Photos from It’s Not Just Mud

If you want to donate to ItsNotJustMud and help with the incredible work they are doing in Tohoku, please follow this link

This is my final blog post from Ishinomaki where I have been very privileged to spend a week volunteering with It’s Not Just Mud.

The dream volunteering team: Stephen, Kenji and I.

Our mission: to lay a new floor in Nakada-San’s office. It’s Not Just Mud are helping to renovate this building which will be the headquarters for a fishing company. The business will buy seafood from local fisherman and sell it on to buyers across Japan.

My job? Burning waste wood and making the tea…

…except somehow I managed to melt the lid to the kettle spout?!

Insulation down, floorboards halfway there…

…so time for lunch.

The best meal yet.

Rice mountain.

In the afternoon they let me loose with the rotary saw, hahaha!

And a bit of hammering.

Job done. An excellent day.


If you want to donate to ItsNotJustMud and help with the incredible work they are doing in Tohoku, please follow this link

The Tsunami Coast

Although my time volunteering with It’s Not Just Mud is drawing to a close, we managed to find time between shifts to venture down to Onagawa Port where the tsunami devastation is most evident.

This photo was taken from the hospital, 16 metres above sea level.

The hospital. The waves reached up to the first floor, 18 metres in height. The third wave swirled around the building killing 16 people inside on the ground floor. Other people managed to escape by climbing up the mountain to the temple behind the hospital.

The view inland from the hospital. There used to be hundreds of buildings here. The tsunami waves filled the entire valley and all the buildings were swept first inland, then dragged back out to sea as the water receded.

This was the ferry port waiting room, the building now turned completely on it’s side. The shell of this building is going to be kept as a reminder of the tsunami, while the area around it has been flattened and new construction work begun. The plan is to raise the level of this area by 5 metres, then build the shops, banks and port buildings as a new commercial centre. Residential areas will be built further away on higher ground.

Driving through Onagawa. This area was once full of houses and the train station was here.

Into the next valley, and we could see the clean up in operation. I have never seen so many diggers in action in one place.

Hundreds of lorries at work.

Huge mountains of rubble.

We drove up to Onagawa school where many people who lost their homes are now living in temporary accommodation. Apparently this is the best housing shelter in Tohoku, designed with communal spaces, container shops and a community centre; a lot less depressing than elsewhere.

Here you can see the temporary houses have been built on the school’s basketball courts.

Two nights ago a couple who run a local cafe and are living in temporary accommodation came to chat to the volunteers. The lady joked about the thin walls and having to creep around her tiny living space. She was full of high spirits, but it was heartbreaking to think she had lost her home.

A noticeboard showing drawings of people missing since the tsunami.

I am most grateful to my fellow volunteers Kenji and Stephen who guided me around Onagawa today. Kenji speaks fantastic English and was our translator as well as driver, stopping whenever we wanted to take pictures. Stephen is a freelance journalist and has made five trips to Onagawa since the tsunami happened. He recounted the tsunami stories of the many locals he has befriended in the last 20 months.

At times it felt uncomfortably voyeuristic to be poking around the tsunami damage. But we were not the only ones; coach loads of Japanese come every day to the town. They say seeing is believing, and visiting Onagawa was a powerful experience I won’t forget in a hurry.


If you want to donate to ItsNotJustMud and help with the incredible work they are doing in Tohoku, please follow this link


Make Holidays Greener – Part 1

July is ‘Make Holidays Greener‘ month, a campaign across the UK travel industry organised by the Bristol based charity, the Travel Foundation.

At InsideJapan Tours we like to think our holidays are pretty sustainable all year round. Here are some reasons why:

1. Our Small Group Tours have a minimum group size of 14. Better group dynamics, no ‘tour bus bubble’, instead you get close to the places and people you are visiting.

2. We encourage clients to visit rural areas, where tourist money helps to revitalise depopulated communities.

3. Think local: A stay in a family-run inn is a highlight of any Japan trip!

4. And don’t just think local; regional, seasonal Japanese food is amazing.

5. All of our trips make use Japan’s fantastic public transport.

6. We only include car hire for very off-the-beaten track locations, and then it’s a Toyota Prius.

7. All the hotels and ryokan we use complete our health & safety survey every other year. The survey includes Sustainable Tourism questions to encourage hotels and ryokans to conserve energy and resources, and reduce waste.

8. We encourage interaction with local people. On Self-Guided trips we recommend spending a day or two with a local private guide to give you the real lowdown on Japanese culture & history.

9. Japan’s traditional culture is unique and deserves to be preserved for future generations. We can include sumo tickets, ikebana lessons, tea ceremony and much more in any Japan holiday.

10. Japan has fantastic wildlife and we support the sanctuaries and charities that protect it like the Shinshu Asiatic Black Bear Conservation Group. We avoid bear parks or zoos in Japan where we feel wild animals are kept in cruel conditions.

11. Why not visit an eco-lodge or try your hand at local farming techniques on a rural farm stay?

Please click here to read more about our Sustainable Tourism policy at InsideJapan Tours.

10 Reasons why Japan is so great. No. 9 – Respect

Once again, this overlaps with other categories such as culture and the people, but it is one aspect of Japan that is obvious in every day life and deserves a big mention.

At the risk of sounding too much like an old man here, I think that the respect shown by Japanese, young and old, to the environment they live in and the people around them is a beautiful thing and is partly what makes Japan so great. It quickly becomes obvious to most westerners who travel to Japan, as this respect is rapidly becoming a thing of the past in some western cultures. In terms of the UK at least, it is very normal to walk along a street full of litter, passing vandalised phone boxes and graffiti-covered walls and to be given some verbal abuse by a complete stranger. Sad but true. Not always the case, but not uncommon. It is however, very uncommon in Japan.

As soon as you step off the plane in Tokyo, you will no doubt notice that everything is immaculate, from the outfits warn by staff to the litter-free walk ways that lead you through customs. Fortunately, this doesn’t stop at the airport and continues as you head on to the train platforms and then on to the train – not a bit of chewing gum on the seat to sit on or broken vending machines on the platform. It continues throughout Japan. You can even see the poor old homeless people on the banks of the Sumida river in Tokyo sweeping up around their shelters and even taking their shoes off as they enter their boxes. You may be forgiven for thinking that all the pretty over packaging on goods would be ideal for littering the streets as people chomp though their Pocky or Crunky chocolate bars, but no! Litter is deposited in the correct recycling bins or held on to until a bin becomes available. This is not just the older men and women in society, but it goes for the children and teenagers alike. Refreshing I think you’ll agree and how it should be. As we say in the West, don’t ‘dirty’ your own doorstep – it would be so much nicer if people practised this like they do in Japan.

This is all down to the people, the culture and the Japanese Shinto religion which promotes a respect for the surrounding environment and the spirits that exist in it and therefore a respect for each other and local community, young and old. To be born Japanese is to be born Shinto and it breeds a certain way of thinking and acting. The cleanliness and respect for the local environment, community and other people is blatant to see for any visitor to Japan and is another reason why Japan is so great.

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10 Reasons why Japan is so great – No. 2 Public transport

In no particular order in my, ‘Why Japan is so great’ series of posts, I want to praise the public transport in Japan which I have always thought brilliant. Having taken a train from Bristol to Cardiff at the weekend (approximately 44 miles) and travelled back on a Sunday with replacement coach and a couple of extra changes with a journey time of 1h40, this has only added to my adoration of Japan and its public transport. Just to give you an idea, it takes 96 minutes to travel from Tokyo to Sendai by Bullet train – that’s a journey of about 230 miles…..and on a Sunday!

Japan just does transport so well. As well as the subway and local train line, everyone knows about the Shinkansen (AKA Bullet train). The trains link up with local funicular railways, cable cars, bus, ferry and more allowing you to get from A to B in the time and manner you expected and planned for – an absolute pleasure. The vast majority of public transport runs on time with trains on the busy Tokyo lines running to the hundredth of the second of their scheduled time. That’s how good they are. Public transport is rarely delayed without extremely good reason and it is quickly back on its feet.

As well as running on time, public transport is very clean and comfortable making the experience as a whole, a very nice one. Once you have sat in your seat, the ticket conductor will bow and request to see your ticket, followed by another bow and a ‘thank you’ as he leaves the carriage. They will be followed by very pleasant staff with a trolley-full of goods from hot and cold drinks, to snacks and Bento boxes to toy models of the trains themselves. A very pleasant ordeal indeed.

Whether you are travelling super-sleek Bullet train passing Mt Fuji at high speed or cute little ‘chug-chug’ trains with names like ‘Seaside Liner’ that take you at  a leisurely pace along coastal routes, it is just nice.
We plan thousands of Japan travel itinerary a year and I am happy that we specialise in travel to Japan. It probably doesn’t sound like much, but the public transport is partly why Japan is so great. It goes on my list anyway.

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Going Green in Japan – Tip #9: Recycle

In Japan plastic, paper, PET bottles, aluminium and glass are collected and recycled by law.

Look for the recycling logo on PET bottles in Japan

It’s easy to recycle while you are travelling through Japan. Public rubbish bins (trash cans) found in train stations or outside convenience stores are separated into containers for different materials. Most are labelled in English so you know what to put wear – failing that, ask a Japanese passerby.

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Going Green in Japan – Tip #8: Refuse plastic bags

In Japanese culture presentation is everything. And this extends not only to exquisite layers of kimono and delicately wrapped gifts for example, but packaging: heavily packaged goods, individually wrapped fruit and thousands upon thousands of plastic bags.

Japanese gifts beautifully wrapped in traditional 'furoshiki' cloths - these are reusable, so very green!

Here’s an example. I went to buy lunch in a convenience store: a carton of juice, an onigiri rice ball and a small bento box which the shop assistant heated in a microwave for me. In the blink of an eye, the shop assistant had put the hot food in one plastic bag, the rice ball and juice in another and provided a straw, disposable chopsticks, a disposable handwipe and a paper towel. This was a ridiculous amount of packaging for my simple lunch which I was planning to eat in my hotel room two minutes away.

A typical Japanese convenience store

So now I’ve learnt how to politely but effectively refuse this much packaging in shops. Here’s my three point plan:

1) Be vigilant. Those shop assistants will have everything wrapped up before you know it.

2) So keep alert and when the shop assistant reaches for the plastic bags make a cross sign with your hands and smile.

3) Finally you could say ‘iremasen’ (it’s not needed) for emphasis, then grab your goods before the shop assistant can do anything about it (although make sure it’s been scanned through the till first. Otherwise this would be stealing and gives Westerners a bad name in Japan;-)

At home and in Japan I carry a fold up shopping bag like this:

A foldable shopping bag - good to have wherever you are in the world

Refusing packaging takes practice and a lot of persistence but it’s definitely a battle worth fighting!

And finally: if you can’t refuse a plastic bag, you could at least reuse it :-


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