I spent a considerable amount of time during July and August hiking some of Japan’s stunning 3000m peaks with InsideJapantours’ clients looking for adventure and achievement to add to their cultural fascination of this great country.
The Chubu Sangaku National Park offers something for all levels of hiker – the lower area is a pristine river valley experience – the Asuza River winding its way through forests of larch, cedar and giant ferns. Its so-called Kappabashi Bridge is the photographic hotspot of the area – scores of daytrippers line the bridge to get that great alpine shot up the Dakesawa valley to Hotaka Dake Peak – Japan’s 3rd highest.This summer’s work was largely in the high Northern Alps, so-called after the publication of hiking tales by a British/Sudanese missionary, Walter Weston, in the late 1800s. My first challenge in July was to check the trail and snow levels for an upcoming trip through the Karasawa Valley to Hotaka Peak (3190m).This area, a particular favourite for hikers in autumn, owing to the painted citrus and cherry red colours of the autumn foliage, is a different world in the late spring/ early summer months. Japan’s Alps receive some of the highest levels of snowfall on the planet and it doesn’t disappear quickly – even when temperatures in the valley below are touching the mid-30s! (Celsius). With this in mind – the steep nature of the terrain and the extensive snowfields to encounter, I realised that crampons and an ice axe were essential. After 2 hours on the steepening trail up from the Karasawa stream, where the heat was intense and the greenery abundant, it was time to get the “extra” kit out. The adventure was unfolding.
Early July is not a busy time to summit via this valley. After trudging in bite-sized steps over the snow for 3 hours, I saw but one sole hiker in the daunting mists and winds that buffeted me as I hit the upper slopes of the Karasawa Valley, at around 2700m. We stopped to chat on a precarious area of loose scree, both genuinely enjoying a stranger’s company for the 5 minutes that we had taken to refuel on chocolate and water, yet not wanting our body temperatures to cool too much. My crampons were coming off after 3 hours of workout, as I had finally reached the spine of tricky rock known as “zaitengrad”, extending down from the Hotaka ridgeline above. My fleeting friend, a mountain guide from the southern island of Yakushima, was descending, so strapping on the spikes. We advised each other on the trail ahead, said farewell as I set off once more, clambering and scrambling for a further hour, grateful for the strenuous nature of the trail that pushed my body and kept it warm in the deteriorating conditions.
I have led mountain tours in various countries, but I was now alone, getting cold and tiring in the fading light and gloomy cloud cap that shrouded views of the hut above and the summit. The staff at the friendly Hotaka Sansou Hut seemed almost as pleased to see me as I was them. This was a mere hot coffee stop, however, and as I stepped out of the hut to continue, I felt a pang of dismay and regret, as if I were leaving close friends. Along the lower right side of the ridge towards Mae Hotaka Peak brought respite from the elements and even afforded me the occasional views down the slopes and into the valleys beneath me – it is quite amazing how a single momentary view can lift the spirits. This was somewhat short lived, however, as I met my first stretch of snowfield for 3 hours. Although just 20metres wide, at a 35-degree gradient stretching down hill, this was, the toughest 15 minutes of the entire hike. Crampons on and the trusted ice axe out, I realised that one slip here and it was an unwanted 300m toboggan run down the gully to exposed rocks below. No help, no escape. Adrenaline leaked out of my pores as I dug footings meticulously across the gully and hammered my axe deep into the snow above for grip. As frantically as I dug footholds, my crampons slid off my pedal ledges on occasion, exerting a lot of pressure and responsibility on that axe. It held fast for me though, and after an exhausting traverse, I calmed the nerves and treated myself to an energy bar and peanuts.
Finally, after reaching the lower section of Mae Hotaka peak it was time for the long-awaited yet gruelingly steep descent over wet rock and down challenging loose scree. The knees were creaking and cracking under the strain, even with my hiking poles to relieve some of the burden. By now, the views of the glorious, verdant-carpeted Asuza River valley and my ultimate objective painted a heartwarming canvass in front of my eyes. That said, I realised that too much wonderment at the clearing vistas could be a lethal distraction as I gingerly clambered down to the Dakesawa valley for the final 1 hour “stroll” back down to the river side.
Time seemingly trudges more slowly than a weary hiker, so the last trail-marking sign indicating 45 minutes to go seemed like an gross underestimate. Of course, the sign told no lie but also told of my impatient desire to reach the flat riverside, find a hot spring bath and reward myself with a beer. Finally, after what seemed like 3 hours in my desperately tired mind and hungry core, I found myself back among the day trippers, snap happy on the Kappabashi, unaware of what really lurks in the peaks above. I felt smug and quite the great adventurer, as if the secret was all mine. However, luxury temptations brought me back to a state of humility as I soaked my limbs and then sat and contemplated the whole adventure over a cold riverside beer. A job well done!Two weeks later, I returned to the same Hotaka Range in the Northern Alps with an Insidejapantours’ hiking group. The summer had pushed on somewhat by then, melting considerable swathes of the snow I had encountered and easing our trail considerably. We laughed, puffed, grimaced and bonded in an unforgiving, but stunning environment. This tour is breathtaking – literally.
Every now and then, I like to look back at some of the great trips that I have been fortunate enough to do as well as some of the great trips to Japan that I have been fortunate enough to help people to do…after all that’s what we do.
One that always sticks in my mind was for Glen and Nick who won our Blog to Japan competition. They ended up creating a great little blog (updated daily) called TwoToTokyo and did a great little video which incorporated their two-and-a-half week Japanese culture and travel fest into just a few minutes. The great thing about these guys is that they had barely been out of the UK, let alone travelled to Asia.
They stayed in temple lodgings on Mt Koya, traditional ryokan in Takayama, an amazing eco-lodge in rural Chiba and an old style town house in Kyoto to name a few places. They had no idea what to expect and did so much (of course largely down to our mighty Info Pack). Do take a look at their blog, but here’s the videos.
They also did an amusing MTV Cribs style introduction to one of our favourite Ryokan in Takayama.
Anyway, great memories from a great trip. Lets do it again someday…
We are already half way through 2014, but for those who plan to spend their January holiday in Japan (this year or in future years), there are plenty of festivals to check out and things to do during this brisk winter month. People who want to know what to do in Japan during January should look no further…
Japan in January
For those who are going to Tokyo, check out the Dezome-shiki, which is also known as the New Year’s Parade of Firemen. This parade takes place on January 6, 2014. The Tokyo Fire Department organizes the event, which is held in order to pray for a safe year for the department. More than 100 fire trucks and fire engines are on display along with some very acrobatic firemen doing things in a more ‘traditional way’.
The ‘Dosojin’ matsuri or ‘Fire festival’ is held in the traditional ski resort of Nozawa Onsen in the middle of the Japanese Alps. The festival is held every year around January 13/15th and consists of wood, fire and lots of sake. The 25 and 42 year old men of the village construct a wooden ‘shrine’. The 42 year olds sit on top of the structure, the 25 year olds guard the structure and all the other men of village try and burn it down. Quite insane.
Head to Akita on January 17, 2014 for the Bonden-sai. Also known as the Bonden Festival, this event is a contest that celebrates the person who reaches the sacred mountain first with their Bonden in hand. A Bonden is a large sacred wand that is said to represent the gods descending into the human world.
This is an exciting time of the year, filled with local festivals and cultural events that showcase the customs and traditions of this ancient land. January is the perfect time to see the sights of Japan and visit all of the famous tourist attractions (comparatively empty compared to other times of year), while also enjoying some of the more unique, local festivals that only come once a year. Crisp blue skies, empty temples and gardens, culture in abundance – Winter is the new Spring!
Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu!!!…or Ake Ome if you are a bit cooler. Another year has been and gone and the 12 year cycle of the Chinese Zodiac makes this year, the Year of the Horse. The horse is a symbol of power in Japan, but is also believed to be defined by hard work and self reliance – very apt for Japan and the intentions of the Abe government. Those who were born in the Year of the Horse will be in their element this year. Anything with any connection to the horse is considered lucky. Here are my suggestions for potential horse related highlights in 2014.
Hakuba ‘White Horse’
Hakuba is one of Japan’s most famous ski resorts in Japan. The Kanji characters literally mean ‘White Horse’. This Nagano ski resort is already reporting perfect ski conditions in the Alps - could this be the best ever year?…maybe.
Gunma ‘Herd of Horses’
Rural Gunma sits in the middle of the mountains a couple of hours north of Tokyo. In fact it was my home. It isn’t known for much apart from its hot spring baths and Konyaku root vegetable. It actually has some stunning destinations and allows foreigners to discover a chunk of rural, real Japan. They also have a cute little mascot called Gunma Chan. This could be Gunma’s year.
Kumamoto ‘Origin of the Bear’
OK, so Kumamoto (lit. Origin of the Bear) relates to bears and the Kumamon city mascot is testament to that having generated an estimated 12 billion yen for the city over the last couple of years. Bears have got nothing to do with horses. However, one of Kumamoto’s Meibutsu (specialities) is ‘Basashi’ or raw horse. Horse meat is very healthy and tender and I am sure there is some school of thought suggesting that eating horse in the Year of the Horse is an extra good thing.
Yabusame ‘Horse back archery’
Yabusame archery dates back to the 12th century and was a form of training samurai for battles. Today, Yabusame is practised at some Shinto shrines across thee country and involves a man dressed in traditional costume racing full pelt on horseback down a few hundred metres of track and firing arrows at three targets. One of the big festivals takes place at Tsurugaoka Hachmangu shrine in Kamakura on September 16th. Very impressive.
Fujisaki Hachimangu Matsuri AKA “The drunken horse festival”
This shrine in Kumamoto (of horse eating fame) is also famous for getting the horses drunk. The festival was known as the ‘Boshita Festival’ and dates back to a samurai parade returning from wars with Korea during in the 16th century. The September festival is one of the regions biggest and consists of decorated horses who are also given a drop of sake.
Yonaguni is a remote subtropical island with the dive world’s best kept secret and its very ‘lost city of Atlantis’. If you are into your diving, this is a must and a unique dive site. If you are on the island and above the water, you could ride one of the native Yonaguni horses. The rare breed of horse is only just over a metre tall, but they can be seen roaming the island and is quite an unusual sight compared to mainland Japan.
Happy New Year in the Year of the Horse. Yoroshiku!
Christianity is not a common religion in Japan. In fact, only about one half of one percent of the population is Christian. Japan is traditionally a Shinto-Buddhist country. However, visitors may be surprised to learn that Christmas is still very popular in Japan….although it is not quite the same as the Christmas you may know. Here are a few similarities and differences…
Christmas is still observed on December 25 in Japan, but it is not a national holiday so schools and businesses remain open as usual.
People like to eat a Christmas dinner, but it is not a turkey or ham that is eatern….oh no…Due to a bit of clever marketing, Kentucky Fried Chicken is the usual place for people to enjoy a taster of western culture. KFC’s around the country often see packed waiting lists for their “Christmas dinner” consisting of a roast /fried chicken, a few potatoes and gravy. The Colonel is often dressed up as Santa as early as November.
Whilst the Christmas food isn’t exactly of the highest quality, Japan does the Christmas lights extremely well indeed. Huge illuminations are very much part of winter in Japan and many of them will have a Christmas element to them. Considering this is not a Christian country, Tokyo feels very Christmassy in the winter months with all sorts of stunning displays. In Japan, Christmas is believed to be a day of romantic miracles, more akin to Valentine’s Day than a religious or family holiday. Couples often exchange romantic gifts or go walking to enjoy Christmas lights.
If you are not a “Christmas person” you can easily get away from the season. Perhaps head off into the mountains and stay in a Buddhist temple lodging to meditate with the monks or maybe head to the subtropical Okinawa islands and sit back in the warm weather.
Whatever sort of person you are, Japan is as unique as ever in the winter months. You can get a bit of festive holiday cheer with a twist, or avoid it altogether. “Meri Kurisumasu!” For more information about Japanese religion and culture, visit InsideJapan Tours.
For those Crimbo lovers out there, here’s ‘We wish you a Merry Christmas’…in Japanese.
They’ve been clocked at up to 200 miles per hour, their tracks cover about 1,500 miles of the country and they safely and reliably transport hundreds of millions of passengers each year around Japan. The Shinkansen is better known simply as the “bullet train,” (a nickname it gets from its bullet-shape nose and fast speeds) was launched for the Tokyo Olympics way back in October 1964. In 2014, the Shinkansen will be 50!
Things have changed a bit over the last 50 years. The original 320 mile stretch of track from Tokyo to Osaka now extends across mainland Honshu to Kyushu. The original 0 Series train travelled at 210kph, which was considerably faster than the steam trains that were still in service in the UK in 1964, but now travels at speeds of up to 200mph. The ‘bullet train’ has also changed appearance over the years with the classic 0 series spawning all sorts of super sleek train designs.
The o series has given way to the N700 series on the Tokaido line with the 800 series running all the way down to Kagoshima on Kyushu island. The Joetsu Shinkansen lines in Nagano have the impressive double-decker E2 and E4 series MAX (Multi Amenity eXpress) trains and the Tokoku line to the far north has the very impressive looking green E5 ‘Hayabusa’ and the more recent E6 ‘Komachi’. Whether you like trains or not, you cannot fail to be impressed with the Shinkansen.
Here are a few points about using the bullet train in Japan -
- They run on a tight schedule. If you’re planning to take the train, be on time. Japanese bullet trains are rarely late and often run within a minute of the planned arrival and departure times.
- No language barriers: Signs in terminals and on the trains are typically in both English and Japanese, so there’s no language barrier to worry about.
- Buy a rail pass: One-way tickets aren’t cheap, but a rail pass can save you big bucks wherever it is that you’re going.
- They are very spacious, comfortable and a delight to ride.
- Standard class is considerably better than standard class in the UK or US.
- The ‘Green class’ or first class has a different seat configuration meaning more room for passengers along with a blanket and newspaper.
- Like the rest of Japan, service on the Shinkansen is first class as standard and ‘Bento Box’ meals are served by well dressed staff.
If you travel to Japan, the chances are that you will ride one of these beautifully engineered carriages to one of your destinations. However, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Shinkansen, we thought we would develop a trip travelling from north to south around Japan, touching on every Shinkansen track across the country, sampling several different styles of this wonderful train and a whole host of cultural experiences. We have designed the 15 night ’50 years of the Shinkansen: Bullet trains and temples’ bullet train bonanza. The trip retraces the original journey from 1964, takes a sand bath in the shadow of the puffing Sakurajima Volcano in Kagoshima, the Shinkansen depot in Fukuoka via Kumamoto castle, stays in Buddhist temple lodgings in the Japanese Alps, stops in a samurai town in the north of Japan and visits the new Maglev Museum in Nagoya to name just a few of the experiences.
Why not gallop along on the Shinkansen in 2014 – the Year of the Horse. You might say that you “are not into trains”, but you will be after a visit to Japan.
For more information on riding Japanese bullet trains, contact Inside Japan Tours.
Japanese food, or ‘Washoku’ is the latest addition to the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list. Japan is of course a food nation with local specialties everywhere you travel. As anyone who has ever been to Japan will know, Japan is a food lovers must. One recent customer, Andrew Hung ate his way across Japan on the ‘Gastronomic Adventure’ taking in the local ‘meibutsu’ specialties and produced this fantastic travel blog.
Our tours are full of good affordable and delicious food experiences and our tour leaders know where to sniff out the best dishes. Our Tour leader Andrew, gives us his favourite food tips covering his favourite food destinations and dishes in Japan.
We don’t have a “Gourmet tour” per say, but that’s because all our tours are full of foodie experiences and treats. We are lucky enough to eat an amazing array of food on tour from back street ramen bars to beautiful Kaiseki meals. Although I would love to write about my favourite food and restaurant in each city I visit, I want to focus on some of my personal tour favourites…Bear in mind that the food I eat on tour and the food I eat when not on tour are very different.
I’m gonna start this off right with Hiroshima - Hands down one of my favorite types of food in Japan, is Hiroshimayaki!
Hiroshimayaki is Hiroshima style Okonimiyaki, which is kind of like a Japanese pancake. The reason I love Hiroshimayki and not Osaka style Okonomiyaki (which is probably the more famous of the two) is because of the noodles that are added, as well as the way in which it is cooked. Hiroshimayaki has a bottom layer of crust and a top layer of crust and all the meat and noodles and everything are inbetween. Hiroshima is also famous for its oysters, so I like to have oysters on top of my okonomiyaki – it is the definition of perfection!
Matsumoto is famous for its original castle, the black crow, but they also have spectacular ramen! It’s a miso based ramen, as opposed to Soy sauce (Tokyo), or Tonkotsu (Fukuoka) and it is delicious!
My personal favorite place to eat it is at the ramen place Sakura. With the option for extra meat, delicious miso, and bamboo shoots it’s a specialty not to be missed!
Takayama is famous for its Hida beef, and nowhere does this amazing beef go better than in their amazing Hida beef burgers! It’s a bit on the pricey side, around ￥2000 but most definitely worth it!
It comes with fries, but the burger itself is so filling I doubt you’ll need the fries! I say this as a Texan too, famous for its beef and steaks, if you are ever in Takayama do not miss this! The meat is so delicate it melts in your mouth, for an extra treat I recommend adding cheese, you won’t regret it!
Last but not least is Tokyo. While Tokyo is famous for many things and many famous restaurants, my favorite thing to eat on tour in Tokyo is the Tsukiji fish market sushi!
While Japan is of course famous for its sushi, and anywhere you go will of course be amazing, the sushi served at Tsukiji is just melt-in-your-mouth, the best. All fresh, on top quality rice, it is a treat for the senses!