InsideJapan and the Japanese Ministry of Environment

Kirishima Kinkowan National Park

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

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

Friendly people

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

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

Romance and water

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

Edo station

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

onsen

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

Land  of the Gods

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

Ryokan

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

Pure water

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

Food

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

134 year old direction

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

Shrines and temples

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

Duck!

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

Thinkers stream

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

Sometimes it’s not the destination but the journey

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

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

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

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

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

 

5 reasons Japan is the most convenient country

In Japan, possibly the most orderly country in the world, convenience is king. Here’s why…

1) Everything runs on time
Unlike certain other countries (mentioning no names… *cough*… England) you can actually rely on train and bus timetables in Japan. It’s possible to plan quite a full-on day of sightseeing and know that you should always be able to make your connection and catch the next bus or train. Of course, delays do happen occasionally, but every precaution is taken to ensure there is the least possible disruption to your journey.

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Trains on time for your convenience

2) No luggage worries
Japan has an incredible luggage forwarding service called ‘takuhaibin’ (most commonly referred to as ‘Takkyubin’, which is actually Yamato Transport’s version of the service). The service can be used to send just about anything from any part of the country to another over night. If you’re travelling to a rural part of the country or only stopping somewhere for one night, you don’t want to be carrying large cases, and ‘takuhaibin’ is the answer! Simply pack an overnight bag and forward your large suitcase on to another destination. As well as this overnight service, a few places in Japan offer a same day short distance forwarding service. Hakone’s ‘carry service’ is a great example of this: for around 700 yen you can send a bag from Hakone Yumoto Station to your hotel or vice versa, allowing you to get rid of your overnight bag whilst sightseeing. Of course, most stations have plenty of coin lockers too, and for a few hundred yen you can leave you bags securely for a few hours – just don’t forget where you left everything! In addition, if you do pack an overnight bag and forward your main luggage, you won’t need to take much with you – most hotels offer basic amenities such as a toothbrush and toothpaste, shower gel and shampoo, and there’s usually a yukata to wear in bed too, so you don’t even need your PJs!

Hakone Yumoto Station's 'Carry Service' office

Hakone Yumoto Station’s ‘Carry Service’ office

3) Easy eating
Even if you can’t read or speak Japanese, it’s not too difficult to order food in a restaurant. Most restaurants either have colourful menus full of pictures of the dishes on offer, or they have plastic replica food in the window, so you can always just see what looks good and point. A lot of restaurants and cafes, especially in major tourist areas, also offer English menus, although the staff won’t necessarily speak English.

Plastic food in a restaurant window in Tokyo

Plastic food in a restaurant window in Tokyo

4) Convenience stores really are convenient
Convenience stores in Japan sell just about everything you could need, including food that actually tastes good, and many are open 24 hours. As well as food and drinks, both hot and cold, convenience stores tend to sell basic overnight essentials and things to help out in any minor emergence (Ladder in your tights? Forgot to bring clean undies? Run out of hairspray? No worries!). If that’s not enough, there’s usually a drinks vending machine on every corner too, and even some vending machines selling food such as instant noodles!

7-Eleven: One of Japan's many convenient convenience stores

7-Eleven: One of Japan’s many convenient convenience stores

5) Public conveniences
Toilets are usually free to use, clean and they’re everywhere! Most stations will have perfectly usable toilets, usually with paper (although you sometimes need to use your own tissues, but tissues are often given out on the street for free with advertising pamphlets). Sometimes you might need to face a Japanese-style squat toilet, but that’s a small price to pay really for free loos!

 

 

I actually could go on – Japan is a pleasure to travel around, with reliable services, polite staff, and generally helpful and friendly people wherever you go! Wherever you’re from, when you return home you’ll be sure to miss the convenience of Japan!

J-Pop and Going on a HYPERJAPAN Tour

Way of the Samurai(photos by Ken Francisco)

Our inaugural HYPERJAPAN J-Pop and Go! tour was a great reminder that even going back to places that I’ve visited a dozen or more times can bring unexpected experiences, new surprises and untold amounts of fun! Working with the folks at HYPERJAPAN, we created a tour for people with as much energy as a Japanese anime character. We trounced from Buddhist temple to maid cafe, from the insanity of the Robot Restaurant to the quietude of a traditional Japanese garden. We learned about geisha culture from one of the world’s foremost experts and we were taught Zen meditation from a Buddhist monk but we also dressed up in kimono for a samurai sword lesson and slept in a capsule hotel! Although you’ll read about the Japan as the land of contrasts in any and every guidebook, there has surely never been a tour where these contrasts are juxtaposed so vividly. If you’re interested in the full spectrum of Japanese culture, 10 days on this tour will have knowing more about Japanese pop culture than most people who stay for 6 months.

Men at work

KaraokeHiroshima Bay

Luckily I don’t need to ramble on about how good everything was because Kenneth Francisco – a skilled photographer and a passenger on the very first tour – has been kind enough to let us use his images for an exploratory journey through a few highlights of this great tour. Arigatou Ken!

MarioKiyomizu, Kyoto

Manga and Maids

At our visit to the maid cafe (pictured above) we sang songs, performed “magic” to enhance the deliciousness of our cute and cuddly meals and even had a birthday celebration for a very embarrassed young man! But in Kyoto we got to experience old Japan by visiting several UNESCO World Heritage Sites and rubbing elbows with many kimono clad locals. Walking through the romantic old buidlings in the geisha district on a quiet and warm spring night was the highlight for a couple who came on the tour for their honeymoon. For a few others, the maid cafe and capsule hotel came in with the top ranking!

Tour leader, Tyler

 

Romantic Dear

Life size anime

Miyajima Tori

In these shots Ken has caught me explaining sankinkotai with the picture of a samurai and also managed to find a couple of romantic deer whispering sweet nothings to one another on Miyajima island, the home of the massive floating Torii gate – although that only applies when the tide is in! But my personal favorite is Ken posing with Goku from Dragon Ball Z.

Osaka Castle

okonomiyakiCup noodles

We had great weather throughout this tour, as can be evidenced by the clear views from Osaka castle (above) and of Mt. Fuji (below). The shot on the left shows our okonomiyaki being grilled right in front of us in Hiroshima while the picture on the right is from the Ramen Museum in Osaka, where we got to design and make our very own Cup of Noodles to take home with us as a souvenir. I can’t speak for the rest of the group but mine were delicious! ;)

Fuji from Hakone

Sushiiii

Tsukiji fish market

Conveyor belt sushi in Kyoto is always a favorite on my tours but it couldn’t top the amazing stuff we had at the famous Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo! Our small group took up the entire restaurant.

Serious tour leader time

Karaoke tour leader time

Lets sing!

Bullet Train Bento

Showing my serious, and not-so-serious, sides above; no trip to Japan is completely without one crazy night of karaoke and a delicious bento box on the bullet train!

Deadly ladies

Samurai

I lost

Here we are learning the techniques of the samurai and looking very good in the process. These girls would give Uma Thurman a run for her money any day! Just ask Jeff, seen above before and after his bout with his spouse.

Capsule Hotel

 

Zen moments in Kyoto

Crazy Robot Restaurant, Toyko

And what better way to finish off than with pictures from three of my own personal favorite experiences from this great and varied tour. Here’s our capsule hotel, our Zen meditation session and the crazy but hilarious visit to the Robot Restaurant!

More HYPERJAPAN J-Pop & Go! to come….

 

 

My Favourite Places in Japan

As my time in Japan nears its end I thought I’d share with you some of my favourite places I’ve visited over the past eight months. Ranging from Okinawa in the far south to the peaks of Nagano, I think these places really demonstrate the diversity that Japan has to offer, and explain what keeps people coming back year upon year.

Once you’ve seen my favourite places so far, take a look at my wish list of the amazing places I have yet to visit in Japan. They’ll have to wait until next time for me – but hopefully they’ll inspire you to work some of them into your own plans!

My Top 5 Favourite places in Japan:

1. Okunion cemetery, Koya-san (Wakayama Prefecture)

No photo can do justice to the atmosphere of this vast and amazing place, tucked away in the mountains near Osaka. Despite it being recognised as a world heritage site, as I wandered around Okunoin I often felt as though I was the only person there – a very rare and wonderful occasion when travelling in Japan! If you can, visit early in the morning when the mists are still swirling.

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3. Kabira Bay, Ishigaki Island (Okinawa Prefecture)

Pack your snorkel, hop on the next 3-hour flight from Tokyo and check into the wonderful Iriwa guesthouse – a little bit of paradise in Japan’s southernmost prefecture. It may be budget-friendly, but the couple who run this beautiful, beachside guesthouse have thought of everything to make your stay in Ishigaki as relaxing as possible, and there can be no better backdrop to a holiday than the stunning views to be found just down the road at Kabira Bay. You’ll never want to leave.

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4. Hakuba Ski Resort (Nagano Prefecture)

As a keen skier perhaps I’m biased – but for me, three days in Hakuba was the perfect start to the New Year. Brilliant powder snow followed by a soak in an onsen – what’s not to love? And if (for some reason) you were to get bored of skiing, you can just hop on a bus and go to visit the snow monkeys at Yudanaka Onsen.

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4. Bizan District, Kurashiki (Okayama Prefecture)

I visited Kurashiki just a couple of weeks ago on a research trip for InsideJapan Tours and was enchanted by its mixture of Western and Eastern architecture, its beautiful canals, and its wonderful museums. Every visitor must be sure not to miss the Ohara Museum, the Rural Toy Museum and (for the young at heart) the Momotaro Museum – and if you get the chance, spend the night at the unparalleled Ryokan Kurashiki!

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5. The Dream Hole, Onna-son, Okinawa Island (Okinawa Prefecture)

On one of my last days in Okinawa, I was lucky enough to have the chance to dive at this 25-metre underwater tunnel, where a living curtain of fish swirls in the entrance and parts to let you pass as you swim through the entrance. On the same dive I even got the chance to swim with sea turtles – a pretty amazing experience!

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My Wish List Top Five:

1. Yakushima Island (Kagoshima Prefecture)

My biggest regret as I reach the end of my time in Japan is that I never managed to make it to Yakushima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture. As a big Miyazaki fan I can’t help but wish that I could visit the place that inspired “Princess Mononoke,” where you can hike amongst Japanese cedar trees several thousand years old and even camp on beaches where baby Loggerhead turtles hatch and make their way to the see. Next time.

yakushima_forest

 

Jomon Sugi: perhaps the oldest tree in the world

Jomon Sugi: perhaps the oldest tree in the world

2. Hokkaido

Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, rarely makes it onto the itineraries of first-time travellers to Japan (unless they’re going skiing in Niseko!). But everybody I know who has visited Hokkaido has been enchanted by its wonderful countryside, making me sad that I haven’t had time to visit it before I leave. I’ve promised myself that one day I’ll make it to the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri (snow festival) to see some of the amazing sculptures for myself.

hokkaido

sapporo_snow_festival

3. Takeda Castle (Hyogo Prefecture)

Takeda Castle is known as “the castle above the clouds” – for reasons that should be obvious when you see the amazing photos of it perched on top of a mountain, wreathed in mist. Yet another amazing place to add to my wish list.

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4. Yonaguni Ruins(?), Yonaguni Island (Okinawa Prefecture)

Located under the sea off the coast of what is perhaps Japan’s remotest island are – well, nobody really knows what they are. Are they naturally occurring rock formations, the ruins of some unknown civilisation, or the works of aliens? (Hint: it was probably aliens). The underwater structures appear strikingly regular, leading many people to believe that they are man-made. If they are, then they indicate a hitherto completely unknown civilisation that could have existed twice as long ago as the ancient Egyptians. Now that would be pretty cool.

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5. Dogo Onsen, Matsuyama (Ehime Prefecture)

Another location inspired by my love for Miyazaki films, Dogo Onsen is the oldest bath house in Japan and is rumoured to have been the inspiration for the bath house in “Spirited Away” – one of the films that first inspired my love of Japan. And not only do I love Spirited Away, but I am also a huge fan of onsens – so Dogo Onsen was always naturally going to make it onto my wish list.

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And finally, somewhere I wish I’d visited before it became a tourist destination…

Gunkanjima (Nagasaki Prefecture)

Gunkanjima, or “battleship island,” was once the most densely populated area in the world when it thrived as a coal-mining facility. Now it is an amazingly creepy, abandoned wasteland – empty except for Javier Bardem, who kicks about thinking evil thoughts and plotting the demise of his enemies. Not really.

james bond - skyfall - javier bardem - silva

There was a time when you could make your way out to Gunkanjima alone and explore it for yourself (albeit not exactly legally), but now it’s more strictly controlled and you can only visit with a guided tour that keeps you on the straight and narrow – away from falling masonry and the like. I suppose that’s sensible really, but it does ruin the fun just a little bit.

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5 Reasons to Visit Kamakura

Amy, from Inside Japan’s US office is traveling around Japan! She’s currently in Kamakura, and should you need a reason to visit, she has plenty!

Kamakura

The small seaside town, temple town of Kamakura is just a one hour trip from the Tokyo Metropolis and an excellent day trip or place to stay, brimming with history and culture. Here are 5 good reasons to visit Kamakura.

Kamakura, Japan

1) Temples and Shrines
To see one of the best examples Shinto shrines in Japan at Tsurugaoka Hachiman-jingu, which is also a birder’s destination with all the hawks, herons, and possibly “sacred” white pigeons purifying themselves.

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2) Big Buddha
To see the bronze “Daibutsu” at Kotokuin Temple—anything that has survived earthquakes and tsunami and is still standing watch serenely unlike the temple house that once housed it is worth seeing in my book!

Kamakura, Japan

3) Cool cafes
There are some nice cafes in Kamakura and you can even get your coffee from the back of a van in a driveway! Because you can’t do that just anywhere and actually get good coffee.

Kamakura, Japan

4) Cats
To see many cat-themed products, art pieces, and actual cats sleeping on the merchandise who could care less if you wanted to buy it or not.

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5) The beach
Kamakura has some very nice beaches and some of the best surf in Japan. If you visit the town, you can say that you went and stood in the Pacific Ocean…and didn’t get hypothermia even though the water was as cold as glacier run-off! It is March.

Enjoying Tokyo for Free

Tokyo’s reputation as an expensive place to visit is slowly changing. The word is out that the hedonistic days and astronomical prices of Tokyo’s “bubble period” are a thing of the past. In their place is a city that is more interesting, more diverse and more inviting then ever. After the bubble burst, prices of things fell and standards of living have gone on steadily rising.

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These days, Tokyoites are more interested in their free time than they are in lifetime employment. And it’s hard to blame them when they have both sandy beaches and scenic mountains at their doorstep. Not too mention the fact that residents and visitors alike enjoy access to some of the world’s best cafes, shopping, museums, architecture and cuisine anywhere in the world. Indeed, even on a small budget, Tokyo’s delicious street food gourmet, extensive public transportation and endless shopping can feel like a bargain. But those in the know might be tempted to ask, why spend money at all when so much can be had for free? Here are some of my favorite free things to do in Tokyo (with plenty more to come in the future!).

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Tokyo has fantastic museums of nearly every kind. From modern art and photography to emerging science and national treasures, there is truly something for everyone. Unfortunately, while free museums have become the norm in many of the world’s major cities, many of the Tokyo’s best museums still charge for the privilege of admission. However, if you’re willing to visit slightly lesser known museums, you will have a plethora to choose from. Places like the Tokyo Water Science Museum and the Japanese Stationary Museum are sure to show you something that few travelers to Japan’s capital ever see.  Or, you could check out the Japan Police Museum.

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Even though it’s short on English explanation, exploring these hallowed halls makes for a fascinating hour of browsing. As you go through the building floor by floor you glimpse of what crime fighting in Japan is all about. Computer games, a driving simulator and plenty of cool vehicles make this a great place to visit with kids. The museum is just a two minute walk from Exit 7 of Ginza-Itchome Station and equally near from Exit 1 of Kyobashi Station.

Alternatively, if the Police museum is a bit too mainstream for your tastes, how about checking out a museum dedicated entirely to parasites! The Parasitological museum near Meguro Station is the world’s only parasite museum, somewhat unsurprisingly if you ask me. Nevertheless, it’s more interesting than it probably sounds and the gift shop is fantastic!

Tshirts

The Mitsubishi Ichigokan is only a two or three minute walk from Tokyo station and the perfect place to escape from the hustle and bustle of nearby Ginza and Marunouchi. A faithful reconstruction of one of the first Western style buildings in Tokyo, the Ichigokan Museum has a beautiful courtyard with popular and well-known restaurants and ever changing exhibitions of art, usually from overseas. But instead of paying for the temporary exhibits, you can head in to the ‘archive room‘ to learn a bit about the history of Japan’s Marunouchi district – an area whose importance dates back to when this city housed the powerful Shogunate and was still known as Edo. Models, videos, and state of the art touch screen tours await.

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Of all the free activities in Tokyo, it’d be hard to beat an afternoon taking in some of the cities eclectic but always talented street performers. From the rockabilly dancers of Yoyogi to the popular Ani Zo, there’s always a free show to be had. Many of these relatively unknown groups have small cult followings that come to see their favorite performers on a regular basis and sing along with every chorus – my personal favorite is a rock and roll shamisen player! The best places to catch live performances tends to be in Shinjuku and Harajuku. In Shinjuku, wait until after the sun has gone down and then have a wonder around the station’s West Exit. In Harajuku, you’re better off waiting until the weekend to catch the many performers that gather in Yoyogi Park, adjacent to Harajuku Station. Midday on Saturday tends to be the best.

If it’s works of art that you’re after, Tokyo has plenty to choose from. While museums like the Mori are well worth a visit, if you want to check out work by lesser know artists, have a look at some of the city’s many galleries. Both plentiful and well-curated, Tokyo’s galleries have plenty to impress even the most demanding connoisseurs. The following are just a few to get you started but rest assured, the list of world class galleries in Tokyo is a long one.

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SCAI The Bathhouse is everything that you could want from a contemporary art gallery – the work of some of Japan’s most intriguing up-and-coming artists exhibited in a traditional Japanese bath house. The Fuji Film Square Photo Salon stands as a reminder that photography remains an art form that goes far beyond the point and shoot world that most of us live in. In the heart of Ginza lies what is often referred to as Japan’s oldest gallery, at the Shiseid0 gallery, a wide range of art goes on display for any who care to visit. At AKAAKA, a more avante garde selection of artists is on display; my personal favorite raises money for the victims of 2011s tsunami – see the video below to learn more about Munemasa Takahashi’s ‘Lost & Found Project’.

 

And finally… I saved the best for last. On you next visit to Tokyo, how about stopping by the Yebisu Beer Museum? While there is little doubt that the so-called tasting salon tends to be peoples’ favorite, the history of the beer is fascinating. Not only does it give a glimpse into Japan’s uneasy fascination with the West, it gives a very good sense of how beer came to flourish in what was once a sake drinkers dominion. Don’t miss it!

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