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

GO

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

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

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

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

SAN

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

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

Ni

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

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

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

"Seasir Mansion"

“Seasir Mansion”

Shisa murals

Shisa murals

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

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

Shisa vending machine!

Shisa vending machine!

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

Tomonoura – The Real Japan

Tomonoura
“Have a nice…memory…in Japan”, said the smiling bus driver as I stepped off the bus from Fukuyama station, at the charming port town of Tomonoura. I had just spent a week working in Nagoya, so my overnight trip to the sea was something I had been looking forward to for a while.

Soaking up life
Tomonoura does not feature much in the major guidebooks to Japan, and part of me wants to keep it that way. Perhaps I should not tell you about the winding narrow lanes, lined with traditional wooden buildings.

The old streets

I should maybe keep quiet about the various viewpoints over the town from the surrounding hills, where you can watch the ships go to and fro.

Pretty port

And I should certainly not say anything about the fresh seafood and the friendly locals who welcome you as a rare foreign visitor.

Tomo in Tomonoura
I guess the cat is already out of the bag though, as Tomonoura features in the latest Wolverine movie, and is also considered the inspiration for the Miyazaki animated film, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea. So do stop by Tomonoura next time you are in Japan. But promise me one thing – don’t tell anyone!

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A day in Hakone

Having spent most of my time in Kyushu, I had yet to visit the Hakone and Mt Fuji National Park. On a recent visit to Japan, I finally had the chance properly explore the beautiful moujntains and hot springs of the region. Here are some photos of a lovely day travelling around on the scenic buses, trains and cable cars in the area, including the Open Air Sculpture Park, Owakudani with its active sulphur vents and Lake Ashi. Beautiful views even though Mt. Fuji was being shy!

The Hakone Open Air Sculpture Park is quite special.

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The steaming sulphur vents at Owakudani is perfect for boiling eggs…and the best place to eat eggs….that are black. 7 years good luck apprarently.

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Cables cars, bus and of course a pirate ship take you around the beautiful mountains and the crater lake Ashi.

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The best thing is that after a day in Hakone, I get to go back to my ryokan and sit in my own private hot spring bath (onsen)

Ryokan onsen
A day in Hakone is well recommended. Spending a night there in a ryokan enabling you to enjoy the hot springs and hospitality is the best way to experience Hakone.

A Beginner’s Guide to Japan

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

 

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

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

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

1.    Snow and Sand:

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

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

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

Shink_Odawara (1)

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

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

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

Thanks Rachel. We’ll miss you!

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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Temples and the Darkside

Travelling into the mountains of Nagano on the Japan Unmaksed trip, we stay at a great place – Zenkoji temple in Nagano.

Zenkoji Temple

Zenkoji is a beautiful temple and one of the most important in the prefecture. It is also the only one in Japan run by two Buddhist sects – Tendai and Jodoshu. However, having been there during a festival which sees hundreds of lanterns decorated with various characters, lining the streets up to the temple, I feel as though there maybe other forces at work here.

Darth Vader lantern

Darth Vader lantern

Zenkoji is very impressive. Waking up the next morning we join the monks for morning service. After walking through a pitch black room until we found ‘our path’ to the brass handle which opens up to the entrance, we then listened to the monks chant their mantra which was beautiful and enlightening.

Enlightening Lanterns

Enlightening Lanterns

I highly recommend this experience to anyone visiting the area and I will use this force to lead the tours!

Andrew

Journey back to Tohoku – Amy Tadehara

Amy is from our US office. Amy also lived in Sendai for several years and has a special love for Tohoku. Exactly two years on from the tsunami, Amy returned to the region to see how her Tohoku was getting on….

When I was invited to go on a business trip to Japan this March and saw that the planned itinerary would take me back to Tohoku, my home for four years, my gut reaction was twofold: I was excited, of course, but also apprehensive. Suddenly, despite the other destinations we would see, all I could think of was that weekend two years ago when the Great East Japan Earthquake changed everything.

Beauty of Hirosaki in the snow

Beauty of Hirosaki in the snow

Still, I wasn’t going to pass on the opportunity to see Japan again, and so I flew into Tokyo Narita Airport with a group of fellow agents to spend a week exploring an area of Japan that is often neglected by foreign visitors. We spent the night in Tokyo before heading off to what the famous haiku master Basho called “the Deep North.”

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We visited the Nebuta Festival Museum in Aomori (the next best thing to the festival itself); saw the beauty of Hirosaki in snowfall; soaked in the hot springs of Hanamaki; and cooked the regional speciality of Akita, kiritanpo.

Kiritanpo

Kiritanpo

But most poignant of all was seeing the areas near Sendai where the 2011 tsunami swept away almost everything in its path. Our local guide was a man who had, in the days and weeks after the tsunami, secured food and other supplies for the people who had taken shelter at his community center. We met a woman who tried to flee with her family—including her month-old grandson—and had her car taken up and deposited on another house; they had to scramble through an upstairs window to safety. But the landscape was the hardest to bear. In most cases, nothing remained of a building but the foundation, or those that had been built solidly like schools—but the two that we saw are understandably slated for demolition later this year. After all, who would want to return to the site of so much grief, terror, and despair?

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And yet some do. Before we headed to the hotel, our guide pointed out a pole with strings of yellow flags fastened to the ground, one of several around us but something of an afterthought amid the barrenness. Then he told us that they were put up by residents who vowed to return even though the government has forbidden rebuilding until further notice. Much has been said about the resilience and fortitude of the Japanese after the triple disaster of 2011, but nothing has convinced me of their strength so much as what those yellow flags represent: a yearning for home, no matter the danger, and the hope that one day, life will be normal again.

However, life in Tohoku, away from the tsunami affected coast is normal. This region is still the most beautiful in Japan as far as I’m concerned. Although we shouldn’t forget those people that are still affected by an ongoing struggle, I urge people to visit this beautiful part of Japan- the hot springs, the countryside and the rich rural culture of “the Deep North”.

The beauty of Tohoku

The beauty of Tohoku

Perhaps one of the most atractive aspects of Tohoku is the strength of its culture and traditions and the all round warmth of the people but as this footage from the ‘A Northern Soul tour from 2012 shows, Tohoku is beautiful. I’m sure that if Bassho were alive today, he would have a few more words to say about the place….well…about 17 syllables worth actually…

Tourism to Japan is virtually back up to pre-tsunami levels, the exchange rate against the yen means that you will get great value for money at the moment and there are a million reasons as to why you should discover Japan for yourself. If you want more reasons as to why you should travel beyond the likes of Tokyo and Kyoto, have a read of a previous post with five excellent reasons as to why you should try a bit of the north.

If you would like to donate to our chosen charity, Its Not Just Mud who are still working hard in Ishinomaki, please follow this link – http://itsnotjustmud.com/donate/

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