10 reasons to do a farm stay in Japan

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One of the unique holidays in Japan you can take is a farm stay. Not only it is affordable, it is also a great chance to try something new while being eco-friendly. Also, there are places that cater to only English-speaking tourists as well! Check out the list of farm stays recommended by JNTO here!

If you love nature, green spaces, and crave adventure, a farm stay may just be for you!

10. All the wide open spaces

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You can finally get away from the cramped city life. No crowded roads, no rubbing shoulders with smelly strangers on public transport – you get to roam and explore an entirely new place. Mostly, you get to take a breather and enjoy your vacation at a slower pace.

9. Fresh air! 

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Most farms are located in suburban areas, away from the city, so fewer cars and transport means less toxic air from factories, exhaust gas and so on. Compared to Singapore’s less hazy seasons, the fresh air in Japan is on a whole ‘nother level. Of course, if you choose a farm with many animals, you’ll have to deal with the smelly poo.

8. Fresh produce; no preservatives

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For some farm stays, you are invited to harvest your own food, or even tasked to harvest some produce for the meals you’re about to eat! This may sound horrendous for the squeamish anti-dirt-under-nails people, but this is how you know your food is fresh. You may even be able to purchase some fresh produce from the farm directly.

7. Child- and family-friendly activities

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A farm stay for children is a great opportunity to teach them about where food comes from and how to work on the land. Also, there are some easy activities where families and children can do together as a group! However, farms do have a age limit and parents are responsible for the conduct of their children. 

6. Animals!

Sure, some of the farm animals may turn up on your dinner plate, but they are lovable creatures that you rarely encounter in the city. Some farms may even have animal-related activities, like horse-back riding, milking, or even helping out with feeding.

5. Explore nearby mountains or forest

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Depending on your farm, you may be able to explore the vicinity. Some farms are near mountains or forests, so you can go hiking and trekking. Just beware of wild animals and always check with your host if the areas are safe.

4. Experience new farm activities

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Tea picking experience | picture source

As some farms are interactive, you are literally doing a home stay in a Japanese farm! Not only you can practice some Japanese phrases and learn more about the culture, you can also tick off items from your bucket list and try new activities like staying in a traditional Japanese house, making bamboo chopsticks, tea harvesting, fishing… The list goes on.

3.  Unplug and unwind

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While most modern farm stays offer WIFI in their rooms, you can also choose to unplug and focus on the greenery around you. Have an authentic back-to-nature vacation by packing away your gadgets.

2. Support ecotourism and help the environment

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You may just be helping the environment by doing a farm stay as these travels are often low-impact and eco-friendly. In addition to learning about local culture, you are also supporting local effort to maintain their farms and their sustainable way of life.

1. Opt for a long and authentic farm experience

If you fell in love with rural life, you can always choose to join WWOOF, which is an organisation that helps organic farms to find farm hands. You are usually not paid a stipend, but you will receive awesome farm food and lodging in exchange for your hard work. What’s more, you can choose to sign up for month-long farm stays!

 Try a farm stay in Japan next time!

Read the original article on WAttention Singapore

The Charm of Hokuto (5): Top 5 Photogenic Nature Spots

Get your cameras ready! Wattention staff visited Hokuto in Yamanashi prefecture and listed up the most photogenic spots in this area.

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600,000 sunflowers will welcome you at the Sunflower Festival in Hokuto City. Surrounded by Mount Fuji, the Yatsugatake Volcanic Group and the Southern Alps, the scenery is breathtaking and counts as one of the best photo spots during summer.

Information
Date: July 23rd – August 21st
Hours: 8am – 5pm
Admission: free
Access: About 20 minutes by taxi from Nirasaki Station (JR Chuo Main Line)
Address: Akeno Sunflower Field,  Asao 5664, Akeno-cho, Hokuto-shi, 408-0201 Yamanashi
URL: Hokuto Sunflower Festival 2016


2. Sun Meadows – Kiyosato Terrace

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The Kiyosato Terrace located at 1900m altitude is usually known as a popular ski area during winter season, but in summer you can enjoy the beautiful view of Kiyosato Highland, Mt. Fuji and the Southern Alps while relaxing on the huge bed-like sofas together with a delicious drink or dessert available at the Kiyosato Terrace Café. The Panorama Lift which takes you to the terrace has a total length of 1100m and the altitude difference from ground to top is about 330m.

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The price range for food and drinks is between 200 ~ 500 yen and the Sky Waffle for 500 yen is our recommendation!

Information
Date: May 28th – November 6th
Hours: 10am – 3pm (weekday); 9:30am – 3:30pm (Weekend, public holiday and during summer season)
Admission: Lift ticket (both ways) – 1,300 yen (adults), 700 yen (children)
Access: About 20 minutes by taxi from Nirasaki Station (JR Chuo Main Line)
Address: Sunmeadows Kiyosato Ski Area, Nishiide 8240-1, Oizumi-cho, Hokuto-shi, 409-1501 Yamanashi
URL: Sun Meadows – Kiyosato Terrace


3. The Red – and Yellow Bridge of Hokuto

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The red bridge named “Higashizawa Ohashi” and the yellow bridge named “Yatsugatake Kogen Ohashi” are surrounded by beautiful nature and especially during autumn season they offer a stunning photo scene when the trees show their beautiful autumn colors.

Information
Higashizawa Ohashi – Red Bridge
Address: 8240-1 Nishiide, Oizumi-cho, Hokuto-shi, 407-0311 Yamanashi

Yatsugatake Kogen Ohashi – Yellow Bridge
Address: Higashiide, Takane-cho, Hokuto-shi, 408-0024 Yamanashi  (Prefectural Road No. 28)


4. JR Koumi-Line and the Yatsugatake Volcanic Group

The JR Koumi-Line runs along the Yatsugatake Volcanic Group and offers a beautiful view of the surrounding nature and the mountains.

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JR Koumi-Line connects Hokuto in Yamanashi with Komoro in Naganao Prefecture. It runs 78,9km through the mountains with 31 stations. The best place for trainspotting is the Kobuchizawa Big Curve, where the train turns and you can get an unobstructed view of the sky and mountains. Or get on the train itself at Kobuchizawa Station and be fascinated by this unique panoramic view.


5. Suisha no Sato Koen (water wheel village park)

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This beautiful little park is surrounded by paddy fields and shows you the original rural life of Japan’s countryside. If you are lucky you can even spot Mt. Fuji.

Information
Hours: open all day
Admission: free
Access: About 10 minutes by taxi from Hinoharu Station (JR Chuo Main Line)
Address: Mukawacho Mifuki 2573, Hokuto-shi, 408-0301 Yamanashi
URL: Rural Water Wheel Park

Read the rest of the series:
The Charm of Hokuto (1) : Oasis of the Highlands
The Charm of Hokuto (2) : Hirayama Ikuo Silk Road Museum
The Charm of Hokuto (3) : Suntory Hakushu Distillery
The Charm of Hokuto (4) : Inn Blue in Green
The Charm of Hokuto (6): Moegi no Mura
Restaurant Review: Soba Restaurant Sanbuichi

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Tabea Greuner
Living and working in Japan since 2015. Always excited about discovering new places. Passion for photography, nature-lover & Japanese fashion expert. MORE ARTICLES BY THIS WRITERABOUT WATTENTION NINJA

The Charm of Hokuto (1) : Oasis of the Highlands

Nestled in the highlands between the Yatsugatake Mountains and Minami Alps, Hokuto City in Yamanashi Prefecture is a true jewel worth exploring. Surrounded by majestic mountains from 3 sides and the view of Mt. Fuji to the south, awe-inspiring views abound no matter where you look. Only two hours by train from Tokyo, the alpine weather in Hokuto is considerably cooler, making this one of the best places to escape from the summer heat of the Kanto region.

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Hokuto is blessed with some of the purest, most mineral-rich water in Japan flowing down from the mountains into their many natural springs.

This water lends to extraordinarily tasty vegetables, fruits, and produce. It is also credited for delicious soba, wines, whiskey, and sake that is loved by many connoisseurs.

Beautiful flowers grow in abundance here, evidenced by their many flower fields and gardens.

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In Hokuto you can see a blend of different cultures. Yet, all those different cultures seem to be perfectly at home here, anchored down harmoniously by the sky, the mountains and the surrounding nature.

In the northeast, you will encounter many Western styled houses and facilities. Seisenryo that wouldn’t be out of place in the American countryside, the Blue in Green guesthouse that is reminiscent of a French country house, and Moeginomura that looks like it was taken straight out of a German fairy-tale are all within driving distance.

A few minutes drive to the southwest will take you to a more Japanese area with expansive rice paddies and old-fashioned establishments including the Shichiken sake brewery and confectionery manufacturer, Kinseiken.

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You can enjoy outdoor activities such as horseback riding, segway tours, trail walking, or plain old trainspotting. And being out in the countryside doesn’t mean you can’t have a posh holiday. Go taste-testing in “wine resort” Risonare Yatsugatake or the Hakushu Whiskey Distillery. Hokuto also houses several art museums including the Keith Haring Museum and the Hirayama Ikuo Silk Road Museum.

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So what are you waiting for? Quench your thirst this summer with picturesque views, good food and drinks, and cultural experiences here in Hokuto.

Read the rest of the series:
The Charm of Hokuto (2) : Hirayama Ikuo Silk Road Museum
The Charm of Hokuto (3) : Suntory Hakushu Distillery
The Charm of Hokuto (4) : Inn Blue in Green
The Charm of Hokuto (5): Top 5 Photogenic Nature Spots
The Charm of Hokuto (6): Moegi no Mura
Restaurant Review: Soba Restaurant Sanbuichi

Kamakura Ajisai – Hydrangea Tour (2) : Jochi-ji

In the previous article, we visited Tokei-ji, a peaceful temple, which used to be a safe haven for women. Now on to our next stop, Jochi-ji (浄智寺).

It is located near Tokei-ji and it takes you 4min by foot to go there.
Since the outside scenery was so beautiful, covering so many kinds of Hydrangea, we decided not to enter the temple grounds and focus on the surrounding area.

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The entrance to this temple has so many different shades of green, turning this place into a mystical relic that takes you back in time.

Jochi-ji is a Buddhist Zen temple and was founded in 1283 by Hojo Munemasa (1253-1281) and his son Hojo Morotoki (1275 – 1311). The temple grounds used to be much bigger, including 11 buildings with 500 people living there. Due to the Great Kanto earthquake of September 1st 1923, nearly every building collapsed and the remaining ones you can see now are all rebuilt after the disaster.

The entrance of Jochi-ji features a Shoromon, a two-storied combination of a gate and a belfry, which holds a bell that is close to 7 centuries old.

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All these beautiful Hydrangea flowers are situated around the entrance of the temple grounds.

Information

Jochi-ji
Hours: 9am – 4:30pm
Admission: 200 yen (Adults), 100 yen (Primary and Middle School Students)
Access:  A 8-min walk from Kita-Kamakura Station (Shonan-Shinjuku Line and Yokosuka Line)
Address: Jochi-ji, 1402 Yamanouchi, Kamakura-shi, 247-0062 Kanagawa

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WATTENTION WRITER PROFILE

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Tabea Greuner
Living and working in Japan since 2015. Always excited about discovering new places. Passion for photography, nature-lover & Japanese fashion expert. MORE ARTICLES BY THIS WRITERABOUT WATTENTION NINJA

Kamakura Ajisai – Hydrangea Tour (1) : Tokei-ji

On Saturday, June 11th, Wattention staff visited Kamakura to take a look at the beautiful Hydrangea flowers. Rainy season in Japan comes together with these flower blossoms and the shrine and temple areas in Kamakura where they grow attract thousands of people wanting to test out their photographic talents.

Our tour for this day: Tokei-ji -> Jochi-ji -> Meigetsu-in -> Tsurugaoka Hachimangu -> sunset view at the beach of Kamakura.

The tour starts in Kita-Kamakura . We left the station and headed to our first stop, the Tokei-ji Temple (東慶寺) which was just a 4min walk away. We paid a 200 yen entrance fee, and stepped onto the sacred ground.

Historical Importance and Natural Beauty

Tokei-ji was founded by nun Kakusan Shido-ni in 1285 after the death of her husband. During this period of time, it was common practice for women to become a nun after their husband’s death.

Back then it was easy for men to divorce their wives, but unfortunately women usually could not divorce their husbands. Tokei-ji temple became a safe haven for many women, sheltering abused wives who fled from their husbands to break ties. The temple authorizes the women to be officially divorced after having stayed there for three years.

During the Edo Period (1603-1868) about 2,000 women entered Tokei-ji to seek shelter and this tradition continued for almost 600 years. Due to a new law which got approved in 1873, the temple had to hand over its authority to handle divorces. Now the Court of Justice takes care of these matters. In 1902 Tokei-ji changed from a nunnery into a monastery. Up till then, men were not allowed to enter this place.


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You can enjoy a variety of Hydrangea flowers, which come in different colors and shapes.

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Behind the temple buildings is a graveyard. Many celebrities are buried there, among them are Oda Mikio (1905–1998), the first Japanese athlete who won a gold medal at the Olympic Games 1928 in Amsterdam for the “triple jump event,” and Daimatsu Hirobumi (1921-1978) a politician and the trainer of the Japanese Woman Volleyball National Team during the Olympic Summer Games of 1964.
We were surprised that this temple was not very crowded. After your stroll you can also buy some souvenirs and talismans, as well as enjoy a cup of green tea in the garden while viewing the Japanese iris.

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Let´s head to the next stop, Jochi-ji temple!

Information

Tokei-ji
Hours: 8:30am – 5pm (Mar. – Oct.), 8:30am – 4pm (Nov.-Feb.)
Admission: 200 yen (Adults), 100 yen (Primary – Middle School Students)
Access: A 4-min walk from Kita-Kamakura Station (Shonan-Shinjuku Line, Yokosuka Line)
Address: Tokei-ji, 1367 Yamanouchi, Kamakura-shi, 247-0062 Kanagawa

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WATTENTION WRITER PROFILE

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Tabea Greuner
Living and working in Japan since 2015. Always excited about discovering new places. Passion for photography, nature-lover & Japanese fashion expert. MORE ARTICLES BY THIS WRITERABOUT WATTENTION NINJA

Picturesque Matsumoto (2) – Norikura Snow Wall –

 

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Impressive snow walls will greet you at the top of Nagano prefecture’s Mt. Norikura. Thanks to the stable climate on the mountain, you can enjoy skiing even from May until August. The snow corridor is only open for a limited time from April to June, so be sure to check the days before your visit. On the opening day, the walls can reach an amazing height of 13 – 20 meter and the only way to witness these massive walls of nature is to take a special Norikura Snow Wall sightseeing bus. This bus makes several stops along the way, giving you the opportunity to walk to the top of the 3,026m high mountain from whatever point you choose. The bus takes you about 2,700m up, so from there you still have some walking to do.

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Obviously, seeing the snow walls is at the top of people’s priority list. But the surrounding area is equally beautiful and invites hikers for amazing adventures. During the summer there is a marathon on Mt. Norikura called the “Heavenly Marathon,” which attracts more than 1,000 runners every year. The route up to Mt. Norikura is closed off for private cars, so you can enjoy the quietness of nature. Along the road there are some restaurants where you can stop for a drink or a bite.

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The view from the final bus stop at the top of the mountain already gives you an overview of the snow walls. Wattention staff went to the snow walls in early June so they were already past their peak. But even if the walls aren’t as high as they could be, they are still an impressive sight. Not to mention that it is extremely fun to play in the snow during summer.

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Can you believe it’s June?
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During its peak, the walls can reach an impressive height!
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The rice represents Mt. Norikura’s majestic “Sword” peak.

The bus goes to and from the top about 4-5 times per day and waits at the top for an hour before going down again. The snow walls are a 2-min walk from the bus stop so you have plenty of time to observe this wonder of nature. But if you brought your skis you can spend a longer time at the top and just take the next bus down when it comes. After getting back to the bus terminal you can enjoy a plate of special Mt. Norikura curry.

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The Norikura snow wall sightseeing bus departs every 1-2 hours.

Information

Access: Take an 80-min bus ride from Matsumoto Station (JR Line) to Norikura Station. Then take the Mt. Norikura Highland Shuttle Bus (about 50-min) from Norikura Kogen.
Price: 2,500 yen for a round trip.
Hours: Departures every 1-2 hours.
URL: http://welcome.city.matsumoto.nagano.jp/contents08+index.htm

You can download this multilingual brochure  from Matsumoto City about Norikura with the best walking routes and hiking tips.

Picturesque Matsumoto (1) – Hiking in Beautiful Kamikochi –

Some of the best hiking trails in all of Japan are in the Japanese Alps in Nagano Prefecture. You can make it as adventurous as you want, climb a high mountain or take a long leisurely walk in the forest. Be prepared for raw nature, as the Kamikochi area is forbidden for personal vehicles. Access is only possible by bus or taxi. Special buses are arranged to take you to Kamikochi.

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Most hikers start from the Bus Terminal near a wooden suspension bridge called Kappabashi (the Kappa bridge). A Kappa is a mythological water creature that lives under bridges. Near this suspension bridge are several hotels, souvenir shops and restaurants. Besides these facilities and the Visitor Center, the whole area is without human interference. The trails along the Azusa river provide you with the most scenic views as you see the Japanese Alps reflected in the crystal clear water. This easy walking route is often very crowded in the summer and the best season to go is from mid May through July.

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Along the way you may encounter some monkeys and various birds. Bears do live in the area but they are rarely spotted along the trails.

Monkeys

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You can get very close to wild monkeys!

There are about ten kinds of willow species in the Kamikochi area. The higher you go the more the landscape changes and the dominant trees shift from willow to Japanese elm and Japanese larch trees. During Autumn these trees turn into beautiful hues of red and yellow, giving Kamikochi a completely different look.

Mountains

For the more adventurous hikers there are plenty of mountains to challenge. A popular mountain is Mt. Okuhotaka-dake, the third-highest mountain in all of Japan. In 2016 Kamikochi is scheduled to be open from April 15 to November 15, as it can be dangerous to climb the mountains out of season. If you want to make your hiking trip longer than a day, there are mountain huts along the trails where you can stay for around 8,000 yen per person. No need to bring food or a sleeping bag as bedding and two meals are provided. It is advised to arrive at these huts before 3pm. Of course you can stay in one of the lavish hotels or relaxing ryokans where you can enjoy natural hot spring water. It is advised to make a reservation or check availability beforehand.

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Access

There are many ways to get to Kamikochi. You can start from the nearest city, Matsumoto, but there are even buses from Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka all the way to the Kamikochi area.

From Matsumoto Station, Nagano: A local bus takes about 90 min.
From Shinjuku, Tokyo: The highway bus takes about 4h 40min.
From Nagano Station, Nagano: With highway bus takes about 2h 30min.

2 Day Pass for sightseeing in Kamikochi, Norikura and Matsumoto: 
This pass allows unlimited travel by train & bus to/from Kamikochi, Norikura-Kogen, Norikura area and the local bus in Matsumoto within 2 days. This is the best deal if you want to sight-see not only in Kamikochi but also in Norikura and Matsumoto.
Price: 5,150 yen (adult), Children: 2,580 yen (children)
Pass is Available in the Matsumoto Bus Terminal.

Read also: Cool Summer Treks Around Tokyo (1): Kamikochi in Nagano Prefecture

Tottori: The Desert of Japan

Yes, the following photo was taken in Japan.

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This area is called Tottori Sakyu or Tottori Sand Dunes.  These hills of sand are 16 kilometers long from east to west and 2 kilometers wide from north to south. Located in the Northeast of Tottori prefecture they face the Japanese Sea. The ocean wind that blew from the Sea of Japan created these dunes over a period of almost a 100,000 years.

I came here with a group of friends in September. During this time Japan is still warm enough to walk around in a T-shirt, compared to some European countries. A member of our group heard about the dunes and wanted to see them because we were in the area. I was very surprised to learn of their existence as even some of our Japanese friends had not heard of the dunes. Even if you’re more of a “forest and lakes” person, this unique sandy area makes a big impression.

The area really feels like a different country and the locals play into that atmosphere by providing camels – yes, camels – to ride on for a fee. If camels aren’t your thing, you can also ride a horse that is decorated like it came from North Africa.

When you thought you had seen it all, I give you camels in Japan
When you thought you had seen it all, I give you camels in Japan

The dunes are a popular spot for paraglading and sandsurfing or for swimming in the ocean. During the summer, the sand gets nice and warm making relaxing on your beach towel feel like visiting a spa. But what’s truly amazing is the view. The contrast between barren desert and lush green hills in the distance is truly spectacular. The dunes are actually slowly disappearing because of reforestation efforts in Tottori prefecture. Even if it might take a long time before they’re completely gone, don’t miss the chance! You will amaze all your friends by saying your photos of the dunes were taken in Japan.

The Japanese Sea
The Japanese Sea

After seeing the dunes you can visit the local Sand Museum that displays sand sculptures from artists all over the world. The exhibitions change annually so be sure to visit regularly if you’re into sand art. Near the sand Museum is a shop that sells juice made from the famous Tottori pears. Japanese pears are round like apples, and the ones from Tottori  are highly valued.

Tottori pear snacks
Tottori pear souvenirs

The area is truly unique in Japan and a must-visit when you are near Tottori. The area is easily accessible with hourly busses from Tottori Station.

Read also: Picturesque Japan: The Tottori Sand Dunes and check out our Picturesque Japan series for other photogenic places to visit.

Access:

Local Bus : 20 minutes from Tottori Station, take the bus bound for Tottori Sakyu and get off at the last stop.

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Ilse Montald
From popular culture to traditional culture, I’ve immersed myself in both. I love writing about tradition, history and sharing fun discoveries. If I’m not outside watching a festival parade I’m leisurely reading manga in kimono.

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Gifu

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Gifu: The Land of Clear Waters

Map of Japan and Gifu
Map of Japan and Gifu

Strategically located in central Japan, Gifu-ken (岐阜県, Gifu prefecture) is made up of five (unofficial) regions and is famous for its beautiful mountain towns, clear waters, traditional cormorant fishing and mouth-watering delicacies.

Historical Gifu

Takayama in spring
Takayama in spring

Gifu was so named by the powerful daimyō (大名, feudal lord) Oda Nobunaga during his campaign to unify Japan during the late Sengoku jidai (戦国時代,Sengoku Period). Due to its location, the prefecture was also known as the “crossroad of Japan”. Through the Sengoku Period, Gifu’s powerhouse status was often referred to by the saying “control Gifu and you control Japan.”

Sword making masters forging a new katana in Seki.
Sword making masters forging a new katana in Seki

Historically, the prefecture was (and still is) the centre of katana crafting in all of Japan, with the best swords coming from the town of Seki. Now, the prefecture is also known as the number one producer of fake food models in Japan.

Adorable Gifu

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Minamo, Gifu’s mascot

Like other prefectures, Gifu also has its own yuru-kyara (ゆるキャラ, mascot): Minamo. Minamo is a smiling fairy sprite whose yellow stripes represent the shining sun, while his light blue pays homage to Gifu’s clear streams, within which he lives. He even has the power to unite people and bring them happiness through the things that he does.

Beautiful Gifu

Although tucked deep within a mountainous region, Gifu has plenty of sights to take in, making it a must-go spot for foodies, history buffs, hot spring enthusiasts and nature lovers.

Shirakawagō in winter
Shirakawagō in winter

Shirakawagō (白川郷)is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is famous for its traditional gasshō-zukuri (合掌造), some of which are over 250 years old. Named for their steep thatched roofs that resemble hands pressed in prayer, the A-shaped roofs were developed over many generations and are designed to withstand the heavy winter snowfall. The roofs are made without nails and provide a large attic space that is also used for cultivating silkworms.

Inside a gasshō-zukuri
Inside a gasshō-zukuri

The oldest and largest remaining gasshō-zukuri in the village is called the Wada House. It is still used as a private residence, but part of it is also open to the public and it has many traditional tools on display.

The best way to experience Shirakawagō is to stay overnight in the village in one of the cosy farmhouses. Just make sure to book in advance if you’re considering this stop in your itinerary.

Takayama festival held in spring
Takayama festival held in spring

Often referred to as Little Kyoto, Takayama is famous for retaining its original appearance and is commonly referred to as Hida-Takayama to differentiate it from other places with similar names.

House along Sannomach Street
House along Sannomach Street

Back in the Edo Period, Takayama thrived as a wealthy merchant town. The old settlement is a beautiful sight to behold, with whole streets of houses, shops, sake breweries and coffee houses well-preserved in their original elegant states – especially along Sannomachi street in the southern half of town.

Takayama Jinya
Takayama Jinya

Here you’ll also find the Takayama Jinya (高山陣屋), a former government outpost built during the Edo Period when the city was under the direct control of the shogun due to its valuable timber resources. Designated as a historical landmark in 1929, the building continued to be used as a public or prefectural office until 1969. It is now the last building of its kind and has been restored almost entirely to its original Edo Period state making it a truly one-of-a-kind place to visit.

Rickshaw ride in Takayama old town
Rickshaw ride in Takayama old town

While you’re there, make rickshaw tour of Takayama’s old town as an alternative way of sightseeing. Also, don’t miss the two morning markets held daily in front of the Takyama Jinya and long the Miyagawa River. There are plenty of stores selling local crafts and farm produce for you to buy.

A hot spring in Gero city
A hot spring in Gero city

If you love soaking it up in hot springs, Gero-shi (下呂市, Gero City) is where you want to be. Listed as one of the “Three Famed Host Springs” in Japan, Gero-shi has been an onsen town since the 10th century and is filled with ryokans, public baths and free foots baths. The springs are famous for their smooth water and are nicknamed bijin no yu (美人の湯, springs for the beautiful). The town is surrounded by nature and is found along Hidagawa (飛騨川, Hida River); the river featured in a popular kabuki play, Musume Dojo-ji – a story about a maiden in love with a celibate monk who takes the form of a serpent to cross the river to pursue him.

Mount Haku in winter
Mount Haku in winter

For nature-lovers, one must see site is Haku-san (白山 , Mount Haku). A potentially active volcano, Mount Haku straddles the borders of Gifu, Fukui and Ishikawa Prefectures. It is one of Japan’s Sanreizan (三霊山, Three Holy Mountains), together with Mount Tate and Mount Fuji. The mountain is considered to have three main peaks with the tallest, Gozengamine (御前峰), standing at 2,702m. Because it is very prominent from the nearby coast and appears white even after the mountain range has lost its snow, Mount Haku still appears white, which is one explanation for the its name which means “white mountain”.

A stop along the Haku-san Super Rindo in autumn
A stop along the Haku-san Super Rindo in autumn

Mount Haku is a national park that has seen very little human intrusion, leaving its mountainous greenery largely untouched making it a popular destination for trekking. If you choose to drive to Mount Haku, the Haku-san Super Rindo is a 33 kilometer route that connects Ishikawa and Gifu and passes the magnificent Fukube-no-otaki waterfall.

Delicious Gifu

Amongst the many delicacies that Gifu is famous for, there are three that stand out the most: Hida Beef, the Ayu and sake.

Grilled Hida Beef
Grilled Hida Beef

Hida gyū (飛騨牛) is a specific type of beef that comes from Kuroge Washu (黒毛和種, Japanese Black) specially reared in the mountain town of Takayama. Hida gyū is considered a high-quality meat due to its intensely marbled appearance. Plus, it has to meet strict requirements from various national associations before it can officially be titled Hida Beef.

Japanese Black cattle
Japanese Black cattle

Thanks to Gifu’s expansive natural environment, clear water, rich earth and clean air, the cattle raised here can live a relatively comfortable and healthy lifestyle. This results in beef with an umami-rich, succulent flavour that has a melt-in-your texture which can be enjoyed grilled,roasted or even as shabu-shabu.

Grilled Ayu
Grilled Ayu

A distant relative of trout, Ayu (鮎) is Japan’s most highly prized river fish. This slippery, silvery fish travels a seasonal migration route throughout the year, similar to salmon and can only be found in the clearest and purest rivers, such as Gifu’s crystalline Nagara river. This summer delicacy has a unique flavour that is said to resemble watermelon!

Cormorant fishing on the Nagara River
Cormorant fishing on the Nagara River

The 1,300 year old traditional trade known as Gifu Nagaragawa no Ukai (ぎふ長良川の鵜飼 , Cormorant fishing on the Nagara River) has played a vital role in the history of Gifu City as a means of survival and profitable industry. During the fishing season (May 11 to October 15) many tourists flock to Gifu to watch the elegant fishing birds in action and enjoy the fish that can be cooked by grilling, boiling or even as tempura.

Bottles of Gifu Sake
Bottles of Gifu Sake

Gifu is also one of the leading sake produces in Japan, with over 50 breweries in the prefecture. Thanks to its mountainous region, cool climate and pure, clear water, Gifu has the ideal resources to produce high quality sake. Another important ingredient used in producing premium sake with a well-balanced flavour is the use of Hidohomare rice, which is grown with crystal-clear snowmelt water flowing from the mountains.

Gifu sake is in such high demand in Japan that few bottles ever make it out of the country. So while you’re in town, make some time to savour a cup or two.

Getting to Gifu

The Chubu Centrair International Airport is conveniently located in the city of Tokoname, just 57 minutes from Gifu Station. To reach Gifu Station from the airport, take the Meitetsu Limited Express towards Shinunuma, and then change at Kanayama Station to the Tokaido Main Line towards Ogaki. ¥1,710.

Picture Perfect Oirase Keiryu in Aomori

Ashura no Nagare, a photo spot representative of Oirase Keiyu.

The Oirase Keiryu has to be one of the most photographed and photogenic streams in Japan. And for good reason – even if you’re not a professional photographer and the only camera you’ve ever touched is on your smartphone, your photograph will look screensaver-worthy.

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The play of dappled sunlight on the gushing and frothy stream framed by fifty shades of green here – actually it could be 300 shades, as there are that many different types of moss alone – makes it photographic from any angle.

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The flow of the mountain stream is especially rapid during the summer months when water from melted snow flows into this tributary that then flows into Lake Towada, around 14km away from the start of the Oirase River.

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There are several waterfalls along the way, with the widest and most dynamic being the Choushi Waterfall at 20m, located where the Oirase stream begins its flow from the Towada Lake.

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Towada Lake is the largest caldera lake in Honshu, or the main island of Japan, and is also a popular spot for photographers.

Gorgeous in green, the Oirase stream and Towada Lake area – which has designated as a Place of Scenic Beauty and Natural Monuments – is also alluring when azure with autumn colors come October.

ACCESS: JR Tohoku buses run from Aomori Train Station via Oirase Stream to Towada Lake.

 

 

 

Iris in Wonderland Japan: Summer Fireworks

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

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

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

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Shaved ice, Malaysian style.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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/

Picturesque Japan: Unkai Terrace

Heaven in Hokkaido

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

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

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

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Tomamu in summer and winter

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

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

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

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Next in this series: Picturesque Japan: The Oki Islands

Spot information

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

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 (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.

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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

Ise Grand Shrine: Japan’s Top Power Spot

A Shrine For The Bucket List 

Since days of old, there has been a saying about the Ise Jingu, or Ise Grand Shrine: isshoni ichido wa omairi o, meaning one should worship there at least once in a lifetime. Or, in modern-day speak – a shrine for the bucket list.

 Indeed, since the Edo Period (1603-1868), 1 out of 6 people in Edo (former name for Tokyo) had traveled to Ise at least once. And that was before the days of the Shinkansen (which now takes around 4 hours), when it took 15 days to cover the 470 kilometer distance from Edo to Ise, and the same to return.

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An image of the old day pilgrimages

Consisting of 125 shrines centering around the naikū (“inner shrine”), which is dedicated to the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami and the gekū (“outer shrine”), which is dedicated to Toyouke no Omikami, the goddess of agriculture and industry, it reminded me of Cambodia’s temple complex, Ankor Wat, which also has many temples centered around the main temple.

Why is Ise Shingu so sacred? In Nihon Shoki (“The Chronicles of Japan”), Japan’s oldest historiography, dating back to 720 AD, it is written that 2,000 years ago, Amaterasu Omikami descended from the heavens and selected Ise in present-day Mie Prefecture with its abundant and beautiful nature as her place of enshrinement.

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Toyouke no Omikami was enshrined with the purpose to offer sacred food to Amaterasu, which shows how important Amaterasu and the Naiku are to Shinto religion. Naiku is said to be the home shrine for all Japanese, and while the younger generation is losing interest, it is still a once-in-a-lifetime destination to visit for many people of the nation.

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There is a 6-kilometer distance between Naiku and Geku, so be sure to take the local bus unless you want to try out Edo-style pilgrimage, or have a comfortable pair of walking shoes. Both Naiku and Geku are in densely-wooded hills with the Isuzu river coursing through the complexes.

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Next to Naiku is Okage-yokocho, an old-fashioned shopping street with traditional wooden houses that transports one back to the Edo era. 

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The streets are full of charming restaurants, food stalls and souvenir shops. With the broad variety of products available here you might want to call it the Harajuku of ancient times!

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Although I had little time to visit all the other shrines, I did pass a few on the way. Going around town by bicycle and discovering all these gems would be an interesting activity for those who plan to stay in Ise for a longer time. 

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Location: Ujitachi-cho 1, Ise, Mie

Access to Ise: From Tokyo Station, take the shinkansen to Nagoya, then transfer to the Kintetsu Express and get off at Iseshi Station.

Speedy Sapporo Sightseeing (5): The Green Trail

Hokkaido may be Japan’s largest prefecture but it’s largest city – and capital – Sapporo is easy to get about by foot or public transport. In this 5-part series, WAttention brings you some themed strolls through Sapporo, all within 30-minutes on foot from the train station if all you have to spare is, literally, a couple of hours. 

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Just three blocks from the North Exit of Sapporo Station is the Hokkaido University, a sprawling campus with European-style architecture, a stream running through it and willow trees which will make you forget that you are in Japan.

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During the autumn, it is famous for its 380 m stretch of 70 golden gingko trees. Its poplar avenue is also a popular spot that makes for a pleasant walk.

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Inset: The signature poplar trees of Hokkaido University.

 

You will find both tourists and locals enjoying the picturesque greenery here.

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After your stroll, you can stop by the cafe and souvenir shop by the entrance and have a cuppa under the dappled sunlight terrace.

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The interior of the campus cafe

For some more green therapy, head back to the station and exit from the South this time towards the Old Government Building, also three blocks done the road.

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There is a lovely garden and pond here that you wouldn’t imagine to be in the middle of Sapporo city.

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Here you will also find flowers of the season that makes for a great photo spot.

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This marks the final post of our Speedy Sapporo Sightseeing series. 

 

4 hotel pools in Tokyo to escape the summer heat

Swimming and sunbathing in Tokyo’s concrete jungle

Now that the rainy season has come to an end, the hot and muggy summer is here to stay for the next few months. Escaping the heat by leaving Tokyo for cool summer retreats is one option, but if you will be too busy sight-seeing (or working if you are a permanent resident), we recommend you at least find some time to cool down in one of these Tokyo hotel pools that are open to the public. Keep on making those crawl strokes to burn the calories you gained savoring local cuisine, have a relaxing sunbathing session with a cocktail while gazing at the overwhelming urban landscapes, or have a romantic night swim with magnificent light-ups. It’s up to you.

1. Keio Plaza Hotel Tokyo Sky pool

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Located in the middle of Shinjuku’s skyscraper district, Keio Plaza Hotel Tokyo’s Sky Pool is about as urban as pools get. How about a romantic evening swim with city lights everywhere around you?

Address: Nishi-Shinjuku 2-2-1, Shinjuku, Tokyo
Access: A 1-min walk from Tochomae Station Exit B1 (Toei Oedo Line)
Hours: 9 am – 8 pm
Price Range: 1,200 – 6,000 (See URL for detailed prices)
URL:  http://www.keioplaza.com/facilities/rate_2015.pdf 

2. Tokyo Prince Hotel Garden Pool

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If sunbathing with Tokyo Tower next to you has always been your dream, Tokyo Prince Hotel’s Garden Pool is all you could wish for.

Address: Shiba-koen 3-3-1, Minato, Tokyo
Access: A 1-min walk from Onarimon Station Exit A1 (Toei Mita Line)
Hours: 10 am – 6 pm
Price Range: 6,000 – 10,000
URL:  http://www.princehotels.com/en/tokyo/swimming-pool

3. Hotel East 21 Tokyo Garden Pool

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Swim like a princess (or prince) in Hotel East 21 Tokyo’s gorgeous Garden Pool that is surrounded by a 19th century European style garden.

Address: Toyo 6-3-3, Koto, Tokyo
Access: A 7-min walk from Toyocho Station Exit 1 (Tozai Line)
Hours: 9 am – 6 pm
Price Range: 6,000 – 13,000
URL:  http://www.hotel-east21.co.jp/en/

4. ANA InterContinental Garden Pool

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Not satisfied with your hotel bathtub? How about a swim through ANA InterContinental’s spacious Garden Pool in the midst of Roppongi’s overwhelming skyscrapers and modern architecture?

Address: Akasaka 1-12-33, Minato, Tokyo
Access: A 5-min walk from Roppongi-itchome Station Exit 3 (Namboku Line)
Hours: From June 27 to July 24 and from September 1 to September 30, 8 am – 7 pm. From July 25 to August 31, 8 am – 9 pm
Price Range: 7,000 – 13,000 (See URL for detailed prices)
URL:  http://www.anaintercontinental-tokyo.jp/e/facilities/pool.html

Picturesque Japan: The Tottori Sand Dunes

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Sand, camels, and…a refreshing sea breeze

Surrounded by rippled sand dunes that sparkle with the reflection of the sun, you mount a camel and gaze upon what looks like an oasis in the far distance. Strangely enough though, you are not in a desert. And yes, you are still in Japan.

While featuring practically everything one expects from a desert, the Tottori Sand Dunes fail to officially qualify as one.

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The total size of the Tottori Sand Dunes is about the same as 140 baseball stadiums. That may sound like quite a lot, but unfortunately falls short to qualify as a real desert. The Sahara Desert for example, is 24 times the size of whole Japan!

Everyone knows that deserts are supposed to be dry. This is due to a serious lack of rain and the absence of a sea or river in the area. The Tottori Sand Dunes, however, are located right next to the Japan Sea (yes, that’s the oasis I was talking about)…another fatal flaw in the pursuit of being a true desert-ness. 

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Though the sand may look dry on the surface, if you start digging, you will notice that this is in fact nothing more than some “desert makeup”, as the sand becomes watery after just a few digs. So, point taken, the Tottori Sand Dunes may look like a desert, but only on the surface, literally.

Still, it is easy and a lot of fun to pretend. You get to experience the whole package including camels and an oasis without having to worry about dehydration! And Tottori, which is the least populous prefecture in Japan, can still pride itself on having more sand than any other prefecture in Japan. 

Next in this series: Picturesque Japan: Yakushima

Spot Information

Name: Tottori Sand Dunes

Location: Fukube-cho Yuyama 2164-661, Tottori, Tottori

Access: A 20-min taxi-ride from Tottori Station (JR West).

Speedy Sapporo Sightseeing (2): The Flower Lovers’ Trail

Hokkaido may be Japan’s largest prefecture but it’s largest city – and capital – Sapporo is easy to get about by foot or public transport. In this 5-part series, WAttention brings you some themed strolls through Sapporo, all within 30-minutes on foot from the train station if all you have to spare is, literally, a couple of hours. 

 

 

Mention Sapporo and the colour white comes to mind – snow, ice sculptures, White Lover cookies and the Maruyama zoo polar bear. But the capital of Hokkaido is equally breathtaking, if not more, when coloured by a palette of flowers.

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The former Hokkaido Government Building, aka “Akarenga”.

Start your floral adventure from the former Hokkaido Government Office Building, fondly called the “Akarenga”, referring to the red brick building. This is just two blocks down from the Sapporo Station.

In the spring, one can see the pastel purple blooms of the lilac, Sapporo’s official tree. In the autumn, there is the chrysanthemum festival, and at other times, you can head to the Odori Park for the blooms of the season.

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The Odori Park stretches across 12 blocks, perpendicular to the Sapporo Station. It starts with the Sapporo TV Station at the Nishi 1-chome grid and goes on to the former Sapporo Court of Appeals, another grand old dame – but I digress from our petaled pals.

From the Akarenga, keep on walking in the southward  from the Sapporo station. Along the way, you may find some lovely flowers lining the pathway.

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Excuse me, but are you Lavendar by any chance?

If you’re lucky, you may find a flower festival or competition going on at the park. From 27 June to 5 July, there was Flower Festa 2015 Sapporo, with various flower displays at the Odori Park.

 

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The Sapporo Star

Look familiar? This arrangement depicts the North Star, which is popularly known as the logo mark of Sapporo Beer, but it is also in the Sapporo City’s official city logo mark, taken from the symbol of the pioneers of the Kitanokuni, or Country in the North. collage-2015-07-09 (2)

 

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So if you don’t have the chance to head to Furano for the lavender fields, you can still enjoy blooms of the season just a a few blocks down the road from Sapporo station – and have time to spare to head to the local crab market for some fresh seafood! But that’s for the next installment of this series.

Next up: Speedy Sapporo Sightseeing (3): The Seafood Lovers’ Trail

 

Nostalgic Pottering in Yanesen Part 2

Shitamachi roaming by bicycle

Last time we left off at the Nennekoya. Get on your tokyobike as it’s time to potter on! (For part 1, see “Nostalgic Pottering in Yanasen Part 1“)

Nezu Shrine

With a history of 1,900 years, the Nezu Shrine is one of Tokyo’s oldest shrines, and perfectly matches the nostalgic color of the neighborhood. We recommend you get off your bicycle here, so that you can enter the shrine and enjoy its garden.

Information:
Location: Nezu 1-28-9, Bunkyo, Tokyo
Hours: 9 am – 5 pm

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Hebimichi

After passing the Nezu Shrine, you will come to a narrow road with many twists, which is called Hebimichi, or Snake Road. But why is it twisted like this? Apparently, the street used to be a river called Aizomegawa. That river is now long gone, but the street takes the exact same shape!

Information:
Location: Yanaka 2, Taito, Tokyo

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Shops near the Aizome Bridge

Keep-on twisting along the snake road which has many fancy shops to check out, and you eventually arrive at an intersection called Aizomebashi, or Aizome bridge, also referring to the river that used to run through here. 
There are 3 shops near this intersection that absolutely burst in character.
Coffee Ranpo’s owner has a love for cats and jazz, and it shows!
Selling beautiful Japanese paper-crafts, Isetatsu has been around since 1864.
Shokichi is the atelier of Mitsuaki Tsuyuki, a talented artist that creates Japanese puppets. How about having a doll of yourself made on order?

Coffee Ranpo

Location: Yanaka 2-9-14, Taito, Tokyo
Hours: 10 am – 8 pm (closed on Mondays)

Isetatsu:

Location: Yanaka 2-18-9, Taito, Tokyo
Hours: 10 am – 6 pm

Shokichi:

Location: Yanaka 3-2-6, Taito, Tokyo
Hours: 10 am – 18 pm (closed on Mondays and Tuesdays)

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Yanaka Ginza

After turning left in front of Yanaka Elementary School, keep going straight and you will arrive at the area’s most famous shopping street, Yanaka Ginza. There is a wide array of local street food (our favorite being Suzuki Niku’s minced cutlets) to try out, and cute shops are at your disposal for window shopping.

Informaiton:
Location: Yanaka 3-8-1, Taito, Tokyo

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Suzuki Niku Minced Cutlets , 200 yen

Like what you see? This was only a glimpse of what Yanesen has to offer. We highly recommend you discover the area on your own pedals!

Cool Treks Around Tokyo (5): Fukiware no Taki in Gunma Prefecture

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This majestic stretch of interlocking waterfalls is said to be the “Niagara of the Orient”.

Located in Numata City of Gunma Prefecture, the Fukiware no Taki is 7-meters high, 30-meters wide and flows 1.5-km into the Katashina Gorge.

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It was voted as one of Japan’s top 100 waterfalls, and in 1936 was designated as a National Natural Monument.

The months from April to June are when the currents are stronger from the melted snow from the mountains. But the waterfall is equally stunning in the Autumn months, when tinted with the color of fall.

The grand sight can be enjoyed from a hanging bridge or right up close to the roaring gorge. Just don’t lose your balance!

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Access: From Tokyo Station take the JR to Numata Station and catch a 45-min bus headed to Fukiware no Taki.

 

Ukai: A 3-in-1 Truly “U”-nique Experience

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To enjoy Japan’s culture, cuisine and scenery, try a Ukai river cruise.

“Ukai” literally means the rearing of cormorants and refers to a traditional fishing method deploying these long-necked aquatic birds to hunt for river fish.

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While fishing might sound like a boring activity at first, this is anything but that. In fact, it is said that Charlie Chaplin, who visited Nagaragawa River in Gifu prefecture on two occasions to see cormorant fishing, kept on exclaiming “Wonderful!” throughout the spectacle.

The 3-in-1 enjoyment of Ukai

“U” get Cuisine

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Ayu hungry yet?: A full course of sweetfish – salt-baked, sweetly-simmered and fried.

The trip starts with a delicious bento lunch – all featuring salt-roasted ayu (sweetfish), which is the fish that cormorants dive, swallow and spit out (but try not to think about that) – aboard a yakatabune, or a barge-style boat.

“U” get Scenery

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While one can take a yakatabune ride along the Sumidagawa in Tokyo and enjoy the city skyline, these manually-steered barges really belong to a river surrounded by verdant valleys, with the natural background music of river birds singing.

“U” get Culture

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Harking back 1,300 years, Ukai was a fishing technique used in China and Japan.

While once a booming industry, it can only be witnessed in 12 locations in Japan today, from around early summer (June) to late autumn (October).

Up to ten cormorants are strung up and skillfully steered by the cormorant master, and when the hunt begins, he wields a burning metal frame in front of the boat. This is used to scare the river fishes to the surface for the cormorants.

At the clack of wooden blocks, the cormorants dive in unison to swallow as many river fish as they can. The string around the birds’ necks prevents them from swallowing fish like ayu or even the occasional unagi, but they get to keep the smaller fishes.

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Master trainers of cormorants belong to a national agency (the Imperial Household Agency), and an important duty of theirs is to make offerings of small trout to the Emperor.

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With prices ranging from around 2,500 yen to 4,500 yen for this 2-1/2 hour trip, it’s definitely worth making a day trip from the city for.

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Here are the venues where cormorant fishing can be viewed today:

-Nagaragawa, Gifu
-Hijigawa, Aichi
-Mikumagawa, Oita
-Fuefukigawa, Yamanashi
-Kisogawa, Aichi
-Ujigawa, Kyoto
-Yodogawa, Kyoto
-Basengawa, Kyoto
-Aritagawa, Wakayama
-Takatsugawa, Shimane
-Nishikigawa, Yamaguchi
-Chikugogawa, Fukuoka

Nostalgic Pottering in Yanesen Part 1

Shitamachi roaming by bicycle

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Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of pottering. It is a so called waseieigo (和製英語), which is a Japanese word created out of one or more English terms. Calling it an English word that only exists in Japan, is another way to explain it.

Pottering (coming from “to potter”) is the same as strolling, except for the fact that it is done on bicycle. While cycling tours can be exhausting and extreme like hiking or trekking, pottering is meant to be relaxing and fun.

Just to make sure you get the idea, left is cycling and right is pottering!

The Yanesen area consists out of three neighborhoods in the Taito and Bunkyo ward, which are Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi. Whilst being located within short distance from the city center, the area has a charming shitamachi (local downtown) atmosphere, with retro shopping streets, laid back residential areas and myriads of temples and shrines to explore.

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Bicycles can be rented at tokyobike gallery, located on a 6 minute walking distance from Nippori Station. It has the facade of an old Japanese-style house with wooden walls and a slanting roof, but the inside is modern and oshare (fancy). tokyobikes are made with the purpose of city cycling, and you can choose out of 3 different models.

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Location: Yanaka 4-2-39, Taito, Tokyo
Price: 1,000 yen
Hours: 11:00 – 19:00 (Mondays, Tuesdays, Fridays) 11:00 – 18:00 (Weekends, Public Holidays) Closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays

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Without any further ado, let the pottering begin!

Ogyochi

Starting with sweets is unheard of when one goes cycling, but then again, this is pottering, so why not?
Ogyochi serves a yummy Taiwanese jelly type sweet that you can have together with shaved ice in the summer.

Information:
Location: Uenosakuragi 2-11-8, Taito, Tokyo

Hours: 10 am – 6 pm (closed earlier when sold out)

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Ogyochi, 400 yen

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Shitamachi Museum

In the same street as Ogyochi, you will find the Shitamachi Museum, where you can find out how Tokyoites used to go about in older times.

Information:
Location: Yanaka 4-2-39, Taito, Tokyo

Hours: 9:30 am – 4:30 pm (closed on Mondays)

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Yanaka’s Himalayan Cedar Tree

On the corner of a quiet street in Yanaka, next to an old little bakery, stands a giant Himalayan cedar tree!

Information:
Location: Yanaka 1-16-5, Taito, Tokyo

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Nennnekoya

A few blocks further, you will find Nennekoya, a cozy little store/cafe full of cat merchandise, and of course, cats! Finding this store in Yanaka is no surprise, as the neighborhood is known for its many street cats.

Information:
Location: Yanaka 2-1-4 Taito, Tokyo

Hours: 11:30 am – 6:00 pm (Saturdays, Sundays, Public Holidays) 11:00 am – 5 pm (Thursdays, Fridays) closed on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays

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That’s it for today, but we will be pedaling on in “Nostalgic Pottering in Yanesen Part 2“, so stay tuned!

Picturesque Japan: Engetsu Island

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Japan’s most magical sunset display at Nanki Shirahama

Engetsu Island is a small rock island just off Nanki Shirahama’s coast in Wakayama Prefecture, and it’s almost as if it was created for postcard-perfect photos.

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Nanki Shirahama is a seaside resort with hot springs that look out at white sandy beaches and probably the clearest sea of Japan’s main island. These hot springs are said to be one of Japan’s three oldest hot springs together with Dogo Onsen in Ehime Prefecture and Arima Onsen in Hyogo Prefecture.

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The rock island’s formal name is Takashima, but it is widely known as Engetsuto, which can be literally translated as “round moon island”. This is due to the round-shaped hole in the middle of the island.

To me, Doughnut Island also comes to mind as a valid name, but thankfully it was Japanese politician Masaomi Tsuda’s poem penned in 1887 – in which the island was coined as Engetsu Island – from which the island got its current name, as this is the kind of romantic name it deserves.

With rays of sunlight piercing through the hole, Engetsu Island makes for an incredible sunset display, but here is an impressive collage to convince you that the island looks stunning at any time of the day. Sunset is around 6:30pm in the summer and 4:30pm in the winter.

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Please note that even when the tide is low, walking to the island – which can just about fit into a football pitch – is forbidden because the island is not very stable and sea urchins are lying on the sea-bottom. You might see fishermen at the shore as octopus, squid, crab, sweepers and other fish can be caught.

Since the island’s sandstone rocks have become less stable throughout the years, the island was artificially repaired in 2011 to make it earthquake proof, so hopefully we will be able to enjoy this breathtaking sight for many years to come!

Next in this series: Picturesque Japan: The Tottori Sand Dunes

Spot information:

Name: Nanki Shirahama

Location: Shirahama-cho, Nishimuro-gun, Wakayama
Access: From Tokyo take the Shinkansen and get off at Shirahama Station (around 6 hours from Tokyo, or 2 hours from Shin-Osaka), or take a 1hr 15min plane ride from Haneda Airport to Nanki Shirahama Airport.

Cool Treks Around Tokyo (4): Oirase Keiryu in Aomori Prefecture

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The Oirase Stream trail, which runs for 14km from Nenokuchi at Lake Towada, is a surreal setting of endless gushing and gurgling streams that course over moss-covered boulders, through an emerald green forest of ferns, Japanese beech and oaks. This scenery is particularly gorgeous, no pun intended, at the Oirase Gorge.

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The boardwalk along the stream is named Bakufu Kaido, or “Waterfall Road”, aptly so for the many waterfalls roaring along this route. Popular scenic spots include the Choshi Otaki Waterfall, Ashuranonagare and Kumoinotaki Waterfall.

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It’s also a good excuse to try the new “long-nosed” Hayabusa Shinkansen which connects Tokyo to Shin-Aomori in a mere 3 hours and 10 minutes.

Access: From Tokyo Station take the Shinkansen to Hachinohe Station, and a bus to the Towada Lake Area

Last Cool Trek: Fukiware no Taki in Gunma Prefecture

 

Cool Treks Around Tokyo (3): Oze National Park in Gunma Prefecture

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This sprawling marshland at 760 hectares is well-loved for its charming wooden boardwalk paths through seemingly endless carpets of flora and fauna. The ‘mizubasho,’ or Japanese skunk cabbage, and ‘nikko-kisuge’ (yellow alpine lily) are the signature blossoms here, though there is no lack of other rare mountain foilage at this strictly protected national park.

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Visitors even have to brush their boots against a special carpet before entering to prevent the introduction of non-native plants to this almost pristine park. At some 1,700m above sea level, it’s also Japan’s highest moor. Oze is made up of the Ozegahara moor, Ozenuma lake and surrounding mountains.

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Trekkers are in close proximity here as there is just one path, with one lane for each direction. Nevertheless, as can be expected of Japan, trekkers are thoughtful and there is often what seems to be a greeting competition to see who can “Konnichiwa” the oncoming trekker first.

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The climb to the wooden path involves descending a few flights of steps, which makes this slightly more challenging amongst the treks mentioned. But come here once, and you’ll be back for moor, so to speak.

Access: From Tokyo Station take a JR train to Numata Station, change to an express bus to Oshimizu station.

Next cool trek: Oirase Keiryu in Aomori Prefecture

 

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

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Like a crossing out of an Indiana Jones movie, this primitive bridge made out of vines can be found hanging over a roaring river in the Iya region of Tokushima Prefecture, and is a popular summer trek for adventurous nature lovers.

The Iya no Kazura Bashi was built by samurai who escaped into this area over 800 years ago with the intent of it being easily cut to prevent pursuers from crossing. It is now designated as a national important tangible cultural asset – and you’ll be relieved to know the 45 meters long and 2 meters wide bridge is completely replaced every three years to ensure its sturdiness.

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That said, it will still take some courage to cross this bridge when you reach it as each step is shaky and rocky. Look down, and you can see the river coursing through some 15-m below!

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Next in this series: Picturesque Japan: The Great Seto Bridge

Spot information

Name: Iya-no-Kazura Bashi
Address: 162-2 Nishiiyayamamura Zentoku, Miyoshi-shi, Tokushima Prefecture
Access: Fly into Tokushima, then take the Shikoku Kotsu Bus from JR Oboke Stn, bound for either Kazura Bashi or Kubo, get off at Kazura Bashi Bus stop and walk 5 minutes to Iya-no-Kazura Bashi.

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)

Hiraizumi: Representing Heaven on Earth

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Hiraizumi, created as a Buddhist heaven on earth over 1,000 years ago, celebrates its third year as a World Heritage site this June. Its temples, gardens and buildings were recognized as a rare example of a cultural legacy that is deeply permeated with a universal longing for peace – but its roots lie in a land ravaged by war.

The UNESCO recognition also came at a poignant time for Iwate Prefecture, which was hard hit by the Tohoku earthquake in March 2011, where thousands of lives were lost. This is the first such UNESCO site in the Tohoku area and the 16th in Japan.

Hiraizumi was founded by the Oshu Fujiwara clan in a bid to fulfill their longing for permanent peace and the achievement of the ideal Buddhist territory.

The dramatic rise and fall of the city – once said to rival Kyoto – within a 100 years inspired the famous haiku master Matsuo Basho to compose several now classic haikus after he visited the remains of Hiraizumi town.

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Famous haiku master, Matsuo Basho , on visiting the ruins of Hiraizumi, penned: Ah! Summer grass! All that remains/Of the warriors’ dreams.

So, just what does this heaven on earth comprise of? It consist of five designated sites, the Konjiki-do (Golden Hall) within Chusonji Temple, Motsuji Temple, the remains of Kanjizaiō-in and Muryoko-in and Mt. Kinkeisan. Here, we will introduce Chusonji and Motsuji, and Mt. Kinkeisan.

Chusonji Temple

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This is the cornerstone of the UNESCO designated sites. A climb up the Tsukimi-zaka Slope lined with 300- to 400-year-old cedar trees will bring you to the Konjiki-do (Golden Hall) portion of Chusonji Temple. This is the only temple remaining from the 12th century and was built by the founder of Hiraizumi, Fujiwara no Kiyohira to memorialize all living things that died in Tohoku during the power struggle from which he emerged victorious from.

The gold-gilded Konjiki-do within the temple was built as a mausoleum and contains the mummies of four generations of the founding Fujiwara clan.

Motsuji Temple

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The main attraction here is the picture perfect and expansive Jodo garden which has stood for some 800 years. The Buddhist philosophy of Jodo states that it is “expansive without end and everything there is beautiful”. The garden here was created to depict the scenery described in the sutra using the Heian era garden landscaping technique. The center piece here is the Oizumi ga Ike, a pond measuring 180m in the east-west direction.

Mt. Kinkeisan

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This 98.6m high mount located between Chosonji and Motsuji is said to have a golden chicken and rooster, after which it is named, buried at its peak as protectors of the city. When the famous haiku master Matsuo Basho visited Hiraizumi, he sadly remarked that only Mt. Kinkeisan retains its formed after the surrounding temples and buildings were razed to the ground.

Access: Take JR Tohoku Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Ichinoseki Station (2 hr. 33 min.)

Cool Treks Around Tokyo (2): Goshikinuma in Fukushima Prefecture

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Here you can row a pleasure boat in one of the largest lakes in the 800m high Bandai Highlands, Lake Hibara, before embarking on a 3.6km route through the cluster of lakes at Goshiki-numa Park nearby.

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This natural wonder was formed when Mount Bandai erupted on July 15th, 1988. The main lakes in this park are called Akanuma, Bentennuma, Rurinuma, Aonuma and Bishamonnuma. The park is a must-see spot in the Bandai Highlands region.

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Minerals from this devastating eruption tints each of these lakes a different hue, ranging from emerald green to cobalt blue to reddish green, the color of which fluctuates throughout the year according to the weather. The easy trek can be completed in around an hour.

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Access: From Tokyo Station take the Shinkansen to Kooriyama Station (1 hr 20 mins), change to the JR Banetsu Nishi Line to Inawashiroko Station (35mins) then take the local bus to Ura Bandai.

Next cool trek: Oze National Park in Gunma Prefecture

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/

3 Lovely Lavender Spots Around Tokyo

Updated: 2017

Even if you’re not headed to Hokkaido around July-August, there are plenty of places around Tokyo where you can get your fill of purple fields and natural aromatherapy – and the season is just starting! Here’s a list of 3 spots in the Kanto area.

1) Tambara Lavender Park, Gunma Prefecture 

Here you can escape the summer heat at 1,300m above sea level and enjoy 5 hectares of 50,000 lavender bushes of 4 varieties.  There’s a viewing deck from where you can get a view of rolling fields of lavender, and live demonstration of the lavender oil extraction process.

Information:
Period: Jun. 25 – Sep. 4, 2016
Time: 8:30am-5pm
Access: Take the Shinkansen from Tokyo to JR Numata Station, and change to a bus headed for Tanbara

2) Lake Kawaguchiko, Yamanashi Prefecture 

The Ooishi Park at Lake Kawaguchiko is where you can get a photo of lavender fields with Mt. Fuji in the background. The annual Kawaguchiko Lavender Festival is held both here and at Yagisaki Park from mid-June to mid-July, to celebrate the blossoming of 100,000 lavender bushes in all.lavander-spot-japan

Information: 

Kawaguchiko Lavender Festival
Period: Jun. 17 – Jul. 10, 2016 at Yagisaki Park
Jun. 17 – Jul. 18, 2016 at Ooishi Park
Access: From Lake Kawaguchiko take a Saiko shuttlebus to Yagisaki Park/Ooishi Park

3) Arakogawa Park, Aichi Prefecture 

This is the largest lavender field in Nagoya City, with 3,000 bushes and over 20 varieties – from deep purple to lighter hues – lining the river banks of Arako for 1 kilometer. The lavender festival here starts from early June.

Information: 
Date: Jun. 11 – 19, 2016
Access: From Nagoya City take the Aonami Line to Arakogawa Park and walk for 3 minutes
Hours: 9am – 4;30pm

Read also: A Lavender lover’s wonderland for fragrant fields in the heart of Hokkaido

Cool Summer Treks Around Tokyo (1): Kamikochi in Nagano Prefecture

With the mercury rising in the concrete jungle of Tokyo, it’s definitely time to drop a few degrees Celsius by taking a hike somewhere in the lush, green hills of Japan.

And while the average tourist may not think of going beyond Roppongi Hills or Omotesando Hills as ‘cool’ places to hang out, we’re talking about national treasures that have become regular pilgrimage sites for trekking aficionados in the know.

In this 4-part series, WAttention will walk you through some of the best highland treks just a few hours out of Tokyo for your fill of negative ions and positive sentiments!

Kamikochi in Nagano Prefecture 

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Coined the “Japanese Alps” since 1877 when the breathtaking beauty of the snow-capped Nagano mountain range was discovered by early English explorers, a trip to Kamikochi will leave you in awe of the picture perfect setting—and the convenience of omiyage shops, onsens, ice cream and croquette stalls 1,500m above sea level.

But not to worry, while the shops and facilities are sufficient, the area is not touristy and far from overdeveloped, with just around half a dozen hotels. Private cars are also banned from Kamikochi, in favor of buses or taxis.

Three hours will be sufficient to cover around half of the mostly flat 15km trekking route at a leisurely pace. Geographically, Kamikochi is basically a long plateau in the Azusa River Valley, surrounded by dramatic mountains starting from 2,455m in height.

Recommended for beginners is a start from the turquoise Taisho Pond to Kappabashi Bridge, a suspension bridge where you’ll find cafes, restaurants and cafes nearby for a lunch break. Abundent birch trees add to the alpine feel.

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Kappabashi Bridge, a suspension bridge across the Azusa River, is the main landmark here, and a popular photo spot. In fact, so stunning is the scenery that you’ll find an artist there that has dedicated his life to painting that vista of Kamikochi.

Another attraction is the Imperial Hotel Kamikochi, of the prestigious Imperial Hotel chain, which was previously owned and partly funded by the imperial family. Designed like an alpine resort, sipping a spot of tea at the hotel café is on the wishlist of many a sophisticated Japanese lady. Which just goes to show how Kamikochi is a hiking trek fit for royalty.

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Access: From Shinjuku Station take the JR Chuo Honsen Limited Express “Azusa” (2hours 40minutes) to Matsumoto Station, then take the local bus or taxi to Kamikochi

Next cool trek: Goshikinuma Lake in Fukushima Prefecture

 

Picturesque Japan: The Takachiho Gorge

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Like magic to your eyes
Located on the north edge of Miyazaki prefecture on Kyushu Island, the Takachiho Gorge is without a doubt, one of Japan’s most impressive natural landscapes. With dramatic cliffs, verdant forests, an emerald green river, and not to mention, the Manai waterfall that strikes you like sunlight bursting through the morning clouds, this gorge along the Gokase river is so beautiful it’s magic to your eyes. Paddle your way around with the rental boats available, and be thrilled by the Manai waterfall from up close.

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You can also chose to hike the path along the Takachiho Gorge that lets you look at this breathtaking landscape from above. After passing the gorge, the path leads you to the picturesque Takachiho Shrine that boasts a history of 1,800 years. Be sure to wear the right shoes, as there are quite a lot of stairs to climb along the way.

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If you visit during the summer, enjoy a refreshing meal of ice-cold somen noodles at the tea houses located nearby. These thin wheat flour noodles will come floating your way on a long bamboo flume. Can you catch them with your chopsticks before they flow on to the next customer? The gorge is also lit up with illuminations until 10PM during the summer months.

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Trust me, the Takachiho Gorge won’t dissapoint, and there are many other sites to visit nearby as well, including the mysterious Amanoyasugawara cavern, where according to legends the sun goddess Amaterasu used to retreat.

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To sum it up, if you are making a trip to Kyushu Island, the Takachiho Gorge has to be on your list!

Next in this series: Picturesque Japan: The Kujuku Islands

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Spot information

Name: Takachiho Gorge
Address: Mitai, Nishiusuki-gun, Takachiho-cho, Miyazaki Prefecture
Access: Takachiho can be reached by bus from Kumamoto or Nobeoka while the gorge is located within walking distance from the Takachiho Bus Center.
Boat rental fare: ¥2000 for 30 minutes (Can fit up to 3 people)
Boat rental hours: 8:30 ~ 16:30
Official Information: http://takachiho-kanko.info/en/