10 great reasons to visit Japan in the summer

Kamikochi in summertime

Kamikochi in summertime

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

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

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

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

Fewer crowds & discount prices

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

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

Crowds in Osaka

Crowds in Osaka

Beaches

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

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

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

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

Hiking & climbing Mount Fuji

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

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

Above the clouds on top of Mount Fuji

Above the clouds on top of Mount Fuji

Scuba diving

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

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

Enjoying some scuba diving off Okinawa main island

Enjoying some scuba diving off Okinawa main island

Fireworks

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

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

(Photo: JNTO)

(Photo: JNTO)

Festivals

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

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

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

Float at Nebuta Matsuri, Aomori

Float at Nebuta Matsuri, Aomori

Amazing vending machines

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

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

Hello Kitty vending machines

Hello Kitty vending machines

Summer foods & insane ice creams

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

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

A delicious lunch of zarusoba that I ate in Karuizawa

A delicious lunch of zarusoba and tempura in Karuizawa

Music festivals

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

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

Fuji Rock Festival

Fuji Rock Festival

Beer gardens and nomihodai

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

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

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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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!!

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