8 Things to look out for when in Akihabara

Akihabara is truly the Japan’s capital of “otaku” – often translated as ‘someone who has obsessive interests in video games, manga, anime, electronics and the like’. There’s more manga and anime in this little district of Tokyo than exists anywhere else in the world. But whether you consider yourself a fan of such things completely misses the point; this neighborhood is a traveler’s dream because it is unlike anywhere else any of us have ever been and will ever go to. And isn’t that why we travel in the first place?

Akihabara

In a simple stroll through “Akiba” (as it is commonly and affectionately known by most Tokyo-ites) there are more things to point out, talk about and be astonished by then would ever fit in a single blog post so instead I’ve chosen 8 things that I love about this quirky part of town. If you are coming to the area be sure to keep an eye out for the following!


Oden Vending Machine

1) Japan has become famous for vending machines and they can now be found throughout the country. Indeed, I’ve seen them in the middle of rice paddies and on top of Mount Fuji. I’ve seen banana vending machines, french fry vending machines, flower vending machines and some others too sorted and seedy to mention here. But there’s nothing quite like a hot cup of oden or ramen noodles from a vending machine (pictured above). The perfect place for a pick-me-up during a day of sightseeing in Akihabara.

One Person Karaoke

2) In Japan, as in most places, karaoke tends to be a social event. Something you do with your friends or even family to have a bit of fun and enjoy one another’s company, if not their singing voice. But in a neighborhood known as a haven for nerds and outcasts it is no surprise that you can find one person karaoke booths. The perfect place to let out your inner rock star or let off some steam, perhaps by belting out a few Journey songs (an advert for the booths is pictured above).

All girl sushi

3) Sushi in Japan is a craft, even an artform at times. It has spread throughout the world but there is nothing like the sushi that can be had in one of Tokyo’s premier upscale sushi shops. Unfortunately, sushi chefs have traditionally been and remain almost entirely male. This is largely said to be because most women’s hands are too hot and this in turn affects the flavor of the sushi. But in Akihabara you can put that myth to the test at this all girl sushi restaurant (pictured above is Nadeshiko Sushi – http://www.nadeshico-sushi.com).

Shrine in Akihabara

4) Akihabara is closely associated with electronics and it is known for being at the cutting edge of manga, anime and the Japanese video gaming world so it can be quite a surprise to see all the traditional culture that remains side by side the bright and brash billboards and advertisements. Visit a local Shintō shrine or stop off at a traditional eatery while strolling about.

Live Idol Show

5) One of the things that brought Akihabara to the forefront of otaku culture was the ability to see live music shows by “idol” groups on a daily basis. Although these no longer take place on the street like they used to, you can still see some talented and fun shows every day of the year. Both during the day and at night are venues where you can let your inner fan shine. Find an idol club and dance your cares away while waving different coloured light sticks (the venue pictured above is called Dear Stage and typically has live shows everyday from 5-6pm till around 11:30pm – http://dearstage.com).

6) Not pictured but entirely worth checking out are Akihabara’s retro video game arcades. Sure it’s fun to come and see the newest gadgets and most up-to-date driving and shooting games but nothing will bring you back to your childhood faster than a go at one of the games you grew up playing!

Traces of the past

7) A bit different from number 4, try looking for traces of Akihabara’s past as you wander throughout the area. Though not always traditional, there is plenty of evidence of what the electronic district was like before manga, anime and pornography took over. After all, a place as unique as Akihabara isn’t made overnight!

Assemblage

8) Assemble your own electronics. As you leave Akihabara JR Station on the ‘Electric City’ side, continue under the tracks and you will find a plethora of vacuum tubes, radio innards, computer wires, various kits and loads of speciality shops selling the pieces that make our electronics tick. Although you might not have the confidence to put one of these kits together on your own, you can get some help at the Assemblage desk. Make a little radio, assemble a robot or throw together a blinking doodad. (The staff won’t be fluent in English but they always make an effort and they certainly know what they are doing. Make sure to leave plenty of time for this.)

Akihabara

8) You’d have a hard time missing the colorful billboards and advertising that dons the various buildings of Akihabara but surprisingly few people take the time to really look at these and appreciate the aesthetic – and even artistry – that is so uniquely Akiba. From adverts for maid cafes to posters announcing the latest video game release, you’ll know that you are a long way from home when take a little bit of time to look towards the sky and admire the scenery.

 

As I said at the beginning of this post, you don’t need to be an “otaku” to enjoy a day out in Akihabara!

What’s hot in Japan for 2015

There are plenty of reasons to make it to Japan in 2015, but here are a few really good ones.

KANAZAWA

Journeys to the garden city of Kanazawa will be quicker than ever when the new Shinkansen line opens in March 2015 cutting journey time from Tokyo to 2.5hrs (was 4hrs). A beautiful laid back and historical city with samurai houses and traditional tea districts, Kanazawa is well worth a visit.

Kanazawa_OldTownxxx

 

HIMEJI CASTLE

After five years of renovation work, the scaffolding is off and we can’t wait to get back to Himeji. Just in time for the cherry blossom and ‘hanami’, the castle will be back to its full glory on March 27th.

Himejxxi

 

FUKUOKA

“Ramen city” has always been a favourite with the InsideJapan team. Now KLM offer daily flights from Amsterdam to Fukuoka, so it’s easier than ever to get there.

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HIROSHIMA

Visit Hiroshima on 6th August 2015 to mark the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing. Today, it’s a great little city full of good food!

Japan

 

NAGASAKI

Similarly Nagasaki will be commerating the anniversary of the second atomic bombing which happened on 9th August 1945. Nagasaki is arguably one of the most attractive and historically-rich cities in the whole country.

Nagasaki Peace Gdn

ONOMICHI

With cycling getting seemingly more and more popular, head to Onomichi and the home of the first purpose built cycle hotel. The small town has lots of little temples and is the gateway to the Shimanamikaido cycle route.

Onomichi_Viewpoint (4)

 

UNIVERSAL STUDIOS JAPAN, OSAKA

It has been around for a while, but Harry Potter world opened in the summer of 2014 – a must visit for any Potter fan. If you are not a Potter fan, just stick to Osaka…

Potter pad

OSAKA CASTLE

Another reason for heading to Osaka (apart from the food and it being a great place) is to celebrate the castles important role in Japanese history. 2015 is the 400th anniversary of some important battles and the castle is celebrating with a massive 3-D display from 13th December – 1st March. Very impressive.

Osaka CastleHere’s a preview –

 

 

ECHIGO, NIIGATA

The peaks and rural villages of the Japanese Alps provide inspiration and back drop for the triennial arts festival held in the region (Jul 26-Sep 13). Contemporary art installations combine with the heart of tradtional Japan for some beautiful sites in a beautiful part of Japan.

View from summit of a moutain in Yuzawa

 

YONAGUNI

The ‘Iseki’ stones have got to be one of the most intriguing and unique dive spots in the world. Is it the oldest man-made structure in the world, is it geological phenomenon..or was it built by aliens!? Either way, it is an incredible dive off a remote island.

Yonaguni

 

Bunny Bliss in Harajuku

In recent years there has been something of a boom in pet cafes across Japan. Starting with cats, these themed cafes have now extended to other creatures, including rabbits, owls, and even goats.

Japanese houses are small, and keeping a pet is difficult for most people. So, whenever a Tokyoite feels the need to get out of their tiny apartment and spend some time playing or simply sitting with a cute four-legged friend, a pet café is the place to head to!

Naturally, tourists have also shown an interest in these cafes. Whether it’s because they miss their pet from home, or perhaps they are just curious about the concept, visiting a pet café has started to creep on to the list of ‘things to do in Japan’.

Being allergic to cats, I decided rabbits were the pet for me, and during my last trip to Tokyo I decided to head to Ra.a.g.f. ‘Rabbit and grow fat’ – a rabbit café in trendy Harajuku.

Ra.a.g.f.

After a bit of lost wandering through the boutiques and backstreets of Harajuku, I finally stumbled upon ‘Rabbit and grow fat’ (brilliant name!). It wasn’t the most fragrant of Harajuku buildings, but once inside the café I was in a little haven of bunny bliss.

Ra.a.g.f.

The staff spoke no English, but welcomed me warmly and presented me with a list of rules and prices. For a small fee I could stay for 30 minutes (700 yen) or an hour (1,100 yen), have a drink, and choose a rabbit to play with and feed (150 yen for rabbit snacks).

Ra.a.g.f.

Feed me!

The rabbits are all kept in cages, and guests can look at them and stroke them and choose one to play with. If you get bored of the rabbit you’ve chosen, you can ask to switch it for another one (which I felt kind of bad doing, although I’m sure the rabbits don’t mind!).

Ra.a.g.f.

I chose this little chap to keep me company. He was very ‘genki’ (energetic) and dashed about the café having the time of his life.

Ra.a.g.f.

Play with me!

Animal welfare is a concern of mine, but all of the rabbits at Ra.a.g.f. seemed happy and healthy. The staff clearly loved the animals and enjoyed their jobs, and the atmosphere in the café was one of being in someone’s home.

So, next time you’re in Tokyo why not take a break from the hustle and bustle of the shops and chill out with a cup of tea and a fluffy friend?

Ra.a.g.f.

Three Reasons To Choose a Small Group Tour

Getting into local life
As an independent traveller, I’ll admit I was slightly hesitant about joining a small group tour. I’ve been on tours before, but it wouldn’t normally be my number one choice to travel with a group. However, having joined InsideJapan’s Japan Unmasked tour for a few days, I can now see that there are massive benefits to joining a small group tour instead of going it alone.

1. Stress-free sightseeing
Your full-time Tour Leader will take all of the stress out of travelling around from place to place, and will be there to either show you the sights or point you in the right direction if you wish to do your own thing. You have the best of both worlds, in that there is an expert to deal with all the logistics of travel, and yet you have the freedom to do as you please and don’t have to be herded around in a massive group or squeezed uncomfortably onto a hot bus at any point during the trip. Yes, you can have your matcha roll cake and eat it too!

Our Tour Leader sharing some brief Japanese history with the group

Our Tour Leader sharing some brief Japanese history with the group

2. The Group
Travelling in a group of people you don’t know can be slightly intimidating at first, especially as a solo traveller. However, InsideJapan’s small group tours attract all different kinds of customers from all over the world, and joining a tour group is a great way to make new friends and share experiences. You all have Japan in common, and probably all have different reasons for wanting to visit Japan. For some it will be another country to tick off their list of places visited, and for others it will be a life-long dream come true to visit Japan because of a particular interest in some aspect of Japanese culture. Together you can share experiences and knowledge, and try new things!

Tour Group at Sensoji

Your Tour Leader might turn out to be something of a celebrity…

3. Getting beneath the surface
InsideJapan’s motto is ‘get beneath the surface’, and there’s no better way to do that than with an expert Tour Leader by your side. As someone who has travelled in Japan quite extensively I would consider myself something of an expert. However, after just one evening with our expert Tour Leader I realised there was still so much to learn! Whether it was finding new items on the menu in the izakaya, hearing a snippet of history for the first time, or simply visiting somewhere new, your Tour Leader will certainly help you to get the most out of your time in Japan!

Cultural experiences in an izakaya...

Cultural experiences in an izakaya…

Finally, if like me, you’re quite an independent traveller but like the idea of joining a small group tour, why not do both? No matter how much you fit in whilst you are on tour, you will always wish you had just a little more time in Tokyo or the chance to visit just one more destination, so why not add on a few extra nights of independent travel after your tour. By the time the tour finishes you’ll be something of an expert yourself, and ready to take on Tokyo alone (armed with your tailor-made Info-Pack of course!).

InsideJapan and the Japanese Ministry of Environment

Kirishima Kinkowan National Park

Kirishima Kinkowan National Park is famous for it’s beautiful and otherworldly volcanic scenery.

As a representative of InsideJapan Tours, I’ve been working with the Japanese Ministry of Environment to help them promote overseas tourism in their National Parks. Together with loads of great local people, several of us longtime expat foreigners have been traveling around to various National Parks in Japan to see just what’s on offer. As with my visit to Nikko National Park a few weeks ago, I am beginning to realize that even in places I’ve been to multiple times before, there is still so much more to see.

Friendly people

As is so often the case in Japan, we were met by friendly people every step of the way.

Because InsideJapan Tours believes in getting travelers beneath the surface of Japan when they visit, I’m always happy when I can help find new ways to make that vision become reality. And it’s finding lesser visited destinations like this one that allows one to see the Japan of the past and just what it is that makes the country so special. This week I went to Kirishima-Kinkowan National Park with an amazingly talented group of individuals including the great photographer Everett Brown, the publisher of the fantastic Japanese language travel magazine Kyushu no Mura, the supremely talented Brad Towle – director of the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau, and the fine folks from Umari – one of the coolest operations in Japan that I know of.

Romance and water

Thinking of honeymooning in Japan? How about following the trail of the very first honeymoon couple in Japan. The famous samurai Sakamoto Ryoma came here after his wedding, a long time before he became an instrumental figure in overthrowing the government.

Edo station

This little old train station hasn’t changed much over the years. There’s no ticket machine and there’s no one here to check your ticket even if you had one. But what really makes it special is that a local family sells a bento here with food that is reminiscent of what people were eating 100 years ago. It has been voted the best bento in Kyushu but I will go on the record as saying it is the best bento I’ve had anywhere in Japan!

onsen

At almost every onsen town in Japan you will hear stories about why that onsen is better than onsens in other parts of the country, but if you come to this part of Kagoshima you will find so many varieties of hot spring that there are local people who can recommend you an onsen depending on exactly what ails you. I opted for the hangover onsen.

Land  of the Gods

In Japanese mythology, this area is where it all begins. The true land of the gods. While visiting some of Kirishima’s famous shrines I was struck not only by the elegant Shinto architecture but especially by the beautiful surroundings. Each shrine we visited was more secluded than the last and all of them were beautifully interwoven with the island’s vast natural surroundings.

Ryokan

If you have yet to experience Japanese hospitality, you are in for a treat! Scenes at traditional ryokans – Japanese inns – like this one turn the everyday into the extraordinary.

Pure water

At cleansing stations near the entrance to most shrines and temples in Japan you will find intricately crafted dragons with crystal clear water pouring from their ferocious looking mouths, but I think I like this home made version almost as much.

Food

A twist on traditional Japanese incense, the tea placed on top of this small porcelain lamp gave off just the slightest perfume. The owner of the soba restaurant where I found this explained to me that although traditional incense can overpower the taste of the food, the smell of green tea compliments their dishes. Wonderful!

134 year old direction

What I love best about this 134 year old direction marker is that the carvers chose a hand with its pointer finger extended rather than a simpler arrow to direct travelers (like myself) in the right direction.

Shrines and temples

This shrine was on a big hillside overlooking a couple of mist covered volcanos and a big blue lake. Completely deserted, we took our time to enjoy it’s every last detail.

Duck!

These little ducks acted like they were our best friends… until they realized we didn’t have any food. ;)

Thinkers stream

Just minutes before returning to the airport, Everett and I were looking at a beautiful little stream that was running in between peoples’ houses. At first we thought it was just a regular river born of rain coming down from the surrounding mountains but a local took us up to its source (pictured here) and we learned that it is actually a spring. We could literally see the water gushing up from out of the ground. Everett said it best, “heaven on earth”!

Sometimes it’s not the destination but the journey

If you’re travelling between Matsumoto and Takayama (as many of our customers do) there are a couple of ways to make the journey, but my number one recommendation would be to take the highway bus through the Japan Alps.

I heard the journey was stunning, but nothing could have prepared me for how breathtakingly beautiful it would be!

As the bus trundles along twisting mountain roads (sometimes precariously close to the edge!), lush green mountain ranges dominate the skyline, with villages dotting the valleys below. Clear waterfalls, lakes and streams punctuate the landscape, as the bus carefully waits on a mountain edge for an oncoming vehicle to pass by, and between the mountains rice paddies wait patiently.

The journey is simple to make, and one to be enjoyed. Just sit back, relax, and keep your camera at the ready!

The view when travelling by bus from Matsumoto to TakayamaThe view when travelling by bus from Matsumoto to TakayamaThe view when travelling by bus from Matsumoto to TakayamaThe view when travelling by bus from Matsumoto to Takayama

 

Taking part in a Japanese festival

Japanese festivals – matsuri – are an important part of life in Japan. You will find them in every region of the country during every season of the year. But the best time for catching matsuri is undoubtedly in summer, when festivals are so plentiful that it’s not uncommon to come across them by chance as you travel through the country. Even in Tokyo, a haven for fashion trendsetting, young people are seen on the underground heading off to fireworks festivals and other matsuri in yukata, a sort of light cotton kimono. Yet amongst the thousands of matsuri, there a handful that stand out among the rest. One such matsuri is the 350 year old Fukagawa Matsuri.

Fukagawa Matsuri from above

The great Fukagawa Matsuri!

Once every three years this huge water throwing festival is held in downtown Tokyo. Over 100,000 people gather to watch as 53 mikoshi (portable shrines) weighing from around 2 tons to 4.5 tons are boisterously carried 8 kilometers through local neighborhoods on the shoulders of men and women in traditional costume. This alone would be a site worth coming to Japan for but what makes this festival particularly special is the fact that water is being thrown on to the shrines as they slowly move through Tokyo’s streets. While some of this comes in the form of children with buckets and water pistols, the fire department also joins in at tens of locations to dowse the participants with fire hoses!

Our mikoshi being "cleansed" by some of Tokyo's finest!

Our mikoshi being “cleansed” by some of Tokyo’s finest!

Here is a brief description of what it is like to participate in one of Tokyo’s three “great” festivals. I awoke at 4:30am and took the train to Monzennakacho, a station that is truly at the heart of the Fukagawa Matsuri. Although there was no traffic at this early hour, there was plenty of activity. Hundreds of locals could be seen scurrying around the streets in their happi Japanese tops, white shorts and split-toed shoes. As not just anyone can participate in the festival, I was met by the family who gave me the “introduction” to partake. Each of the giant mikoshi (portable shrines) is associated with a particular district of the local area. There are 53 in total.

Dressed for the festival

After quickly changing in to my costume I gathered with the other participants and we ate onigiri – rice balls with different fillings – and got ready for the days event. At 7:30am we moved down the street to where the mikoshi for our district was set up and waiting for us (see below).

Mikoshi

We carried this float 8 kilometers through Tokyo and back to the local neighborhood.

As our turn came, around 40 of us heaved the 2 ton float up on to our shoulders and began the 8 kilometer walk through Tokyo. Slowly marching through the streets as we chanted “washoi!!” and bounced the float up and down. But what really made this festival a day to remember was the water that was poured on our mikohsi – and us! – as we walked about. Kids and adults alike splashed us from all angles. Any spectator is able to join in on this aspect of the matsuri and so the day ends up feeling like a giant water fight!

IMG_1480Water!

At splash stations like the one above we lift the mikoshi above our heads so that other participants can drench the mikoshi and us below with cold but refreshing water. But the 53 shrines being paraded around are not the only thing that this festival has going. There are multiple places where traditional Japanese music is being played and even several large taiko drumming areas where the loud drums set the pace of the chanting of the shrine bearers like myself. In order to show respect to the musicians we lift the mikoshi above our heads as we pass. There are also floats along the route selling beer and shaved ice for the onlookers, those of us carrying the shrine have to wait till the afternoon.

Taiko drummers at one of many stations along the festival route.

Taiko drummers at one of many stations along the festival route.

We all take turns carrying the float and there is a morning rest stop and a midday break for lunch but even so by the afternoon my shoulders are bruised and battered. And my feet are sore from the massive weight crushing down on them.

Yours truly at the head of the pack. My shoulder and arms sore from a long but fun day.

Yours truly at the head of the pack. My shoulder and arms sore from a long but fun day.

Of course, my personal favorite part of the matsuri is after we finish and I can sit down with my friends for a few well deserved beers.

A long time friend. The man who allowed me to partake in the festival treated me to lots of shochu and beer after we finished. He also brought me some Otoro tuna sashimi from Tsukiji Fish Market to help replenish all the energy spent walking through Tokyo's cordoned off streets.

A long time friend. The man who allowed me to partake in the festival treated me to lots of shochu and beer after we finished. He also brought me some Otoro tuna sashimi from Tsukiji Fish Market to help replenish all the energy spent walking through Tokyo’s cordoned off streets.

Seeing matsuri in Japan is truly a “once in a lifetime” type experience. The friendly and fun-loving nature of such festivals ensures that all are welcome. Aside from some fantastic pictures, you are likely to go home with some new friends as well!

There are thousands of festivals all over japan throughout the year. You may just stumble across a small festival on your travels in Japan, but if they are on and we know about them, we can help you catch a Japanese festival during your trip.

 

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