Alternative guide to Japanese food – What they don’t tell you

Tour leader Richard, gets to eat a lot of food travelling around Japan. Japan is rightly famous for its delicious food and drink with a lot more on offer than sushi.There is something for everyone…and there there are other ‘interesting’ dishes.

Here are a few of my alternative favourites and, ummm, not so favourites! Are you feeling adventurous? If your answer is yes, come to Japan and get your chops around these special treats!

1) Natto-uzura sushi

Natto

Natto-Uzura

Of course we have to include natto when talking about strange Japanese food! However, this dish comes with a little extra something… a raw quail’s egg!!  Natto, made from fermented soy beans, is infamous amongst foreigners living in Japan. Japanese people often ask foreigners if they can stomach it, or will even run out to buy some before watching on with a kind of morbid fascination as the foreigner (generally) struggles to deal with the pungent smell, snot like consistency and strong flavour. This spectacle sometimes attracts a crowd.

Natto has been eaten by the Japanese for centuries and was once an important source of protein. It is largly eaten as a breakfast food and is believed to have many (almost miraculous and often exaggerated) benefits to health. Natto is to the Japanese what kimchi is to the Koreans. Likewise, quail eggs are believed to be a dietary food, high in vitamins and even linked with restoring sexual potency in men.

Personal verdict:
When I first came to Japan, I wasn’t a big fan of natto. It didn’t repulse me, but neither did it thrill me. However, as time has gone by I have grown to like the stinky stuff, especially when mixed with a generous dollop of karashi (Japanese mustard). I was feeling adventurous one day and decided to order natto-uzura and… I loved it!! It’s one of the first items I order every time I head to a sushi joint.

Where to buy it?
Natto-uzura sushi is available at most conveyor belt sushi restaurants. It’s particulary good at Musashi in Kyoto.

2) Deep fried, battered Hachinoko

Hachinoko

Hachinoko

By breaking down the kanji (Chinese characters) of Hachinoko (蜂の子), you can get an idea of what it is. Literally translated it means “young of wasps”, and that pretty much sums it up. The young are actually larvae, although there are normally a few fully grown wasps thrown in for good measure! Traditionally, the larvae are cooked in soy sauce with a little added sugar. My favourite restaurant, Rinku in Kurayoshi, serves them deep fried in a delicious batter.

Insects have traditionally been a source of protein for inland Japan. Wasps are said to have the highest percentage of edible protein of all insects – a whopping 81 percent! Insects are seen as many as the meat of the future, and there is no place on Earth quite like Japan at combining the traditional with the futuristic!

Personal verdict:    
I like the crunchy texture and slightly oily taste of the battered variety. I’ll be having them again when I get the chance.

Where to buy it?         
Rinku in Kurayoshi-shi, Tottori-ken is my fave insect joint! Hachinoko is also widely sold in the Nagano prefecture. Served at some rural ryokan in the Nagano region.

3. Shirako

Shirako

Shirako

Hmmm… this one is rather “special”. Shirako is fish millet served raw, as tempura or in nabe (a hot pot). Fish millet doesn’t sound too bad, right? Well, it does when you consider the fact that millet refers to the male genitalia of fish filled with sperm!!! Shirako is usually derived from cod and is considered a delicacy. It has a strange similarity in appearance to intestines.

Personal verdict:
I tried the nabe (hotpot) variety and found it to be strangely creamy in taste. The problem I had was that I kept thinking about how I was chewing on fish sperm. I’m in no rush to have it again.

Where to buy it?
Shirako is available in a number of supermarkets.

4) Horumon

Horumon

Horumon

Horumon has made a bit of a comeback in recent years with small restaurants seemingly popping up just about everywhere. I, for one, am happy about that! Horumon is the name given to grilled or barbequed offal (the parts of an animal usually discarded in the West). Stomach lining, lung, tongue and my personal favourite, intestine pipe, are popular dishes. To the surprise of many foreigners, horumon is not actually any cheaper than “normal” meat. The name “horumon” comes from the greek word “hormone” which means stimulation. Apparently. However, it is also similar to the Japanese word “hōrumon” which means “discarded goods” in the regional Kansai dialect.

Personal verdict:
Horumon is one of my favourite foods! Intestine pipe needs to be cooked well, but is well worth the wait.

Where to buy it?
Horumonyaki are very common. Jonsetsu Horumon is a reasonably priced chain. Can be bought at traditional Izakaya (Japanese pub)

5) Mamushi-shu

Mamushi-shu

Mamushi-shu

This last one is a drink with a twist, and I don’t mean lemon or lime. Simply get one venomous pit viper snake (mamushi), a big bottle of alcoholic sake, mix (alive), leave for several months and serve over ice!!

Sometimes called ‘snake wine’, mamushi-shu is believed to have medicinal properties, including helping overcome sexual dysfunction in men. The mamushi in the mamushi-shu in my favourite restaurant, Rinku, is reused and is now in its 18th year! That’s the same dead snake, put back in the jar. I wonder if it is losing its power?!

Personal verdict:
Well, as they say, ignorance is bliss. However, sadly I have a little bit of experience which renders that saying redundant. Let me explain… During time spent in Madagascar doing research, it was necessary for me to catch and handle a number of wild snakes. Invariably, the snakes would be stressed and would pee on my hands, with some making its way onto my clothes (which weren’t exactly getting regular washing). I became very familiar with the smell of snake urine. Seventy to seventy-five percent of what we perceive as taste actually comes from our sense of smellAnd that’s what mamushi-shu tastes like to me – snake pee!!! Is it strange that I’ve had it more than once??!! However, I often tend to opt for hachi-shu these days… alcohol with killer wasps in it!

Where to buy it:
Throughout Japan at traditional bars and restaurants.

Tour of Tokyo

I was recently asked to take some travelers on manga and anime inspired journey around Tokyo. Yet, like any of the world’s truly great cities, Tokyo simply can’t be seen in a day or even a week. There are far too many out of the way neighborhoods, back-street cafes, mind-blowing museums and unadvertised izakayas even for those of us who call Tokyo home to see it all; I still stumble across new experiences on an almost daily basis! Nevertheless, I was determined to give these keen adventurers a sense of what this great city is all about and that is exactly what we did!

Our day started in the Asakusa district. Although it is more famous for its traditional side, the area’s modern architecture is always impressive.

Starting early, we went straight to Senso-ji Temple to learn a bit about Buddhism and gain a better understanding of how it has interacted with Japan’s native Shinto religion throughout the country’s long and fascinating history. The centerpiece of this complex is the towering building of the temple’s main hall, we wandered around in the shadow of Senso-ji’s graceful 5-story pagoda and envisioned old Japan. Something that is surprisingly easy to do even while in the very centre of modern Tokyo. Nearby, we explored manga cafes, pachinko parlors and traditional Japanese comedy before making our way to the Sumida River where we caught our futuristic water bus to Odaiba, a man-made island with an artificial beach that sits right in the centre of Tokyo Bay.

The Gundam Front museum in Odaiba is well worth a visit even if you’ve never heard of Gundam or have no interest in anime. This is the perfect introduction!

Disembarking at Odaiba’s Seaside Park you realize quickly that this is a very different side of Tokyo. Aside from the long sandy beach, Odaiba also offers sweeping views of the elegant Rainbow Bridge and Tokyo’s skyline across the bay. For us, it was directly to Gundam Front, a theatre and museum celebrating one of Japan’s most popular anime. Even if the massive replica of the fighting robot (Gundam) fails to impress you, rest assured that the domed theatre will give you a perfect introduction into the artisan that is Japanese animation.

Just down the road is the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation; a fantastic museum that offers all the proof you could ask for that Japan is still as cutting edge as ever. Navigate your way through holograms of Japan’s seismic activity, see what happens to a Cup O’ Noodles container 6000 meters under the sea and watch the famous robot Asimov perform 3 times a day.

The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Odaiba.

Getting close to lunch time but not quite ready for our meal with maids (more to come on that…) we sat down to a delicious snack of octopus balls. Note: ‘balls’ refers to the shape of snack and not part of the octopi’s anatomy!

Taking the zippy Yurikamome monorail line, we got some great views of the rainbow bridge and made quick time to the modern and prestigious Shiodome district. As soon as we got off the train we came face-to-face with the massive Ghibli steampunk clock, designed by the Walt Disney of Japan himself, Miyazaki Hayao!

After all this excitement and modernity, we were more than ready for a bit of relaxation so we stopped off for a little peak at the tea ceremony and a dose of tranquility in the exquisitely manicured Hamarikyu Gardens. These Japanese gardens date back to the days of the shogun and are carefully looked after by a small army of gardeners.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

After our well-deserved stop at the gardens, we left rested and ready for more. Making use of Tokyo’s fantastic trains, we went straight to that mecca of manga and anime… Akihabara! This district is full of electronics and video games and manga and anime and toy models and has served as the colorful backdrop to many a travel show. But we came for lunch at a maid cafe! To be sure, this experience can be a little surreal to say the least but it is also quintessentially Japanese and a lot of fun. Not only are your servers dressed in maid outfits, they also put on dance performances and go through hand motions that are meant to make your food more delicious… though the efficacy of this is probably better left untested.

Whether it’s a bright green melon soda that you’re after or merely a Japanese om-rice with a picture of a bunny drawn in ketchup on it, this is the place!

Image

After our late lunch, we wandered around Akihbara taking in cosplay outfits, video game karaoke boxes and teenagers dancers working themselves into a frenzy for a new high score before making our way to Shibuya and the world’s busiest pedestrian intercrossing.

ImageEvery 30 seconds, when the traffic signals turn red and the green man reappears another wave of human bodies seemingly come from thin air and invade the giant zebra crossing. Like a choreographed dance, they zoom across the just in time for the whole process to repeat itself again and again.

But Shibuya has far more than just a big pedestrian intercrossing. This district has great shopping, cool cafes and plenty of amazing restaurants. Even better, it is also only a short walk away from Harajuku and Tokyo’s Meiji Jingu Shinto Shrine.

Much like Hamarikyu Gardens, this shrine is a bastion of quietude set in the middle of one of Tokyo’s most ‘buzzing’ districts. It was the perfect place for a bit of reflection on Japanese society and a great opportunity to compare and contrast with the Buddhist temple that we started at this morning. Explaining the intricacies of these two religions is something that I have come to love because I feel like it helps people get a grasp on this wonderful country and all the great things that they will be seeing as they travel around.

The sake casks at the entrance to Meiji Shrine.

The sake casks at the entrance to Meiji Shrine.

The iconic Tokyo Tower at sunset.

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

Tokyo on the cheap

Contrary to popular belief, Tokyo is not that expensive. In fact, it is generally a cheaper place to visit than say London or Rome (Think recent press about four ice creams for £54). Food is cheap, but without losing the quality, public transport is cheap and a pleasure to use and some of the main sights in Tokyo are free…completely free. So here are a few reasons to back up why Tokyo is so great and well, cheap.

Mt Fuji from Tokyo

Mt Fuji from Tokyo

Million dollar views for free
You can’t grasp the size of the world’s biggest Metropolis until you look down on it from above. The city’s newest landmark, Tokyo Skytree will give you that extra few metres standing 634metres above Tokyo. The observation deck stands at 450 metres and cost 3000yen (approx £19.50) has been criticised by some as being too expensive (although it is the same price as the London Eye but gets you an extra 300 metres for your money). Alternatively (and still my favourite) the Shinjuku Metropolitan Government Building or Tocho, is one place that you can get a taste for Tokyo  for free, 202 metres up above the city. Take the elevator up to the 48th floor and enjoy views of the city, across the sprawling suburbs out to Mt Fuji. A great place to watch the sun go down and the lights come up.

Free festival fun
Head to Tokyo at the right time of year and there are all sorts of traditional festivals to enjoy. The festival or matsuri, is a big part of Japanese life and culture and the chance to get involved with the locals. Every festival is different, but expect to see men and women of all ages in bright yukata, kimono, jinbe jackets and fundoshi loin cloths, portable Mikoshi shrines, lots of good food stands, fireworks and people enjoying a drop of sake. There are hundreds of festivals throughout the year and all are free. The Kanda Matsuri (closest weekend to 15th May), the Sanja Matsuri (3rd weekend in May), the Sumidagawa Fireworks festival (last weekend in July) and the

Places to people watch
Take a stroll through some of Tokyo’s trendier districts on a Sunday to get a taste of modern culture. After taking a train journey for around a £1 or under $2, you could find yourself in Harajuku, browsing the cool shops. Walking over the bridge, passing the ‘Harajuku kids’, passing Meji Jingu Shrine in its beautifully forested grounds (free entry), you will find yourself in Yoyogi Park.
On a Sunday afternoon, you will find karate groups practicing, taiko drummers, rock and pop wannabes, comedians and more – A great place to people watch and relax.

Senbe rice crackers

Senbe rice crackers

Food for free
Eat for free!….well sort of. Feeling peckish? Head to one of Tokyo’s department stores and straight to the basement. You will find huge amounts of beautifully presented food in the gigantic and food halls of department stores such as Mitsukoshi and Takashimaya. You can stroll around sampling all sorts of Japanese delights. If you are wanting something more substantial, there are all sorts of options for just a few pounds/dollars. 100yen sushi – plates of good sushi costing approximately 65pence and under a dollar. A big bowl of hot ramen will set you back around 500yen (approx. £3.25 / $5). A convenience store bento box consisting of rice, fish, meat vegetables and more will cost around 400yen (less than £3/$5). And the best thing is that although cheap, the food is also good quality too.

Wandering on the cheap
The good thing about Tokyo is that it is the city and the people that are the real experience and not particular sights necessarily. Everywhere you go, you will find something new or stumble across something interesting. Just walking around amongst the lights and noises of Shibuya and Shinjuku, browsing food and clothes markets in Ueno, being wowed by floor upon floor of electronic goods in electronic department stores such as Yodabashi Camera, nipping into atmospheric little temples and shrines such as Sengakuji or exploring lesser known districts such as Kichijoji are all experiences in their own right. One of my favourite places to stroll is the retro Shibamata district. Low rise buildings, old fashioned shops selling traditional snacks and an attractive looking temple. Shibamata gives off a sleepy Tokyo feel, one of days gone by, oozing tradition and culture and is only a short journey from the buzz of the more famous districts.  It is free to stroll and well worth breaking a way from the usual districts. There is something new for the Westerner around every corner in this great city, so there is no need to go and blow loads of cash on expensive tourist attractions.

There are plenty of other tips for discovering a free Tokyo as well as a good value and cheap Tokyo. I hope that this blog piece assists in expelling the myth that Tokyo is an expensive city. It can be, but it certainly doesn’t have to be. More blog pieces to follow… If you want to find out about free/cheap things to do in Kyoto, well that’s a whole different set of blogposts.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

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.”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Noodly heaven at Kyoto Station

Been looking forward to that first meal in Japan? Well, why not slurp down some delicious noodles at Kyoto Station straight off the train from Kansai Airport? Surely there could be no better welcome to Japan than a chilled plate of ‘zaru-soba’ in summer, or a steaming hot bowl of udon in autumn or winter.

Plastic food at Kyoto Station

Tasty plastic food… or is it! That tempura looks real to me

On many occasions I have arrived at or departed from platform 30 at Kyoto Station. Home to the Haruka Express which runs between Kyoto and Kansai Airport, platform 30 has at its entrance a small noodle restaurant. How many times I have walked past this modest establishment (or perhaps more often than not, late for my train, running in an ungainly fashion, shoulder bag swinging as I attempt to pull my luggage along behind me in a frantic rush to not miss my departure and more likely than not, my flight!)? It is hard to say but I had not once stopped and thought to myself why not go sample their tasty fare.

That is until today!… Or rather 9 days ago now I have finally published this post. Fresh off the train from KIX, I was meandering along the platform with only a handful of other new arrivals when I felt myself being drawn towards the plastic depictions of noodles promising a noodly heaven and perhaps more pertinently, having missed breakfast on the plane (those final minutes of what passes for sleep on long haul flights were worth far more to me than some cold meats and a ropey croissant), satisfaction for my quietly murmuring stomach – “Feed me, feed me” – well at least that is what I assume it was saying anyway.

Udon Kyoto Station

I can’t get no satisfaction… or maybe if I just get in line, then I can!

I joined the queue of suited salarymen, gave my order – “udon kudasai” and mere seconds later was handed over a bowl of the steaming hot thick white noodles. From the help yourself tempura I selected a prawn, a thick, flat piece of squid and just for good measure, tempura ‘nasu’ – aubergine. At the end of the counter were the essential condiments – spring onions, fresh ginger paste, soy sauce, “sauce” and my personal must have, shichimi, a mixed chilli spice. Fortunately I was not the only diner with major luggage so didn’t feel to awkward as I clumsily made my way to the window-side counter to take my seat and tuck in.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

And 10 minutes later it was all over. And now that a week has passed, my Kyoto Station noodles are but a mere memory. But I will be back! These might not have been the best noodles in the world. They might not even be the best noodles at Kyoto Station. But for a first meal back in Japan this was true noodly heaven. Yokosou Japan!!

Volunteering with It’s Not Just Mud

Konbanwa! I’m currently in Ishinomaki, a fishing port on the coast of Miyagi Prefecture that suffered the full force of the Tohoku Tsunami 20 months ago.

20121105-203610.jpg
I’m spending four days volunteering with the non-profit organisation, It’s Not Just Mud. Here’s my photo blog:

20121105-203702.jpg
Day 1 was on oyster duty assisting a local fisherman who lost lots of equipment in the tsunami. You’ve got to love my red overalls, right?

20121105-204142.jpg
We had to separate the shells, rooting out the curved ones. Pretty labourious…

20121105-204624.jpg
The curved shells will be used in the production of “Hoya” or sea pineapple – a creature that grows in shallow water attached to the shells. Apparently it’s pretty horrible tasting for a Western palette, but a delicacy to others, best served as sashimi and washed down with sake. It’ll take 5 years for the first production cycle, but in the long run this will be a real boast to the local economy.

20121105-204825.jpg
Day 2 took me closer to the coast, to the town of Onagawa. In the above picture the tsunami waves reached right up to the bottom of the trees on the left hand side. The area on either side of the road used to be full of houses. Hard to imagine what was once here.

One in ten people in Onagawa were killed in the tsunami. 80% of buildings were destroyed.

20121105-205030.jpg
Our job was helping to clear out this old, deserted house. The plan is to convert it into an office for a fishing company. The company will buy fish, crab and other seafood from Onagawa fishermen, then sell it on to buyers in other parts of Japan. Because the tsunami caused such a lots of damage to infrastructure, it’s been very difficult for Tohoku fisherman to transport and sell their catch.

20121105-205445.jpg
The before photo…

20121105-205544.jpg
…and after the demolition job.

20121105-205655.jpg

20121105-205742.jpg
Above, fellow volunteers Kenji and Stephen with Nakada-San who’s setting up the fishing company. He told us how just before the tsunami struck he got on a boat and headed out to sea; the safest place to be. The boat tackled two 5m high waves, then stayed out at sea for two days while they waited for contact from the coast guard. They knew the tsunami was a big one, but had no way of finding out if their families were safe until they could get back to land.

20121105-210108.jpg
Nakada-San rewarded our work with some of the local catch.

20121105-210344.jpg

Learning to love Osaka

Our Mark from the UK office spends quite a bit of his time tour leading in Japan too. He recently headed out to Japan to lead a coulpe of tours along with doing a bit of volunteering in Tohoku and partying at the huge traditional summer festivals in the region. Mark also went to Osaka. Mark was famed within IJT for not being an Osaka fan, but he had admitted himself that possibly hadn’t given it much of a chance. Here’s the story of how Mark got on with Osaka.

I’ll be honest, I have been guilty of overlooking Japan’s third largest city for far too long. My previous experiences of visiting one of Japan’s most loved cities resulted in trying to like a place I found to be an underwhelming concrete jungle. I concede that I was missing out all the time and I was being arrogant and stubborn. Whenever I received a new enquiry asking about Osaka I would hesitantly say it is a “vibrant city” with character and is “down and dirty”…  Although I had visited about 5 times before, my first impressions were very wrong… here’s why:

Finally this summer I had the chance to really get beneath the surface and explore the city I had loved to hate. During leading Essential Honshu (another awesome IJT group tour) I made a concerted effort to “do Osaka” as best as I could in 48 hours…

Here are my top tips for a short stay (in no particular order):

1.    Dotonburi – the down and dirty drag. A great street vibe with flamboyant fashion, sprawling buildings of all shapes and sizes broken up by a network of canals, young businessmen being offered all sorts of escort services and some amazing street food. Here’s where you really get a feel for the city. Must see at night.

2.    Hep5 – not a lethal strain of disease but a cool ferris wheel perched on top of a building. Random! Think more fairground than London Eye.

3.    Okonomiyaki (mixed up savoury pancake cooked on a hot plate in front of you). Almost as good as Hiroshima style but having lived in Yamaguchi for three years I prefer watching the layers build up! Plenty of choice in Dotonburi and a must try culinary experience.

4.    Tacoyaki Octobus balls (stuffed doughy balls filled with small pieces of octopus and cooked on a hot plate topped with mayo, scattered with katsuobushi (moving fish flakes!) and herbs). Osaka wins hands down on taste when it comes to this unique Japanese favourite fast food. Available on every good street corner.


5.    Osaka Castle. I have seen a million castles in Japan (well not quite). Although it’s another remake atop the original stone foundations (impressive in itself – just how did they get the stones there?) the castle houses an excellent and very informative walk through history. By the time you leave you will have given up on who was trying to fight who and for what! A great place to check out the lay of the city from the top.

6.    Sky Building – Fantastic views from the top of this looming masterpiece of modern architecture. A walk across the Skywalk (when it’s not being hit by lightning as in my case) I’m sure would be awesome too.


7.    USJ (Universal Studios, Japan) OK, I also confess to being somewhat of a theme park luddite but USJ rocks and makes a welcome break from temples. You can’t fail to enjoy the Spiderman ride. Kids will really appreciate a day off from a hectic schedule of sightseeing.

8.    Osaka Aquarium – who doesn’t like watching one of the world’s few whale sharks in captivity in a massive tank? The building itself is a another great example of modern Osakan architecture.


9.    Shopping – not high on the list of priorities for everyone when travelling around Japan, but Osaka has so much choice and a sprawling network of underground shopping malls perfect for getting lost in.

10.    Love Hotels – just swipe your card and you’re in. Swipe your card on the way out and you’re a few thousand yen down and hopefully all the better for that moment of passion shared! Seedy … who me? Never tried it! ;)

11.    Summersonic Festival… I wish my colleagues would stop rambling on about how great Fuji Rock is! Summersonic is more your V-Festival than Glastonbury so more “glamping” than wallowing in mud but here you see some top acts and lots of Japanese bands for a reasonable price. DO not I repeat DO NOT turn up without a ticket!


A few final thoughts…

Osaka is all about the atmosphere, the quirky people (what other country in the world is divided by people that queue on the right side of the elevator everywhere else and on the left in one city?). Osaka = people with attitude, people with a purpose, people who tell it like it is and people who are not afraid. Don’t be intimidated – the friendly, laid back atmosphere is very welcoming and strangely appealing. Stand clear and let the Osakans get on with their business – after all they are also the fastest walkers in the world (apparently). Take the jabs and jibes from the obaasans (feisty older Osakan ladies) when queuing and forgive the small amount of litter (a welcome sight in Japan that prides itself on being uber clean), graffiti (who doesn’t like a good Banksy or two) and lack of coherent English signing.

You will enjoy if…

You’re fun loving, open minded. Don’t go expecting more historic sights and temples… there aren’t many of noteworthy importance since Osaka is a modern city largely rebuilt after the heavy bombing during WWII.

You’re a kid – it’s one of Japan’s most child friendly cities with so much to keep the kids entertained.

You’ll hate it if…

You’re stubborn, pedantic and fussy like me!

A cool way to arrive…
If you’ve made it all the way down to Kyushu and want an interesting trip back to Osaka then take the overnight ferry from Kitakyushu. The tatami flooring is cheapest but unless you want to cuddle up to the random stranger next to you then don’t go during busy holiday periods. Head up on deck when passing under the bridges that span across to Shikoku.

I think that means Mark is converted. It is not always easy to tell, but I think that this is generally a positive piece from Mark. In my own opinion, Osaka is a great city for getting to grips with down-to-earth Japan. The city has a lot of surprises and I think that most people will be pleasantly surprised by the Kansai capital. I love Shinsekai for example and I think different people will like different things about this place, but they will like it. Why not go and take a look.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Japan Geisha Dreams

It is always nice to hear from our customers; especially if they absolutely love Japan…thankfully, more often than not, they usually find themselves loving it. It is fantastic receiving feedback that is so gushing about Japan and its culture and the services that we provide, we get a warm feeling in the knowledge that we have had a part in converting someone else to the wonders of this beautiful place.

Gemma Scott travelled back in April 2012 on the Spring Elegance group tour which seems a long time ago now, but she was full of praise about the great country and the memories are obvciously very vivid. If she wasn’t before, Gemma is now what you would class as a ‘Japanophile’ I believe. We thought we would ask her expand on her feedback, tell us about the best bits and show us some of her beautiful photos and are glad that she accepted! Here is what she had to say;

I have always been fascinated by Japan, the culture, the lifestyle, the food. After researching into travelling to Japan, I opted for the Spring Elegance tour – Two whole weeks of experiencing one of the most intriguing and beguiling places on Earth.

The tour took me to several different cities and towns, on the main island of Honshu. Tokyo both old (Edo as Tokyo was known as prior to the Meiji period) and modern day with museums, shrines, temples, the contrast of beautiful gardens with a backdrop of the skyscraper district, penetrating the sky.

Matusmoto and its stunning castle (a word or warning – the sets of stairs inside are steep, with one set in particular at a 61 degree incline – complete with a rope to help pull yourself up the stairs with!), with a small side trip to the onsen (hot spring bathhouse) at Asama – a must!

Takayama the home of miso and sake, sitting in one of the many sake shops with the tour group sipping on a sample of sake, was a great way to bond.

The Kenroku-en Gardens in Kanazawa, it is rated as one of the top three gardens in Japan. Considering it is quite simply breathtaking, it is not hard to see why.

Kyoto – the old capital of Japan, before Edo – Tokyo, and the first place that comes to mind when you think of Geisha. Here the Geisha are so proud of who they are and where they are from, that they prefer to be called Geiko, so to be set apart from Geisha from any other part of Japan.

Here I took a day trip to Hiroshima where the first atomic bomb was dropped on 6 August 1945 (a date you will never forget by the time you leave). This was a very sombre day, learning about what had happened before, during and after the bomb has been detonated. It was morbidly fascinatingbut equally spine-chilling.

The penultimate stop was Hakone, home to Mount Fuji. On the day we took a trip round the national park, and saw Mount Fuji, it was a lovely sunny day. We had some spectacular views of Fuji. Her first appearance was on a cable car ride up the side of a volcano, with further opportunities was we took a boat ride around Lake Ashi.  Lastly we made our way back to Tokyo, for a one night stay in the modern part of Tokyo before bidding farewell to new friends and boarding the plane homeward bound.

The highlight of the tour is what I have come to call “My Geisha Day” in Kyoto.  It all started with a session at a Geisha makeover studio. The session has to be booked in advance, which our tour leader was all to happy to arrange on my behalf. The package I had chosen was the Maiko (an apprentice Geisha) makeover. The whole process from make up, putting on the kimono to photo shoot took 2 hours in total. It was fascinating to watch all the different stages come together.  A few of the ladies on my tour joined me having makeover as well, we had great fun choosing the kimono that we were going to wear. Watching each stage come together, the make up – whitening of the face, painting the double or triple “v” on the back of the neck (the neck is considered a very sensual part of the body in Japan, and the “v“ is used to create an illusion to elongate the nape of the neck). The highlighting of the eyes in black and red makeup and the vivid red lips.

The kimono itself is a robe that comes in one size. It has a band of plain material across the middle. This section can be left as it is, or be taken up to shorten the kimono to fit. There are many layers to a kimono outfit. The kimono does make up the bulk of the outfit, but there are under garments, ties, sashes, belts, collars and the obi to be added during the process.  Not to mention the wig complete with pins and jewellery (the wigs were put on, already dressed). The visual transformation was amazing to see. The photographs were spectacular. If you are fascinated by Geisha, or are looking for a personalised souvenir, then I would recommend a makeover package. If you go with friends or family from the tour, it’s a great way to spend a good time together.

The rest of the afternoon was spent making our way to Gion Corner to watch the Geisha Spring Dance. As you entered the room for the serving of tea, you were sat down in rows and the tea and a sweet were served to everyone. The type of green tea served is called Matcha and is dark and quite bitter. You do not put sugar in the tea. Therefore a sweet is served alongside the tea. You eat the sweet first, to sweeten your mouth and then drink the tea. It does make a big difference in taste. This part was quite rushed as there were a lot of people waiting, but it was still an experience to watch the Maiko prepare the tea for the room, looking stunning in their full regalia.

The time had come to take our seats and get ready to watch the dance. The stage had catwalks either side, with the seating in the middle. There were curtains set back into the catwalks. The lights turned down and doors opened at the ends of the catwalks. Here a group of Maiko made their entrance, the curtains were drawn, on the left sat Maiko playing percussion (drums) and flute and on the right sat Geisha singing and playing shamisen. The first scene would be a highlight of the dance with about 20 dancers on stage. The following seven would each tell a story, linking itself into the previous scene in some way. They transcend from Spring, to Summer, to Autumn, to Winter and back to Spring for the finale, with about 60 Maiko and Geiko on stage.

The whole performance was lavish, extravagant, beautiful and vibrant. From the incredibly detailed sets – the individual blossoms and leaves on the trees, the hundreds of tiny optic light representing fireflies, to the backdrops which undulated to depict the waves of the sea. The costumes were rich, bold and imaginative from the men that fought brave battles, to the kimono of the Maiko and Geiko twirling as they danced in unison, their hair ornaments twinkling in the stage lights. The music was enchanting and riveting, enhanced by the emotions portrayed in the voices of the singers. They could build the atmosphere between two lovers sorrow as lovers parted ways, the violent storms endured at sea, and dramatic battle scenes that brought death and glory.

Needless to say I was enraptured from start to finish. Which is also true of the whole journey, the experience. I am afraid that I have fallen in love with Japan, even more so, than before I had decided to make the journey and land on Japanese soil. Turning a journey of a lifetime in to what maybe, in time, a home from home.

Welcome to the ‘we went to Japan and fell in love with it and everything about it’ club Gemma. Glad we could help you get there. It sounds as though there will be many other travels to Japan in the future. We are very happy to hear it!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Mad cows in Kobe

I am putting this blog post together just before lunch time and its not easy as it is making me incredibly hungry.

One of our fantastic Japan staff, Ayako Kiyono recently took it upon herself to visit a Kobe beef farm.  I am sure that you have heard of Kobe Beef, but these days the term ‘Kobe Beef’ seems to be linked to any meat where the animals have been reared slightly differently to the usual methods as I recently found on a trip to Cornwall. The landlord of a pub and farmer was feeding his cows and pigs on local beer and producing his own, “Kobe beef and pork”. It was nice, but it certainly wasn’t the real McCoy.

The real Kobe beef is produced in the Hyogo area of Japan and Kiyono san wanted to actually see what went into producing the finest beef in the world. She travelled to Takami Kobe Beef farm in the rural town of Ichijima to find out and here is what she discovered.

 

What is the Kobe Beef?

No cows are born to be “Kobe Beef” cow.

Only Tajima-gyu cows (special breed in Hyogo prefecture) that satisfy the specific quality criteria deserve the title “Kobe Beef”.

Roughly 3000 Tajima-gyu cows manage to pass the criteria and titled as Kobe Beef every year.

Takami san delivered this calf the previous night and is nursing it himself.

Who discovered Kobe Beef for the first time?

Surprisingly, it was an Englishman! Until 1868, Japanese were not accustomed to eating meat, but that year, Kobe opened its doors to foreign trade as an international port and Kobe Beef was eaten for the first time.

 How are the cows raised?

The mother and baby names are written next to each calf.

At the Takami Kobe Beef Farm, the following methods are use for their cows;

Cows drink Sakamizu water. Sakamizu refers to spring water that is used to brew fine Sake.

Cows take a shower twice a day. (Shampoo and treatment)

Cows are talked to by farmers. (Farmers check each cows health by talking to them)

Each cow has Japanese name and taken care very well by farmers.

Cows are watched 24h through security camera.

Cows do not do any exercise.

Calves relax. No moooving for these cows!

 Are there any problems with raising pure-blood Tajima-Gyu?

Pure-blood Tajima Cows are not as healthy as their half-blood counterpart.

Pure-blood cows tend to be born premature and grow slowly.

New calves are kept in their own shed.

 What is special about Kobe Takami Beef Farm?

Takami Kobe Beef Farm won the championship for Kobe Beef 2010 and the farm has an official license.

Normally, each process, such as breeding, raising, and fattening are done separately by different farmers who is specialized in each process. Visitors to Takami can observe all the processes that go into raising a ‘Kobe Beef Cow’.

The highest grade kobe beef.

Takami Beef Farm has restaurants where visitors are able to enjoy fresh Kobe beef for reasonable prices. Try a Kobe beef rice bowl (Gyudon) or  1260 yen or the best Takami Kobe beef course at lunch time for an incredible 3800 yen.

 

Takami Kobe Beef Farm is approximately a 2h 15 minute train ride from Kyoto by train. If you want to eat the best beef in the world and at a decent price…and see exactly what goes into producing it, then it might be worth a visit. Let us know and we can organise it for you!

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 213 other followers