Top 3 Autumn Leaf Viewing Spots in Japan

As sweltering summer turns to autumn, leaves take on an amber hue starting from the mountains in Hokkaido and spreading southwards. Here are three top spots where Japanese people go koyo (autumn leaf) hunting! 

Arashiyama, Kyoto 嵐山-京都 

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Sagano Scenic Railway
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Tofukuji Temple, famous for its Togetsukyo, a popular lookout point for autumn foliage.

Best Time To Go: Late Nov to early Dec

Travel Tip: There are many ways to enjoy the brilliant autumn foliage in this area at the western outskirts of Kyoto. The vista from Tofukuji’s Tsutenbashi Bridge (aptly nicknamed the “Tsuten Koyo”) is so breathtaking that one can lose track of time – and number of photos photos taken at Kyoto’s oldest and largest temple.  Or, enjoy a nostalgic train ride via the Sagano Scenic Railway.

Access for Sagano Scenic Railway: From Tokyo Station take the Shinkansen to Kyoto Station and change to the JR Sagano Line to Arashiyama station.

Access for Tofukuji Shrine: From Tokyo Station, take the Shinkansen to Kyoto, change to the Nara line and get off at Tofukuji Station.

 

Nikko, Tochigi 日光-栃木 

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Ryuzu Waterfall

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Best Time To Go: Early Oct to early Nov

Travel Tip: Due to the wide range of elevation, the koyo season spreads over a longer period here. Ryuzu (“Dragonhead”) Waterfall is one of the first spots to colour. See the UNESCO World Heritage Site Toshogu Shrine, where the first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate Ieyasu Tokugawa is enshrined, in its autumn glory.

Access: From Tokyo Station, take the Tohoku Shinkansen to Utsunomiya, change to the JR Nikko Line to get to Nikko Station.

 

Mt Hakkoda, Aomori Prefecture 八甲田山、青森県 

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Hakkoda Ropeway
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Mt Hakkoda

Best Time To Go: Late Sept to early Oct

Travel Tip: Take panoramic photos of Mt Hakkoda’s autumn colours from above via a ropeway that leads to one of its volcanic peaks 1,324m from sea level.

Access: From Tokyo Station take the Shinkansen to Shin-Aomori, then transfer to JR Ou Line to Aomori Station. Take the JR Bus headed for Lake Towada and get off at the Hakkoda Ropeway Station bus stop.

 

 

 

 

 

Strolling the Shotengai: Musashi-Koyama Palm

DSC06585 Tokyo’s Longest Covered Shopping Arcade

If you’ve done any traveling throughout Japan, you’ve probably come across the close cousin of the traditional shotengai shopping street: the covered shotengai, also known in Japan as the arcade. After all, there are around 35 of these in Tokyo alone.

Amongst them, the Musashi-Koyama Palm is Tokyo’s longest, spanning 800 meters with around 250 shops. Just two stations away from Meguro in Shinagawa Ward and adjacent to Musashi-Koyama Station, it’s definitely your first pick for shopping with the locals when then the summer heat is pounding or the Tokyo rains are pouring.

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Though the arcade may not seem as historical or traditional compared to your shotengai in say, Sugamo or Togoshi-Ginza, it bears its own distinct history. Influenced by Western-style architecture, many of these sprouted up across the country in the 1950s. The Musashi-Koyama Palm (or “Musako” as the locals say) was amongst the first of them, filled with hole-in-the-wall eateries and family-run specialty shops. While many newer chain stores have entered in recent years, a nostalgic walk through this strip is sure to uncover some hidden local treasures you won’t find in the latest travel guide. Here are our picks!

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Toriyu

Nothing says “welcome” at the southern entrance of the shotengai better than the sizzling sounds and savory aroma of Toriyu’s yakitori (skewered chicken). Pick up a couple sticks here from this long-standing landmark for a taste that dates back to the beginning of the Showa era (1926), before the arcade itself was built!

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Toriyu Info:
Address: 3-5-11 Ebara, Shinagawa
Hours: 11:30am-7:30pm
Closed: None

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Toyonchi no Tamago

Though many locals come here for the variety of raw eggs, sourced daily from its farm in Chiba Prefecture, this egg specialty store’s silky smooth pudding is equally as popular. Enclosed in these cute plastic egg-shaped containers, you can take some home as omiyage or eat it as you walk.

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Nameraka (Smooth) Pudding, 268 yen

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Toyonchi no Tamago Info:
3-26-3 Koyama, Shinagawa
10am-8pm
Closed: None

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Fujiya

Not only can you find a wide selection of fashionable Japanese geta wooden clogs handcrafted here, you can even choose your own combination of thong and clog to your personal liking. Don’t miss their wide array of traditional Japanese zori sandals too!

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Fujiya Info:
Address: 3-7-6 Ebara, Shinagawa
11am-8pm
Closed: Tuesdays

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Nagata Isshin

When you’re ready for a drinking break, there’s no lack of small watering holes along the side alleys either. Enjoy the atmosphere of these nostalgic narrow streets while standing for a drink outside Nagata Isshin, or pull up a seat at the teppan grill inside for some authentic Kobe-style okonomiyaki.

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Nagata Isshin Info:
Address: 3-25-6 Koyama Shinagawa Tokyo
Hours: 5pm-midnight (last order), 12pm-midnight on weekends and holidays

Musashi-Koyama Palm Access: Direct access from Musashi-koyama Station (Tokyu Meguro Line)

Hie Shrine, Japan’s Most Urban Power Spot

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A sacred shrine you reach by escalator

Presiding over a steep slope in the middle of Tokyo, the Hie Shrine is probably Japan’s most urban shrine. Located in Nagatacho of the Chiyoda Ward,  the shrine is surrounded by a cluster of impressive skyscrapers, and most of Japan’s national government buildings can be found in the area as well. This mosaic of the old and new is typically Tokyo.To head up to the shrine, take the scenic stairway of red torii gates, or simply hop on the escalator! Yes, this really is Tokyo.

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However, as you reach the shrine, you realize that this is in fact a very authentic shrine. Originally built in the 14th century, the Hie Shrine used to be a part of the Imperial Palace until it was moved to its current location in the 17th century. The shrine was destroyed during WWII, but reconstructed in 1958.

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Today, the Hie Shrine is a popular venue for traditional Japanese weddings. During your visit, you might be lucky enough to spot a Japanese bride in a white shiromuku kimono with a wedding headpiece next to her new husband in hakama, or Japanese robe.

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Hie Shrine has brought fortune to so many couples that people have come to regard the shrine as a power spot for love fortune. The cute monkey amulets that are also said to bring luck to ones love life, make for a great souvenir!


Spot Information:

Name: Hie Shrine

Location: Nagata-cho 2-10-5, Chiyoda

Access: A 3-min walk from exit 2 of Akasaka Station (Chiyoda Line)

A Taste of Sh旬n: Power of Shijimi

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For many Japanese, summer brings to mind the eating of unagi, or eel, on designated days called Doyo no Ushi no Hi, in the hopes of beating summer fatigue with nutrition from the unagi. But there are some people who shun the (expensive) eel for the humble shijimi (freshwater clam), calling these appointed days the Doyo no Shijimi instead.

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In fact, eating these tiny clams in the summer makes more sense as, unlike the eel which is at its fattiest in the winter, the shijimi is at its plumpest from around July till August during its spawning season.  The shijimi is known to be rich in ornithine, which helps to purge toxins from the liver – hence salarymen can be seen slurping shijimi soup when they have a hangover from the previous night’s drinking session.

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Hangover cure, shijimi soup

The shijimi also comes into season in the winter, when the cold waters makes its flesh firmer and sweeter. Unlike other clams that are found in the ocean, the shijimi can only survive in estuaries that are a mix of sea water and freshwater.

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Shimane Prefecture’s Shinjiko Lake produces the most shijimi in Japan. This lake contains a slight amount of sodium in its water, making it a suitable habitat for the shijimi. These crustaceans are added to the local ramen as a topping and its flavors extracted for the soup stock, making this ramen the perfect way to round off a night of drinking.

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It is also often boiled together with rice or thrown into pastas.


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And for those who are a bit more adventurous, there is even shijimi curry, a local dish from Shimane!

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About Shun:
Shun (旬) translates directly into “season,” but strictly speaking in Japan refers to the ten days in which a food (be it a fruit, vegetable, fish or dish) is deemed to be at its tastiest and best period in which it is to be eaten. 季節(kisetsu), which also translates into “season,” refers to six periods within each season (spring, summer, autumn, winter), according to the solar calendar in which a change in the season is deemed to occur – an indication of the Japanese sensitivity to changes in the weather and climate, and its impact on crops and catches of the day. 「A Taste of Sh旬n」 aims to bring you the freshest and best harvests, catches and dishes of the day.

Owara Kaze no Bon Festival

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Owara Kaze no Bon: Enchanting evening wind festival

For a dreamlike festival under the darkness of night, the Owara Kaze no Bon will take you on a time slip to Toyama’s traditional past.

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Unlike many upbeat and celebratory festival dances, this one is much more solemn. Don’t expect any shouting or cheering here, in fact, the streets are silent except for the shutter of cameras as the dancers move gracefully to the melancholic tunes of the kokyu – a Chinese violin rarely used in Japanese folk music – as well as the shamisen and slow rhythmic beat of small taiko drums.

This mesmerizing performance takes place from Sept. 1-3 at the sleepy hillside village of Owara in southwestern Toyama. Both a bon festival welcoming ancestral spirits in the summer, and a ceremony to protect against strong winds (kaze) that damage crops, this celebration has been passed on for 300 years.

However, the festival never fails to bring about a typhoon of tourists, as nearly 300,000 come here to watch 11 local dance units perform on stages, and throughout a 3 km street course over three nights.

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The festival starts from around 3pm (except the third night), and carries on until 11pm. As the sun sets, thousands of crafted paper lanterns pave the path for the performers, dimly lighting the rustic townscape with its peach and golden hues.

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With faces veiled by braided straw hats, the participants move to one of three dances: the older Honen odori dance, or the newer men’s and women’s dance.

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Women dressed in colorful yukata (summer kimono) with traditional black sashes portray the four seasons through their graceful strokes and strides.

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Men on the other hand, mimic farming movements in their “scarecrow dance”, boldly stepping and swaying in their happi coats.

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With the backdrop of latticed-door houses and ancient temples, smaller units simultaneously perform throughout the town. The sight will surely make you feel as though you’ve been transported to another world. So as the summer comes to a close, why not breeze on by for a few nights of otherworldly entertainment?

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Access: A 40-min walk from Etchuyatsuo Station (JR Takayama Line)

Iris in Wonderland Japan: Summer Fireworks

Hi, my name is Iris Woo and I’m Malaysian Chinese, born and bred in the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur.

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This is my first blog entry on my journey to chase my dream to become a singer in Japan.

Now, what do you crave most on a hot summer’s day? Something icy perhaps?

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Shaved ice, Malaysian style.

In Malaysia where I come from, we eat shaved ice called “ice kacang”, also called “ABC” – maybe because it has a little bit of everything on top, from red beans to agar, palm sugar syrup, sweetcorn and coconut milk!

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In Japan, the shaved ice doesn’t come with so many toppings. But while simple, I find it to be also very refreshing. I was surprised to hear that Japanese have been eating ice in the summer since the Heian Period. That’s amazing!

In tropical Malaysia, it is summer all year round. But in Japan, there are many types of festivals to celebrate summer. My first experience of summer fireworks festival in Japan was a real eye-opener!

Firstly, in Malaysia, we often have traffic jams like this:

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But in Tokyo I witnessed an amazing “human jam”. That said, it was a happy and excited crowd, moving in anticipation towards the great fireworks show to come.

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It was fun to walk along the streets with so many stalls selling various snacks.

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Like everyone else, I bought some street food to eat while enjoying the fireworks.

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It was a great experience for me to see how the Japanese enjoy summer in traditional summer yukata. And I had fun wearing one myself!

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Japanese Bathing For Beginners

A step-by-step bathing lecture

For the Japanese, bathing is not just done with the pure purpose of cleansing one’s body. Taking a good bath relaxes both the body and soul, and is seen as one of life’s major pleasures along with gourmet and entertainment.  Be it an old-fashioned sento (public bath) or a luxury onsen (hot spring) resort, visiting a Japanese public bath should be on the list of any tourist in Japan. However, the majority of Japanese bathhouses have little to no English explanations, let alone English speaking staff. Heading into a bathhouse without any knowledge on the subject will leave you feeling naked, literally. 

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Although it is generally understood that a foreigner is unaware of the Japanese bathing etiquette and rules, seeing you do things right will make the locals surrounding you genuinely happy. To make sure you can enjoy your soak without having to worry, here’s a fail-proof step-by-step guide on public bathing in Japan!

*Note that some details may slightly vary depending on the bathhouse.

STEP 1: SHOES OFF

Before you take off your clothes, take off your shoes!

Just like when entering a Japanese house, entering a bathhouse starts with taking off your shoes. Most bathhouses have shoe lockers to put your shoes in.

Before heading into the bath, pay for the fee at the reception counter, or bandai in Japanese. Depending on the bathhouse, shampoo, soap, a towel etc. need to be purchased here as well in case you did not bring your own. Note that luxury onsen usually have shampoo, soap and more provided inside the bath.

STEP 2 ENTER THE RIGHT DOOR

Unless there is only one mixed-gender bath (which is uncommon in Japan), a Japanese bathhouse usually has both a male and female bath. Two separate entrances for these baths have a noren, or curtain which indicates for which gender it is. In most cases the male bath curtain is colored blue while the female bath curtain is colored red.
However, this is not always the case, so you are advised to memorize the kanji (Chinese characters as used in the Japanese language) for male and female to make sure you don’t enter the wrong bath. 男 (otoko) means male while 女 (onna) stands for female.

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STEP 3 UNDRESS YOURSELF

A Japanese bath should be entered completely naked. Don’t keep on your T-shirt or trunks, and refrain from wearing swimwear. As you share your baths with others, entering the bath completely undressed is considered more hygienic. Also, be sure that you put all your clothes and belongings in the provided lockers, and check if none of your belongings are left on the changing room floor. Once you are ready, take a small towel to wash your body and enter the bath, and don’t forget to close the sliding door behind you.

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STEP 4 CLEAN YOUR BODY FIRST

Although the spacey, hot-steaming bath-tub might be tempting, don’t jump in right away (jumping is forbidden anyway). Cleansing your body at the showers first is probably the most important etiquette in a Japanese bathhouse. While it is common to stand under a shower in most foreign countries, Japanese tend to sit in front of the shower on a small stool. Don’t stand under your shower here as you will splash water on the people surrounding you. Put soap on your small towel and rub your body, but rinse yourself well and be sure that no soap or shampoo is left on your body or towel once you go in the bath.

STEP 5 ENTER THE BATH

It is now finally time to enter the bath and relax. Letting out a sigh of pleasure is allowed and something you will see the locals doing, but please refrain from doing the following:

1. Entering the bath with shampoo or soap on your body.

2. Diving, swimming or splashing the water.

3. Putting your small towel or other belongings inside the water. Your small towel should be rested on your head, or put it on the rim of the bath, but be sure that it does not fall inside.

STEP 6 DON’T MAKE THE FLOOR WET, AND DRINK MILK AFTERWARDS

Back in the clothing room, dry your body at the entrance to make sure that you aren’t dripping water on the floor as you head back to your locker. Once you have put your clothes back on, take all your belongings with you and exit the bath.
By the way, did you know that the Japanese like to end their bathing experience with a bottle of cold fresh milk? Although this is of course not a rule nor an etiquette, doing as the Japanese do will largely enrich your experience!

So, follow these unspoken rules to make the best of your public bath visit, because there’s no point crying over spilled milk afterwards, is there?

Learn a Word: Yochi-yochi & more – Japanese Onomatopoeia (I)

Be it the language that shapes the culture or the culture that forms the word, learn about Japanese culture through key words used in everyday speech.

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Gitaigo, or words that mimic an emotion, situation or state

In Japan, it is common to hear people using sounds to express their feelings or emotions, such as “ira ira suru” when irritated, or “pika pika” to describe a shiny object. To the untrained ear, these may seem like random sounds out of a Japanese anime, but these onomatopoeia are what breathe life into the language. Probably no other language has more words that mimic sounds of animate and inanimate objects and various states of conditions of the world. Grasping the meaning and use of these words is a fun and effective way to add color to any conversation. See how many of the following you can guess the meaning of right!

わくわく Waku-waku 

Used as a verb to express uncontainable excitement or anticipation for something

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Ooh can’t wait for payday!

もやもや Moya-moya

Used as a verb to describe a foggy room, cloudy memory or an overcast mood

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Gaah!!!

いらいら Ira-ira

Used as a verb to express a feeling of frustration and irritation towards something or someone

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Grrrr…

ピカピカ Pika-pika

Used as an adjective to describe a state of reflective shininess of something, such as a polished surface or a bald head

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よちよち Yochi-yochi

Used as an adjective to describe the way babies walk, or rather, toddle, in an unstable manner

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Feet…wobbly…can’t walk straight….

 

Editor’s note: Watch out for the next installment on Giongo, or words that mimic sounds made by animate or inanimate objects!

 

 

 

Let’s Talk Subculture Vol. 4: Real Akiba Boyz

[WAttention X FIELDS Research Institute]
Explore the fascinating world of Japan’s subcultures with insights from the inside

Photo1“Breaking” the stereotype of your ordinary otaku

Is your image of otaku, glasses-wearing guys who stay locked in their rooms all day, watching anime and playing video games? If so, professional dance crew Real Akiba Boyz (RAB) is about to “break” your stereotype.

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The Real Deal

Based in Akihabara (“Akiba”), the mecca of otaku, dance unit RAB is comprised of breakdancers Atsuki, Keitan, Dragon, Muratomi, and Maron. Yet breakdancing is just one of the passions that brought this group together. These guys are all self-declared “Akiba-style otaku”: people obsessed with anime, manga, and video games. Having made their professional debut, joining with famous voice actress Kaori Fukuhara and going by the name “Kaori Fukuhara and RAB”, this group performs original dances to anime songs at live events, released their first album, and has been featured multiple times on Japanese TV.

Name: Muratomi Special Power: Able to predict the next popular manga series based on “good feelings”.
Name: Muratomi
Special Power: Able to predict the next popular manga series based on “good feelings”.

Dance video goes viral

Originally on rival dance teams, rumors that each of these five members shared a love for anime sparked their first “off-kai” (offline gathering) in 2007 in Akihabara, from which they started meeting regularly. This common interest inspired them to create a dance to member Atsuki’s favorite song, “Hare Hare Yukai”, the closing theme song to the hit anime “The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya”. Upon posting a recording of this dance on video-sharing website Niconico, word of “otaku who can dance” quickly spread, attracting attention from both media and newfound fans. Since then, RAB’s videos have reached over a million views, and they have performed internationally, including at last year’s Japan Expo in Paris before a stage of 14,000.

Name: Maron Weekly Habit: “Watching anime each Sunday night empowers me for the week!”
Name: Maron
Weekly Habit: “Watching anime each Sunday night empowers me for the week!”

Overflowing with otaku-ness

But what is it about these Real Akiba Boyz’ dancing that is so appealing? For one, they have world-class skill. Originally members of well-respected breakdance teams prior to forming RAB, several members have competed at both the national and international level. Dragon for example, represented Japan four times at the UK B-Boy (Breakdancing) Championships World Finals.

Name: Dragon Unforgettable Moment: Talking to his idolized anime voice actress on the phone.
Name: Dragon
Unforgettable Moment: Talking to his idolized anime voice actress on the phone.

But beyond such technique, RAB brings an originality that overflows from their otaku-ness. They don’t just dance to anime songs, but also try to capture the heart of anime in each dance, integrating gestures, poses, and even facial expressions that are typical of anime characters. While such moves might not require as much skill as say pulling off a headstand or flare, the ability to smoothly combine such anime-inspired elements with top-level breakdance quality is no easy feat; perhaps why no other similar group has yet to surface with equal popularity.

Name: Keitan Irresistible Urge: Buying his favorite anime character’s goods at the convenience store when they’re the only ones not being bought.
Name: Keitan
Irresistible Urge: Buying his favorite anime character’s goods at the convenience store when they’re the only ones not being bought.

Animated aspirations

Yet, RAB isn’t particularly interested in starting an otaku breakdance movement, or in changing the reputation of otaku around the world. They just enjoy spreading their zeal for anime through dance. After all, it’s this shared passion that not only drew this group together, but drives them to fulfill their dream. What might that be? When WAttention asked, they responded that their greatest hope wasn’t reaching international fame or performing on the world’s largest stages. Rather, they’d want to become the subject of an actual anime. Truly an aspiration birthed in Akiba.

Name: Atsuki Suzumiya Name Origin:  Took the name of his beloved anime character “Suzumiya” for himself.
Name: Atsuki Suzumiya
Name Origin: Took the name of his beloved anime character “Suzumiya” for himself.

This article was written with the assistance of Fields Research Institute, which conducts research in entertainment.

Picturesque Japan: The Oki Islands

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If Japan is still thought of by some as a sort of Galapagos, the Oki islands – not to be confused with Okinawa – is like a Galapagos within a Galapagos. Located off the shores of Shimane Prefecture, this remote cluster of islands comprising four inhabited and numerous uninhabited islands boasts Japan’s oldest rocks, and in 2013 was recognized as a member of the UNESCO Global Geoparks Network for its rich flora and fauna.

Oki Ferry
One of the most unique sights here is the Rosoku Island – or literally, candle island – a 20-meters tall candle-shaped cliff protruding out of the sea just off Dogo Island’s (one of Oki’s major islands) coast.
The Rosoku Island is most romantic at dusk, when it stands alit by the setting sun.

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The dramatic rugged coastlines of the Oki islands will have you staring at the ocean for hours. Of course, sunbathing, going for a swim and even full-fledged marine sports as kayaking and scuba diving can be enjoyed as well.

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Hidden deep in the island forests, you will find many gems such as the Dangyo no Taki, a 40-meter high waterfall that gives the illusion of water streaming out of the sky. A shrine embedded in the midst of nature like Dangyo Shrine won’t be easy to find on Japan’s main islands anymore either.

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The Chichi Sugi, or breast-shaped cedar tree, is a natural wonder on the peculiar side that can be found on Dogo Island.

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If you want to enjoy a more remote tourist destination in Japan, the Oki Islands are highly recommended. Besides the stunning nature, there are many activities to enjoy, the fresh seafood is fantastic, and the island inhabitants are so friendly the language barrier is easily forgotten. 

The islands can be reached by direct flights from Shimane Prefecture or Osaka in around an hour, but why rush to the slow life in Oki islands? Getting there by a ferry which departs from Sakaiminato Port in Tottori Prefecture, and Shichirui Port in Shimane Prefecture is much more fun, as it allows for island hopping within the Oki Islands as well.

Oki Islands

Access: 1 hour and 3 minutes by ferry from Sakai-minato Port, 1 hour by ferry from Shichirui Port
URL: http://www.oki-geopark.jp/en/

A Taste of Sh旬n: Time for Tokoroten

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As hot and humid days continues to suppress appetites in what may sometimes seem like a never-ending summer in Japan, cooling, light and slurp-easy foods like the tokoroten provide gastronomic relief.

This is perhaps best described as a jelly-like noodle, made from seaweed and usually eaten with a mix of sweet vinegar and soy sauce, with a sprinkling of seaweed, sesame and Japanese mustard for a refreshing slurp. It can also be eaten sweet with black honey.

 

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Tokoroten in its seaweed stage

After the seaweed has been dissolved in water and congealed into a jelly form, it is pressed out into noodle form.

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Unlike gelatin desserts, the tokoroten has a firmer texture. It is eaten as a summer snack, though as it practically 90% water, it is popular as a diet food as well, used to replace carbohydrate-rich noodles such as udon.

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It’s unique production method of being pressed out via a block device has made it a sort of cultural icon, even replicated in quirky souvenirs. So the next time you spot this at a souvenir shop, you’ll know what it is!

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About Shun:
Shun (旬) translates directly into “season”, but strictly speaking in Japan refers to the ten days in which a food (be it a fruit, vegetable, fish or dish) is deemed to be at its tastiest and best period in which it is to be eaten. 季節(kisetsu), which also translates into “season”, refers to six periods within each season (spring, summer, autumn, winter), according to the solar calendar in which a change in the season is deemed to occur – an indication of the Japanese sensitivity to changes in the weather and climate, and its impact on crops and catches of the day. 「A Taste of Sh旬n」aims to bring you the freshest and best harvests, catches and dishes of the day.

Cafe Crawl: Koso-an

Authentic Japan in the midst of chic cafes and boulangeries 

Tea-house Koso-an is located in Jiyugaoka, the suburb with Tokyo’s highest dessert and confectionery density.

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While serving fantastic sweets and desserts, Koso-an is the exact opposite of the European-inspired boulangeries and cafes prominent in the area.

In a remote corner of Jiyugaoka, close to the Kumano Shrine, which is the favorite playground of children in the neighborhood, you will find Koso-an, a 90 year old Japanese wooden residence that functions as a tea-house.

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Koso-an was a popular retreat for writers in the glory days of Showa literature, and indeed, both the facade and inside of Koso-an seem like the ideal spot for a writer to think about his work and receive new inspiration.


Traditional Japanese desserts as Anmitsu and Matcha Zenzai have a more authentic taste to them while gazing at the well maintained Japanese garden from your tatami seat.


The classy madam at Koso-an takes care of her guests like a loving mother. And so, while being exotic, Koso-an is also a home away from home for anyone with a sweet tooth.


On my visit, I ordered a sweet portion of Anmitsu, a delightful Japanese dessert with red bean paste, agar, seasonal fruits and black honey syrup. Delicate Japanese desserts like this go great with a cup of Japanese tea.


Savoring the atmosphere: ★★★★★

Savoring the dessert itself: ★★★★☆

Koso-an

Price Range:

Location: Jiyugaoka 1-24-23, Meguro, Tokyo

Access: A 5-min walk from the main exit of Jiyugaoka Station (Toyoko Line, Oimachi Line)

URL: http://kosoan.co.jp/

Bite Into Japan’s Best Burgers At Hakodate’s Lucky Pierrot

 

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Japan’s best local buns: Lucky Pierrot’s Chinese Chicken Burger, 390 yen

Hakodate in Hokkaido may be famous for its fresh seafood and salt-based ramen but it also boasts what has been voted as Japan’s “Best Local Burger” in  a Nikkei survey. And 1.8 million customers a year can’t be wrong.

In fact, their 17 stores are almost always packed, with locals and tourists alike queuing for a taste of what can only be found in Hakodate.

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Funky facades are Lucky Pierrot’s Trademark

This local burger chain started in 1987, and soon became a hit for their Chinese Chicken Burger (featured in the photo above), which consists of juicy fried chicken with a hint of ginger and drizzled with a sweet and slightly spicy sauce.

Since then, their menu has expanded to include other originals such as:

Squid Burger, as Hakodate is famous for its squid

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The Foot-Long Burger, limited to 20 a day:

 

 

 

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Scallop Burger, a result of a customer contest:
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Genghis Khan Burger, the taste of Hokkaido:

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Hakodate Snow Burger:

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As well as curries…

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Pasta…

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And what some claim to be Hokkaido’s bests Omurice, or omelette rice:

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All featuring the much-loved Chinese Chicken.

 

Each restaurant interior is distinct and overflowing with as much character as the quirky storefront murals, and each store has a slightly different menu.

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Soul food for the locals.

 

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The first Lucky Pierrot store, located near the Hakodate Bay Area.
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A newer store near the Hakodate Bay Area.
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The Chinese Chicken Burger looks set to take the top seat for a long time.

Lucky Pierrot is such an institution that it even has its own array of souvenirs for tourists to take home, from canned sodas, to chips and of course, t-shirts.

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One reason for the queue is that the food here is prepared upon order, using fresh ingredients. To avoid waiting, one is advised to call beforehand to place your order and come to pick it up. Don’t bother testing your luck, as there’s almost always a queue!

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URL: http://luckypierrot.jp/ (Japanese only)

 

 

Japan`s World Heritage Site: Buddhist Monuments in Horyuji


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Horyuji Temple: The World’s Oldest Wooden Building

While Kyoto may be home to many of Japan’s most famous and photographed temples, it was nearby Nara Prefecture’s Horyuji Temple that captured UNESCO’s attention to become Japan’s first World Heritage Site in 1993.

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Situated unassumingly amidst the peaceful pine trees and hills of Ikaruga for the past over 1,400 years, Horyuji Temple is the world’s oldest wooden structure and a repository of ancient treasures, dating back to 607 when Nara was the capital of Japan. It was founded by Prince Shotoku, who is said to be one of the first to promote Buddhism in Japan.

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The Hall of Visions (Yumedono), built in 739.

The temple’s vast 187,000 square meter grounds (or around 35 American football fields) comprise a western precinct and eastern pricint with a Gallery of Temple Treasures between them. The 5-story Pagoda and Main Hall (Kondo) in the western precinct, and the octoganal Hall of Visions (Yumedono) – a five-minute’s walk away – in the eastern precinct are its most majestic buildings.

Yumedono is dedicated to Prince Shotoku and houses a life-sized statue of the prince surrounded by statues of Buddha and various monks.

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The Gallery of Temple Treasures was built in 1998 to exhibit a part of the temple’s huge art collection. Various statues of Buddha as well as Buddhist relics, artwork and paintings from the Heian era are on display inside. The entrance to the treasure hall is located towards the back of the complex near the Eastern Precinct.

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In particular, the Five-Story Pagoda (Goju-no-tou) is a work of construction genius. While its beauty is evident in its progressively steepening roofs and expansive bas reliefs, its central column (shinbashira) and intricate bracketing system have helped this 31.5 m tower to withstand the weight of over 1,400 years of history.

The Shaka sanzon-zo, (“Three Buddhist Images”) housed in the Main Hall.

From the 7th century on, illustrious buildings from every era have been established here, filled with National Treasures like the “Shaka sanzon-zo”. This makes a walk through these grounds like a tour through the centuries, with the perfect blending of cultures revealed through every time-worn earthen figure.

So when looking for a starting place to visit Japan’s wondrous temples, begin where UNESCO did, here in Japan’s cradle of Buddhism.

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Access: A 20-min walk from JR Horyuji Station.

Strolling the Shotengai: Togoshi-ginza

The most original “unauthentic” Ginza

If you are a tourist in Tokyo for only a short time, there’s a pretty big chance you will skip on Togoshi-ginza Shotengai (shopping street). But if there is one neighborhood shopping street worth visiting, it has to be this original “unauthentic” Ginza.

Togoshi-ginza, 15 min from Shibuya, is the first of many neighborhood Ginzas to spring up around the early 1920s, borrowing the name from Tokyo’s main shopping street in the hope that some of Ginza’s glamour may rub off on them.

While none of the neighborhood Ginzas really resemble the real thing, they are charming in their own right.


Togoshi-ginza is one of Japan’s longest shopping streets, and with more than 400 nostalgic mom-and-pop stores standing side by side, it offers a nostalgic walk interrupted only by delicious finds.

To be honest, I myself had never thought of visiting Togoshi-ginza until recently, despite being a Tokyoite for almost 10 years. Walking along the streets of Togoshi-ginza Shotengai, I immediately realized how much charm I had been missing on.

Most people would agree with me that the best way to enjoy a shotengai stroll is with a snack in hand. So here is a guide to some of the best finds!

Floresta Nature Doughnuts
Editor comment: Too cute to eat, but also too yummy to not eat!

Dobutsu Doughnuts, or animal doughnuts. Price range is from 240 yen to 360 yen (depends on the animal of choice)

Henteco
Editor comment: I give up! These are just too cute, I can’t eat them!

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A chocolate tapir and hazelnut squirrel

Kumono

Editor comment: Crispy croquettes from the butcher shop. Fried in tallow instead of normal oil.

120 yen potato croquettes

Goto Kamaboko
Editor comment: Goto Kamaboko is a good old Oden (simmered vegetables, Japanese fishcakes and egg) stall where you can pick your favorite ingredient.

Price differs depending on the ingredient.

Tori & Deli
Editor comment: Kara-age, or Japanese fried chicken dipped in a Hawaiian salsa sauce!

Fried chicken leg meat (270 yen) together with Hawaiian mango salsa sauce (100 yen)


Togoshi-ginza’s milkman
Editor comment: I was glad to see that someone born to be a milkman can still be a milkman even in modern times.

Normal milk (127 yen), fruit milk (117 yen) and coffee milk (117 yen) bottles come with a lovely smile from our favorite milkman

Togoshi-ginza shopping district

Location: Togoshi, Shinagawa, Tokyo

Access: In front of Togoshi-ginza Station (Ikegami Line)

Nishimura Yuzen-Chokoku

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About Nishimura Yuzen Chokoku: From kimono dyeing to iPad case design

From kimono dyeing to iPad case design
Takeshi Nishimura from Kyoto is a living legend in the world of yuzen-chokoku, which is the craft of pattern paper carving used for yuzen-zome dyeing in the process of making a kimono.
With shrinking demand in the kimono market, Nishimura decided to transfer his craft to the products used in daily life to add a touch of tradition to modern life.
This has resulted in two series: Nishimura with Collectif Prémices, which is a collaboration with a French design team, and Nishimura with iPad.

Nishimura with Collectif Prémices
This simple yet exquisite leather collection is the product of collaboration between French design team, COLLECTIF PRĒMICES, and the traditional techniques of yuzen-chokoku, a pattern paper carving technique used in the dyeing process of kimono.
This series includes, Landscape – the name of a stylish table piece to store various modern day devices, as well as the self-explanatory Wallet and Pockets, for the storage of various items.


Nishimura with Collectif Prémices “Landscape”
$597.00

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Nishimura with Collectif Prémices “Landscape Pocket Pay Card”
$147.00

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Nishimura with Collectif Prémices “Landscape Pocket Phone”
$156.00

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Nishimura with Collectif Prémices “Landscape Wallet”
$138.00

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Nishimura with Collectif Prémices “Landscape Pocket Business Card”
$138.00

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Nishimura Yuzen-Chokoku Paper Pattern
$276.00

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NISHIMURA with iPad
Combining traditional craft with modern vision, Nishimura has created this intricately designed iPad cover that transports you into a different dimension with an illumination of vivid and powerful motifs when backlit by the iPad screen.


Nishimura leather iPad Air cover design 1
$303.00

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Nishimura leather iPad Air cover design 2
$303.00

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Nishimura leather iPad Air cover design 3
$303.00

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Nishimura iPad leather cover design 1
$322.00

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Nishimura leather iPad cover design 2
$322.00

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Nishimura leather iPad cover design 3
$322.00

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Nishimura leather iPad mini cover design 1
$276.00

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Nishimura leather iPad mini cover design 2
$276.00

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Nishimura leather iPad mini cover design 3
$276.00

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Fun Around Mt. Fuji (5): A Final View of Mt. Fuji

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For one final panoramic view of Mt. Fuji from another angle, we saved our highest ascent for last. And thankfully, hiking isn’t the only way to get 1,075 meters above Lake Kawaguchiko.

By hopping on the newly renovated Kachikachi-Yama Ropeway, we scaled to the top of Mt. Tenjo in just 3 minutes! This mountain is the setting for the famous Japanese folk tale “Kachi Kachi-Yama”, and its cute rabbit and raccoon characters awaited us at the summit.

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And just because we didn’t huff and puff our way up the mountain didn’t mean we weren’t entitled to eat the tanuki (“raccoon”) mochi while marveling at the scenery.

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From the observation platform, we indeed had a spectacular view overlooking both Lake Kawaguchiko to the east, and Mt. Fuji to the south. With mochi in one hand, and camera in the other, we snapped our final goodbye shots of our favorite mountain.

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Off to omiyage shopping!

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Of course, we couldn’t leave without finishing our trip in true Japanese fashion and picking up some omiyage. Fortunately for us, Mt. Fuji’s newly famed Fujiyama Cookie shop is located just next to the base of the Kachikachi-yama Ropeway. Shaped after the iconic mountain itself, and made with natural ingredients found in the Fuji Five Lakes area, only here can you find these cookies available for individual retail, including our favorite, the matcha green tea flavor.

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Azuki topping or white chocolate covered: 130 yen; Plain: 120 yen

And with Fuji-shaped cookies in our bags, and Fuji’s views in our heart, we bid farewell to the Fuji Five Lakes!

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Tip: For all your other omiyage shopping needs before leaving the Fuji Five Lakes Area, go to Gateway Fujiyama at Kawaguchiko Station. Here, you can also get assistance about transportation and attractions in English at the concierge desk.

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Attraction Info:
Kachikachi-yama Ropeway
URL: http://www.fujikyu.co.jp/en/leisure/

Fujiyama Cookie
URL: http://www.fujiyamacookie.jp (Japanese)

Jiyugaoka, stylish and yummy

Suburban strolling in sweet Jiyugaoka

For stylish and yummy suburban exploring, the leafy neighborhood of Jiyugaoka is the perfect pick. While only 10 minutes away from Shibuya by train, Jiyugaoka is a calm village compared to the hectic and crazy youth culture center of Tokyo that is Shibuya.
However, don’t underestimate Jiyugaoka, as it is a creative neighborhood in its own chic, stylish and sweet way.

While strolling around, one soon notices Jiyugaoka’s undeniable European influences. Leafy promenades with benches lined along the street, shops and restaurants with Mediterranean and South European facades, and even a romantic canal streaming through town that strongly hints Venice.

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Ginza might be Tokyo’s center of high-end fashion, and Shimokitazawa is second to none when it comes to vintage clothing, but Jiyugaoka is the place to be if you are looking for something stylish and classy yet unique, as there are many fashion boutiques scattered throughout the neighborhood that burst in character.

The most difficult question to ask someone in Jiyugaoka would be “What would you like for dessert?”, as nowhere in Tokyo is the dessert and confectionery density as high as here. The streets are literally filled with too beautiful to eat pies, rolled pancakes, parfaits and what not at display at cafe’s, bakeries and ice-cream parlors.

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Jiyugaoka even hosts “Sweets Forest”, a sweets theme park that celebrates its 11th anniversary this year.

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Jiyugaoka is anything but your typical Tokyo suburb, but European culture has not completely taken over quite yet. Keep walking west and you will find the ancient Joshinji temple that reminds you that this area hasn’t always been a chic area of boutiques and boulangeries. And if you have a sweet tooth that is looking for something more authentic, Kosoan, a cafe with the facade of an old Japanese residence and a Japanese garden attached to it will more than satisfy your cravings.

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Jiyugaoka

Location: Jiyugaoka, Meguro, Tokyo

Access: Get off at Jiyugaoka Station (Toyoko Line and Oimachi Line)

A Taste of Sh旬n: For Sake’s Goodness

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Sake, or Japanese rice wine, is a must-try for tourists to Japan, and highly recommended as your drink of choice to go with sushi. Sake can be drunk hot, lukewarm, at room temperature or cold – the last being recommended for the hot summer weather.

Like wine, there are dry and sweet types of sake. But the focus of this piece is on the containers that sake is served in, such as in the picture above.

First time drinkers of sake may be confused as to why there is a container under the sake glass filled with more sake, and a bit puzzled as to how to approach this two-tiered drink.

The square box below is called a masu, and while some are laquered, some retain the natural grain of the wood they are made from. Masu made of hinoki (Japanese cypress) are popular for the fragrance it lends to the sake it is filled with.

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Now, impress the locals by drinking the Matryoshka of sake (in the first picture above) the proper way, which is to take a big sip of sake from the glass cup, then pour the sake in the masu into the glass – not so complicated!

In Kochi Prefecture in the Shikoku Area, where the most sake is drunk per resident in the whole of Japan, special sake cups called bekohai are used.

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They either come in shapes that don’t allow you to put the cup down on the table as it will topple over and spill any sake you try to leave behind, or have a hole that you have to cover with your finger until you finish all its contents.

These conniving cups also come in a deceptively harmless shape such as the sorakyu, which also cannot be put down on the table without toppling over.

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Drinking sake in Japan can be a duel between you and your sake container to see which topples over first, but in any case, sake remains a masu try drink during your trip.

About Sh旬n:
Shun (旬) translates directly into “season”, but strictly speaking in Japan refers to the ten days in which a food (be it a fruit, vegetable, fish or dish) is deemed to be at its tastiest and best period in which it is to be eaten. 季節(kisetsu), which also translates into “season”, refers to six periods within each season (spring, summer, autumn, winter), according to the solar calendar in which a change in the season is deemed to occur – an indication of the Japanese sensitivity to changes in the weather and climate, and its impact on crops and catches of the day. 「A Taste of Sh旬n」aims to bring you the freshest and best harvests, catches and dishes of the day.

 

 

 

Onsen Oasis: Yumori no Sato

Tokyo’s best soak even Tokyoites aren’t aware of

People from Tokyo often head out to other prefectures in search of “hidden hot springs” deep in the mountains to refresh their weary bodies and souls. 

But believe it or not, Tokyo has a natural “hidden” hot spring of its own that can compete with the best hot springs in the country – and it’s just a 30 minute ride away from Shinjuku.

Even many Tokyoites are not aware of this hidden gem, so you can enjoy your soak peacefully and quietly.


The Yumori no Sato Hot Spring is located in Chofu, a residential area west of Tokyo which you can reach by taking the Keio Line from Shinjuku.

From Chofu Station, take a 10 minute bus ride headed for the Jindaiji temple, which is well worth a visit by itself – even if only for the soba noodles, a a specialty of the area since the Edo period.

The hot spring is just 5 minute walking distance from here. Walk down the street forking right from Jindaiji Temple, with Soba Restaurant Kiyoshi on the corner.

Once you reach this hot spring oasis, you will be treated by what I think is Tokyo’s best and most authentic soak. I have been to countless hot springs and bathhouses in Tokyo, but this is the one I keep coming back to!

The water you soak in gushes from 1,500 meters under the ground, and contains various natural minerals and substances – such as humic acids that makes your skin feel silky smooth – resulting in a deep black water color.

The leafy natural surroundings will give you the illusion that you are at a hot spring somewhere in Japan’s countryside.

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And to complete your authentic soaking experience, how about a bottle of cold milk or coffee-flavored milk after your refreshing bath just like what the locals do?

You can also choose to enjoy a wide array of treatments at the massage salon, ranging from authentic oriental to esthetic massages.

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If you have been looking for an onsen retreat in Tokyo’s concrete jungle, Yumori no Sato is your definitive answer!

*Click here for an explanation on how to take a Japanese bath for beginners!

Spot information

Name: Yumori no Sato

Price range: 1000 yen

Hours: 10 am – 10 pm

Location: Jindaiji Motomachi 2-12-2, Chofu

URL: http://public.oidejapan.jp/yumorinosato/

Fun Around Mt. Fuji (4): Hot Pink Flower Festivals To Ice Cold Caves

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From the vibrant hot pink Shiba-Sakura by Lake Motosuko, to the cool underground lava and ice caves by Lake Saiko, we explored the hidden and natural majesty of Mt. Fuji that extends beyond the mountain itself.

Pretty in pink

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For a festival of flowers 800,000 in full bloom, the Shiba-Sakura (“moss phlox”) Festival by Lake Motosuko – the Western-most of Fuji’s Five Lakes – is your choice for catching Mt. Fuji with some color contrast. Stretching across six acres of the Fuji Motosuko Resort, you’ll find more of the pink, purple and white shiba-sakura here than anywhere in the Greater Tokyo Area. Just be sure to catch it during its short season from mid-April to the end of May.

Mt. Fuji’s mystical caves

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For a cooler way to enjoy Mt. Fuji’s mystic wonders – 0 degrees Celcius on average to be exact – we climbed down into the Fugaku Lava Cave & Narusawa Ice Cave by Lake Saiko. Formed by eruptions from over a thousand years ago, this 200 meter underground cave with its illuminated icicles had us in awe. Referred to as Mt. Fuji’s natural freezer, there’s no better place to beat the summer heat!

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A “Sea of Trees”

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Literally just above these mystical caves lies the wild forest known as the Aokigahara Jukai “Sea of Trees”. Though it may seem like a typical forest from afar, the roots of these 300-year old trees actually rise above the dense volcanic rock soil from ancient eruptions, making for a mysterious sight. This wondrous forest sprawls over 30 square kilometers to the foot of Mt. Fuji, but even just a quick trek down these trails with our tour guide made us marvel at the tree roots’ peculiar pattern. Be sure to also look up though, at the treetops swaying in the wind as these “waves” are how the “Sea of Trees” got its name.

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Having explored the depths of the Fuji Five Lakes’ natural hidden beauty, join us tomorrow as head back up to the heights – on a ropeway – for one last glimpse of Mt. Fuji’s glory from above Lake Kawaguchiko.

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Tip: Get charged for your trek around these trees with the sweet and savory corn-flavored soft serve ice cream from the Fugaku Wind Cave. (360 yen)

Attraction Info:
Shiba-sakura Festival
URL: http://www.shibazakura.jp/eng/
Fugaku Lave Cave & Narusawa Ice Cave
URL: http://www.fujikyu.co.jp/en/leisure/leisure10.html
Aokigahara Sea of Trees
URL: http://mtfuji-jp.com/special-guides/viewpoints/

Nagomi Visit: A Brief But Precious Local Dinner

Gather around the dining table of a local household anywhere in Japan!

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Curious to see what an everyday dinner spread looks like in Japan? Hope to make local friends during your stay in Japan? Interested to see the inside of a Japanese house but find couchsurfing too extreme?
Nagomi Visit offers a brief but precious local experience that fulfills all these wishes at once.

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Nagomi Visit gives you the opportunity to be invited for lunch or dinner by a local host anywhere in Japan. Instead of preparing a huge feast, the host just cooks an everyday meal to give you an authentic impression of what a real Japanese dining table looks like.
This is an experience no restaurant can give you.

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It’s easy to get started. Just make an online booking at Nagomi Visit’s website and choose where in Japan and when you want to be invited.

After you have made a successful booking, you contact your host in advance so that you can already get to know each other a little bit. Your host might even be so friendly to give you a few tips on your trip! On the day itself, you meet at the train station designated by your host from where your host will take you to his/her home.

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In just a couple of hours over lunch or dinner, you will be an experience richer, and hopefully have a great time with your new Japanese friends!

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Nagomi Visit

URL: https://www.nagomivisit.com/

Learn a Word: 空気を読む

Be it the language that shapes the culture or the culture that forms the word, learn about Japanese culture through key words used in everyday speech.

空気を読む

Pronounced: Kuki wo yomu

Format: Noun + particle + verb

Meaning: Literally, “Reading the air”, referring to “reading the situation” or “sensing the mood”, something very important in Japanese society.

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Two Japanese people reading the “business air”.

Why we like this word: 

Because it describes a key aspect in the way Japanese socially behave. People are expected to think about the situation and the people around them before they act or speak. For example, kissing your girlfriend in front of her parents would be “Kuki yomenai”, or not reading the air, while asking for the recipe of the dish her mother made would be “Kuki wo yomu”, as you are indirectly praising her great cooking.

 Is 空気を読む old or new?

While the concept of “reading the air” has always been of great importance to function in a Japanese society, and ”空気を読む” (Kuki wo yomu) has been an existing phrase, it was not used as frequently as today until 2007.

In 2007, ”場の空気を読む” (Ba no kuki wo yomu), or reading the air of the occasion was shortened by the younger generation to simply Kuki wo yomu, or reading the air. The phrase especially gained popularity in its negative form “空気読めない” (Kuki yomenai), as a convenient way to address someones inappropriate behavior. This became so commonly used that it was abbreviated to “KY”, using the initials of Kuki and Yomenai, by for example saying “My god, you are so KY!”.

While the trend of calling someone KY for whatever he or she does is in fact the most KY thing to do, it cannot be denied that KY is a convenient new word to put someone in one’s place without being too direct.

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Even after being addressed by his superior for being KY, this guy is still KY!

Of course, KY is nothing more than an old Japanese concept in a new jacket, but it deserves kudos for spreading that concept on to the new generation. We figure that this might have been the major reason for KY receiving the “New word or slang grand award of the Japanese language” in 2007. Great air reading by the committee if you ask me!

Fun Around Mt. Fuji (3): Mt. Fuji By Sky!

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Mt. Fuji by sky: Soaring at Fuji-Q Highland

Looking to enjoy Mt. Fuji from another angle? How about while speeding down the Takabisha ride above, with its world-record holding 121-degree drop, or while spinning upside down on one of its 7 inversions?

From sea to sky, let’s get high at Fuji-Q Highland! With some of the world’s tallest, fastest and steepest rollercoaster rides, just looking at some of these is enough to make one queasy.

 

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Fujiyama, the park’s centerpiece attraction, was the world’s tallest and fastest roller coaster when it opened in 1996, and it continues to rank among the best coasters in the world. When climbing slowly up to the peak of 79 meters high, we couldn’t keep our eyes off Mt. Fuji, which seemed even closer from such heights…that is until we started dropping at 130 km per hour!

Soaring of a different sort

But fortunately for the faint of heart, there’s more than one way to soar here at this scenic theme park. We boarded a flight on the new Fuji Airways (Hikousha) ride – a “next generation movie theatre” – that gave us stunning aerial views of Mt. Fuji from the comfort of our carriage seats. Complete with forest scents and splashes from the lakes, this flyby around Mt. Fuji made for a full sensory experience.

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A taste of France by Mt. Fuji

Once our stomachs had settled from free-falling and flying, we couldn’t resist the smell of fresh baked pastries at the Café Brioche, where we had tea and croissants with our new favorite French picture book duo, Lisa & Gaspard. With the sound of accordions playing as we walked along this character-themed town, we felt as though we’d been transported to Paris itself!

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Having gotten our fill of panoramic views and pastries in the Highlands, join us as we go low next time, even underground, as we explore some natural beauty by the Lake Saiko Area.

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Hotel Tip: The Highland Resort Hotel & Spa next door is certainly the most convenient place to stay when visiting Fuji-Q Highland, with re-entry in and out of the hotel allowed. Also, the Fujiyama Terrace on the 4th floor had the most dynamic view of Mt. Fuji from any dining facility we’d eaten at. A trip here for breakfast or lunch is a banquet for the eyes and stomach.

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Attraction & Hotel Info:

Highland Resort Hotel & Spa
Address: 5-6-1 Shin-nishihara, Fujiyoshida-shi, Yamanashi
Access: A free shuttle bus is available from Fujisan Station.
Tel: 0555-22-1000
URL: http://www.highlandresort.co.jp/english/

Fuji-Q Highland
Hours: 9:00am-5:00pm (varies based on season)
Address: 5-6-1 Shin-nishihara, Fujiyoshida-shi, Yamanashi
Access: A 1-min walk from Fuji-Q Highland Station (Fujikyu Railway Line)
URL: https://www.fujiq.jp/en/

A Taste of Sh旬n: Secrets Of The Uni-verse

Uni, or the sea urchin, is one of those love it or hate it foods. Given its spiky and explosive mine-like appearance, one has to wonder what was going through the mind of the first person who decided to try and eat it.

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Probably something along the lines of: something so well-armored must be trying to protect something very precious inside, let’s find out what!

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Plainly speaking, what the inside consists of is mainly the sea urchin’s gonads – precious to the uni in its own universe of course, and now, also to the growing number of fans of uni throughout Japan, and the world.

The summer months from May to August, before spawning season, is when the uni is at its creamiest and tastiest, with the Bafun Uni being the most famous and expensive type in Japan.

Now,”Bafun” literally means “horse dung” – which is probably what the uni’s appearance reminded some people of. While fresh and good uni tastes sweet and creamy, not-so-fresh and not-so-good uni could potentially bring to mind the unmentionable. So if the uni facing  you looks dry and listless, it is best avoided, as it will probably taste like it looks.

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Uni-ted as one bowl!

Uni can be enjoyed in various ways – uni fans fantasize of devouring uni rice bowls, while those who just want a taste of it can try it in sushi form.

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In the Sanriku region of Tohoku in the northeast of Japan, uni is often baked in a clam shell. Whereas in Hokkaido, you will see uni being grilled in its own shell.

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Ready to conquer the uni-verse?

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In Aomori, uni is put in a clear broth, together with slices of abalone, in a traditional dish caled “Ichigo Ni”, which literally means boiled strawberry. Apparently the cloudy appearance the soup took on when the uni was added reminded people of strawberries in the morning mist.

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And to end off your journey of the uni-verse, why not try uni-meshi, which means uni rice and is rice that has been cooked together with uni.

 

Picturesque Japan: Unkai Terrace

Heaven in Hokkaido

Tokyo’s towering skyscrapers – not to forget about the Tokyo Skytree – might take you up high in the sky, but Hokkaido’s nature takes you above the clouds. A 13 minute gondola ride in Tomamu goes up to an altitude of 1,088 meters, which is just high enough to surpass the clouds.

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The Unkai Terrace is located near the endpoint of this gondola, and trust me, you will understand why this terrace was named Unkai, or “sea of clouds”.

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Tomamu has been a popular ski resort since the early eighties. However, the amazing summer view remained a secret only known by the gondola staff until a summer service started in 2005.

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Tomamu in summer and winter

From the Unkai Terrace, you can see one of Hokkaido’s most stunning views, but only if it’s your day. The endless sea of rolling clouds that conjure the illusion of heaven can only be seen if the right amount of clouds appear at the right time of the day.

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As Tomamu is not easy to reach and the gondola and terrace are only open from 4:30 am to 8 am and from 11 am to 2 pm, staying at Hoshino Resort is highly recommended.
Hoshino Resort Tomamu consists of The Tower and Risonare Tomamu, and both feel just as close to heaven as the Unkai Terrace itself!

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If you are in luck and get to see this phenomenon of heaven in Hokkaido, sitting down on the terrace with an “Unkai Coffee” while gazing at the clouds like a lookout staring at the sea from a crow’s nest might very well become the highlight of your trip to Hokkaido, or even to Japan in general!

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Next in this series: Picturesque Japan: The Oki Islands

Spot information

Name: Unkai Terrace
Address: Nakatomamu, Shimukappu-mura Yufutsu-gun, Hokkaido
Access: From Tomamu Station (JR Hokkaido), call for a pickup bus with the telephone on platform 2 that takes you to the resorts.
Period: From May 16 to October 13 (check the website for time schedules)
Gondola Round Trip Fares: 1,900 yen (adults) 1,200 yen (children)
Official Information: http://www.snowtomamu.jp/unkai_terrace/index_en.html

Aomori Nebuta Festival: Week Long Street Party

Every night this week till Friday, the sleepy streets of Aomori city roar into life with the chants of “ra-se-ra, ra-se-ra, ra-se-ra-se-ra-se-ra!” and thousands of feet spring off the ground as they dance to the rousing beat of drums – all because the nebuta are in town.

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In fact, the festival from over 400 years ago has its roots in chasing away sleepiness, as farmers of old believed that they were haunted by a sleep demon especially while busy mid-summer season, and so started a festival called “nemu-nagashi” to drive away sleepiness (or “nemu”).

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Nebuta now refers to giant lantern floats of around 7m tall, which are made of delicate washi paper plastered on a metal and bamboo frame. These are manually pushed around the route by participants, and ardent fans of the parade (and floats) can be heard shouting “kochi muite!”, which means “look over here!”. If the shouts are passionate enough, the float leader will signal for the float to face that side of the crowd, resulting in even higher pitched screams and squeals.

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Around a hundred “haneto” dancers wearing woven straw hats decorated with flowers lead the way of each nebuta, shouting “ra-se-ra, ra-se-ra!” to the crowds, who resound with the chorus “ra-se-ra-se-ra-se-ra!”, reminding one of a school sports event – except everyone is cheering for the same team.

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Anyone can take part in the parade, as long as you wear the haneto outfit, and are ready to shout and dance for the two-hour length of the parade. The haneto also carry with them lots of bells which are thrown out to delight the audience.

In the local dialect, participation in the festival is inquired using the verb haneru, as in “Are you going to haneru today?”, which was derived from the Japanese spelling of the haneto costume and the verb haneru which means to “jump”.

Drummers keep the beat of the parade throughout, and one’s heart can’t help but race at the uniform sound of the contingents of drummers spread out between the nebuta.

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During the nebuta season from Aug 2-7, do not be surprised to see fierce-looking goldfish hanging around everywhere, from shops to the train station and along the streets. This is the official nebuta mascot of the festival – the kingyo nebuta, or literally, goldfish nebuta.

The festival, which was designated as an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property in 1980, attracts the most tourists of any of the country’s nebuta festivals, and is counted among the three largest festivals in the Tohoku region.

This is definitely one festival for the bucket list, so catch it while you can!

Location: Aomori City, Aomori Prefecture
Dates: Aug. 1 – Aug. 7, 2016
Hours: 6pm – 9pm (Aug. 1), 7:10pm – 9pm (Aug. 2 to 6), 1pm – 3pm, 7:15pm – 9pm (Aug. 7)

Fun Around Mt. Fuji (2): Mt. Fuji By Sea!

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What could be more beautiful than a clear sight of Japan’s most famous mountain? How about seeing its perfect symmetry reflected upon the waters of nearby Lake Yamanakako – the largest of the Fuji Five Lakes. We set out for the perfect view aboard two cruisers that are quite peculiar sights on their own: the Yamanakako no KABA, and the Excursion Ship [Swan Lake].

A bus…that swims?

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If you’ve never been on a bus that drove straight into a body of water…and survived, now’s your chance! Fear not, the Yamanakako no KABA, an amphibious kaba (“hippo”) bus runs both on land and lake. Led by our scout uniform-clad tour guide, who provided lively explanations throughout the ride, this hippo took us on a 10-min. expedition through the lake’s surrounding forestry, before splashing straight into the lake itself. If you don’t mind a little spray of water on your face, this 30-min. adventure makes for a great first encounter with Lake Yamanakako.

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Then, sail like a swan

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From one animal-themed cruiser to another, we hopped off the hippo and headed next to the far smoother and less wild Excursion Ship [Swan Lake]. While no real hippos live around this lake, there are quite a few gracefully gliding swans – the inspiration for this ride. You can even greet them up close before hopping on board, by picking up some feeding bait for 100 yen!

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While the double-deck interior cabin with its sleek wooden design and window-side seating make for a comfortable viewing spot, be sure to head to the balcony to take in the lake’s natural scents and sounds. Sailing along the serene lake, with the cool sea breeze in our face and the glittering sunlight reflecting off the lake’s waters, made for the perfect setting to gaze upon Mt. Fuji in all its majesty.

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So now that we’ve sailed, you ready to soar? Come back next time as we go airborne above Fuji-Q Highland, and see Mt. Fuji from a different angle, even while upside down!

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Tip: For luxury lodging just above the banks of Lake Yamanakako, stay at Hotel Mount Fuji, just like we did. With views of Mt. Fuji from our room, the courtyard, and even the outdoor onsen, it was like a buffet of Mt. Fuji photo spots! Speaking of which, we enjoyed the hotel’s buffet breakfast and its signature fluffy omelets – seasoned with a view of Mt. Fuji.

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Attraction & Hotel Information:
Yamanakako no KABA
URL: http://mtfuji-jp.com/lake-yamanaka/

Excursion Ship [Swan Lake]
URL: http://www.fujikyu.co.jp/en/leisure/leisure16.html

Hotel Mt. Fuji
Address: 1360-83 Yamanaka, Yamanakako-mura, Minamitsuru-gun, Yamanashi
Access: A free shuttle bus is available from the Fujisan-Yamanakako bus stop, reservations required.
Tel: 0555-62-2111
URL: http://www.mtfuji-hotel.com/english

Tenkawa Shrine, Japan’s Most Seclusive Power Spot

Simultaneously valuing traditions and welcoming the new

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What exactly does religion mean in Japan? What is Shinto and how important is it to the Japanese? Never during my 10 years in Japan did I ask myself these questions as much as during a recent trip to the village of Tenkawa in Nara Prefecture. Here, I attended the annual summer Taisai ritual at Tenkawa Daibenzaitensha, or Tenkawa shrine, which is highly regarded by a select few.

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Even most Japanese will not easily have the chance to witness this ritual, as Tenkawa is located deep in the mountains of Yoshino, far away from modern society. Together with three other sacred sites linked by pilgrimage routes, Yoshino makes part of the “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range”, which was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site back in 2004.

While the isolated mountain village of Tenkawa does have a bus to the most nearby train station, the ride takes over an hour and only three buses come every day. In the village, rice fields and traditional Japanese wooden houses make up the landscape instead of combini and multi-unit apartments.
You will notice a certain spirituality to Tenkawa as soon as you come out of the tunnel that marks the village’s entrance.

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Tenkawa shrine’s history dates back to the 7th century, when goddess Benzaiten (said to originate from the Hindu goddess Saraswati) revealed herself to En-no-Gyoja, the founder of a syncretic religion called Shugendo. He revisited this same location again later, but Benzaiten would not appear a second time. Today, Benzaiten is enshrined at many shrines throughout Japan, but it is fair to say that Tenkawa shrine is (one of) the mother shrine of all Benzaiten shrines. In fact, Tenkawa shrine is  regarded as one of the birthplaces of Japan’s religious traditions as we know them today.

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At this ritual, wishes written on wooden plates by visitors are burned together with a tree log.

What makes Tenkawa shrine special, is the fact that it is one of the few shrines that are still a mixture of Buddhism and Shintoism.
At the summer Taisai ritual I attended, I was chanting along to a Shinto prayer one moment, and to Benzaiten’s Martra, Heart Sutra and other prayers from Buddhist sects the next moment. Tenkawa shrine is also famous for its Noh performances, and so a performance was held as part of the ritual.
The shrine is open to modern culture as well, with a fantastic chromatic harmonica performer playing songs of Elton John and karate students breaking boards in the performance line up dedicated to the gods.

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It is this type of openness to new and foreign things that makes Japan’s religion as peaceful as it is, and I think that Japanese people today share that same kind of openness, despite the fact that the majority consider themselves non-religious.

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Location: Tsubonouchi, Tenkawa-mura, Yoshino-gun, Nara

Access: From Shimoguchi Station (Kintetsu Line), take the Nara Kotsu Bus and get off at Tenkawa Kawa-ai.

Themed Izakayas To Experience Japanese Culture

It’s all about theme-work! 

Experiencing Japanese summer is not complete without going to themed restaurants and Izakaya (bars). Savory food and refreshing drinks are alluring to start with, but these venues offer great entertainment such as a theatrical display of the past, sumo wrestling matches and shamisen performances.

2) Ikedaya Hana no Mai, Kyoto

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For a feel of history, head to Ikedaya, run by the Mai izakaya chain. This is at the location of the original Ikedaya Ryokan where the Ikedaya Affair took place. This was an armed encounter, nearing the end of the tumultuous warring states era, between masterless samurai employed by the Choshu (now Yamaguchi Prefecture) and Tosa (now Kochi Prefecture) clans and the Shinsengumi, or the shogun’s special police force in Kyoto.

Recreating the interior of the ryokan from around 150 years ago, there are various photo spots for fans of the Shinsengumi.

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Address: Sanjo Kawaramachi, Higashi Iri Nakajima-cho, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture,
82 Salwa Sanjo building

 

3) Hana no Mai, Ryogoku

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Believe it or not, this is the inside of an izakaya, located at Ryogoku district where the sumo stadium is. From 7pm almost everyday, various events are held such as sumo matches by former sumo professionals, shamisen performances (a three-stringed instrument) and taiko performances.

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A summer dance event held around the sumo ring.

And of course, don’t forget to try the staple diet of champions – chanko! This is basically a hotpot of crab, chicken, pork, fish vegetables – pretty much anything edible goes into it.

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Address: Yokoami 1-3-20Sumida-ku, Tokyo

Fun Around Mt. Fuji (1): A Short Trip To The Fuji Five Lakes Area

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Part 1: Let the fun begin!

Thousands of tourists travel to Mt. Fuji each summer to make the strenuous ascent to its peak.

Others of us just want to have a little fun.

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Which is why I’m hanging in a hammock, rather than strapping on my climbing gear.

Ready to have some fun in the Fuji Five Lakes Area? Follow us in this 5-part series as we bring you onsens, high-flying rollercoasters, panoramic views, and yes, even a Hammock Café, where I’m hanging now. Everything is five times the fun with the majestic view of Mt. Fuji in the background, so let’s get started!

Train otaku, all aboard!ふじっこ号

First things first, you’re going to need to get around the Fuji Five Lakes Area, which is no problem with Fujikyu Railways. And if you’re a train otaku and vintage vehicles get your engines moving, these retro buses and old-fashioned trains will take you for a trip back in time.

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The Fujikyu Limited Express, featuring 58 cartoon characters of Mt. Fuji on its exterior.

Even if you’re like me, simply just wanting to get from point A to B, some of these rides will still stop you in your tracks…like the Fujikyu Limited Express, with 58 cartoon characters of Mt Fuji on its exterior.

Tip: Pick up your “Mt. Fuji and The Fuji Five Lakes Passport [Fujikyu Train Set]” at Otsuki Station to ride unlimited on Fujikyu Railways’ buses and trains for two consecutive days.

And while you’re at the station…

Station-side snacks

Since food is half the fun when traveling, try these two treats, conveniently available upon arrival at Fujisan Station.

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The Fujiyama Taiyaki combines the traditional taiyaki fish shape with Mt. Fuji, and is ready to erupt with steaming hot sweet bean filling! (160 yen)

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With vanilla “snow” on top, and native aobara (“blue rose”) as the mountain base, this soft serve embodies the shape and local flavor of Mt. Fuji. (350 yen)

Now that we’ve got some sugar in our system, where should we explore first?

A sacred starting point

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Even for non-climbers, you won’t want to miss the historical starting point of the Mt. Fuji climb, at the Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengen Shrine. This shrine, dedicated to restrain the erupting of Mt. Fuji, is preserved as one of Japan’s largest forest shrines with sacred trees dating back over 1,000 years. For a taste of Mt. Fuji’s ancient heritage and abundant nature, starting here will get your trip off on the right foot.

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Now, off to see Mt. Fuji! Come back for Part 2, and follow us as we catch some spectacular views from sea at Lake Yamanakako.

Tip: If looking for an affordable stay close to Fujisan Station, try the Fujisan Station Hotel, just a 2-min walk away. With rooms starting at 7,000 yen, including breakfast, this newly renovated hotel is equipped with free wifi in every room, and would certainly be my pick if traveling by myself to the Mt. Fuji area.

[Attraction & Hotel Information]

PICA Yamanakako Village (Hammock Café)
Access: There are several bus services per hour from Shinjuku Station (Fujikyu and Keio). Shuttle services are available for those staying at PICA Yamanakako Village (reservation required)
URL: http://yamanakako.pica-village.jp/en/

Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengen Shrine
Access: Take Fujikyu Railway from Otsuki Station to Fujisan Station. A 20-min. walk from Otsuki Station
URL: http://sengenjinja.jp/english/

Fujisan Station Hotel
Address: 2-7-12 Matsuyama, Fujiyoshida-shi, Yamanashi
Access: A 2-min. walk from Fujisan Station
Tel: 0555-24-3300
URL: http://www.fujisanstation-hotel.com/ (Japanese)

Onsen Oasis: Arima Onsen

1,400 years of history hidden in the outskirts of modern Kobe

After introducing two of Japan’s three oldest hot springs (Dogo Onsen in Ehime Prefecture and Nanki Shirahama Onsen in Wakayama Prefecture) it is now time for the last one.
Last but not least, here is Arima Onsen of Hyogo Prefecture.

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Starting from Nihonshoki (a book of classical Japanese history) in 631, there are many ancient documents that mention Arima Onsen. From these documents we can learn that a monk in the 7th century helped develop Arima Onsen.
The connection between Arima Onsen and monks goes on in the 12th century, when the monk Ninsai came to rebuild Arima Onsen which had suffered from a natural disaster in 1097. He also established and ran 12 monk accommodations in the area, which is why a great number of the ryokan at Arima Onsen today have the word Bo (坊, monk) in their name.

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Onsen-ji (Onsen temple) with sakura blossom in spring

Arima Onsen can be found in the outskirts of Kobe city, hidden behind Mt. Rokko, away from the city center’s hustle and bustle. Given the fact that it is located in the mountains, the narrow roads in town can be quite steep.

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You can find the two public baths (Kin no Yu and Gin no Yu) on a short distance from Onsen-ji (Onsen temple) which marks the town center. Kin no yu, or golden bath has yellow-brown colored water from iron and salt. Gin no Yu, or silver bath, has transparent water and contains radium and carbonate. All of the other baths at Arima’s ryokan and bathing houses share either the same characteristics of Kin no yu or that of Gin no yu.

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Since the area is rich in carbonate, Arima Onsen is known for cider, carbonate rice crackers and cakes which can be purchased at the souvenir shops of traditional facade in the town center.

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Most of the luxury ryokan can be found in the mountains on a short distance from the town center. Enjoy tranquility, wonderful scenery and a fantastic warm bath!

*Click here for an explanation on how to take a Japanese bath for beginners!

Arima Onsen

Location: Higashimonguchi 1401, Arimacho, Kita, Kobe, Hyogo

Access: Get off at Arima Onsen Station (Kobe Electric Railway Arima Line)