Lucky 7 reasons to Visit Japan in the Autumn

1. Witness the koyo:
Whilst the springtime cherry blossom season (sakura) has become a famous symbol of Japan, the blazing autumnal foliage is an often overlooked spectacle. The turning of the leaves paints the scenery a flaming red and gold, and ‘koyo’- the viewing of the changing leaves- takes the place of sakura as an event to be celebrated.

2. Jidai and Daimyo:
Both of these festivals celebrate Japan’s feudal ancestry with an enchanting display of historical re-enactments and traditional clothing. The Jidai festival or ‘Festival of Ages’ takes place in Kyoto in October and the Hakone Daimyo festival in early November.

3. Watch a sumo match:
Fukuoka plays host the November sumo tournament, where you can see the various divisions compete – A great day out and a rare chance to see the big guns of this sport do their thing….Why not sample the favoured dish of sumo wrestlers; chanko nabe – Oishii!….in fact….

Sumo practice

4. Autumn Food and autumn beer:
Japanese food often reflects the seasons. Chanko nabe, or nabemono is a delicious one-pot dish that is served in the cooler seasons. Many people will hold nabe parties to welcome in the season with friends. There are also plenty of ‘autumn flavoured ‘ (Aki aji) beers avaialble to refesh and accompany the food too!

5. Take in some art and culture:
The Setouchi Art Festival this year celebrates the seasons of the 12 islands of the Sento Inland Sea. Each season of the festival is unique, and in autumn only you can explore the Honjima, Takamijima, Awashima, and Ibukijima islands. Activities and exhibitions are held to highlight each island’s uniqueness and preserve it against modern homogenization. In short – A great festival in a beautiful setting at a lovely time of year.

Naoshima Pumpkin

6.  Enjoy the temperate climes:
After the sticky hot summer, autumn provides a comfortable respite before winter sets in. Warm and dry, it’s an ideal season for walks and seeing Japan at its best.

Kyoto in Autumn

7. Have a soak under the sky:
The temperate weather makes it all the better to enjoy an outdoor Onsen, the traditional hot steam bath. Bathe whilst admiring the stunning koyo.

Zao Onsen hot spring

So!  Just 7 reasons here as to why Japan is a great place to travel in the Autumn months. There are many more where that came from….

Tokaido Trailing Diaries – Hot springy mountains

Continuing along the Tokaido coast of Japan, the trip ventured into the mountainous Hakone national park famed for hot springs, black eggs, secret wooden boxes and samurai history. Don’t know what I am on about? – Read Rob’s  account of his next couple of days on the Tokaido Trail….

Day Four & Five – Hakone

Day Four

Hakone - Lake Ashi

Another day, another variation on the Japanese style of breakfast. By now, I was becoming more accustomed to the food on offer – the salmon this morning was particularly tasty. We said farewell to most of our luggage at this point, with the larger cases and rucksacks being forwarded on to our hotel in Kyoto with typical Japanese efficiency and security – at no point on the tour did I have any doubts whatsoever that the locals would treat both us and our belongings with the utmost of respect and decency.

We headed off towards Hakone, first on the JR train, and then a local bus. Being a little tight on space, this is why we had to travel a bit lighter on our feet.As a self-confessed petrolhead, the roads from Odawara up to Hakone had me almost drooling in anticipation. Stunning scenery, hairpin bend after hairpin bend as the road rose in continuous switchbacks higher and higher in to the mountains. This was the legendary kind of road where the craze for “drifting” high powered sports cars had blossomed, and I kept my eyes peeled for the sort of machinery which had my right foot twitching for an imaginary throttle pedal!

Our base for the next couple of days was the charming Fuji Hakone ryokan, a traditional family-run guesthouse, complete with futons, Tatami mats on the floor, sliding timber and paper screens, and of course, the onsen hot spring baths. The warmest of welcomes had it feeling like a home away from home; this was exactly the sort of accommodation I’d been looking forward to experiencing. With the mountains dominating the skyline above the small town, this was probably my favourite location we stayed in all tour.

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We hopped back on the bus, heading towards Gora for some lunch – pork ramen noodles this time, up until now the most delicious thing I’d eaten all tour, prompting me to use a new Japanese phrase “gochiso sama deshita” for the first time. Alain was babbling on excitedly about something he called the “Batman Wheel”, but would tell us nothing more, leaving us slightly baffled until we got to Gora and found a massive turn-table to spin the buses around!Another ingenious solution typical of Japanese engineering, it elegantly solved the problem of how to execute a three-point turn in a confined space. Why can’t we come up with these things in the UK?

Back on the bus after lunch, we were taken to the Hakone Open Air Museum, to see the modern art exhibitions. I really wasn’t expecting this to be my cup of tea, but do you know what? I really enjoyed it! OK, I can’t profess to understand the deeper meanings behind the majority of the pieces, but they were certainly striking to look at, set in a beautifully scenic location with a calm, relaxing atmosphere. We were lucky with our timing, as the trees were just starting their Autumnal change, providing us with a riot of colour. A little bit of culture can be good for you, it seems, helped by Joss and myself taking advantage of the hot stream foot bath to sooth the soles.

Dinner in Hakone that night gave me another excuse to use my newest Japanese expression. I’d thought the noodles I’d had at lunch time were pretty tasty, but the ginger pork with noodles, Japanese curry rice and draught Asahi I had that night were simply mouth-watering – another very fine recommendation from Alain! After a dip in the onsen hot spring bath, I retired to my futon for the night.

Day Five

Today we were to circumnavigate the Hakone “Loop”, so it was back on the bus to Gora to catch the funicular railway, climbing the slope to the first section of cable car ropeway taking us up to Owakundani. Looking down on the sulphuric hot spring vents looked more like the surface of an alien world than Planet Earth, and the bright yellow stains gave forewarning of the stench we were about to experience. Now that is a smell which permeates the linings of your nostrils, so strong you can almost taste it. Eating one of the local kuro-tamago (eggs, hard-boiled and blackened in the hot springs) is said to extend your lifespan by seven years, but I couldn’t bring myself to attempt one.

Pirate ship

The last section of ropeway took us down to Lake Ashi, and the pirate ship cruise – yep, you read that right – pirate ships! OK, they’re just modern cruise ships decked out to look like pirate ships, but it’s yet another typically over-the-top Japanese experience. Bizarrely, I got talking to a couple of lads from Nepal who wanted to know how far Scotland was from London, and asked whether we’d seen Mount Fuji yet – they said with a grin that they had proper mountains where they were from, not these mere hills!

Moto Hakone
Once docked in Moto Hakone, we paid a visit to the puzzle box shop. The proprietor came out and gave us a demonstration of the techniques involved in creating the wood block designs, the different styles of puzzle box and how they work. Despite him speaking no English, and Alain only being able to sporadically translate what he was saying, I managed to take on board most of what he was telling us. The skill in designing and fabricating these boxes is beyond belief, as not only do they look beautiful, they are incredibly intricate and superbly engineered. The smallest, simple boxes involve just one or two simple moves or taps of the box to open, but one larger box he demonstrated had an astounding 54 moves to unlock – you’d better be pretty sure of remembering the combination before securing your valuables inside!

Armour
After a quick lunch of noodles, we walked along a short section of the old Tokaido highway, before catching the bus back to the ryokan. Whilst the rest of the group headed in to the ryokan, I took a walk in to the town and tracked down the Samurai museum. I think I took them by surprise with my visit, as the girl behind the counter had to turn the lights back on so I could walk around. It was on the compact size, but they had some stunning exhibits, from katanas and other vicious looking weapons, to intricate suits of armour. This was something else I’d been keen on seeing on tour, as the Samurai are another iconic Japanese image.

I headed back home and rejoined the group at the ryokan. Before dinner, we were entertained by Mai Tsunemi and her traditional Japanese koto, a stringed instrument being a strange mix of guitar and harp. A few of the tour party were encouraged (some might say under extreme peer pressure!!) to have a go themselves, and they all performed with aplomb. Having the natural rhythm of a house brick, I declined the opportunity to embarrass myself in front of an audience. Once back at the ryokan, whilst some people headed for their allocated timeslots in the onsen baths, the rest mingled in the sitting room. It was a great way to round off another packed day, and I slept a whole heap better that night.

So there you have it from Rob. Another packed couple of days Tokaido Trailing in Japan. Next is Kyoto which is often considered the highlight of the trip….everyone is different aren’t they. Find out what Rob and co get up to in the old capital of Kyoto. Yoroshiku!

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.

10 Reasons why Japan is so great – No.10 New experiences

I am going to finish the 10 reasons why Japan is so great with another broad but a valid reason. Japan is bursting with new experiences for even the most intrepid of travellers. When you go for dinner, walk to the shop, get on the train and from when you wake to when you go to sleep, Japan fills your day with new and exciting experiences. Being so culturally different to the west (and most places in the world), it is just a very different place to be and no matter how old you are, there is an abundance of….well, just new stuff to stimulate your senses.

In my opinion, part of what makes travelling and indeed life so varied and exciting are the new things that you encounter in the world. I would say that it is rare for a person to visit any one country in this world these days and to encounter something new and alien just about everyday. For the visitor, I would say that Japan manages to do this supplying a vast array of positive cultural experiences.

Japan is a wonderful country and I challenge anyone not to come away enthusing about the people, culture, country, transport, food and more, just as I have in this series of posts. I have barely mentioned the magic of sitting in an outdoor hot spring bath overlooking the snow covered mountains or staying in ryokan, wearing yukatta and being on the receiving end of some of the finest and friendliest hospitality in the world or the impressive traditional festivals with their mikoshi parades, yukatta-clad girls and fundoshi-wearing guys, fireworks, food and plenty of sake. These are the more obvious differences in Japan and are each worth a blog post of their own with a hundred other things, but there are a thousand other little elements of Japanese life that give you little surprises and make you smile.

There are a many other reasons as to why Japan is so great but, if you would like to experience an enlightening country like no other place in the world then you should seriously consider travelling to Japan.

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Greetings From a Winter Wonderland!

After completing my first year with the company, which proved to be an extremely rewarding one with new challenges and experiences, I ended 2011 in the UK for a month – no surprises with the weather there – murky grey days that stingily offered a measly 36 minutes of sunlight each!

Similarly, yet in stark climatic contrast, Japan’s winter months are predictably reliable in their nature – crisp blue skies and temperatures in the single figures on the coastal plains, sub-zero and snowy in the inland areas.

Nihonzaru, or the Japanese Macaques have become famous throughout the world for taking well earned dips in hot spring pools - they do have to endure winter temperatures that can drop to minus 20 at night after all! We were able to observe these primate cousins of ours from a few (i.e. 3!) feet away, catching a glimpse of their habits, mannerisms and social interaction - be it at bath time - without bothering them!

Being a lover of snow, I was so pleased to run our first tour of the year this January with people not so used to the white stuff – namely tour members from Brazil and Australia. The snow brings a pristine innocence to the countryside, that is awe-inspiring when it falls as much as it does here in Japan, much to the surprise of many.

This riverside stroll proved to be a million miles away, in every respect, from a sunset walk along the Copacobana for this Brazilian IJT group member!

For an experienced tour leader, it also paints towns and landscapes with a new and intriguing layer, prompting the feeling of an area unchartered. I really felt that my group and I were getting to see a Japan that so few do. My tour – Japan Unmasked – one of our trips that frequents the same places as in the spring, summer and autumn, is further embellished by the ivory flakes, which leave the image of winter purity forever etched on the mind.

The geyser in Jigokudani Valley creates magical natural sculptures with blueish hues of deoxygenated ice.

There are not many places on the planet that can boast as much snow as Japan can. Over 400 ski resorts dotted around the country lay testimony to the quality and amount of snow here – and 2 Winter Olympic Games (Sapporo 1972 and Nagano 1998) says it all!

However that doesn’t mean that non-skiers should stay away until the big thaw – all the temples, karaoke bars, bullet trains, neon signs and zen gardens still await – but with an added layer of something special, and if you come out of season, the welcome is warmer!

The Lesser-Spotted Aussie in an Igloo. Non-endemic to Japan, this species has long been assumed as primarily a warm weather creature feeding off beer and barbecued shrimps. However, research has shown it to be particularly fond of hot spring baths in the snow and a hot sake to warm the core!

There are still 2 more months of snow left – why not come join us in this winter wonderland?!  Just make sure you bring an extra sweater and gloves!!

Although Japan in winter offers the lucky traveller a wonderland, this local Shishi shrine guardian could not hide its irritation at being rendered snow blind!

A pre-soak soaking – hiking in the rain to Kurama Onsen

Sunday 1st November 2009: Another month, another bath! What better way to celebrate the turning of the calendar from October to November than a journey out to visit an onsen that has long captured my imagination and yet in 10 years of visiting Japan I had failed to venture to: Kurama. Located at the end of the Eiden electric railway, a rather cute tram-type train that winds its way out of Kyoto to the mountains in the north, Kurama Onsen is renowned in Kyoto for being a place of real natural beauty and a town where some of the most traditional aspects of Japanese culture are still thriving. Extremely popular in autumn-leaf season (usually the middle of November), Kurama is an escape from the busy streets of central Kyoto. Continue reading

Ebisu-yu, Kurashiki

Monday 19th October – Ebisu-yu, Kurashiki

So the bath blog continues. Ah the excitement of reading about another bath!

After my mammoth ride through Shikoku (mammoth for me anyway) I ventured to Kurashiki for a one night stay in this historic town. This was my first visit and I was not disappointed. Kurashiki really is very charming and would definitely make an enjoyable one or even two night stay on any Japan holiday itinerary. However, the purpose of this blog section is not to talk about sightseeing but about baths. Continue reading

Getting Naked in Japan: The bath blog

It is pretty well known that Japan is a land of natural hot springs. You may also be aware of the long history of bathing in Japan, a nation which was extolling the hygiene and relaxation benefits of a long soak when us Brits still thought taking a bath was a sure-fire way to an early grave! (click for an interesting history of bathing) What perhaps isn’t so well appreciated is quite is the sheer volume of bath houses across the whole of Japan. There are famous onsen areas such as Hakone, Kusatsu and Beppu where you can find a huge range of natural hot spring baths from the one pool variety with very basic facilities to the most luxurious spas where beautiful gardens and outdoor hinoki wood baths combine with massage and spa treatments for the ultimate relaxation experience. However, it is not just these famous areas that boast bath houses. In fact nearly very town in Japan will have a public bath. Most are not onsen but sento, bath houses where the water is heated from the mains in a more conventional fashion! But even without the mineral benefits of their volcanic cousins, sento still provide a great relaxation and social experience. Continue reading

10 things not to miss in Japan – Part 1

It is the hardest question to be asked about Japan: “What do I have to see”? Given that every time I visit I find new ‘not to be missed’ places and experiences it is almost impossible to provide anything approaching an adequate answer. However, just to see if I could, I thought I would write some of them down and see if of all the myriad of extraordinary things to see and do in Japan I really could distill it down to just 10 ‘not-to-be-missed’ items. So, in no particular order, here we go:

1/ 4 am ramen after a night out in Osaka
Perhaps it says something about me that this is the first item I could come up with but there really is nothing like it. Osaka is an incredible place; an absolutely electric city with more energy than an 8 year old high on Sunny D. As the sun goes down the city comes out to play as salarymen pour out of the offices and into the bars and hostess clubs. The neon starts flashing and so the entertainment begins. You can have a lot of fun out in Osaka but after a night bar hopping there is only one way to round everything off – a steaming bowl of steaming cha-shu ramen noodles with a portion of gyoza on the side. This is truly food of the gods. There are no two ways about it. Add extra spoons of fresh crushed garlic, some chili spice and start slurping. And of course, order an ice cold nama biru to wash it all down with. This is the place to meet the locals; always intoxicated and always good natured. For me this is the perfect end to a great night out. Definitely one of the top 10 things to experience in Japan.

2/ Sunrise from the top of Mt. Fuji
This may not be for everyone. Well, I shall rephrase that. This really is for everybody but it is getting up there that might not be! Fuji-san is a true symbol of japan; a majestic, soaring volcano with a near-symmetrical form. At 3776 metres (12,388 feet) this is no walk in the park. The overnight climb is long and hard and although quite do-able for anyone with a reasonable level of every day fitness. Determination is the order of the day. There are four paths to choose from (Kawaguchi, Subashiri, Gotemba, Fujinomiya). Gotemba is the hardest climb by virtue of being the longest, the 5th station located just 1400 metres. At 2400 metres Fujinomiya is the shortest route but my personal favourite (and I have been up it 6 times) is Subashiri, which takes you up through the final forested areas before breaking out onto the barren slopes of volcanic rock. Be prepared for this climb. Make sure you have a warm hat, gloves, multiple layers (so you can add and remove as your body temperature changes), a torch, a climbing stick – you can get a wooden one at the 5th station and get it branded as you reach each mountain hut along the way – sturdy walking shoes or boots, plenty of water, some snacks and plenty of ‘gaman‘, meaning determination in Japanese. The climb is hard and you will get very short of breath towards the summit. But when it comes, the sunrise is breathtaking. In 2002, when I climbed with two customers from the States we watched the sunrise over Japan on the 4th of July. A special moment for them and a moment of such beauty as the world lights up that it brought tears to my eyes.

Climbing season runs from 1st July to 31st August. If you are going to be in Japan at this time and you are up for a challenge, then nothing beats ‘hinode’ sunrise from the roof of the Land of the Rising Sun!

3/ Sushi breakfast at Tsukiji Fish Market
Unsurprisingly (especially to anyone who knows me) food features heavily on my list of top things to do and in Japan you are spoilt for choice. However, without question my must-be-done-at-all-costs eating experience is a sushi breakfast at the world’s largest wholesale fish market. Tsukiji is like nowhere else on earth. I am sure this would not be allowed anywhere else in the world as it is chaos. Organised chaos but certainly a crazy place. If it comes out of the sea the Japanese will eat it and at Tsukiji you can see it all – most of it still alive. If you don;t like the site of fish wriggling their final wriggle then this is not the place for you! However, if you want to find out where all that sushi comes from then it is an essential stop. However, amazing though it is, I am more interested in eating it than looking at it. There are an array of restaurants to choose from but my favourite without question is Okame. Less famous than its next door neighbour Daiwa Sushi, Okame is in my humble opinion, the best sushi to be had anywhere. You will find this gem of a restaurant in building number 6 (you will see the numbered buildings when you visit). Don’t be fooled by the queues outside other places. They owe this to guidebook entries and TV coverage, not the quality of their food! Order the 2000 yen set meal and if you are still hungry top this up with a few extra items off the menu. With seats for just 13 at the counter you may have to wait but persevere and you will have a guaranteed top sushi experience.

Check Tsukiji opening days here

4/ Visit to a local bathhouse
Getting naked and jumping in the tub with a load of strangers probably isn’t at first mention the most appealing holiday activity for us reserved Brits. However, take the plunge and you will not be disappointed. This is without a doubt the single thing I miss most when I return to the UK after a stint working over in Japan. Bath houses come in all shapes and sizes. Some are natural hot spring, other just heated water from the mains. They can be huge complexes with 20 different baths, and saunas and steam rooms ; or they can be tiny one tub affairs in the narrow back streets of an old neighbourhood. All have their unique charms and after a single visit you will be hooked.

The Japanese have a saying – hadanaka no tomodachi – literal translation, ‘Naked Friendship’. And the bath house really is the perfect place to relax after a long hard day at work (or out seeing the sights). They are extremely friendly places. You will always encounter Japanese who want to chat and learn about where you are from and what you have been doing in Japan. A visit to a bath house is a vision into the heart of Japanese society and this single experience can help you get closer to the true essence of the Japanese than any other single thing. In short, you just can’t beat it! My favourites are the local places, still used by many for their daily scrub. If you go often enough you get to know the grandmother on the door and the regulars from the area. If you are worried about bath house etiquette you can scrub up on it by reading here. So don’t be shy! Find a bath house, pack your towel and off you go.

Okay, that’s it for part 1. I meant to put up 5 items but got carried away. And of course, these are just my personal tastes. If you disagree (or have some fabulous ramen restaurant tips for me or your own favourite bath house) then let me know! The thing in Japan is, you can never know it all.

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