Tokyo Restaurant Review – Takazawa Bar

Takazawa VIP Room

If you’re a foodie there’s a good chance that you’ve already hear of Takazawa. The restaurant, named after it’s owner and chef, was ranked in the top 50 restaurant in Asia in both 2014 and 2015. Takazawa is loved by critics and patronized daily by Tokyo’s elite. In newspapers and magazines there has been more buzz about the fact that Takazawa is yet to receive it’s handful of Michelin stars than most restaurants garner when they get 3 Michelin stars. Perhaps the folks at Michelin couldn’t get a reservation at one of the coveted 10 seats?

Takazawa Bar

Takazawa’s sous chef and world class bar manager – if it’s not too busy you may be able to enjoy one of the best cocktails in Tokyo from the young man on the right.

So when Takazawa decided to open a small eating bar adjacent to the restaurant, it’s not surprising that it made a splash with the Tokyo dining scene. Finally, locals and foreigners alike were able to pop into a bar on relatively short notice, enjoy drinks from a world class sommelier and cocktail artist and eat food from the very kitchen that is rightly considered one of the best in the world.

On a recent visit to the newly opened restaurant I was shown around the VIP room and treated to a fantastic journey through the food and drink menu. As is often the case in Japan, rather than choosing for oneself an omakase style of ordering is the preferred style here; whereby you simply explain how much you’d like and give a sense of your budget and then sit back and enjoy! Sakurai-san (pictured) is a well-known bartender who worked at prestigious venues throughout the city before being picked up by Mr. Takazawa himself.

Champagne

We started off in style with Takazawa’s preferred and personally labeled Champagne, a crisp and ever so slightly pretentious way to wash down the oysters with lemon foam. These touches of molecular gastronomy keep the menu interesting and innovative but there’s also a farm to table concept which underlies everything and keeps the restaurant thoroughly rooted in Japan. Ask where an ingredient is from and you’ll invariably be given an answer that could be tracked down to a single farm let alone a particular region. For instance our second course, which consisted of mozzarella topped with sorbet (shown below) had come straight from Hokkaido that very day – though that was simply lucky timing as much as anything. Moving along, our bartender brought out a bottle of ‘Koshihikari’ beer from Niigata that was made of rice and proved to be the perfect thing to wash down the most beautiful course of the night, vegetable tempura with three kinds of salt delicately patterned along the side of the plate. We found the sakura salt to be our personal favorite and it certainly suited the spring season; the anticipation of cherry blossom is tangible throughout Japan right now.

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Moving along, we found our way to something that could never be served in Takazawa’s restaurant but made for a tasty bar snack. Venison finger sandwiches had been made out of the literal and nominal spare ribs from the restaurant. Though the picture above most assuredly doesn’t do it justice, the minced meat was so soft and delicate that chewing was only necessary for devouring the bread and cabbage; the juicy venison melted. When paired with a truly top quality sake (nihonshu) this course was a nice reminder that the bar is more than merely another outlet for the restaurant, it stands on it’s own with or without the name on the front door.

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Throughout the meal we were served on Kutani Pottery and enjoyed our drinks out of Edokiriko, a wonderful nod to Takazawa’s love of traditional Japan and it’s unparalleled artistry. For every top tier restaurant there is a potter, lacquerware maker, glass blower, carver and artist that is perfecting their craft to make vessels that increase one’s culinary experience beyond the credit they’re often given.

The bar manager at Takazawa Bar regularly competes in bar tending contests and he still considers it his main craft and skill despite the fact that he now spends more time choosing pairings then shaking mixers. If the bar is crowded there’s no chance of getting such a complicated drink but if you arrive early and the bar isn’t too crowded, be sure to ask Sakurai-san to mix you a cocktail – you won’t be disappointed. The slideshow below shows him whisking up (literally!) a matcha cocktail with Japanese liqueur for us. It went down far too easy.

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There’s no shortage of places to eat in Tokyo and there are plenty that are cheaper than Takazawa Bar but if you are looking for a special experience and culinary excellence without the stuffiness of most Michelin-starred restaurants this one should stay on your “must eat at” list!

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The tiny but welcoming Takazawa Bar.

Blue blossom a first

Why? – This is the question being asked about the beloved Cherry Blossom trees in Kanazawa.
Things have changed in Kanazawa recently. The city known for its gardens, old tea districts and samurai houses is a beautiful example of traditional Japan.  Perhaps it is the new blue-nosed Shinkansen service that opened in mid-March slashing journey time from Tokyo to Kanazawa from 4hrs to 2.5hrs. Tourist numbers to the old city on the Japan Sea Coast have increased considerably with the new train. Is this the reason that a single tree in the city has blossomed blue? – Who knows!?!

Mysterious blue cherry blossom a first.

Mysterious blue cherry blossom a first.

This is the famous cherry blossom of Japan. This traditional city, is not use to non-pink cherry blossom. It just doesn’t happen. Is it a one off occurance? We don’t know. Mysterious Japan….

Perhaps we should add it to our interactive cherry blossom guide –

Our cherry blossom guide

Our brand new cherry blossom guide!

 

Tsukiji Fish Market: How to do it right

Tsukiji Fish Market is one of my tip-top favourite Tokyo experiences, but what with increasingly unstable relations between the vendors (for whom this is their livelihood) and tourists (for whom it is a fascinating attraction), it is important to know how to “do” Tsukiji properly.

Located right in the middle of Tokyo, next-door to Hamarikyu Gardens and near the upmarket Ginza district of town, Tsukiji is the largest seafood market in the world, and makes a fantastic (and free) addition to any Tokyo itinerary.

And since it was announced that Tsukiji will soon be moving from its current location to a site in Toyosu (a 20-minute bus or train ride from its current spot), you really will have to get in there quick – before it changes for good!

Map of Tsukiji Market (source: Japanguide)

Map of Tsukiji Market (source: Japanguide)

What does the future hold?

As of yet, exact details about the new arrangement for Tsukiji Fish Market are elusive – and what information we’ve been able to glean so far has been vague at best.

The Toyosu Tsukiji Market (run by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government) is scheduled to open in November 2016, and will continue to function as a wholesale market for Tokyo’s restaurants. In addition to this, it seems that there will be an area dedicated to the general public (including tourists), where you will be able to see and buy fresh seafood and vegetables, and perhaps even take cooking lessons or attend special events. The tuna auctions will also be taking place here, but it is not yet clear whether the public will be allowed to watch them or not.

What is to become of the current Tsukiji site is even more unclear. Whilst most news sources on the suggest that the reason for the move is to free up prime real estate for profitable development, one of our sources in Tokyo indicated that there has been talk of plans for a new Tsukiji Market (run by the local ward) to be built where the “inner” market currently resides, while the existing shops in the “outer” market will remain as they are.

So, in short, it’s not certain what the future holds for Tsukiji.

The inner market

How do I visit the market now?

Until these mysterious changes come into effect, it is still possible to visit Tsukiji Market – and I would certainly urge you to do so if you get the chance. If you do decide to visit, you have two options: either get up before the crack of dawn to see the tuna auctions for which the market is famous; or mosey on down at about 9am to catch a bit of market action.

When you get there, you’ll find that the market has two sections: inner and outer. The outer market is much smaller, has plenty of great sushi restaurants, and lots of shops selling vegetables, spices, cooking implements and various other things.

The inner market, meanwhile, is the really interesting bit. This is where you’ll find all the wholesale seafood sellers – as well as some of the very best sushi restaurants in Japan, where people queue for literally hours for just a few minutes at the bar.

Produce at Tsukiji Market

Produce at Tsukiji Market

Visiting just the inner market:

9am is still pretty early in the morning when you’re on holiday (if you ask me), so I will not be the one to judge if you just don’t care enough about dead fish to get up for the tuna auctions. Tsukiji is still most definitely worth a visit if you can only make it to the main market – in fact, at InsideJapan we think this is the best bit. You will get to see massive tuna being skilfully carved up, as well as plenty of other weird and wonderful produce – and you can feel secure in the knowledge that your presence is welcomed rather than resented.

Tsukiji Inner Market

Tsukiji Inner Market

At this time in the morning the trains will be running, so getting to the market is much easier than if you decide to see the auctions. All you need to do is catch the subway to Tsukiji Station (on the Hibiya subway line, 8 mins walk from inner market) or Tsukijishijo Station (on the Toei Oedo Line, 3 mins walk from inner market). Follow the crowds and you should end up at the market, where guards on the entrances can usually provide you with a free map.

Once inside, you are free to wander amongst the stalls freely – but look out for speedy buggies zipping past, as they will not get out of your way! The market is still very crowded at this time, so try your best not to get in the way of vendors trying to do their jobs – once again, this is a working market, not a tourist attraction. Remember not to smoke, touch anything, bring large bags or luggage, or wear inappropriate footwear (the ground is very uneven, wet and dirty). Young children are also not allowed.

Restaurant at the outer market

Restaurant in the outer market

Visiting the auctions:

If you really want the full Tsukiji experience and don’t mind getting up at silly o’clock to get it, you can visit the tuna auctions, which take place between 3.30am and 6am every day (except Sunday and some Wednesdays) and are completely free of charge.

We suggest that you think carefully before deciding to visit the tuna auctions. Though they are fascinating, relations between tourists and buyers/sellers at the auction have become quite fractious in recent years, and there is a sense that you presence here is grudgingly tolerated rather than openly welcomed.

Frozen tuna at the tuna auction

Frozen tuna at the tuna auction

If you do decide to visit the auctions, take care to do so in a respectful fashion. Follow the rules to the letter, and absolutely do not head over there after a night on the tiles! Since trains do not run this early in Tokyo, your options are either to stay somewhere within walking distance of the market, or order a taxi from your hotel.

Public access to the auction is limited to two tour groups, each of 60 people, and places are strictly first come, first served. The first group are allowed to watch the auction from 5.25am until 4.45am, while the second group is allowed to watch from 5.50am until 6.10am. To be in with a good chance of getting a place in one of the groups, most people recommend turning up at about 4am. This means that you should be prepared for a long, cold wait before you can actually get into the auction!

After all this effort, you are still not guaranteed entry into the market. It really depends as to how many people are going to turn up that day.

Filleting tuna

Filleting tuna

Make sure you wrap up warm (the waiting room is unheated), and bring something to amuse yourself while you wait. Once inside, you can take photos and films to your heart’s content, but remember not to use flash – or you will be unceremoniously removed from proceedings.

After the auction, we recommend heading to the outer market for a sushi breakfast (the best sushi breakfast you will ever have) and to explore the market stalls here before returning to the inner market to see the wholesale vendors in action. Tourists are not allowed into the inner market until 9am, when the morning’s hustle and bustle is beginning to wind down. Though you can technically enter before this if you intend on buying something, and you will read some sources suggesting that you use this as an excuse to get in, we highly recommend that you don’t do this, as you will be getting in the way and obstruct the normal operation of business.

Auctioneers in action

Auctioneers in action

The following video should give you a good insight into the tuna auctions at Tsukiji. If you’re interested in seeing more background on the Tokyo restaurant scene, I also highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which gives a fascinating insight into the life and craft of one of the city’s best sushi chefs.

If you would like any more advice or information about visiting Tsukiji Fish Market, please don’t hesitate to contact us in the comments below, via Facebook, Twitter or through our website.

5 Reasons to give group travel a second thought

Solo travel slide
From the outside looking in, one might think that going a group tour is like travel with training wheels, or a watered-down version of adventure. You say, “Hey, I’m a confident and capable individual, with a very full passport to validate my travel prowess. Why in the world would I want to risk the enjoyment of my long-awaited (and pricey) holiday by tying myself down to a group of complete strangers?”

Until I began working as a tour leader for InsideJapan, I echoed the sentiments above. I’d never been on a tour nor considered going on one, but after being hired by the company that all changed. Since then I’ve come to realize that everyone should give travel with a group tour a second thought, and here are some of the reasons:
Social aspect_share your firsts

Firsts are better when shared. For many, travel means stepping outside of your comfort zone, trying something new, or fulfilling a dream. Your first pro-baseball game (enjoyed with a hotdog), your first bowl of mind-blowingly awesome ramen, facing your fear of the mic and truly setting “Fire To The Rain” at karaoke: all better when shared, trust me.

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Food tastes better with friends.

When traveling solo, I often found that mealtimes were when I wished that I wasn’t alone. Sure, you can try and strike up a conversation with a stranger, or try to find some other lone traveler to share a meal with, and those can be great experiences. However, I find that breaking bread with friends generally means the drinks flow more freely, the food is more savory, and the laughter and good conversation envelop us all.

Social Aspect_someone to listen to your stories
Stories to share.
When traveling in a group, you’re all in the same boat, at the same time, having similar but different experiences. Digesting, laughing, lamenting, and reminiscing with your tour mates is one of the most enjoyable aspects of traveling with others. We all have stories to share and experiences to process, and I think our journeys are enriched through their exchange.

You have a tour leader with you.
Which is a benefit to you how? Let me count the ways! Though there are many, I’ll give you what I consider to be some of the top reasons.

There’s someone to make a recommendation
So many choices and so little time! How quickly choice can end up being more of a burden than a freedom. Fortunately, your tour leader is there to help shed some light on your options and hopefully leave you better informed to make final decision.

TL benefit_reccommendation
For example, if you’re visiting Kintaikyo Bridge in Iwakuni and you decide to have some ice cream from the shop with over 100 flavors available (Musashi, it’s famous!), I don’t recommend having the miso ice cream, unless you like very salty caramel with chunks of fermented bean a decent hint of “funky.”

TL benefit_organize last minute2

There’s someone to try their best for those last-minute things –
Client: “I really want to see the ferris wheel that was in the Manic Street Preachers’ video! Is it possible for me to see it before I leave?”
**Note: the client leaves Japan in less than 24 hours and we’re currently in the mountains, in the middle of Honshu, over 200 km away from this ferris wheel.
Me: “Possibly! Let me have a quick think and I’ll get back to you.”
In the end they were able to make it out to see the ferris wheel, which made his trip, and even join the rest of the group for the farewell dinner later that evening.

Inspiration can strike you at any time, and your tour leader may be able to help you put together some last-minute activities or experiences. Though not everything can be arranged on short notice, they will certainly try their best to see if something can be worked out for you.

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There’s someone to worry about logistics –
As the saying goes, “time is money.” Unless you truly relish the idea of spending your evenings and mornings pouring over maps and timetables while on holiday, your time (and money) are better spent letting someone else take care of those things for you. You’ve traveled halfway around the world and you deserve to enjoy being here, instead of trying to figure out how to get there.

TL benefit_take the road less traveled
There’s someone to show you a different perspective –
A tour leader doesn’t just take you from point A to B; they can also share their experiences and insights of life in Japan. All of the IJT tour leaders have lived in Japan for many years, and have done so by choice. Most of us have left for a period of time and returned, we’ve worked on learning the language, invested ourselves in the communities we live in, and love to share what we’ve learned.

The people

The people –
They might all be strangers when you meet the first evening of the tour, but I guarantee they won’t be by the time it comes to say sayonara. Of course you might not get along so well with everyone, but you have an incredibly good chance of meeting some amazing people and forming new friendships. The odds are in your favor for this one, really!

So there you have it!

Does this mean I’ve signed off of solo travel? Oh no, by no means, and neither should you. But I have changed my opinion of group travel and wager that you might, too.

This was posted by Tour Leader, Mark Fujishige

Hosting A Live Charity Event in Tokyo

Event Poster FInal Draft2 copy

Official promotional poster sent out to websites and shared on various social media sites

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20,000 yen for Lenny Kravitz, 4,500 yen for The Charlatans or a mere 1000 yen donation to see The Cinders and friends. Many went Lenny’s way, but we had our share of the crowd too!

4 years on from the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, and as my recent blog on Ishinomaki highlighted, there is still a lot of support and development required in the town, and many other tsunami-stricken areas of Tohoku region.  While the Japanese government is investing in other economic stimulation projects, it has seemingly lost some focus on what should still be a top-priority issue – the social, economic and developmental support that Tohoku requires.  As Prime Minister Abe and Co. lick their lips at the prospect of the 2020 Olympic Games, the machine that sucks extra taxes out of the locals, yet provides financial gain and entertainment for the corporate/political elite and very few else, residents and businesses in towns like Ishinomaki remain displaced, with families and business owners living/working in temporary structures that should have been long vacated.

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The Cinders, with IJT Tour Leader, Steve Parker on guitar and vocals.

Charity campaigners are still out on the streets of Tokyo, collecting money the stricken population of the region; for cats of Fukushima; ownerless pets of Tohoku… My band, The Cinders, believe that if the area is to move on and see a future of prosperity and happiness, priority needs to be given to the children, offering hope and the opportunity to progress successfully in life after such a harsh start. For this reason, we decided to host a music event with the aim of raising funds for the Ishinomaki Town Academic Fund for Orphans.

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Around 80 people came to enjoy the night of free music.

It was the first time for us to host such an event  – our first aim to secure a live venue for a Saturday night as close as possible to the anniversary date of March 11th. Thankfully, an art and live space by the name of Gamuso Chroma, just 10 minute’s train ride from Shinjuku, was obliging enough to allow us to hold our event for free. This was a huge relief, considering that most live venues will allow only 5 bands to play in an evening, each paying up to 30,000 for 30 minutes of stage time!

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Gare Mcnalle – Japanese solo pianist/singer with an incredible 4-octave voice. Bohemian Rhapsody solo effort – quite something to listen to!   

Next was the task of finding a number of bands willing to join us for the evening. Having been on the fringes of the Tokyo music scene for a couple of years now, as a spectator or performer, I was able to find a range of bands that would hopefully make the evening a memorable one. Hearteningly, of the 8 acts that the proposal was put to, 6 agreed enthusiastically to take part. Then came to inevitable wave of questions – how many amps? what brand and serial numbers? the intricacies of the PA system? could we provide for a VJ? how many mics? what keyboard was available? could equipment be brought by car to the venue entrance? any chance of an avant-garde dancer being able to perform…?

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Ruber Rosa treat the crowd to a little of Van Halen’s “Jump”

Surprisingly though, it wasn’t too much of a challenge to satisfy the artists’ thirst for minutae. Oh, but then came the request from the venue manager – no use of wooden drumsticks, but instead, special noise-reduction sticks that help maintain the balance of sound being produced. Surely this would cause some disquiet among our rock bands, but no, not one squeak of dissent. After all, I presumed, we were playing for free, and the real important focus was to get donations flowing into the children’s fund. I believe everyone was equally attuned to our aim.

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Trancey guitar sounds of LosingMySilentDoors

Next up, some marketing. Our bassist, Justin, got to work on placing ads in Tokyo’s most widely-distributed English-language magazine, Metropolis (metropolis japan.com). I similarly found some Tokyo-based social/music event websites to post on and the rest was down to word of Facebook mouth, and relying on our musical guests to invite their friends and family.

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An acoustic set (always with an injection of anger) by punk pop duo, Theaterbootlegs.

And so to the morning of the event. Even though each band would only be performing for 30 minutes each, they of course needed to rehearse, set up their equipment and have their volumes, reverbs, distortion levels and microphones adjusted accordingly. After 4 hours of greeting musicians, putting up posters, rearranging amps and microphones, chairs and tables; connecting, disconnecting and unravelling twisted cables (subsequently inducing occasional cable rage!) and trying to breathe amongst the haze of cigarette smoke (it seems that Japanese musicians can only breathe if nicotine intake is high), we were finally ready to plug in and play.

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The kings of Tokyo indie folk pop rock, The Watanabes.

There was, however, always the lingering fear that nobody would come to watch, which grew ever stronger as we approached the start of the opening band’s set. To great relief, people started pouring through the doors at 6pm, and I am thrilled to say that after a night of folk guitar, nineties and noughties cover versions, Japanese indie rock, 80’s US rock covers, Japan female punk pop, UK indie rock originals, Stevie Wonder and Queen covers on piano, and Melodic UK folk rock, that we managed to raise 82,000yen for charity.  New friends had been made, music and laughter had been shared, and we had managed to do our little bit to support the ongoing struggles in Tohoku.

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Ganbarou Ishinomaki! Let’s go Ishinomaki! The words emblazoned across the afflicted Tohoku town’s memorial site.

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                                     The Ishinomaki Memorial

For those interested in hearing some of the great indie acts that participated, please check out their music by clicking on the following links:

The Cinders (UK/Japanese Indie Rock):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tjqeKAEs8GE

https://www.facebook.com/TheCindersJP?ref=profile

theaterbootlegs (Japanese Punk Pop):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lp3mXZijGOk&feature=youtu.be

The Watanabes (UK indie folk/pop/rock):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j5noXehtKuI

Ruber Rosa (US Rock Covers):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wqIKH5QUho

mcrana galle  (Japanese piano soloist, Queen, Stevie Wonder covers):

Barely Regal (UK/US Rock covers):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GsNy5SSX4l4

Losing My Silent Doors  (Japanese Indie Rock):

https://soundcloud.com/voli-bori

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Godzilla hotel to open its doors in Tokyo

Photo: Cinema Cafe

Photo: Cinema Cafe

As you may or may not know – Japan is not just the land of the rising sun; it is also the land of outlandishly themed hotels. Japan has a fantastic array of accommodation options, ranging from low-budget, space-age capsule hotels to super-high-end traditional ryokan – but it is in the theme hotel department that it really takes the biscuit.

Last month, the Hotel Gracery in Tokyo’s, Kabukicho district, Shinjuku announced that it would be celebrating its opening by unveiling a Godzilla-themed suite, featuring a large Godzilla model (not life-sized, unfortunately), a giant lizard-hand bursting through the wall over your bed, and various other Godzilla-themed memorabilia. Other, less expensive rooms in the hotel will have views of Godzilla walking past the windows, and the building itself will be crowned with a giant Godzilla head.

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A night in the Godzilla room will set you back 39,800 yen (£218) on a weeknight or 49,800 yen (£272) on a weekend – but the more modest (yet still awesome) “Godzilla View Rooms” are more affordable, starting at a reasonable 15,000 yen (£82) per night. The hotel opens on the 24th of April – see Kotaku for more details.

DokiDoki Precure room (Pic courtesy of Ikenotaira Hotel)

DokiDoki Precure room (Pic courtesy of Ikenotaira Hotel)

Many of Japan’s other themed hotel rooms are based on an anime or manga of some kind. These include the super-cutesy Dokidoki! PreCure (an anime TV show) room in the Ikenotaira Hotel and the Cinnamoroll and Hello Kitty rooms in the Royal Hotel; the Gegege no Kitaro room in the Kaike Saichoraku, kitted out with all sorts of ghosts and ghouls; an Evangelion room in Hakone’s Highland Resort, where you can sleep in a space capsule bed; plus Pokemon rooms, Kumamon rooms, Thomas the Tank Engine, Gaspard & Lisa, Miffy, One Piece, Kamen Rider Wizard, Gundam Wing, Ultraman, Woody Woodpecker, Mickey Mouse… The list goes on and on.

Gundam Room (Pic courtesy of Hotel Grand Pacific, Odaiba)

Gundam Room (Pic courtesy of Hotel Grand Pacific, Odaiba)

Besides these, there are also themed rooms based around model train sets, chocolate Koala bears, pandas, and Christmas. And these are just the ordinary hotels.

In Japan, there is also such a thing as a “love hotel” – and here things get even wackier. Love hotels are also known as “boutique hotels” or “fashion hotels” in Japan, but they’re not fooling anyone – we know what they’re for. Much, much more awesome than the humble motel, Japanese love hotel rooms can be rented by the hour, and are almost always themed.

Entrance to the Jurassic Park love hotel in Beppu (photo: joe.ie)

Entrance to the Jurassic Park love hotel in Beppu (photo: joe.ie)

Themes include an S&M Hello Kitty room, complete with manacles attached to all four corners of the bed (sorry…); rooms fitted out with merry-go-rounds; subway-car-themed rooms; rooms where you can pretend you’re trapped in a cage; spider-themed rooms; Pirates of the Caribbean rooms; Batman rooms – and even an entire hotel modelled on Jurassic Park (it’s in Beppu).

Love them or hate them – there’s no denying that Japan’s themed hotels are pretty impressive. Personally I think they’re awesome!

The madness doesn’t stop here! Japan is also the capital of weird themed restaurants, which I explored in a previous post. Check it out HERE.

10 great reasons to visit Japan in the summer

Kamikochi in summertime

Kamikochi in summertime

Spring is sprung, the snow has melted, the blossom is on the trees, and the Japanese are out in full force to celebrate the end of a long old winter. Yes, everybody loves a bit of spring.

But I’m sick of hearing about spring already. I already know about all the great reasons to travel to Japan in the spring. What about summer?!

Perhaps it’s the sweltering heat, or the humidity so thick you could spread it on toast – or perhaps it’s just that everyone goes so ga-ga for spring that they forget there was ever any other season. For whatever reason, summer in Japan tends to get a bit of a bad rap, and it’s totally undeserved.

NEWSFLASH! Summer (June – August) is actually an awesome time to travel to Japan, and here’s why:

Fewer crowds & discount prices

Now I’m not going to lie to you here, it will be a cold day in hell before you do not encounter at least some crowds on your Japan holiday. In a country where domestic tourism is such a big thing, spots like Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion in Kyoto or Senso-ji in Tokyo will always be bustling with visitors. But for the most part there will be many fewer people in summer than either spring or autumn, when the weather is more temperate and visitor numbers swell. The only place where this rule does not apply is at the beach!

You can also travel much more cheaply in the summer, as hotel prices are much lower out of season.

Crowds in Osaka

Crowds in Osaka

Beaches

When you think of Japan, the likelihood is that golden beaches, glittering waves and sunbathing do not immediately spring to mind – but with nearly 30,000 km of coastline it stands to reason that Japan should have a few great beaches.

Some of the very best Japanese beaches are to be found in the subtropical islands of Okinawa (a short and easy domestic flight from the mainland), but if you don’t have the time to make it that far there are great beaches up and down the length of Japan.

Yours truly enjoying the sunrise on Ishigaki Island (part of Okinawa)

Yours truly enjoying the sunrise on Ishigaki Island (part of Okinawa)

Hiking & climbing Mount Fuji

Though the heat may be on in Japan’s sea-level cities, up in the mountains the temperature remains cool and manageable – perfect for a bit of hiking. Some of Japan’s most stunning geography is to be found in high-altitude spots like the Japan Alps, Kamikochi, and the mountains of the Kii Peninsula, and in the summer everything is at its lushest and most beautiful.

And if you fancy a real challenge, Mount Fuji’s climbing season begins at the beginning of July and ends in early September, giving you a chance to have a crack at this Japanese icon. Though the ascent is tough, you need no technical mountaineering experience and you will routinely find children and senior citizens tackling it without a hitch!

Above the clouds on top of Mount Fuji

Above the clouds on top of Mount Fuji

Scuba diving

Unbeknownst to most, Japan is home to some world-class scuba diving. Again, some of the best spots are to be found in the Okinawan archipelago, where the visibility is spectacular and divers have the opportunity to swim with manta rays, hammerhead sharks and sea turtles amongst beautiful coral reefs. One of the most impressive and perplexing dive sites of all is off the coast of Yonaguni, where strange underwater rock formations have given rise to the theory that these are the ruins of some ancient, hitherto unknown Atlantis. The jury’s still out, but the columns, stairs, passageways and plazas of this “underwater city” make an incredible dive nonetheless!

If you want to fit in a bit of diving but are not planning to visit Okinawa, we also recommend Yakushima, the Izu Peninsula (close to Tokyo), or the remote Ogasawara Islands.

Enjoying some scuba diving off Okinawa main island

Enjoying some scuba diving off Okinawa main island

Fireworks

For the Japanese, summer is a time for fireworks – and there are many fantastic displays up and down the length of the country. One of the most famous is the Sumida River Firework Display in Tokyo, which happens on the last Saturday of July. In August, Miyajima Island also has a great display, illuminating its famous torii gate – while Toya Onsen in Hokkaido holds a lakeshore firework display every single night throughout the season.

These are just a few examples – wherever you happen to travel in Japan, you’re sure to find a firework display happening near you.

(Photo: JNTO)

(Photo: JNTO)

Festivals

With about one billion festivals happening every month of every year, every day is festival day in Japan – but some of the biggest and best happen in summer. In the northern Tohoku region, the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri sees giant, light-up floats travel through the city of Aomori; Akita holds the Kanto Matsuri, during which performers balance giant poles festooned with paper lanterns on parts of their bodies; and Sendai celebrates the Tanabata Matsuri, where festivities include traditional decorations, dances and entertainments.

Further south, Kyoto’s famous Gion Matsuri continues for the entire month of July, including a massive parade and plenty of festivities, and Tokushima on Shikoku Island celebrates the Awa Odori Matsuri – the largest dance festival in Japan.

These really are just the tip of the iceberg – there’s also the countrywide Obon festival, Kyoto’s spectacular Daimonji fire festival, Yamagata’s Toro lantern festival… the list goes on and on.

Float at Nebuta Matsuri, Aomori

Float at Nebuta Matsuri, Aomori

Amazing vending machines

You might think that vending machines are no big deal, but I can assure you that when you visit Japan you will change your mind. These are not your average automated drink dispensers. Oh no.

Japan’s crazy vending machines are no less awesome in any other season – but in summer they are really worth their weight in gold. Japan has vending machines in spades – more per capita than any other country in the world ever – and they are packed full of all kinds of weird and wonderful drinks to keep you cool AND entertained in the heat. Whether you want beer, wine, iced coffee, jasmine tea, grape-flavoured fizzy jelly, sweetcorn soup or pancake-flavoured milkshake – Japanese vending machines can provide. And they also do hot drinks – not that you’d really want those in the summer.

Hello Kitty vending machines

Hello Kitty vending machines

Summer foods & insane ice creams

It would be absolute insanity to suggest that Japanese food isn’t delicious on every day of the year (it is. So. Delicious), but summer brings some excellent speciality dishes that most certainly merit a mention in this blog piece. My own personal favourite is zarusoba, which is essentially a dish of cold noodles served on a bamboo tray with a dipping sauce called tsuyu. You may think that this sounds less than palatable, but in fact it is incredibly delicious and exceedingly refreshing.

Japanese ice creams are also a real treat and come in all kinds of flavours. And I mean Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans kind of all kinds of flavours. My personal favourites include kurogoma (black sesame), beni-imo (Okinawan sweet potato) and matcha (green tea). My personal least favourite is wasabi, which should absolutely not be ice cream. Ever.

A delicious lunch of zarusoba that I ate in Karuizawa

A delicious lunch of zarusoba and tempura in Karuizawa

Music festivals

Another light that Japan likes to hide underneath its bush (along with its beaches, scuba diving, and beautiful mountain scenery), are its music festivals. Though barely known amongst music aficionados in Europe or the US, Fuji Rock (which takes place at Naeba resort on the last weekend of July) is world-class, attracting line-ups packed with international household names as well as Japanese acts that are little known outside of Japan. This year, the festival boasts the Foo Fighters and Muse as headliners – while previous events have hosted The Cure, Bjork, Radiohead, Elvis Costello, Arctic Monkeys, Oasis, Massive Attack and many more.

If you can’t make it to Fuji Rock, Summer Sonic is another excellent Japanese music festival, taking place simultaneously in Osaka and Chiba (near Tokyo) in early August.

Fuji Rock Festival

Fuji Rock Festival

Beer gardens and nomihodai

Last, but certainly not least, are beer gardens: Japan’s summer entertainment staple. As our Viv noted in a 2013 post, Sapporo is home to the king of beer gardens for a month in July, when the whole of Odori Koen Park is transformed into a giant beer garden – but beer gardens are a firm fixture of the summer scene across Japan. Often located on the tops of buildings, these beer gardens often operate the delightful Japanese tradition of nomihodai: “all-you-can-drink” (for a set price).

Drunkenness and high buildings? I can’t think of any better reason to head to Japan than that.

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