Travelling Japan

We have a lot of people travel with us each year,  and a LOT of them travel during the peak cherry blossom period from the end of March to Mid-April. Many people get a taste for the main sights such as Tokyo and Kyoto. However, the Rowes decided to do a BIG Japan trip.

A Ryokan Stay

The trip involved the Rowes diving in the subtropics of the Okinawa islands, travelling up through volcanoc Kyushu, hiking along the mountainous pilgrimage trails of the Kumano Kodo and into the Japanese Alps. They have provided us with a couple of pics as they go, which demonstrate the variety of landscapes they encountered across Japan. Here are those pictures. Thanks for sharing and enjoy!

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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.

 

 

2013 to 2014: Three Things that have changed since I was last in Japan

Amy, from Inside Japan’s US office has been travelling back in Japan, visiting colleagues and seeing new places. Japan is one of those countries where traditions are strong and don’t change at all for years and years, but at the same time, things change so quickly. Amy reflects upon just three changes in Japan since her last trip in 2013. 

Smartphones

I have to admit that I called this one wrong when I told people that smartphones hadn’t quite caught on yet in Japan. They are EVERYWHERE, or at least everywhere I happen to look. There are still a few holdouts, of course, or people who prefer the flip-style cell phones (older folks, elementary school children, etc.), but it seems that if you want to be cool and hip now, you’ve got to have a smartphone. And it certainly is more entertaining when riding the train to watch your neighbor play the Japanese version of Candy Crush than it is to wonder if you were supposed to get off at the last station.

Softbank iPhone on Display by Women in Traditional Japanese Clothing

IC Card Credit Meters

Granted, I’ve only seen this device once at a “konbini” near JR Kamakura Station, but what a GREAT idea, as in why hasn’t someone thought of this sooner! Most of our customers are given IC cards as part of their package as they are convenient when travelling on local train in Tokyo for example. You can also use the cards to buy food and drinks at some vending machines.  However!!! Don’t have any cash on hand but also can’t remember if you have enough credit on your IC card to pay for your onigiri? Just hold your IC card to the back of the meter, push the black pad, and bam! Instant credit check. If this doesn’t become standard in every konbini in a few years, I’ll be shocked, simply shocked.

Technology in Japan

On-Call JR Operators

I went to JR Kyoto Station to reserve a seat on the Shinkansen using my JR Passand was resigned to waiting in the long, long line when a station attendant asked me why don’t I use the automated ticket machines instead. I explained that I had a JR Pass and had to use the ticket office only to be told that that wouldn’t be an issue since they had an on-call operator. “An operator?” I thought. “What could that possibly mean?” So I followed the attendant and was surprised to see that several ticket machines did indeed have an intercom/phone system where you could place your JR Pass under the camera, request a train reservation, and the operator would take care of it for you. This service is very new—from February, actually—and currently only in Japanese, but according to the station attendant they may offer it in English if there is enough demand. So everyone with a JR Pass, use this machine!

Japan Technology

5 Reasons to Visit Kamakura

Amy, from Inside Japan’s US office is traveling around Japan! She’s currently in Kamakura, and should you need a reason to visit, she has plenty!

Kamakura

The small seaside town, temple town of Kamakura is just a one hour trip from the Tokyo Metropolis and an excellent day trip or place to stay, brimming with history and culture. Here are 5 good reasons to visit Kamakura.

Kamakura, Japan

1) Temples and Shrines
To see one of the best examples Shinto shrines in Japan at Tsurugaoka Hachiman-jingu, which is also a birder’s destination with all the hawks, herons, and possibly “sacred” white pigeons purifying themselves.

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2) Big Buddha
To see the bronze “Daibutsu” at Kotokuin Temple—anything that has survived earthquakes and tsunami and is still standing watch serenely unlike the temple house that once housed it is worth seeing in my book!

Kamakura, Japan

3) Cool cafes
There are some nice cafes in Kamakura and you can even get your coffee from the back of a van in a driveway! Because you can’t do that just anywhere and actually get good coffee.

Kamakura, Japan

4) Cats
To see many cat-themed products, art pieces, and actual cats sleeping on the merchandise who could care less if you wanted to buy it or not.

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5) The beach
Kamakura has some very nice beaches and some of the best surf in Japan. If you visit the town, you can say that you went and stood in the Pacific Ocean…and didn’t get hypothermia even though the water was as cold as glacier run-off! It is March.

Hiking the Japanese Alps

IJT tour leader, Steve Parker, loves a walk. He also loves Japan. No wonder that he decided to walk the Japanese Alps and create an amazing and adventurous tour for 2014.

Kamikochi  by day

I spent a considerable amount of time during July and August hiking some of Japan’s stunning 3000m peaks with InsideJapantours’ clients looking for adventure and achievement to add to their cultural fascination of this great country.

KamikochiThe Chubu Sangaku National Park offers something for all levels of hiker – the lower area is a pristine river valley experience – the Asuza River winding its way through forests of larch, cedar and giant ferns. Its so-called Kappabashi Bridge is the photographic hotspot of the area – scores of daytrippers line the bridge to get that great alpine shot up the Dakesawa valley to Hotaka Dake Peak – Japan’s 3rd highest.This summer’s work was largely in the high Northern Alps, so-called after the publication of hiking tales by a British/Sudanese missionary, Walter Weston, in the late 1800s. My first challenge in July was to check the trail and snow levels for an upcoming trip through the Karasawa Valley to Hotaka Peak (3190m).KappabashiThis area, a particular favourite for hikers in autumn, owing to the painted citrus and cherry red colours of the autumn foliage, is a different world in the late spring/ early summer months. Japan’s Alps receive some of the highest levels of snowfall on the planet and it doesn’t disappear quickly – even when temperatures in the valley below are touching the mid-30s! (Celsius). With this in mind – the steep nature of the terrain and the extensive snowfields to encounter, I realised that crampons and an ice axe were essential. After 2 hours on the steepening trail up from the Karasawa stream, where the heat was intense and the greenery abundant, it was time to get the “extra” kit out. The adventure was unfolding.National park

Early July is not a busy time to summit via this valley. After trudging in bite-sized steps over the snow for 3 hours, I saw but one sole hiker in the daunting mists and winds that buffeted me as I hit the upper slopes of the Karasawa Valley, at around 2700m.  We stopped to chat on a precarious area of loose scree, both genuinely enjoying a stranger’s company for the 5 minutes that we had taken to refuel on chocolate and water, yet not wanting our body temperatures to cool too much. My crampons were coming off after 3 hours of workout, as I had finally reached the spine of tricky rock known as “zaitengrad”, extending down from the Hotaka ridgeline above. My fleeting friend, a mountain guide from the southern island of Yakushima, was descending, so strapping on the spikes. We advised each other on the trail ahead, said farewell as I set off once more, clambering and scrambling for a further hour, grateful for the strenuous nature of the trail that pushed my body and kept it warm in the deteriorating conditions.Kamikochi

I have led mountain tours in various countries, but I was now alone, getting cold and tiring in the fading light and gloomy cloud cap that shrouded views of the hut above and the summit. The staff at the friendly Hotaka Sansou Hut seemed almost as pleased to see me as I was them. This was a mere hot coffee stop, however, and as I stepped out of the hut to continue, I felt a pang of dismay and regret, as if I were leaving close friends. On top of JapanAlong the lower right side of the ridge towards Mae Hotaka Peak brought respite from the elements and even afforded me the occasional views down the slopes and into the valleys beneath me – it is quite amazing how a single momentary view can lift the spirits. This was somewhat short lived, however, as I met my first stretch of snowfield for 3 hours. Although just 20metres wide, at a 35-degree gradient stretching down hill, this was, the toughest 15 minutes of the entire hike. Crampons on and the trusted ice axe out, I realised that one slip here and it was an unwanted 300m toboggan run down the gully to exposed rocks below. No help, no escape. Adrenaline leaked out of my pores as I dug footings meticulously across the gully and hammered my axe deep into the snow above for grip. As frantically as I dug footholds, my crampons slid off my pedal ledges on occasion, exerting a lot of pressure and responsibility on that axe. It held fast for me though, and after an exhausting traverse, I calmed the nerves and treated myself to an energy bar and peanuts.

Historic Moutain TrailsFinally, after reaching the lower section of Mae Hotaka peak it was time for the long-awaited yet gruelingly steep descent over wet rock and down challenging loose scree. The knees were creaking and cracking under the strain, even with my hiking poles to relieve some of the burden. By now, the views of the glorious, verdant-carpeted Asuza River valley and my ultimate objective painted a heartwarming canvass in front of my eyes.  That said, I realised that too much wonderment at the clearing vistas could be a lethal distraction as I gingerly clambered down to the Dakesawa valley for the final 1 hour “stroll” back down to the river side.

Time seemingly trudges more slowly than a weary hiker, so the last trail-marking sign indicating 45 minutes to go seemed like an gross underestimate. Of course, the sign told no lie but also told of my impatient desire to reach the flat riverside, find a hot spring bath and reward myself with a beer. Finally, after what seemed like 3 hours in my desperately tired mind and hungry core, I found myself back among the day trippers, snap happy on the Kappabashi, unaware of what really lurks in the peaks above. I felt smug and quite the great adventurer, as if the secret was all mine. However, luxury temptations brought me back to a state of humility as I soaked my limbs and then sat and contemplated the whole adventure over a cold riverside beer. A job well done!Summer in the mountainsTwo weeks later, I returned to the same Hotaka Range in the Northern Alps with an Insidejapantours’ hiking group. The summer had pushed on somewhat by then, melting considerable swathes of the snow I had encountered and easing our trail considerably. We laughed, puffed, grimaced and bonded in an unforgiving, but stunning environment. This tour is breathtaking – literally.

Historic Mountain Trails hikes across the Alps this July 2014 along with walking sections of the old Nakasendo Way and climbing the new UNESCO World Heritage listed Mt Fuji.

Horsing around in the Year of the Horse – Japan

Year of the Horse

Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu!!!…or Ake Ome if you are a bit cooler. Another year has been and gone and the 12 year cycle of the Chinese Zodiac makes this year, the Year of the Horse. The horse is a symbol of power in Japan, but is also believed to be defined by hard work and self reliance – very apt for Japan and the intentions of the Abe government. Those who were born in the Year of the Horse will be in their element this year. Anything with any connection to the horse is considered lucky. Here are my suggestions for potential horse related  highlights in 2014.

Hakuba

Hakuba ‘White Horse’
Hakuba is one of Japan’s most famous ski resorts in Japan. The Kanji characters literally mean ‘White Horse’. This Nagano ski resort is already reporting perfect ski conditions in the Alps  - could this be the best ever year?…maybe.

Oze, Gunma

Gunma ‘Herd of Horses’
Rural Gunma sits in the middle of the mountains a couple of hours north of Tokyo. In fact it was my home. It isn’t known for much apart from its hot spring baths and Konyaku root vegetable. It actually has some stunning destinations and allows foreigners to discover a chunk of rural, real Japan. They also have a cute little mascot called Gunma Chan. This could be Gunma’s year.

Kumamoto ‘Origin of the Bear’
OK, so Kumamoto (lit. Origin of the Bear) relates to bears and the Kumamon city mascot is testament to that having generated an estimated 12 billion yen for the city over the last couple of years. Bears have got nothing to do with horses. However, one of Kumamoto’s Meibutsu (specialities) is ‘Basashi’ or raw horse. Horse meat is very healthy and tender and I am sure there is some school of thought suggesting that eating horse in the Year of the Horse is an extra good thing.

Yabusame

Yabusame ‘Horse back archery’
Yabusame archery dates back to the 12th century and was a form of training samurai for battles. Today, Yabusame is practised at some Shinto shrines across thee country and involves a man dressed in traditional costume racing full pelt on horseback down a few hundred metres of track and firing arrows at three targets. One of the big festivals takes place at Tsurugaoka Hachmangu shrine in Kamakura on September 16th. Very impressive.

Fujisaki Hachimangu Matsuri AKA “The drunken horse festival”
This shrine in Kumamoto (of horse eating fame) is also famous for getting the horses drunk. The festival was known as the ‘Boshita Festival’ and dates back to a samurai parade returning from wars with Korea during in the 16th century. The September festival is one of the regions biggest and consists of decorated horses who are also given a drop of sake.

Yonaguni horse

Yonaguni horses
Yonaguni is a remote subtropical island with the dive world’s best kept secret and its very ‘lost city of Atlantis’. If you are into your diving, this is a must and a unique dive site. If you are on the island and above the water, you could ride one of the native Yonaguni horses. The rare breed of horse is only just over a metre tall, but they can be seen roaming the island and is quite an unusual sight compared to mainland Japan.

Happy New Year in the Year of the Horse. Yoroshiku!

Gunma Chan

Family travels in Japan

The Basford family originally from the UK and now in Australia travelled to Japan in the Summer. Mum, Dad and 13 year old Tyler dropped us a line and took off to Nippon for a big family adventure. We asked Mum, Julie and Tyler what they thought of Japan…..

Japan has been on our bucket list for a while and as our son is now 13 we felt that he was old enough to appreciate this amazing country and enjoy the travelling.

Family shot from Asakusa

As we had little intention of spending much time in hotels IJT adapted the basic ‘Price Cruncher’ to take in some extra locations that we had never even heard of before but proved to be one of our highlights. For anyone thinking of a trip to Japan with teenagers here are some of our observations about the trip:

Awesome Shinkansen
Shinkansen and transport generally
We were concerned before leaving about how we would find our way around Japan and get on the right train. It was in fact a good balance between being enough of a challenge to feel like we were on an adventure but not to the extent that it was stressful. The 7 day pass and the Info Pack were awesome and helped us plan ahead and find the right train. Transport was clean, punctual and very comfortable. We generally bought Bento boxes at the station which were cheap and delicious and there was also a trolley service on most trains. We also used buses and trams in most places and once we had figured out the ticketing systems which vary from City to City we were fine. Taxis were reasonable but nowhere near as much fun.

Hearty breakfast

Food
We are not fussy eaters but not great lovers of fish and seafood so we were a bit apprehensive about the food. To say that Japanese food is a culture shock is a complete understatement! The smells, textures and tastes were so different from how we normally eat and we tried some strange and wonderful dishes. We quickly came to enjoy our rice, miso and pickled vegetable breakfasts. For lunch we normally had noodles or bento. In two of our hotels we had the set evening meals which was a real highlight as we tried things we would never normally have ordered including eel sashimi, fish guts pickled in salt and soybean and a whole small blowfish for breakfast.

Black belt tea master!There are vending machines everywhere selling a huge range of drinks – including beer. We booked onto a private tea ceremony in Kyoto which was a magical experience.

Our bath!

Onsen
Japanese attitude to bathing is very different from what we are used to in the west so it is as well to check the customs before ending up in the hot water! These may vary from place to place but where we stayed included getting washed thoroughly on little stools before getting into the very hot baths for a soak only, not to get washed. Bathing costumes are not allowed and generally the baths are segregated male and female but are also used privately by families. We are far to Westernised to bath naked with our teenage son so he enjoyed private session to himself!

Green Tea onsen, Hakone

The Hakone Kowakien Yunessun onsen spa resort is a strange and magical place where you bathe in baths containing green tea, red wine and coffee and was a fun day out!

Tyler and Nijo

Temples, shrines and castles
There are numerous fantastic historical buildings and grounds to visit. We went to a large selection with our favourite being the Golden Pavilion, Nijo Castle, Eikan-do Temple, Fushimi Inari Shrine, Daisho-in Temple and Narita Temple.

Kyoto roads

The Philosophers path in Kyoto was a great way to see a variety of different places and a beautiful walk with plenty of refreshment stops along the way. We were also amazed at the lack of crowds but perhaps because it was mid-summer. Don’t forget to take off your shoes at the entrance.

Miyajima and deer

Hiroshima and Miyajima
These palces were not included in our original plans but suggested to us. Visiting ground zero at Hiroshima was a moving experience and the excellent museum gave us context and an appreciation of the devastation. We spent 2 nights on Miyajima which is a magical laid back little island with excellent temples, shrines and scenic views. As we visited in mid-summer it was very hot and humid but on the upside was that it was relatively quiet.

Mount Misen

The trip up Mount Missen was great fun and the climb to the top a challenge in the heat. We stayed in the lovely Benton no Yado ryokan where we had the most amazing food and a fabulous Japanese tatami room.

Other tips
Try the Japanese toilets – Quite an experience. The toilets at the Peace Museum in Hiroshima even had a little button to press to play water sounds to cover up any embarrassing noises!

The Tokyo subway surprisingly quiet except at rush hour where it was hilarious watching commuters squash into trains. The best technique was to enter a completely packed carriage backwards, lean back and push and try not to get any extremities caught in the closing door!

Luggage forwarding – we forwarded luggage from Miyajima to Tokyo taking just small day packs for our 2 nights in Hakone. This made travelling on the buses much easier and all of the bags arrived safely in Tokyo.

Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo is well worth a trip. To guarantee a place at the tuna auctions you need to arrive very early – we had a lie in and went around the wholesale market at 9:00 and were not disappointed.

We packed light and washed clothes as we went. All of our hotels had washing machines which were cheap to use. We just took comfortable shorts and t shirts and never felt under dressed.

Don’t overlook Narita. We spent our last night there to save an early trip from central Tokyo and found it to be a charming little town with a great park and temple complex. We stayed in the very traditional and quirky Kirinoya Ryokan which we loved but may not be to everyone’s taste. Very friendly owner and superb Japanese meals.

Most people spoke reasonable English. We did learn a few basic phrases but didn’t find the language barrier much of a problem.

Samurai Tyler

Luckily we had a few days to rest before going back to work and school as it was not a relaxing holiday. We didn’t do much in the way of shopping, arcades or theme parks but our 13 year old was never bored and had a fantastic experience of a very different culture.

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Exploring Japan’s Inland Sea: The Setouchi Art Triennale

During my trip in August, I took a few days out to visit the beautiful Island of Naoshima in the Seto Inland Sea. The island has become renowed in recent years for its art exhibitions – particularly the Art House Projects and Benesse House.

This year, Naoshima, along with a dozen islands in the Inland Sea area, has played host to the Setouchi Art Triennale where some 150 artworks have been on display over the three sessions in addition to the permanent exhibitions. I was lucky enough to visiting during the Summer session when the weather was wonderful. Aside from the art, I was charmed by the island’s laid back atmosphere and stunning scenery.

 

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Exploring the island is best done by bike – although the hills around Benesse House are a little tough (the views were well worth it!). With some lovely little cafes to lunch in, the island makes a fantastic day trip or a couple of nights stay.

One of the most famous (and well photographed) art works is the Yellow Pumpkin by the brilliant Yayoi Kasuma. Aside from this, Chichu Museum and Benesse House are home to works by some other huge names including Andy Warhol, Takao Ando and Claude Monet to name a few.

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The islands are worth a visit any season at any time of year, but the festival this year continues until November 4th. Of course, you will only have another 3 years to wait until the next festival.

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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.

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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