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”!

Rediscovering Nikko (Part 2 of 2)

As I touched on in the first part of this post, Nikko National Park is not far from Tokyo and so with even a one night stay here you can pack in two full day’s of “off the beaten path” sightseeing. Sure, you’ll see a good number of tourists at the most famous sites in Nikko (like Kegon Waterfall or the Unesco World Heritage listed Shrines and Temples) but if you dare to put in just a little bit of extra effort to get beneath the surface of Nikko’s natural and cultural history you will be amply rewarded. Continuing on from part 1, here are some more can’t miss sites that aren’t in the guidebooks just yet.

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A working waterwheel in Nikko National Park. This is one of only a handful of waterwheels that is not simply there for nostalgia’s sake but actually working to produce incense.

What better place to start your journey in Nikko National Park than with a visit to the area near Takao Shrine (pictured above). Altering shades of green roll across the landscape of verdant evergreens and giant sheets of rice paddies divided by small ditches that can be walked along for an experience that will completely surround you.

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The proud and friendly owner of the incense producing water wheel.

A highlight of visiting this area is a small hut with a water wheel that is near the shrine’s entrance. You might even hear the clickety clank of the water wheel’s gears before the old shack comes in to view. Surprisingly, this isn’t simply a water wheel that has been leftover from more rustic times,an old man uses the power of an irrigation stream to assist in making incense – a ubiquitous good in Japanese homes and temples.

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Wooden gears spin as the waterwheel turns. The noise is unforgettable!

The nearby Takao Shrine is equally interesting. Like the shrines and temples seen in Japanese movies, this one is surrounded by nature and sees only a few dozen visitors each day so you can often get it to yourself. The beauty of architecture is complemented nicely by the tall cedar trees that line the entrance. But unlike some of the masterpieces that you’ll find in Nikko proper, it’s the small details at this shrine that are most likely to stick with you.

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It may not look like much but if you take a ladle of that crystal clear water and pour it over the rocks, you will hear a beautiful ringing as the water drips into a massive brass bowl that resonates the sound below. Magical!

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Before you leave the area make sure to stop at the small restaurant at the bottom of the hill for some naturally produced shaved ice. Before I had tasted it, I questioned whether there was much of a difference between this “natural” shaved ice and the stuff my refrigerator churns out back in Tokyo but after having a few bites of the green tea sweet I have become a convert for life! If you want to see what goes in to make such a treat for the senses, check out the process with this video from Youtube.

 

The hard work is a labour of love for the 4th and 5th generation ice makers that oversee this process. They are Nikko locals and run their operations in the National Park so, if you’re there during the right time of year you can go and see this ice making process in person. And if you’re there in the summer you can simply enjoy some of the best shaved ice (kakigori) that you’ll find anywhere!

Moving on, we head to Heike no Sato a place of cultivated and natural beauty that is full of history. This collection of folk houses from around the area recreates the atmosphere of 800 years before, when a battle between rival clans sent the Heike warriors into refuge in Nikko’s mountains. If you aren’t making it to any other folk villages over the course of your trip to Japan then this is a must-see sight in Nikko National Park. You will come away with a far better understanding of the type of lifestyle that was still common up until the 1900’s.

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The picturesque entrance to Heike no Sato.

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The world renowned Akiko Sakurai performs at Heike no Sato. In the background you can see a Torii gate where the Heike clan worshiped in place of the original in their homeland – which they couldn’t go to because they were hiding from the victors whom had driven them here.

There is great food to be found in Nikko and plenty of variety to boot. But the one thing that you shouldn’t miss is surely yuba – a tofu like sheet that Nikko has become famous for. A particularly tasty yuba dish is available at Heike no Sato (pictured below).

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Enjoying some yuba, green tea and mochi at Heike no Sato.

Having already covered some of Nikko’s best sights you could easily relax at a cafe overlooking one of Nikko’s lakes or head to an onsen (hot spring) but if you still have a bit of energy left, why not go for a walk through the wilderness in Senjogahara. The path here is an easy walk with sweeping vistas of the National Park. Best of all, if you visit in different seasons you will find entirely new seasons waiting for you.

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The boardwalk keeps you safely above the marsh beneath and, most importantly, protects the local habitat at the same time.

Trying to decide where to go in Japan is a difficult task to say the least. I’ve lived and worked here for nearly a decade and traveled extensively but there are so many places that I’m still longing to visit. But if you find yourself in Tokyo and your looking for a side of Japan that simply can’t be found in the city, head up to Nikko for a few days; you won’t be disappointed!

 

Hagino’s Hokkaido Home

This wouldn’t be the first time that I have gone on about the fact that InsideJapan is luck to have some talented and interested people working for it. We all have a passion for Japan. We all have a passion for particular places and elements of culture. Some of us are from the UK, there are some from the US, some from Canada, Belgium and of course Japan. Hagino san works in our beautiful Boulder office and wanted to tell us a bit about her life and love for Hokkaido. In her own words, here she is -

Everyone’s face lit up when I tell people from the main island of Japan that I’m from Hokkaido – Every time!

Shiretoko countryside

Shiretoko countryside

The name Hokkaido has the effect no other place has in Japan. Perhaps when people hear the name Hokkaido, they picture the big land up north with broad sky and wild nature, and they feel the longing for the unknown country. A few years ago, there was a very popular TV series called “Kita no Kunikara”, which drew a life of a family in a country side of Hokkaido. It was kind of like a Japanese version of the American “Little house on the Prairie.” Hokkaido is not very known by foreign tourists besides the great ski resorts, but it has a lot more to offer.

Blue Lake

Blue Lake

I am from Eniwa, the city unknown even to some people from Hokkaido. The name comes from the native Ainu people’s language “E-en-iwa”, which means “pointy mountain”. The town nestles under Mt. Eniwa, with a pointy peak as the name describes. A lot of the name of places originated from Ainu name, such as “sap-poro” for Sapporo, which means “broad dry area”.

Probably the reason why Hokkaido doesn’t have much of the historic appeal like Kyoto to tourists is that Hokkaido was settled by Japanese people long after the main island of Japan was settled. Up to this point Hokkaido exclusively populated by the native Ainu people. They relied mainly on salmon, which was abundant, and they even made shoes out of salmon skin. If you are interested in learning about Ainu history and culture, a great Ainu Museum in Shiraoi is about two and a half hour train ride from Sapporo.

Mt. Yotei

Mt. Yotei

As I grew up, trips to the mountains were my family’s regular weekend and Holiday activities. The town of Kucchan is located about two hour train or bus ride from Sapporo. Kucchan has a lot to offer all season long. In summer, you can enjoy hiking up the beautiful Mt. Yotei, recognized as one of the Japan’s best hundred mountains (based on the book called “Nihon Hyakumeizan” by Kyuya Fukada). With its shape similar to Mt. Fuji, Mt. Yotei is called “Ezo (means Hokkaido) Fuji”.

In winter, the town is busy entertaining skiers from all over the world coming to enjoy the powder snow at Niseko Ski Resort. Now partly owned by a foreign company, it is easier to find information in English about Niseko. And, of course, where mountains are, onsen (hot spring) is. There is a whole range of onsen to choose from. There is also a great restaurant called “Maccarina” in the village of Makkari nearby, about 40 minute drive from the ski area, offering delicious local produce and fresh seafood.

Sweet shrimp

Sweet shrimp

Hokkaido is famous for food. You are probably thinking, “Anywhere in Japan seems to be famous for food…” Well, it’s true. Hokkaido is famous for a various kind of seafood. You can treat yourself with Kaisen-don, a rice bowl with full of assortment of fresh seafood such as tuna, salmon, scallops, sea urchin, squid, octopus, and shrimp, or try Hokkaido’s favorite Ikura-don, a rice bowl topped full with salmon roe.

Chan-chan-yaki is one of the traditional cuisines of Hokkaido, vegetables grilled with usually a half of salmon, dressed with butter, miso, and mirin. One of my favorite is Ikameshi, a whole squid stuffed with rice and cooked in soy sauce based stock. Hokkaido has its own style of yakiniku (barbeque) called “Jingiskan” (The name comes from the Mongolian Emperor Genghis Khan). Using a special Jingiskan grill pan, thinly sliced lamb and vegetables are cooked together. You also have to try Imomochi (potato mochi) or Ageimo (fried potato cake) as a snack on the road as well.

Biei

Biei

The well-known Daisetsuzan National Park is the backbone of Hokkaido. With about three hours train and bus ride from Sapporo, you can get to the bottom of the aerial lift for Mt.  Asahidake. Enjoy the fifteen minute scenic lift ride up to the top, and it is up to you to hike around the well maintained trails for forty five minutes, or go even farther and backpack along the ridge of the mountains. My husband and I hiked for five days going south from Mt. Asahidake, which is one of the best memories of hiking in Hokkaido. If you have a car, you could take a side trip to the town of Kuriyama on the way to Daisetsuzan National Park and enjoy a tour and sake tasting at Kobayashi Sake Factory. (Be sure to have a designated driver who is willing to just watch other people taste sake, because Japan has zero alcohol driving limit.)

Snow festival

Snow festival

Apart from shopping, enjoying ramen, Sapporo beer and touring through the snow statues at Snow Festival in Sapporo, you can really take time and explore the big land of Hokkaido. There are a lot more places I want to introduce you to, but for now, I will let the wild land lay quietly by letting YOU discover your secret spots in Hokkaido. As my mother put it once, “The best thing about Hokkaido is that there is nothing around.”

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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.

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