Our top 10 tips for travel in Japan

Between them, our staff have well over a century’s experience living and working in Japan, and have travelled every inch of this wonderful country – from the snowswept plains of northern Hokkaido to remote Yonaguni Island in the far southwest.

As you might expect, our band of intrepid explorers have picked up all kinds of invaluable hints, tips and advice along the way. From getting hopelessly lost in the backstreets of Tokyo to making all kinds of cultural faux pas – we’ve made all the mistakes there are to make in Japan and lived to tell the tale. It’d be a shame not to pass on our insider knowledge so that you don’t have to do the same!

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After surveying all 64 current members of the InsideJapan staff and plumbing the depths of their Japan knowledge, I came up with this list of top tips and recommendations to help you get the most out of your Japan holiday:

  1. Keep an open mind and an open schedule

When speaking to the InsideJapan team, this piece of advice came up more than any other tip.

Whilst it’s definitely useful to do your research and have an itinerary planned before you travel (see point eight), don’t get so caught up in your plans that you don’t have a chance to enjoy the unexpected things that make travelling in Japan so exciting. Japan is a country where even the most mundane tasks (going to the loo, getting a drink from a vending machine) can be exciting to the uninitiated – and everyone on our team will agree that the most fascinating and memorable moments from their time in Japan could never have been planned.

With this in mind, don’t be afraid of having ‘gaps’ or ‘empty spaces’ in your holiday plans. Take it slowly and throw yourself into every new situation and you’ll find that this is when you have the chance encounters and experiences that you’ll always remember.

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  1. Forget about the ‘language barrier’ 

Learn a few words in Japanese. Now, we’re not suggesting that you become an expert in the language – in fact, you don’t even need to learn a complete sentence. Simply learning the words for ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank you’ will really go a long way. The Japanese are generally so impressed and pleased that you have made any effort at all to master their language that you don’t need any more!

On a similar note, don’t be put off travelling to Japan because of the perceived ‘language barrier’. Though you may well find that not that many Japanese people can speak English – that doesn’t mean that people won’t go a thousand miles out of their way to help you, even if it is through gestures and pointing.

Good advice when trying to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak much English is to speak in short sentences (or even one-word sentences). “Ginza”, for example, is much more likely to get you to where you want to be than “excuse me kind sir, but could I trouble you to direct me to Ginza subway station, if you’d be so very kind?” – not that you’d say that, but you know what I mean.

Oh – and talk to people, even if they don’t speak good English. Don’t be shy. Anyone on the InsideJapan team will tell you that you don’t need a common language to make a friend!

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  1. Don’t worry about ‘doing the wrong thing’

Japan has become famous as a place of obscure cultural rules and impenetrable social codes – so much so that some travellers are put off visiting for fear that they will accidentally make a boob of themselves by trampling insensitively over the cherished customs of their hosts.

It’s true that Japan’s etiquette can be somewhat confusing – and you are almost inevitably going to ‘do the wrong thing’ at some point – but the key thing to remember is this: no-one cares. Nobody is going to be offended if you forget to take off your shoes in the right place, or if you’re not aware of the intricacies of chopstick etiquette. As a foreigner, you’re not expected to know everything (and actually, some Japanese people will be surprised that you know anything). As long as you’re not being deliberately culturally insensitive, you’ll be fine.

As a rule, the Japanese take great pleasure in teaching others about their culture, so in making a faux pas you could even be making a new friend.

 

  1. Have an onsen experience 

We asked all our staff what they loved most about living in Japan, and we got some interesting answers. Possibly the most popular response (after the delicious cuisine, which took the top spot without a fight) was onsen culture.

Onsen are Japanese hot spring baths, and thanks to the high level of volcanic activity in Japan they can be found up and down the country. From steamy baths in the snow in Hokkaido and the Japanese Alps to rustic onsen villages deep in the forest; from onsen on the beach to time-honoured bathhouses like Matsuyama’s Dogo Onsen – hot spring bathing is an integral (and extremely enjoyable) aspect of Japanese culture that should not be missed.

What’s not to love about a hot bath? Well, there is one catch: you have to do it in your birthday suit. In front of complete strangers. This is the part that puts most people off – and quite understandably. But if there’s anything InsideJapan staff could say to prospective onsen-goers it’s this: just do it! It’s only strange to start with – before long you’ll have forgotten your reservations and will wonder why you ever hesitated.

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  1. Stay at a ryokan inn

Like bathing in an onsen, staying at a traditional ryokan inn is one of those intrinsically Japanese experiences that no visitor to the country should miss out on. Japan is famous for its hospitality, and at a ryokan you really experience this at its best.

Sleep on comfortable futon laid out by a kimono-wearing attendant on a tatami mat floor, look out over exquisite Japanese gardens, tiptoe through shoji sliding paper doors on geta sandals, wrap yourself in a traditional yukata bathrobe to visit the in-house onsen baths, and sample delicious regional food at breakfast and dinner.

You simply haven’t been to Japan until you’ve stayed at a ryokan – trust us. You won’t regret it.

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  1. Get off the beaten track

It’s one of those hackneyed travel phrases that you’ll find lurking in every Lonely Planet guide and travel blog, used to describe every broken-down shack and one-horse town across the globe. And yet – loath as we are to peddle clichés – it is only by ‘getting off the beaten track’ that you can really get a rounded impression of Japan.

The big cities and famous sights are ‘on the beaten track’ for a reason. They’re the iconic views, the celebrated historical monuments and the locations that you’ve always dreamed of visiting. But it is by heading away from these destinations – into the countryside, the mountains, and the remote islands – that you’ll discover a side of Japan you never expected.

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Here’s a nice little video from one of our customers who spent a couple of weeks in Japan seeing some incredible places and meeting wonderful people in some of the more famous places and the lesser known places….a good taste of Japan.

  1. Visit an izakaya

One of the pieces of advice that cropped up time and time again in conversation with the InsideJapan team was to visit an izakaya. It’s hard to explain just what an izakaya is if you’ve never been to one, but they are most often described as the Japanese version of a British pub – a description that doesn’t quite do them justice.

Izakaya are where the Japanese go to eat, drink and be merry. They range from the cheap and cheerful (every dish 240 yen/£1.30) to the super-duper top-end cuisine, but what they all have in common is that they serve a wide range of small, tapas-style dishes to be shared amongst your group, and plenty of beer and sake.

It can be daunting to walk into an izakaya straight off the street – especially if it’s a tiny local establishment with no English menu or English-speaking staff – but if you’re brave enough, this is the best way to get chatting to the locals and try some delicious regional foods.

But don’t worry – if you’re too chicken to go it alone, InsideJapan can arrange an izakaya experience where one of our tour leaders can show you the ropes.

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  1. Do your research 

In our experience, the more you know about Japan the more it will intrigue you. Before you travel, have a look into the history of the areas you’re planning to visit and find out a bit about the culture – both contemporary and traditional. Doing things like watching a sumo match, meeting a geisha, visiting a Zen temple or exploring a shogun’s mausoleum will be that much more fascinating if you know a little about the background.

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  1. Hire a bike. Or a car. Or a motorbike.

We have nothing but excellent things to say about the clean, efficient, convenient and downright wonderful public transport system in Japan. There’s nothing quite like taking a ride on the bullet train, or navigating by the Tokyo subway.

But if you want to see a bit more and really get out of the main tourist traps, sometimes it’s best to go under your own steam. Hiring a bicycle will really allow you to explore bits of Japanese cities and countryside that you’d never have discovered otherwise, whilst renting a car or a motorbike will allow you to be even more adventurous and really get out into the unknown.

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10.  Bring plenty of cash (but not because Japan is expensive!)

Surprising as it may seem for a country that is world-famous for being technologically advanced, Japan is still very much a cash-based society and many places will still not accept plastic. It can even be difficult to withdraw cash from an ATM at the weekend or after 5pm – so instead of wasting time exchanging travellers’ cheques or hunting for a cash machine that accepts foreign cards, be sure to bring plenty of yen! Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, so there’s no need to fret about having pockets bulging with cash either.

And while we’re on the subject of money, don’t be put off visiting Japan because of its reputation for being expensive. It’s not the cheapest country in the world, but Japan is certainly not as a dear as most people think. Food, for example, is very cheap and extremely good quality – you can easily have an excellent meal for no more than 1,000 yen (about £5.50). Subway travel is also reasonable (the most you’ll pay for any journey on the Tokyo underground is a couple of quid), and capsule hotels offer a night’s sleep for less than 4,000 yen (about £20). Whatever anyone else tells you, it is possible to do Japan on a shoestring.

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These are only our top ten tips – between them the InsideJapan staff came up with many more – enough to flesh out a follow-up post, in fact! Watch this space…

Inside a traditional Japanese house

Tour leader Richard, has recently moved house in Japan. He is not in a city apartment, but he is way out in rural Japan and in a huge traditional house. Want to know what a traditional country house looks like?…read on…

When I am asked by Japanese people where I reside in Japan, my response is usually met with a combination of disbelief and amazement. You see, I live in a beautiful little village in a beautiful prefecture called Tottori. With the smallest population for a prefecture in Japan, Tottori is considered the most rural of them all. However, that’s why I love it and that’s why I choose to stay. Tokyo and Osaka are great places to visit, I often do, but they are not for me. Countryside all way, please.

Tottori, like many rural areas in Japan, is facing the double challenge of urban migration and an ageing population. Evidence is never far from sight. Most of my neighbours are in their 60’s and a few are in their 90’s. Younger Japanese are at a premium in these parts, with the lure of better jobs and wages nearer the major cities proving too irresistible for many. And empty buildings. Lots of them. However, if you ask around and the right people (i.e. NOT the government officials at city hall who are supposed to be in charge of such matters) its possible to find some really beautiful and huge places for the price it costs to rent a cupboard in Tokyo. And that’s what happened to me recently. I would like to share with you some photos and a brief description about some of the special points of a traditional, countryside Japanese house.

1) Large, attractive entrance area with wooden screen. The inside of a Japanese house is strictly a no shoes zone. The screen is useful as it’s normal for guests (expected and unexpected) to open the door and walk into the entrance area and announce their presence! Have never quite gotten used to that custom.

Japanese House Entrance Area

2) Speaker/tannoy system. One of the stranger features. Basically a public announcement system for the pocket of houses located together. Each announcement starts with the speaker (usually an older gentlemen) playing a few notes on a xylophone next to the microphone. Old skool.

Japanese Tannoy

3) Large Tatami room with low table. Tatami is type of straw matting, originally associated with the nobility and aristocrats. To be used when formally entertaining guests and having a party with friends and family. No red wine allowed on my tatami! My house also has two other tatami rooms for sleeping on.

Japanese Tatami Room

4) Shrine! Used to pray to your ancestors. The finer detail really is quite special.

Japanese Shrine

5) Last, but not least, Japanese homes are a toilet heaven! The main toilet comes with lots of bells and whistles including a washlet, bidet and a drying function. There is also a separate urinal and even a traditional squat style toilet in an outside room!

Japanese Toilet

 

 

Blogging about Japan blogs

It’s always nice to hear about other people and their experiences in Japan. Everyone’s Japan experience is different. So, heres a few examples of our customers trips from over the last year, expressed using various forms of social media, sharing some great travel tales, tips and pictures. 

 

Emma Prew

One of my favourites was from Emma Prew. Emma put together this great blog which details her whole trip from place-to-place adding some great photos….at 4000 plus photos, she has more to show. Loads of great detail.

Emma Prew

Emma Prew

Emma Prew

 

 

Jose and Linaka

Jose Guerra and his partner, Linaka, travelled back in March. They spent 3 weeks in Japan ticking some of the ‘must-see’ sights across the country. Unusually, this couple both kept great blogs as they travelled, using some great pictures of food, culture, art and architecture and giving some interesting opinion on their experiences. Great pictures from Linaka’s Geisha makeover too.

 

 

Ema Harris

If its pictures you want for an idea of what goes on, on an InsideJapan Tours tailored trip, Ema Harris posted several sets of pictures back in November on Facebook and kept some fun pictures on Instagram recording their experiences. Taking in places such as Kamakura, Osaka, Miyajima and Tokyo, and it looks like they had lots of fun with plenty of neon, food and drink.

Ema Harris

Ema Harris

Ema Harris

 

Kerry Wohlstein

One of our US customers, Kerry Wohlstein travelled with Karen back in the spring. Looks like they got the cherry blossom at its peak and perfect views of Mt Fuji from their hotel in Kawaguchi-ko.

 

Nigel Hooper

Nigel Hooper has travelled with us several times and has just spent some time travelling in Kyushu. Take a look at his Flickr page here.

There are some great photos on here including images from the mysterious Gunkanjima, Dazaifu and the Shinkansen depot near Fukuoka.

 

 

Darren Cummings

Darren Cummings recorded his time on the ‘Japan Unmasked’ tour last year with lots of great photos, including lots of pictures of monkey in Yudanaka.

 

 

Think Global School

And for something a bit different, an alternative school called, Think Global School have been spending a chunk of time seeing some fantastic places and doing some amazing experiences and logging them on the Think Global website. Loved reading about their experiences in the Kumano Kodo.

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Always nice to read about our clients and their time in Japan. I highly recommend taking a look at the blogs.

Thanks for sharing you lot!

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.

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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.

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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

Exploring Okayama

About two weeks ago I had the privilege to be able to travel to Okayama on a research trip for IJT. Okayama Prefecture is in the south-western part of Honshu, sandwiched between Hiroshima and Hyogo Prefectures and with a coastline facing toward Shikoku. I had never been there before, so was very excited to be taking on this trip!

My first task was visiting Kifu no Sato, a lovely ryokan in Yunogo Onsen – right in the heart of the countryside of Okayama. This ryokan has a fabulous onsen with several different types of baths and is justly famous for its wonderful ikebana flower arrangements, of which there are no less than sixty-five adorning the hotel at any one time. These are arranged using only wild plants and flowers from the surrounding mountains and are changed up to twice a week – which all told is a pretty mammoth undertaking!

Just one of the many Ikebana arrangements at Kifu no Sato

Just one of the many Ikebana arrangements at Kifu no Sato

A commitment to local crafts and produce is central to the philosophy at Kifu no Sato. They are proud to serve food made with local ingredients in their restaurant (incidentally some of the best food I’ve eaten in Japan), and to furnish their rooms with pieces made by local craftsmen.

Breakfast at Kifu no Sato

Breakfast at Kifu no Sato

 

With this philosophy in mind, Kifu no Sato also offer a wide range of amazing cultural experiences, through which guests can meet and converse with local artists and craftsmen who are real experts in their fields. Guided by the wonderful Hiromi-san, I was lucky enough to meet some of the people who would be offering these experiences. Guests can have a sushi-making lesson with the chef at the ryokan; an Iaido martial arts lesson with Trevor, a British expat who has studied the art for 30 years; a pottery experience with a Living National Treasure in the historical town of Bizen; pick tea leaves and package their own tea with Mr. Shimoyama at his tea plantation; try out natural dyeing with Takami-san in Ohara town… and the list goes on.

A kimono lesson at the ryokan

A kimono lesson at the ryokan

Having tea with Mr Shimoyama and his daughter

Having tea with Mr Shimoyama and his daughter

Enchanting Mitaki-en, restaurant by the river

Enchanting Mitaki-en, restaurant by the river

After leaving Kifu no Sato, I made my way to the town of Kurashiki in the south of the Prefecture. The train ride from Okayama station to Kurashiki takes you through some really wonderful countryside and is to be highly recommended, chugging at a lazy pace through hills and mountains, over rivers and past plenty of little towns and villages. Kurashiki itself is a beautiful town with a historical town centre that feels in some places like a little piece of Europe in Japan. Through the centre runs a tree-lined canal, and the surrounding streets are filled with Western-style buildings rubbing shoulders with white-walled, black-roofed Japanese storehouses that used to be used for the storage of rice during the Edo period.

Kurashiki Bikan historical area

Kurashiki Bikan historical area

The Ohara Museum, the first museum of Western art in Japan, is the centrepiece of Kurashiki – and deservedly so. Any visitor to the town must visit this wonderful gallery, where world-famous names in Western art mingle with modern and contemporary Japanese works, along with traditional crafts and antiques from ancient Egypt and China. Even without considering the museum’s artistic offerings – it is worth a visit for the buildings alone, which are wonderful and full of character.

Inside one of the galleries at the Ohara Museum

Inside one of the galleries at the Ohara Museum

Besides the Ohara Museum Kurashiki is a veritable goldmine of museums – from the Archaeological museum and the Museum of Folkcraft to the Toy Museum, the Kurabo Memorial Museum, the Kurashiki Local History Museum, the City Art Museum, the Insect Museum, the Senichi Hoshino Museum, the Yumiko Igarashi manga art museum (where you can even rent costumes and dress up as your favourite over-the-top Igarashi manga character)… there really is something for everyone.

I highly recommend the Toy Museum, packed full of old-fashioned Japanese toys, and the Piggy-bank Museum – which is located at the top of an antiques shop and stuffed to the gills with eccentric and interesting stuff.

Daruma dolls in the Rural Toy Museum

Daruma dolls in the Rural Toy Museum

Outside the Piggy-bank museum, with its hundreds of HMV dogs keeping watch

Outside the Piggy-bank museum, with its hundreds of HMV dogs (“wan-chan”) keeping watch

My favourite museum, however, was the Momotaro Museum. Momotaro, or “Peach Boy,” is a famous Japanese folk tale in which an old couple discover a boy inside a peach, floating down a river. They adopt the child, named Momotaro, and he grows up to vanquish a host of marauding demons. Several places in Japan claim ownership of the story – one of which being Okayama. At this museum you can find a whole range of optical illusions and visual tricks; some Momotaro comics, artwork, toys and memorabilia; a room showing old-fashioned Japanese cartoons on a projector; and – the piece de resistance – a demon grotto (in the style of the “haunted house” you find at fairgrounds). I won’t describe it in too much detail in case I ruin the surprise, but suffice to say that the group of young schoolchildren who were visiting the museum at the same time as me were quite literally terrified out of their wits. Watching children scream in terror is, of course, all part of the enjoyment.

The real Momotaro?

The real Momotaro?

The chap who works in the museum (pictured above) is also rather a character, and has the amazing ability to make flutes out of chikuwa (a type of fish-paste tube you usually find in Japanese “oden” hotpots). He has been on Japanese TV a few times exhibiting this extraordinary talent, and will be happy to give you a demonstration. Aptly, he also looks kind of like a real-life Momotaro.

Here in Kurashiki I was lucky enough to stay at the Ryokan Kurashiki, which was truly the jewel in the crown of my time in Okayama. Right on the canal in the centre of the old town, this ryokan takes some beating. It is housed in a wonderful old building with amazing character, the rooms are beautifully decorated with antiques, the restaurant and terrace look out over a picturesque Japanese garden, the food is a work of art – and I hardly need mention that Nakamura-san, the proprietress, is a paragon of Japanese warmth and hospitality – or “omotenashi.”

At the Ryokan Kurashiki

At the Ryokan Kurashiki

 

The ryokan garden from our dinner table. Beautiful!

The ryokan garden as seen from our dinner table. Beautiful!

Just one of the amazing dishes served at dinner - sashimi with a sakura garnish

Just one of the amazing dishes served at dinner – sashimi with a sakura garnish

Nakamura-san grates some fresh wasabi

Nakamura-san grates some fresh wasabi

Yum

Yum.

Really, I lack the adjectives to adequately describe my stay at this ryokan (and the pictures don’t do it justice), so you will just have to go and see it for yourself. I’m pretty sure that you’ll agree with me when I say that this is a little piece of paradise.

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