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.

 

 

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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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 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!

Favourite place in Japan – Richard Pearce

Coming from the beautiful English Cotswolds, tour leader Richard Pearce has made his home in rural Tottori prefecture on the Japan Sea Coast since 2006. Like many of the InsideJapan Tours team he ended up in Japan on the JET programme teaching English in schools. Richard was shipped out to a little place called Sakaiminato in Tottori which you have probably never heard of….well that’s just how he likes it. Here is what he has to say about Tottori and his favourite place in Japan…..

Tottori-Ken is considered to be the most rural of prefectures in Japan, with the smallest population. Set along the Sea of Japan coast, Tottori-Ken is one of my favourite places in the world -  A beautiful coastline, breathtaking mountain views, delicious seafood, friendly people and brimming with wildlife. Tottori has it all.

However, if I have to narrow it down further, I would have to say that my favourite place in Japan is the Mihonoseki Peninsula, just across the border into Shimane-Ken (sorry, Tottori!).

Stunning Daisen park

Stunning Daisen Oki national park

The whole area is part of the Daisen-Oki National Park, and is considered to be a “power spot” in Japan, spiritually and historically speaking. The Miho-jinja Shrine is particularly special and dates back to the 8th century. It is said to have been a favourite spot of legendary writer  Lafcadio Hearn, who resided in nearby Matsue (his book Kwaidan; Stories and Studies of Strange Things is a fascinating read). I used to visit on a near weekly basis for a spot of spiritual cleansing and found it particularly good at clearing a fuzzy head on a Sunday morning.

Miho Jinja

Miho Jinja

Atop a nearby 150 metre hill is the Gohon-matsu park, which offers spectacular views of Mount Daisen,  rising majestically from the ocean across the bay.  According to literature dating back to the year  733, this mountain was formally called  Ōkami – take , literally meaning ‘ Mountain of the Great God’, as it was  regarded as one of the most important mountains for the Japanese Shugendo. The Gohon-matsu park is definitely my favourite “unofficial” camping spot in Japan.

Miho Coast

Miho Coast

At the end of the peninsula is the Mihonoseki Lighthouse, built from stone in the late 19th Century. Here you can experience stunning panoramic views of the ocean and watch the numberous hawks circling overhead. However, be warned! It is said in local tradition that if you take your girlfriend here, you then have to marry her! I tend to go alone.

Sasago beach

Sasago beach

On the northern side of the peninsula is the  Mihono-kitaura coastline. Here you can enjoy an array of natural beauty, including inlets, precipices, caves and beaches. One particularly impressive beach is Sasago. The water here is crystal clear and the beach is very clean. I honestly believe it to be one of the best in Japan, outside of Okinawa. This stretch of coastline is also a wildlife lover’s paradise. I myself have been lucky enough to dive with two metre jellyfish and observe a variety of rare birds.

I have spent many a day and night hiking, camping, barbequeing, bike riding, swimming, relaxing and generally enjoying the Mihonoseki Peninsula. I hope to spend many more in the years to come.

Looks beautiful and a top tip from Richard there. I need to discover Tottori further….into the Shimane ‘district’ of the prefecture. I am sure that all from Shimane ken will be sending a big ‘Dan dan’ your way for the suggestion.

Tohoku: Then & Now – Ester De Roij

Two years on from the great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, tourism to Japan is back to pre-tsunami levels and InsideJapan Tours are assisting more people than ever in discovering the beautiful culture, countryside and people of Japan. In this anniversary week, the InsideJapan blog will focus on the region looking at how it has recovered, the charities that have made a difference and why tourists are returning to this area of Japan and indeed other areas of the country. The blog pieces are taken from personal experiences of the InsideJapan Tours team in the UK, US and Japan.

Ester works on the admin and images here at the UK InsideJapan Tours HQ assisting with the design of our Info Packs, helping with the image library and a whole host of other tasks. In fact she is a young woman with all sorts of surprises up her sleeve. As well as being an excellent photographer and a keen filmmaker, Ester has spent a lot of time travelling the length and breadth of Japan which included some time volunteering in the tsunami affected Tohoku region. Ester shares some of her experiences and photos from tsunami affected Ishinomaki town after volunteering in 2011 not long after the disaster struck and later in 2012.

The day we arrived in Ishinomaki it was really warm. Putting up our tents on the University sports field was sweaty business and just 3 days later we had to evacuate our tents because of too much snow! These were the tough conditions in post-tsunami Tohoku. During our volunteer work, the thing I found most poignant were the stories from ordinary local people in extraordinary situations – and they were happy to share.

One lady spent two nights in a car park, wondering if her son was still alive. Others spent their days worrying if the bubbling black water was going to drown them alive as it reached the second floor of their houses. One man’s family cried out of gratitude when they saw foreigners helping them and told us that living off tight rations after the tsunami was more difficult than rations during the war.

My favourite though, was Mr. Atsushi Kondo, owner of a fugu shop, who stayed with a different friend each night, borrowing clothes as he went along. We spent two days cleaning his shop, despite his statements of: “I’m 69 already, I don’t know if I can open a new shop!” So grateful for all our help, he rushed upstairs and gave everything he had left – business cards, Chinese lanterns, the lot.

Working on Kondo san's shop

Working on Kondo san’s shop

At the end of the week, we had a belated hanami party (cherry blossom viewing) for the people in Ishinomaki, and he came and greeted us with bottles of coke and orange lemonade he had found from before the tsunami. “Why are you not drinking alcohol?”, he asked us.

Hanami drink with Kondo san

Hanami drink with Kondo san

To which we replied, “We haven’t been drinking all week, out of respect for everyone we are helping out.”
“Oh really? I’ll be back in 5 minutes.”
A little later, he returned with a bag and told us to hide it. It contained a bottle of Japanese Sake that he still had from before the tsunami, and he wanted us to have it. So kind!

Ishinomaki 2011

Ishinomaki 2011

Ishinomaki 2012

Ishinomaki 2012

Fast forward 14 months, and I had the opportunity to visit Ishinomaki again. The place looked nothing like it had looked before – clean street tiles, bustling traffic, and shops open everywhere. I asked about Mr. Kondo, or Mr. Fugu as everyone called him. Much to my surprise, the locals pointed me in the direction of a shop. A seafood shop. As it turns out, Mr. Fugu had enough motivation to open a shop again. Sadly I wasn’t able to meet him that day, but some fellow volunteers did a few months later. I couldn’t have received better news.

A tsunami wrecked house 2011

A tsunami wrecked house 2011

The house in 2012

The house in 2012

Ishinomaki streets 2011

Ishinomaki streets 2011

Ishinomaki streets 2012

Ishinomaki streets 2012

“Ishinomaki is doing well”, some locals told me. “Some people have left, and some people have come back.”

A great personal account of the region from Ester. Two years is a long time and the region has come on a long way. There is still work that needs to be done in the most devastated areas, but generally life is pretty much back to normal in the region with rebuilding programmes moving at lightening pace. The chances are that you will probably not head to Ishinomaki unless you join one of the volunteering groups such as our favourite Its Not Just Mud or Peaceboat but there is plenty to see in this beautiful rural Tohoku area. We will continue to look at the region over the week marking the landmark 2nd anniversary.

My favourite place in Japan – Jen Snow

We have some pretty good talent on the ground in Japan in our Nagoya office and leading tours around the country.One of our new tour leaders is Bostonian, Jen Snow. I would give you a little of Jen’s Japan background, but I will let her tell you herself.

Hello readers! My name is Jen, and I’m a new Tour Leader here at IJT. A little about myself – I first came to Japan during university through a study abroad program based in Kyoto, which is still my favourite city in the country, and one that I appreciate more and more each time I visit.

Not only can you appreciate the best of traditional culture in Kyoto, but as a college town, it is still a youthful and contemporary city – yet more laid back than the hustle-and-bustle atmosphere of Tokyo (although Tokyo is fun too for that very reason!).

Image

Dragon stairs at Eikan-do Temple – one of my favourite temples in Kyoto

In fact, along with discovering new aspects of temples and shrines and taking excursions to Nara to visit the adorable deer, sometimes my favourite things to do in Kyoto are searching for good deals in the shopping arcades and relaxing with friends along the riverbank that runs near the centre of town.

Image

Deer grazing in front of an art museum in Nara

I decided to continue pursuing my interest in Japanese culture in graduate school, where I received Masters degree in East Asian studies with a focus on Japanese cultural studies. As part of my degree, I participated in an intensive Japanese language and home stay program in Hakodate, Hokkaido, famous as the second city opened to the West in the 19th century and a great place to experience the fusion of Japanese and Western architecture that emerged in the late 19thcentury.

Following the disasters in Tohoku, I was eager to help my second-home in any way that I could, having volunteered in disaster areas in my own country quite a few times, and after completing my Masters , I went to the affected are to stay as a long-term volunteer at It’s Not Just Mud. I was inspired by locals who worked so diligently to rebuild their lives in the face of such devastating events and came to appreciate the natural beauty of the Northern Japanese countryside.

 

Like all our tour leaders, Jen is obviously passionate about Japan which comes across when you speak to her. Jen is keen to introduce the magic of Japan and the culture to anyone on her tour.

Tokaido Trailing Diaries – Past, Presents & Futuristic

The clement November temperatures saw Rob Harris and the other members of the Tokaido Trail with a ‘free day’ in Kyoto before travelling back to Tokyo and their final night in Japan. The ‘free day’ allows people to catch up with some of the many cultural sights in Kyoto, perhaps head to nearby Nara (just 45 minutes on the train), maybe go to Osaka for a bit of neon excitement and good food or head slightly further on the Shinkansen – The speed of the Bullet train makes even the long journeys short! Here is the final instalment of Rob’s Takaido Trailing Diaries….

Day 8, 9 & 10  Hiroshima, Tokyo and home

Day 8 – ‘Free Day’  Hiroshima

This was going to be one of those days that I both was looking forward to, and also treating with a slight sense of trepidation.

Peace Park & dome
Leaving the hotel early, we caught the Shinkansen for the two hour journey to Hiroshima. Once again, I was clocking the trains’ speed on my GPS, this time reaching a peak of 171mph. That seemed a pretty trivial piece of information however, once we alighted from the tram at the A-Bomb Dome. The enormity of what we were seeing had an immediate effect on me, and from that point onwards, I seemed to constantly have a tear at the corner of my eye.

Memorial
Modern-day Hiroshima is a very pretty, modern city with an almost European air to it, and it’s beyond comprehension to imagine the destruction which was inflicted upon it at 8.15am on August 6th, 1945. Walking around the Peace Memorial Park was a disquieting experience, taking in the many memorials erected to those affected by the bomb. Words failed me at how sobering and sombre the atmosphere at the museum was. Some of the images were very graphic and disturbing, but on a whole it has been executed in a sympathetic, non-judgemental fashion, simply stating the facts of why and how it unfolded. It holds nothing back in its portrayal of the events of that fateful day, and it largely acts as just a stark warning to learn from history and never, ever repeat it. It was far from a pleasant experience, but I felt it was a necessary one – to learn, to understand, and most importantly to pay my respects Once back in the park, I gently rang the Peace Bell as a final mark of respect, before meeting up with the others and heading off to hopefully lighten the mood a little.

Hiroshima A Bomb Dome
Catching the JR train once again, we travelled a few stops further down the coast, before boarding the ferry across to Miyajima Island. The tide was reasonably kind to us, meaning we got a good sight of the famous “floating” torii gate, which stands just offshore and leads to the islands’ Itsukushima Shrine. The island is obviously a haven for Japanese and foreign tourists alike and was heaving with people and the local semi-tame deer which are allowed to roam at will (the deer, that is – the tourists are probably a lot more restricted!). Not having long before having to head back to catch our Shinkansen back to Kyoto, we just had the time to grab a quick spot of lunch, grab a souvenir or two and some photographs at the floating torii, before re-boarding the ferry back to the train station.

Miyajima tori

Another totally efficient bullet train ride saw us back in Kyoto with just enough time for a quick wash and change of clothes, before heading in to the city for some ramen noodles, a last walk past the numerous bars, and a second session of karaoke. A very long, but very rewarding and at times, emotionally-charged day came to a close by having a final beer and a song!

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Day 9– Kyoto to Tokyo

So, our last full day in Japan was upon us. It was unbelievable to think that our tour was nearly at an end, we’d done so much, seen so much, and travelled so far, we’d become accustomed to it, it seemed inconceivable to think it was almost over.

Fuji!
Fate smiled kindly on us on the return trip to Tokyo, as the skies were blue and cloudless. About half an hour before arriving in Tokyo, we were finally blessed with stunningly clear views of the elusive lady herself, Mount Fuji in all her magnificence – yet another iconic image ticked off my list. Getting off the train at Shinjuku station, the world’s busiest train station, we were bombarded with yet another different aspect of Japan and Tokyo itself. Shinjuku has a more chaotic, slightly seedier feel to it than other districts we’d already visited in Tokyo – that’s not a criticism though, as it was still brilliantly insane and a lot of fun. Walking up to the hotel, we thankfully were able to check in slightly early. I think by this time, most people were starting to feel slightly travel-weary and glad to take the weight off our feet – and our shoulders, as it was a major relief to be able to dump my rucksack on to the floor of my room!

Shinjuku
I had intended at this point to take a trip up to Akihabara, the electronics district which I’d missed on our first visit to Tokyo, but I couldn’t bring myself to take another train journey quite so soon. Instead, a few of the group contented ourselves with grabbing a bento box (another “tick” on my list!) from a 7-11 store, scoffing that on the street, and then attempting to do some last minute gift shopping for the folks back home. Anyway, I reasoned that just like leaving the spire on top of a pagoda one ring short of the “perfect” ten, leaving myself one thing I hadn’t been able to tick off the list would give me the perfect excuse to come back to Japan just as soon as I could possibly manage.

Izakaya
Our last night’s meal was at an Izakaya restaurant just across from our hotel, and this was probably the longest time we spent in a restaurant the entire trip –  the Japanese don’t really seem to do the whole long-drawn-out dining experience like some European nations do, it’s more a case of “in, eat, out”. We all thanked Alain for his outstanding support and guidance during the trip, and passed on our gratitude to him. Having someone with his knowledge and passion for Japan really made our tour an unforgettable experience, and his enthusiasm proved infectious. Throughout, he had been nothing but attentive and efficient, giving us great confidence to get out there by ourselves and start exploring on our own. As last parting gift, Alain reckoned that we’d had a mild tremor whilst dining as he’d seen the tables shaking gently from side to side – nobody else had really noticed, but by this time, we trusted our tour guide implicitly!

Lights
There was one last thing I had to do, but was reluctant to part company with my new-found friends on the last night. I headed off on my own to take in the legendary Shibuya crossing for myself. Witnessing the neon-lit, well-mannered sheer insanity of hundreds of people crossing from all points of the compass, at the same time, was truly a sight to behold! I was amazed at how the swathes of people somehow managed to navigate their way through the oncoming crowds, all impeccably politely with no jostling, bumping, or grumbling.

Shibuya
Returning back to the hotel on the train, something else struck me – just how at ease and relaxed I felt. Despite being alone, in a foreign city, late at night, surrounded by people who probably had about as much English as I had Japanese, it felt remarkably natural and easy. There was no air of unease simmering beneath the surface that there might have been in the UK, and everyone still seemed friendly, well-mannered, and relaxed. I really did love this country and its people.

Day 10 – Back to reality

An early start, and what seemed a marathon walk through Shinjuku Station, to catch the Narita Express taking us to the airport and our flights home.

I was incredibly sad to be leaving Japan, and that our utterly brilliant time out there was at an end. The tour had been outstanding from start to finish, and had far exceeded my expectations. I’d experienced everything I’d wanted to (except Akihabara!), and the fact that I’d made some new friends along the way was an added and very welcome bonus – the people I’d met on the trip had, for me, made the tour truly special. Without a doubt, I had totally fallen for Japan, its people, and its charms, it is simply the best country I have ever visited, and it had left an indelible mark on me. I will miss it terribly until I return, but the memories I have will always be with me, and the country itself will forever be a part of me.

Thank you to InsideJapan Tours and everyone else on the Tokaido Trail. I am already planning and saving for my return in 2013!

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Thank you so much to Rob for sharing his Tokaido Trail experiences with us. It is really good to read through Rob’s Tokaido Trail diary and takes me back to my tour leading days. I often forget how much stuff actually goes into these trips. Even in a 10 day period, there is an incredible amount you can do and experience in Japan and it sounds like Rob did most of it….apart from Akihabara! Apparently, we have another Japan fan on board, which is always great to know. I sincerely hope that you get over there again soon Rob and I am sure that Japan will love to see you again soon.

Tokaido Trailing Diaries – Kyoto sights and delights

Rob Harris and the Tokaido Trail group continued their tour back in November from the hot springs of Hakone to the old capital of Kyoto where they were to stay the next 3 nights. There is so much to do in this city and so much that they did do on this tour. If you want to know a bit more about what does happen on tour, have a read of the Tokaido Trailing Diaries from Rob Harris….by the way always worth looking at the links….

Day’s 6 & 7 – Kyoto

Day 6
Feeling very much refreshed, we packed up our stuff and said a fond farewell to the ryokan staff. I was pretty sad to leave, as I’d felt very much at home in Hakone, with its laid-back atmosphere, warm welcome and stunning mountainous scenery. In this land of contrasts, Hakone had given us all yet another different aspect of this fascinating country. One thing remained constant though, as everyone we encountered on our travels appeared unfailingly polite, friendly and helpful. And if you were able to use even the most basic of Japanese phrases, and do so in a polite, respectful way, they responded with a big smile and even greater displays of gratitude. Something tells me I’ll be back there at some point in the future.

Hikari Shinkansen
Another bus took us back down the twisty mountain road to Odawara station to catch the 10.12am train – and not just any old train, this time it was going to be the long-awaited Shinkansen, the famous “Bullet Train”. Even queuing up on the platform is done in an orderly, polite, well-mannered Japanese fashion. You find the number on the floor matching the carriage your seats will be in, take your place between the painted lines, and then wait for the exact minute – and I mean, the EXACT minute!! – the train arrives, and then lo and behold, the door to your carriage comes to a halt precisely opposite the markings on the floor, almost to the inch. Considering some of these trains can be 16 carriages long and travel anything up to 190mph, that’s pretty impressive accuracy.

On board, the feeling is more akin to an airliner than a train carriage – smooth, quiet and very efficient. There was little sensation of the speeds we were travelling at, so I used a GPS speedometer app I’d downloaded on my smartphone, clocking an indicated 166mph as a peak speed. I don’t know how accurate that was, but it was the second fastest I’d ever travelled on land. The smooth ride gave us the chance to catch up on making notes of the trip so far, grab a quick catnap, or just stare idly out of the windows at the scenery flashing past – unfortunately we were again denied a clear glimpse of the elusive Mount Fuji due to cloud cover.

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Arriving in Kyoto Station with its dramatic main hall, we dumped our bags off in the storage lockers, and then caught a local train down to the Fushimi Inari Shrine. The bright sunshine reflected strongly off the luridly orange torii, another of those iconic Japanese images that I found fascinating. After doing the obligatory purification ritual, and also following the necessary procedure to make a quick prayer to the Gods at the Shrine, we took a shortened tour through the avenues of torii gates – the full hike up the hillside can take 2-3 hours.

I ticked another item off my “Things to do whilst in Japan” list at lunchtime, with a visit to a proper sushi bar, the kind with the conveyor belt of various dishes passing by in front of you, and the chefs preparing the food before your very eyes. I’m not the greatest lover of fish or seafood, but in the spirit of at least trying every new experience I could whilst in Japan, I tucked in – and I have to admit, it was pretty darned good!

Gion
After collecting our bags from the lockers, we had the first taxi of our time in Japan for the short trip to our hotel. I’ve mentioned before about how polite the locals are – Japanese taxis are so polite, they even open and close their own doors for you!! Quickly dumping off our bags and collecting the luggage which had been forwarded on from Kamakura, we had time for a short pit-stop, before another taxi-ride to the Minamiza kabuki theatre to meet Mie, our guide for the Geiko district tour. For me, this was one of the highlights of the whole trip. Mie was a brilliant host – witty, knowledgeable, with a well-practised patter, she brought the district to life and gave us a fantastic insight in to a world which is still largely secretive and unknown, even to the Japanese themselves. The Geiko themselves, along with their Maiko trainees, are very elusive and private people, keeping their customers and business on an extremely exclusive basis. Mie told us how hordes of paparazzi lurk outside the larger teahouses, hoping for a glimpse of a Geiko or Maiko, and how once spotted, they tend to walk very quickly out of sight – if we were fortunate, we might catch a glimpse ourselves too.

Maiko
We were fortunate indeed that night, as within minutes of starting the tour, we saw our first Maiko, followed by another three or four as the tour progressed through Gion district. Even Mie was taken aback at this, and said it had been an exceptional night. I claimed it was good luck brought on by my bright red fleece jacket!! (white and red are considered “lucky” colours in Japan) Saying farewell to Mie, we had our traditional multi-course kaiseki Japanese dinner, with each small dish comprising only the freshest, locally-sourced, seasonal foods and each complimenting the other.

It was then time to hit the town and sample some of the late-night attractions the bright lights of Kyoto had to offer. For the second time on tour, I hit the sack at about 3am – the next day was likely to prove challenging!!

Night out

Day 7

Today was to be a day of temples and pounding the pavements. First up was the Yasaka Shrine, before heading to the Kodai-ji Temple with its tranquil Zen gardens, huge bamboo grove and striking architecture – yet another archetypal image of Japan. Walking further on, through the timeless streets lined with restaurants and shops of all kinds, accepting the free samples of green tea and pickled plums as we went, we headed up towards the Kiyomizu-dera Temple. We were left to our own devices today and were confident that we’d learnt enough about Japan to get around by now.

After sipping some of the holy water (the “kiyo mizu” of the temple’s name), we walked back towards central Kyoto in the search of some much-needed food! At this point, I have to apologise to all my fellow tour members, and make the admission that I took the easy option and headed to McDonalds once more. Making our way back to the hotel, we met up with Claire and then took a further walk up to Nijo-jo Castle. This was definitely worth the extra pain in my feet, as the castle and its surrounding gardens are simply stunning. It was amazing value too, being just 600 yen to enter – we reckoned a similar experience in the UK would have been three times the cost.

A lot of people who I’d told I was coming to Japan had expected it to be expensive, but in my experience, it wasn’t really the case. OK, the beers in the evening weren’t exactly student bar prices, but the things which really mattered, the transport and the visitor sights, were all very reasonably priced. You could also grab a pretty decent meal for no more money than it would be at home too, plus you had the reassurance it was in all likelihood a whole lot fresher and better prepared!

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Tonight’s dinner was yet another new experience, with Alain taking us out to experience a hot pot meal. Dipping the thinly sliced pork and vegetables in to the hot bowls of citrus-based ponzu sauce was reminiscent of the shabu shabu we’d had on the second night in Tokyo, and very tasty – once all the pork and vegetables had been eaten, we mixed a little green curry paste in to the remaining sauce, and drank it as a fabulously spicy soup.

Walking back through the neon-lit streets of downtown Kyoto after dinner, it all felt very easy-going and relaxed, until we came across a Pachinko parlour. We ducked our heads in for a quick look, and were astonished at the noise! How on earth do the regulars there tolerate the din without going deaf? We’d had enough after about two minutes, and that was more than long enough to experience one more of those uniquely Japanese things I’d had on my list.

You are probaly wondering as to why there are only two nights from Kyoto here. There is another day, which is considered a ‘free day’ when travellers can choose to wither stay in the city or utilise the Rail Pass and head out to one of the many places which are easily reached via the sleek and speedy Shinkansen…but we will save that for another post. Thanks for sharing this Rob!

Tokaido Trailing Diaries – Hot springy mountains

Continuing along the Tokaido coast of Japan, the trip ventured into the mountainous Hakone national park famed for hot springs, black eggs, secret wooden boxes and samurai history. Don’t know what I am on about? – Read Rob’s  account of his next couple of days on the Tokaido Trail….

Day Four & Five – Hakone

Day Four

Hakone - Lake Ashi

Another day, another variation on the Japanese style of breakfast. By now, I was becoming more accustomed to the food on offer – the salmon this morning was particularly tasty. We said farewell to most of our luggage at this point, with the larger cases and rucksacks being forwarded on to our hotel in Kyoto with typical Japanese efficiency and security – at no point on the tour did I have any doubts whatsoever that the locals would treat both us and our belongings with the utmost of respect and decency.

We headed off towards Hakone, first on the JR train, and then a local bus. Being a little tight on space, this is why we had to travel a bit lighter on our feet.As a self-confessed petrolhead, the roads from Odawara up to Hakone had me almost drooling in anticipation. Stunning scenery, hairpin bend after hairpin bend as the road rose in continuous switchbacks higher and higher in to the mountains. This was the legendary kind of road where the craze for “drifting” high powered sports cars had blossomed, and I kept my eyes peeled for the sort of machinery which had my right foot twitching for an imaginary throttle pedal!

Our base for the next couple of days was the charming Fuji Hakone ryokan, a traditional family-run guesthouse, complete with futons, Tatami mats on the floor, sliding timber and paper screens, and of course, the onsen hot spring baths. The warmest of welcomes had it feeling like a home away from home; this was exactly the sort of accommodation I’d been looking forward to experiencing. With the mountains dominating the skyline above the small town, this was probably my favourite location we stayed in all tour.

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We hopped back on the bus, heading towards Gora for some lunch – pork ramen noodles this time, up until now the most delicious thing I’d eaten all tour, prompting me to use a new Japanese phrase “gochiso sama deshita” for the first time. Alain was babbling on excitedly about something he called the “Batman Wheel”, but would tell us nothing more, leaving us slightly baffled until we got to Gora and found a massive turn-table to spin the buses around!Another ingenious solution typical of Japanese engineering, it elegantly solved the problem of how to execute a three-point turn in a confined space. Why can’t we come up with these things in the UK?

Back on the bus after lunch, we were taken to the Hakone Open Air Museum, to see the modern art exhibitions. I really wasn’t expecting this to be my cup of tea, but do you know what? I really enjoyed it! OK, I can’t profess to understand the deeper meanings behind the majority of the pieces, but they were certainly striking to look at, set in a beautifully scenic location with a calm, relaxing atmosphere. We were lucky with our timing, as the trees were just starting their Autumnal change, providing us with a riot of colour. A little bit of culture can be good for you, it seems, helped by Joss and myself taking advantage of the hot stream foot bath to sooth the soles.

Dinner in Hakone that night gave me another excuse to use my newest Japanese expression. I’d thought the noodles I’d had at lunch time were pretty tasty, but the ginger pork with noodles, Japanese curry rice and draught Asahi I had that night were simply mouth-watering – another very fine recommendation from Alain! After a dip in the onsen hot spring bath, I retired to my futon for the night.

Day Five

Today we were to circumnavigate the Hakone “Loop”, so it was back on the bus to Gora to catch the funicular railway, climbing the slope to the first section of cable car ropeway taking us up to Owakundani. Looking down on the sulphuric hot spring vents looked more like the surface of an alien world than Planet Earth, and the bright yellow stains gave forewarning of the stench we were about to experience. Now that is a smell which permeates the linings of your nostrils, so strong you can almost taste it. Eating one of the local kuro-tamago (eggs, hard-boiled and blackened in the hot springs) is said to extend your lifespan by seven years, but I couldn’t bring myself to attempt one.

Pirate ship

The last section of ropeway took us down to Lake Ashi, and the pirate ship cruise – yep, you read that right – pirate ships! OK, they’re just modern cruise ships decked out to look like pirate ships, but it’s yet another typically over-the-top Japanese experience. Bizarrely, I got talking to a couple of lads from Nepal who wanted to know how far Scotland was from London, and asked whether we’d seen Mount Fuji yet – they said with a grin that they had proper mountains where they were from, not these mere hills!

Moto Hakone
Once docked in Moto Hakone, we paid a visit to the puzzle box shop. The proprietor came out and gave us a demonstration of the techniques involved in creating the wood block designs, the different styles of puzzle box and how they work. Despite him speaking no English, and Alain only being able to sporadically translate what he was saying, I managed to take on board most of what he was telling us. The skill in designing and fabricating these boxes is beyond belief, as not only do they look beautiful, they are incredibly intricate and superbly engineered. The smallest, simple boxes involve just one or two simple moves or taps of the box to open, but one larger box he demonstrated had an astounding 54 moves to unlock – you’d better be pretty sure of remembering the combination before securing your valuables inside!

Armour
After a quick lunch of noodles, we walked along a short section of the old Tokaido highway, before catching the bus back to the ryokan. Whilst the rest of the group headed in to the ryokan, I took a walk in to the town and tracked down the Samurai museum. I think I took them by surprise with my visit, as the girl behind the counter had to turn the lights back on so I could walk around. It was on the compact size, but they had some stunning exhibits, from katanas and other vicious looking weapons, to intricate suits of armour. This was something else I’d been keen on seeing on tour, as the Samurai are another iconic Japanese image.

I headed back home and rejoined the group at the ryokan. Before dinner, we were entertained by Mai Tsunemi and her traditional Japanese koto, a stringed instrument being a strange mix of guitar and harp. A few of the tour party were encouraged (some might say under extreme peer pressure!!) to have a go themselves, and they all performed with aplomb. Having the natural rhythm of a house brick, I declined the opportunity to embarrass myself in front of an audience. Once back at the ryokan, whilst some people headed for their allocated timeslots in the onsen baths, the rest mingled in the sitting room. It was a great way to round off another packed day, and I slept a whole heap better that night.

So there you have it from Rob. Another packed couple of days Tokaido Trailing in Japan. Next is Kyoto which is often considered the highlight of the trip….everyone is different aren’t they. Find out what Rob and co get up to in the old capital of Kyoto. Yoroshiku!

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