Another 3hr trip – Shinjuku

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How to Make the Best of 3 Hours in Tokyo

It is the last day of your trip and you have three hours left before departing for the airport. Don’t know what to do with the time? WAttention did the homework for you. Here is a three-hour itinerary that will leave you entertained, refreshed and with lots of memories of Japan!

 

Shinjuku 新宿

An average of 3.47 million people use Shinjuku Station every day, making it the world’s busiest station according to the Guinness World Records. Apart from being the place where JR lines, private lines and subway lines converge, Shinjuku is also known as the administrative center of Tokyo due to the presence of the majestic Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. You will have no trouble finding fancy restaurants and fun entertainment in this town which never sleeps. Visiting Shinjuku will definitely make your trip more enjoyable and memorable.

1-yellowShinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal バスタ新宿 / Shinjuku Service Center

Although Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal is a transportation hub for express buses heading all over Japan, it also has a variety of restaurants offering a satisfying choice of food and clothes shops where you can kill time before your departure. If you have trouble finding a coin locker, the Shinjuku Service Counter on the third floor is there to help, offering luggage delivery and storage services. After stowing away your luggage, it’s time to stroll around and enjoy the last three hours of your trip in Tokyo.

Shinjuku-Expressway-Bus-Terminal

Hours: 6:30-23:00
Access: JR Shinjuku Station South Exit
Address: Located inside the Tourist Information Center Tokyo at the third floor of Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal. 5-24-55 Sendagaya, Shibuya.
URL:http://www.sagawa-exp.co.jp/ttk/english/servicecenter/basta.html

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Tokyo-Metropolitan-Government-Building-Observatories

Hours: 9:30-23:00 (the South Observation Deck is open until 17:30 and the North Observation Deck is open until 23:00)
Access: 10 minutes’ walk from JR Shinjuku Station West Gate Exit. Take the elevator headed for the observatories on the first floor of the first building after arrival.

2-yellowTokyo Metropolitan Government Building Observatories 東京都庁展望室

One of the must-dos in Tokyo is to take in the city’s aweinspiring, magnificent skyline. Tokyo Skytree and Tokyo Tower both offer great views but Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is the place where you can enjoy the city’s horizon for free. Measuring 202 meters in height, the observatory decks offer a glimpse of Mt Fuji on a clear day between December and February. It might be a good idea to wave goodbye to the iconic mountain before departure!

Address: 2-8-1 Nishi Shinjuku, Shinjuku
URL:http://www.yokoso.metro.tokyo.jp/index.html (Japanese)

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3-yellowShinjuku Gyoen 新宿御苑

Established over 100 years ago, this park was an Imperial garden before being opened to the public following World War II. Shinjuku Gyoen combines three styles of garden: French Formal, English Landscape and Japanese Traditional. It is a marvel of the perfect blend of Japanese and Western aesthetics and really worth a visit. From cherry blossoms in spring to the soft greens of summer, Shinjuku Gyoen is an ideal place to enjoy the change of seasons.

Shinjuku-Gyoen
Hours: 9:00-16:00, Closed on Mondays (If Monday is a holiday, then it is closed on the following day)
Admission: Infants free of charge, elementary and junior high school students 50 Yen, adults 200 Yen
Access: 10 minutes’ walk from JR Shinjuku Station South Exit or 5 minutes’ walk from Tokyo Subway Marunouchi Line Shinjuku Gyoen Mae Station Exit 1
Address: 11 Naito-machi, Shinjuku
URL: http://fng.or.jp/shinjuku/ (Japanese)

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Hanazono-Shrine
4-yellowHanazono Shrine 花園神社

Hanazono Shrine was known as the protector of the district long before Tokugawa Ieyasu’s Edo Period. Before its relocation, the historic shrine was housed at the site of today’s Isetan Shinjuku Department Store. Due to a stage being built inside during reconstruction after a fire, entertainment shows and traditional dances began to take place here in the Edo Period. The shrine is a popular place to pray for good business and prosperity. Why not try your luck here?

Access: 7 minutes’ walk from JR Shinjuku Station East Exit
Address: 5-17-3 Shinjuku, Shinjuku
URL: http://www.hanazono-jinja.or.jp/mt/top/ (Japanese)

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5-yellowNatural Hot Spring Thermae-yu 天然温泉テルマー湯

Enjoy Izu’s Jindai-no-yu natural hot spring right in the bustling heart of Shinjuku. This is a great place to relax the mind and body for travelers. Known as the beautification spring, the mild water is high in quality and can soften the skin. There are six other relaxing facilities including carbonic acid bath and sauna to choose from. Not a bad idea to soak in before flying off.

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Hours: 11:00-9:00
Access: 9 minutes’ walk from JR Shinjuku Station East Exit
Address: 1 -1-2, Kabukicho, Shinjuku
URL: http://thermae-yu.jp/ (Japanese)

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SAMURAI-MUSEUM

Hours: 10:30-21:00
Admission: Free for children under 3, 800 Yen for 12 and under, 1,800 Yen for adults
Access: 8 minutes’ walk from JR Shinjuku Station East Exit

6-yellow SAMURAI MUSEUM サムライミュージアム

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Japan? Many people associate Japan with samurai, a culture that is not only confined to history books but still alive in modern Japan. The Samurai Museum introduces the authentic samurai spirit through a display of relics, armors and all sorts of items. A free 60 to 90 minute guided tour is recommended for those with more time. Put on a samurai helmet and costume for a photo shoot and get blown away by a reenactment of a sword fight.

Address: 2-25-6 Kabukicho, Shinjuku
Url: http://www.samuraimuseum.jp/en/index.html

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7-yellowGodzilla Head ゴジラヘッド

To celebrate the 60th anniversary of Godzilla’s debut , the Shinjuku Toho Building has installed the giant head of this monster on its outdoor terrace. Passers by on the ground can take a picture of Godzilla breaking its way through high-rise buildings—a nice souvenir to look back on!

Access: 5 minutes’ walk from JR Shinjuku Station East Exit
Address: 1-19-1 Kabukicho, Shinjuku

Godzilla-Head

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Shinjuku-Omoide-Yokocho
Access: 6 minutes’ walk from JR Shinjuku Station East Exit or West Exit
URL: http://shinjuku-omoide.com
6-yellow Shinjuku Omoide Yokocho 新宿西口思い出横丁

Shinjuku Omoide Yokocho, a bunch of old, low story buildings occupying the prime location of Shinjuku, is the best place to observe the life of office workers in Japan as they come here after work for a drink to unwind. It is a trip down memory lane for many because of the well-preserved atmosphere of the Showa Period (1926-1989). The eateries and bars here provide mouthwatering cuisine and a place of communication between travelers and locals.

Another 3hr trip – Shinagawa

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How to Make the Best of 3 Hours in Tokyo

It is the last day of your trip and you have three hours left before departing for the airport. Don’t know what to do with the time? WAttention did the homework for you. Here is a three-hour itinerary that will leave you entertained, refreshed and with lots of memories of Japan!

 

SHINAGAWA 品川

Shinagawa was a post station (a place for travelers to rest and resupply) on the Tokaido, the main road taking travelers from Tokyo to Kyoto in the Edo period. Although known as a town which provided lodging to weary travelers in the past, the Shinagawa of today plays an important role in the transportation and commerce sectors. Discover a different side of the city by taking a stroll along the Tokaido highway while you imagine a Japan without high technology, or walk a bit further to enjoy the scenery of Tennozu Canal.

1-yellowMaxell AQUA PARK SHINAGAWA マクセルアクアパーク品川

The park features the world’s first touch controlled aquarium and a gigantic underwater tunnel where you can watch all kinds of fish dancing around you. The 360-degree stadium, equipped with water curtains, lights and sound, is where the dolphin show takes place. Jumping dolphins and splashes of water may be just what you need to make your trip more exciting and vigorous.

Maxell-AQUA-PARK-SHINAGAWA

Hours: 10:00-22:00
Access: 2 minutes’ walk from Shinagawa Station Takanawa Exit
Admission: High school students or older 2,200 Yen, elementary and middle school students 1,200 Yen, children 4 years and over 700 Yen. *Extra charges apply to attractions and performance shows
Address: 4-10-30 Takanawa, Minato-ku
URL:http://www.aqua-park.jp/aqua/en/

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Shinatatsu-Shinagawa
2-yellowShinatatsu Shinagawa 品達品川

Just next to Shinagawa Station and below the railway tracks of the Keikyu Line lies Shinatatsu, an alley lined with seven distinct ramen shops and five donburi rice bowl dishes. Whether you’re a big fan of tonkotsu or shio, the different flavors are guaranteed to satisfy picky eaters. Before hopping on a train, don’t forget to enjoy some delicious slurping here!

Hours: 11:00-23:00 (Hours vary from store to store)
Access: 1 minute’s walk from Shinagawa Station Takanawa Exit
Address: 3-26-20 Takanawa, Minato-ku
URL:http://www.shinatatsu.com/index.php (Japanese)

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3-yellowGotenyama Garden 御殿山庭園

Gotenyama was a notable spot for cherry blossoms viewing during the Edo period and it also served as a hunting ground for the Tokugawa Shogunate. For those interested in art, its beauty is captured by ukiyo-e master Katsushika Hokusai in the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. The garden belongs to Gotenyama Trust City, and is home to four hundred cherry trees, attracting tourists from both Japan and abroad every spring. In summer enjoy hydrangea, in autumn, red leaves and gingko, and in winter camellia hiemalis flowers. Enjoy a cup of tea at the tea house and let time pass you by in this colorful, aromatic garden.

Gotenyama-Garden
Access: 10 minutes’ walk from Shinagawa Station Takanawa Exit
Address: 4-7-36 Kita Shinagawa, Shinagawa-ku (inside Tokyo Marriott Hotel)

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Shinagawa-juku
4-yellowShinagawa-juku 品川宿

Shingawa-juku was one of the post stations along the Tokaido (a road connecting Tokyo and Kyoto during the Edo period). It is located between present-day Kita-Shinagawa Station and Aomono-Yokocho Station. Although the area sustained fire damage in the past and is not as crowded as it used to be hundreds of years ago, a stroll through this nostalgic neighborhood is still charming.

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5-yellowTennozu Isle 天王洲アイル

Located in Tokyo Bay, Tennozu Isle is popular among Tokyoites as a holiday resort. The area is home to a variety of cultural establishments such as art galleries and theatres surrounded by water and green spaces. This is the ideal place to encounter Japanese art and culture. There are also chic shops and restaurants on the waterfront for you to explore. Visit Tennozu Isle and indulge in a relaxing atmosphere in the middle of the bustling city of Tokyo.

Tennozu-Isle

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Shibaura-Chuo-Park
6-yellow Shibaura Chuo Park 芝浦中央公園

A calm oasis nestled in the middle of busy streets, Shibaura Chuo Park is where wild nature joins in perfect harmony with the skyscrapers of Tokyo. If you happen to visit between May and mid- October, you’ll have the opportunity to see roses in full bloom.

Hours: 7:00-17:00 (January to April, October to December) 6:00-19:00 (May to September)
Access: 10 minutes’ walk from Shinagawa Station East Exit
Address: 1-2-28 Konan, Minato-ku
Url: http://shibaurachuopark.com/shibaura-chuo-park (Japanese only)

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7-yellowSHINAGAWA SEASON TERRACE 品川シーズンテラス

The open terrace on the second floor of Shinagawa Season Terrace commands an excellent view of Tokyo Tower, with cherry blossoms blooming in the background in spring and vivid autumn leaves adding a touch of nostalgia during fall. You can also take in a gorgeous view of the tower in the evening with all its lights on. If you are a lover of Japanese drama, don’t miss the chance to visit this actual shooting location.

SHINAGAWA-SEASON-TERRACE

Access: 6 minutes’ walk from Shinagawa Station Konan Exit
Address: 1-2-70 Konan, Minato-ku
Url: http://shinagawa-st.jp/en/

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Tozenji-Temple
Access: 11 minutes’ walk from Shinagawa Station
Address: 3-16-16 Takanawa, Minato-ku
6-yellow Tozenji Temple 東禅寺

This temple has a history that dates back to the Edo period. In 1859, one year after Britain and Japan signed a treaty of commerce, the British Embassy was opened in the temple precinct. However, the temple was attacked by locals who fiercely resisted foreign intrusion. It is said that sword cuts and bullet marks still remain in the pillar of the Okushuin and the genkan. History comes to life when you step into this magnificent temple.

Another 3hr trip – Ikebukuro

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How to Make the Best of 3 Hours in Tokyo

It is the last day of your trip and you have three hours left before departing for the airport. Don’t know what to do with the time? WAttention did the homework for you. Here is a three-hour itinerary that will leave you entertained, refreshed and with lots of memories of Japan!

 

IKEBUKURO 池袋

With over 2.5 million visitors per day, Ikebukuro Station is one of the busiest transportation hubs in Tokyo. Thanks to all the people passing through, Ikebukuro is as lively and bustling as Shinjuku and Shibuya. Expect to encounter a mosaic of traditional Japanese culture, history, fashion and subculture in this place. The best way to learn about this vibrant location is to pay it a visit and see it for yourself.

1-yellowSouth Ikebukuro Park 南池袋公園 / Racines FARM to PARK

A seven minute walk from Ikebukuro Station’s East Gate Exit takes you to an oasis tucked away in the middle of a bustling city. Enjoy a moment’s zen at South Ikebukuro Park and have a hearty brunch at Racines FARM to PARK, a café owned by a popular restaurant called Racines Boulangerie Bistro. It’s not a bad idea to fill your stomach before embarking on a three hours walk!

South-Ikebukuro-Park
South Ikebukuro Park 南池袋公園
Hours: 8:00-22:00
Access: 7 minutes’ walk from Ikebukuro Station East Exit
Address: 2-21-1 South Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku
Racines FARM to PARK
Hours: 8:00-22:00 (Weekday) 9:00-22:00 (Weekend and holiday)
URL: http://racines-park.com/ (Japanese)

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Toden-Zoshigaya-Sta.
2-yellowToden Arakawa Line 都電荒川線 / Toden Zoshigaya Sta. 都電 雑司ヶ谷駅

Toden Arakawa Line is the only remaining streetcar line in Tokyo, travel ing between Minowabashi and Waseda. If you are at South Ikebukuro Station, walk towards Higashi Ikebukuro Station and you’ll soon see Toden Zoshigaya Station. Watch as the cute-retro streetcar roam slowly through the streets of modern Tokyo, and if time is on your side, we strongly recommend that you take the tram and experience a different facet of Tokyo.

Access: 13 minutes’ walk from Ikebukuro Station East Exit
Address: 3-25 South Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku

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3-yellowKishimojin-do Temple 鬼子母神堂

Located in the heart of Zoshigaya, Kishimojin-do Temple is where locals visit to pray for a safe childbirth. The main building was constructed in 1664 and has undergone several renovations that have left traces of history on the architecture. The trees along the stone paved path connecting Toden Kishimojin Mae Station and the Buddhist temple are 400 years old and as intriguing as ever.

Kishimojin-do-Temple

Access: 15 minutes’ walk from Ikebukuro Station East Exit or get off at Toei Arakawa Line Kishimojin Mae Station.
Address: 3-15-20 Zoshigaya, Toshima-ku

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SK-Y-CIRCUS-Sunshine-6-0-Observatory-SKY-CIRCUS-and-VR
4-yellowSKY CIRCUS Sunshine 60 Observatory SKY CIRCUS サンシャイン 6 0 展望台

Built in the 1970s, the skyscraper Sunshine 60 is symbolic of Japan’s economic boom. This historical landmark has witnessed many changes in Tokyo over the past decades. Today, it’s not only an observatory with an extraordinary view, but also an entertainment space offering a full sensory experience through virtual reality technologies. Fly through the skies of Tokyo and get transported to the future!

Hours: 10:00-22:00
Access: 8 minutes’ walk from Ikebukuro Station Exit 35 or walk for 4 minutes from Toei Arakawa Line Ikebukuro 4-chome Station
Address: SUNSHING CITY Sunshine 60, 3-1-1 Higashi Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku
Url: http://www.skycircus.jp/english/

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5-yellowRINGO Ikebukuro RINGO 池袋店

The taste of RINGO’s apple pies is one of a kind. The apple pie has a crispy crust, melt-in-your-mouth apple filling and rich custard cream with the perfect blend of sweetness and flavor. The rich dessert is a harmony of taste, smell and feel for your senses. No wonder there is always a long line in front of the Ikebukuro store, which is the one and only branch in Tokyo.

Hours: 10:00-22:00
Access: Ikebukuro Station East Exit
Address: JR Ikebukuro Station 1 F, 1-28-2 Minami Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku
Url: http://ringo-applepie.com/(Japanese)

RINGO-Ikebukuro-RINGO

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6-yellow Edogawa Rampo Memorial Center for Popular Culture Studies, Rikkyo University / 立教大学江戸川乱歩記念大衆文化研究センター

Edogawa-Rampo-Memorial-Center-for-Popular-Culture-Studies,Rikkyo-University
Hours: 10:30-16:00 (Wednesdays and Fridays unless on holidays)
Access: 7 minutes’ walk from Ikebukuro Station West Exit
Address: 3-34-1 Nishi Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku
Url: http://www.rikkyo.ac.jp/research/institute/rampo/ (Japanese only)
Taro Hirai , (Pen Name Edogawa Rampo) is widely regarded as the father of Japanese mystery novels. He was greatly inspired by Edgar Allan Poe and adopted a pseudonym based on the Japanese phonetic pronunciation of the American writer’s name. He moved into a house next to Rikkyo University in 1934 where he lived until his death in 1965. Renamed as the Edogawa Rampo Memorial Center for Popular Studies, Rikkyo University. His library has around 20,000 books and documents and is now open to the public every Wednesday and Friday. Though located a bit far from the house, the Main Dining Hall of the university, built in 1919, is also worth a visit for travelers looking for a local experience.

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7-yellowSEIBU Tourist Information Center Ikebukuro 西武ツーリストインフォメー ションセンター池袋

SEIBU Tourist Information Center Ikebukuro is operated by staff who speak English, Chinese and various other languages.They are dedicated to providing travelers with timely assistance and travel information about Ikebukuro and Seibu Line. Before departing for Narita Airport, you can get the Skyliner Value Ticket with special discount price here and transfer at Keisei Ueno Station or Nippori Station.The Skyliner train goes from downtown Tokyo to Narita Airport in as little as 36 minutes, so you have plenty of time to shop around at Ikebukuro Station, which is adjacent to Seibu Department Store and Tobu Department Store.

SEIBU-Tourist-Information-Center-Ikebukuro
Hours: 8:00-18:00 (Ticket counter: 8:00-15:00)
Access: 1F Ikebukuro Station East Exit
Url: visit website

My second minshuku experience with an intense autumn workout in the rice field

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by Chew Yan Qiao

Yamagata-Aki-2

There is a Chinese saying [一次生,两次熟] which means ‘foreign at first, but familiar the second time around’. If you’ve read the article I wrote previously, you will know that it was my first experience with minshuku. Coming back the second time, it already felt nostalgic and welcoming. Although it was a different minshuku, the omotenashi from the locals was real and heartwarming.

Homestay experience

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My stay this time was with the Ikarashi elderly couple, who are the 5th generation owners of the 150-year-old house. Looking at the interior, you could already feel the historical presence and authenticity of the old house. They had the pictures of their first three-generation owners hung up on the walls, evidence of their legacy.

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The use of wood to construct the house gave it a homely vibe and I seriously would not have minded staying for another few more days if I could!

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The rooms were as I imagined them. With the pictured traditional sliding door, the interior was pampered with furnishings from a hundred years ago, left by their ancestors. I was so kandō (感動, touched) simply looking around at my surroundings; It was as though I was appreciating pieces of artwork that had lived for many years and had stories to tell.

Food is my one and only…

The dinner — I was blown away multiple times. I simply could not understand how they could prepare so many dishes! Just take a look at the goodness below↓↓↓

At the start, six little dishes were placed in front of us and we thought it was more than enough for our dinner, but NO… our hostess Mrs. Ikarashi brought out not one, not two, but four more little bowls… that’s right, four more awesome dishes, so we had 10 dishes in total! By the time we were finished, I had developed a second stomach to fill all the food. Although the dishes may seem simple, the seasoning was perfect and resonated well with my taste buds.

This is only just the opening spread = Mad skills
This is only just the opening spread = Mad skills
Dinner ended on a good note and we just had to rest and wait for the food coma to hit!
Dinner ended on a good note and we just had to rest and wait for the food coma to hit!
Next morning’s breakfast
Next morning’s breakfast

We had to wake up early as we had a tight schedule, but Mrs Ikarashi had already prepared breakfast and was waiting for us to eat. While we were still full from last night’s amazing dinner, I had to finish up the grand variety of food displayed in front of me no matter what.

The presentation was so beautiful and appetizing. The miso soup warmed my belly, the white fluffy rice called my name; the egg yolk from the sunny side up was waiting to burst in my mouth, the crispy grilled salmon was inviting me to savour it and the crunchy sound from the pickled eggplant was music to my ears. (Sorry, these descriptions are the only way to bring out the emotions I felt at the time.)

A great breakfast gets you going for a great day ahead!
A great breakfast gets you going for a great day ahead!

Harvesting experience in Japan

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Do you know why Japanese people always say ‘itadakimasu’ before their meals? In layman terms, it is a simple phrase to give our gratitude to those who have made the meal for us, to those who have worked hard to harvest good crops, for good weather so that farmers can have good harvest in year and for everything else that helps make it possible for food to be laid in front of us.

This was my first time experiencing farming and I was extremely excited and it was a rare opportunity to get my hands dirty. What’s more, I would get to enjoy it in my favourite country too!

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With the help from Iide Town staff, we went to help the Suzuki family’s rice field which is about a 5-min drive from our minshuku. We had 6 volunteers altogether (my Thai friend, 4 Japanese culinary institute students and I) helping out. The Suzuki family taught us the know-how on harvesting crops such as the correct techniques to cut the crops and how to
tie them up together.

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Although we were amateurs, the Suzuki couple were really helpful, giving us tips and advice. Between the six of us, it took us almost an hour to clear four out of the 100 rows of rice crops in the paddy. Later, I asked our guide how long would it take for Mr. Suzuki to clear one entire field, and he replied saying that if it is a pro farmer, just 6 hours would be enough. My jaw dropped with amazement and in my head, I was already saluting him.

Nevertheless, it was a great workout for the whole body (especially for the core muscles). Sweating it out during the nice autumn weather was awesome and I felt that I had lost an inch off my waist!

Onward to the next season!
Overall, this trip was really fun and enjoyable. Albeit short, it was very fulfilling. The journey that I had will not be forgotten and I’m already looking forward to my winter trip next year. Be sure to look out for it and do check out our website for more write-ups about Yamagata!

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農家民宿いからし本家
Nōka minshuku ikarashi honke
Minshuku Ikarashi Main House
89 Shirakawa, Iide-machi, Nishiokitama-gun, Yamagata, Japan 〒999-0432
☎ +81 238-77-2088
Price: 1 Night 2 meals (includes farming experience activities ), 6,800 yen
For reservation: info@iikanjini.com
www.iikanjini.com/tomaru/

Check out my previous write-up on my summer trip experience
http://www.wattention.com/articles/minshuku-experience-in-yamagata

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Thank you for your interest in WAttention Australia!

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Religious Encounters and Culinary Surprises in Shingu

By Rozemarije Zijlmans

It’s said that the Kumano gods first descended to earth at the gigantic white, greyish rock that sticks out of the Gongenyama mountain. From this sacred spot, marked by the small red Kamikura Shrine, they set forth and dispersed into the region.

Gotobiki sacred rock watching over the Kumano region.
Gotobiki sacred rock watching over the Kumano region.

Located at the foot of the mountain is the town of Shingu, our destination for the next two days and home to several sacred sites. It soon becomes obvious that the Gods have left their footprints everywhere around here.

Shingu (39,000 inhabitants) is situated in a mountainous area with plenty of rivers. It is the centre of the Kumano faith, which worships nature (rocks, trees, waterfalls, etc.) and combines Shinto religion with Buddhism. The faith was unique as it was open to everyone, including women and non-believers. As a result, it spread rapidly throughout Japan.

The Kumano gods were worshipped at three important temples (Grand Shrines) that together are called the Kumano-sanzan. From the ninth century, the imperial court and the aristocracy visited these religious sites, followed by the samurai and later, commoners. A popular pilgrimage route came into being: the Kumano Kodo.

In 2004 the Kumano Kodo and the Kumano-sanzan were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an honor also given to another pilgrimage route, the Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

Shingu and the Kumano-gawa river seen from the ruins of the Shingu (Tankaku) castle
Shingu and the Kumano-gawa river seen from the ruins of the Shingu (Tankaku) castle

It’s pouring rain the day we arrive at Shingu. This doesn’t seem to bother the dozens of men with bare upper bodies, clad only in white trousers. They snort while sliding back and forth in their wooden rowing boats on the banks of the dark green Kumano-gawa river. With their eyes squeezed, they spy their opponents. Today is the annual festival of the Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine, one of the three Kumano Grand Shrines. The festival ends with the Mifune boat race that every single boat aspires to win.

Shingu's-man-power

Shingu's-man-power-rowing
Boats at the Mifune boat race
Boats at the Mifune boat race

After the starting shot, roaring men push off the boats; the sound of gushing river water, hitting the prows. Within seconds the battle on the water is in full swing. They must make three rounds around a small island in the river. A crowd of spectators rushes by car or on foot towards the finishing point.

It has become quiet and a small boat appears on the river. It carries the red and gold portable shrine (mikoshi) bearing the divine spirit of the temple. Calmly the boat makes a couple of rounds around the island before it anchors.

The divine spirit enshrined at Kumano Hayatama-taisha is transferred into a mikoshi (portable shrine) which is loaded onto a ceremonial boat.
A mikoshi (portable shrine) is loaded onto a ceremonial boat.

In the twilight, the mikoshi is carried to an open space surrounded by trees and filled with people dressed in white. A solemn ritual is conducted; full of mantras, crackling fire and burning incense, all dedicated to the gods of the Kumano Hayatama Grand Shrine.

Passing by the shrine earlier that day, we purified the sins of our previous lives. And while I am listening to the humming priest, for a moment, this place feels truly divine.

Ritual-for-the-Kumano-Hayatama-Grand-Shrine
Ritual-for-the-Kumano-Hayatama-Grand-Shrine-fire

When visiting the other two Grand Shrines, one can attain the grace of the gods in their present life at the Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine, and find salvation for future lives at the Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine. And when this circuit has been completed, all sins are forgiven and passage to heaven is ensured. How wonderful!

The Kumano Hayatama Grand shrine where the 1000-year-old sacred conifer (nagi) tree can be found
The Kumano Hayatama Grand Shrine, where the 1000-year-old sacred conifer (nagi) tree can be found

But not for us; not yet. We still have too many items on our Shingu to-do-list. The second morning we take the opportunity to have a closer look at the giant rock Gotobiki-iwa. Our cordial, aged guide takes us for a steep climb via stairs that are carved out of the mountain. It’s cold, slippery and when we reach the top we’re trembling.

But we are rewarded with a fabulous view. It stretches beyond the city, glimmers across the water, towards the East, where the sun rises. Where the very first sun of the new year rises and that is reason enough for an annual celebration.

Every year, on February 6th, over 2,000 people crowd into this exceptional place. At the Kamikura Shrine a fire burns; a present of the gods. Torches are lit by the fire and after 15 minutes, the gate opens and everyone sprints forward. On bare feet or wearing straw sandals, they storm down all 538 uneven steps as fast as they can. The first one downstairs gets a prize.

However, it wasn’t always like this, originally, the burning torch was carried into the village, towards the hearth in the kitchen of every home and the food that was prepared on these flames was the best meal to start the new year.

The steep path made out of natural stepping stones towards Kamikura shrine
The steep path made out of natural stepping stones towards Kamikura shrine

And speaking of meals, Shingu provides not only a spiritual experience – you can also attain a culinary nirvana at any of the wide range of restaurants located in the city. This is because the area was once an industrial hub, made prosperous through forestry (cedar and cypress lumber), whale hunting, and providing services for the many pilgrims who visited. In addition, Shingu was home to many writers and intellectuals, who loved to debate over an excellent meal.

Here is just a taste of the many special places we visited. First, sushi at Jofuku-sushi. Be sure to try the fresh-caught tuna with the local citrus sanzu and salt, while in the charming restaurant Kaki no Ate, filled with Japanese antiques, you can taste chrysanthemum sushi wrapped in a persimmon leaf. For the oldest restaurant in town, head down to Shikaroku, where for over a hundred years, people have been tucking in the smoked eel, soft as butter, served with rice.

Sanma sushi a traditional Kumano dish served at Jofuku-sushi.
Sanma sushi a traditional Kumano dish served at Jofuku-sushi.

The wrapped sushi at Kaki-no-Ate looks like a present
The wrapped sushi at Kaki-no-Ate looks like a present

Unagi (eel) and rice; a successful recipe for over 100 years
Unagi (eel) and rice; a successful recipe for over 100 years

To end the feast, something completely different: shaved ice (kaki gori). Never before did I experience such delicious, feather-light shaved ice like the one at Naka-kooriten. In the summertime, this teeny tiny ice shop attracts over 500 customers a day. Don’t miss out on it.

Having fun with the sushi chef at Jofuku-sushi, Shingu
Having fun with the sushi chef at Jofuku-sushi, Shingu

This was just a taste of all the wonderful food, impressive religious sites and breathtaking nature surrounding Shingu area, truly the land of the Gods.