Okinawa 101: The Top 10 Okinawan Foods You Must Try

Violet has been living in Okinawa for the last couple of months and is getting into her subtropical island specialities. Here are 10 of Okinawa’s most famous foods…

GOYA

If there’s one thing that Okinawans define themselves by, it’s this knobbly green vegetable known in English as “bitter melon.” Okinawa boasts the highest life expectancy in the world – even higher than that of mainland Japan – and popular belief credits the islanders’ longevity to their consumption of goya. With a texture like cucumber and an extremely bitter flavour comparable to that of green bell pepper, goya can be hard for some foreigners to get used to! Nevertheless, you should give it a go in Chanpuru (Okinawan stir-fry) or raw in a salad.

Goya salad with a side of wasabi octopus

Goya salad with a side of wasabi octopus

BENIMO

Benimo is the name for Okinawa’s native bright purple sweet potato. This root vegetable is almost as ubiquitous as the goya, and many would say much more palatable! It can be eaten boiled, but it’s much more common to find it as a flavouring for pretty much every kind of sweet thing – including ice cream, drinks, kitkats – even spaghetti!

Benimo-flavoured KitKat

Benimo-flavoured KitKat

TACO RICE

Taco rice is one of the results of American influence in Okinawa, and has become an island specialty. Consisting of minced meat, cheese, tomato sauce, chopped tomatoes, rice and lettuce – it’s basically all the components of a taco without the taco itself. Delicious Okinawan ‘fusion’ cuisine!

Taco Rice

Taco Rice in Onna-Son

SHIKUASA

Shikuasa is a native Okinawan citrus fruit that resembles a green mandarin, and is used to make fruit juice and to flavour various sweets and cakes.

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UMI BUDOU

Umi Budou is a special type of Okinawa seaweed whose name literally means “sea grapes.” It is also sometimes known as “green caviar” due to its tiny, bubble-like sacs and distinctive texture. Best eaten fresh, with rice and salmon roe.

Umi Budou (the green stuff) with set menu

Umi Budou (the green stuff) with side dishes

CHANPURU (& SPAM!)

Chanpuru is the Okinawan version of stir-fry and can include a variety of ingredients – but perhaps surprisingly, the most common component is Spam or some other type of “luncheon meat.” A love of Spam is another result of the American military presence in Okinawa, and souvenir shops proudly display tins of processed meat beside traditional Ryukyuan souvenirs. Perhaps it is this mystery ingredient, and not goya, that is responsible for the islanders’ long lives…

Varieties of luncheon meat for sale

Varieties of luncheon meat

PORK

Okinawans are crazy about pork, and particularly proud of the fact that they eat every part of the pig – from its ears to its toes (literally). “Mimiga” is a dish consisting of strips of pig’s ear, which has a crunchy, cartilege-y texture, whilst “Tonsoku” means pig’s trotters, and you can sample these in a noodle broth, or “don.” Another traditional dish is “Rafute”, which consists of thick cuts of boiled pig’s belly. You can also find vaccuum-packed pig’s faces in many souvenir and grocery shops, which most foreigners find somewhat disconcerting.

Pig parts

Various pig parts

YAGI SASHIMI

 Yagi sashimi is the only dish mentioned here that I have yet to try, but it’s next on the list! Simply put, it consists of raw goat’s meat. This island speciality is less popular than other Okinawan favourites, perhaps due to its strong smell and chewy texture. Not for the faint-hearted!

Hello, little goat

Hello, little goat

CHINSUKO

Chinsuko is a variation on shortbread, and comes in many different, delicious flavours. (Not to be confused with “chinko”, which is Japanese slang for penis.)

Chinsuko

Chinsuko

KOKUTO

Finally, if you’re in Okinawa, you should get your hands on some Okinawan black sugar, or “kokuto.” With a flavour reminiscent of liquorice, kokuto is added to many Japanese dishes, but can also be eaten as a sweet on its own. Goodbye teeth.

Kokuto

Kokuto

Alternative guide to Japanese food – What they don’t tell you

Tour leader Richard, gets to eat a lot of food travelling around Japan. Japan is rightly famous for its delicious food and drink with a lot more on offer than sushi.There is something for everyone…and there there are other ‘interesting’ dishes.

Here are a few of my alternative favourites and, ummm, not so favourites! Are you feeling adventurous? If your answer is yes, come to Japan and get your chops around these special treats!

1) Natto-uzura sushi

Natto

Natto-Uzura

Of course we have to include natto when talking about strange Japanese food! However, this dish comes with a little extra something… a raw quail’s egg!!  Natto, made from fermented soy beans, is infamous amongst foreigners living in Japan. Japanese people often ask foreigners if they can stomach it, or will even run out to buy some before watching on with a kind of morbid fascination as the foreigner (generally) struggles to deal with the pungent smell, snot like consistency and strong flavour. This spectacle sometimes attracts a crowd.

Natto has been eaten by the Japanese for centuries and was once an important source of protein. It is largly eaten as a breakfast food and is believed to have many (almost miraculous and often exaggerated) benefits to health. Natto is to the Japanese what kimchi is to the Koreans. Likewise, quail eggs are believed to be a dietary food, high in vitamins and even linked with restoring sexual potency in men.

Personal verdict:
When I first came to Japan, I wasn’t a big fan of natto. It didn’t repulse me, but neither did it thrill me. However, as time has gone by I have grown to like the stinky stuff, especially when mixed with a generous dollop of karashi (Japanese mustard). I was feeling adventurous one day and decided to order natto-uzura and… I loved it!! It’s one of the first items I order every time I head to a sushi joint.

Where to buy it?
Natto-uzura sushi is available at most conveyor belt sushi restaurants. It’s particulary good at Musashi in Kyoto.

2) Deep fried, battered Hachinoko

Hachinoko

Hachinoko

By breaking down the kanji (Chinese characters) of Hachinoko (蜂の子), you can get an idea of what it is. Literally translated it means “young of wasps”, and that pretty much sums it up. The young are actually larvae, although there are normally a few fully grown wasps thrown in for good measure! Traditionally, the larvae are cooked in soy sauce with a little added sugar. My favourite restaurant, Rinku in Kurayoshi, serves them deep fried in a delicious batter.

Insects have traditionally been a source of protein for inland Japan. Wasps are said to have the highest percentage of edible protein of all insects – a whopping 81 percent! Insects are seen as many as the meat of the future, and there is no place on Earth quite like Japan at combining the traditional with the futuristic!

Personal verdict:    
I like the crunchy texture and slightly oily taste of the battered variety. I’ll be having them again when I get the chance.

Where to buy it?         
Rinku in Kurayoshi-shi, Tottori-ken is my fave insect joint! Hachinoko is also widely sold in the Nagano prefecture. Served at some rural ryokan in the Nagano region.

3. Shirako

Shirako

Shirako

Hmmm… this one is rather “special”. Shirako is fish millet served raw, as tempura or in nabe (a hot pot). Fish millet doesn’t sound too bad, right? Well, it does when you consider the fact that millet refers to the male genitalia of fish filled with sperm!!! Shirako is usually derived from cod and is considered a delicacy. It has a strange similarity in appearance to intestines.

Personal verdict:
I tried the nabe (hotpot) variety and found it to be strangely creamy in taste. The problem I had was that I kept thinking about how I was chewing on fish sperm. I’m in no rush to have it again.

Where to buy it?
Shirako is available in a number of supermarkets.

4) Horumon

Horumon

Horumon

Horumon has made a bit of a comeback in recent years with small restaurants seemingly popping up just about everywhere. I, for one, am happy about that! Horumon is the name given to grilled or barbequed offal (the parts of an animal usually discarded in the West). Stomach lining, lung, tongue and my personal favourite, intestine pipe, are popular dishes. To the surprise of many foreigners, horumon is not actually any cheaper than “normal” meat. The name “horumon” comes from the greek word “hormone” which means stimulation. Apparently. However, it is also similar to the Japanese word “hōrumon” which means “discarded goods” in the regional Kansai dialect.

Personal verdict:
Horumon is one of my favourite foods! Intestine pipe needs to be cooked well, but is well worth the wait.

Where to buy it?
Horumonyaki are very common. Jonsetsu Horumon is a reasonably priced chain. Can be bought at traditional Izakaya (Japanese pub)

5) Mamushi-shu

Mamushi-shu

Mamushi-shu

This last one is a drink with a twist, and I don’t mean lemon or lime. Simply get one venomous pit viper snake (mamushi), a big bottle of alcoholic sake, mix (alive), leave for several months and serve over ice!!

Sometimes called ‘snake wine’, mamushi-shu is believed to have medicinal properties, including helping overcome sexual dysfunction in men. The mamushi in the mamushi-shu in my favourite restaurant, Rinku, is reused and is now in its 18th year! That’s the same dead snake, put back in the jar. I wonder if it is losing its power?!

Personal verdict:
Well, as they say, ignorance is bliss. However, sadly I have a little bit of experience which renders that saying redundant. Let me explain… During time spent in Madagascar doing research, it was necessary for me to catch and handle a number of wild snakes. Invariably, the snakes would be stressed and would pee on my hands, with some making its way onto my clothes (which weren’t exactly getting regular washing). I became very familiar with the smell of snake urine. Seventy to seventy-five percent of what we perceive as taste actually comes from our sense of smellAnd that’s what mamushi-shu tastes like to me – snake pee!!! Is it strange that I’ve had it more than once??!! However, I often tend to opt for hachi-shu these days… alcohol with killer wasps in it!

Where to buy it:
Throughout Japan at traditional bars and restaurants.

Tokyo on the cheap

Contrary to popular belief, Tokyo is not that expensive. In fact, it is generally a cheaper place to visit than say London or Rome (Think recent press about four ice creams for £54). Food is cheap, but without losing the quality, public transport is cheap and a pleasure to use and some of the main sights in Tokyo are free…completely free. So here are a few reasons to back up why Tokyo is so great and well, cheap.

Mt Fuji from Tokyo

Mt Fuji from Tokyo

Million dollar views for free
You can’t grasp the size of the world’s biggest Metropolis until you look down on it from above. The city’s newest landmark, Tokyo Skytree will give you that extra few metres standing 634metres above Tokyo. The observation deck stands at 450 metres and cost 3000yen (approx £19.50) has been criticised by some as being too expensive (although it is the same price as the London Eye but gets you an extra 300 metres for your money). Alternatively (and still my favourite) the Shinjuku Metropolitan Government Building or Tocho, is one place that you can get a taste for Tokyo  for free, 202 metres up above the city. Take the elevator up to the 48th floor and enjoy views of the city, across the sprawling suburbs out to Mt Fuji. A great place to watch the sun go down and the lights come up.

Free festival fun
Head to Tokyo at the right time of year and there are all sorts of traditional festivals to enjoy. The festival or matsuri, is a big part of Japanese life and culture and the chance to get involved with the locals. Every festival is different, but expect to see men and women of all ages in bright yukata, kimono, jinbe jackets and fundoshi loin cloths, portable Mikoshi shrines, lots of good food stands, fireworks and people enjoying a drop of sake. There are hundreds of festivals throughout the year and all are free. The Kanda Matsuri (closest weekend to 15th May), the Sanja Matsuri (3rd weekend in May), the Sumidagawa Fireworks festival (last weekend in July) and the

Places to people watch
Take a stroll through some of Tokyo’s trendier districts on a Sunday to get a taste of modern culture. After taking a train journey for around a £1 or under $2, you could find yourself in Harajuku, browsing the cool shops. Walking over the bridge, passing the ‘Harajuku kids’, passing Meji Jingu Shrine in its beautifully forested grounds (free entry), you will find yourself in Yoyogi Park.
On a Sunday afternoon, you will find karate groups practicing, taiko drummers, rock and pop wannabes, comedians and more – A great place to people watch and relax.

Senbe rice crackers

Senbe rice crackers

Food for free
Eat for free!….well sort of. Feeling peckish? Head to one of Tokyo’s department stores and straight to the basement. You will find huge amounts of beautifully presented food in the gigantic and food halls of department stores such as Mitsukoshi and Takashimaya. You can stroll around sampling all sorts of Japanese delights. If you are wanting something more substantial, there are all sorts of options for just a few pounds/dollars. 100yen sushi – plates of good sushi costing approximately 65pence and under a dollar. A big bowl of hot ramen will set you back around 500yen (approx. £3.25 / $5). A convenience store bento box consisting of rice, fish, meat vegetables and more will cost around 400yen (less than £3/$5). And the best thing is that although cheap, the food is also good quality too.

Wandering on the cheap
The good thing about Tokyo is that it is the city and the people that are the real experience and not particular sights necessarily. Everywhere you go, you will find something new or stumble across something interesting. Just walking around amongst the lights and noises of Shibuya and Shinjuku, browsing food and clothes markets in Ueno, being wowed by floor upon floor of electronic goods in electronic department stores such as Yodabashi Camera, nipping into atmospheric little temples and shrines such as Sengakuji or exploring lesser known districts such as Kichijoji are all experiences in their own right. One of my favourite places to stroll is the retro Shibamata district. Low rise buildings, old fashioned shops selling traditional snacks and an attractive looking temple. Shibamata gives off a sleepy Tokyo feel, one of days gone by, oozing tradition and culture and is only a short journey from the buzz of the more famous districts.  It is free to stroll and well worth breaking a way from the usual districts. There is something new for the Westerner around every corner in this great city, so there is no need to go and blow loads of cash on expensive tourist attractions.

There are plenty of other tips for discovering a free Tokyo as well as a good value and cheap Tokyo. I hope that this blog piece assists in expelling the myth that Tokyo is an expensive city. It can be, but it certainly doesn’t have to be. More blog pieces to follow… If you want to find out about free/cheap things to do in Kyoto, well that’s a whole different set of blogposts.

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Tokaido Trailing Diaries – A novice travellers’ first visit to Japan

We have some great trips available covering just about every inch of Japan, but one of our most popular small group tours in the 9 night Tokaido Trail’. This is one of our oldest trips which is designed to take in the ‘highlights’ with our usual ‘get beneath the surface’ hidden gems along the way. It is simple, yet such a good tour and we often forget how good it is in favour of some of the more ‘off the beaten track’ trips. Back in November, a chap called Rob Harris decided to head to Japan on the aforementioned Tokaido Trail….and he loved it. He loved it so much that he has put together a little diary of his time on the tour which makes for interesting reading. The diary gives us an idea as to how much actually goes on during these tours.

Over this next week, we will be posting Robs’ account of his Japan adventure along with a few of his photos from the tour. This is a man who had not been out of the UK in five years and was keen to go somewhere “a bit different”. Here is what he had to say in his “An account of a novice travellers’ first visit to Japan”.

Day One & Two –  Tokyo

Day one

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The day finally arrived to begin my trip, and feeling like an eight year old kid on Christmas Eve I tried my best to sleep the night before. The flight from Heathrow on Virgin Atlantic’s excellent and much recommended Premium Economy service was faultless, and I arrived at Narita Airport keen and eager to get stuck in to the Japanese culture. Even the Green Tomato bus transfer to the Toyoko Inn in Asakusa had me wild-eyed with wonder, drinking in all the fresh sights of a hitherto alien environment. As we arrived a bit too early to check in to the hotel, myself and Howard, one of the other guys on the tour who arrived on the same flight, braved the streets of Tokyo, picked a direction, and headed off in to the unknown.

Sensoji
Our first destination was the Senso-Ji temple, and it was straight in to exactly the sort of architecture, sights, and sounds that I’d pictured as typically Japanese in my mind’s eye – striking shapes and colours, loads of crowds, and a bewildering array of stalls and shops selling everything from Samurai swords to octopus balls. This last item had us somewhat worried over exactly what we’d be eating on the tour, but as we were to discover later that night, our fears were rather unfounded!As a complete Gaijin, I am totally embarrassed to report that my first meal in Japan was – a Big Mac!Being desperate for food, and at this time lacking the confidence to try any of the plentiful restaurants – it was the easy option.It quickly became apparent that I was the least experienced traveller in the group, but I was determined to make up for any lack of experience with an unrestrained enthusiasm to get stuck in to all that Japan had to offer.

I’d waited a long time, and paid a lot of money, for this opportunity, and I wasn’t going to let it go to waste! Our first meal was a riot of brand new tastes, techniques and textures. My chopstick proficiency was sorely lacking at this time, but I managed to fumble a few tasty morsels in something approximating the right direction, and found myself enjoying everything from standard rice and noodles, to benito flakes (still an acquired taste in my book!), squid, octopus (yes, including the previously dreaded octopus balls!), sashimi, some delicious chunks of beef, and then on to what would prove to be the only food item which defeated me whilst on tour – the horse meat. Little did I know that some shops in the UK had been selling it for years!

Asakusa at night

After dinner, we walked towards the Senso-Ji temple, which at night time had a completely different aspect to its bustling, crowded daytime version – calmer, spectacularly lit, and beautiful to look at. Crowds of young Japanese were taking advantage of the adopted American festival of Halloween for an excuse to dress in outlandish costumes and have a good time. It seemed to me that they didn’t actually need much of an excuse at all to get out and have a good time!My first day in Japan had come to a close, and I was already deeply in love with the country, its culture and people. Everything seemed so easy and natural, despite being drastically different to life in my quiet backwater of Suffolk. With some good people on the tour, I was instantly looking forward with great anticipation to the next nine days.

Day Two

Another day, another new experience – my first Japanese breakfast! Miso soup, noodles, rice balls. The only rice for breakfast I was used to was of the Krispies kind! Still, food of any kind would provide fuel for the forthcoming day, and there was plenty of decent black coffee on tap. Sleep had been in short supply, despite the previous days’ exertions and travels. Guess that’s the jet-lag for you! Even those of the tour who had arrived a day early still seemed to be struggling to fully adjust.The weather was a little reminiscent of the UK, overcast and a hint of drizzle in the air, but as I’d been pre-warned by the excellent IJT info pack, I had been expecting a bit of inclement weather whilst in Japan.

Hamarikyu Gardens

First up today was a boat ride along the Sumida River, and by the time we’d boarded the rain was coming down. Maybe it was the lack of sunshine, but the riverside buildings lacked a bit of sparkle and interest, however the gardens at Hamarikyu were decidedly more picturesque. What I had originally thought were supports to prop-up an ancient and decrepit tree were clarified by Alain as a framework to train and guide the branches in to their intricate, elegant shapes, effectively full-scale Bonsai trees! To temporarily escape the rain, we entered the tea shop, and partook in our first Japanese Tea Ceremony. Carefully following the instructions on the laminated sheet, we ate our sweets, turned our tea cups in our hands, and drained our cups. Some found it an acquired taste, but personally I found it refreshing and relaxing. Looking out over the lake, I could feel a sense of calm helping to ease a mind still reeling from the flight out of the UK.Outside the park entrance we were confronted by some of the striking modern skyscrapers of the Shiodome district. Straining my neck to look up at the vertiginous buildings, I was struck by one of the many contradictions I was to encounter on my tour. Within just a few metres of the peace and tranquillity of the Hamarikyu Gardens was the ultra-modern expanse of steel and glass edifices, two entirely different worlds existing in complete harmony.

Tokyo Buildings

A quick metro ride landed us in the middle of Shibuya, with the Harajuku Bridge residents dressed up in their outlandish Sunday best, parading to see and be seen. After making our way through the crowded Takeshita Dori (careful with the pronunciation of that one!), Alain led us in to the Meiji Shrine, where we mingled with locals dressed in their traditional finery, most of them all too happy to pose for pictures taken by tourists. When shown the results, the grins on their faces seemed to reflect the pride they take in wearing their national costumes. Despite the language barrier, it was becoming apparent that with a smile, a small bow, and a polite and respectful nature, interacting with the locals was surprisingly easy and rewarding.

Tokyo nights

What a brilliant people the Japanese were proving to be! Walking back through Shinjuku heading back to Asakusa and our hotel, the rain came back with increased persistence. We headed back to the bright lights of Shinbasi for dinner for some quality Shabu Shabu that defies description – in the UK, it probably would have been condemned, but in Tokyo, it was utterly brilliant. Back to Asakusa, and time to experience another mainstay of Japanese culture for the first time – karaoke! Now, I’d never claim to have anything approaching a singing voice, but again I felt it was only right to throw myself completely in to the experience. A heck of a way to round off my first full day in Japan, getting to bed at gone 3am was maybe not the finest idea ever, but the price to pay the next day was worth it for a great night out.

Thank you to Rob for his account of the Tokdaido Trail tours. That’s just the first couple of days from Rob – So much for “What happens on tour, stays on tour”! The main thing is that Rob obviously enjoyed his experiences in Japan which we always love to hear. If you want to read about what happened to Rob and the group  in Kamakura, Hakone and Kyoto too, then keep reading through the week for a day-by-day account of what went on…..

Five reasons to visit the north of Japan

The beauty of Tohoku

Just fifteen minutes ago, before sitting down to write this, I was plunging into an outdoor hot-spring on the roof of my ryokan (Japanese Inn) watching the sun set over Sado Island, a lesser known destination off Japan’s north-west coast. With steam pouring into the cool air around me, I watched as the clouds and verdant hillside of Mount Kinpoku turned orange and then pink and purple as the sun dipped ever lower on the horizon, before finally disappearing into the distant Japan Sea. I was thoroughly lost in the moment, and I would have happily stayed that way had I not remembered that I was sharing this ‘magical moment’ with the four naked Japanese men who were also in the hot-spring. Strangely, and not necessarily for the better, I have grown all too accustomed to jumping into baths with naked strangers. Indeed, every night on my two week trip around Tohoku (northern Japan excluding Hokkaido) my companion and I have done as the locals do and finished off a long day of sightseeing with a dip in the onsen (hot-springs).

Yet this experience, as undeniably special as it was, has been only one among many. Which got me to thinking about what I like best about Tohoku.

A sample of what our nightly fare consisted of

Food! Food, food, food…. and food. At times it felt like we simply sightseeing in order to fill time until the next meal. Sure enough, delicious food can be found all over Japan but there is a plethora of local specialities in the north that make it different and exotic, even to a Japanese ‘foodie’ like myself. Staying in temples, hotels, and ryokans, every night has been a feast as artfully presented and as delicious as the one before. Fresh sashimi, whole crabs staring me in the face, tender slabs of marbled wagyu beef, oysters, nabe stews, noodles, tofu, black skinned pork, fried chicken, sushi… just to name a few.

A few shots from our time in the Ishinomaki area, still recovering and rebuilding from last year’s tsunami

A visit to one of the tsunami stricken areas is a harrowing experience but, for me, it was also one which inspired hope, reaffirmed my belief in the goodness of communities and their ability to come together in the face of disaster, and reminded me of just how many selfless organisations and individuals are working to rebuild the cities, houses, and neighbourhoods that were completely and utterly destroyed 19 months ago. The very short time that I spent volunteering in Ishinomaki is an experience that money simply can’t buy, and one that I would recommend to anyone with the desire to make a difference.

The nature of Nikko

Just a few short hours north of Tokyo is one of my favourite places to visit in all of Japan. Aside from the architectural masterpieces for which the area has become famous for, Nikko has great hiking, postcard perfect waterfalls, colourful foliage in autumn, wild monkeys and serrows, hot-springs, and cool summers. By all accounts, this is a “must-see” destination. Of course, as with most “must-see” spots, there is rarely a quiet day when you can get the best sights to yourself, which is all the more reason to make sure you spend the night at a traditional inn near the temples and go for a wander at night once all the crowds gone home to Tokyo.

Sado Island’s rugged coast

I ride on the comfortable Tokkaido shinkansen (the bullet train running between Tokyo and Fukuoka) weekly and spend much of that time gazing out the window watching as neat rows of exquisitely manicured green tea plantations and the many rice paddies squeezed between houses and cities whiz by. Some days even Mount Fuji makes an appearance. Yet every time I make this journey I am simply amazed at how developed this densely populated corridor of Japan is.

In northern Honshu (Japan’s main island) life moves at a slower pace, nature still reigns supreme, and small towns outnumber big cities. For anyone who has only been west of Tokyo, a trip up north will reveal a different side of Japan; and if you’ve never been to Japan at all, this might just be the Japan you’ve always imagined.

The natural and historic beauty of Haguro San is truly exquisite

The last on my list is most certainly not least; Haguro San is the smallest of three sacred peaks in Yamagata prefecture but it is far more than just another hill.

From what felt like a very ordinary road running through the middle of a small town, I stepped off the bus and walked no more than 20 metres through an old Buddhist gate and found myself in another world altogether. A bit like Narnia but without the talking animals. 2446 stone steps cut through giant cedars, lead me over an arched red wooden bridge, past a 1000 year old cedar tree, around a 600 year old ornate wooden five-storied pagoda, into a teahouse for a well deserved rest, and finally on to my accommodation, a Buddhist temple turned Japanese inn at the peak’s summit.

The quiet air and reverent atmosphere at the top of this pilgrimage destination left me forgetting completely about the cares and worries of my daily life in Tokyo. Instead of opening up my computer or flipping on the TV once the sun went down, I changed into my yukata (a light cotton kimono), had a boil in the temple’s bath and then sat down to a delicious almost-vegetarian feast and a large ice cold beer. This was surely the closest I was going to come to having a religious experience.

Runaway Bride

We love Japan. We really do. Some people really really love it though. Sarah and Robbie love Japan so much, that they went and got married there! You may remember last year Sarah did a blog post for us about why she wanted to get married in Japan It wasn’t just words. Sarah and Robbie have recently returned from Japan from what can only be described as an amazing wedding day. People often try and do something a bit different at their wedding, but this is completely different. What is even better, is that Sarah wanted to share her experience with us.  Sarah and her husband look fantastic in their traditional wedding clothes and I am sure that they will never forget this special trip. Anyway, in her own words and pictures, here is how it all went..

My husband and I returned to Kyoto to do what most people find very intriguing. We went to Kyoto for our honeymoon…not that different you might think… We were newly weds yes, but decided to make our marriage extra special by indulging in another one!

We have been together nearly 10 years, not quite childhood but ‘teenage’ sweethearts. Our wedding day in England was very emotional and extremely special as it had been a long time coming!

When planning our honeymoon… (well I say planning. It was going to be Japan all along) I came upon Inside Japan’s wedding package. It was perfect! A wedding in Japan, a country which I have adored since I was a little girl and a place which embraced us so warmly on our first visit 2 years ago.

The wedding package included a three night stay at the Granvia hotel, three nights in a junior suite (overlooking Kyoto Tower by the way) and our breakfast/evening meals.


Our first day at the Granvia hotel involved choosing our wedding attire. I chose a beautiful ivory shiromuku ordained with cranes (the ones you see leaping in the air during the breeding season on the snowy plains of Hokkaido) and I opted for the traditional ‘wataboshi’, a white standing veil/hood which is held up by what can only be described as hair scaffolding. The purpose of the wataboshi is said to hide the horns of jealousy of the bride. Rob wore traditional Japanese groom ‘hakama’ which looks like long pleated skirt and a ‘haori’ a type of coat/jacket.

On the morning of the ceremony we were dressed by the Granvia staff (and you could tell they had done it all before!) The shiromuku I was wearing involved an under dress, several layers and lots of padding! It was very heavy (I had been warned by a Japanese friend of mine so I was prepared!). Before the wataboshi was put in place the hairdresser placed ‘kanzashi’ in my hair, beautiful dangly hair ornaments you often see framing the faces of maiko.

We were driven to the Kamigamo shrine, one of the oldest shrines in Kyoto. After a brief walk-through of the ceremony with one of the priests, we were lead to the shrine where the ceremony was to be held. Several people visiting shouted ‘omedetou gozaimasu’ or congratulations. This made the day extra special as we were being embraced by the Japanese people by having a traditional ceremony in their country.


Before we entered the shrine we did a purification ritual. Water was poured over our hands by the priest while he recited a purification prayer. A purification ritual was then performed by another priest at the shrine. We were then offered ‘Omiki’ or sacred sake. After sipping three times from three cups we exchanged rings (the same ones we exchanged all the way back in England) and offered a Tamagushi or a sacred branch to the alter. During the ceremony beautiful gagaku music was performed by priests (if you haven’t heard gagaku music please google it and watch the hairs on your arms stand up…simply beautiful).

After the ceremony which lasted around 30 minutes we were driven back to the Granvia hotel where we were lead to a large open area in the hotel grounds. A tradition of some Japanese weddings is to ring a large bell…so we did! The staff surrounded us and clapped. I did everything I could not to cry with happiness. That evening, we indulged in a 10 course wedding breakfast which included: sashimi, tempura, miso soup and beautiful tender beef, all brought to us on ornately decorated plates. Oishii!
I would recommend having a wedding ceremony in Japan if, like me, you are fascinated by different cultures or want a special way to exchange vows with the person you love… or you have an insane obsession with Japan in general (like me). The package was worth every penny. From the moment we stepped in to the hotel lobby we were treated like William and Kate and the attention to detail was just out of this world. I am proud to say I got married twice!

To all the staff at Inside Japan and the Granvia Hotel, Kyoto. Thank you so much for allowing Rob and I to share such a beautiful and perfect experience with each other. None of it would have been possible without your knowledge, passion and love for Japan. I look forward to the day we can show our children how beautiful and special Japan is and why I fell in love with a country so far away from a tiny village in Yorkshire.

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I haven’t actually met Rob or Sarah in person, but since their original trip a few years ago, their blog post last year and their wedding, it  has been an absolute pleasure dealing with them. It is great to know that other people love the country and culture that you love too….if not a little more! We were all very excited to see the photos from the wedding and I am sure you will agree that they both look amazing. We wish them all the best for the future . I am sure that this is not the last time that they will be visitng Japan.

Omedetou Gozaimasu!!!

Going Green in Japan – Tip #5: Eat seasonal, local food

In the UK we think having strawberries in the supermarket all year round is a basic human right. This is not very green: think food miles, pesticides and heated greenhouses.

Japan, on the other hand, really excels at seasonal, local food.

In Japan the changing of seasons is celebrated throughout the culture, reflected in art and festivals. Seasonal cuisine is also treasured. So the Japanese look forward to eating crab and mikan in winter; bamboo shoots, tuna and herring in spring; bonito in early summer; and matsutake mushrooms and chestnuts in the autumn.

Japanese mikan

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