Alternative Tokyo – An afternoon in Shimokitazawa

“What’s your favourite area of Tokyo? – Shibuya, Shinjuku, Harajuku?”
These are places you have probably heard of.
When I am showing around friends and tourists Tokyo’s nightlife, one of my favorite places to show them has long been the area around Shimokitazawa station, a young and trendy neighborhood so full of cheap bars and restaurants that finding the best places takes either a lot of experience or a lot of luck! But while Shimokita shines its brightest after the sun goes down, a visit during the daytime reveals a completely different – but equally inviting – side. The pedestrian friendly streets are lined with used clothing shops, old record stores, video game halls, restaurants, cafes, theaters, galleries, markets and more beauty parlors and barber shops than you can shake a stick at. Best of all, unlike the hard work that goes into hunting down a good bar or restaurant at night, Shimokita during the day is great for anybody willing to stroll and unafraid of getting lost. All you need to do is take the train from either Shibuya or Shinjuku station to Shimokitazawa and start walking.



Upon exiting the station you’ll notice that there is no main boulevard, instead a web of tiny avenues spreads out in all direction, each one begging you to explore its various shops and alleyways. As with all cities in Japan, discovering hidden gems here will require you to think in three dimensions as there are just as many great places tucked into the basements of buildings or up two flights of stairs as there are on the ground floor. So don’t forget to look up and down. Of course, while my preferred method of touring Shimokitaza is simply getting lost in the energetic atmosphere and wandering around until you’ve had enough, there are definitely shops and cafes worth searching for. My personal favorite example would be the little hole-in-the-wall cafe run by the “world’s best barista”, check out their website by clicking here. Wherever you go and whatever your method of exploration, I promise it won’t be long before your visit to these windy back streets turns up some hidden gems that even the locals didn’t know about. Just remember, “Tokyo is yours!”.


Some thoughtful graffiti in Shimokitazawa

Some thoughtful graffiti in Shimokitazawa

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!

5 reasons Japan is the most convenient country

In Japan, possibly the most orderly country in the world, convenience is king. Here’s why…

1) Everything runs on time
Unlike certain other countries (mentioning no names… *cough*… England) you can actually rely on train and bus timetables in Japan. It’s possible to plan quite a full-on day of sightseeing and know that you should always be able to make your connection and catch the next bus or train. Of course, delays do happen occasionally, but every precaution is taken to ensure there is the least possible disruption to your journey.


Trains on time for your convenience

2) No luggage worries
Japan has an incredible luggage forwarding service called ‘takuhaibin’ (most commonly referred to as ‘Takkyubin’, which is actually Yamato Transport’s version of the service). The service can be used to send just about anything from any part of the country to another over night. If you’re travelling to a rural part of the country or only stopping somewhere for one night, you don’t want to be carrying large cases, and ‘takuhaibin’ is the answer! Simply pack an overnight bag and forward your large suitcase on to another destination. As well as this overnight service, a few places in Japan offer a same day short distance forwarding service. Hakone’s ‘carry service’ is a great example of this: for around 700 yen you can send a bag from Hakone Yumoto Station to your hotel or vice versa, allowing you to get rid of your overnight bag whilst sightseeing. Of course, most stations have plenty of coin lockers too, and for a few hundred yen you can leave you bags securely for a few hours – just don’t forget where you left everything! In addition, if you do pack an overnight bag and forward your main luggage, you won’t need to take much with you – most hotels offer basic amenities such as a toothbrush and toothpaste, shower gel and shampoo, and there’s usually a yukata to wear in bed too, so you don’t even need your PJs!

Hakone Yumoto Station's 'Carry Service' office

Hakone Yumoto Station’s ‘Carry Service’ office

3) Easy eating
Even if you can’t read or speak Japanese, it’s not too difficult to order food in a restaurant. Most restaurants either have colourful menus full of pictures of the dishes on offer, or they have plastic replica food in the window, so you can always just see what looks good and point. A lot of restaurants and cafes, especially in major tourist areas, also offer English menus, although the staff won’t necessarily speak English.

Plastic food in a restaurant window in Tokyo

Plastic food in a restaurant window in Tokyo

4) Convenience stores really are convenient
Convenience stores in Japan sell just about everything you could need, including food that actually tastes good, and many are open 24 hours. As well as food and drinks, both hot and cold, convenience stores tend to sell basic overnight essentials and things to help out in any minor emergence (Ladder in your tights? Forgot to bring clean undies? Run out of hairspray? No worries!). If that’s not enough, there’s usually a drinks vending machine on every corner too, and even some vending machines selling food such as instant noodles!

7-Eleven: One of Japan's many convenient convenience stores

7-Eleven: One of Japan’s many convenient convenience stores

5) Public conveniences
Toilets are usually free to use, clean and they’re everywhere! Most stations will have perfectly usable toilets, usually with paper (although you sometimes need to use your own tissues, but tissues are often given out on the street for free with advertising pamphlets). Sometimes you might need to face a Japanese-style squat toilet, but that’s a small price to pay really for free loos!



I actually could go on – Japan is a pleasure to travel around, with reliable services, polite staff, and generally helpful and friendly people wherever you go! Wherever you’re from, when you return home you’ll be sure to miss the convenience of Japan!

J-pop and Go!

We have a lot of very different tours and trips here at InsideJapan, taking in all kinds of interests and destinations. One of our most experience packed and certainly one of our most lively, is the J-pop&Go! Tour which was created in conjunction with HYPERJAPAN. The trip really does combine the modern wonders and the traditional culture of this unique country. Got to love Japan.

Here’s a little bit of video taken from on tour to give you a taster -

J-Pop and Going on a HYPERJAPAN Tour

Way of the Samurai(photos by Ken Francisco)

Our inaugural HYPERJAPAN J-Pop and Go! tour was a great reminder that even going back to places that I’ve visited a dozen or more times can bring unexpected experiences, new surprises and untold amounts of fun! Working with the folks at HYPERJAPAN, we created a tour for people with as much energy as a Japanese anime character. We trounced from Buddhist temple to maid cafe, from the insanity of the Robot Restaurant to the quietude of a traditional Japanese garden. We learned about geisha culture from one of the world’s foremost experts and we were taught Zen meditation from a Buddhist monk but we also dressed up in kimono for a samurai sword lesson and slept in a capsule hotel! Although you’ll read about the Japan as the land of contrasts in any and every guidebook, there has surely never been a tour where these contrasts are juxtaposed so vividly. If you’re interested in the full spectrum of Japanese culture, 10 days on this tour will have knowing more about Japanese pop culture than most people who stay for 6 months.

Men at work

KaraokeHiroshima Bay

Luckily I don’t need to ramble on about how good everything was because Kenneth Francisco – a skilled photographer and a passenger on the very first tour – has been kind enough to let us use his images for an exploratory journey through a few highlights of this great tour. Arigatou Ken!

MarioKiyomizu, Kyoto

Manga and Maids

At our visit to the maid cafe (pictured above) we sang songs, performed “magic” to enhance the deliciousness of our cute and cuddly meals and even had a birthday celebration for a very embarrassed young man! But in Kyoto we got to experience old Japan by visiting several UNESCO World Heritage Sites and rubbing elbows with many kimono clad locals. Walking through the romantic old buidlings in the geisha district on a quiet and warm spring night was the highlight for a couple who came on the tour for their honeymoon. For a few others, the maid cafe and capsule hotel came in with the top ranking!

Tour leader, Tyler


Romantic Dear

Life size anime

Miyajima Tori

In these shots Ken has caught me explaining sankinkotai with the picture of a samurai and also managed to find a couple of romantic deer whispering sweet nothings to one another on Miyajima island, the home of the massive floating Torii gate – although that only applies when the tide is in! But my personal favorite is Ken posing with Goku from Dragon Ball Z.

Osaka Castle

okonomiyakiCup noodles

We had great weather throughout this tour, as can be evidenced by the clear views from Osaka castle (above) and of Mt. Fuji (below). The shot on the left shows our okonomiyaki being grilled right in front of us in Hiroshima while the picture on the right is from the Ramen Museum in Osaka, where we got to design and make our very own Cup of Noodles to take home with us as a souvenir. I can’t speak for the rest of the group but mine were delicious! ;)

Fuji from Hakone


Tsukiji fish market

Conveyor belt sushi in Kyoto is always a favorite on my tours but it couldn’t top the amazing stuff we had at the famous Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo! Our small group took up the entire restaurant.

Serious tour leader time

Karaoke tour leader time

Lets sing!

Bullet Train Bento

Showing my serious, and not-so-serious, sides above; no trip to Japan is completely without one crazy night of karaoke and a delicious bento box on the bullet train!

Deadly ladies


I lost

Here we are learning the techniques of the samurai and looking very good in the process. These girls would give Uma Thurman a run for her money any day! Just ask Jeff, seen above before and after his bout with his spouse.

Capsule Hotel


Zen moments in Kyoto

Crazy Robot Restaurant, Toyko

And what better way to finish off than with pictures from three of my own personal favorite experiences from this great and varied tour. Here’s our capsule hotel, our Zen meditation session and the crazy but hilarious visit to the Robot Restaurant!

More HYPERJAPAN J-Pop & Go! to come….



Inuyama Matsuri – Blossom and festivals

Last weekend, Nate, Pepijn and I (all from the IJT Nagoya office!) headed to Inuyama festival (犬山祭り). Inuyama is a town just 20 minutes train journey from Nagoya, and is rapidly growing into a really vibrant tourist destination. It is home to Japan’s oldest castle (Well, sort of! Construction actually began on Matsumoto castle before Inuyama, but Inuyama was completed first – you decide which takes the prize!).

View from the top of Inuyama castle

View from the top of Inuyama castle

Leading through the town centre from the castle is a lovely street lined with Edo-style frontages housing a variety of shops, cafes, restaurants and museums. On an ordinary day this is pleasantly quiet, but during the festival it was packed to the gills with people. Food stalls, or “yatai,” line the streets all the way from Inuyama Station to the castle, selling everything from chocolate-coated bananas and chicken skewers to delicious “dango” dumplings and bean-paste mochi. Of course, we made sure to take advantage of the full range of culinary offerings – and were even forcibly bought a round of beers by a strange old Japanese man. Bonus!

Ready to roll: the festival floats after being hung with their lanterns

Ready to roll: the festival floats after being hung with their lanterns

We tried our hand at throwing ninja shuriken (throwing stars), and I think it’s probably safe to say that I’m never going to qualify as a ninja, as much as it pains me to admit it. Childhood dream smashed. There were also a couple of stalls where you could win your own baby terrapin – a far cry from the goldfish-in-a-bag combo of my own childhood!


Finally, when twilight came, the huge, lantern-laden floats that are the real focus of the festival were paraded through the streets. At the very top of the floats are “karakuri” puppets, which you inspect up close at the museum of Japanese toys on the approach to the castle, and at the bottom tier were children chanting and banging drums to the tune of eerie flute music. The costumes they were are incredibly elaborate, and can cost millions of yen. Most impressively of all, however, each float was decorated with hundreds of lanterns, each lit with a real candle – no cheating here!

Children being carried towards the floats before the parade begins

Children being carried towards the floats before the parade begins

Parade in full swing

Parade in full swing

The castle, which has just finished undergoing refurbishment, was also looking very photogenic in the floodlights, surrounded by sakura.


Inuyama festival, though becoming steadily more and more frequented, has yet to reach the heights of popularity attained by similar events such as Takayama festival, but it’s every bit as good. If you’re staying in Nagoya or anywhere nearby during April, make sure you come down and check it out!

Sakura by the light of the festival lanterns. Beautiful!

Sakura by the light of the festival lanterns. Beautiful!

A Cock and Boob Story

Everyone knows how much the Japanese love their festivals – from the biggest tug-of-war in the world Okinawa to setting an entire mountain on fire in Nara. According to my sources, there are probably about 200,000 festivals held in Japan each year. This seems a reasonable – perhaps even a conservative – estimate if you take into account that there are about 100,000 shrines and temples in Japan and each holds at least 1 festival and up to 70 festivals per year. And that’s not even including all the national and local festivals.

There are naked festivals (Hadaka Matsuri) where thousands of naked men scramble over each other to grab a pair of lucky sticks; snow festivals (Yuki Matsuri) with amazing snow sculptures; a whole bunch of fire festivals (which I wrote about here a few weeks ago); festivals where sumo wrestlers hold up babies to see which one will cry first while priests try to scare them; a belly-button festival in Hokkaido where participants paint faces on their stomachs and hide their heads under giant hats… there is even a festival where a sumo wrestler has a sumo match with the spirit of the rice plant (AKA with himself).

You know those nicely decorated wooden plaques (Ema 絵馬) that you write wishes on at Shinto shrines? Well you'll never look at them in the same way again...

You know those nicely decorated wooden plaques (Ema 絵馬) that you write wishes on at Shinto shrines? Well you’ll never look at them in the same way again…

A few weekends ago, I discovered that not only was there a Fertility “penis” Festival happening only a few minutes away by train from Nagoya – but that it was in the very same town as the boob temple I have been meaning to visit ever since I got here! There could be no better reason for combining two types of sexual-organ-themed entertainment in one day, so off I trotted to the unassuming, genitalia-loving town of Komaki.

The blueprint for Japanese festivals is essentially: stuff your face with food from all the stalls that spring up around the temple, mill around for a bit, then watch a parade – and this one was no different. Except that the food was shaped like willies and instead of praying to your standard altar, you were praying to a giant wooden penis.
The parade itself had everything I could have wished for from a penis parade. After the various old men dressed in traditional clothing and throwing salt around the place, there was this guy:

There were young ladies cradling wooden willies and inviting members of the crowd to stroke them for luck:


There was this extraordinary banner, slowly undulating in the wind:


And finally, the piece de resistance, a giant wooden penis being carried in its own portable shrine, which every so often would be swung around wildly on the spot by its bearers:


Oh, and there were also people giving out free sake. Perfect.

After all that excitement we still had the Boob Shrine (Mamma Kannon) to look forward to! And this was perhaps even stranger. Anyone who has been to Japan will know that shrines dedicated to penises are really not that unusual, but this appears to be the only temple in the whole of Japan that is dedicated to the humble woman’s breasts.



After passing these delightful lactating ladies, the rest was basically standard temple fare – but boob-themed. The way to worship here seemed to be to kneel down in front of a pair of granite boobies, massage them with a sort of brush-like object and then touch it on your own head. People seemed to be taking it very seriously, anyway.

Mamma Kannon’s “Ema” were, of course, breast- and fertility-themed too. Some were hoping for a healthy baby or for a relative’s safe recovery from breast cancer, but most of them just seemed to be requests to the boob-gods for more covetable chesticles.

Mamma Kannon's collection of "Ema"

Mamma Kannon’s collection of “Ema”

A typical "ema"

A typical “ema”

A shrine patron here wishes for her humble AA cups to become C cups...

A shrine patron here wishes for her humble AA cups to become C cups…

Even if you don't understand Japanese, you can still look at the diagrams

Even if you don’t understand Japanese, you can still look at the diagrams

I don't really know what to say about this one

I don’t really know what to say about this one

And at last, as we were leaving, we came upon this – where you can have your photo taken as a baby groping your mother’s breast. Why not?


And that is that for my fun-filled Saturday in Komaki! I hope you enjoyed it.


There are many interesting aspects to Japanese culture. We can help you discover it.


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