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!

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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.

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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:

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

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

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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:

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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.

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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?

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

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

5 things you didn’t know about Japan

I recently put this together for a good travel agent of ours, but thought I would share it on our very own blog…

IshigakiFact 1 – Japan is made up of over 6000 islands

There are four main islands, but the country is actually made up of 6852 islands (big and small). The main island of Honshu is home to the Tokyo Metropolis and the cultural capital of Kyoto. The ‘wild frontier’ of Hokkaido sits in the far north, with rural Shikoku and historical Kyushu in the south.
Mt Fuji
Fact 2 – Japan is 70% mountainous

Japan is certainly not just big cities. Most people envisage big neon lit cities such as Tokyo, but approximately 70% of the country is covered in lush green mountains. A tenth of the worlds active volcanoes are also in Japan. Perhaps the most famous of these is the 3776 metre Mt Fuji.

Niseko Skiing
Fact 3 – Japan has tropical beaches and great skiing

Japan is a country of contrasts which can be seen everywhere in its architecture and culture. It also has a contrasting landscapes and environments. Okinawa in the far south (approximately 1000 miles from Tokyo) consists of a string of tropical islands with white sand beaches, jungle islands and some of the best diving in the world, Meanwhile the far northern island of Hokkaido has some of the best skiing in the world with almost guaranteed buckets of powder snow everyday during the winter months.

Tokyo Sushi

Fact 4 – Japan has the most Michelin starred restaurants in the world

You think of Japan and you probably think of sushi, but it is not all about the raw fish here. There will be dishes that you will have not seen anywhere else in the world adding to the cultural adventure, but there will be a lot of things you do recognise too, suitable for every palette. Tokyo also has the most three star rated restaurants in the world and more Michelin stars than Paris. Japan is a foodie paradise.

…and last but defintely not least….

Taxi

Fact 5 – Japan is not expensive

Japan is not expensive. It was expensive in the 1980′s during the economic boom, but is now generally cheaper than the UK. In the last year, the yen has dropped considerably in value against the pound/dollar and Japan is now about 30% cheaper than it was back at the beginning of 2013.  You can buy a three course lunch for approximately £6, buy a plate of sushi from about 60pence or have an eat and drink as much as you like session at a Izakaya (traditional Japanese pub) for approximately £15. And, one of the best things about Japan is that you get some of the best service in the world, but there is no tipping! – it is almost offensive to do so. Japan is not only cheaper than it was, it is great value meaning more bang for your Yen.

What to Do in Japan… in January

We are already half way through 2014, but for those who plan to spend their January holiday in Japan (this year or in future years), there are plenty of festivals to check out and things to do during this brisk winter month. People who want to know what to do in Japan during January should look no further…

Japan in January

For those who are going to Tokyo, check out the Dezome-shiki, which is also known as the New Year’s Parade of Firemen. This parade takes place on January 6, 2014. The Tokyo Fire Department organizes the event, which is held in order to pray for a safe year for the department. More than 100 fire trucks and fire engines are on display along with some very acrobatic firemen doing things in a more ‘traditional way’.


The ‘Dosojin’ matsuri or ‘Fire festival’ is held in the traditional ski resort of Nozawa Onsen in the middle of the Japanese Alps. The festival is held every year around January 13/15th and consists of wood, fire and lots of sake. The 25 and 42 year old men of the village construct a wooden ‘shrine’. The 42 year olds sit on top of the structure, the 25 year olds guard the structure and all the other men of village try and burn it down. Quite insane.

Bonden Sai
Head to Akita on January 17, 2014 for the Bonden-sai. Also known as the Bonden Festival, this event is a contest that celebrates the person who reaches the sacred mountain first with their Bonden in hand. A Bonden is a large sacred wand that is said to represent the gods descending into the human world.

This is an exciting time of the year, filled with local festivals and cultural events that showcase the customs and traditions of this ancient land. January is the perfect time to see the sights of Japan and visit all of the famous tourist attractions (comparatively empty compared to other times of year), while also enjoying some of the more unique, local festivals that only come once a year. Crisp blue skies, empty temples and gardens, culture in abundance – Winter is the new Spring!

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

50 years of the Shinkansen – The Ultimate Guide to Japanese Bullet Trains

Shinkansen Mt Fuji

They’ve been clocked at up to 200 miles per hour, their tracks cover about 1,500 miles of the country and they safely and reliably transport hundreds of millions of passengers each year around Japan. The Shinkansen is better known simply as the “bullet train,” (a nickname it gets from its bullet-shape nose and fast speeds) was launched for the Tokyo Olympics way back in October 1964. In 2014, the Shinkansen will be 50!

Trains of the future

Things have changed a bit over the last 50 years. The original 320 mile stretch of track from Tokyo to Osaka now extends across mainland Honshu to Kyushu. The original 0 Series train travelled at 210kph, which was considerably faster than the steam trains that were still in service in the UK in 1964, but now travels at speeds of up to 200mph. The ‘bullet train’ has also changed appearance over the years with the classic 0 series spawning all sorts of super sleek train designs.

The o series has given way to the N700 series on the Tokaido line with the 800 series running all the way down to Kagoshima on Kyushu island. The Joetsu Shinkansen lines in Nagano have the impressive double-decker E2 and E4 series MAX (Multi Amenity eXpress) trains and the Tokoku line to the far north has the very impressive looking green E5 ‘Hayabusa’ and the more recent E6 ‘Komachi’. Whether you like trains or not, you cannot fail to be impressed with the Shinkansen.

Here are a few points about using the bullet train in Japan -

  • They run on a tight schedule. If you’re planning to take the train, be on time. Japanese bullet trains are rarely late and often run within a minute of the planned arrival and departure times.
  • No language barriers: Signs in terminals and on the trains are typically in both English and Japanese, so there’s no language barrier to worry about.
  • Buy a rail pass: One-way tickets aren’t cheap, but a rail pass can save you big bucks wherever it is that you’re going.
  • They are very spacious, comfortable and a delight to ride.
  • Standard class is considerably better than standard class in the UK or US.
  • The ‘Green class’ or first class has a different seat configuration meaning more room for passengers along with a blanket and newspaper.
  • Like the rest of Japan, service on the Shinkansen is first class as standard and ‘Bento Box’ meals are served by well dressed staff.

If you travel to Japan, the chances are that you will ride one of these beautifully engineered carriages to one of your destinations.  However, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Shinkansen, we thought we would develop a trip travelling from north to south around Japan, touching on every Shinkansen track across the country, sampling several different styles of this wonderful train and a whole host of cultural experiences. We have designed the 15 night ’50 years of the Shinkansen: Bullet trains and temples’  bullet train bonanza. The trip retraces the original journey from 1964, takes a sand bath in the shadow of  the puffing Sakurajima Volcano in Kagoshima, the Shinkansen depot in Fukuoka via Kumamoto castle, stays in Buddhist temple lodgings in the Japanese Alps, stops in a samurai town in the north of Japan and visits the new Maglev Museum in Nagoya to name just a few of the experiences.

Why not gallop along on the Shinkansen in 2014 – the Year of the Horse. You might say that you “are not into trains”, but you will be after a visit to Japan.

For more information on riding Japanese bullet trains, contact Inside Japan Tours.

Something for the weekend – 151A: A moral from Japan

151A: How can these 4 characters make a moral? Let me explain.

For those of you who don’t know, the number one is pronounced ‘ichi’ in Japanese. Five is ‘go’. And ‘A’, well, ‘A’ is ‘A’. (In the Japanese phonetic alphabet, this becomes equivalent to ‘E’.) So, if you read this back, you have ‘ichi-go-ichi-e’. Quite literally, this means, ‘one opportunity, one encounter.’ So what does it really mean?

The idea is derived from Zen Buddhism. Each meeting and encounter we have is by chance and cannot be repeated; the present is transient. Therefore, we must treat it with care and try our best at each moment and in each of these encounters. Within Zen Buddhism, this idea often focuses on tea ceremony. However, it can certainly have wider applications.

I learned of this famous Japanese saying whilst on a research trip to Japan and it really stuck with me. I was meeting lots of different people, having lots of new and exciting experiences and with ‘151A’ in the back of my mind, I believe they were all the better for it!

Please remember ‘151A’ and live each moment to the fullest. Give it your all as you only have the present. And surely, treating the present like this will reap future rewards!

Aaaaaaa……nice.

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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Tomonoura – The Real Japan

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

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

The old streets

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

Pretty port

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

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

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A day in Hakone

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

The Hakone Open Air Sculpture Park is quite special.

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

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

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

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

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