nights and 4 days. I won’t go into detail but you can see a full description of the courses here.

Seven Stars

However, if we look to the second point, the ommision of two prefectures doesn’t seem such a big deal afterall. The 7 Stars aims to take in the seven elements of Kyushu which can be done within the confines of five prefectures. These seven elements are nature, cuisine, hot springs, history and culture, power spots, local hospitality and sightseeing trains. And finally, to really enforce the name, the train has seven carriages.

Entertainment
There are two communal carriages: One dining room and one lounge (occupied by a live pianaist and violinist), followed by a variety of private suites for sleeping in, each as beautifully designed as the next!
Inside7stars
Kyushu has quite a few sightseeing trains but the 7 Stars is by far the most magestic. The train is polished maroon on the outside, decorated with a classic golden logo which often reappears inside- look closely and you’ll find it on your coffee cup, even on the screws in the walls.

Wooden insides
There are large windows, particularly at the back, giving passengers a great view out to the beautiful landscapes, but also an opportunity to wave to the crowds that ineveitably gather to see off the train from each station it pulls out of. Inside, the train is mostly wooden with tasteful fabrics used throughout.

The style is a real mix of Japanese and western fashions. The designer, Mr Eiji Mitooka paid a huge amount of attention to detail and has tied in elements of the course to the design- for example, each room has a beautiful, individually designed ceramic sink, made in Arita. As part of the course, guests get a very exclusive chance to visit the studio in Arita where these are made.

Ceramics

Before boarding the train, I was wondering how the time would pass on the journey. After checking in at the upmarket 7 Stars lounge and being escorted down to the platform through crowds of amateur photographers and train fanatics, the regular stop offs at stations and towns along the way provided a great chance for some sightseeing.

Scenery

On the train, there was a never ending supply of drinks- alcoholic or soft drinks, even some latte art was being presented!

coffee

We ate fantastically well on the train, enjoying Japanese and French cuisine, this mixture of styles mirroring the fusion present in the design of the train itself.

Food
The 7 Stars was really special and unique- though, it is in high demand! I can’t describe everything in this short post so please do look to the official website for some more information. Even if you are not able to ride the 7 Stars, make sure your visit to Japan involves some time in Kyushu, enjoying their seven elements!

The backend

An Autumn Tour of Japan – Day by Day In 17 Syllables

This autumn’s Japan Enchantment was certainly one that provided my group with natural enchantment. As a Tour Leader, I am often barking instructions, explanations, giving meeting times and imparting the nitty-gritty in order to get the job done. However, I  do still get the opportunity to step back and acknowledge life’s sublime moments, even at work. Haiku and photos should more than capture those moments, so here goes…

Day 1 TokyoTokyo scene

The Tangerine Dawn

Punctured by Tokyo’s Needle

Promise of color

Day 2 Nikko
Across the mountains

Clouds settle and rest

As dying flames lick rockface

Autumn Zen Landscapes

Day 3 Nikko

Waterfalls in Nikko

Majestic Kegon

Her Hair of Silken Water

Nikko’s Hyrdro Queen

Day 4 Karuizawa

Autumn leaves

Reflective Maples

Tearful ripples sketch the pond

Soon to fade away

Day 5 Karuizawa

Fallen

Wet Ancient Timepiece

Witness to history’s course

Records nature’s death

Day 6 Nagano

Snow monkey

The elderly Man

Life patterns scarred on calm face

We have felt his pain

Day 7 Kanazawa

Waiting for food

Beady eyed heron

Focus fixed in driving rain

Meal time swims closeby

Day 8 Kanazawa

Koyo colours

Lacquered Storehouse woos

Simplicity wrapped in gold

Nature Holds its own

Day 9 Kyoto

Fun with Geisha

Entrancing beauty

An autumn bird in full flight

The Maiko holds Court

Day 10 Kyoto

Sun and Gardens

The mountain beckons

Spirituality rays

Zen in the morning

 

Day 11 Kyoto

Reflecting 

Rain meets old bamboo

Sepia Kaleidoscope

A trick of nature

Day 12 Hakone

Fuji leaves

She teases keen eyes

Her leafy veil drip-blood red

Mt Fuji on fire

Day 13 Hakone

Natural sculptures

Sculpture meets nature

Spiritual awakening

Saturates the mind

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