15 fantastic onsen hot springs to visit in Japan

If you read my recent post on hot spring bathing etiquette a couple of weeks ago, it might well have got you wondering where in Japan to whip out your new-found skills and cultural know-how.

OnsenIf you were – you’ve come to the right place. The following is a list, compiled by dedicated Japan experts who have denuded and submerged themselves in every prefecture of this fine archipelago, represents our pick of 15 fabulous onsen hot spring baths in Japan. Don’t forget – there are many onsen just as marvellous as these that we have yet to discover, so this list is far from exhaustive! I’ve listed our favourites in no particular order.

N.B. Onsen purists beware – this list includes sento bathhouses as well as official onsen (if you want to know the difference, read my last post). Deal with it.

  • Nyuto Onsen

Located in the Akita Prefecture in Japan’s northern Tohoku Region, Nyuto Onsen is one of Japan’s most famous hot spring areas. The name means “nipple hot spring” (apparently it’s named after the shape of a nearby mountain), and the water here is a milky colour – almost blue in some lights.

Nyuto Onsen

Nyuto Onsen

 

  • Tsuboyu (Yunomine Onsen)

Tsuboyu is the only hot spring bath in Japan to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Given this status, you’d be forgiven for imagining an idyllic, steaming pool surrounded by spectacular views, with water the consistency of milk and honey. In actual fact, what you get is a gloomy stone shack about the size of a commode, which overhangs a river and stinks to high heaven of sulphur. But it’s an experience, you have to give it that!

Tsuboyu

Tsuboyu

 

  • Kurama Onsen

Just 30 minutes by train from the heart of Kyoto, the beautiful little hot spring village of Kurama Onsen is the perfect option for those who don’t have time to trek right into Japan’s deepest countryside in search of a nice soak. For the best experience, head to the onsen after hiking from the neighbouring village, across the mountain pass.

Kurama Onsen

Kurama Onsen

 

  • I Love Yuu Bathhouse

Rustic, traditional onsen are lovely – but the I Love Yuu Bathhouse on Japan’s art-tastic Naoshima Island really is a breath of fresh air. The name is a multilingual play on words, as yuu is the Japanese word for “hot water”, and inside you’ll bathe in kitschy baths decorated with erotic art, pink palm trees, a giant elephant statue and much more. Don’t miss it!

I Love Yuu

I Love Yuu

 

  • Dogo Onsen

This venerable bathhouse in Matsuyama City is the oldest surviving bathhouse in Japan, and is said to have inspired Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece Spirited Away. The current building was opened in 1894, but the spa has a history stretching back over a millennium. Commoners such as ourselves can bathe here in the main baths, there is a special bath set aside for the sole use of the Japanese royal family!

Dogo Onsen

Dogo Onsen

 

  • Funaoka Bathhouse

In a similar vein to Dogo Onsen, the Funaoka is one of Kyoto’s most famous and best-loved bathhouses. Opened in 1923, the dressing rooms are decorated with wood carvings depicting the Japanese invasion of Manchuria (controversial), and the bathhouse boasts a great array of indoor baths, outdoor baths, cypress baths, herbal baths, and even a bath with an electric current running through it! Funaoka is technically a sento, not an onsen.

Funaoka Onsen carvings (photo: Kyo1010.com)

Funaoka Onsen carvings (photo: Kyo1010.com)

 

  • Osaka Spa World

Osaka Spaworld is essentially an onsen theme park, with several different floors offering restaurants, beauty treatments, shops, swimming pools – and, of course, baths. There is an Asian floor and a European floor, each with baths running the gamut from a Grecian bath with columns and fountains, to a milk-and-honey bath in a cave, to a bath with giant fish tanks in the walls, to a Finnish sauna complete with model wolves – and much, much more besides. Spa World is so amazingly epic, in fact, that Claire Brothers of InsideJapan Tours declares it her favourite place in the entire world. High praise indeed from a lady who has visited an owl café.

Islamic bath at Osaka Spa World (photo: Kansaiscene.com)

Islamic bath at Osaka Spa World (photo: Kansaiscene.com)

 

  • Kinosaki Onsen

Located in Hyogo Prefecture in the southwest of Japan, Kinosaki Onsen is a classic hot spring town sandwiched between mountains and sea. Hot springs were discovered here in the eighth century, and today visitors still come here to stay in the beautiful traditional inns and take the waters at the seven lovely bathhouses, connected by lantern-lit wooden bridges.

Kinosaki Onsen in the winter (photo: JNTO)

Kinosaki Onsen in the winter (photo: JNTO)

 

  • Jigokudani Monkey Park

A monkey park? But this is an article about hot spring baths?! Indeed it is, and no discussion of hot springs could possibly be complete without mentioning the onsen-bathing snow monkeys of Jigokudani. They. Are. Adorable. Unfortunately you can’t just jump into the monkey spring, but there are human springs aplenty in the nearby town of Yudanaka Onsen.

Monkeys relaxing at Jigokudani

Monkeys relaxing at Jigokudani

 

  • Hirayu Onsen

A new addition to our list of favourite onsen, Hirayu Onsen is one of five onsen towns in the Okuhida area of the northern Japan Alps. Of the five, Hirayu is the oldest and largest, and is said to have been discovered in the 1560s. We highly recommend heading to the onsen after a long day of skiing on the slopes nearby!

InsideJapan Tours customers enjoying Hirayu Onsen in the snow

InsideJapan Tours customers enjoying Hirayu Onsen in the snow

 

  • Kawayu Onsen

Located on the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route, deep in the countryside of the Kii Peninsula, Kawayu Onsen is a hot spring town not far from Yunomine Onsen (mentioned above). Our favourite hotel in the town, the Fujiya Ryokan, sits on the banks of the Ohto River and is famous for its giant senninburo bath, carved from the riverbank. The senninburo (meaning thousand-person-bath) is only there during the winter months, but in summer you can dig your own hot spring bath instead!

The senninburo in Kawayu Onsen (Photo: Kumano Kodo Tourist Board)

The senninburo in Kawayu Onsen (Photo: Kumano Kodo Tourist Board)

 

  • Takaragawa Onsen

Takaragawa Onsen is located in rural Gunma Prefecture, slap-bang in the middle of nowhere on the banks of a river surrounded by trees. This is a beautiful, peaceful onsen in a stunning location – in fact, you’d have to try pretty hard to do better than this!

 

  • Kusatsu Onsen

Though most foreigners will never have heard of it, Kusatsu is one of Japan’s favourite onsen towns. Also located in Gunma (home to Takaragawa Onsen), the town is built around the Yubatake (hot water field) – the single largest source of hot spring water in Japan, providing 5,000 litres per minute.

Yubatake at the centre of Kusatsu Onsen

Yubatake at the centre of Kusatsu Onsen

 

  • Lake Kussharo

One of our favourite hot spring spots on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido is Lake Kussharo, the largest of the three caldera lakes that make up Akan National Park. Here you can soak in one of the area’s lovely hot spring baths, or even dig your own from the steaming lakeshore.

Lake Kussharo

Lake Kussharo

 

  • Hakone

Our final hot spring favourite is Hakone, a famous hot spring resort in the shadow of Mount Fuji – just a stone’s throw from Tokyo. Here there are no end of excellent ryokan inns with their own lovely hot spring baths, and if you eat a black egg boiled in the bubbling owakudani it’s said that you’ll extend your life by seven years.

View across Lake Ashi, Hakone

View across Lake Ashi, Hakone

Japanese etiquette 101: How to Onsen

Ask almost anybody at InsideJapan Tours what is their favourite thing about Japan, and they will probably list the people, the food, and the onsen. Heck, ask any Japanese person what is their favourite thing about Japan and they’ll most likely say the same.  And yet for such a well-loved pastime, onsen are also probably the scariest part of Japanese culture for most foreigners.

But don’t worry – after reading this guide, you too will be an onsen master!

Senninburo, a giant outdoor onsen bath carved into the riverbed at Kawayu Onsen (photo: Kumano Travel)

Senninburo, a giant outdoor onsen bath carved into the riverbed at Kawayu Onsen (photo: Kumano Travel)

What’s an onsen?

First things first! An onsen 温泉 (lit. “hot water spring”) is a natural hot spring bath, and thanks to its plentiful volcanic activity Japan has lots of them.

Onsen water is geothermally heated beneath the ground and rises to the surface bubbling hot. The prerequisites of an official onsen are that the water must contain at least one of the 19 designated chemical elements that naturally occur in hot spring water, and it must be at least 25C when it comes out of the ground. Rotenburo is another word you may hear in Japan and refers to an outdoors onsen (the best kind!).

Sento, on the other hand, are indoor public bathhouses supplied by ordinary heated water. Whilst onsen are generally looked on as something as a treat, sento are the everyday bathhouses of ordinary Japanese people – and as such make a very interesting experience in themselves, although sometimes it can be a bit daunting to enter on your own as very few foreigners take the time to seek them out.

Nevertheless, the rules of etiquette are the same for both onsen and sento, so with your newfound skills you’ll be able to tackle any bathhouse with aplomb.

Onsen and sento entrances are marked by half-length curtains. Red means women; blue means men! (Photo: Kifu no Sato)

Onsen and sento entrances are marked by half-length curtains. Red means women; blue means men! (Photo: Kifu no Sato)

What’s so great about them?

Communal bathing doesn’t exactly sound appealing to most gaijin (foreigners), but in Japan it is a beloved part of traditional culture.

Onsen water has been believed to have a multitude of healing properties basically since time began, and is packed full of minerals that are thought to be good for your skin, circulation and general health. Onsen baths can be beautiful objects in themselves – made from materials such as cypress wood, marble and granite – and are often situated in areas of outstanding natural beauty or attached to lovely traditional inns, which enhances their appeal.

There really is nothing more relaxing or therapeutic than lying back in a hot bath after a long day – especially when you’re surrounded by falling snow, on a beach, overlooking a beautiful mountain view, or listening to a river rushing past. Once you’ve done it, you’ll never look back!

Nyuto Onsen's famous outdoor bath

Nyuto Onsen’s famous outdoor bath

So what do I need to know?

There are quite a few rules of etiquette surrounding onsen bathing, and this can make the whole thing seem a little scary and uncomfortable when you’re not sure what you’re doing – but once you’ve done it once you’ll realise that it’s really not that complicated after all.

THE RULES:

1. Birthday suits only!

Yep – you heard me. No speedos allowed! This (unsurprisingly) is the bit that puts most people off, and anybody at InsideJapan will tell you that they all felt the same anxiety the first time they tried it. Once you dare to bare, however, it really doesn’t take long to get used to it – and when you see that the Japanese don’t bat an eyelid you’ll soon lose your self-consciousness. (N.B. I have heard tell that a fair bit of staring is par for the course in the mens’ onsen, but I can vouch that it’s very civilised in the ladies’!)

For those who really can’t stomach the idea of stripping off in public, there are a number of ways you can get around it. For one, there are many traditional ryokan inns where the guest rooms have private rotenburo baths attached (these will be amongst the more expensive rooms), and in some inns the public baths are available for private use on request. Another alternative is to visit an onsen with milky water – once you’re in, nobody can see anything!

A makeshift onsen dug from the riverbed at Kawayu Onsen (Photo: Kumano Travel)

A makeshift onsen dug from the riverbed at Kawayu Onsen (Photo: Kumano Travel)

2. Shower before you bathe.

To the Japanese, the Western practice of washing yourself in the bath is, well… pretty gross actually! Even when bathing in the privacy of their own home, the Japanese always clean themselves under the shower before having a soak in the bath – and this is even more important when you’re visiting a communal sento or onsen – to keep the water as clean as possible.

To this end, every onsen has a row of showers around the outside of the bath. Soap, shampoo and conditioner are usually provided (though you can bring your own if you prefer), and you are expected to sit down on one of the stools provided while you wash. It’s considered bad manners to stand up while you wash, as you might splash one of the people next to you – and you must remember to rinse thoroughly so as not to get soap in the bath water.

Though it’s less important than showering before you bathe, most Japanese will have a quick rinse under the shower after a soak in the onsen – and if they are returning to the bath after using a sauna or steam room.

Typical bucket and stool used for washing at an onsen (Photo: Kifu no Sato)

Typical bucket and stool used for washing at an onsen (Photo: Kifu no Sato)

3. Towels

At any onsen, you will either be provided with a small and a large towel, or there will be some available to rent. This is not always the case at local sento baths, so you are advised to bring your own.

The large towel is for drying yourself and should be left in the changing room (along with your clothes), while the small towel is for washing and can be taken into the bathing area. You can take your small towel into the bath with you (in fact, many people put them on their heads!) but you mustn’t let it go in the water.

Enjoying Nyuto Onsen

Enjoying Nyuto Onsen

4. Hair & head

If you have long hair, always remember to bring a hairband or to wrap your hair in a small towel, as even if you’ve just washed your hair under the shower – you should take care to make sure that it doesn’t go in the bath water. You wouldn’t want to be sitting around amongst other people’s hairballs, would you? Well that’s why.

In fact, even if you don’t have any hair you should refrain from putting your head underwater, as there is always a small chance that shared water may carry infection, and putting your head underwater increases your risk of catching something.

Onsen overlooking the mountains at Mount Tokachidake

Onsen overlooking the mountains at Mount Tokachidake

5. Tattoos

As I explained in a recent post, tattoos are something of a taboo in Japan – thanks for the most part to their association with Japanese organised crime (the yakuza). Unfortunately, this means that most onsen and sento ban tattoos completely – even if it is blatantly clear that you are not part of the mafia. It doesn’t make much sense, but rules is rules!

If you have a small tattoo, you may well get away without anybody noticing – or you can cover it up with a sticking plaster or bandage. If you have a larger tattoo that’s difficult to cover you may have more problems. Some solutions are to stay at ryokan inns where there are private rotenburo baths or onsen that can be rented for private use, or to head to the hotel onsen late at night after the other guests have dispersed. If you’re very brave, you could even find out where the real yakuza bathhouses are – but we’re not going to recommend it!

Sign forbidding tattoos at (Photo: spoon-tamago.com)

Sign forbidding tattoos at Tobu Super Pool (Photo: spoon-tamago.com)

6. Noise

Bathhouses are social places, and most onsen-goers like to have a bit of a chat while they relax – so as long as you’re not being rowdy you certainly don’t need to worry about making too much noise.

Indoor bath at Nyuto Onsen

Indoor bath at Nyuto Onsen

7. Alcohol

Onsen and sento will generally display signs indicating that you should not drink and bathe – for pretty obvious reasons I think. That said, a cup of sake or a cold beer while you soak can be divine, so if you’ve got your own private rotenburo then I say go right ahead!

(Photo: Kifu no Sato)

(Photo: Kifu no Sato)

Our Infopack does contain the low-down on ‘How to Onsen’ so that you can relax and enjoy this cultural activity – bliss.

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!

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