Three Reasons To Choose a Small Group Tour

Getting into local life
As an independent traveller, I’ll admit I was slightly hesitant about joining a small group tour. I’ve been on tours before, but it wouldn’t normally be my number one choice to travel with a group. However, having joined InsideJapan’s Japan Unmasked tour for a few days, I can now see that there are massive benefits to joining a small group tour instead of going it alone.

1. Stress-free sightseeing
Your full-time Tour Leader will take all of the stress out of travelling around from place to place, and will be there to either show you the sights or point you in the right direction if you wish to do your own thing. You have the best of both worlds, in that there is an expert to deal with all the logistics of travel, and yet you have the freedom to do as you please and don’t have to be herded around in a massive group or squeezed uncomfortably onto a hot bus at any point during the trip. Yes, you can have your matcha roll cake and eat it too!

Our Tour Leader sharing some brief Japanese history with the group

Our Tour Leader sharing some brief Japanese history with the group

2. The Group
Travelling in a group of people you don’t know can be slightly intimidating at first, especially as a solo traveller. However, InsideJapan’s small group tours attract all different kinds of customers from all over the world, and joining a tour group is a great way to make new friends and share experiences. You all have Japan in common, and probably all have different reasons for wanting to visit Japan. For some it will be another country to tick off their list of places visited, and for others it will be a life-long dream come true to visit Japan because of a particular interest in some aspect of Japanese culture. Together you can share experiences and knowledge, and try new things!

Tour Group at Sensoji

Your Tour Leader might turn out to be something of a celebrity…

3. Getting beneath the surface
InsideJapan’s motto is ‘get beneath the surface’, and there’s no better way to do that than with an expert Tour Leader by your side. As someone who has travelled in Japan quite extensively I would consider myself something of an expert. However, after just one evening with our expert Tour Leader I realised there was still so much to learn! Whether it was finding new items on the menu in the izakaya, hearing a snippet of history for the first time, or simply visiting somewhere new, your Tour Leader will certainly help you to get the most out of your time in Japan!

Cultural experiences in an izakaya...

Cultural experiences in an izakaya…

Finally, if like me, you’re quite an independent traveller but like the idea of joining a small group tour, why not do both? No matter how much you fit in whilst you are on tour, you will always wish you had just a little more time in Tokyo or the chance to visit just one more destination, so why not add on a few extra nights of independent travel after your tour. By the time the tour finishes you’ll be something of an expert yourself, and ready to take on Tokyo alone (armed with your tailor-made Info-Pack of course!).

Japanese Hamsters

We are keen to expose all things Japanese on our blog. This doesn’t just mean features about travel, but all elements of interesting and sometimes quirky culture from the Land of the Rising Sun….and so I come on to something that I never thought I would be blogging about…Hamsters. Yes. I do mean those little furry creatures that make popular pets. The reason that I am writing about hamsters, is all down to my latest favourite Twitter feed from Japan.

@kawamabesatou has a massive 58k followers on Twitter. Why so popular you may ask?….Who doesn’t want to see lots of pictures of various breeds of hamster in a miniature bar or perhaps a tatami room with miniature bottles of alcohol, sushi, kitchen utensils and more. This guy has gone to a lot of trouble making miniature models for his little hamsters to set them up in little hamster versions of the human world that we live in. Forget hamster wheels – pah!

This picture gives you an idea as to the scale of @kawamabesatou’s work.


I suppose that this all goes back to IJTBen’s piece on Japan’s obsession with miniaturising things.

This guy means business though and his pictures are hilarious. Here’s the life of of @kawamabesatou’ s hamsters at the bar, at various restaurants and at home…

A bit of food




Hamster and sake

Over done it again

Time for coffee

Spot of reading


hamster home

All pictures are from @kawamabesatou Twitter feed. Otsukare sama!

Japan’s 10 most awesome animals and where to find them

The Japanese archipelago straddles a wide range of climates, from the subarctic snowscapes of northern Hokkaido to the subtropical jungles of Okinawa in the south, and over 70% of its land mass is mountainous and undeveloped. Thanks to these conditions, Japan is home to a more interesting host of fauna than you might think.

The following are Japan’s most fascinating birds and beasts (according to me), and where to find them:

The Japanese Macaque

Onsen-bathing snow monkeys on my visit to Yudanaka in February

Onsen-bathing snow monkeys on my visit to Yudanaka in February

The Japanese Macaque, or “snow monkey” as they are often known, is probably Japan’s most famous furry resident, and the world’s northernmost-living primate (besides humans).

Monkeys may be pretty exciting for those of us who live in monkeyless parts of the world, but macaques are actually a very familiar sight in Japan. You certainly won’t have to hunt very hard to find them!

Considering their prevalence it’s hardly surprising that monkeys feature quite prominently in traditional Japanese culture and religion – appearing as the protagonists in numerous folk tales, paintings, carvings, prints and so on. Perhaps the most famous Japanese monkeys are the “three wise monkeys” to be found in a carving at Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, warning all comers to “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”.

The famous three wise monkeys of Toshogu Shrine, Nikko

The famous three wise monkeys of Toshogu Shrine, Nikko

Where to see them: The monkeys of Jigokudani in Yudanaka Onsen are particularly famous for bathing in the hot spring waters to keep warm, but you can also spot macaques in most mountainous parts of Japan where human development is minimal.


My deer selfie, taken in Nara earlier this year

My deer selfie, taken in Nara earlier this year

Far from being shy and difficult to spot, the sika deer is so common in Japan today as to be overabundant. If you pay a visit to either Nara or Miyajima, you’ll find deer seemingly almost as populous as people, and tame enough to stroke. In Nara, where a herd of over 1,000 deer roam the streets freely, you can even buy special crackers (called ‘shika senbei’) to feed them.

Deer are also gross. I caught this one licking a urinal in Miyajima.

Deer are also gross. I caught this one licking a urinal in Miyajima.

According to the Shinto religion, deer are considered messengers of the gods and are thus sacred – killing one of these deer was punishable by death until 1637. After WWII the deer were officially stripped of their “sacred” status (who knew that was possible?) and designated as a national treasure instead.

Where to see them: Whilst you are most likely to see shika deer in Miyajima and Nara, you can also spot them in numerous other locations in Japan – from northern Hokkaido to the forests of Yakushima, and can even be found swimming between the Kerama Islands of Okinawa!

Racoon dog (Tanuki)

Real tanuki

Real tanuki

You have probably never heard of a tanuki, but if you go to Japan you’re guaranteed to see hundreds of them. Well, sort of.

The tanuki is a kind of raccoon dog (which, confusingly, is not closely related to a raccoon) native to Japan, and has featured prominently in folklore since folklore began. In legend, the tanuki is a master of shapeshifting –typically mischievous and jolly, but also absentminded and gullible.

A typical tanuki statue I can across in Inuyama

A tanuki statue I can across in Inuyama

In Japan today, tanuki statues are ubiquitous – standing outside shops, restaurants, izakaya pubs and other establishments to bring luck and prosperity to the business. The tanuki has eight special traits to look out for, including a hat to protect against trouble or bad weather, a sake bottle, a big belly and (of course) a giant scrotum.

Tanuki statues traditionally have giant b?$%!*ks to symbolise prosperity and good fortune. If you really want to know why, some of the history is explained by Alice Gordenker of the Japan Times here.

Traditional art depicting a tanuki whose large scrotum is being attacked by birds for some reason I wish I understood

This tanuki’s large scrotum seems to be being attacked by birds for some reason I wish I understood

If you’re a Ghibli fan, you may even have seen the film Pom Poko - where a tanuki use their shape-shifting abilities (and gigantic scrotums) to protect their community from human developers. It’s a very strange film. In the English dub, the scrotums are called ‘pouches’ – but don’t let that fool you.

pom poko 2


Real tanuki have proportionately average balls, have strong social bonds and live in monogamous pairs, which is just lovely. They even cuddle up together when they hibernate!

Where to see them: Tanuki live all over Japan, sometimes even in urban areas. There are even rare white Tanuki in Miyajima which you may see scuttling around. If you don’t spot a real tanuki, you will most certainly notice their statues everywhere you go in Japan!

Leopard Cats

The Tsushima Leopard Cat

The Tsushima Leopard Cat


Japan is home to two critically endangered subspecies of leopard cat – a kind of wild cat roughly the size of a domestic cat, distinguishable by its leopard-like spots and distinctive facial markings. They may look similar to your ordinary house cat, but in actual fact these species diverged hundreds of thousands of years ago.

The Iriomote cat is found exclusively on Iriomote Island, where there are fewer than 250 of them left. With only 290 square kilometres to call home, they also have the smallest natural habitat of any wild cat.

A taxidermied Iriomote wildcat

A taxidermied Iriomote wildcat

Tsushima Island, off the coast of Kyushu, also harbours a population of endemic leopard cats – the Tsushima leopard cat. With only 80 to 100 left, these are even more endangered than the Iriomote cat.

 Where to see them: Even if you do visit one of these two locations, you’re very unlikely to spot either cat as they are rare and predominantly nocturnal – but you will see signs warning you to watch out for them on the roads, so you never know!

A road sign warning drivers in Iriomote to watch out for wild cats

A road sign warning drivers in Iriomote to watch out for wild cats

If you still have a hankering to see cats, you can visit one of Japan’s notorious “cat islands”, Tashirojima and Aoshima. These island cats certainly aren’t endangered – in fact, due to the local belief that feeding cats will bring prosperity, they’re absolutely rampant. These are feral cats, not wild cats, and the islands (especially Tashirojima) have become an unexpected tourist attraction because of them. You can even stay in a cat-shaped house if you come to visit! Read more about it here.

Red-crowned cranes

Japanese Cranes

Japanese Cranes

Hokkaido is Japan’s second-largest island and one of its wildest areas; sparsely populated and characterised by sweeping mountain ranges, bubbling volcanic hot springs and wide open plains. It is here, during the winter months, that you are in with a chance of spotting the rare tancho, or red-crowned crane, as it performs its distinctive mating dance – a graceful and seemingly choreographed ritual that never fails to impress visitors.

The tancho was thought to be extinct in Japan until 1926, when a group of around 20 birds was found living near Tsurui in Hokkaido. Thanks to conservation efforts they have since made a dramatic recovery and now number around a thousand birds.

In Japanese folklore, the cranes are said to grant favours in return for acts of sacrifice, and are thought to live for 1,000 years.

Where to see them: Tsurui, Hokkaido. Our Winter Highlights tour visits the crane sanctuaries, or you can contact us to add a special visit to a fully tailored trip.

Sea turtles

A turtle I spotted whilst diving off Okinawa last November

A turtle I spotted whilst diving off Okinawa last November

Further south is another amazing opportunity to see wildlife in action. Yakushima, the densely forested island that inspired Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, is one of only a few places in the world to provide a spawning ground for Loggerhead and Green sea turtles.

Under the supervision of local conservationists, visitors to Yakushima can watch as the turtles come to lay their eggs, or even see the tiny baby turtles as they hatch and make their way down to the sea. This is a truly incredible event to witness, and especially amazing when you consider that each hatchling only has a 1/5,000 chance of surviving long enough to produce their own young.

Where to see them: Yakushima has a number of beaches that are good for turtle-watching, and you can take turtle tours throughout the summer. You can also swim with sea turtles whilst diving or snorkelling around the Okinawa Islands – as pictured!


A pika

A pika

The pika is a tiny mammal akin related to rabbits and hares, with short limbs, round ears and no tail. It’s also known as the “whistling hare” due to its high-pitched alarm call and lives in cold climates across the world.

Some sources have suggested that the pika was the inspiration for the famous Japanese icon Pikachu, but according to series producer Satoshi Tajiri, the name actually comes from a combination of two onomatopoeic Japanese words: “pika”, the sound an electric spark makes, and “chu”, the sound a mouse makes. Boo.


Where to see them: Like many of the other animals on this list, you probably won’t see a pika in the wild as they’re pretty shy and only come out at dusk and dawn.

Japanese giant hornets vs. Japanese bees


A giant Japanese hornet

A giant Japanese hornet

This next entry is a creepy crawly you certainly won’t want to spot on your travels. Japan is home to the world’s largest hornet, the Japanese giant hornet – which is known as the “giant sparrow bee” in Japanese. This behemoth can reach more than 4.5cm (1.8in) in length, with a wingspan greater than 6cm (2.4in). These hornets are so terrifyingly huge and evil that they even eat other bees – a single hornet can kill 40 European bees in a minute. Oh and they also kill more people in Japan than any other animal.

So the giant hornet is pretty scary, but in my opinion the humble Japanese bee is much, much more awesome. To prevent giant hornets from attacking them like the poor European bees, they have devised an incredible defence – the bee ball.




Bee Ball

Bee Ball

When a scout hornet approaches their hive ready to tell all his hornet friends to come round for lunch, the bee workers will retreat into the hive, leaving a hole large enough for the hornet scout to enter. Once the hornet is inside, the bees come out of their hiding places in a swarm and form a tight ball around the hornet, vibrating their wings to direct warm air over their bodies and into the centre of the ball. The effect is similar to a convection oven, and the invader is cooked alive while the bees survive.

You might think that this is kind of twisted, but I think it is really and truly amazing. Read more about it on the National Geographic if you dare.

Where to see them: Yeah… I’d say don’t go looking. They are mainly found in rural areas and you’re very unlikely to come across one on your holiday!

 Giant Salamander

Giant Japanese Salamander

Japanese Giant Salamander

It may look like it belongs in Jurassic Park, but this massive freshwater-dwelling beast is alive and well in the streams of Japan today. In Japanese it is called the “giant pepper fish” (due to the milky substance they excrete when threatened, which smells like pepper).

Japanese giant salamanders can reach a whopping 1.5m (5ft) in length, and are surpassed in size only by the Chinese giant salamander, a close relative (these monsters can reach a length of 1.8m (5.9ft), which really is enough to terrify anyone). Feeding on insects, frogs and fish, and lacking any natural competitors or predators, the salamander can live to a ripe old age of around 80 years.

Where to see them: You’re unlikely to spot one of these on your travels as they tend to hide out in streams, but occasionally they can stray into urban waterways and even crawl out of the water – as one Japanese schoolboy found out near Kyoto earlier this year! (They are harmless to humans, so there’s no need to panic if this does happen to you.)

Traditional ukiyo-e woodblock print of a giant salamander being vanquished by a samurai

Traditional ukiyo-e woodblock print of a giant salamander being vanquished by a samurai



Spider crab

Spider Crab

Spider Crab

Finally, we come to the spider crab, the world’s largest arthropod and undeniably the most lovable animal on this list. Which is hardly surprising, given that it is a combination between the world’s cuddliest critters: the spider and the crab.

It lives in the waters around Japan, can weigh up to 19kg (42lb) and its leg span can reach up to 3.8m (12ft). Somewhat adorably, Wikipedia claims that “it is reported to have a gentle disposition, despite its ferocious appearance”. Nawwww.

Where to see them: You are unlikely to spot any of these friendly fellows even if you are a diving nut, as the shallowest depth at which they can be found is around 50m (150ft) – but you can see them at any one of Japan’s excellent aquariums. We especially recommend Osaka Aquarium!

Himeji Castle revisted

Wonderful Himeji-jo, Japan’s biggest and best preserved original samurai castle is now back on our radar, hurrah!



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Tokyo Halloween

Our guide Masa was taking some customers around Tokyo introducing them to some of the sights and experiences of this great city. They visited Shiba Rikyu garden, contrasted it with a trip through Akihabara, admired some Ikebana flower arranging at Meji Jingu, shopped in Harajuku and then went to Shibuya.

Today was no normal day in Shibuya. The date is October 31st….HALLOWEEN.

Halloween is of course a festival adopted by the Japanese from the west. What ever we can do, they often tend to do better. This is what they saw – Zombies take over in Shibuya.

Halloween in Tokyo

Halloween in Tokyo

Halloween in Tokyo

Halloween in Tokyo

Halloween in Tokyo

Happy Halloween from Tokyo!

11 reasons to visit Japan in the winter

In the autumn there are the turning leaves, in the summer there’s hot sun and lush green landscapes, and in the spring there is (of course) the famous cherry blossom.

When there are these wonderful seasons to travel to Japan, why choose to come in the bitter depths of winter? Well, I’ll let you in on a secret: winter is actually the best time to travel to Japan.

Shibuya in the snow

Shibuya in the snow

OK – so the claim isn’t unqualified. Winter in Japan has its attendant inconveniences, just like any other season. For instance, on the day my family arrived in Tokyo in February for their winter Japan holiday, it was the heaviest snowstorm the city had seen for fifty years (which is just typical). If you can’t put up with cold weather, the chances are that winter in Japan is not for you. But if you’re anything like me, the following reasons will be more than enough to persuade you that winter in Japan is the best season of all.


1) There are no crowds

It is a fact universally acknowledged that in Japan, there are crowds. Lots of them. It’s part of the charm of the experience: Tokyo’s Shibuya scramble crossing wouldn’t be quite the same without the swarms of pedestrians, and would the cherry blossom be as enjoyable without the festive atmosphere and parties gathered beneath the trees?

But if you are allergic to queues and the thought of a squashed subway carriage sends you running for the hills, consider travelling in the winter. Throughout the colder months you will find many of the country’s most iconic sights almost completely deserted – and none the worse for being wreathed in snow or touched with a hint of frost.

Kinkaku-ji's Golden Pavilion is at its best in the snow, as we found in Kyoto.

Kinkaku-ji’s Golden Pavilion is at its best in the snow, as we found in Kyoto.

A dusting of snow on Mount Koya added to the eerie atmosphere of  Okunoin Cemetery.

A dusting of snow on Mount Koya added to the eerie atmosphere of Okunoin Cemetery.


2) Snowsports

Japan is over 70% mountainous, boasts over 500 ski resorts and receives some of the world’s most reliable snowfall thanks to icy winds blowing in across the sea from Siberia. All this considered, it’s pretty much the most epic snowsports location in the universe.

Japan’s ski resorts go from the absolutely minuscule to the world-class, with incredibly long, sweeping runs and superb powder snow. Having hosted the Winter Olympics in 1972 and 1998 and the Asian Winter games numerous times – and Japan being Japan – ski resort infrastructure and hospitality is generally top-notch – with après-ski to rival anywhere in the world.

Enjoying the slopes in Hakuba ski resort in Nagano Prefecture for New Year 2014

The author enjoying the slopes in Hakuba ski resort in Nagano Prefecture for New Year 2014

View over Hakuba, one of the locations for the 1998 Winter Olympics

The view over Hakuba on the first day of 2014. Hakuba was one of the locations for the 1998 Winter Olympics.

Lots of Japanese people go skiing at the weekend, so it’s super easy to incorporate a day of skiing into a winter itinerary – but I recommend a week or more!


3) Snow monkeys

No winter trip to Japan would be complete without a visit to the hot spring-bathing snow monkeys of Yudanaka, in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture.

Monkeys in the hot spring at Jigokudani Monkey Park

Monkeys in the hot spring at Jigokudani Monkey Park, Feb 2014

Yudanaka is a tiny, quaint hot spring town with some lovely traditional inns and plenty of onsen hot spring baths for the chilly traveller to warm up in. It is about an hour’s walk along icy, wooded paths from the town to Jigokudani monkey park, but when you finally arrive you’re rewarded with a flock (gaggle? what’s the collective noun for monkeys?) incredibly cute Japanese macaques hanging out in their hot spring and even throwing the odd snowball or two.

A baby Japanese macaque at Yudanaka's Jigokudani Monkey Park

A baby Japanese macaque at Yudanaka’s Jigokudani Monkey Park.


4) Warm sake

When there’s snow on the ground and you’re huddled inside your traditional ryokan inn or an izakaya pub, what better excuse to order a bottle of hot sake to warm the cockles of your heart?

Sake is Japan’s native rice wine (known as nihonshu in Japanese), and comes in a huge variety of types and qualities. It can be served warm or cold, and there’s nothing better than coming in after a long day in the cold for a lovely warming brew (or two, or three, or four).

Warm sake poured from a ceramic bottle - designed to keep the liquid warm for the longest amount of time.

Warm sake poured from a ceramic bottle – designed to keep the liquid warm for the longest amount of time.


5) Onsen hot spring baths

It doesn’t have to be chilly to enjoy a nice soak in a hot spring, but in my opinion there’s simply nothing like sinking into a lovely, steamy rotenburo (outdoor bath) when there are snowflakes falling all around you.

Hot springs (or onsen as they are known in Japanese) are an integral part of Japanese culture, and there are resorts dedicated to onsen bathing up and down the country – ranging from traditional cedar-panelled bathhouses to huge, themed hot spring complexes where you can bathe in red wine or milk and honey.

The onsen hot spring bath at Jinpyokaku ryokan in Yudanaka.

The onsen hot spring bath at Jinpyokaku ryokan in Yudanaka.

Watch this space for a post on Japan’s most magical onsen baths!


6) Kotatsu

Japan gets bloody cold in the winter, but the Japanese have come up with a great solution: the kotatsu.

A kotatsu is a low table fringed with a thick quilt with a heater underneath the top. The idea is that you sit cross-legged with the quilt over your knees to warm up your toesicles – but they are also great for napping underneath! In winter you’ll find kotatsu in most traditional Japanese-style inns, and some bars will even have them outside so you can combine 4) and 6) whilst watching the world go by!

Kotatsu at Jinpyokaku ryokan inn, Yudanaka

Kotatsu at Jinpyokaku ryokan inn, Yudanaka


7) Sapporo Yuki Matsuri 

If you are in the habit of reading the InsideJapan blog, you’ll know that festivals abound in Japan. One of the most impressive of all takes place in Sapporo, capital city of the comparatively little-visited northern island of Hokkaido.

The Sapporo Yuki Matsuri, or snow festival, is a winter celebration of epic proportions. For a few days every year, the streets and open spaces of the city are filled with giant snow and ice sculptures up to 20 metres tall and 30 metres wide, with toboggan runs, games, ice bars and all sorts of fun for all ages to join in. If you’ve ever fancied seeing a giant replica of the pyramids of Giza in snow, this is the festival for you.




Please note that this festival is very popular (because it’s very awesome), so you’ll need to book accommodation in Sapporo well in advance.


8) Red-crowned cranes


If you’re in Hokkaido for the Yuki Matsuri, why not make your way to Tsurui to witness one of Japan’s most enchanting natural events? Every winter Japan’s red-crowned crane population congregates in Tsurui to mate, performing intricate and seemingly choreographed mating dances together. It’s an amazing sight, and you can be privy to it at the Tsurui-Ito Tancho Sanctuary.


Mating dance of the red-crowned crane at Tsurui crane reserve, Hokkaido.


9) Illuminations

In Japan, where the national love of festivals is surpassed only by the love of lighting stuff up, illuminations are another winter must-see. The Halloween decorations are barely down before every city centre in Japan is suddenly flooded with thousands of twinkling fairy lights. Throughout the season my walk home from work through Nagoya was a winter wonderland, and attending illuminations is a favourite romantic pastime for loved-up Japanese couples.

There are some pretty spectacular illuminations throughout Japan in the winter, so if you’re planning a trip there’s bound to be something awesome going on near you. In Tokyo you should head to Tokyo Midtown to see the ‘starlight garden’; in Kanagawa you can visit the Kanto region’s largest light show at the Sagamiko Resort Pleasure Forest; and for the biggest show in all Japan, make your way to Mie Prefecture for the Nabana no Sato Winter Illumination, which boasts around 7 million LED bulbs.

Illuminations at Mie Prefecture's Nabana no Sato

Illuminations at Mie Prefecture’s Nabana no Sato


10) Shirakawago

A preserved, traditional village in the Japanese Alps that was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1995 for its wonderful collection of original thatched farmhouses, Shirakawago is a superb place to visit at any time of year – but it’s particularly spectacular in the winter.

The farmhouses are called gassho zukuri, or ‘praying hands’ because of the steep pitch of their roofs – designed to cope with the heavy snowfall in this alpine region. If you decide to visit, I highly recommend arranging to spend the night at one of these farmhouses (some of which have been converted into traditional inns) for a totally unique experience that you won’t find anywhere else!

A gassho zukuri farmhouse

A gassho zukuri farmhouse

And, of course, you can’t leave without seeing the view from the observation point above the village. On certain days in January and February each year (click here for this year’s dates) the village is illuminated (see, I told you they like lighting stuff up), creating one of Japan’s most picturesque winter scenes.

Shirakawago illuminated in the winter

Shirakawago illuminated in the winter


11) You can actually see Mount Fuji

This article was going to be called ’10 reasons to visit Japan in the winter’ – but then I went and thought of another one!

Now, I’m going to have to put my hands up and confess, I have never been blessed with a glimpse of Fuji-san. Not from the pirate ship across Lake Ashi, not from the plane, not from the bullet train – nada. The fact is, Mount Fuji may be a Japanese icon, but she is also notoriously shy – hiding her face behind clouds and haze for most of the year.

If you want the best chance of seeing Fuji-san, guess what? You have to go in the winter!

Fuji looking her finest with clear winter skies

Fuji looking her finest against clear winter skies

InsideJapan Tours organised my family’s fantastic winter holiday to Japan in February, and can organise any (or all) of the items on this list. (Well, we can’t guarantee a sighting of Mount Fuji, so anything apart from that). Get in touch to find out how you can visit snow monkeys, sweep down ski slopes, soak in a hot spring and snuggle up under a kotatsu this winter!

Ninja vs. Samurai

Two of the most evocative images of historical Japan are the ninja and the samurai. We’ve all heard of them, but what do you actually know about these famous historical assassins and warriors?

It’s time for the epic showdown of the ninja and the samurai!

ninja vs samurai


First of all, who were they?

Samurai 侍 (usually called “bushi” or “buke” in Japanese) were the military nobility of Japan. They lived during a time when the Emperor of Japan was little more than a ceremonial figure, and the country was actually ruled by a shogun, or military general.

The shogun presided over a bunch of powerful clans, called daimyo, each of which controlled its own small portion of the country and hired samurai to act as its guards and warriors.

hokusai samurai

Samurai were not only fierce warriors but followed strict codes of honour and combat. During the long peace of the Edo Period (1603 – 1868), samurai gradually lost their military function and expanded their roles courtiers, bureaucrats and administrators. The samurai class was eventually abolished in the Meiji Reforms of the 19th century, after enjoying hundreds of years of power and influence.

There is no evidence that ninjas favoured pizza over any other foodstuff

There is no evidence that ninjas favoured pizza over any other foodstuff

Ninja 忍者 (known as “shinobi”忍び in Japan) were essentially ye olde equivalent of secret agents, whose role involved espionage, sabotage, infiltration and assassination. Where the samurai adhered obdurately to their principles, the ninja were a very different story, using covert means to achieve their ends. Just like the samurai, they were employed by powerful clans to do their dirty work.

beverley hilss

Not much about them is known for certain, but what we do know is that the modern-day image of a ninja is a far cry from the historical reality – as Kotaku explains in this interesting blog post. Rather, our current conception of the ninja has been reinforced over time – not only by western movies like American Ninja, but also by Japanese media and folklore.


What did they look like?

Clue: not this

Clue: not like this

All this sounds exciting, but as Matt Alt points out in his book Ninja Attack: True Tales of Assassins, Samurai and Outlaws, being a ninja was probably much more about gathering information than assassinating people in the dead of night. Most often, ninja would be dressed inconspicuously – as farmers or priests for example – so that they could act as scouts and observe the doings of the enemy without being rumbled. Come to think of it, the idea of some guy running about the place dressed in black does seem kind of conspicuous…

Perhaps the first image of the stereotypical "ninja"

Perhaps the first image of the stereotypical “ninja”

We have the painter Hokusai to thank for the first ever image of the ninja dressed all in black, which may have been based on the garb of stage hands in the Japanese theatre – who wore dark colours so as not to be seen on set.

Sadly, real ninja probably looked more like this.

Sadly, real ninja probably looked more like this.

…or actually, they currently look like this 63 year old engineer, recently touted as one of Japan’s ‘last Ninja’ …

Samurai, on the other hand, looked awesome and imposing in their badass armour, which grew to have a ceremonial as well as protective function as the role of the samurai changed. The fact that samurai no longer had to charge into battle at a moment’s notice during the Edo Period meant that some armour became exaggerated, even to the point of being a little ridiculous – like this fine set, belonging to the Ii clan of Hikone.

Not the most practical of headgear

Not the most practical of headgear


When were they around?

The concept of the samurai began to emerge during around the mid-Heian Period (794 – 1185). Sneaky ninja predecessors probably existed as far back as the late Heian Period too, but the shinobi as a specially trained group of mercenaries from the villages of Iga and Koga only appeared in the fifteenth century, making them a good five hundred years younger than the samurai.

The ninja, born out of a demand for fighters who were willing to do dishonourable deeds and reliant for their trade on political unrest and war, faded into obscurity after the unification of Japan in the seventeenth century. The samurai, meanwhile, adapted their role in society and endured much longer.


What was their philosophy?

The rules by which the samurai governed their lives are known as Bushido – which is basically the Japanese version of chivalry. This code of honour, influenced by Confucianism, Shinto and Zen Buddhism, introduced an element of wisdom and peace to the violent life of the samurai.

old time samurai

To sum it up: the seven virtues of Bushido are rectitude (or righteousness), courage, benevolence, respect, honesty, honour and loyalty. Mastery of the martial arts and a frugal lifestyle were also highly important to the samurai, and they endeavoured to follow all these precepts to the letter in every aspect of their lives. Honestly, nothing could be more different from the underhand dealings of the ninja.

Ninja philosophy (if you can call “not giving a fraction of a shit” a philosophy) had its roots in Chinese military philosophy and was focussed much less on values and much more on kicking butt.

There are three main texts from which we get most of our knowledge of ninja, called the Ninpiden (1655), the Bansenshukai (1675) and the Shoninki (1681). These address things like how to disguise oneself, how to break into houses and gather information, how to lay false trails, and some observations on human nature and emotions.


Cats’ eye sundial

Just some of the awesome tactics that ninja are reported to have used are telling the time by observing the dilation of cats’ pupils, and carrying around a box of crickets with them to disguise their footsteps. Whether these are actually true is anyone’s guess.


What kind of weapons did they use?


Samurai pretty much relied on their swords for weaponry. These ranged from the katana (long sword) to the wakizashi (short sword) and the tanto (dagger). Sometimes they also used a kama (a sickle-like weapon), but without a doubt the most awesome samurai weapon is the WAR FAN.

Antique tessen, c. 1800-1850, made of iron, bamboo and lacquer

Antique tessen, c. 1800-1850, made of iron, bamboo and lacquer

Thought fans were just for the ladies? Well, you were wrong. A tessen was a folding fan with outer spokes made of pointy iron, or sometimes a solid club made to look like a fan. The tessen could be used for attacks, fending off arrows and darts, as a throwing weapon and even (rather amusingly) as a swimming aid. Crafty.

"If only I had my tessen"

“If only I had my tessen”

Because ninja relied on ambush and unorthodox tactics whereas samurai generally fought honourably (face-to-face), ninja could use a much greater variety of weapons.

Whilst ninja probably used swords too, they also used things like red pepper or iron filings to temporarily blind enemies; a scary-looking chain and sickle contraption called a kusarigama; farming tools that could be easily disguised as, well, gardening tools; darts, spikes, knives, shuriken throwing stars, bows, smoke bombs, poison, cane swords, acid-spurting tubes (apparently) and even a variety of explosives. Besides these they carried tools such as grappling hooks, chisels, hammers, drills, picks and saws (all of which could also be used as weapons), and inflatable skins with breathing tubes to allow them to stay underwater for extended periods of time.

DCF 1.0

Obviously they didn’t carry all this at the same time – the Bansenshukai, one of the ninja texts, states that “a successful ninja is one who uses but one tool for multiple tasks”


So who would have won in a fight?

In an honourable fight? Maybe the samurai would have had a chance. But considering the huge array of tricks up ninja sleeves (plus purported superhuman abilities such as invisibility, shapeshifting, walking on water, the summoning of animals and control over the elements – which were probably true, let’s face it), the ninja would probably have got him in the end.

Well, we all know what happens to men with honour - don't we?

Well, we all know what happens to men with honour – don’t we?


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