Japan Goodies Competition

This is our busiest season. Everyone wants to get out to see the magnificent cherry blossom, which is of course understandable. In fact we have over 1200 people travelling with InsideJapan and our sisters at InsideVietnam through March and April, with 137 people flying off to Tokyo this weekend alone!

Anyway, with all this Japan fever going on, we thought we would run a little competition in order to win a few Japanese goodies. We have four prize lots fresh from Japan.

Japanese sweets
With their cute little packaging, we are offering chocolate baby bamboo, chocolate koalas, green tea chocolate and more.

Japanese Sweets

Japanese Sweets

Japanese character goods
Here we have a small selection including Hello Kitty sweets and towel ,Pikachu keyring and a Doraemon mobile phone strap.

Japanese Character goods

Japanese Character goods

Japanese savoury snacks
A few packs of prawn flavoured crisps and dried fish…mmm…

Japanese savoury snacks

Japanese savoury snacks

Japanese odd
These are a bit random. We have eyelid-makers (?), teeth-whitening set (more like tipex) and a nice fan (actually quite nice).

Japanese odd

Japanese odd

We are asking you for your ‘selfies’ from Japan or if you are not heading to Japan any time soon, your Japan inspired ‘selfie’ ie. Wearing a yukatta, eating sushi etc.

Spin the chopsticks

Spin the chopsticks

Please send us your “selfies” via Facebook or Twitter, mention us and we will pick the best four selfies. We will then spin the chopsticks to reveal your prize.

Geisha selfie

Geisha selfie

What you need to do:

Take a selfie (picture of you taken by yourself) in Japan or inspired by Japan.

Post it on our Facebook page OR Tweet the picture mentioning @insidejapan #Japanselfie

Deadline: April 11th 2014

More prizes to give away soon!

5 Reasons to Visit Kamakura

Amy, from Inside Japan’s US office is traveling around Japan! She’s currently in Kamakura, and should you need a reason to visit, she has plenty!

Kamakura

The small seaside town, temple town of Kamakura is just a one hour trip from the Tokyo Metropolis and an excellent day trip or place to stay, brimming with history and culture. Here are 5 good reasons to visit Kamakura.

Kamakura, Japan

1) Temples and Shrines
To see one of the best examples Shinto shrines in Japan at Tsurugaoka Hachiman-jingu, which is also a birder’s destination with all the hawks, herons, and possibly “sacred” white pigeons purifying themselves.

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2) Big Buddha
To see the bronze “Daibutsu” at Kotokuin Temple—anything that has survived earthquakes and tsunami and is still standing watch serenely unlike the temple house that once housed it is worth seeing in my book!

Kamakura, Japan

3) Cool cafes
There are some nice cafes in Kamakura and you can even get your coffee from the back of a van in a driveway! Because you can’t do that just anywhere and actually get good coffee.

Kamakura, Japan

4) Cats
To see many cat-themed products, art pieces, and actual cats sleeping on the merchandise who could care less if you wanted to buy it or not.

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5) The beach
Kamakura has some very nice beaches and some of the best surf in Japan. If you visit the town, you can say that you went and stood in the Pacific Ocean…and didn’t get hypothermia even though the water was as cold as glacier run-off! It is March.

Japanese mascot mania

Yura-KyaraPeople often link Japan with the cute and kitsch. Japan is also known for its manga and anime and a love of characters. Mascots are a big deal in Japan. You will see oversized mascots everywhere representing official government bodies, corporations and even whole cities and prefectures. ‘Yura-Kyara’ or ‘Loose Characters’ (called so, because the characters are imperfect, oversized versions of what they should be) have become big business as the characters popularity is associated with the organisation/area that they represent and can generate a lot of income.


The most recent Yura-Kyara of note is Kumamon – a cuddly bear who represents the prefecture of Kumamoto. The mascot is said to have generated over 124 billion yen in revenue since it won the ‘Yura-Kyara Grand Prix back in 2011. The city of Kumamoto is famous for its historical castle, but the bear was responsible for huge amounts of merchandising and an influx of Japanese tourism to the city.

By the way, that was “grand prix” I mentioned. Every year there is an all-Japan cuddly character competition where local governments and organisations nationwide submit their cute entry in the hope that they will take the country by storm. Bari-san the egg shaped bird from Imabari was one winner back in 2012 and 2013 saw Funasshi, the slightly overactive “pear fairy” representing Funabashi in Chiba prefecture stole the hearts of the voting Japanese public. Unfortunately, my favourite, Gunma-chan has finished 3rd placed in the Grand-prix over the last two years. Ganbare Gunma-chan!


Whether you like the mascots or not, they are most definitely a part of Japanese culture and you will see them all over. We often refer to the food specialities or ‘meibutsu’ from around Japan, but perhaps you might consider doing a tour of Japan’s Yura Kyara. Could provide plenty of great photos.

Japanese Fast Food

A great food and travel programme aired last night on the BBC called, “Hairy Bikers Asian Adventure”. The programme delved into the food of traditional Japan looking at sushi, Buddhist Shyojin style food and good ole Okonomiyaki. Great to hear the bikers mention that Japan had exceeded their expectations that had been set over twenty years of wanting to visit Japan. After this great episode which included lots of sights and good food,  our tour leader Steve takes it down another notch and gives us his tips on the cheap Japanese food that is available across to country…

The Famous Yoshinoya
Seaweed burgers? Sushi nuggets? Not quite, but the Japanese fast food experience is, bar the obvious imported, “feeding centres” , quite a different affair from the high streets of the UK/US. Eating at one of these establishments can be a very cheap and reasonably healthy option to anyone living out here or on their travels.

Feast for a (poor) king!
In metropolitan areas, you are sure to come across an ubiquitous fast food joint by the name of Yoshinoya (which delightfully translates to something like “House in Fields of Fortune”). This chain diner could arguably be labeled Japan’s equivalent of McDonalds but with an edible advantage – that is, you can eat the fare on offer and feel reasonably healthy in doing so. Just look out for Yoshinoya’s bright orange and green sign and drop in for a swift bite. Its focus is largely on beef – stewed in onion and sweet soy sauce, which comes with steaming rice and optional extras such as salad and miso soup. For under £3, you can therefore fill up on a relatively balanced meal and dine salaryman style. Need some omega 3? Well they even do a grilled salmon set here so that one is covered, too!

Matsuya

Another favourite and probably number 2 in popularity – let’s say, Japan’s Burger King but again, with edible advantages, is Matsuya (Pine Shop). This popular eatery for the hurried puts a little more effort into pig on plate – for instance, hotplate pork belly with soup and salad weighing in at a (hardly) hefty 700 yen (still under a fiver!). Here, you also have the added fun of purchasing your meal via a ticket vending machine that always works and always has change, for coins and notes. Highly recommended and the array of salad dressings and sauces for your meat is an added bonus!

Let's Play Buy Dinner

There is also Sukiya, with its Japanese name (すきや) emblazoned in white across a red bowl.  This shop, although like Yoshinoya – a specialist stewed beef restaurant, also delves into the world of burgers (minus the bun and served with rice), Japanese curry and even eel, if you are not so big on digging on pig.

So why are these places so popular? Well, given that three quarters of single metropolitanos in urban Japan are likely to be living in single room apartments of 20-square metres or so, cooking space is not really available. You may be lucky to have to one or (gasp!) even 2 gas rings, but with the preparation space of a table mat cooking becomes a jolly rotten encumbrance. Add that to your heavy salaryman/OL (office lady) white-collar work schedule and bone-crushing commutes to and from the office, and time becomes similarly just as tight.

Typical Japanese DinerHence the important role played out by these great establishments of convenience. Between the hours of 6 and 9pm any of the above are guaranteed to be full of slurping workers, refueling directly before or after their harrowing commute home.

Next time you are in Japan, be sure to walk past the infamous golden arches and give one of Japan’s fast food gems a try – you might just get hooked!! Oh and you are likely to get your food quicker than at a Japanese McDonalds too.

Enjoying Tokyo for Free

Tokyo’s reputation as an expensive place to visit is slowly changing. The word is out that the hedonistic days and astronomical prices of Tokyo’s “bubble period” are a thing of the past. In their place is a city that is more interesting, more diverse and more inviting then ever. After the bubble burst, prices of things fell and standards of living have gone on steadily rising.

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These days, Tokyoites are more interested in their free time than they are in lifetime employment. And it’s hard to blame them when they have both sandy beaches and scenic mountains at their doorstep. Not too mention the fact that residents and visitors alike enjoy access to some of the world’s best cafes, shopping, museums, architecture and cuisine anywhere in the world. Indeed, even on a small budget, Tokyo’s delicious street food gourmet, extensive public transportation and endless shopping can feel like a bargain. But those in the know might be tempted to ask, why spend money at all when so much can be had for free? Here are some of my favorite free things to do in Tokyo (with plenty more to come in the future!).

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Tokyo has fantastic museums of nearly every kind. From modern art and photography to emerging science and national treasures, there is truly something for everyone. Unfortunately, while free museums have become the norm in many of the world’s major cities, many of the Tokyo’s best museums still charge for the privilege of admission. However, if you’re willing to visit slightly lesser known museums, you will have a plethora to choose from. Places like the Tokyo Water Science Museum and the Japanese Stationary Museum are sure to show you something that few travelers to Japan’s capital ever see.  Or, you could check out the Japan Police Museum.

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Even though it’s short on English explanation, exploring these hallowed halls makes for a fascinating hour of browsing. As you go through the building floor by floor you glimpse of what crime fighting in Japan is all about. Computer games, a driving simulator and plenty of cool vehicles make this a great place to visit with kids. The museum is just a two minute walk from Exit 7 of Ginza-Itchome Station and equally near from Exit 1 of Kyobashi Station.

Alternatively, if the Police museum is a bit too mainstream for your tastes, how about checking out a museum dedicated entirely to parasites! The Parasitological museum near Meguro Station is the world’s only parasite museum, somewhat unsurprisingly if you ask me. Nevertheless, it’s more interesting than it probably sounds and the gift shop is fantastic!

Tshirts

The Mitsubishi Ichigokan is only a two or three minute walk from Tokyo station and the perfect place to escape from the hustle and bustle of nearby Ginza and Marunouchi. A faithful reconstruction of one of the first Western style buildings in Tokyo, the Ichigokan Museum has a beautiful courtyard with popular and well-known restaurants and ever changing exhibitions of art, usually from overseas. But instead of paying for the temporary exhibits, you can head in to the ‘archive room‘ to learn a bit about the history of Japan’s Marunouchi district – an area whose importance dates back to when this city housed the powerful Shogunate and was still known as Edo. Models, videos, and state of the art touch screen tours await.

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Of all the free activities in Tokyo, it’d be hard to beat an afternoon taking in some of the cities eclectic but always talented street performers. From the rockabilly dancers of Yoyogi to the popular Ani Zo, there’s always a free show to be had. Many of these relatively unknown groups have small cult followings that come to see their favorite performers on a regular basis and sing along with every chorus – my personal favorite is a rock and roll shamisen player! The best places to catch live performances tends to be in Shinjuku and Harajuku. In Shinjuku, wait until after the sun has gone down and then have a wonder around the station’s West Exit. In Harajuku, you’re better off waiting until the weekend to catch the many performers that gather in Yoyogi Park, adjacent to Harajuku Station. Midday on Saturday tends to be the best.

If it’s works of art that you’re after, Tokyo has plenty to choose from. While museums like the Mori are well worth a visit, if you want to check out work by lesser know artists, have a look at some of the city’s many galleries. Both plentiful and well-curated, Tokyo’s galleries have plenty to impress even the most demanding connoisseurs. The following are just a few to get you started but rest assured, the list of world class galleries in Tokyo is a long one.

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SCAI The Bathhouse is everything that you could want from a contemporary art gallery – the work of some of Japan’s most intriguing up-and-coming artists exhibited in a traditional Japanese bath house. The Fuji Film Square Photo Salon stands as a reminder that photography remains an art form that goes far beyond the point and shoot world that most of us live in. In the heart of Ginza lies what is often referred to as Japan’s oldest gallery, at the Shiseid0 gallery, a wide range of art goes on display for any who care to visit. At AKAAKA, a more avante garde selection of artists is on display; my personal favorite raises money for the victims of 2011s tsunami – see the video below to learn more about Munemasa Takahashi’s ‘Lost & Found Project’.

 

And finally… I saved the best for last. On you next visit to Tokyo, how about stopping by the Yebisu Beer Museum? While there is little doubt that the so-called tasting salon tends to be peoples’ favorite, the history of the beer is fascinating. Not only does it give a glimpse into Japan’s uneasy fascination with the West, it gives a very good sense of how beer came to flourish in what was once a sake drinkers dominion. Don’t miss it!

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Outside the Green Bubble

Shinjuku

The Chuō Line, or central line, cuts through the circular Yamanote Line from Tokyo to Shinjuku, and continues west to the nearby mountains, with some trains even going on as far as Nagoya.  The first few stops, from Nakano to Kichijōji, top many Tokyoites’ list of most desired places to live, and are spaced about a 15-minute walk apart.

Only 4 minutes from Shinjuku on the rapid trains, Nakano can make you feel nostalgic for a time you may or may not have been a part of. Just north of the station is Sun Mall, a covered shopping arcade leading to one of Nakano’s most unique destinations: Nakano Broadway.

Nakano Broadway

If you walk through the first floor, you’ll find yourself back outside wondering what all the fuss is about. The second floor and up are an otaku’s paradise, and certainly worth a visit even if you aren’t a manga or anime fanatic. Mandarake, a world-famous vendor of rare memorabilia, has its headquarters here; with about a dozen different stores spread over three floors.

Nakano Broadway 2

Nakano Broadway 3

Nakano Broadway 4

Nakano Broadway 5

There is an eclectic assortment of other shops as well; such as a chic art café, a small gallery selling large prints of celebrated contemporary artwork, a maid café, a massage parlor, used camera and video shops, and a few army surplus-themed tactical gear and airsoft stores, such as Warriors, which has some pretty serious-looking equipment.

Nakano Broadway 6

Nakano Broadway 7

Nakano Broadway 8

Just a short walk north of Nakano Broadway, is the quiet neighborhood of Arai, where you can find a charming little restaurant called ChoiChoi (焼や ちょいちょい〒165-0026東京都中野区新井1-31-9).

ChoiChoi

They serve many unique and delicious vegetable dishes and have a selection of savory grilled fish. It’s tight seating on the first floor, but if you don’t mind, you can sit at the bar and watch the master at work in front of you. Up a steep set of stairs, there are more seating options with a cozy atmosphere and a ladder leading up to the living quarters.

ChoiChoi 2

You have a choice between an old-fashioned bulb horn and a dinner bell to signal for attention on the second floor, of course the classic “sumimase~n” works as well, but just knowing these options exist adds a curious quality to the meal.

ChoiChoi 3

If you prefer a more lively scene, the alleyways of Sanbangai (三番街), adjacent to Sun Mall, are packed with bars and restaurants, each with their own style.

Sanbangai

If you like unagi, or grilled eel, Miharu (味治) has been around for a while and featured in “Oishinbo”, a long-running manga about culinary adventures.

Miharu

One stop west of Nakano is Kōenji, a hip and trendy neighborhood known for its used clothing stores and live music scene. Central Road, just to the north and west of the tracks, has an abundance of izakaya, or Japanese-style pubs. Although it’s a chain, I liked the friendly staff, offerings, and décor of Himonoya (ひもの屋). If you walk under the tracks from the entrance of Central Road, you’ll find Look Street (ルック商店街), which is a good place to find inexpensive threads.

Koenji

Covered shopping arcades, or shōtengai, are ubiquitous in Japan, but Asagaya’s has more of a lived-in, community feel to it than most. One stop west of Kōenji, the town is renowned for its theater and jazz, and Star Road (スターロード), just northwest of the station, offers ample eating and drinking options.

Asagaya

Star Road

Yorunohirune (よるのひるね〒166-0001杉並区阿佐ヶ谷北2-13-4) is an interesting, and relatively famous café you might miss across from a local market.

Yorunohirune

Even when you’re inside, you’re still unsure if you’ve just walked into a stranger’s house uninvited, which temporarily sapped some of the confidence out of my ordering voice, but it’s also part of the experience. The proprietor, Kadota-san, is originally from Shikoku. He’s very friendly and makes you feel right at home. You’re welcome to peruse his huge library of books, while you sip or nibble from the menu, and he plays host and DJ.

Yorunohirune 2

He also has an interesting manga for sale about his relationship with his wife, which she illustrated.

Manga

Just off of Star Road is Laputa, which is a theater well known among cinephiles for showing independent and experimental films (Japanese language). Asagaya Anime Street is due to open sometime in the middle of this month, stretching for a hundred meters or so under the Chuō line tracks between Asagaya and Kōenji train stations.

Ramen lovers owe themselves a visit to Ogikubo, one stop west of Asagaya, where Tokyo style ramen originated.  Perhaps the most famous shop is Harukiya (春木屋), which has a fish bone-based ramen recipe that has remained a guarded secret for over half a century. Unless you don’t mind a line putting an hour or more between your empty stomach and prize, try to time your visit between the lunch and dinner rushes.

Ogikubo

Many artists, authors and other creative professionals call Kichijōji home, and it has a palpable bohemian atmosphere about it. It’s located just a couple stops to the west of Ogikubo. On the north side of the station, just to the left, you’ll see Harmonica Yokochō (ハーモニカ横丁), which is a collection of narrow winding alleys, and cramped eateries and watering holes with an old town feel. Continuing west, you’ll come across Nakamichi, and its many small craft and antique stores. Beautiful Inokashira Park is south of the tracks, and a popular place to see cherry blossoms in spring, or just stroll any time of year. The streets to the north of the lake lead you back to the station, passing by international restaurants and more modern shops.

Door

So, if you feel like experiencing something a little different from the well-trampled inner loop, why not hop on the Chuō line for a few minutes and discover your new favorite haunt? You’ll feel like you traveled much further in space and time, and I think you’ll like the quick escape.

Chuo Line

Family Adventures in Japan

After several weeks in the Nagoya office researching and writing about Japan for our destination guides, this month I finally had the chance to travel to some of the places I’d read so much about! Joining me on my travels  (which were planned and organised here at IJT to include a little bit of something for everyone) were my family and my boyfriend, Adam.

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Like so many travellers, we chose to begin our adventure in Tokyo. Unlike most travellers, however, we found our first-day plans thwarted by the worst snowstorm seen in the city for nearly fifty years! After having spent several weeks assuring my Mum that Japan wasn’t going to be that cold, this threatened to throw a spanner in the works. Looking out over Tokyo from the new Skytree tower isn’t as great in a blizzard, I’ve heard. Nevertheless we managed to fight our way out of the hotel for an Izakaya-style dinner and a few drinks in Ginza to toast the start of the trip.

Day One. uh-oh.

Day One. uh-oh.

On our second day the weather gods smiled upon us, the skies cleared, and Tokyo was transformed into a sparkling white landscape quite unlike the city I had visited many times before. After surveying the transformation from the top of the Metropolitan Government Buildings our guide took us on a whistle-stop tour of the city – beginning at a Shinto wedding at the Meiji Shrine, on through the candy-coloured shops of Harajuku to Shibuya’s scramble crossing and finally the dubious delights of Akihabara. Here we opted to end our tour with a coffee in a Maid Café – an experience that left most of us rather bemused, and left my sister convinced that she had found her dream profession.

A plastic food-making workshop at Kappabashi-dori, a visit to Odaiba’s giant Gundam statue and the Studio Ghibli Museum, an Okonomiyaki lunch and shopping spree in Asakusa later, it was time for us to hop on the Shinkansen bound for the other end of Honshu – and Hiroshima.

Making plastic food on Kappabashi-dori

Making plastic food on Kappabashi-dori

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Here we spent the afternoon mulling over the contents of the peace museum before making our way to Miyajima by ferry, where we spent two lovely nights at the Yamaichi Bekkan. The food here was delicious (especially the Oysters – a local speciality), the owner incredibly friendly, and the peaceful island atmosphere the perfect tonic after a frenetic few days in the capital.

For anyone planning to walk to the top of Miyajima’s Mt. Misen, however, a word to the wise: when the IJT destination guide describes the route as “arduous,” you’d better believe it! We lost count of how many steps we climbed (and how many slips on the ice!) by the time we reached the top, but the views over the Seto Inland Sea were well worth it in the end.

View from the top of Mt. Misen

View from the top of Mt. Misen

The highlight of our time in Miyajima was coming across the biggest shamoji (rice paddle) in the world. Truly a covetable accolade:

Adam, Mum, Wolfie, and the world's largest rice paddle.

Adam, Mum, Wolf, and the world’s largest rice paddle.

The next stop on our journey was Kyoto, and yet more snow! As our guide whisked us from temple to shrine, we were impressed with the ingenuity of Nijo Castle’s “Nightingale floor” – which was devised as a sort of feudal-era burglar alarm to forewarn the inhabitants of intruders, and today makes a rather eerie accompaniment to a tour of the castle. Unfortunately we found the Ryoan-ji rock garden had been transformed by the snow into more of a white rectangle with lumps – but this disappointment was made up for by a visit the Golden Pavilion in all its snowy glory, a sight that few tourists are lucky enough to experience. Add to this a wander through through Gion to the Yakasa Shrine, a stroll to Kiyomizu Temple, a stop at Ninna-ji and another uphill ramble at Fushimi Inari Shrine – and by the end of our stay in Kyoto we were well and truly templed out!

Kinkakuji in the snow

Kinkakuji in the snow

On leaving Kyoto, we swapped the bullet train for a more leisurely ride through the beautiful mountain and river scenery leading us to the last (and snowiest) leg of our journey, which would take in stops at Takayama, Matsumoto, Nagano and finally Yudanaka Onsen.

At the Yamakyu hotel in Takayama we were greeted by a stuffed horse at the keys of a tiny electric piano, and treated to more delicious Japanese food than we could possibly eat. Here we spent a morning exploring the Hida no Sato folk village with its “gassho zukuri” (or “praying hands”) houses and had particular fun attempting to master the old-fashioned bamboo skis and sleds provided. It wasn’t long before curiosity drew us to the Sukyo Mahikari World Shrine, whose unmistakable profile can be seen from all over the valley. Haunting music drifts across the town from the shrine at intervals throughout the day, and inside the vast entrance hall is decked out in an eclectic mix of religious iconography, fake foliage and a giant fish tank – certainly nothing like any other shrine we’d seen in Japan!

Later on, in search of a watering hole, Adam and I stumbled upon a bar roughly the size of a postage stamp, with space for three punters at best and a shelf housing a row of whiskey bottles labeled with their owners’ names. As the elderly proprietress plied us with bowls of unidentifiable vegetables and harangued us to know why we were not married yet, it was easy to feel as though we had inadvertently wandered into a Japanese obaachan’s front room by mistake!

Sukyo Mahikari World Shrine

Sukyo Mahikari World Shrine

Testing the skis at Hida no Sato Folk Village

Testing the skis at Hida no Sato Folk Village

From Takayama we headed (via Matsumoto’s “Black Crow” castle) to Nagano and yet another temple – this time Zennkoji, where we would be staying the night and sampling traditional Buddhist fare, or “Shojin ryori.” At the crack of dawn the next day, some of us even managed to drag ourselves out of bed and into the cold to catch the monks at prayer, before being ushered down into a pitch-dark passage beneath the temple to experience one of the stranger religious customs I’ve encountered in Japan. Here we were instructed to find the key to paradise by feeling our way along the walls of the passage. We found the key, but paradise was not forthcoming.

Matsumoto's Black Crow

Matsumoto’s Black Crow

Finally we made our way to Yudanaka Onsen for the last night of our trip. At Jinpyokaku Ryokan we were provided with the nicest accommodation we’d had so far, and could hardly bring ourselves to leave our beautiful, cozy rooms. But, of course, we had to make our way out to see the famous snow monkeys! Only the day before we arrived the park had been inaccessible due to heavy snow, but we were lucky enough to find that the paths had been reopened just before our arrival – and so I was able to fulfill my long-held ambition to see the monkeys relaxing in the hot spring waters.

Me and Adam at Jigokudani snow monkey park

Adam and me at Jigokudani snow monkey park

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All good things must come to an end, and after prizing ourselves away from the warmth of our kotatsus we made our way back to Tokyo to go our separate ways.

A great big thanks to IJT from all the Cloutmen (and Adam) for a fantastic family trip and some wonderful memories!

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