Making Sunday very special in Bristol

Here at the Bristol office of InsideJapan Tours we had our very own mini matsuri on Sunday 7th September at Bristol’s Make Sunday Special event. We donned our yukata and jinbei, and with the help of our local friends Yume Kitchen and Kagemusha Taiko set about sharing Japanese culture with the good people of Bristol.

Make Sunday Special

Yuki & James running the chopstick challenge whilst Yume Kitchen get the sushi rolling

Throughout the day, we had performances and workshops from Devon-based Kagemusha Taiko, sushi-making demos and tutorials from Bristol’s own Yume Kitchen, origami lessons, and the mighty chopstick challenge (picking up dried adzuki beans with shiny chopsticks – a challenge indeed!).

Kagemusha Taiko

Kagemusha Taiko

Kagemusha Taiko workshop

Kagemusha Taiko workshop

Making sushi with Yume Kitchen

Making sushi with Yume Kitchen

We chatted about Japan with anyone and everyone who stopped by, and it was wonderful to see how many local people have an interest in Japanese culture and travelling to Japan. Some had already been to Japan, for others it was a lifelong dream, and some just really enjoyed making origami!

Proud paper folders!

Proud paper folders!

InsideJapan Tours has customers from all over the world, and we’re happy to communicate with you all by any possible means, but there’s nothing like a face-to-face conversation. Make Sunday Special was a really good chance for us to meet some great people from the great city of Bristol and talk Japan to all who have an interest in learning a bit more about Japan and it’s unique culture   – thanks for coming along, and we hope to see you at the next event!

An Introduction to Birding in Japan

Covering a total of 377,708 sq kms, Japan is three times larger than England. Located between 24° to 46° north latitude and from 123° to 146° east longitude, the island chain covers a wide climatic range: from the boreal climate zone in the north to the sub-tropical zone in the south. It also spans two ecological lines; the Blakiston’s Line (between Hokkaido and Honshu) and the Watase ‘s Line in the south.

Because of these rather unique geographical and ecological backgrounds, Japan’s avifauna is extremely diverse and interesting. 

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More than 600 species have been recorded to date with around 60 being endemic or sub-regional endemic. The actual number of endemic species ranges from 12-23, depending on the source. These include the Copper Pheasant, Japanese Woodpecker, Japanese Scops Owl, Okinawa Rail, Amami Woodcock, Ryukyu Serpeant Eagle, Lidith’s Jay, Bonin Honeyeater and Japanese Skylark. However, most of Japan’s birds are migratory, with more than 60 percent being seasonal visitors.

When and where to go:

Hokkaido

Despite still being covered in snow and temperatures sometimes dropping below -15 degrees centigrade, Hokkaido in February is a birder’s paradise, with the chance to view up close the iconic Red-crowned cranes and the magnificent Steller’s Sea Eagles. If you look in the right places you might also see the Blakiston’s Fish Owl, White-tailed Eagles, the Ural Owl, Harlequin Ducks and Slaty-backed Gulls.

Honshu-Hokkaido Ferry

The rich waters of the north Pacific are a seabird fanatic’s paradise. On a good day on the ferry between these two islands you can see an exciting selection of seabirds including three species of albatross, rare species of storm petrels, aucs, Ancient Murrelet, Pacific Loon, Band-rumped Swinhoe’s and Streaked Shearwater. Check on what species are present at specific times of the year before you come.

White Tailed on drift ice

Hakata Bay

Hakata Bay, near the city of Fukuoka at the north of Kyushu, is another seabird fanatic’s winter paradise. It’s possible to see 100 species in a day as the bay supports an incredible 70,000 wintering birds. Look out for Baikel Teal, Black-faced Spoonbills and Pacific Loon. Summer in Hakata Bay is a great time to see a wide range of shorebirds including Little Curlew, Asian Dowitcher and Nordmann’s Greenshank.

Arasaki

With over 10,000 birds present between December and February, the paddy fields of Arasaki are home to one the most impressive gatherings of cranes in the world.  The area in the Kagoshima prefecture, southern Kyushu, hosts around 8,000 Hooded and 2000 White-naped cranes, as well as a number of other wintering and other seasonal and non-seasonal birds. These include the Ural Owl, Crested Kingfisher, grosbeaks, Japanese Skylark, Copper Pheasant and many, many more!

Bird spotting in Japan

Tokyo area

Even in and around this world famous metropolis, it’s possible to see a wide range of birds. The Lotus Pond (Shinobazunoike) at Ueno Park is home or occasional home to many birds including Northern Pintail, Common Pochard, Asian Spot-billed Ducks, Ring-necked Duck, American Wigeon and Lesser Scaup.

Tokyo Port Wild Bird Park near Haneda Airport has a number of hides and is well worth a visit. The area hosts a large number waterfowl and waders including Long-billed Dowitcher and Pied Avocet.

Japan is a birders paradise. Happy Twitching!

Richard Pearce and the members of this year’s Winter Highlights tour recorded a number of beautiful and exciting birds. These included Red-crowned Crane, Steller’s Sea Eagle, White-tailed Eagle, Ural Owl (Hokkaido sub-species), Harlequin Duck and Slaty-backed Gull.

 

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My Favourite Places in Japan

As my time in Japan nears its end I thought I’d share with you some of my favourite places I’ve visited over the past eight months. Ranging from Okinawa in the far south to the peaks of Nagano, I think these places really demonstrate the diversity that Japan has to offer, and explain what keeps people coming back year upon year.

Once you’ve seen my favourite places so far, take a look at my wish list of the amazing places I have yet to visit in Japan. They’ll have to wait until next time for me – but hopefully they’ll inspire you to work some of them into your own plans!

My Top 5 Favourite places in Japan:

1. Okunion cemetery, Koya-san (Wakayama Prefecture)

No photo can do justice to the atmosphere of this vast and amazing place, tucked away in the mountains near Osaka. Despite it being recognised as a world heritage site, as I wandered around Okunoin I often felt as though I was the only person there – a very rare and wonderful occasion when travelling in Japan! If you can, visit early in the morning when the mists are still swirling.

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3. Kabira Bay, Ishigaki Island (Okinawa Prefecture)

Pack your snorkel, hop on the next 3-hour flight from Tokyo and check into the wonderful Iriwa guesthouse – a little bit of paradise in Japan’s southernmost prefecture. It may be budget-friendly, but the couple who run this beautiful, beachside guesthouse have thought of everything to make your stay in Ishigaki as relaxing as possible, and there can be no better backdrop to a holiday than the stunning views to be found just down the road at Kabira Bay. You’ll never want to leave.

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4. Hakuba Ski Resort (Nagano Prefecture)

As a keen skier perhaps I’m biased – but for me, three days in Hakuba was the perfect start to the New Year. Brilliant powder snow followed by a soak in an onsen – what’s not to love? And if (for some reason) you were to get bored of skiing, you can just hop on a bus and go to visit the snow monkeys at Yudanaka Onsen.

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4. Bizan District, Kurashiki (Okayama Prefecture)

I visited Kurashiki just a couple of weeks ago on a research trip for InsideJapan Tours and was enchanted by its mixture of Western and Eastern architecture, its beautiful canals, and its wonderful museums. Every visitor must be sure not to miss the Ohara Museum, the Rural Toy Museum and (for the young at heart) the Momotaro Museum – and if you get the chance, spend the night at the unparalleled Ryokan Kurashiki!

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5. The Dream Hole, Onna-son, Okinawa Island (Okinawa Prefecture)

On one of my last days in Okinawa, I was lucky enough to have the chance to dive at this 25-metre underwater tunnel, where a living curtain of fish swirls in the entrance and parts to let you pass as you swim through the entrance. On the same dive I even got the chance to swim with sea turtles – a pretty amazing experience!

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My Wish List Top Five:

1. Yakushima Island (Kagoshima Prefecture)

My biggest regret as I reach the end of my time in Japan is that I never managed to make it to Yakushima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture. As a big Miyazaki fan I can’t help but wish that I could visit the place that inspired “Princess Mononoke,” where you can hike amongst Japanese cedar trees several thousand years old and even camp on beaches where baby Loggerhead turtles hatch and make their way to the see. Next time.

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Jomon Sugi: perhaps the oldest tree in the world

Jomon Sugi: perhaps the oldest tree in the world

2. Hokkaido

Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, rarely makes it onto the itineraries of first-time travellers to Japan (unless they’re going skiing in Niseko!). But everybody I know who has visited Hokkaido has been enchanted by its wonderful countryside, making me sad that I haven’t had time to visit it before I leave. I’ve promised myself that one day I’ll make it to the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri (snow festival) to see some of the amazing sculptures for myself.

hokkaido

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3. Takeda Castle (Hyogo Prefecture)

Takeda Castle is known as “the castle above the clouds” – for reasons that should be obvious when you see the amazing photos of it perched on top of a mountain, wreathed in mist. Yet another amazing place to add to my wish list.

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4. Yonaguni Ruins(?), Yonaguni Island (Okinawa Prefecture)

Located under the sea off the coast of what is perhaps Japan’s remotest island are – well, nobody really knows what they are. Are they naturally occurring rock formations, the ruins of some unknown civilisation, or the works of aliens? (Hint: it was probably aliens). The underwater structures appear strikingly regular, leading many people to believe that they are man-made. If they are, then they indicate a hitherto completely unknown civilisation that could have existed twice as long ago as the ancient Egyptians. Now that would be pretty cool.

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5. Dogo Onsen, Matsuyama (Ehime Prefecture)

Another location inspired by my love for Miyazaki films, Dogo Onsen is the oldest bath house in Japan and is rumoured to have been the inspiration for the bath house in “Spirited Away” – one of the films that first inspired my love of Japan. And not only do I love Spirited Away, but I am also a huge fan of onsens – so Dogo Onsen was always naturally going to make it onto my wish list.

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And finally, somewhere I wish I’d visited before it became a tourist destination…

Gunkanjima (Nagasaki Prefecture)

Gunkanjima, or “battleship island,” was once the most densely populated area in the world when it thrived as a coal-mining facility. Now it is an amazingly creepy, abandoned wasteland – empty except for Javier Bardem, who kicks about thinking evil thoughts and plotting the demise of his enemies. Not really.

james bond - skyfall - javier bardem - silva

There was a time when you could make your way out to Gunkanjima alone and explore it for yourself (albeit not exactly legally), but now it’s more strictly controlled and you can only visit with a guided tour that keeps you on the straight and narrow – away from falling masonry and the like. I suppose that’s sensible really, but it does ruin the fun just a little bit.

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Land of the Gods | Kamikochi Japan

The Historic Mountain Trail tour recently travelled through Kamikochi. Here’s tour leader David to tell us more…

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Nestled deep in the Alps, Kamikochi seems worlds away from the urban sprawl most people associate with Japan.  The air is fresh, the waters crystal clear, and the mountains majestic. The name can mean “high above earth” or “where the gods descended” and is apt both literally and figuratively.

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Located a little less than two hours from either Matsumoto or Takayama (both worthy of a visit), makes it a comfortable escape and return to the wild. Due to the increasing popularity of the national park, private vehicles are no longer allowed inside the resort, meaning the only means of vehicular access is limited to either bus or sanctioned taxis. This is more of a blessing than an inconvenience for those basking in the peacefulness of what many refer to as their favorite place in Japan.

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At the bus terminal, there is a tourist information center where visitors can purchase pocket-sized maps of the area for 100 yen.  There is also a rest area where you can plan your route while enjoying refreshments from one of the many nearby shops. Those who need a toilet are encouraged to show their appreciation for cleanliness by placing a tip in a box with a note stating the average amount is 100 yen. There are about seven other equally clean toilets scattered throughout the park that deny you this privilege, forcing the use of their facilities for free.

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Walking towards the azure waters of the Azusa River, it’s easy to see Kappabashi (not to be confused with the popular “Kitchen Town” in Tokyo), the most famous bridge in the area, and a popular landmark where many visitors like to take pictures. The view from there of the nearby mountains towering above is, in a word, stunning. Both sides of the bridge offer a number of accommodation and refreshment options.

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A relaxed half-hour walk downstream brings you to the Hotaka and Tashiro bridges, which are joined by a small island. Another twenty minutes or so from there, either by a river or forest path, brings you to Taisho Pond, which was formed when nearby Mount Yake, an active volcano, erupted in 1915. The ever-present smoke plume coming out the top can serve as a reminder to be respectful of nature, especially in its most pristine state. Speaking of which, visitors are expected to leave only footprints, bringing all trash home with them (most opt for a rubbish bin in the nearest major town, but some, like my roommate, actually do maintain an impressive alter to the god of refuse in their house).

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Those who would rather not retrace their steps, and don’t mind paying four or five hundred yen, can catch a bus at the nearby Taisho Bus Stop bound for the terminal, where they can start again.

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Myojinbashi is the next bridge upstream from Kappabashi, and can be reached in about an hour by either a boardwalk across marshes and streams on the north side of the river, or via a footpath through a campsite with toilets on the south side. Keep your eyes open for macaques. Nearby Myojin Pond (entry ¥300) is a must-see. There are rest areas either side of the bridge with toilets and refreshments available.

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Another hour or so upstream, on the south side, is a grassy meadow dotted with elm trees. This used to be a pasture, but is now Tokusawa campsite. There are more lodging, toilet and refreshment opportunities here as well. For day-trippers, this would be a good place to turn around and head back to the bus terminal. Serious hikers staying in the area will want to continue on a few hours to the peaks.

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There is plenty of gorgeous scenery to be enjoyed by all fitness levels, making Kamikochi a fantastic destination for all age groups. The usual outdoor common sense applies (stay on paths, don’t feed wildlings). Dressing in layers with waterproof gear is recommended as the weather can change from a warm sunny day to hail in a couple hours.

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More information can be found here: www.kamikochi.or.jp/english

Cool things to do in Tokyo – 47 Ronin

Amy from Inside Japan’s US office was recently travelling around Japan doing a bit of research. We all know Tokyo pretty well, but there is always something new to discover….even if it is old….

As visitors soon discover, Tokyo is a big place—it would take decades of sightseeing and wandering to say that you had seen everything it had to offer, and even then you will have been defeated as something is always opening or closing or “under renewal.” As a one-time resident and now re-occurring tourist, I like to mix and match my time in Tokyo so that I see my favorite spots, or places I have good memories of, with ones that I’ve never seen.

You may have heard of the 47 Ronin…even if it is only the recent Keanu Reeves version of the classic Japanese mpvie.

 

Inspired by recent client requests for samurai-related places in Tokyo, I made the trek out to Sengakuji Temple, better known as the final resting place of the “47 Ronin.” Like most places in Tokyo, the original temple burned down during World War Two, but fortunately the graveyard survived intact and is about 300 years old.

47 Ronin - Tokyo‘Trek’ is a bit misleading, though, as the temple is located just about 5 minutes on foot from Sengakuji Station on the Toei Asakusa subway and was easy to find after I stopped following people going to a nearby graduation ceremony. I had the temple almost to myself as it was Sunday, so I could wander as I pleased trying to decipher all the Japanese information (only later did I find the English pamphlet, sold alongside the incense, for a very reasonable 10yen). With this in hand, I found out that not only was this the temple where the 47 Ronin had brought the head of enemy lord to present before the grave of their former lord (washing it in the well), but also that the trees just beginning to bloom were, in fact, NOT sakura but plum trees, to my immense consternation as I had taken about 20 pictures of them. Thank goodness I had the pamphlet to save me from disgrace of announcing wrongfully that the sakura were blooming in Tokyo—best 10yen I’ve ever spent.

47 Ronin - Tokyo

There’s also a memorial museum on the grounds dedicated to the 47 Ronin (or ‘Ako Gishi’ as they’re called in Japanese). If you wasnt added ambience, visit in December for the festival remembering the 47 Ronin.

 

 

5 things you didn’t know about Japan

I recently put this together for a good travel agent of ours, but thought I would share it on our very own blog…

IshigakiFact 1 – Japan is made up of over 6000 islands

There are four main islands, but the country is actually made up of 6852 islands (big and small). The main island of Honshu is home to the Tokyo Metropolis and the cultural capital of Kyoto. The ‘wild frontier’ of Hokkaido sits in the far north, with rural Shikoku and historical Kyushu in the south.
Mt Fuji
Fact 2 – Japan is 70% mountainous

Japan is certainly not just big cities. Most people envisage big neon lit cities such as Tokyo, but approximately 70% of the country is covered in lush green mountains. A tenth of the worlds active volcanoes are also in Japan. Perhaps the most famous of these is the 3776 metre Mt Fuji.

Niseko Skiing
Fact 3 – Japan has tropical beaches and great skiing

Japan is a country of contrasts which can be seen everywhere in its architecture and culture. It also has a contrasting landscapes and environments. Okinawa in the far south (approximately 1000 miles from Tokyo) consists of a string of tropical islands with white sand beaches, jungle islands and some of the best diving in the world, Meanwhile the far northern island of Hokkaido has some of the best skiing in the world with almost guaranteed buckets of powder snow everyday during the winter months.

Tokyo Sushi

Fact 4 – Japan has the most Michelin starred restaurants in the world

You think of Japan and you probably think of sushi, but it is not all about the raw fish here. There will be dishes that you will have not seen anywhere else in the world adding to the cultural adventure, but there will be a lot of things you do recognise too, suitable for every palette. Tokyo also has the most three star rated restaurants in the world and more Michelin stars than Paris. Japan is a foodie paradise.

…and last but defintely not least….

Taxi

Fact 5 – Japan is not expensive

Japan is not expensive. It was expensive in the 1980’s during the economic boom, but is now generally cheaper than the UK. In the last year, the yen has dropped considerably in value against the pound/dollar and Japan is now about 30% cheaper than it was back at the beginning of 2013.  You can buy a three course lunch for approximately £6, buy a plate of sushi from about 60pence or have an eat and drink as much as you like session at a Izakaya (traditional Japanese pub) for approximately £15. And, one of the best things about Japan is that you get some of the best service in the world, but there is no tipping! – it is almost offensive to do so. Japan is not only cheaper than it was, it is great value meaning more bang for your Yen.

Okinawa Shisa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Seasir Mansion"

“Seasir Mansion”

Shisa murals

Shisa murals

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

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

Shisa vending machine!

Shisa vending machine!

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

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