What difference a day makes in Japan

Japan is a looooong country with more than just neon lights, crowded trains and sushi. There is huge diversity in landscapes and local cultures. The beautiful thing is, that it’s relatively easy to get from one place to a completely different place in Japan. In the briefest of photographic explanations, here’s what I have just done….

Last nights view from my Tokyo hotel.

Tokyo from Shiodome

Today’s view from on Aka Island, Okinawa.

View from Aka jima

It took a few hours to get here, but I think you’ll agree, they are very different…both good, but both different. Arrr, Japan…

Football in Tokyo

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

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

Capsule Hotels in Japan

Typical Japanese-style accommodation, known as ‘ryokan’, are lavish and indulgent. The rooms are often a spacious spread of tatami mats, the meals are grand (and very filling!), and the bathing facilities allow space to relax in the natural hot spring water without worrying about touching skin with a fellow bather. In a nation of little space, a ryokan experience is the ultimate luxury for many Japanese. For a more modern take on Japanese accommodation, however, the element of personal space is all but disregarded.

Capsule hotels, offering a sleeping compartment little larger than a single bed, provide customers with all their basic needs. There are often large communal bathing facilities, a snack bar, breakfast, and provide an excellent location from which to see the heart of a city. For those wishing to relax after a long day of sightseeing, they also come with a miniature television set hanging inside your personal capsule. Coupled with the fact that they are cheaper than alternative accommodation, it is little wonder that capsule hotels are often the place of choice for businessmen who have missed their last train home.

Entrance to a Capsule Hotel

Entrance to a Capsule Hotel

The natural competitor to the capsule hotel is of course the internet café. At around the same price as a capsule hotel, you can get unlimited soft drinks, use of a small shower, and unlimited internet access with a large screen (presumably to watch blockbuster movies into the early hours). Internet cafés also have the bonus of offering much more personal space. Some rooms have soft floors the size of a double bed, others have reclining leather seats that double as beds. There are even ‘family rooms’. Unfortunately, while in an internet café you are blessed with more room than a capsule hotel, you also get far less privacy. The rooms have locks, but the walls are paper-thin, and often it is possibly to peer over the top of your ‘walls’ into the adjoining rooms, or even into the corridor. Save for the easy access to the internet, the travellers preferred option should be the capsule hotel.

Not Much Privacy...

Not Much Privacy…

Complete with Alarm Clock

Complete with Alarm Clock

...and Television Set

…and Television Set

The word ‘capsule’ in Japanese tends to carry a more positive meaning than its English counterpart. While native English speakers may think ‘small’, the word in Japanese has its origins in technological advancement. This was the intention of the original capsule hotel, when it was first conceived in Osaka (it also explains the vision behind the name of the gaming corporation ‘Capcom’, a shortening of ‘capsule computer’). This may also be the reason why Japanese companies have long had an obsession with innovative technology to ever smaller physical proportions. Tiny cars, small portions, and gadgets. In Japan, small is beautiful. In this sense, the capsule hotel provides an insight into Japanese culture that is conveniently affordable. While staying in accommodation arguably reminiscent of a coffin is certainly not for everyone (indeed, most capsule hotels are strictly ‘men only’), it may be worth a look if you are prepared to sacrifice a little comfort during your travels. Or, as with the scores of Japanese businessmen who arrive red-faced and with a hint of sake on their breath, you manage to miss the last train home to your larger, more conventional, Western-style hotel.

Capsule Corridor

 

 

 

Blogging about Japan blogs

It’s always nice to hear about other people and their experiences in Japan. Everyone’s Japan experience is different. So, heres a few examples of our customers trips from over the last year, expressed using various forms of social media, sharing some great travel tales, tips and pictures. 

 

Emma Prew

One of my favourites was from Emma Prew. Emma put together this great blog which details her whole trip from place-to-place adding some great photos….at 4000 plus photos, she has more to show. Loads of great detail.

Emma Prew

Emma Prew

Emma Prew

 

 

Jose and Linaka

Jose Guerra and his partner, Linaka, travelled back in March. They spent 3 weeks in Japan ticking some of the ‘must-see’ sights across the country. Unusually, this couple both kept great blogs as they travelled, using some great pictures of food, culture, art and architecture and giving some interesting opinion on their experiences. Great pictures from Linaka’s Geisha makeover too.

 

 

Ema Harris

If its pictures you want for an idea of what goes on, on an InsideJapan Tours tailored trip, Ema Harris posted several sets of pictures back in November on Facebook and kept some fun pictures on Instagram recording their experiences. Taking in places such as Kamakura, Osaka, Miyajima and Tokyo, and it looks like they had lots of fun with plenty of neon, food and drink.

Ema Harris

Ema Harris

Ema Harris

 

Kerry Wohlstein

One of our US customers, Kerry Wohlstein travelled with Karen back in the spring. Looks like they got the cherry blossom at its peak and perfect views of Mt Fuji from their hotel in Kawaguchi-ko.

 

Nigel Hooper

Nigel Hooper has travelled with us several times and has just spent some time travelling in Kyushu. Take a look at his Flickr page here.

There are some great photos on here including images from the mysterious Gunkanjima, Dazaifu and the Shinkansen depot near Fukuoka.

 

 

Darren Cummings

Darren Cummings recorded his time on the ‘Japan Unmasked’ tour last year with lots of great photos, including lots of pictures of monkey in Yudanaka.

 

 

Think Global School

And for something a bit different, an alternative school called, Think Global School have been spending a chunk of time seeing some fantastic places and doing some amazing experiences and logging them on the Think Global website. Loved reading about their experiences in the Kumano Kodo.

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Always nice to read about our clients and their time in Japan. I highly recommend taking a look at the blogs.

Thanks for sharing you lot!

Tokyo Okura- Jumping from the page to real life!

IQ84, Haruki Murakami’s swirling behemoth of a novel is chock full of the author’s classic themes; magical realism, food, music, sex and love. It’s a massive work full of pivotal moments and I just happen to be in the very location of one of those. Here is how Murakami describes it:

“With its high ceiling and muted lighting, the capacious lobby of the Hotel Okura’s main building seemed like a huge, stylish cave. Against the cave walls, like the sighing of a disemboweled animal, bounced the muted conversations of people seated on the lobby’s sofas. The floor’s thick, soft carpeting could have been primeval moss on a far northern island. It absorbed the sound of footsteps into its endless span of accumulated time

 

IMG_1405It’s an odd feeling being somewhere I first visualized in my mind, but now I’m here it’s amazing how vivid Murakami’s prose proves to be and perfectly describes the cavernous lobby of the historic Okura.IMG_1400

Opened in 1962 and located in a quiet section of Akasaka, adjacent to the US Embassy but only a short walk from heady heights of Roppongi this is an establishment that speaks of a bygone era of understated elegance. The large and open lobby as described by Murakami is certainly calming, and visually it’s unlike any other hotel I’ve seen in Tokyo. The décor and the furniture would be described as dated by many, and that’s no lie, it is. To me though it has great retro chic appeal, further enhanced by the now seemingly archaic world map (circa 1960’s) where LED lights glow marking major cities of the world. For some reason I keep imagining bumping into the Sean Connery James Bond sipping a martini, or smoking, or probably both.

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It’s certainly not the flashiest or indeed the most fashionable of the more luxurious Tokyo hotels but if you are looking for a place with character and a distinctly Japanese aesthetic whilst you follow in the footsteps of diplomats and dignitaries then it’s a top consideration. You had better be quick though because it’s just been announced that the Main Building will close for a major renovation from August 2015 and it’s likely that the retro chic will be lost to the annals of time…

Discovering Shizuoka green tea

While I was on my last Japan trip I had the opportunity to visit a tea farm in Shizuoka prefecture, along the Kurigatake mountain route. I stopped at Higashiyama-Ippuku-dokoro to find out more about Japanese green tea production, work in the tea fields, the ecosystem of the area, and how green tourism could support this cultural and economical landscape. Image
Shizuoka is the larger producer of green tea in Japan; tea farming in this area boomed after the end of the shogunate, in the mid 19th century. The secret to the local excellent and aromatic tea lies in the quality of this environment, the loving care lavished on the fields, and the careful processing of the leaves.
The steep sides of the mountains here are covered with “chagusa”, a type of reed that’s harvested, dried, crushed, and used as mulching between rows of evergreen tea plants.

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The landscape in this area revolves around tea: ideally there should be a 1:1; ratio between tea fields and grassland. Using this kind of mulching protects the soil from rain so that nutrients are not washed away too quickly, it softens the soil up as it decomposes, and improves the taste of tea too. It is a sustainable way to mulch that also helps preserve the biodiversity of this environment, as no chemicals are needed to control weeds.

Mulching usually happens once a year, around mid-January, so I had a chance to help too. You grab a bag full of chopped up chagusa, open it up at the start of a line, and walk backwards in between two rows of plants, shaking the bag as you go to distribute mulching evenly.
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This area receives lots of sunshine, and that influences the production of different kinds of tea as well. Exposure to the sunshine will cause the leaves to harden; they will then need to be steamed for longer, which results in a stronger tea. Otherwise it is possible to protect the young leaves with screens, to obtain delicate “gyokuro” tea.
In any case, only the top couple of inches of the plant are picked. The leaves are then steamed, rolled, and dried. Steaming preserves the vivid colour and nutrients of tea, which boosts a high vitamin C and antioxidants content amongst other benefits.
Rolling the leaves breaks down their tissues, and allows better extraction, for a fully flavoured, stronger infusion. The leaves are rolled on a low table: the surface is actually made of strong “washi” paper, and there’s a heating element underneath, to help evaporate moisture from the leaves. The surface of the table is silky smooth, slowly polished and rubbed by calloused hands and fragrant leaves.

There’s different ways to roll the tea leaves at different stages… and they all take a long time! The whole cycle takes several hours to complete, and by the end of our day one of the gentlemen rolling tea was complaining about his sore back and arms. He was 89 mind you, and had been rolling tea leaves since before you and I were born, so I think he had every right to complain.
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Tea that is harvested and processed by hand in small batches rather commands a rather high price of course, but it has a fuller flavour and much better taste… or so the tea experts say! All I know is that it was delicious!

High quality green tea is not as bitter or astringent as cheaper varieties, and goes beautifully together with traditional Japanese sweets. It can be used in different dishes too: on that day I enjoyed a delightful lunch that included buckwheat and green tea noodles, deep fried salmon coated in breadcrumbs and tea leaves, and of course copious amounts of jade green, aromatic tea.

As most rural areas in Japan, Higashiyama suffers from depopulation and ageing while younger generations leave to find jobs in the big cities. Green tourism could help keeping local traditions, products and cultivars alive, with renewed appreciation for these beautiful landscapes and the local high quality produce; so I hope this blog inspires you to take a little detour from the main tourist routes into new, rewarding experiences……anyone for tea?

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5 reasons Japan is the most convenient country

In Japan, possibly the most orderly country in the world, convenience is king. Here’s why…

1) Everything runs on time
Unlike certain other countries (mentioning no names… *cough*… England) you can actually rely on train and bus timetables in Japan. It’s possible to plan quite a full-on day of sightseeing and know that you should always be able to make your connection and catch the next bus or train. Of course, delays do happen occasionally, but every precaution is taken to ensure there is the least possible disruption to your journey.

Shinkansen

Trains on time for your convenience

2) No luggage worries
Japan has an incredible luggage forwarding service called ‘takuhaibin’ (most commonly referred to as ‘Takkyubin’, which is actually Yamato Transport’s version of the service). The service can be used to send just about anything from any part of the country to another over night. If you’re travelling to a rural part of the country or only stopping somewhere for one night, you don’t want to be carrying large cases, and ‘takuhaibin’ is the answer! Simply pack an overnight bag and forward your large suitcase on to another destination. As well as this overnight service, a few places in Japan offer a same day short distance forwarding service. Hakone’s ‘carry service’ is a great example of this: for around 700 yen you can send a bag from Hakone Yumoto Station to your hotel or vice versa, allowing you to get rid of your overnight bag whilst sightseeing. Of course, most stations have plenty of coin lockers too, and for a few hundred yen you can leave you bags securely for a few hours – just don’t forget where you left everything! In addition, if you do pack an overnight bag and forward your main luggage, you won’t need to take much with you – most hotels offer basic amenities such as a toothbrush and toothpaste, shower gel and shampoo, and there’s usually a yukata to wear in bed too, so you don’t even need your PJs!

Hakone Yumoto Station's 'Carry Service' office

Hakone Yumoto Station’s ‘Carry Service’ office

3) Easy eating
Even if you can’t read or speak Japanese, it’s not too difficult to order food in a restaurant. Most restaurants either have colourful menus full of pictures of the dishes on offer, or they have plastic replica food in the window, so you can always just see what looks good and point. A lot of restaurants and cafes, especially in major tourist areas, also offer English menus, although the staff won’t necessarily speak English.

Plastic food in a restaurant window in Tokyo

Plastic food in a restaurant window in Tokyo

4) Convenience stores really are convenient
Convenience stores in Japan sell just about everything you could need, including food that actually tastes good, and many are open 24 hours. As well as food and drinks, both hot and cold, convenience stores tend to sell basic overnight essentials and things to help out in any minor emergence (Ladder in your tights? Forgot to bring clean undies? Run out of hairspray? No worries!). If that’s not enough, there’s usually a drinks vending machine on every corner too, and even some vending machines selling food such as instant noodles!

7-Eleven: One of Japan's many convenient convenience stores

7-Eleven: One of Japan’s many convenient convenience stores

5) Public conveniences
Toilets are usually free to use, clean and they’re everywhere! Most stations will have perfectly usable toilets, usually with paper (although you sometimes need to use your own tissues, but tissues are often given out on the street for free with advertising pamphlets). Sometimes you might need to face a Japanese-style squat toilet, but that’s a small price to pay really for free loos!

 

 

I actually could go on – Japan is a pleasure to travel around, with reliable services, polite staff, and generally helpful and friendly people wherever you go! Wherever you’re from, when you return home you’ll be sure to miss the convenience of Japan!

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