Gion Festival: A matsuri of “moveable art museums”

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A Kyoto summer without the Gion Festival would be like imagining the ancient capital without all its beautiful art and architecture. Fortunately, at this festival – one of Japan’s three biggest – you can gaze upon a procession of towering two-story floats so elaborately decorated with ornate tapestries they’re called “moveable art museums”!

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Centered around Yasaka Shrine and the nearby streets just west of the Kamo River in Kyoto, this month-long festival (July 1-31) includes parades, mikoshi (portable shrine) processions, theatre and music performances, as well as the displaying of these beautiful floats, known as yamaboko. The two yamaboko parades are the highlight of this annual festival, as 23 of them appear for the parade on July 17th, as well as 10 more for the one on July 24th. 

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Be especially amazed at the larger hoko variety of these floats, having massive two-meter tall wheels, and weighing up to 10 tons. With entire musical ensembles sitting on the second story, it’s no wonder these hoko require up to 50 people to pull! And in case you’re wondering what’s on top, these long spear-like poles are raised to appease the gods of disease and calamity, which was the original purpose when this festival began as a purification ritual in the 9th century. 

Yet the true beauty of these gigantic floats is in the detail of the woven fabric, dyed textiles, and vivid colors of the the artwork that adorns these yamaboko. Seeing them on the street isn’t close enough? Head to the Yoiyama evening festivities starting three days prior to both parades, where these floats are stationed for you to gaze upon leisurely. Of course, with the appetizing aroma from food stalls nearby, along with crowds of celebrating festival participants, you just might get drawn away into the evening excitement!

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Gion Festival:
Dates: Jul. 1 – Jul. 31, 2016
Time: Hours vary depending on the events of the day.
Yamaboko parades on July 17, 9am – 11:30am; July 24, 9:30am – 11:30am.
Yoiyama festivities take place on July 14-16, 6pm-11pm; July 21-23, 6pm-11pm.
Access: JR Tokyo Station to JR Kyoto Station via Tokaido Shinkansen, Kyoto Station to Shijo Station via Kyoto City Subway Line. Festivities (including the parades), and the Yasaka Shrine are located along Shijo Dori, connected to Shijo Station. 

Express Sushi in Shibuya

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Today WAttention headed to Sushi-Nova, a new sushi eatery that opened just this September by the United Nations University on Aoyama-dori Street. Though considered a kaiten sushi (conveyor belt sushi) store, this high-tech restaurant delivers your sushi express upon ordering on the touch screen panel.

Lunch Set D, 1,000 yen
Lunch Set D, 1,000 yen

Not only is the sushi very fresh and tasty for a kaiten sushi restaurant, the lunch sets are also very reasonably priced, ranging from 800 – 1,500 yen. Anago (eel) lovers will want to be sure to try the lengthy cuts here.

Large anago (eel), 360 yen
Large anago (eel), 360 yen

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Sushi-Nova Aoyama Oval Bldg Store
Hours: 11am – 11pm, Last Order 10:30pm
Address: Jingumae 5-52-2, Shibuya

BQpedia: Yakisoba

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BQpedia: Your guide to the underbelly of Japanese cuisine

B級グルメ (“B-Kyu Gurume”) may mean “B-Grade Gourmet” but the only thing “B-Grade” about this food category is the price, as most Japanese will swear by the “A-Grade” taste of these local favorites. Not to be confused as the equivalent of “fast food” in the West. Let WAttention walk you through this food culture with our definitive BQ Gourmet guide!

Today’s BQ menu: Yakisoba / ˌyäkēˈsōbə

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What it is: Yakisoba is a simple dish of stir-fried wheat flour noodles that is a staple menu at any matsuri (festival). The usual ingredients are sliced pork belly, cabbage and other vegetables, with the key flavoring being a tangy sosu, or Japanese Worcestershire sauce – a thicker and sweeter version of its English counterpart.

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A popular variety of yakisoba sosu, available at most supermarkets.

Where to find it: At matsuri (festivals) stalls, outdoor barbeques, old-style Chinese restaurants, and okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancake) eateries in the Kansai area (eg: Osaka).

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Why people love it: The tart, smoky scent of sizzling sosu wafting in the air is enough to set Japanese stomachs rumbling. This nostalgic soul food reminds one of fond childhood memories – from festival fun to hometown memories of mom whipping up a quick batch in the kitchen. As a dish that’s hard to go wrong with, it’s also a favorite item for student fundraising stalls at school festivals!

Katsuobushi bonito flakes are a common topping.
Katsuobushi bonito flakes are a common topping.

Its various forms: Besides the standard sosu yakisoba, look out for this favorite in a variety of forms, such as the following:

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Yakisoba is a main ingredient in Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki.

 

Yakisoba pan (bread) is a cheap on-the-go snack, available at convenience stores and bakeries.
Yakisoba pan (bread) is a cheap on-the-go snack, available at convenience stores and bakeries.

 

This instant version is a favorite, available only in the Hokkaido area.
This instant version is a favorite, available only in Hokkaido!

Shibuya Ranks #1 in Tokyo for College-Bound Rate

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This weekend, Jan. 15-16, high school students across the country will take the “Center Test” university entrance exam. And according to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology, Shibuya Ward ranks at the top of Tokyo’s 23 wards for highest college-bound rate!

With 77.9% of high school students continuing to college or junior college, Shibuya more than doubles the lowest ranking ward, Adachi Ward, at 38.9%. Chiyoda (76.9%), Minato (75.3%), Bunkyo (74.7%) and Suginami Ward (72.6%) rounded off the list’s top 5.

Best of luck to all test-takers, in Shibuya and across Japan!

 

Mannequins on vacation at Hikarie

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Ever wonder what mannequins do when they’re not modeling the newest fashions in perfect posture?

If so, head to fashion mall Shibuya Hikarie to catch the Mannequin’s Holiday “New Year’s & Potato Chips Exhibition” by performance group happy unbirthday, where mannequins show how they enjoy a day off, dressed in snack package wrappers in a room also comprised of wrapper-made items.

While the exhibition space is open from 11am – 8pm, the final “Closing Party” performance will take place tomorrow, Jan. 7 at 8pm, where you can bring your own snacks to participate!

Location: Shibuya Hikarie
Final Exhibition Day: Jan. 7
Exhibition Hours: 11am – 8pm
Closing Party: 8pm
Fee: None

Aoyama Gakuin wins Hakone Ekiden

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For the second consecutive year, Aoyama Gakuin University won the Hakone Ekiden race on Jan 2-3. This two-day long-distance running relay race from Otemachi, Tokyo to Hakone and back is the most popular nationwide televised sporting event during the New Year’s holidays.

We stopped by Aoyama Gakuin University (just a minute away) today to get a shot of their new victory banner. Congratulations to our next-door neighbor university!

WAttention Photo Contest: Best of 2015 (3)

We kicked off our WAttention Photo Contests on Google+ this past April, and with so many great submissions, we thought we’d round up the year by posting our favorites.

Our final contest this year featured fabulous shots of Shinjuku, Yokocho (Japanese Drinking Alleys), and Japanese Winter. From bright neon lights to soft white snow, these pictures below caught our attention, especially the winning photo at the end!

The snow monkeys of Nagano in the winter
“The snow monkeys of Nagano in the winter” by Heath Smith

 

"Cocoon and Lasers" by Masayuki Yamashita
“Cocoon and Lasers” by Masayuki Yamashita

 

"Light rain in an alley in Chiyoda Ward" by Leon Wu
“Light rain in an alley in Chiyoda Ward” by Leon Wu

 

"Tokyo Metropolitan Government" by Hiroshi Sata
“Tokyo Metropolitan Government” by Hiroshi Sata

 

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“Winter: Interesting symmetrical trees at Shinjuku Gyoen” by Rachel Fay

 

"Nature is higher than human beings" by Masayuki Yamashita
“Nature is higher than human beings” by Masayuki Yamashita

 

"Yakitori Alley" by Heath Smith
“Yakitori Alley” by Heath Smith

 

"Japanese Winter Scenery, Ueno Tosho-gu" by Hiroshi Sata
“Japanese Winter Scenery, Ueno Tosho-gu” by Hiroshi Sata

And the winning photo is…

"Shinjuku O-Guard: After shooting the Sompo Japan Building, only to look back!" by Masayuki Yamashita
“Shinjuku O-Guard: After shooting the Sompo Japan Building, only to look back!” by Masayuki Yamashita

This shot impressed for capturing Shinjuku’s phenomenal night scenery colored with flashy neon lights.

Looking forward to seeing your best photos in our next contest starting on Jan. 1, 2016. Check our website, Facebook, and Google+ pages for more details!

WAttention Photo Contest: Best of 2015 (2)

We kicked off our WAttention Photo Contests on Google+ this past April, and with so many great submissions, we thought we’d round up the year by posting our favorites.

Moving on to Fall, we were more than pleased with the wonderful photos posted of Tokyo Must-Buy Omiyage, Shibuya, and Autumn Colors. Again, don’t miss the winning shot, featured at the end!

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“Momiji”, Jojakuko-ji Temple in Kyoto, Nov. 2014, by Cheryl Lim

 

"A Portrait of Hachiko" by Rochelle Dumlao
“A Portrait of Hachiko” by Rochelle Dumlao

 

"Fall, Ryoan-ji Kyoto, late Nov.-Dec. 2014" by Stephen Wee
“Fall, Ryoan-ji Kyoto, late Nov.-Dec. 2014” by Stephen Wee

 

"Koya Splendor" on Mount Koya, fall 2009, by Marc Sorbe
“Koya Splendor” on Mount Koya, fall 2009, by Marc Sorbe

 

"Tokyo Omiyage, Asakusa" by 利姆歐失
“Tokyo Omiyage, Asakusa” by 利姆歐失

 

"Mt. Kona autumn, Nov. 2009" by Marc Sorbe
“Mt. Koya autumn, Nov. 2009” by Marc Sorbe

And the winning photo is…

"Seconds before the crowds start filling the Shibuya Scramble intersection" by Krimmer Rine
“Seconds before the crowds start filling the Shibuya Scramble intersection” by Krimmer Rine

This photo impressed for capturing the anticipation of Tokyoites and tourists heading into the Shibuya Scramble intersection.

Catch our third and final installment for the year next time, featuring Shinjuku, Yokocho (Japanese Drinking Alleys), and Japanese Winter.

WAttention Photo Contest: Best of 2015 (1)

We kicked off our WAttention Photo Contests on Google+ this past April, and with so many great submissions, we thought we’d round up the year by posting our favorites.

Starting with our summer contest, here were some of the best of our photos themed on Mt. Fuji, Japanese summer, Shinjuku and Shibuya. Be sure to scroll to the end to catch the winning photo!

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“The 29th Kanagawa Shimbun Fireworks Festival 2014” by Hazel Tan
"Lake Yamanakako is the lake situated closest to Mount Fuji. When I was here it was about 2 weeks before the cherry blossoms were in full bloom but the silhouette became a rather interesting aspect of the scene." by Kathy Nguyen
“Lake Yamanakako is the lake situated closest to Mount Fuji. When I was here it was about 2 weeks before the cherry blossoms were in full bloom but the silhouette became a rather interesting aspect of the scene.” by Kathy Nguyen
"Mt Fuji with Shinjuku Skyscrapers" by Masayuki Yamashita
“Mt Fuji with Shinjuku Skyscrapers” by Masayuki Yamashita
"Shibuya Crossing" by Kathy Nguyen
“Shibuya Crossing” by Kathy Nguyen
"A matsuri in Shimbashi on a Friday night" by Brian Kemper
“A matsuri in Shimbashi on a Friday night” by Brian Kemper
"Kabukicho" by 毛國駿
“Kabukicho” by 毛國駿

And the winning photo is…

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“Waking up during the twilight hours to capture the beautiful Mount Fuji. View from ryokan at Kawaguchi Lake.” by Alvin Chua

This shot impressed for capturing the sublime twilight tranquility of Mt. Fuji over the Yamanashi townscape.

Check our next article, which will feature our top shots of Shibuya, Autumn Colors, Tokyo Must-Buy Omiyage, and Shibuya!

Hachiko’s New Home in 2020

How will Shibuya’s iconic station change in light of the Tokyo Olympics?

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How will Shibuya’s iconic station change in light of the Tokyo Olympics?

Probably the only fixture from today left recognizable near Shibuya Station in 2020 will be the bronze statue of Japan’s most beloved dog, Hachiko, at the west exit of the station where the Akita dog waited faithfully for his master to return from work. In preparation for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, Shibuya Station is scheduled to undergo a complete makeover.

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Imagine six brand new towers, all towering within walking distance from the station. Even a 46-floor skyscraper is set to be built right on top of Shibuya Station itself Imagine how much easier Hachiko would be able to see his meeting place with his owner from far away with such a landmark in the Shibuya skyline.

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And did you know that there’s actually a river that runs through Shibuya? Soon Shibuya’s river will be restored to its former glory and make for a pleasant walk for people and their pets.

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With a brand new expanded multi-level station entrance, even the most experienced Shibuya-goers might need a little extra time to find Hachiko their first time getting off here.

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But fear not, Japan’s favorite Akita dog is here to stay. In fact, the Hachiko meeting area will be expanded to be even bigger, so that more tourists and locals can greet him. Can you imagine how long the lines will be to take this kind of a photo once the Olympics begin? (Yes, even our editors take photos with Hachiko when on location.)

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Nor will the Shibuya Crossing will be changing anytime soon. Well, other than the fact that this scramble might become even more pedestrian packed! Perhaps running across this intersection and dodging the crowds could some how be turned into an Olympic sport?

 

Photo Source: SHIBUYA+FUN PROJECT(shibuyaplusfun.com)

Welcome to Wisteria Lane in Japan

Catch Japan’s “May flower” in full bloom at Ashikaga Flower Park

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Catch Japan’s “May flower” in full bloom at Ashikaga Flower Park

 

When it comes to flowers, Japan has much more to offer than just cherry blossoms. In particular, the month of May is most known for the Japanese fuji or wisteria.

 

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The Japanese have treasured this pastel-colored flower throughout their history, making it the subject of traditional paintings, poetry, dances and family crests.

 

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Ashikaga Flower Park in Tochigi Prefecture is perhaps the most famous of all fuji gardens.

Here you can walk through tunnels of fuji in pink, purple, blue, white and yellow, and with the special evening illuminations, these petals will glow like showers of stars trailing from the sky.

 

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The oldest and largest fuji in Japan also blossoms here, hovering over nearly 2,000 square meters off the park grounds.

Don’t miss this chance to catch the magical sight of Japan’s magical fuji – other than Mount Fuji!

 

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Tourist Attraction Info: 
Ashikaga Flower Park
Address: 607 Hasama Town, Ashikaga City, Tochigi Prefecture, 329-4219 Japan
Access: A 13-min. walk from Tomita Station (JR Ryomo Line)
Tel: 0284-91-4939
Hours 7am–9pm
Closed: None
Price: Varies depending on the blossoming of the flowers
URL: http://www.ashikaga.co.jp/english/index.html
English tours available: No

BQpedia: Oden

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BQpedia: Your guide to the underbelly of Japanese cuisine

B級グルメ(“B-Kyu Gurume”) may mean “B-Grade Gourmet” but the only thing “B-Grade” about this food category is the price, as most Japanese will swear by the “A-Grade” taste of these local favorites. Not to be confused as the equivalent of “fast food” in the West. Let WAttention walk you through this food culture with our definitive BQ Gourmet guide!

Today’s BQ menu: Oden / oʊ·ˈden

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What it is: A traditional winter hot pot dish, commonly consisting of radish, kelp, boiled eggs and konjac, tofu and fishcakes in various shapes and sizes, simmered in a dashi soup broth, which is heavier in soy sauce in the Kanto Area (eg: Tokyo) and lighter tasting in the Kansai Area (eg: Osaka). In Shizuoka, the soup is black as beef stock is used along with a generous dose of soy sauce, whereas in Nagoya where the miso-culture wafts strong, a miso-broth is used.

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This mixed stew evolved from a snack called dengaku which is tofu grilled on a stick with a dollop of miso paste, named after the eponymous dancers who performed on sticks. In the Edo era, other foods like potatoes and konjac yams were also skewered and grilled. Over time, these skewers were put in a hot pot of broth and stewed. It can be speculated that when these items were taken off the sticks, “gaku” was dropped from the name and the honorific “O” was added to give the current naming of Oden.

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Where to find it: Finding oden is as easy as heading to a local izakaya, street stall, or yes, nearly every convenience store (conbini), as early as September. To order at the conbini, simply pick out your preferred items, pour the soup to your liking, and pay at the counter. And if that’s not convenient enough, you can even find canned oden vending machines in Akihabara! Of course, aficionados can also search for specialty stores with set menus—some offering a selection of over 50 items.

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What’s inside:

Daikon: radish that soaks up the broth thoroughly
Konjac: made from the konjac potato, springy with near zero calories!
Goboten: fried burdock root (gobo) with fish paste
Kinchaku: a small pouch of deep-fried tofu, filled with mochi
Shirataki: translucent konjac strings have a chewy texture, and are the perfect low-calorie noodle alternative!

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How to enjoy it: Oden is enjoyed on its own as a main dish. At some conbini you may have the option of adding udon to the soup. Choose any item that looks appetizing or interesting to you—the taste may be mainly of the broth, but enjoy the different textures.

Sorry, what’s the name of your station again?

Funny names of Japanese stations (you may want to avoid staying at)

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Funny names of Japanese stations (you may want to avoid staying at)

Japan’s train culture is highly developed. It has the world’s busiest train station (Shinjuku), the world’s most high tech trains (Shinkansen), and station staff trained (no pun intended here) to pack commuters neatly into already packed carriages.

But some train station names don’t seem so well thought through, with unintentional puns that are enough to make one stop in their tracks.

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Sorry, would you mind spelling that out for me again?

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Can’t help feeling a bit intimidated reading this sign for the first time. (omaeda=Hey you punk!)

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You can’t help but wonder if the people who liver around here are also…(hage=bald)

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Wait…are you serious? Is this REALLY what the station is called? (maji=seriously?!)

Photo Sources: corobuzz.com, date-yanagawa.info

Have you been eating sushi wrong all this while?

Taste sushi as it should be with these three pointers

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Taste sushi as it should be with these three pointers

So watching “Jiro Dreams Of Sushi” inspired you to book a trip to Japan?

Time to learn how to eat sushi like a native Japanese.

Yes, because you don’t want to seem rude. (For example, don’t ever rub your chopsticks together to get rid of wood splinters. It implies that the restaurant provides cheap utensils!)

But honestly, Japanese sushi chefs are quite forgiving towards foreigners who simply don’t know proper etiquette. Well, other than that one place in Tsukiji Fish Market where the chef yelled at me for breaking Rule #3 (see below).

There is however, an even more important reason why you should learn to eat sushi like the Japanese do: it simply tastes better. Japanese sushi chefs have mastered the craft of preparing and serving sushi for over 200 years. So it might be worth trusting them when it comes to how they say it should be eaten.

Though there’s obviously many opinions out there, here are three of the most basic rules that many Japanese agree on when eating high quality sushi:

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Rule #1: Don’t mix the wasabi and soy sauce. The amount of wasabi used really depends on the fish. Which is why the chefs apply the amount they deem necessary directly onto the fish. (And if you really can’t stand wasabi, you can ask them to not put any on, “wasabi nuki de”.)

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Rule #2: Dip the fish in the soy sauce, not the rice. The rice will soak up more soy sauce than you need, overpowering the flavor of the fish and the shari (rice) will probably disintegrate in the process. Furthermore, sushi chefs pay just as much attention to the quality and taste of their carefully-crafted vinegar rice. Remember, you came to eat sushi, not wasabi and soy sauce.

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Rule #3: Eat it quickly! If you’re sitting at the counter and the chef places the sushi on your plate in front of you, don’t let it sit too long. Sure, it’s not going to get cold per se, but many sushi chefs say that the flavor of the fish will change as the freshly sliced fish is exposed to air and begins to oxidize. Not to mention, you can be sure the chefs carefully calculate the juxtaposed temperature of the warm rice and the cold fish. So eat it quickly.

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Summary: When the chef puts the sushi out in front of you, take it quickly, dip the fish-side in a little soy sauce, then put it in your mouth. Simple isn’t it? And if chopsticks aren’t your forte, feel free to grab the sushi with your hands! (Really, it’s actually considered polite!)

 

Do the Shibuya Scramble

Take a walk through the world’s most famous intersection

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Take a walk through the world’s most famous intersection

No intersection in Japan is more famous or photogenic than the five-way intersection known as the Shibuya Crossing. You’ve seen it in countless movies and advertisements. It’s a physical metaphor for modern Japan – an overload of visual, audio and sensory data.

No surprise when you consider the following facts:

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1. It is located just outside of the world’s second busiest train station (approximately 1,090,000,000 passing through per day, second only to Shinjuku Station, a few stations away).

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2. On its southern end, sits the Hachiko statue, the most famous meeting place in Japan.

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3. On its northern end, the iconic 10-story Tsutaya Building houses the world’s busiest Starbucks (in terms of daily customers served).

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4. The crossing itself is the busiest in the world, with over 1,000 pedestrians crossing per signal at high traffic hours.

Though there are many great places to view the massive scramble, but we’d like to introduce you to perhaps the best view yet: right from your computer!

For those who have yet to come to Shibuya, or for those who simply want to reminisce about their last trip to Tokyo, check out this LIVE camera feed of the Shibuya Crossing, airing 24 hours a day updated every 85 seconds!

“Natto” Your Ordinary Eatery

Sendaiya serves natto like you’ve never seen (or smelled) before

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Sendaiya serves natto like you’ve never seen (or smelled) before

Natto, or fermented soybeans, is a love it or hate it food. You either love or hate the taste, smell and sliminess of it. But Sendaiya, in Ikejiri-Ohashi and Shimokitazawa, is a Natto specialty store that may convert some naysayers to natto.

Do“natto”s and coffee?

Sendaiya has created an original line up of 12 donuts made with ground natto powder as a batter ingredient. With flavors like chocolate, strawberry, as well as the more traditional kinako and matcha azuki (green tea and red bean), these donuts with just a hint of natto’s distinct taste might be the first natto anything that you can say you actually ate…and enjoyed!

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All-you-can-eat natto for just 100 more yen!

For natto fanatics, the Sendaiya in Ikejiri-Ohashi might be the only place where you can eat all the natto you want by paying just an extra 100 yen! As a part of a regular teishoku set meal, including miso soup, rice, and pickled vegetables, you will feel like you’re in natto heaven!

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Natto vending machines for your midnight cravings

Yes, add it to the list of weird vending machines that could only exist in Japan. Though fresh fermented food seems like an oxymoron, now you can get over 20 varieties of it any time of the day.

Shop Info: 
Sendaiya Ikejiri-ohashi
Address: 3-20-3 Ikejiri, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo
Tel: 03-5431-3935
Hours: 11am – 7pm
Eat-in Hours: 11am – 3pm (Last Order)

Sendaiya Shimo-kitazawa
Address: 2-27-8 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo
Tel: 03-3481-2611
Hours: 11am – 8pm

 

Photo Source: shimokita-happytown.net, http://www.playingwithfireandwater.com, http://blog.goo.ne.jp/negokunta

Japan’s First Sumo Rock Band?

The heaviest metal you’ll ever see.

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What happens when four famous sumo wrestlers form a rock band?

Perhaps not the creation of the next big Japanese idol group, but for sure, yet another unforgettable Japanese commercial is born.

To promote its new product, the “Move Band”, Docomo Health Care created a completely different kind of “band” – a heavyweight rock band comprising well-known sumo wrestlers.

At the guitar is Asahishou, at the drums is Gagamaru, manning the bass is Tenkaiho, and Toyonoshima is the lead vocal.

The “Move Band” estimates the number of calories one burns throughout the day. With an average weight of over 320 lbs (145 kg) each, Docomo Health Care must have figured that watching these four rock out with all their might would make for a very entertaining sight…not to mention a redefinition of the genre, heavy metal. Take a look for yourself!

 

Photo Source: docomohealthcare YouTube

Ski in Japan: Top 5 Central Japan Resorts

Within just 3 hours of Central Japan, you can find slopes to suit any ski level, not to mention a great selection of spas. Our top four picks take you high, where trees freeze into “ice monsters” and the onsens thaw you out at the highest altitude in the country. For sliding and soaking fun in the heart of Japan, start here.

APPI Snow Resort (Iwate Prefecture)

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English Instructors: Private and group lessons available. Advanced booking needed
Number of courses: 21

With the mind-boggling number of courses available, this is the place to go to ski or snowboard to your heart’s content. Slope levels varying from beginner to advanced, plus meticulously manicured slopes and dry light snow makes this the ultimate skiing and snowboarding haven no matter what your level is.

Address: 117 Appi Kogen, Hachimantai City, Iwate Prefecture
Access: Take the JR Hanawa Line from Morioka Station, there is a free shuttle bus available between JR APPI Kogen Station and the resort buildings.
Web: http://www.appi.co.jp/foreign_country/english/winter/index.html

Manza Onsen Ski Resort (Gunma Prefecture)

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English Instructors: Advanced booking recommended
Number of courses: 9

If ski and spa is your ideal combination, Manza is your most convenient choice. At a 1,800m altitude, enjoy fresh powdered snow and choose from ten relaxing onsens – the highest in Japan – at the Prince Hotel, located right on the slopes.

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Address: Manza Onsen, Tsumagoi-mura, Agatsuma-gun
Access: Take the Seibu Kogen Bus to Manza ski area from Karuizawa Station. Guests of the Manza Prince Hotel or Manza Kogen Hotel can take a free shuttle bus through advanced booking.
Web: http://www.princehotels.com/en/ski/manzaonsen

Gala Yuzawa Snow Resort (Niigata Prefecture)

①スキー・スノーボード
English Instructors: Yes
Number of courses: 17

With a decent amount of courses, Gala Yukawa is the ideal ski resort for skiers and snowboarders of any level, and is also conveniently connected to the Shinkansen Station. Have a hot bath at hot spring SPA Gala No Yu afterwards to get the most out of this all-in-one ski facility.

④SPA温泉

Address: Yuzawa 1039-2, Yuzawa-machi, Minamiuonuma-gun
Access: Take the Joetsu Shinkansen to GALA Yuzawa Station from Tokyo Station
Web: http://www.galaresort.jp/winter/english

Zao Hot Springs Ski Resort (Yamagata Prefecture)

Juhyogen Course 6
English Instructors: Private lessons only (advanced booking needed)
Number of courses: 12

Soak in one of Japan’s most famous onsens after a full day of skiing amongst the awe-inspiring juhyo (ice-frosted trees) here. From December to February, the unique weather conditions create these natural wonders – often called “ice monsters” – particularly beautiful when illuminated at night.

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Address: Zao Onsen 708-1, Yamagata
Access: A 40-min. bus ride to Zao Onsen Bus Terminal from Yamagata Station.
Web: http://www.zao-spa.or.jp/english

Shizukuishi Ski Resort (Iwate Prefecture)

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English Instructors: Advanced booking recommended
Number of courses: 13

Experienced skiers will love the challenging slopes here at Mt. Iwate, home to the FIS ski and snowboard world cup multiple times. If you’re feeling brave, glide down its longest course, which is a good 4.5km long!

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Address: Takakura Onsen, Shizukuishi-machi, Iwate-gun
Access: A 20-min. taxi ride from Shizukuishi Station, or take the free shuttle bus to Prince Hotel Shizukuishi through advanced booking.
Web: http://www.princehotels.com/en/ski/shizukuishi

Searching beyond Sushi

Besides Sushi, the next most googled Japanese food around the world is…

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Besides Sushi, the next most googled Japanese food around the world is…

What was the last Japanese food you searched for on Google (other than sushi)? If you’re from the US, it’s –surprise, surprise– likely to be the healthy edamame, and if you’re from the UK, you were probably wondering what the Japanese eat in winter to keep warm. No surprise there.

This must be right because Google (or Google sensei as sometimes referred to in Japan) said so. As in, physically, in a seminar at their Tokyo office that WAttention attended earlier this year.

Here’s a list of the most searched for Japanese foods in five countries (that isn’t sushi):

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America: Edamame
Despite the craze for ramen burgers and even sushi burritos that hit the internet search engines last year, the far more simple (and healthier) edamame is number two. No wonder that a popular American supermarket has picked up on this fad, creating their own edamame fusions like edamame hummus, and dark chocolate-covered edamame.

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United Kingdom: Oden
Though number 14 on the overall world ranking, oden – a stew consisting of fishcake, radish, seaweed and other ingredients – has apparently found a market in the UK. Perhaps it makes sense that this traditional hot soupy Japanese winter dish would go well with the cold British weather.

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Singapore: Shabu Shabu
Coming in at number 8 on the world ranking, this hot pot dish continues to be a favorite, particularly in the Southeast Asia region.

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Malaysia/Indonesia: Takoyaki
Osaka’s soul food, takoyaki – or griddled flour balls with octopus filling and worcestor sauce dressing – is on a roll! With 38% more searches than the previous year, no other Japanese dish is growing faster in popularity, especially in Southeast Asia. Though not making the top 10 in any of the Western countries, could this potentially be the next boom?

The overall top 20 most Googled for Japanese foods are:

1. Sushi
2. Edamame
3. Sashimi
4. Ramen
5. Tempura
6. Yakisoba
7. Mochi
8. Shabu Shabu
9. Teriyaki
10. Miso Soup
11. Onigiri
12. Sukiyaki
13. Okonomiyaki
14. Oden
15. Gyoza
16. Dango
17. Takoyaki
18. Unagi
19. Natto
20. Udon

Source: Google Survey (Jan.-Nov. 2014) as presented at a seminar at the Google Tokyo office on Mar. 16, 2015.

 

Ski in Japan: Top 3 Hokkaido Resorts

While crisp gold and red leaves are still falling across Tokyo, it won’t be long until Japan’s peaks are powdered with fluffy white snow. And with the ski season starting as early as mid-November in Hokkaido, it’s not too early to plan for your winter wonderland trip. In this series, we bring you the hottest resorts for the coolest ski trips, complete with onsens and scenery to accompany your downhill thrills. 

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Top 3 Hokkaido Resorts

Snow and Hokkaido are a natural pair, where feather-light powder falls throughout nearly half the year, and its famed Sapporo Snow Festival crowns the season from Feb. 5-11. So for the full Japanese winter experience, start here on its most northern island, where blankets of white wonder await!

Niseko United

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Number of courses: 60
English instructor: Advanced booking recommended
Pick up an All-Mountain Pass for access to all four resorts on Mt. Nikes Annupuri. With a total of 48km of groomed slopes and a course as long as 5.6km, this 4-in-1 spot is great for longer stays.

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Address: Niseko Annupuri: Aza Niseko 485, Niseko-cho, Abuta-gun
Access: Take the Niseko United Shuttle Bus to all our resorts from Kutchen Station.
Web: http://www.niseko.ne.jp/en

Hoshino Resort Tomamu

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English instructor: Advanced booking recommended
Number of courses: 25
Just over an hour away by train from Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport, this resort comes with an open air hot bath facing the lush forests of Tomamu. Give ice skating a go as well as the Ice Village and enjoy its various ice sculptures.

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Address: Naka-Tomamu, Shimukappu-mura, Yuufutsu-gun
Access: Take the shuttle bus from Tomamu Station.
Web: http://www.snowtomamu.jp/winter/en

Furano Ski Resort

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English instructor: Advanced booking recommended
Number of courses: 23
Known for its gorgeous rural landscapes and clear blue skies in the winter, you will not find a more picturesque skiing backdrop than the Furano Valley. After skiing, grab a drink at a snow dome ice bar.

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Address: Nakagoryo, Furano-shi
Access: Take a taxi from JR Furano Station or the direct shuttle bus from New Chitose Airport.
Web: http://www.princehotels.com/en/ski/furano/index.html

 

The Takaoka Doraemon Tour

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For fans of Doraemon, a pilgrimage to Takaoka, where Fujiko F. Fujio created the futuristic blue robot cat, is a must. And though you may not have a Dokodemo door—one of Doraemon’s handy gadgets—to instantly transport you here to Takaoka City, we’ve provided the next best thing with this photo tour, starting right at JR Takaoka Station.

Send a postcard from the Doraemon Postbox

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It may not be as big as the city’s Great Buddha statue, but this giant bronze postbox on the station’s ground level is the largest Doraemon you’ll find in the city. Best of all, letters and postcards sent from here will be postmarked with a Doraemon stamp, a great souvenir from your trip!

Shoot some selfies at the Doraemon Promenade 

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Step outside the station and walk towards the Takaoka Manten Hotel, and you’ll find the whole cast awaiting you. Dedicated by Fujiko himself, these statues were established to continue to inspire creativity amongst the city’s children (or adults like us).

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Ride the Doraemon Tram

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Dedicated in 2012 to commemorate 100 years until the birth of Doraemon in 2112 (according to the manga, as this cat hails from the future), this tram along the Manyosen Line is a Doraemon dream ride, decorated with everything from little dorayaki painted on the interior, to its cute tram logo on the front.

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Dorayaki, Doraemon’s favorite red bean-filled pancake treat.

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Just be sure to look up the tram’s schedule in advance, as there’s only one tram that travels between Takaoka Station and Koshinokata Station (Imizu City).

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Go to where it all began

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Though you won’t find any Doraemon statues to mark the spot, head to the Takaoka Park Sumo Field within Takaoka Kojo Park to see where it all began. Here, on the hill just behind this field, it is said that Fujiko would come regularly for inspiration for his artistic creations.

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Just look for this rock, a short walk from the main entrance to Imizu Jinja Shrine.

See the newest landmark

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Opening in just over a month on Dec. 1, get a rare glimpse into Fujiko’s imaginative world, through many of his original drawings and artworks gathered at the Fujiko F Fujio Hometown Art Gallery. Just a 10-min. walk from the Ritsushikino Chugakkoekimae Station via the Doraemon Tram!

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And to finish, why not try a Toyama Black Dorayaki? A sweet ending to top off your tour.

All Doraemon Photos ©Fujiko-Pro

The Takaoka Top Sites Tour

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Not all cities can boast of National Treasures, vast nature, and one of Japan’s Three Great Buddhas, all within walking distance of the main station. So for some quiet meditation or some dazzling festival floats, be sure to stop at these spots.

Takaoka Daibutsu (Great Buddha)

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Watching over the city at 15m tall and said to be the most handsome of the Three Great Buddhas according to poet Akiko Yosano, Takaoka’s Daibutsu stands—or sits, rather—as the only one of the three completely funded and crafted by its local citizens.

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Erected in 1933, three decades of coppersmith construction went into creating this 65 ton landmark, which contains a collection of art and craftwork beneath the statue, also well worth seeing.

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Zuiryuji Temple

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The most prized relic of the prefecture, Zuiryuji’s Central Buddha Hall, Lecture Hall and Main Gate are the only buildings in Toyama registered as National Treasures. Dedicated to Takaoka’s founder, Lord Maeda Toshinaga in 1663, this Zen temple is representative of early-Edo architecture.

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Central Buddha Hall

When gazing at the Central Buddha Hall, be sure to look up, as this work of architectural genius supports 47 tons of lead tiles without employing a single nail!

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Mikurumaya Kaikan

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Though the Mikurumayama Festival, which dates back to 1611, can only be caught on May 1 along Takaoka’s city streets, you can view examples of its beautiful floats here at this museum all year round.

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Known for their tall wooden hoko poles and elaborate lacquerware and metalwork ornamentation, these carriages are said to be based on an elegant one once used by the great Daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi, which was later donated to Takaoka’s Maeda clan.

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Takaoka Kojo Park 

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Within just a 10-min walk from the station, here you can enjoy 22 hectares (54 acres) of lush greenery at this park, particularly beautiful during the cherry blossom and fall foliage seasons.

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While nothing remains of the original Takaoka Castle that once stood here except for the expansive moat, a free zoo, and the Manyou Shu Festival in early October, as well as a recent statue of Lord Toshinaga Maeda.

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The stage for the three-night poetry reading festival, Manyou Shu.

The Takaoka Traditional Crafts Tour

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More than anything—yes, even Doraemon—Takaoka is a city of craftsmanship.

In particular, metalworking here dates back to the Edo era, when it was designated as an industrial zone under the ruling Maeda lords. Over 400 years later, the city is still the nation’s leading copperware producer, and its skillful techniques and traditions are revealed in every statue that lines its streets, as well as its modern lineup of accessories and decorations. Below are three names any craft fan or omiyage hunter will surely want to be familiar with.

Kanaya-machi 

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Behold the birthplace of Takaoka’s metal-casting industry. Lord Toshinaga Maeda established this district in 1611 by commissioning seven metal workers, and one walk down its stone-paved streets—which also includes scraps of copper—will give you a nostalgic sense of the city’s origins.

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Enter into one of its many latticework-decorated machiya townhouse shops, and you’ll find boutique displays with one-of-a-kind products, handcrafted by third and fourth generation artisans laboring in the dark factory warehouses hidden just behind the storefront.

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From copper to tin, ceramic to lacquerware, a wide array of decorative items can not only be purchased here, but even handcrafted by participating in a workshop, such as the one offered at Sabo Gallery Otera—a great way to experience Takaoka’s tradition for yourself.

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Nousaku

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What began a hundred years ago as a manufacturing company of brass and bronze butsudan Buddhist altar fittings, tea sets, and flower vases, has expanded to one of Takaoka’s most innovative creators of tableware and home accessories.

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In fact, a meal at any nice dining establishment within the city is likely to be served on one of Nousaku’s malleable tin plates.

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Its KAGO basket line is perhaps its most popular, using 100% tin, making them bendable by hand into a number of shapes to suit any occasion.

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By visiting its factory, you can get a first-hand tour of the creation process, from the initial pouring of molten aluminum, bronze, copper, and tin into the mold, down to the detailing and polishing—a metal-lover’s must see.

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Raden

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Said to have originated in Nara in the 7th century, raden is the decorative craft created by setting lustrous abalone shell into lacquerware, glass, stone or metal. And at Musashigawa Koubo, a team of just five craftsmen design each of these masterpieces in their small workshop, carrying on four generations of the trade in Takaoka.

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Once the abalone shell—a wide variety of which are employed—is polished down to as thin as 0.1mm, it is carefully cut and shaped before inlaid and polished again.

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While originally designed for Buddhist altars, tableware, and traditional Japanese ornaments, Musashigawa Koubo keeps up with the times, handcrafting everything from business card holders to smartphone cases and desk accessories. Though a bit more pricey than your typical omiyage, these gifts are sure to be as treasured in the future as they have in the past.

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The Takaoka Street Treats Tour

Situated between the two capital cities of Toyama and Kanazawa, Takaoka is often bypassed by tourists. But with lots to offer in terms of culture, crafts, gourmet, historical streets and a Doraemon street, Toyama’s second largest city is one you don’t want to miss. Find out more about the hidden charm of Takaoka in this 5-part series.

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Sightseeing and snacking go hand-in-hand, and with nearly all the major tourist attractions in Takaoka City within walking distance, these street treats make the perfect pairing for your exploring.

Anything and Everything Konbu

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Though green konbu kelp isn’t cultivated locally, the Kitamaebune ship trade routes from Hokkaido to Toyama Bay made this seaweed a staple here for over 300 years. Sure, its furry texture may not be what you’d expect on your onigiri riceball or atop your oden, but it makes for a savory and healthy addition to almost any dish!

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Takaoka Croquette

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Croquette is a favorite across Japan, but perhaps no other city treasures this crispy potato-filled treat more than Takoaka, where sales are said to be highest in the nation. From local Hida beef-filled versions, to the oversized Daibutsu (Giant Buddha) version, over 40 stores are ready to dish out this deep-fried soul food.

Black Dorayaki

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Combining the rich black soy sauce flavor of Toyama’s famed Black Ramen with animated hometown hero Doraemon’s favorite food, this red bean paste and butter-filled pancake is the perfect way to commemorate the city’s beloved blue cat.

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Melon Bun

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Though not native to Takaoka City, this melon bun chain store from next door Kanazawa City in Ishikawa Prefecture (whose name humorously reads “The World’s Second Best Freshly Baked Melon Bread Ice Cream”) has been featured on TV numerous times since opening. Straight out of the oven, its slightly crispy texture and sweet taste is delicious by itself or with a scoop of ice cream inside. Apparently the world’s best fresh baked melon bun refers to the first person to have created it…

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Black Kaki no Tane

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Only available in the Hokuriku region, try the black version of this traditional kaki-pi (crescent-shaped rice cracker kaki no tane and peanuts) snack. Just don’t be confused, as unlike all the other black dishes in Toyama, this one gets its color and flavor from black squid ink, not soy sauce.

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The Takaoka Taste Tour

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From historic copperware craftwork to the futuristic cartoon cat Doraemon, Takaoka City is the home of traditional and modern culture for all ages. And thanks to the recently completed Hokuriku Shinkansen, visiting this picturesque town located along Toyama Bay, facing the Sea of Japan, has never been more convenient. Travel with WAttention as we bring you Takaoka’s top eats, spots, and traditions in this five-part series.   

The Takaoka Taste Tour

Toyama Bay is indeed gorgeous, named as one of the Most Beautiful Bays In The World by UNESCO last year. But it is also a breeding ground for Japan’s tastiest seafood, some of which can only be found here. Whether raw, fried, or in your ekiben (“train bento”), bite into the bay’s best eats while they’re at their freshest in neighboring Takaoka—and don’t forget about it’s iconic ramen either.

Shiroebi (White Shrimp)

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Referred to as the “jewels of Toyama Bay”, full-scale fishing for these little whitish-pink creatures takes place only here, between April and November. Savor its sweet melt-in-your-mouth creaminess by trying it raw, or eat it whole as a crunchy fried snack.

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Hotaruika (Firefly Squid)

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These, one of the smallest species of squid, are as delicious to eat as they are fascinating to watch, as they light up Toyama Bay with their glow in early spring. Often boiled and served in a sumiso (vinegar and miso) sauce, this delicacy can also be enjoyed as tempura, or of course, raw.

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Toyama-wan Zushi (Toyama Bay Sushi)

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With over 500 species of fish swimming throughout the waters here, there’s no shortage of toppings for fresh sushi. Typically served as a set of 10 atop Toyama-grown rice, Toyama-wan Zushi offers a sampling of all the local favorites, including yellowtail buri and honmaguro tuna.

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A Toyama-wan Zushi display inside Shin-Takaoka Station

Masu no Sushi

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300 years ago, a samurai dedicated this dish of pressed pink trout sushi wrapped in bamboo leaves to the daimyo lord Toshiaki Maeda, and ever since, it has been considered a classic. Be sure to grab one of the ekibens for your train ride back, as these have won numerous national awards for best boxed lunch!

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Toyama Black Ramen

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Dark soy sauce is the secret ingredient to this, the flagship noodle dish in Toyama Prefecture. But don’t let the color scare you, as this ramen took first place three consecutive years at the Tokyo Ramen Show. And unlike the other dishes above, it can even make a great omiyage if you buy the instant version at any convenience store in the area.

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Training Through Tohoku (4): Traditional Crafts

The Tohoku Traditional Crafts List

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A cute hand-carved figurine or hand-stitched gift makes for a great keepsake in your living room display case or for daily use, and there’s no lack of such creative crafts in Tohoku. Bring back a piece of tradition for yourself or your friends with these items below!

Kogin-zashi (Aomori)

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A cotton threading technique native to Aomori’s Tsugaru region, it is said that over 600 varieties of these geometric patterns have been handed down since the Edo era. Artisans originally weaved white threads into the blue farming outfits known as kogin, but now apply this method to bags, wallets, and pincushions of every color.

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Tetsubin (Morioka)

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Nambu ironware in Iwate Prefecture dates back over 400 years, and Iwachu’s tetsubin cast-iron tea pots are perhaps the most exported craft from the Tohoku region, gaining worldwide popularity. This writer was surprised to find them on sale in his native Los Angeles just last week! Known to enhance the taste of teas by fortifying it with iron, these kettles will last a lifetime.

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It takes 15 years of experience before one can officially be considered a true ironware craftsman here, and the Made in Japan attention to detail is evident in every product, ranging from the iconic black kettle, to its new line of colorful frying pans, coffee kettles, and rice pots.

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Sasano-Ittoubori (Yamagata)

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Said to have originated in the Sasano area by Yonezawa City over 1,000 years ago according to local tradition, an experienced ittoubori (“one knife carvings”) craftsman can whittle one of these toys in just a matter of minutes. The hawk and chicken are the most representative of the twelve animal lineup, each bearing its distinct long curly tail.

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Kokeshi (Sendai)

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Though this traditional toy can be found throughout Japan, five of the original eleven designs originate in Miyagi Prefecture. The Naruko style pictured here is known for its kind face, and a head that squeaks when turned. Since no two faces are identical, each kokeshi doll makes for a one-of-a-kind gift.

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Training Through Tohoku (3): Strange Foods

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The Strange Foods List

Trying new foods is half the adventure of traveling, and Tohoku is full of land and sea creatures—or the above dish, which looks straight from outer space—served so fresh that sometimes they’re still moving on your plate. Be on the look out, or perhaps beware, of the following!

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Dancing Squid (Aomori)

This freshly sliced squid dish is served so quickly that it actually moves or “dances” when you touch it with your chopsticks. Though most famous in Hakodate, Hokkaido, where even a festival dance called the Ika Odori (Squid Dance) exists, you can also catch it in Aomori—one of the Japan’s largest squid suppliers. Fear not if you find yourself squirming in your seat as well. They’ll usually grill, fry, or boil the unsliced portion for you to eat if you ask.

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Fujitsubo (Aomori)

On Aomori’s official list of “Eight Delicacies”, these creepy crustaceans are actually barnacles, often eaten steamed or boiled in shell. The naming is a lot more delicate than its appearance–meaning literally “wisteria vase”, the shape of the barnacles resembling in a crustacean wisteria, perhaps. Even within Aomori at peak season in the fall, it might take some searching to find a place that serves this uncommon specialty. We had to settle for just looking at it poke its head (or claws?) out at us in the market.

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Tataki Hakkinton Pork (Morioka)

This premium “platinum” (hakkinton) brand of pork, native to Hanamaki City in Iwate Prefecture is a rare sight, literally. Forget everything you’ve learned about always needing to cook your pork thoroughly, as here you can find it lightly grilled (tataki) and as pink on the inside as the pigs themselves.

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Same no Shinzou “shark heart” (Sendai)

Though shark-filled waters aren’t usually considered a blessing, they are in Miyagi Prefecture, one of the few places in Japan where you can find shark sashimi. Since raw shark can only be eaten when extremely fresh, it’s no wonder that it has a very clean taste, with hardly any fishiness to it. Not for the chicken-hearted.

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Tsuyahime Soft Serve Ice Cream (Yamagata)

It is said that Yamagata’s distinguished tsuyahime rice tastes great not just when freshly cooked, but even after cooling, and this is surely the the coldest way to enjoy it. Rice is used as a base for a number of Japanese treats, from mochi to the non-alcoholic fermented amazake drink, and this soft serve carries the same subtle sweetness—the perfect dessert for this article’s odd menu.

Next up: the Tohoku Must Buy List.

 

Training Through Tohoku (2): The Must Eat List

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The Tohoku Must Eat List

Though seafood (like the highest quality black tuna pictured above) and beef are the biggest draws for foodies here, the tastes of Tohoku extend far beyond. Known to have a richer flavor than cuisine from other regions of Japan, these treats will have you dining like Lord Date Masamune…or well, like a king.

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Nokkedon (Aomori Prefecture)

“Nokke” means “topping”, and here at the Furukawa Ichiba, you can build your own seafood bowl!

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Start by picking up a set of ten vouchers (1,080 yen), two of which you’ll use to get your bowl of rice (or just one for a smaller portion for those cutting back on carbs).

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Then go on your own seafood hunt through three long rows of stalls, waiting for you to redeem your coupons for scallops, squid, sashimi and more.

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Not only is it fun to design your own don, but a great way to experience the morning market atmosphere of this coastal city.

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Furukawa Ichiba Access: A 5-min. walk from JR Aomori Station.

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Reimen “Cold Noodles” (Morioka)

Located in central Iwate Prefecture, Morioka is the last place you’d expect to find a Korean-style noodle dish. But for over the past 50 years, these chewy noodles served in a refreshing cold and spicy soup have become one of the “Three Great Noodles” of the area, along with Wanko Soba and Jajamen.

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Gyutan “Cow tongue” (Sendai)

Though rumored that gyutan became popular throughout Sendai as it was the least wanted and most affordable part of the cow in post-war days, it now reigns as the capital’s chief delicacy. A bite of this—one of the juiciest and most flavor-packed cuts of beef—will show you why. Just don’t let the name get to you.

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Tama-konnyaku “Konjac balls” (Yamagata)

Rounding up our list (literally) these skewered konjac balls are made from the starchy konjac root native to Japan. This snack is so famous in Yamagata, that nearly every tourist spot and shopping area here is almost guaranteed to have a big pot of these gelatinous-textured treats, simmering in a soy sauce base (which sometimes includes Japanese sake).

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Now that you’ve got the essentials down for feasting in the northeast, get ready for some strange foods in our next article, perhaps not for the faint of heart!

Training Through Tohoku (1): The Must Do List

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Statue of Sendai’s founding lord, Masamune Date

Tohoku – the northeastern region of Japan’s main island –  is most enjoyable in autumn, when this scenic area is aflame with fall colors, and its famed fruits and seafood are in full harvest. And with the Shinkansen shooting you up to the northernmost prefecture of Aomori in just 3 hours and 20 min, traveling by train is your most convenient choice.

WAttention toured through four of its major cities, from the picturesque port town of Aomori in the north, down to mountainous Yamagata in the south, to bring you some of the best – and sometimes strangest – sites, foods and souvenirs that Tohoku has to offer, in this five-part article series. 

The Tohoku Must-Do List

Home to ancient festivals, historic castle ruins, and even its own traditional music heritage, no Tohoku trip is complete without trying these activities!

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Visit the Wa Rasse Nebuta Museum (Aomori)

While the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri – one of Japan’s 3 Biggest Fire Festivals – takes place for a week in early August, you can catch its larger than life floats (nebuta) here all year round.

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With a number of interactive stations, you can touch the washi (Japanese traditional paper) floats, try on a colorful hat that the haneto dancers wear, or even design your own nebuta face.

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“Rassera, rassera!”

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Wa Rasse Nebuta Museum Access: A 1-min. walk from JR Aomori Station.

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Catch a Tsugaru-Jamisen (Shamisen) Performance (Aomori)

The three-stringed shamisen is one of Japan’s most recognizable instruments, but its most popular version, the tsugaru-jamisen is native here, named after the Tsugaru Peninsula in Western Aomori Prefecture. Delight in a 30-min. performance at the iconic A-shaped ASPAM tourist center, offered twice daily.

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ASPAM Access: An 8-min. walk from JR Aomori Station.

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Say hi to Lord Date at Sendai Castle (Sendai)

Behold the statue of founder and now symbolic samurai of Sendai city, Masamune Date – whose helmet is said to be the inspiration for Darth Vader’s – upon the grounds of his castle.

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Though little remains of the castle itself, Mt. Aoba sits 100 m above Sendai City, offering the best panoramic view of this, Tohoku’s biggest city.

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And if you happen to catch him between performances, Lord Date will even take a selfie with you!

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Sendai Castle Access: A 20-min. bus ride (Loople Sendai Bus) from Sendai Station.

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Go fruit picking in an orchard (Yamagata)

Known as the “Kingdom of Fruits”, Yamagata’s sweet sakura cherries, pears, apples and more can be found throughout the country. But there’s no better way to enjoy these at their freshest than by picking them right off the tree.

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One taste and you’ll understand why Yamagata fruits are sometimes referred to as “nature’s candy”. Especially noteworthy is the sekai-ichi apple, (literally “World’s No. 1”).

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Join us for our next article, as we bring you our Tohoku Must Eat List!

Japan`s World Heritage Sites: Kumano Pilgrimage Route

The World’s Most Picturesque Pilgrimage

If you take just one pilgrimage – or perhaps just a long hike – in your life, you won’t find a more scenic one than here.

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Though a slight trek off the typical tourist path to Osaka, go just 100 km further south and you’ll reach the area CNN named the top pilgrimage site in the world – even above the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Known as the Kumano Kodo, this ancient trail winds through three prefectures – Wakayama, Nara, and Mie – linking together its three most sacred sites: Yoshino/Omine, Kumano Sanzan, and Koya-san. In 2004, the trail and sites were registered together as a cultural world heritage site.

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The Nakahechi Route

With dramatic views from 2,000 m high overlooking the Pacific seascape, abundant streams and waterfalls, and gentle sunlight trickling through the towering cedars, it’s no wonder this richly forested mountain range in the Kii Peninsula was worshiped as Japan’s main sacred mountain by the 12th century. Valued for its reflection of the fusion of Buddhism and Shintoism here, a sect known as Shugen also took root here, which holds to strict ascetic training in the severe mountain environment. And though the 1,200 year old shrines and temples here are the divine destinations, the etherial journey along these steep and rugged paths is just as heavenly.

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Nachi Otaki Falls in autumn.

Trekking through all 307.6 km of pilgrimage routes could take weeks. But for those who don’t have a month to spare (nor the agility for 20+ km of steep hiking per day), grab a bamboo staff, and maybe even a Heian era kimono—rentable at one of the local teahouses—and be sure to hit these highlights below.

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Mt. Yoshino – Yoshinoyama

Mountain Yoshino Cherry Blossoms
Mountain Yoshino Cherry Blossoms

One look at these precipitous ridges that peek through the clouds make it clear why En no Gyoza established this area as the home for Shugen’s harsh ascetic practices in the 8th century. Followers of this Buddhist sect seclude themselves here, and by the mid-10th century, this mountain’s renown reached as far as China.

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But this mysterious highland is equally famed for its cherry blossoms, as it is said “thousands of trees in a single glance” can be gazed upon here.

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Nachi Otaki Falls

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Behold Japan’s highest waterfall, surging from 133 m high. Deemed as divine for its glorious down flow, this cascade as the backdrop to Seigantoji Temple’s three-story pagoda is the most iconic scene from the entire Kii Peninsula. After snapping your selfies, get a cool spray by the base of the falls, as these waters are said to bring long life.

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Nachi Otaki – 1
Nachi Otaki
Nachi Otaki – 2

Koya-san

Koya-San
Koya-San

Amongst the city of over a hundred temples a top Mt. Koya, Kongobuji Temple is its crowned construction, and the head temple of Koyasan Shingon Buddhism in Japan. Along the way here, spend a night at one of the shukubo (temple lodgings) for a real taste of pilgrim life – literally, as many include the traditional vegetarian menu are offered to monks. Not only is it the most authentic way to travel, it’s the easiest on your pocketbook!

Access:

Mt. Yoshino: A 40-min train ride (Kintetsu Line) from Kashiharajingu-mae Station to Yoshino Station.

Nachi Otaki Falls: A 30-min bus ride (Kumano Kotsu Bus) to Jinja-otera-mae car park from Kii-Katsura Station (JR Kisei Honsen).

Kongobuji Temple: A 15-min bus ride to Kongobuji-mae bus stop from Koyasan Station.

 

 

World Heritage (10): Shurijo Castle

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Japan is a land of castles, some like Himeji Castle, which is also registered as World Heritage. But to see the country’s most visited castle, you’ll have to travel all the way down to Okinawa, for a fortress that captures 500 years of Ryukyu royalty.

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130 m high overlooking the urban capital of Naha, Shurijo Castle lies surrounded by over 1,000 m of winding limestone ramparts. As the main castle of the Ryukyu Kingdom from 1429-1879, it was the flourishing center of politics and cultural exchange.

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UNESCO registered Nakajin-jo Castle’s remains, said to resemble the Great Wall of China.

Known as a gusuku (stone fortress) castle, over 220 of these once thrived across the island before the second Sho dynasty unified the kingdom. In 2000, nine gusuku and related ruins were registered as a cultural world heritage site, of which Shurijo Castle is the glorious centerpiece.

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Chinese-style lion statue

Unlike Japan, the Ryukyu Kingdom enjoyed intensive trade with China, Korea, and southeast Asia. Shurijo Castle reflects this unique cultural interchange in its architecture, for which it is most valued. And though burnt down multiple times—most recently during the Battle of Okinawa—its 1992 reconstructed form fills you with a sense of the majesty of this culturally-infused kingdom.

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The castle is divided into three main areas: the Kyo no Uchi, where services and rituals took place; the Ouchibara private grounds for the royal family; and the Una, where most of the large governmental buildings are lined up. The two most popular sites are below.

Shurei Gate, also found on the 2,000 yen note.

Shurei Gate

Walk through this gorgeous two-level gate and enter the “Land of Courtesy”, as the characters on its wooden signage read. It was said that an ancient Chinese emperor spoke of the Ryukyu Kingdom as a land that prized such courtesy, and the wonderful red tile roofing balanced with white lime continues to offer such a warm greeting to all who visit.

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Seiden

For the best sampling of cultural variety, gaze upon the golden dragons and royal vermillion lacquer coating of the Seiden (main building) in the Una area. These Chinese elements blend beautifully with the Japanese style roofing on this, the island’s largest wooden structure.

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Chinese-influenced dragon pillars, flanking the stairway to the Seiden.

Kings and queens carried out their governmental activities here, and if you head inside, you can even get a glimpse of the royal throne!

The annual Shurijo Castle Festival procession
The annual Shurijo Castle Festival procession in autumn.

Though seasonal festivals and processions take place throughout the year, you can also take a quick 15-min time slip here each morning to witness the ringing of the gong and chanting of “Ukejo” at the opening ceremony at 8:30am. But whether visiting early or late, be sure to wear comfortable shoes, as climbing this castle hill requires some steep trekking!

Access: A 15-min. walk from Shuri Station (Yui Rail)

Photos courtesy of Okinawa Convention & Visitors’ Bureau and JNTO

World Heritage (9): The Shrines & Temples of Nikko

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Shrines & Temples of Nikko: Enter into Edo Excellence 

As 2015 marks 400 years since the death of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo era who is enshrined here, there’s no better time to visit Nikko’s World Heritage sites, with extravagant anniversary events, including a grand procession of 1,000 samurai on Oct. 17.

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Set upon the slopes of Nikko’s sacred mountains in Tochigi Prefecture, the 103 buildings that comprise Toshogu Shrine, Futarasan Jinja Shrine, and Rinnoji Temple, were registered as a cultural world heritage site in 1999. Founded by Buddhist monk Shodo Shonin in the 8th century, they were greatly expanded in the 17th century when chosen as the resting place for Ieyasu. Blending beautifully into its majestic natural surroundings, this ensemble of masterpieces display Edo era ingenuity and creativity at its finest.

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Yomeimon Gate

Toshogu Shrine

Sculpture lovers will delight in the treasury of carvings here – 5,173 to be exact. Built mostly in 1636 as home to Ieyasu’s mausoleum, its 2-story Yomei-mon Gate alone contains 508 sculptures of divine animals and humans. It’s no wonder it also goes by the name “Sunset Gate” (Higurashi-mon), as marveling at its detail can take all day!

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Here you’ll also find the world famous “Three Monkeys” sculpture in the Sacred Stable (Shinkyusha), from which the “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” phrase comes, as well as the “Sleeping Cat” above the Kuguri-mon Gate, created by master artist Hidari Jingoro.

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Toshogu Shrine Access: A 5 min. bus ride (Tobu Bus) from JR or Tobu Nikko Station. Get off at the Shinkyo Bus Stop.

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Futarasan-jinja Shrine

From Toshogu Shrine, take a short scenic walk through the cedar tree-lined path to Futarasan-jinja Shrine – devoted to the three gods of the sacred mountain itself – and its famed Shinkyo Bridge.

Legend has it that two snakes formed this bridge when Shodo sought to cross the Daiya River in the 8th century. In autumn, this vermillion, gold, and black arched bridge set against the fiery colors of fall makes for the most picturesque sight in Nikko.

Futarasan-jinja Shrine Access: A 10-min. bus ride (Tobu Bus) from JR or Tobu Nikko Station. Get off at the Nishi-Sando bus stop.

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Rinnoji Temple

The most famous temple in Nikko, the main hall here safe keeps gold-leafed statues of the three Buddhist manifestations of the gods worshiped at Futarasan-jinja Shrine. Built in the same Gongen-zukuri style as Toshogu Shrine, the Taiyu-in building next to this Buddhist temple houses the remains of the third Tokugawa Shogun, Iemitsu.

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Not wishing to distract from the glory of Ieyasu’s mausoleum, Iemitsu requested a more modest design. However, one look at its golden splendor will show you how among Nikko’s works of art, even “modest” appears marvelous.

Rinnoji Temple Access: A 10-min. bus ride (Tobu Bus) from JR or Tobu Nikko Station. Get off at the Shinkyo bus stop.

World Heritage (8): Monuments of Ancient Nara

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Yakushiji Temple

Nara was Japan’s first permanent capital from 710-784. And though just for a brief 74 years – compared to Kyoto’s 1,000 year rule – its great prosperity is reflected in each of its marvelous temples and shrines.

In 1998, eight locations were immortalized as cultural heritage sites: Gangoji Temple, Kofukuji Temple, Todaiji Temple, Toshodaiji Temple, Yakushiji Temple, Kasugaya Taisha Shrine, Kasuga-yama Forest, and Heijo-kyo Palace ruins.

This cluster of Buddhist and Shinto temples reflects Nara’s role in the first efforts in Japan to reconcile Shinto and Buddhism.

Here is a highlight of some of Nara’s world heritage treasures:

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Todaiji Temple

If you think the world-famous Daibutsu (Great Buddha) statue here is massive – which it is, at 15 m tall with a middle finger of 1.3 m length – you’ll be equally impressed by the Daibutsuden main temple which enshrines it: the largest wooden building in the world! Here in 752, an Indian priest consecrated the colossal copper and bronze statue of the Vairocana Buddha, painting in its eyes with a large brush. While gazing upon this mysterious monument, just imagine that the current building, reconstructed in 1692, is only two-thirds the size of the original!

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Todaiji Temple Access: A 20-min walk from Kintetsu Nara Station.

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Kasuga Taisha Shrine and Kasuga-yama Forest

Walk down the path lined with 2,000 stone lanterns leading to this vermillion-lacquered shrine, and you’ll be following the footsteps of the emperor himself who used to worship here. Built in 768 by Lord Fujiwara and dedicated to the gods of the Fujiwara clan, this shrine and its surrounding primeval forest are both registered as World Heritage. Kasuga-yama Forest, the only spot of nature included in this UNESCO site, has been nearly untouched as hunting and tree-felling have been prohibited since 841.

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Kasuga Taisha Shrine Access: A 10-15 min. bus ride from JR Nara Station (Yamatoji Line) or Kintetsu Nara Station (Nara Line). Get off at the Kasuga Taisha Honden bus stop.

Suzakumon Gate, the main entrance to the palace grounds, on the southern end of Suzaku Avenue.

Heijo-kyo Palace (Remains of the Ancient Capital)

While none of the original buildings remain, recent reconstructions, such as the Former Audience Hall (2010), and numerous excavations make it easy to picture the capital city’s grand layout, modeled after Chang’an, China’s most prosperous city at the time. Don’t miss the Suzakumon Gate and East Palace Garden (Toin Teien) either, both rebuilt to full-scale size.

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Heijo-kyo Access: An 8-min bus ride (Nara Kotsu Bus) from Yamato-Saidaiji Station (Kintetsu Nara Line). Get off at the Heijokyo-ato bus stop.

Japan`s World Heritage Sites: Itsukushima Shrine – Hiroshima

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Itsukushima Shrine: The Japanese Benchmark of Beauty

Of all Japan’s cultural heritage sites, Itsukushima Shrine is perhaps not just the most beautiful, but the most important for understanding the traditional Japanese concept of beauty.

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Known by its 16-meter brilliant vermillion otorii gate that seemingly floats amidst the Seto Inland Sea at high tide, this Shinto shrine sits along the crescent beach of Itsukushima Island, just 10-km southwest of Hiroshima City.

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Founded in 593 – as the island’s Mt. Misen was worshiped as the highest mountain of the region – powerful warlord Taira no Kiyomori commissioned its grand expansion in 1146, both worshiping here and attributing his political success to it. It reflects the Shinden aristocratic palace architecture adopted during the late Heian era (1185), with its characteristic main shrine in the center, and side buildings connected via symmetrical kairo passage ways.

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Over the years, new buildings were added, including the five-story pagoda (1407), two-story pagoda (1523), as well as the country’s only Noh stage built upon the sea (Edo era). In 1996, its 20 buildings, most of which date to 1241, along with the nearby surrounding forest land and sea, were registered as Japan’s sixth cultural heritage site. 

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The main shrine and its kairo passage ways viewed from the side, with the 5-story pagoda in the background.

Yet long before UNESCO ever existed, Confucian Scholar Shunsai Hayashi from the Edo era selected this area as one of Japan’s three most beautiful sceneries (Nihon Sankei). Since then it has often been referred to as the traditional standard by which all other sites are measured – with the shrine itself even having been called the “ultimate Japanese building” – largely for two reasons.

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First, most Shinden-style palaces had a garden in front to be used as a stage for performances and ceremonies, along with a pond. Itsukushima Shrine’s designers boldly placed not just a garden and pond in its foreground, but wooden platform stages combined with the vast Seto Inland Sea. The result is a majestic sight, with the otorii gate, main building and its extensive kairo passages appearing as though buoyed upon the waters.

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Second, this area perfectly captures what has come to be known as the “trinity of Japanese beauty”: a man-made structure sandwiched between sea in the foreground and mountains in the background. The colorful contrast of Mt. Misen’s verdant lushness at 530 m, the bright scarlet shades of the shrine, and the reflective blue sea superbly integrates natural and man-made beauty. This harmony is of utmost importance for Shintoism – grounded in nature worship – which has deeply shaped the aesthetic values of Japan.

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You’ll want to leave plenty of time for your trip here, since the gradual rising and falling of the lapping tides drastically changes its ambiance. A walk up close to the otorii gate during low tide is the best way to appreciate its massiveness, but the view by ferry during high tide allows you to take in the full panorama of the shrine and island’s divine beauty.

One word of advice, however, is to not leave your bags unattended while taking your photos or selfies, as the many deer – considered sacred in the Shinto religion – roaming freely on the island will soon descend upon your bag to look for anything to chew on!

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Access: A 10-min. ferry ride from Miyajimaguchi Pier to Miyajima Pier. Miyajimaguchi Pier is a 5-min. walk from JR Miyajimaguchi Station. Or, take a 45-minute World Heritage cruise from a jetty at the Peace Memorial Park.

World Heritage (6): Genbaku Dome

l_158685Genbaku Dome: Hiroshima’s Relic of Hope

Exactly 100 years ago, visitors flocked to admire the newly-built Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall – a proud symbol of modernism with its European-style dome. Now, people from all over the world gather to gaze in wordless wonder at its preserved remains after the Atomic bombing of Hiroshima that ended World War II 70 years ago.

Now known as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial or Genbaku (“Atomic Bomb”) Dome, it represents the people’s prayer for peace.

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Erected in 1915 by Czech architect Jan Letzel, this 25-m tall brick building with a five-story central core and elliptical copper dome was a rare sight when most buildings in Hiroshima were only two stories and made of wood.

The serenity of the park is a stark contrast to the devastation of the area 70 years ago when the first atomic bomb was dropped by an American air force bomber on Aug. 6, 1945 at 8:15am. Its location almost directly below the hypocenter (just 160 m southwest) of the blast accounted for its miraculous survival. Thanks to three restoration projects since then, its weathered walls and hollowed iron skeleton still preserve a surreal glimpse of this horrific event – and staring silently in awe of it will surely move you.

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The Genbaku Dome therefore is unlike the majority of the world’s 802 cultural heritage sites, which are selected for their aesthetic or architectural beauty. Registered in 1996, it is one of just four, chosen for the “negative heritage” it testifies of, alongside the Auschwitz Nazi Concentration Camp, prison center Robben Island, and the slave trade Island of Goree.

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Yet, as Japan’s most sobering cultural heritage site, it equally embodies the country’s enduring spirit and beauty. With hardly any other traces of such a massive disaster, this revitalized city has now become synonymous with world peace and nuclear disarmament. The hope it conveys is why it has become one of the most popular tourist spots in all of Japan, ranked in the top 3 on TripAdvisor for the past several years, with the number of visitors doubling in the past three years.

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Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

Though entrance into the building is not permitted, walk around its fenced perimeter for a solemn view during the day or night. Also, no trip here is complete without also heading across the nearby Motoyasu River, to the expansive Peace Memorial Park, dedicated to prayers for the victims. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum within the grounds is filled with numerous artifacts and photos, which will further bring the history here to life.

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Access: A 1-min. walk from JR Genbaku Dome-mae Station (Hiroshima Electric Railway)

World Heritage (5): Shirakawa-go & Gokayama

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Shirakawa-go & Gokayama: Fairy tale-like farmhouse villages 

Like a scene straight out of a fairy tale, the twinkling towns of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama possess a magical beauty that moves with the seasons.

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Ogimachi village, the largest village in Shirakawago

Surrounded by steep rugged mountains and isolated along the Shogawa River, the quaint village communities of Ogimachi in Shirakawa-go (Gifu Prefecture), and Ainokura and Suganuma in Gokayama (Toyama Prefecture) were registered as cultural world heritage sites in 1995. Known particularly for their steep-roofed gassho-style houses which design reduces snow buildup, 88 of these farmhouses within the three villages are listed as World Heritage sites.

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Gassho literally means “praying hands”, as the slanted roofs so resemble. And like an answered prayer, this creative architecture helped these villages dating back to the 11th century to survive the unique environmental challenges through the present. As only .04% of the land in this area is cultivatable, residents relied on mulberry trees, silkworms, and gunpowder manufacturing for their livelihood.

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These four-story buildings not only allowed for warm storage of silkworm beds and mulberry leaves on the upper floors, but could sustain massive snowfall with its sharp-angled roofing. As a result, you won’t find this picturesque townscape anywhere else in Japan. Such resourcefulness is what earned it its UNESCO registration, even though the oldest original house is but a few hundred years old.

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While an open-air museum and several of these houses are available for touring, the panoramic views from the Ogimachi Castle platform or Tenshukaku platform in Ogimachi village offer the most breathtaking scenery. With re-thatching of the roofs in the spring, vast green forestry in the summer, and a water-spraying exercise in the fall, this area’s seasonal events extend far beyond its iconic winter illumination.

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The water-spraying exercise held on the last Sunday in Oct. for these highly flammable gassho-style houses.

So for a setting that mixes fantasy world with folk town, you couldn’t pray for a better site to visit than here.

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Access:
Shirakawa-go: A 50-min express bus ride (Nohi Bus) from JR Takayama Station.
Gokayama: A  40 min bus ride (Kaetsunou Bus) from JR Johana Station.

Japan`s World Heritage Sites: Monuments of Ancient Kyoto

Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto: A treasury of temples and shrines

With so many gems gathered here, the sightseer’s dilemma is knowing where to start! So for the time-strapped tourist, here are the top three “must see” spots.

1. Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Much like its elevated position above the city, Kiyomizu-dera Temple stands at the top as Kyoto’s most popular temple. Named after the “pure water” (kiyomizu) from nearby Otowa-no-taki falls, this 1,200-year-old temple draws massive crowds for its wonderful panoramic view from the Kiyomizu Platform.

Kiyamizu-dera Temple in Autumn Season Light-up Event
Kiyamizu-dera Temple in Autumn Season Light-up Event

Getting to this wooden platform suspended 12 m high over the cliff is well worth the climb, especially when these hills are set aflame with autumn colors. Besides, as the most visited temple, you might even spot some geisha on the way up!

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Kiyamizu-dera Autumn Season – 1
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Kiyamizu-dera Autumn Season – 2
Kiyamizu-dera Spring Season
Kiyamizu-dera Spring Season

Kiyomizu-dera Temple
Access: From Kyoto Station take the City Bus (Route 206) and get off at the Gojozaka bus stop. A 10-min walk.

2. Kinkakuji Temple

Known formally as Rokuonji Temple, behold the gold standard for temple artistry. Reflected like a mirror on Kyoko-chi pond, each of its three tiers embodies a different form of temple architecture: shin-den, buke, and Zen-sect.

Kinkakuji (Golden) Temple
Kinkakuji (Golden) Temple

With its gold leaf embossing, this glittering masterpiece can be intoxicating. So much so, a monk who found it to be too beautiful to bear, burned it down in 1950, as told in Yukio Mishima’s famous book, “Kinkakuji”. Fortunately, the temple has been restored to its original glory and can be enjoyed in the lush surrounding of its stunning chisen-kaiyu style garden in all seasons.

Kinkakuji Temple in Early Autumn Season
Kinkakuji Temple in Early Autumn Season
Kinkakuji Temple in Winter Season
Kinkakuji Temple in Winter Season
Kinkakuji Temple in Autumn Season
Kinkakuji Temple in Autumn Season
Kinkakuji Temple in Spring Season
Kinkakuji Temple in Spring Season

Kinkakuji Temple
Access: From Kyoto Station take the City Bus (Route 101) and get off at the Kinkakuji-michi bus stop. A 3-min walk.

3. Ryoanji Temple

As even Queen Elizabeth affirmed with her applauses on a trip here, this temple’s garden rocks.

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Though at first glance the simple 10 by 30 m rectangular-shaped gravel garden may not catch your eye, the 15 stones floating amidst this white sand sea is the essence of Zen. Yet the design is also quite puzzle-like, as one stone is always hidden, no matter your viewpoint. The 7-5-3 arrangement of stones have even earned it the name, “Tiger Cubs Crossing Garden”, as though small cubs are following their mother through the water.

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Head to the north part of this garden of the Hojo Residence, and you’ll find this washbasin, engraved with the Zen teaching that can be translated, “to be at peace with oneself, and abandon craving.”

Such words couldn’t be better advice for the frustrated Kyoto temple traveler – when unable to see all 18 UNESCO gems, let these three be enough to give you peace.

Ryoanji Temple
Access: From Kyoto Station take the city bus (Route 50) and get off at the Ritsumeikan daigaku-mae bus stop. A 7-min walk.

The Phoenix Hall of Byodoin Temple

The Phoenix Hall of Byodoin Temple, which can also be found on the back of every 10 yen coin!
The Phoenix Hall of Byodoin Temple, which can also be found on the back of every 10 yen coin!

Nishi-Honganji Temple

The ornately decorated Tang Gate of Nishi-Honganji Temple
The ornately decorated Tang Gate of Nishi-Honganji Temple

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)

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)

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.

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.

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)

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/

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/

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

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)

World Heritage (2): Himeji Castle

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Himeji Castle: Japanese castle architecture perfected and preserved

After 5 and a half years of renovations, Himeji Castle reopened to the public in March in blazing white glory, with not just repainted walls and new roof tiles, but even an interactive smartphone application that can guide visitors through its maze-like grounds in English. Like a majestic white heron bird with wings elegantly spread in flight – the source of its other name, White Heron Castle – this stronghold presides over Himeyama hill as a precious surviving symbol of Japan’s warring states era.

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This largest and most visited Japanese castle spans across 107 ha (or around 23 Tokyo Domes) and comprises 82 buildings. This includes complex ramparts, towering earthen walls, and its iconic ivory six-story donjon (central tower) at 46.4 meters tall.

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Two characteristics set this national treasure apart as one of Japan’s first cultural world heritage sites in 1993.

First, it is a wooden masterpiece of world-class magnificence. Its distinctive refined white plaster finish that coats everything from the eaves to the pillars, gives it a white appearance unlike other castles. Some researches speculate this has the purpose of making the tower appear larger and grander, as well as serving as a fire retardant and reinforcement for these easily destructible wooden complexes, combining creative artistry and functionality.

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Second, Himeji Castle is Japan’s best preserved and most complete original castle. While undergoing multiple renovations, its original form has been largely unaltered for over 400 years, making it a relic of incomparable worth. Nowhere else can you walk through such a vast ancient fortress, which tells the tale of Japan’s feudal past through its protective flowing moat waters, steep stone walls, and every turn in its maze-like approach.

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While the pink coloring of cherry blossoms in the spring make for a particularly splendid background, in whatever season you come, you’ll want to make your way up close to the central tower. Just remember to download the new “Himeji Castle Great Discovery Application” for video and photo explanations at eight spots throughout the area, (or for the more traditional, pick up a map at the entrance,) as it is just as easy today for tourists to get lost through this defensive labyrinth as it was for invading enemies years ago!

Himeji Castle in 1993, the year of its UNESCO registration.
Himeji Castle in 1993, the year of its UNESCO registration.

Himeji Castle
Access: A 15-min walk from JR Himeji Station (Sanyo Main Line)

Awa Odori: Japan’s Biggest Dance Festival

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“It’s a fool who dances and a fool who watches! If both are fools, you might as well have fun dancing!”

The lyrics to the Awa Odori’s thematic “Fool’s Song” are a fitting invitation to join Japan’s largest dance festival, where it is said that as long as you can raise your hands and move your feet forward you are doing the 400-year-old folk dance.

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Every year on Aug. 12-15, Tokushima city (formerly known as Awa) in Tokushima Prefecture turns into a huge dancing platform. Numerous dancing groups (“ren”) from around the country and even overseas descend upon this usually sleepy small town for this summer matsuri that welcomes the souls of ancestors during the Bon season.

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Men wear what’s called a happi coat, don a headcloth in the stereotypical manner of a thief and dance in exaggerated motions – sometimes the drunk, and sometimes playing the fool, while women cut a much more elegant figure in a yukata and crescent-moon shaped straw hat with graceful rhythmic motions. Selected professional groups perform on elaborate indoor stages during the daytime, and there are temporary outdoor enbujo or performance stages set up throughout the city.

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The highlight of this festival is in the evening when the city center streets start pulsing with thousands of frolicking dancers adorned in colorful yukata uniforms moving as one across parks, closed-down streets and plazas. Feel your pulse raise in tune to the hypnoptic cries of “Erai yatcha erai yatcha yoi-yoi-yoi-yoi!” resounding across the city, accompanied by gongs, beating drums and the tunes of flutes and shamisen.

Choose from paid or free viewing locations to watch and snap this revelry, or several Odori Hiroba (dance plazas) where you can feel the energy as you circle around the dancers up-close, and even an Odori Road along which groups dance their way from stage to stage.

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Yet as the lyrics of the song suggest, the best way to participate in the heated excitement is by taking to the streets yourself and become a dancing “fool”!

Awa Odori

Date: Aug. 12 to Aug. 15, 2016
Location: Dances are performed at various venues including ASTY Tokushima and Tokushima Arts Foundation for Culture.
Time: 11am, 3pm and 7pm (ASTY Tokushima), 11pm, 1:30pm and 4pm (Toushima Arts Foundation for Culture).

Access: JR Tokyo Station to JR Okayama Station via Tokaido Shinkansen, JR Okayama Station to Takamatsu (Kagawa) Station via JR Marine Liner 29, Takamatsu (Kagawa) Station to Tokushima Station via Limited Express Uzushio 13. A 5-min walk from JR Tokushima Station.

World Heritage (1): Shirakami Sanchi

downimage_00000368Shirakami Sanchi: Beech Forest Sanctuary Transcending Time

With its four distinct seasons and deep valuing of tradition, it is no wonder that Japan ranks among the top of the list of countries with numerous natural and cultural UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Recognized as superb scenic and historic areas of “outstanding universal value”, to not be familiar with these locations is to miss the heart of Japan’s beauty. So join WAttention as we introduce you to these 19 registered spots, worthy of sharing with the world.

A visit to Shirakami Sanchi, one of the world’s largest and last remaining primeval beech forests, is like travelling back in time to nature untouched by mankind.

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Sprawling across northwest Akita and southwest Aomori Prefectures, Shirakami Sanchi is an expansive mountain range reaching as high as 1,243 m, split by six rivers, and accented with steep waterfalls, and interlocking deep gorges. Yet its defining characteristic is its vast virgin beech forest, particularly the central area of 16,971 ha, registered as one of Japan’s first natural heritage sites in 1993.

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Though continental glaciation destroyed most of the world’s beech forests, the lack of such devastation in Japan, as well as the Japanese beech’s suppleness and resistance to heavy snowfall has preserved Shirakami Sanchi through the ages. Yet also responsible for the protection of this wildlife refuge are the Japanese people, whose devotion to nature has kept this ecosystem remarkably unmarred by man’s influences. A walk through its lush foliage therefore is like entering a wondrous forest museum, unchanged by time. And only within this pristine woodlands can you get a rare glimpse of over 500 precious plant species, and incredibly endangered animals, including the Japanese serow, golden eagle, and black woodpecker.

A cool trek under the shade of these towering beech trees in the summer months is the best way to explore this wonderland. For a short leisurely stroll, the popular 3 km hike along the gushing Iwaki River to Anmon Falls, a dynamic three-tier waterfall with each precipitous drop higher and more breathtaking than the previous, can be completed in just over an hour.

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Or for a more strenuous sampling of the region’s landmarks, an 8-hour rugged climb to the highest peak, Mt. Shirakamidake, begins at Aoike pond, whose mysterious blue and green hues change throughout the day.

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As such unaltered treasures become more and more scarce, this irreplaceable relic continues to transcend time, testifying not just to the majesty of Japan’s native flora and fauna, but also Japan’s reverent preservation of such splendor.

Shirakami Sanchi
Access: A 55-min bus ride from JR Hirosaki Station (JR Ou Main Line) to the Shirakami Sanchi Visitor Center. Get off at Tashiro (Nishimeya-murayakubamae) bus stop.

Read also : Discover the beauty of Northern Tohoku – Part Ⅱ Shirakami Sanchi

Photo Credit: Shirakami Sanchi Visitor Center, Alastair Rae, JNTO

Let’s Talk Subculture Vol.03: The Asia Trend Map

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

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The Asia Trend Map: Forecasting the spread of subculture

Watch out Naruto! Time-traveling robotic cat Doraemon just might replace you as the most popular manga in Vietnam by this September. That is, at least according to the recently developed Asia Trend Map.

Created by Tokyo University Associate Professor Yutaka Matsuo and his Matsuo Web Laboratory Team, led by Lecturer Kotaro Nakayama, the Asia Trend Map is a website that forecasts the popularity level of over 27,000 anime, manga, and video game titles throughout 12 regions in Asia, and presents this information in an easily comprehendible fashion. Naoki Nonaka (PhD graduate student), who directly operates this website, explained to WAttention specifically how it functions.

First, data is gathered to grasp each region’s consumer needs, trends, and market maturity. Then, web data (Twitter, Wikipedia page edits, etc.) for these anime, manga and video games is collected and analyzed, based on which future trends and consumer tendencies about these titles can be predicted. Each title is assigned not only a current popularity score ranging from 1-100, but also a future score, speculating how hot or cold the title will be in the next half year. This project is done in collaboration with the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, whose “Cool Japan” initiative seeks to promote the spreading of Japanese contents overseas, including Japanese subculture titles.

Try searching your favorite manga with the Asia Trend Map, and you just might be surprised at the results. For example, though Doraemon ranks towards the top of the list in Thailand and Vietnam, it only achieves a score of 32.6 in nearby Malaysia. Or while hit manga “One Piece” just set the Guinness Record for comic series with the most copies published by a single author, it is not nearly as popular overseas, coming in at a score of less than 50 throughout most of Asia.

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But what would pique the interest of a professor at Japan’s top university to develop algorithms to track these anime, manga and video games? As household names like Pokémon and Super Mario prove, Japan’s cute characters and addictive games are continuing to spread pervasively beyond Japan’s borders. So much so, that a tool is needed to better project and measure consumer trends in the overseas market with regards to Japan’s subculture – a challenge which the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry has sought to deal with. For this purpose, Matsuo’s team has collaborated with the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry’s “Cool Japan” initiative, employing this new method of internet data research to provide such necessary information.

In the next couple months, perhaps Doraemon will indeed slip by Naruto – a young ninja’s coming-of-age-tale – as Vietnam’s top ranking title. Though it might seem unlikely, as this classic cat has been around for so long compared to Naruto, perhaps that’s exactly why a website that can detect such unexpected trends is needed. Having just recently launched, the Asia Trend Map is still a work in progress, aiming to improve and increase its accuracy as a forecasting website. Yet over time, as it continues to fine tune its data gathering and analysis, perhaps it will indeed prove to be a strategic tool for supporting Japan’s subculture sales across the world.

 

Check out the Asia Trend Map for yourself here: http://www.asiatrendmap.jp/en

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

Tenjin Matsuri: Osaka’s Festival of Fire and Water

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If you are in Osaka tomorrow, you can catch this rare scene of a women-only contingent carrying a 200kg mikoshi (portable shrine) at the Tenjinbashisuji Shopping Street. This is the lead up to Osaka’s Tenjin Matsuri – one of Japan’s Big Three Festivals along with Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri and Tokyo’s Kanda Matsuri.

Also known as the Festival of Fire and Water, this is like a two-day buffet spread of festivities including a dynamic street parade, rousing water procession and traditional cultural performances on floating stages, topped off with a dazzling fireworks display.

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The actual festival starts from 4am of July 24th at Tenmangu Shrine with drumming and the opening of the shrine gate, and some rites both at the shrine and on a boat on the river. After which, a parade with over 3,000 participants including drummers, paraders dressed as imperial guards on horseback, lion dancers and umbrella twirlers take to the streets from the shrine.

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After the adrenaline-charged and rowdy street procession, viewers can cool off by the river with serene performances of bunraku (traditional puppet theatre) and noh (traditional masked theater) performed on stages on the boats.

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On the second day of this festival, the excitement goes up a few notches as the Land Procession heads out from the Tenmangu Shrine towards the Okawa River.

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The highlight of this festival is no doubt in the evening when the parade transitions from land to river. The Boat Procession comprises around 100 boats for a 7km course over 2-3 hours, and ends with a fireworks display with over 5,000 bursts.

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This all-in-one matsuri which combines the elements of water and fire, day and night, noise and calm is a great way to experience the over-the-top and bigger-and-better spirit of Osaka over two days.

Tenjin Matsuri:

Date: Jul. 24 and 25, 2016
Time: Various events from July 24 4am-7pm, July 25 1:30pm-10:30pm; Land Procession: July 25 3:30pm-5:30pm; Boat Procession: 6pm-9pm; Fireworks Display: 7pm-9pm.
Address: 2-1-8 Tenjinbashi, Kita-ku, Osaka
Access: A 5-min. walk from Osaka Tenmangu Station (JR Tozai Line)

Photo Credit: (C)Osaka Convention & Tourism Bureau, (C)Japan National Tourism Organization

Replica Weapon Warehouse For The Cosplay Warrior

The larger than life “Dragonslayer” sword from video game Berserk.

Though the endless rows of swords along the walls might make you think the owners here are preparing for the next samurai revolution, make no mistake – this fake weapon store is for real.

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Hidden on the third floor just along Akihabara’s main Chuo Street, Busou Shoten is a replica weapon and armory store, carrying everything from ninja shuriken to medieval knight helmets to chainsaws. Whether for decoration or for actual practice fighting, Japanese or Western, historical or fictional, you won’t find a wider selection of model combat tools than here. And yes, as you would expect from a shop in Akihabara, they even have a collection of armaments inspired by anime and video game series, attracting large numbers of otaku and cosplayers (“costume players”) here.

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While certainly many children grow up make believing they’re sword-wielding samurai or gun-slinging cowboys, Japan has taken cosplay to a whole different level. While this is reflected in the growing number of costume stores and regularly occurring cosplay events devoted to dressing up, what motivates so many to get into character?

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At one recent cosplay festival, nearly all the people WAttention interviewed expressed that cosplaying is all about entering the world of their favorite anime, game, or manga series. After watching every episode, reading every series, and even purchasing all the goods they could find, they still wanted to somehow get closer to their beloved fictional character’s world. Hence, they cosplay, pretending to take on the character’s identity.

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Given such a deep enthusiasm, it’s no surprise that these cosplayers would want to get their favorite character’s garb and accessories down to the very last detail. Which is why Busou Shoten is so popular, especially among aspiring ninjas, samurai, and dragon slayers from around Japan.

The “Dominator” gun from anime series Psycho-Pass.

While you will want to check if your country allows the entry of these authentic looking items before purchasing, customers are welcome to come and just admire everything here from King Arthur’s Excalibur to the Dominator gun from hit anime Psycho-Pass. But be careful. The replicas here are so real, they just might inspire the inner cosplay warrior in you! 

The street-level doorway along Chuo Street (left) and entrance on the third floor (right).
The street-level doorway along Chuo Street (left) and entrance on the third floor (right).

Busou Shoten
Hours: Weekdays 11:30am-7:30pm, Weekends & Holidays 11am-7:30pm
Closed: Tuesdays (unless a holiday)
Address: Asano Bldg. 3F, 3-15-7 Soto-Kanda, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo

Café Crawl: Meikyoku Kissa Lion

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A sip of Showa in modern Shibuya

Step inside Meikyoku Kissa Lion, and for a moment you might think you’ve mistakenly entered a church, or an aged music theatre. But at this 89-year old iconic “classical music café”, long-time faithful patrons aren’t just willing to wait quietly for their drip-brewed coffee; some even wait for their favorite seat.

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While coffee and classical music may not seem like the typical combination for a café theme, Tokyo was once filled with these meikyoku kissas (“classical music cafes”). Throughout the Showa era, especially during the 1950s, many would gather at these cafes to enjoy a cup of coffee or tea while listening to a wide collection of classical music records – not so affordable for individuals to purchase back then. And while customers could look forward to requesting their favorite tunes to be played, more than anything they anticipated the dynamic concert-like experience that the custom-made speaker systems offered. Indeed, such high quality sound systems became the bragging points of these meikyoku kissas.

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Originally established in 1926, then rebuilt in 1950 after being burned down during the war, Meikyoku Kissa Lion sits as a landmark along the back alleys of Shibuya’s Dogenzaka as one of Tokyo’s last standing meikyoku kissas. And while it is proud of its gourmet drip coffee, a secret learned three generations ago from London’s Lion Bakery, it is equally as proud of its collection of over 5,000 classical music LPs, streaming throughout the day from its towering custom-built 3D sound system. So much so, that not only are nearly all the plush velvet seats on both floors facing towards the giant mounted wooden speaker cabinets in theater-like fashion, but customers are also asked to keep their voices down, to provide the best possible listening environment.

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Yet in an age when Starbucks-type chains have chased out numerous mom-and-pop cafés, and in a city characterized more by idol bands like AKB-48 than composers Bach and Beethoven, how does Meikyoku Kissa Lion manage to not only retain its loyal customers, but even attract a new generation, like some of the young students from Tokyo University’s nearby Komaba Campus who come early to get the best seats?

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It is because Meikyoku Kissa Lion preserves the nostalgic ambience of the once thriving Showa era meikyoku kissa, nearly extinct in upbeat Shibuya today. From its aging furniture, to its dimly lit chandeliers and chipped wooden pillars, time stands still at Meikyoku Kissa Lion. And beyond its visual appearance, hearing the unique timbre of these classical masterpieces from vinyl records over the large wooden loudspeakers here is an audial experience that Tokyoites continue to seek, whether they come with their favorite book, a sketchpad, or just a pair of listening ears.

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So come and immerse yourself in the antique atmosphere here. While you won’t find any food items other than ice cream on the menu, you will find a wide selection of drinks. For 550 yen, not only can you get a good strong cup of hot coffee, but even more so, a taste of Shibuya’s yesteryear.

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Meikyoku Kissa Lion
Hours: 11:00am – 10:30pm (Last Order 10:20pm)
Address: 2-19-13 Dogenzaka, Shibuya, Tokyo

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All you love about Japan, in a capsule

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Gachapon Kaikan: the mecca of miniature toy capsules

Perhaps local students lining up outside a store filled with toy vending machines might not warrant a second glance. But when you meet a tourist who crossed an ocean to seek out this small shop, tucked away in an alley off Akihabara’s main thoroughfare, you know this isn’t your typical toy store.

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Welcome to the world of gachapon: plastic spherical cases about 10 cm in diameter, filled with mini figurines, trinkets, and more. These toy capsules get their name from the “gacha gacha” sound made from cranking the machine dials, followed by the pon!” when the capsule drops.

While you can find these machines in supermarkets and stores scattered throughout Japan, Gachapon Kaikan is the mecca of these miniature toy capsules, boasting hundreds of these gachapon machines.

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But why would anyone travel half-way around the world to walk out with a handful of these tiny trinkets?

Painstaking attention to detail. A plethora of cute characters. And of course, a good dose of creative wackiness. After all, aren’t these some of the things we just love about Japan?

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Sure, a cute cat smartphone stand or a miniature rice bowl with shrimp tempura might not be on the top of your omiyage shopping list, but without a trip here, you’d never even know such things existed!

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So for 100-500 yen, enjoy the suspense of picking up a toy that is as fun to purchase as it is to play with. When luggage space is tight (as well as your pocketbook), these brilliantly detailed toys make for a great little souvenir, and you don’t even need to worry about wrapping them!

Akihabara Gachapon Kaikan 
Hours: Mon-Thu 11am – 8pm; Fri, Sat & days before holidays 11am – 10pm; Sun & holidays 11am – 7pm
Address: 3-15-5, Sotokanda, Chiyoda, Tokyo
URL: http://www.akibagacha.com/ (Japanese)

Picturesque Japan: The Great Seto Bridge

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Breathtaking beauty at the world’s longest two-tier bridge

With its lofty white steel towers and gentle curves spanning across five islands, the Great Seto Bridge combines Japan’s natural seaside elegance and technological eminence. Stretching 13.1 kilometers across the Seto Inland Sea between Kojima in Okayama Prefecture and Sakaide in Kagawa Prefecture, this amazing architectural feat is the world’s longest two-tier bridge. 

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The Shimotsui-Seto portion of the bridge

Completed in 1988 after 10 years of construction, what distinguishes this masterpiece from other bridges is its employment of three forms of structural technology–suspension, cable-stayed and truss bridge. Such variety is reflected in the bridge segments, to bearing three unique designs, making a full tour across this seaside landmark well worth your time.

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The Kita and Minami Bisan-Seto portions of the bridge

There’s no better way to enjoy viewing this structural marvel and its surrounding scenery than by taking a trip across it. Delight in the fresh seaside breeze by taking a refreshing 20-min daytime drive across its span (tolls starting at 3,300 yen), or hop on the JR Seto-ohashi train line (510 yen) that runs on the lower level of the bridge–the only railway line connecting Honshu and Shikoku islands.

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For a view that doesn’t require crossing the bridge, take a longer one-hour leisurely cruise along the pleasure boats departing from the Kojima Sightseeing Port. Or for an observation point from land, get your camera ready for some panoramic views at the Seto Ohashi Commemorative Park, which even has a Bridge Theater, taking you on a virtual flight over this bridge!

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Yet, whether by train, car, land or sea, be sure to stick around until sunset, as this bridge illuminates the darkening sky, paving a glowing path across the sea. For picturesque beauty featuring both natural and manmade wonders, the Great Seto Bridge is sure to take your breath away.

Next in this series: Picturesque Japan: Engetsu Island

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Access: From Tokyo, take Shinkansen to Okayama Station, change to the local JR Seto-ohashi Line to Kojima Station. To get to the bridge, take a Shimoden bus from Kojima Station headed for Sakaide Station, and get off at Seto-ohashi FW (Fishing Wharf).  To cross the bridge via train take the JR Seto-ohashi Line from Kojima headed for Takamatsu Station in Kagawa Prefecture.

Seto Ohashi Commemorative Park
Hours: 9am-5pm (Last entrance 4:30pm)
Entrance/Theater Fee: None
Address: 6-13 Bannosumidoricho, Sakaide, Kagawa
Access: From JR Sakaide Station, take the Sakaide-shiei Bus to the Seto Ohashi Commemorative Park.

Editor’s Pick: One Piece’s theme park in the heart of Tokyo

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The Straw Hat Crew Takes Over Tokyo Tower!

Experience an exhilarating adventure with Luffy and the Straw Hat Crew at the Tokyo One Piece Tower, located at the base of Tokyo Tower. Spanning three floors and offering live entertainment and attractions, this theme park is a must see for all One Piece fans, and a great intro for first-timers.

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Lovers of this manga series, which recently set the Guinness World Record for comic series with the most copies published, will be in awe of the original art, life-size models, and animation videos created exclusively for this park. Upon entering on the third floor, you are immediately greeted with large poster-size versions of famous scenes from the manga, which come to life with voices crying out, appearing colors and flashing lights!

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For even more interactive fun, head up to the 4th floor where you’ll find eight different attractions, each one themed off a different member of the Straw Hat Pirate Crew. Swing a samurai sword like Zoro, or get spooked at Brook’s Horror House, a walk-through attraction that will have you on your toes from start to finish.

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Practice your samurai skills at Zoro’s Soul of Edge!

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Of course, if there’s one must-see attraction, it’s the “ONE PIECE LIVE ATTRACTION” live action show on the top (5th floor). Behold the full One Piece cast dressed to part, and cheer them on as they explore the mystery of Tongari. This projection mapping show will make you feel like the manga characters have truly come to life before your eyes!

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Before finishing your adventure, find all your One Piece apparel and accessories at the Mugiwara Store, many of which are only available here.

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From the enthusiastic cast members who greet you on each floor, to the dazzling artwork and detailed design of each exhibit, this 3-floor theme park right in the heart of Tokyo will truly take you on a journey to the New World!

Tokyo One Piece Tower
Admission Fee: 3,200 yen (adults), 1,600 yen (children). Tickets can be purchased in advance at your nearest 7-Eleven, or upon arrival at Tokyo Tower.
Hours: 10:00-22:00
Address: Tokyo Tower Foot Town, 4-2-8 Shiba-koen, Minato
URL: http://onepiecetower.tokyo/en

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(C)Amusequest Tokyo Tower LLP
(C)尾田栄一郎/集英社・フジテレビ・東映アニメーション

Aomori’s ancient festival of floats

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Larger than life lanterns at the Aomori Nebuta Festival

Ready to celebrate Japan’s ancient traditions at a matsuri of massive proportions? Grab your geta, and head up to the Aomori Nebuta Festival on Aug. 1-7, one of the most colorful and lively festivals in Japan.

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One of Japan’s Big Three Fire Festivals, this 6-day festival in Aomori city, located along the northern tip of Honshu, attracts over 3 million visitors per year – nearly 10 times the population of the city itself! Above all, locals and tourists flock here to gaze upon the enormous lantern floats (nebuta), decorated as historical and mythical characters.

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Towering as high as 5 meters and weighing up to 4 tons, locals prepare year-round to construct these intricate floats out of traditional washi paper and wire. According to tradition, this festival began by placing lanterns as offerings on the water as a purification rite, but over time the scale of these lanterns grew to their current magnitude. While originally lit by candlelight, hundreds of lightbulbs are now weaved throughout to brilliantly illuminate these multistory lanterns.

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But these visually impressive floats are just half the festival fun. Each night, over 20 of these nebuta parade along to the equally colorful haneto dancers. Draped in vibrant red and yellow sashes, these haneto are known particularly for their loud shouting and wild dancing. With up to 2,000 of them surrounding a single float, moving merrily to the beat of the taiko and tunes of the fue (traditional Japanese flute), they help create one of the liveliest festival parades in all of Japan.

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And the best part is, unlike other parades where you are limited to viewing from the sidelines, here you can actually join in the parade action yourself by renting a haneto costume (about 4,000 yen)! Regardless of experience, anyone with a haneto costume can fall in step to the enthusiastic dancing, and join the throng of thousands shouting at the top of their lungs, “Rassera! Rassera!”

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On the final evening, be sure to catch the boat parade, where the selected prize-winning nebuta are set out to sail on boats down the Aomori Bay. With 11,000 fireworks bursting above, and these gorgeous lanterns lighting up Aomori Bay below, it’s the perfect evening entertainment to say farewell to this summer festival.

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Aomori Nebuta Festival
Time: Aug. 1 Festival Eve 6pm-9pm; Aug 2-6 Nighttime parade 7:10pm-9pm; Aug. 7 Daytime parade 1pm-3pm, Boat parade and fireworks display 7:15pm-9pm
Access: JR Tokyo Station to Shin-Aomori Station via Tohoku Shinkansen, Shin-Aomori Station to Aomori Station via Ouu Line.
URL: Official Site

A Lavender lover’s wonderland

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Fragrant fields in the heart of Hokkaido

For the scents, sights, and even tastes of this beloved purple flower, escape the summer heat and head to Hokkaido’s Farm Tomita.

Two hours by train from Sapporo by the rustic Furano valley in central Hokkaido, you’ll find ten different flower gardens and fields here. Dating back over a hundred years to the Meiji Era as one of the original lavender cultivators in Japan, this farm helped put the Furano area on the map as a popular flower viewing site.   

Amongst the ten gardens and fields, the rainbow-like Irodori Field is the most eye-catching with its colorful seven-flower array. 

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The vivid contrast of lavenders, white baby’s breath, red poppies, pink garden catchflies and orange California poppies form a rainbow of flowers that flow along these rolling hills. Blooming only throughout July, with peak season towards the end of the month, you’ll definitely want to visit before these flowers fade!  

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Or for a sight of one of the oldest lavender fields of Japan, walk over to the Traditional Lavender Garden, where Tomita Farm first started. Photos from this field on Japan Railways’ photo calendar helped launch Hokkaido’s lavender farms into nationwide fame back in the 1970s.

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With the Furano valley and Tokachi Mountains in the distance, the sight of lavenders swaying in the wind along these sloping hills make for quite the panoramic view. But plan ahead, for lavender season only lasts from late June to early August, with peak season from early to mid-July.

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Fortunately however, even should you arrive before or after peak lavender season, these fields are filled with a wide variety of other flowers that bloom from spring through autumn. From Iceland poppies to bright marigolds and red roses, these flowers create a colorful carpet across the rural farm landscape.

Autumn Field

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Beyond flower gazing and photo taking, you can also delight in every possible lavender experience at Tomita’s 11 lavender-themed stores, eateries, galleries and workshops. See how Tomita Farm produces their lavender oils, soaps, and award winning perfume at the Distillery and Perfume Workshops, or even create your own lavender scented bookmark to take back home.   

Then to cool off, try their popular lavender flavored soft serve ice cream, or their original “Lamune” drink – a lavender version of the Japanese Ramune soda, only available here!

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Whether admiring its beauty, smelling its fragrance, or tasting its subtle flavor, this lavender wonderland has it all!

Read also: 3 Lovely Lavender Spots Around Tokyo

Farm Tomita
Access: A 7-min. walk from Lavender Farm Station (JR Furano Line)
Address: Kisen Kita 15, Nakafurano-cho, Sorachi-gun, Hokkaido
Tel: 0167-39-3939
Hours: 8:30am – 6pm (vary based on the season and weather)

Restaurant Review: Hiroki Okonomiyaki

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Street-style food in the town of street-style fashion

Though Shimokitazawa is known by many for its street-style fashion, hidden amongst its used-clothes stores and small theater halls is some authentic Hiroshima street-style food at okonomiyaki eatery Hiroki.

P1020359Just a 3-min walk from the station’s south exit, this hole-in-the-wall can be easily overlooked, if not for the lines that form outside at peak lunch and dinner time. But don’t let its humble storefront signage and narrow sliding wooden door entrance deceive you. This tiny restaurant has been serving up some of the best Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki in town for 30 years.

Unlike Osaka-style okonomiyaki (literally, “the things you like, grilled”), Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is made by layering the ingredients, rather than mixing them, plus there is a base of noodles. Starting with a much thinner crepe-like pancake, the chef then grills a generous heaping of thinly sliced crisp cabbage, along with your choice of springy noodles (udon or yakisoba). After stacking up the ingredients over a fried egg, the sweet and savory okonomiyaki sauce is brushed lavishly over the top and sides, followed by fine chopped green onions and ginger sprinkled on top.

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The squid, shrimp, scallop and shiso okonomiyaki (1,350 yen)

However, most impressive about Hiroki’s okonomiyakis are what come next: their toppings. Most famous is their squid, shrimp, scallop and shiso okonomiyaki. Carefully selected and imported from the Hiroshima area, these plump and juicy shellfish are so huge that they could be a dish in of themselves. For a hearty and filling street-style meal, this dish won’t disappoint in taste or quantity. Your only problem will be keeping these giant toppings from falling off!

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The oyster okonomiyaki (1,300 yen)

Also, between October and March, you won’t want to miss the seasonal oyster okonomiyaki. Also imported fresh from Hiroshima, the nation’s leading oyster provider with over 450 years of farming history, these rich and flavorful oysters are piled on liberally, combining two Hiroshima favorites in one dish.

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While limited table seating is also available, we recommend grabbing a seat at the counter to watch the chef grill your masterpiece before your very eyes. From the sound of sizzling yakisoba, to the sight of the okonomiyaki sauce caramelizing on the hot teppan, you’ll be in for a full sensory experience.

But with seating only for 16 in this slightly compact, yet cozy joint, be sure to arrive early, as fans of this street-style food will literally line the street to get a taste of Hiroshima soul food here.

Street-style satisfaction: ★★★★★

If you don’t want to leave smelling like okonomiyaki: ★☆☆☆☆

HIROKI
Address: 2-14-14 Honey Shimokitazawa 1F, Kitazawa, Setagaya
Tel: 03-3412-3908
Hours: 12:00-22:00 (Last Order)

Let’s Talk Subculture Vol.02: Love Live! Charms

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

Answering Anime Fans’ Prayers–Love Live! fans pay pilgrimage to the Kanda Myojin.

All the stars were aligned for fans of the Love Live! anime during this year’s Kanda Festival held from May 9-10. For the first time, they got to pay pilgrimage officially at the Kanda Myojin, which appears frequently in the anime as a backdrop, and buy limited-edition official good luck charms and prayer tablets from the shrine featuring the anime’s characters. This collaboration between the Shinto shrine and hit anime is a sign of the growing influence of subculture – even into the sacred space of shrines and one of Japan’s biggest festivals!

The Kanda Myojin Shrine
The Kanda Myojin Shrine

Love Live! charms

Love Live! is about a group of nine schoolgirls who decide to form a school idol group to raise the profile of their school which is on the verge of closing down due to low enrollment. Combining the concept of live idols with anime, this series hit the right note with the audience and since its magazine debut in 2010, has sold music CDs, games, become a TV series, and will even release its first movie this June. And you know you’ve arrived when you find your image endorsing the official good luck ema prayer tablets or protective charms of a historical shrine like Kanda Myojin.

Prayer tablet featuring the Love Live! members
Prayer tablet featuring the Love Live! members

Kanda hard to imagine?

Unlike Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines – which are indigenously Japanese – are more open to such collaborations and adapt to the times. Previous collaborations include a “Kanda Myojin Day” at the Tokyo Dome with the baseball team Tokyo Giants. This is reflective of the Shinto philosophy where the religion is action-oriented and focuses on ritual practices to connect present-day Japan to its ancient past. And how can present day Japan not give any recognition to its booming subculture of anime? Moreover, the Kanda Myojin is just a stone’s throw from the mecca of otaku, Akihabara. Apparently, Love Live! fans already pay pilgrimage to the Kanda Myojin, where Nozomi, one of the characters, works as a part-time shrine maiden.

Omamori charm featuring Love Live! character Nozomi
Omamori charm featuring Love Live! character Nozomi

From Akihabara to Kanda Myojin Museum

And who knows, within the next 100 years, there may be a poster of the Love Live! school idol group rocking out hung on the walls of the Kanda Myojin Museum, where currently paintings from the Edo era, such as a ukiyoe painting of a kabuki performance with an accompanying instrumental ensemble performing at the Kanda Festival, are displayed.

The festival procession passing by Ningyocho
The festival procession passing by Ningyocho

Fans flock to the festival

Fans flocked to the shrine to be the first in line to get their hands on these Love Live! collaboration goods. But first, many offered their prayers, hung up their ema with original manga drawings, and took selfies with the shrine that appears in the anime.

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Fans with their Love Live! posters

The Love Live! Kitchen Car also made its debut at the festival, filling hungry fans with limited Kanda Festival-themed Love Live! lattes, sodas, juices and marshmallows.

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The Love Live! Kitchen Car

For more about Love Live!, visit their official English website: http://www.lovelive-anime.jp/worldwide/

©2013 Project Love Live!

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

Picturesque Japan: The Kujuku Islands

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Natural seaside beauty at Kyushu’s “99 Islands”

Nearly untouched by human hands and abounding with intricate islet formations, the Kujuku Islands offers an unparalleled scenic seascape view.

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Scattered along Nagasaki’s coastline for 25 km, the Kujuku Islands (literally “99 Islands”, though generally referring to “many”,) form the most densely concentrated collection of islands in Japan. Together with the Goto Islands and Hirado Peninsula, these 208 islands make up the Saikai National Park, on Japan’s most western border.

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For some breathtaking views of these islands from above, stop by one of the four observation points on the Sasebo hills, including Ishidake Observatory. The picturesque scenery from here made it the prime choice as one of the filming locations for the movie, “The Last Samurai.”

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The view from Ishidake Observatory

Better still, embrace the beauty of the deep blue sea and lush green islands by taking a relaxing cruise along the Kujukushima Excursion Boat Pearl Queen, departing five times a day between 10am and 3pm from the Pearl Sea Resort Tour Boat Terminal.

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This white multi-deck ferry weaves throughout these islands on a 50-minute tour, allowing you to get up close to these uninhabited islands while listening to the scenery explanations in both English and Japanese. With islands on every side, roam about the deck or climb up to the lookout post for the perfect photo opportunity. Throughout Golden Week and the summer months (July through October), you can also watch the sun slowly descend beneath these islands on their Sunset Cruise.

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For water sport lovers, you can also yacht or kayak your way through these calm waters. Or if you’d like to actually set foot on one of these islands, take the Uninhabited Island and Feeding Cruise. See the crater-filled rock walls formed from years of lapping waves, or feed the over 7,000 Red Seabream at the nearby fish farm.

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Whether navigating these “99 Islands” by ship, or marveling at the panorama of these preserved natural wonders from above, the number of scenic views here are as countless as the islands themselves.

Next in this series: Picturesque Japan: Feel the suspense in the air with this bridge walk

Spot information

Name: Kujukushima Pearl Sea Resort
Address: 1008 Kashimae-cho, Sasebo-shi, Nagasaki Prefecture
Access: 25 minute bus ride from JR Sasebo Station
Kujukushima Excursion Boat Pearl Queen Departure Times: 10am, 11am, 1pm, 2pm, 3pm
Uninhabited Island and Feeding Cruise Departure Times: 10:30am, 11:45am, 1pm
Official Information: http://www.pearlsea.jp/english/

Cafe Crawl: EORZEA CAFE

 

A Final Fantasy Food Adventure

For an eating adventure in Akihabara that both fans and first-timers to the Final Fantasy video game series will enjoy, head to EORZEA CAFE.

Located on the second floor of the PASELA RESORTS AKIBA Multi Entertainment Building, EORZEA CAFE is a collaboration café, themed on Final Fantasy XIV, the latest installment of the iconic Square-Enix video game series.

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Though true FF fans will surely recognize the cozy tavern-like atmosphere with its stained glass windows and wooden floors, this café is actually modeled after the Carline Canopy, a well known rest spot for weary travelers in the game. And just like the video game with its painstaking attention to detail, this café captures everything from the dim lighting to the silver-striped pillars, to the famed intro song and orchestrated soundtrack that streams in the background.

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In addition, fans will have to restrain themselves from getting out of their seats and walking around to take photos of all the original artwork and life-size replica weapons from the game. (Otaku, fear not! Picture taking is allowed!)

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And at the center of the room, the five floating Moogles are so cute that even first-timers will be drawn to these marshmallow-like monsters. (Die hard fans however, no feeding them any kupo nuts now.)

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Of course, the main attraction is the vast Final Fantasy-themed food and drink menu, featuring everything from Marinated Orthros to Squid Ink Pasta of Spriggan. Now if you have no idea what, who, or where Spriggan is, you can just order the dishes that look the most interesting, like the Chocobo Curry Rice, or the Mogli Mini Pancakes.

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If for some reason, you still haven’t gotten your fill of Final Fantasy fun, foods and photo ops, you’re also welcome to step up to the gaming area, where four PCs are set up for you to play Final Fantasy XIV. Just remember, your eating adventure is limited to 120 minutes.

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It goes without saying that fans who grew up on this game will want to come back multiple times until they’ve tried every dish and collected all 10 of the character-themed coasters that come free with your drink. But even for those of us who know nothing about the iconic Square-Enix video game series, the aura of this eatery is enough to transport you to a fantasy world in the heart of Tokyo.

If you’re a Final Fantasy otaku: ★★★★★

If looking for a maid café alternative in Akihabara: ★★★★☆

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EORZEA CAFE is located on the second floor of the PASELA RESORTS AKIBA Building.

FINAL FANTASY EORZEA CAFE

Address: 1-1-10 Soto-kanda, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo

Tel: 0120-192-759

Hours: 11:30am-10:20pm (Entrance into the cafe takes place in 2 hour “adventure” blocks, at 11:30am, 2pm, 4:30pm, 9pm. The final 9pm “adventure” block is 3 hours.)

 

Restaurant Review: Sapporo Ramen Republic

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Your one stop for ramen in Sapporo

If you don’t have the time to search out the best ramen places during your short trip to Hokkaido, also known as the Ramen Continent, why not taste the best of Hokkaido’s ramen culture in one stop?

On the 10th floor of the JR ESTA Building at JR Sapporo Station, the Sapporo Ramen Kyowakoku (literally, “Sapporo Ramen Republic”) regularly features eight of Hokkaido’s best ramen shops. Since its opening 10 years ago, this station-front food park has featured 43 of the island’s leading ramen eateries, regularly changing its shops to bring you the most current popular Hokkaido ramen.

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While you can find nearly every type of ramen here, from shio (salt) to shoyu (soy sauce) to tonkotsu (pork-based), Sapporo (not whole of Hokkaido) is particularly known for its miso ramen. As Hokkaido is abundant with corn and dairy products, these are common ramen toppings. Well, everything tastes better with butter, doesn’t it?

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Having traveled for a week throughout Sapporo in search of the perfect bowl of miso butter corn ramen, it was quite ironic that one of the best bowls was waiting here the whole time at Ramen Sora. With just a relatively small slab of butter to enrich the creamy miso broth, coupled with the delicate sweetness of the corn, this ramen had full-flavor without being too heavy.

So when in Sapporo and short on time, trade your ramen searching for ramen slurping here!

Sapporo Ramen Kyowakoku
Hours: 11am – 10pm (Last Order: 9:45pm)
Closed: None
Address: JR Tower Esta 10th Floor, 2 Chome-1 Kita 5 Jonishi, Chuo-ku, Sapporo
Access: Directly connected to JR Sapporo Station
Webpage: http://www.sapporo-esta.jp/ramen
Tel: 011-209-5031