Hiking the Japanese Alps

IJT tour leader, Steve Parker, loves a walk. He also loves Japan. No wonder that he decided to walk the Japanese Alps and create an amazing and adventurous tour for 2014.

Kamikochi  by day

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.

KamikochiThe 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).KappabashiThis 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.National park

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.Kamikochi

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. On top of JapanAlong 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.

Historic Moutain TrailsFinally, 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!Summer in the mountainsTwo 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.

Historic Mountain Trails hikes across the Alps this July 2014 along with walking sections of the old Nakasendo Way and climbing the new UNESCO World Heritage listed Mt Fuji.

Horsing around in the Year of the Horse – Japan

Year of the Horse

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

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.

Oze, Gunma

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

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 horse

Yonaguni horses
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!

Gunma Chan

Okinawa 101: The Top 10 Okinawan Foods You Must Try

Violet has been living in Okinawa for the last couple of months and is getting into her subtropical island specialities. Here are 10 of Okinawa’s most famous foods…

GOYA

If there’s one thing that Okinawans define themselves by, it’s this knobbly green vegetable known in English as “bitter melon.” Okinawa boasts the highest life expectancy in the world – even higher than that of mainland Japan – and popular belief credits the islanders’ longevity to their consumption of goya. With a texture like cucumber and an extremely bitter flavour comparable to that of green bell pepper, goya can be hard for some foreigners to get used to! Nevertheless, you should give it a go in Chanpuru (Okinawan stir-fry) or raw in a salad.

Goya salad with a side of wasabi octopus

Goya salad with a side of wasabi octopus

BENIMO

Benimo is the name for Okinawa’s native bright purple sweet potato. This root vegetable is almost as ubiquitous as the goya, and many would say much more palatable! It can be eaten boiled, but it’s much more common to find it as a flavouring for pretty much every kind of sweet thing – including ice cream, drinks, kitkats – even spaghetti!

Benimo-flavoured KitKat

Benimo-flavoured KitKat

TACO RICE

Taco rice is one of the results of American influence in Okinawa, and has become an island specialty. Consisting of minced meat, cheese, tomato sauce, chopped tomatoes, rice and lettuce – it’s basically all the components of a taco without the taco itself. Delicious Okinawan ‘fusion’ cuisine!

Taco Rice

Taco Rice in Onna-Son

SHIKUASA

Shikuasa is a native Okinawan citrus fruit that resembles a green mandarin, and is used to make fruit juice and to flavour various sweets and cakes.

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UMI BUDOU

Umi Budou is a special type of Okinawa seaweed whose name literally means “sea grapes.” It is also sometimes known as “green caviar” due to its tiny, bubble-like sacs and distinctive texture. Best eaten fresh, with rice and salmon roe.

Umi Budou (the green stuff) with set menu

Umi Budou (the green stuff) with side dishes

CHANPURU (& SPAM!)

Chanpuru is the Okinawan version of stir-fry and can include a variety of ingredients – but perhaps surprisingly, the most common component is Spam or some other type of “luncheon meat.” A love of Spam is another result of the American military presence in Okinawa, and souvenir shops proudly display tins of processed meat beside traditional Ryukyuan souvenirs. Perhaps it is this mystery ingredient, and not goya, that is responsible for the islanders’ long lives…

Varieties of luncheon meat for sale

Varieties of luncheon meat

PORK

Okinawans are crazy about pork, and particularly proud of the fact that they eat every part of the pig – from its ears to its toes (literally). “Mimiga” is a dish consisting of strips of pig’s ear, which has a crunchy, cartilege-y texture, whilst “Tonsoku” means pig’s trotters, and you can sample these in a noodle broth, or “don.” Another traditional dish is “Rafute”, which consists of thick cuts of boiled pig’s belly. You can also find vaccuum-packed pig’s faces in many souvenir and grocery shops, which most foreigners find somewhat disconcerting.

Pig parts

Various pig parts

YAGI SASHIMI

 Yagi sashimi is the only dish mentioned here that I have yet to try, but it’s next on the list! Simply put, it consists of raw goat’s meat. This island speciality is less popular than other Okinawan favourites, perhaps due to its strong smell and chewy texture. Not for the faint-hearted!

Hello, little goat

Hello, little goat

CHINSUKO

Chinsuko is a variation on shortbread, and comes in many different, delicious flavours. (Not to be confused with “chinko”, which is Japanese slang for penis.)

Chinsuko

Chinsuko

KOKUTO

Finally, if you’re in Okinawa, you should get your hands on some Okinawan black sugar, or “kokuto.” With a flavour reminiscent of liquorice, kokuto is added to many Japanese dishes, but can also be eaten as a sweet on its own. Goodbye teeth.

Kokuto

Kokuto

Exploring Japan’s Inland Sea: The Setouchi Art Triennale

During my trip in August, I took a few days out to visit the beautiful Island of Naoshima in the Seto Inland Sea. The island has become renowed in recent years for its art exhibitions – particularly the Art House Projects and Benesse House.

This year, Naoshima, along with a dozen islands in the Inland Sea area, has played host to the Setouchi Art Triennale where some 150 artworks have been on display over the three sessions in addition to the permanent exhibitions. I was lucky enough to visiting during the Summer session when the weather was wonderful. Aside from the art, I was charmed by the island’s laid back atmosphere and stunning scenery.

 

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Exploring the island is best done by bike – although the hills around Benesse House are a little tough (the views were well worth it!). With some lovely little cafes to lunch in, the island makes a fantastic day trip or a couple of nights stay.

One of the most famous (and well photographed) art works is the Yellow Pumpkin by the brilliant Yayoi Kasuma. Aside from this, Chichu Museum and Benesse House are home to works by some other huge names including Andy Warhol, Takao Ando and Claude Monet to name a few.

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The islands are worth a visit any season at any time of year, but the festival this year continues until November 4th. Of course, you will only have another 3 years to wait until the next festival.

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Okinawa Shisa

It’s impossible to go anywhere in Okinawa without encountering the “shisa” – Okinawa’s take on the Chinese guardian lion. Resembling a cross between a lion and a dog, shisa come in pairs and can be found flanking the entrance of pretty much every house or building in Okinawa. Typically, the shisa on the left has a closed mouth to keep in good spirits, whilst the one on the right has an open mouth to scare away the bad.

The shisa is undoubtedly the most ubiquitous symbol of Okinawa (besides perhaps the goya plant), and you will find them in every gift shop in the guise of key rings, statuettes and countless other ornaments. You can even paint your own shisa on Naha’s Kokusai Street!

The following list will give you a taste of how Okinawans in Naha get creative with their Shisa….and in reverse order, here are my favourite Naha Shisa

GO

This shisa holding a pair of pigs can be found outside a take-away on Naha's Kokusai Street. Okinawans love pork almost as much as they love shisa, and you'll find plenty of pig-themed souvenirs here.

This shisa holding a pair of pigs can be found outside a take-away on Naha’s Kokusai Street. Okinawans love pork almost as much as they love shisa, and you’ll find plenty of pig-themed souvenirs here.

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These three painted shisa caught my eye in a street near Naha's Shuri castle.

These three painted shisa caught my eye in a street near Naha’s Shuri castle.

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This shisa was one of a pair in the Tsuboya pottery district that had fluorescent lightbulbs gaffa-taped to their heads.

This shisa was one of a pair in the Tsuboya pottery district with fluorescent lightbulbs gaffa-taped to their heads.

Ni

This shisa had to be included for his hilarious shocked expression.

I had to include this shisa for his excellent expression. Exactly what emotion it is meant to communicate I’ll leave you to decide.

ICHI!!!
My favourite shisa discovery of the day was undoubtedly this shop, on a street off Kokusai Street in Naha. “Seasir Mansion” sells all manner of home-made shisa, but its shisa-crazy frontage was definitely the most exciting thing about it. There was even a vending machine filled with miniature shisa beside the shop, with mystery shisa-themed offerings!

"Seasir Mansion"

“Seasir Mansion”

Shisa murals

Shisa murals

Mystery drinks (I tried one: it was apple juice).

Mystery drinks (I tried one: it was apple juice).

Shisa vending machine!

Shisa vending machine!

This list was compiled from just one day walking around Naha. it will almost definitely have to be extended!

5 reasons to visit Japan in the summer

I’m really not a person who likes the heat and before arriving in Japan last week, I was not looking forward to the hot weather. I checked the forecast just before I left the UK and saw they were predicting record temperatures – wonderful! Yet one week into my trip, I am completely distracted by how fun Japan in the summer is, offering tons of unique experiences and with a great holiday atmosphere all around. Here are just 5 of the reasons why Japan a fantastic place to visit in July and August.

Fireworks 花火

You might think you’ve seen pretty good firework displays but Japanese displays are in a league of their own. These are common place all over the country but Tokyo’s highlights are the Sumida-gawa festival on at the end of July and the Tokyo Bay display just last weekend. I was lucky enough to be able to watch part of the 90 minute show from my Tokyo hotel room. Organisers can be pretty competitive so expect to see not only different colours and patterns but also kanji and characters from Japanese animation!

Fireworks in TokyoGetting ready for the show

Festivals 祭

July and August are full of fantastic festivals all over Japan and which each have their own unique atmosphere. Some of the very best happen in the Tohoku region during August – Aomori  is the stage for the fantastic Nebuta festival, for example. As darkness falls, huge illuminated floats are pulled through the streets by armies of local people to a cacophony of bells, flutes and drums. On the last night of the festival the floats are loaded onto boats and floated out to sea against the backdrop of a spectacular firework finale!

Nebuta Festival

Nebuta Festival in Chiran, Kagoshima (mini version of the Aomori festival!)

Festivals in Japan are rich and vibrant occasions. Girls put on their best ‘yukata’ (a light kimono) and often the men wear traditional dress as well.  For music lovers, summer also hosts Fuji Rocks and Summer Sonic which this year hosted Two Door Cinema Club, Metallica and Muse to name a few.

Going to the party!

Couples dressed up for the festivities

Climbing Mt. Fuji 富士山

With the snow melted and temperatures at the top mild enough, July and August is the official climbing season of Mt. Fuji.  Recently listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the climb to the top of the 3,776m dormant volcano and the views from the top at sunrise are fantastic.

Mt Fuji

Food 料理

Nothing beats Japanese festival food. Stalls selling various delicious meat skewers, corn on the cob, okonomiyaki, fried noodles,  shaved ice, chocolate bananas – the list goes on.

Festival Food

More food!

Beer Gardens ビールビアガーデン

Summer is all about beer gardens. Sapporo has the king of beer gardens for a month from 20th July when Odori Koen, the park which runs through the heart of the city, is transformed into a giant beer garden. Each of Japan’s major brewers has a square where they set up a bar and outdoor seating for visitors to enjoy from early afternoon into the evening. The new craze this summer is frozen beer – perfect to quench the thirst in the heat!

Nice glass of Kirin

A Beginner’s Guide to Japan

We were lucky enough to have the lovely Rachel Schraer join us for a 2 month intern programme with Bristol University. Rachel is a talented writer who also pens her own blog (during her time here, a piece she wrote on Bristol went viral), so we asked her to pen a few thoughts about her feelings towards Japan…..

 

I came to InsideJapan two months ago, as an intern and total Japan novice in an office of Japanophiles, ex-residents and ex-perts. I had only the haziest image of suited businessmen on shiny trains, pretty painted fans and crazy hi-tech gadgets (it’s still something of a childhood trauma that I was never allowed one of those robot dogs that were a thing in the late ‘90s.)

Coming as an outsider, and Far East rookie, the Japan I’ve discovered seems tinged with magic and has been an immediate addition to my travel bucket list – sorry Student Loans company. I discovered the aching beauty of cherry blossom-swathed vermillion temples; volcanic, primeval green landscapes alight with golden foliage and futuristic cities fizzing with neon and life. Not to mention the quaint ancient elegance of Japanese manners and hospitality; the hysterically blue seas and white sand beaches; the samurais and castles straight out of a picture book, and the mysterious living artwork that is the Geisha.

Here is a list of things I’ve discovered that attracted this Japan newbie to a country half the world away:

1.    Snow and Sand:

Extremes of climate and landscape are always exciting, and Japan is so diverse that within one country you can experience both ends of the spectrum. See desolate-seeming icy landscapes, complete with swooping birds of prey and perfect powder snow, at one end. Meanwhile the other end of the country will offer you glistening white beaches with warm, coral-packed seas to snorkel in and lush jungles to explore.

2.    Castles, Samurai and Ninjas:
These seem like the trappings of an adventure story, but you can see them come to fascinating life when you visit some of Japan’s ancient historical sites- and I wanna.

3.    Bullet trains:
I love trains. I’m sorry, but I do- I love a good train journey; sometimes the train from Bristol to London excites me. I know this is not normal. But there is something truly exciting about the idea of whizzing in a super sleek, beam-me-up-Scotty, 200+ mph Bullet train past ancient mountains and paddy fields.

Shink_Odawara (1)

4.    Kawaii:
The culture of all that is super cutesy and kitsch from food packaging to the outrageous Lolita fashion in Tokyo’s Harajuku district.

5.    Capsule hotels:
Part of the fun of traveling is going somewhere things are just done differently, and this is a quality Japan clearly has in spades. Capsule hotels are just one example of all of the different and exhilarating experiences on offer. Totally unique, slightly creepy and morgue-like, but definitely something you’d have to try once for the experience. Unless you’re a chronic claustrophobe in which case, maybe best steer clear.

6.    Geisha:
Even after 8 weeks of staring at pictures of them, I still can’t get over the picturesque beauty of these mysterious characters. To see Geisha in the flesh, wending their way through Kyoto backstreets would be a bit too good to be true.

Thanks Rachel. We’ll miss you!

It’s Impolite To… Your Guide to Basic Japanese Etiquette

Japanese Etiquette Tips

Eating noodles

  • Slurping of noodles is not only polite, it is almost expected. Forget what your Mom told you -  Never eat noodles without slurping!
  • Public restrooms have a code of etiquette. Often you will find slippers at the doorway to a rest room. Use them as failing to do so is quite rude….and embarrasing if you are not wearing the right shoes….or someone elses shoes!
  • Likewise, lookout for a ‘Genkan’ entrance in some restaurants, ryokan, hotels and homes. You will see a raised floor and probably pairs of shoes neatly lined up. You should assume that you also need to take your shoes off and step out of your own footwear directly onto the raised floor, so not to bring in dirt from the outside.
  • Experienced travelers to Japan know to carry a small clean towel with them at all times, as Japanese restrooms typically do not have them.
  • Never blow your nose in public as this is considered a highly offensive habit and spreads germs. Sniffing is a polite substitute.
  • Best not greet a Japanese person by kissing or hugging them (unless you know them extremely well). While Westerners often kiss on the cheek by way of greeting, the Japanese are far more comfortable bowing or shaking hands. In addition, public displays of affection are not good manners.This is an amusing video looking into the bow in detail….kind of…
  • The Japanese place great consideration on the elderly, persons of high position, cleanliness, and observing someone’s privacy. A foreigner planning a vacation or business trip to Japan whom on arrival is always respectful when dealing with native Japanese people will most likely never really offend them. But, if you are unsure if you are about to make a major faux pas it is perfectly all right to ask about etiquette. If you do make a mistake, learn to laugh it off – this will minimize the impact and soften or end any affront.
  • Whether you are a first time visitor to Japan for business or pleasure, or an experienced traveler, perhaps pack a pocket etiquette guide to use during your trip to Japan. Good manners are of utmost importance to the Japanese, but what might be considered good manners in western society may be considered rude in Japan. Likewise, what the Japanese view as proper etiquette, Westerners may find offensive.  Being prepared with simple rules of etiquette is the best way to avoid embarrassment.
  • People will see that you are not Japanese and will understand that you do not know local etiquette and will understand if you make little faux pas or two. Just be polite, smile and look around. You will pick the basics up…

How to make it big in Japan

When you join one of the InsideJapan Tours, you will probably be wondering what your tour leader will be like – will they be knowledgeable, will they be interesting, will you like them, will they have a secret life and rock star alter-ego?!?!?! Perhaps you won’t be considering the last question there, but with tour leader, Steve Parker, that’s what you’ll get. Steve, is interesting, knows his stuff and is a likeable chap, but he also has band in Tokyo. If you are thinking of making it big in Japan, here are a few tips from Steve..

Having spent a good few years of my life in Japan, the land that brought the world “karaoke” (empty orchestra), I have long strutted my stuff and strained the vocal cords to David Bowie, Muse, Billy Joel, The Kaiser Chiefs and endured painful renditions by 50-something tone deaf British men of  Bohemian Rhapsody (vocally, no problem apparently) and the 12-plus minute long Stairway to Heaven (which rapidly descends into a fast track to hell!).

Hence 18 months ago, I really was starting to feel the emptiness of the orchestra and the urge to create something of my own. The obvious solution? Start a band.

studio time

A year and a half on, with limited success, I can proudly introduce myself as the vocalist of the completely unknown rock band, “The Cinders”, dedicated to introducing the locals to a little dark indie Brit-rock.

It has been a challenge to get to this stage, least of all the search for members in a city of millions. Thankfully the eternally painful task of finding a bassist was made easy with my friend, Justin’s, coincidental return to live in Tokyo.

Tokyo Acoustic Troubadour

We then uploaded online ads for “musicians sought” and they eventually appeared in the form of a male Japanese drummer and a lead guitarist. It took us around 8 months to become a 4-piece band, but a major part of the struggle was, of course, over. Now it was onto the easy stuff – the music and maintaining harmonious human relations within the band!

The Obligatory Serious Look

To practice in Japan is majorly hassle-free. In most Japanese cities there are underground bunker-like rehearsal studios or multi-storey affairs with 4 soundproof practice rooms or so on each floor. For around 2000yen (15 pounds) each you get a decent drum kit, guitar and bass amps, as many mikes as you can throw a (rhythm) stick at, and even a mirror on the front wall to see how you look when you are set up and playing!!! And, most importantly, 3 hours to make an aural mess!

So with hours of practice under our belts we were next ready to show the world what we had created. And herein lies the eternal challenge of performing live in Japan. Tokyo, being a megacoolopolis, suffers no lack of venues, however, there are 1000s of rock and punk, jazz and funk bands, troubled acoustic troubadours and colourful keyboard wizards vying to procure a night slot to play in.

All Areas - Backstage Loo and Loo Shaped Changing Room
Once you have an invite to play, unlike in your home countries perhaps, in Tokyo, it is the BAND that ends up paying to play. If, as we have been lucky enough to do recently, you manage to get on a bill with 3 or 4 other bands, the venue usually stipulates that you owe around 40,000yen (300 pounds) to start with. Any guests of yours that turn up pay nominally 1500yen (ten pounds) to hear your noise.  That amount is subtracted from your final bill, so as in life in general, it’s good to have friends around, and friends that like your noise!!!. Oh, and they must buy at least one obligatory drink too, so as a band, we never expect to be bought a congratulatory drink after a gig!!

Trancy Guitars

So there you have it – your band is part of the Tokyo scene. I have recently been putting up posters all over and contacting all I know in order to have someone to share our music with at gigs. People have come and the usually reticent crowd (unless at their favourite band’s gig, when they crowd surf to ballads), are always a little difficult to get moving to music that they are unfamiliar with. However, our confidence is growing, our wallets may be shrinking but Tokyo is starting to move to our music, even if it is for now just an embarrassed foot tap or head sway! I think we are on the road to a minor part in the Tokyo rock scene. Whatever our limited status, we still DON’T and never will however, do requests for old Queen or Led Zeppelin tracks!

The Cinders play live in and around the Tokyo Metropolitan area. Their only release to date is the Evenings EP – available on itunes.

Hagino’s Hokkaido Home

This wouldn’t be the first time that I have gone on about the fact that InsideJapan is luck to have some talented and interested people working for it. We all have a passion for Japan. We all have a passion for particular places and elements of culture. Some of us are from the UK, there are some from the US, some from Canada, Belgium and of course Japan. Hagino san works in our beautiful Boulder office and wanted to tell us a bit about her life and love for Hokkaido. In her own words, here she is -

Everyone’s face lit up when I tell people from the main island of Japan that I’m from Hokkaido – Every time!

Shiretoko countryside

Shiretoko countryside

The name Hokkaido has the effect no other place has in Japan. Perhaps when people hear the name Hokkaido, they picture the big land up north with broad sky and wild nature, and they feel the longing for the unknown country. A few years ago, there was a very popular TV series called “Kita no Kunikara”, which drew a life of a family in a country side of Hokkaido. It was kind of like a Japanese version of the American “Little house on the Prairie.” Hokkaido is not very known by foreign tourists besides the great ski resorts, but it has a lot more to offer.

Blue Lake

Blue Lake

I am from Eniwa, the city unknown even to some people from Hokkaido. The name comes from the native Ainu people’s language “E-en-iwa”, which means “pointy mountain”. The town nestles under Mt. Eniwa, with a pointy peak as the name describes. A lot of the name of places originated from Ainu name, such as “sap-poro” for Sapporo, which means “broad dry area”.

Probably the reason why Hokkaido doesn’t have much of the historic appeal like Kyoto to tourists is that Hokkaido was settled by Japanese people long after the main island of Japan was settled. Up to this point Hokkaido exclusively populated by the native Ainu people. They relied mainly on salmon, which was abundant, and they even made shoes out of salmon skin. If you are interested in learning about Ainu history and culture, a great Ainu Museum in Shiraoi is about two and a half hour train ride from Sapporo.

Mt. Yotei

Mt. Yotei

As I grew up, trips to the mountains were my family’s regular weekend and Holiday activities. The town of Kucchan is located about two hour train or bus ride from Sapporo. Kucchan has a lot to offer all season long. In summer, you can enjoy hiking up the beautiful Mt. Yotei, recognized as one of the Japan’s best hundred mountains (based on the book called “Nihon Hyakumeizan” by Kyuya Fukada). With its shape similar to Mt. Fuji, Mt. Yotei is called “Ezo (means Hokkaido) Fuji”.

In winter, the town is busy entertaining skiers from all over the world coming to enjoy the powder snow at Niseko Ski Resort. Now partly owned by a foreign company, it is easier to find information in English about Niseko. And, of course, where mountains are, onsen (hot spring) is. There is a whole range of onsen to choose from. There is also a great restaurant called “Maccarina” in the village of Makkari nearby, about 40 minute drive from the ski area, offering delicious local produce and fresh seafood.

Sweet shrimp

Sweet shrimp

Hokkaido is famous for food. You are probably thinking, “Anywhere in Japan seems to be famous for food…” Well, it’s true. Hokkaido is famous for a various kind of seafood. You can treat yourself with Kaisen-don, a rice bowl with full of assortment of fresh seafood such as tuna, salmon, scallops, sea urchin, squid, octopus, and shrimp, or try Hokkaido’s favorite Ikura-don, a rice bowl topped full with salmon roe.

Chan-chan-yaki is one of the traditional cuisines of Hokkaido, vegetables grilled with usually a half of salmon, dressed with butter, miso, and mirin. One of my favorite is Ikameshi, a whole squid stuffed with rice and cooked in soy sauce based stock. Hokkaido has its own style of yakiniku (barbeque) called “Jingiskan” (The name comes from the Mongolian Emperor Genghis Khan). Using a special Jingiskan grill pan, thinly sliced lamb and vegetables are cooked together. You also have to try Imomochi (potato mochi) or Ageimo (fried potato cake) as a snack on the road as well.

Biei

Biei

The well-known Daisetsuzan National Park is the backbone of Hokkaido. With about three hours train and bus ride from Sapporo, you can get to the bottom of the aerial lift for Mt.  Asahidake. Enjoy the fifteen minute scenic lift ride up to the top, and it is up to you to hike around the well maintained trails for forty five minutes, or go even farther and backpack along the ridge of the mountains. My husband and I hiked for five days going south from Mt. Asahidake, which is one of the best memories of hiking in Hokkaido. If you have a car, you could take a side trip to the town of Kuriyama on the way to Daisetsuzan National Park and enjoy a tour and sake tasting at Kobayashi Sake Factory. (Be sure to have a designated driver who is willing to just watch other people taste sake, because Japan has zero alcohol driving limit.)

Snow festival

Snow festival

Apart from shopping, enjoying ramen, Sapporo beer and touring through the snow statues at Snow Festival in Sapporo, you can really take time and explore the big land of Hokkaido. There are a lot more places I want to introduce you to, but for now, I will let the wild land lay quietly by letting YOU discover your secret spots in Hokkaido. As my mother put it once, “The best thing about Hokkaido is that there is nothing around.”

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