Mountain and sea delicacies that you can’t get in cities

Local dishes you’ve never had before!

Today, restaurant chains are so popular that there seems to be no diversity in the food and experience wherever you go. But this is not true in Tohoku, where food is reflective of local weather conditions and the region’s rich cultural heritage. Prepared to be greeted with an array of unique dishes that you have never heard of nor seen before. Time to challenge your taste buds!

Shark

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Your jaw might drop at the thought of eating shark meat, but in Miyagi prefecture they use every part of this marine mammal. Prepared in a multitude of ways, such as sashimi or shark fin soup, shark meat’s endless possibilities will surprise you.

Tuna Steak

The number one place to find tuna in Aomori prefecture is Fukaura Town, where natsu maguro (summer tuna) is available for a long period every year. This tuna has an exquisite taste both raw and cooked, and is most commonly found as part of a “tuna steak bowl.”

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Hoya (sea squirt)

Hoya looks like it’s part of another animal, but it’s actually a species of its own. The sea squirt is also called “sea pineapple” because of its thorny appearance, but its taste is anything but tropical. Being described as “the flavor of the ocean,” expect a surprising mix of sweet, salty, sour and sharp.

Hokki (surf clam)

The flavor of this ocean critter is said to reach its full potential when lightly cooked. In Miyagi prefecture, the favored way to eat hokki is as hokki meshi, a rice dish with thin slices of hokki.

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Shojin Ryori

This all-vegetarian Buddhist cuisine is part of monks’ daily lives. Buddhism teaches not to hurt any living creature and Shojin Ryori is an extension of that belief. Even so, this cuisine’s menu is not as meager as you might imagine. From pickled and braised wild mountain vegetables to bowls of miso soup with silken tofu, centuries of Shojin Ryori culture in this area has led to a variety of flavorful dishes. Yamagata’s three holy mountains are a famous pilgrimage spot and the abundance of mountain vegetables makes it a top location for experiencing the life of a Buddhist monk.

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Himemasu (landlocked sockeye salmon)

You don’t have to travel to the ocean to find fresh salmon. Himemasu can be found inland, making it a sweetwater fish with a different taste from saltwater salmon. Lake Towada is the top spot for this fish, where it is mainly served as sashimi to bring out its sweetness and soft texture.

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First Shrine visit of the year – Hatsumode

New Year’s is one of the most important holidays on the Japanese calendar. During the Edo period and the old way of counting, everyone was one year old at birth (because they counted the time you were in the womb) and aged one year on New Year’s day. The beginning of a new year symbolizes a fresh start and people do a thorough cleaning of their homes before stepping into the new year. By the way, 2017 is the year of the Rooster and this year’s element is fire.

After having celebrated at a Buddhist temple everyone heads to a Shinto shrine to pay their first respects of the year. This may happen right after midnight, as shrines are open with food stalls and ready to sell good luck charms. If you go during the day you will definitely spot people dressed in kimono amongst the thousands of people (sometimes even a million!) queueing to pray for the shrine. Many people will be dressed in kimono as a formal gesture to the shrine or temple.

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The origin of Hatsumode

The first shrine visits on New Year’s date back to the Heian period (794 – 1185) when the head of the household would pray at the family’s shrine in a secluded room. During New Year’s a god is supposed to visit each and every one of his/her shrines to give blessings. People wanted to lessen the burden on the gods by going out and visiting the shrine. During the Edo period (1603 – 1868), praying on New Year’s changed from a secluded room to a public shrine. People would pray at the shrine nearest to that year’s eho(恵方), or “lucky direction”. You can find your nearest shrine on this useful eho map. You have roughly until the 7th of January to visit a shrine.

Hatsumode was a way to celebrate going from the cold winter to the milder temperatures of spring. The coming of cherry blossoms and growing plants signals a new beginning. When Japan entered the Meiji era (1868) the Japanese government decided to have a standardized calendar instead of the ever-changing Japanese lunar calendar (1873). This made New Year’s day fall in the middle of winter instead of the beginning of Spring.

Charms and Prayers

Besides paying respect, people buy charms and bring their old ones so the temple can burn them. It is unlucky to throw away a charm as a god is believed to reside in it. You can bring any charm you don’t want anymore to a temple and they will professionally take care of it for you.

Old Charms

Buy a mikuji(fortune telling paper) from the Miko(Shinto priestess) and see if this year will be a good one. At big shrines they usually have English mikuji for foreigners, so don’t worry if you can’t read Japanese. If you have a paper with bad luck you tie it to a branch near the shrine, preferably a pine tree. The words for “pine” (松 matsu) and “wait”(待つ matsu) sound similar. Your bad luck will wait by the tree instead of staying with you.

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According to an old belief, you should not make a detour when returning home from the shrine. In order not to “spill” any of the good luck, you need to take the shortest way back. If someone died in your family last year you are advised not to visit a shrine either, as “death” is seen as impure. Each shrine and temple has a different view of death, so some shrines might have no problem with this.

Where to visit?

For the best luck, it’s good to follow your eho and visit the nearest shrine. After all, this god is closest to your home and can thus provide the best protection. If you want to visit a popular shrine, Rakuten Travel has made a list of the best shrines to visit for 2017 (Japanese only). Here is their top 10:

1) Imado Jinja – Asakusa, Tokyo (luck, wealth, love and finding a good partner)
2) Shinsoji Temple – Narita, Chiba (traffic safety, business related wealth, safety)
3) Atsuta Shrine – Nagoya, Aichi (safety for your home/family, business prosperity)
4) Nikko Toshogu Shrine – Nikko, Tochigi (longevity, safety for your home, realization of one’s earnest wish)
5) Samukawa Shrine – Samukawa, Kanagawa (traffic safety, protection from all directions, warding off evil)
6) Sensoji Temple – Asakusa, Tokyo (business prosperity, safety for your home, academic performance)
7) Ise Grand Shrine – Ise, Mie (safety for your home, easy childbirth)
8) Izumo Taisha – Izumo, Shimane (marriage, safety for your home, good luck)
9) Fushimi Inari Taisha – Kyoto, Kyoto (prosperous business, good harvest)
10) Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine – Dazaifu, Fukuoka (academics, passing an exam, finding employment)

If you’re still unsure of where to go, you can check out this shrine guide for Hatsumode (Japanese only).

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How to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Japan

The Japanese way of celebrating New Year’s is very different from Western countries. New Year’s is possibly the most important day of the year and is usually celebrated with family or good friends. We’ll take you through a typical day leading up to the first day of the new year.

Write Nengajo

During the old days people would visit everyone they were grateful to for the past year on the first day of the new year. Nowadays everyone lives quite spread out so postcards became the new way to express gratitude. Japan takes nengajo very serious and if you send your cards before the deadline the trusty Japanese post office will make 100% sure your card arrives on New Year’s day.
Sometime during December the post boxes will have a separate nengajo slot. Read about how to write nengajo.

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2017 is the year of the Rooster

Eat Soba

These noodles are eaten on the last day of the year and are called toshikoshi soba. Their connection with New Year’s Day has different origins. Examples are the belief that because soba is cut easily you can easily let go of your hardships, long noodles help you “cross over” to the new year, soba “absorbs” the evil in your body and many more… Every region has a different reason.
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Prepare Osechi

Cooking on the first 3 days of the new year is considered bad luck, so families prepare a feast on or before New Year’s Eve. Every ingredient has a special meaning and can be difficult to prepare for a whole family, so nowadays most people order osechi boxes.
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Get your ornaments ready

After cleaning your house to welcome the New Year’s gods it’s time to start decorating. These decorations can also be set up in advance (but not too far) to ensure a “clean break” between the old and the new year.

First you’ll put up a Kadomatsu, an ornament with three bamboo shoots stuck in pine branches. The shoots represent heaven, earth and humanity. The gods live in the kadomatsu until January 7th. They are taken to a shrine and burned to send the spirits back to their realm.
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Then it’s time to get your Kagami Mochi and put it next to your Shinto altar. These are two stacked round rice cakes topped with a mikan (mandaring orange). Traditionally they used a citrus fruit called “daidai”. This fruit is usually not eaten because of its bitterness and has the ability to stay on its branch for several years if it’s not picked. Thus the fruit became connected with the wish for “prosperity for many generations”. The rice cakes represent the mirror of the sun goddess Amaterasu.

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Watch a singing competition on TV

This might seem strange, but over the years this has become a popular New Year’s tradition. NHK’s Kōhaku Uta Gassen, or Year-end Song Festival, is a singing competition between a red and white team. These teams consist of popular idols and celebrities and is considered an honor to participate in. It is the top-ranked music event of the year.

Visit a Buddhist temple

The singing competition ends just before midnight so you have enough time to go to your nearest Buddhist temple. The monks sound the bell 108 times, symbolizing all the human desires. The sound of the bell is meant to cleanse your spirit.
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First shrine visit and the first sunrise

The first shrine visit of the year is called hatsumode and many people choose to do it right after midnight. Shrines have prepared enough sweet sake to toast the new year and food stalls are set up until the early morning. The first sunrise is called hatsuhinodeand many people stay up late or wake up early to experience this beautiful sight.

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Winter Activities in Tohoku : Vintage Winter Rides

Make the most of your winter holiday by getting away with friends and family on transportation methods exclusive to Tohoku. Every winter, local operators run old-fashioned rides that bring Tohoku’s rich cultural heritage to life. Enjoy the nostalgic atmosphere on a stove train, kotatsu train or kotatsu boat as they tour along some of the most scenic routes in Japan.

Stove Train (Tsugaru Railway)

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Equipped with two fully- red potbelly stoves, each train car boasts a warm, cozy atmosphere where travelers can mingle freely while winding through the vast snowfields of the Tsugaru plain. Dried squid, a traditional snack from centuries ago, is cooked on top of the stoves and served comfortably warm. Be prepared in advance, though: The train operates only three roundtrip rides from December to March, so be sure to check the schedule.

Stove Train
Date: Dec. 1 – Mar. 31
Access: 1-min walk from JR Goshogawara Station (Gono Line)
Price: 950 yen (Adult), 680 yen (Children)
*The train operates three round trips per day, so make sure to check the schedule.

Geibikei Boat

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Geibikei, a 2-kilometer gorge surrounded by towering cliffs, is famous year-round for its 90-minute sightseeing boat ride. December through February is an especially popular time to visit because traditional foods, such as hot pot and rice cooked in iron pots, is served on kotatsu, a Japanese wooden table that comes with a blanket and a heater underneath. Huddle around the kotatsu, listen to the guide hum folk songs and immerse yourself in scenic splendor—life doesn’t get any better!

Kotatsu Boat Ride
Date: Dec. 1 – End of Feb
Closed: New Year’s Holidays
Access: 5-min walk from Geibikei Station (JR Oofunato Line)
Price: 1,600 yen (Adult), 860 yen (Children), 200 yen (Infant), Boat ride with meals 3,300 yen – 5,500 yen
*Reservation is required for the boat ride with meals.

Kotatsu Train (Sanriku Railway)

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The Sanriku kotatsu train was forced to shut down temporarily after the railway was severely damaged in the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. Reopened in 2014, it not only allows you to relax while enjoying mouthwatering bento lunches—made with fresh sea urchin, abalone and scallops caught from nearby coasts—but also offers panoramic coastal views of Iwate Prefecture.

 

Kotatsu Train
Access: Train starts either from Kuji Station or Miyako Station
Date: Dec. – Mar. Operates on Sat, Sun & Holidays
Price: 1,850 yen (Adult), 930 yen (Children) + 500 yen (Reserved seat fee)
The train operates one round trip per day, so make sure to check the schedule.

Winter Activities in Tohoku : Snow Activities

Gliding over or schussing through high-quality powder is the ultimate delight for skiers and snowboarders of all skill levels. Tohoku, just a few hours away from Tokyo by shinkansen (bullet train), is the perfect destination for those who ache to spend some serene or invigorating time hitting the slopes. Aside from skiing and snowboarding, there are myriad other tantalizing activities on offer to meet every particular fancy.

Zao Onsen Ski Resort (Yamagata)

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At Zao Onsen Ski Resort, you can enjoy magnificent views of windblown juhyo (fir trees) heavily coated with thick, sparkling snow. These legendary “snow monsters” are often grotesquely shaped due to the extreme velocity of the northwest winter Siberian monsoon cutting through. January and February are the best times to see for yourself the weirdest and wildest—even scariest!—of snowscapes in all of Japan.

Access: 40 minutes from Yamagata Shinkansen Yamagata Station by bus

Appi Kogen Ski Resort (Iwate)

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Iwate Prefecture is proud home to several popular winter destinations, including the ever-so-famous Appi Kogen Ski Resort, one of the largest in Japan with 20-odd trails and a total length of 45.1 km. A vacation here, however, is not as exclusive to skiers and snowboarders as one might assume: Appi Family Park, for example, offers gentle slopes for sledding and tubing—as well as a snowman-making area open to “Frosty builders” of all ages!

Access: 50 minutes from Tohoku Shinkansen Morioka Station by JR Hanawa line or bus

Ura-Bandai (Fukushima)

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Skiers, snowboarders and sightseers never get enough of the silky, microfine snow at Ura-Bandai Kogen. Aside from thrilling, well-groomed trails designed to satisfy anyone from “bunny trail” novice to “black diamond” expert, there are also scenic backcountry fields for fans of snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. The views from the slopes are absolutely breathtaking—like scenes lifted straight off the canvas of a classic landscape painting!

Access: Urabandai Kogen: 30 minutes from JR Banetsusai Line Inawashiro Station by bus

Snowmobile Night Cruise (Zao Onsen Resort, Yamagata)

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See ghostly trees illuminated in magnificent colors every night during the peak winter season. The stark contrast of brilliant white, mystical black and rainbow hues creates a fantasy world you will not want to miss. Hop on the resort’s snowmobile, which is equipped with heating, and experience this amazing spectacle—at minus-10 degrees

Zao Night Cruise
Date: Dec. 23, 2016 – Mar. 5, 2017
Hours: 5pm – 9pm (Last tour starts at 8pm)
Access: 40-min bus ride from JR Yamagata Station
Price: 3,800 yen (Adult), 3,100 yen (Children)
Tel: 023-694-9518
*Reservation is required.

Other Recommended Ski Resorts

Onikobe Ski Resort : 40 minutes from Naruko Onsen (Miyagi) by city bus Located in Naruko onsen village, the ski resort has eight slopes for different levels and a snow park for kids.

Nekoma Ski Resort : 2 hours from Tohoku Shinkansen Koriyama Station by free shuttle (available during ski season,reservation required).
The ski resort attracts a great number of skiers with its fine powder snow and a beautiful view of Mount Bandai’s lakes and marshes.

Winter Activities in Tohoku : Yukimi Onsen

For many, taking a dip in an onsen (hot spring) surrounded by snow-capped mountains while watching snow fall gently is a tranquil experience bordering on the heavenly. This is called yukimi onsen, meaning enjoying snow views while soaking in an open-air hot spring. In Japan, it is common for people to do this in order to relax their bodies and minds, and to socialize with family and friends. Although stripping down naked in front of total strangers might sound daunting for some first-time visitors, the tradition (hadaka-no-tsukiai) goes back centuries; it is thought to break down boundaries between individuals, thus allowing relaxed, peaceful conversation.

Matsukawa Onsen

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Matsukawa is a charming, secluded hot spring town tucked neatly inside Towada-Hachimantai National Park. Established in the Edo Period, the water has a light, milky appearance because of its high sulfur content and is said to boost blood circulation, thus helping to heal many ailments. There are a couple of ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) where guests can enjoy old- style open-air baths with scenic views for free. Visiting is a soothing and unforgettable way to experience the traditional appeal of rural Japanese culture.

Access: 90 minutes from Tohoku Shinkansen Morioka Station by bus

Sukayu Onsen

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Sukayu Onsen, famous for its giant mixed-gender bath, is located on a 925-meter high plateau on Aomori Prefecture’s Mt. Hakkoda. Every winter, visitors from Japan and abroad come seeking moments of supremely blissful relaxation and reflection at this picturesque hot spring hideaway. The main bath, sen-nin-buro, received its name from its massive size and features an old, large cypress cabin with a timeless atmosphere. If you are looking for a genuine, traditional Japanese public bathing experience, this is the perfect spot!

Access: 70 minutes from JR Aomori Station by bus

Nyuto Onsen

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Akita Prefecture’s Nyuto Onsen is one of the most unvisited in Japan due to its remote location. Surrounded by lovely beech forests and an abundance of seasonal scenery, it is blessed with a mineral-rich spring that has been helping to heal the ailments of locals for more than 350 years. There are seven traditional inns that offer outdoor baths with views of unparalleled beauty, especially in the winter when piles of snow blanket the mountains surrounding the isolated area. If you are in the market to experience the true peace and quiet of rural Japan, this is a blue-chip choice!
Access: 45 minutes from JR Tazawako Station by bus

Other Recommended Yukimi Onsen

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Tsuta Onsen: Towada-shi, Aomori
One of the most popular hidden onsens in Japan. Feel the spring water well up from the bottom of the bathtub.

Zao Onsen: Yamagata-shi, Yamagata
Discovered more than 1,900 years ago, the onsen is located in one of the most famous mountain resorts.

Naruko Onsen: Osaki-shi, Miyagi
Naruko Onsen consists of ve areas: Naruko, Higashi Naruko, Kawatabi, Nakayamadaira and Onikobe. With more than 370 hot spring sources available, visitors can fully enjoy the experience of traditional Japanese bathing.

God’s Creation Wonders : 4 Divine Spots in Tohoku

Here are four amazing places that will captivate not only the eyes but most importantly the heart and soul. For the locals, the grandeur of these majestic, centuries-old attractions continues to serve as a reminder of God’s omnipresence.

Hayachine Kagura

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Hayachine Kagura is a traditional folk performance that features a series of 40 masked dances with live music that originated from Mount Hayachine, the highest mountain in the Kitakami Range. Originally a ritual to worship gods 500 years ago, the dance is now performed by locals who take pride in showing their rich cultural heritage.

Hanamaki City Ohasama Exchange Vitalization Center
Hours: 11am-3pm, second Sunday of every month (except Aug, Dec and Jan) Access: 30 minutes from Shin-Hanamaki Station by car
Admission: 800 yen presale, 1,000 yen at the door

Tonohetsuri Cliff

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A popular scenic spot in Fukushima, the gigantic multi- layered rock was shaped by wind erosion over millions of years. Tonoheturi, meaning tower cli in Japanese, got its name because of its tower-like appearance.

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Take in the amazing suspension bridge, be mesmerized by nature’s breathtaking palette of autumn colors and enjoy a moment of peace at one of the temples nearby.

Access: 3-min walk from Tonohetsuri Station on Aizu Railway

Shirakami Sanchi

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A vast wilderness area stretching from Aomori to Akita Prefecture, Shirakami Sanchi has the largest remaining virgin beech forest in East Asia. The main attractions of this UNESCO World Heritage Site are the various hiking trails that lead to extraordinary panoramic views of waterfalls and peaceful solitude.

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Besides hiking, visitors are encouraged to spend the day shing, boating and camping around Juniko, an area to the northwest of Shirakami Sanchi.

Access: 55 minutes from JR Hirosaki Station by bus

Dragon Legends: Lake Tazawa and Lake Towada

Autumn foliage at Lake Towada
Autumn foliage at Lake Towada
Legends always add a touch of mystical, romantic appeal to travel destinations. Lake Tazawa, the deepest lake in Japan, and Lake Towada, the largest crater lake in Honshu, are two excellent examples. According to locals, Lady Tatsuko became a dragon after wishing for eternal beauty at Lake Tazawa.
Lake Tazawa
Lake Tazawa
Meanwhile, a boy named Hachirotaro was magically transformed into a huge dragon after drinking water from mountain streams in Towada.
Lake Towada
Lake Towada

The popularity of these legends sheds valuable light on the historic importance of water to the entire Tohoku region.

Lake Tazawa Access: 15 minutes from JR Tazawako Station by bus
Lake Towada Access: 2hr 15 minutes from JR Hachinohe Station by bus

Freshest of the Fresh: Seafood from the Sanriku Coast

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Sanriku refers to the three northeastern prefectures facing the Pacific Ocean: Aomori, Miyagi and Iwate. The Sanriku Coast is a bountiful fishing ground, supplying huge amounts of fresh, quality fish throughout the country for hundreds of years. In autumn and winter, fish and other sea creatures gorge themselves in preparation for the long cold season, enriching their flavor. As an example, Iwate’s donko hot pot features locally caught white-spotted greenling that release an intense, robust flavor of the sea. Miyagi and Aomori also are known for juicy seafood dishes bursting with remarkable flavor and served with exceptional creativity. Every city located along the coast has a fish market or two, so take a chance to taste the freshest of the local specialties on the spot – or bring home some fantastic seafood as souvenirs!

Make your own “Nokke-don (a rice bowl with toppings)” by adding the freshest seafood at Furukawa Fish Market.
Make your own “Nokke-don (a rice bowl with toppings)” by adding the freshest seafood at Furukawa Fish Market.
Aomori: Tuna butchering demonstration at Oma Town Tuna Festival
Aomori: Tuna butchering demonstration at Oma Town Tuna Festival
 Ippachizushi  Address: 1-10-11 Shinmachi Aomori-shi Aomori  Hours: 11:30am – 10pm (Mon. to Sat.), 11:30am to 9pm (Sun. & Holidays)

Ippachizushi

Address: 1-10-11 Shinmachi Aomori-shi Aomori
Hours: 11:30am – 10pm (Mon. to Sat.), 11:30am to 9pm (Sun. & Holidays)

Looks Great, Tastes Even Better: Kozuyu Soup, Fukushima Prefecture

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Originally developed for the samurai class, kozuyu later spread among the common people and has become a must for festivals, celebrations and momentous occasions in Aizu. In the past, fresh seafood was hard to come by in the landlocked region, so dried scallops and bonito were used to add flavor to the soup, which contains taro potatoes, carrots, shiitake mushrooms and tiny balls of wheat gluten called mamefu.

Salmon Harvest: Delicacies Abound, Niigata Prefecture

Murakami, dubbed “the Salmon City,” has a long history of catching and processing salmon. Over the centuries, the area has accumulated hundreds of homemade recipes that range from fermented, salted and sake-marinated salmon to salmon simmered in miso broth. When preparing fi sh, the locals make sure nothing is wasted: heads, bones and entrails are used either as main ingredients for stock or grilled to the perfect texture. During New Year’s season, many households hang rows of salmon upside down from the ceiling to dry; it’s a truly unique spectacle well worth seeing!

“Hizu Namasu” pickled salmon head with radish and salmon roe
“Hizu Namasu” pickled salmon head with radish and salmon roe
“Shake no Sakebitashi” sake-marinated salmon
“Shake no Sakebitashi” sake-marinated salmon

Heart Warming, Soul Lifting: Imoni and Konnyaku, Yamagata Prefecture

Imoni

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Imo, or tubers in Japanese, are traditionally a staple food in Tohoku. It is dense in nutrients and an ideal source of carbohydrates. The root vegetable is often cooked with meat and served in a thick soup for visitors, family and friends. In autumn, locals often gather near a river and enjoy imoni together, a tradition called imonikai.

Konnyaku

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Konnyaku has been known as a “miracle food” in Japan since about 1,200 years ago. The jelly-like substance is said to have many significant benefits, such as detoxification and beauty enhancement, and is loved by all generations. In Yamagata, people like to have their konnyaku in a round shape and skewered on a bamboo stick. The savory snack is an essential part of festive activities in Yamagata.

Photos provided by Miyagi Prefecture Tourism Division

Scrumptious Winter: Iburigakko & Kiritanpo Hot Pot, Akita Prefecture

Kiritanpo

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Kiritanpo, mashed, steamed rice in the shape of a cylinder, is a specialty that is welded strongly on the identity of Akita Prefecture. In the past, kiritanpo was an easy-to-carry preserved food used primarily by hunters. Today, however, the delicacy is cut into bitesized pieces and served in a hot pot with chicken and a variety of vegetables.

Traditionally, kiritanpo is grilled over an open hearth.

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Iburigakko

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Iburigakko, smoked radish, is one of the most famous pickled vegetables in Tohoku. Smoked with cherry blossom wood then preserved with salt and malted rice, the appetizer gives off a fabulous aroma and goes perfectly with any variety of sake.

Step Back in Time: Kakunodate’s Samurai Residences, Akita Prefecture

Take a relaxing stroll around Kakunodate to immerse yourself in history.

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While many traditional Japanese buildings have been lost due to fire, weather and deterioration from age, the houses along Samurai Street have stood undamaged for over 300 years. Known as the “Little Kyoto of Tohoku,” the town maintains the refined, elegant atmosphere of old Japan.

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Hiburi-Kamakura is a one-of-a-kind traditional event held in February. People swing a bale of burning straw to wish for safety in the coming year.

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Kakunodate
Hours: 9am – 5pm (Varies depending on the residence)
Access: 20-min walk from JR Kakunodate Station (Akita Shinkansen), or 60-min bus ride (Airport Liner) from Akita Airport.
Admission: Varies depending on the residence

Pictures © Kakunodate Tourist Association

Revisiting Traditional Architectural Wisdom: Thatching

Thatching is the traditional Japanese craft of building a roof with dry vegetation like straw to achieve warmth and sustainability while also saving energy. In Tohoku, there remain many thatched roof houses that resemble a poetic retreat from the modern day. With stunning mountains as backdrops and beautiful creeks gently flowing, this is the ultimate destination for meditation and relaxation.


Tono Furusato Village

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Often used as a shooting location for movies, the nostalgic looking village also doubles as a tourist attraction where visitors can experience traditional Japanese craftwork like bamboo art and pottery making. The outgoing and friendly staff is dedicated to helping everyone get the most out of their visit.

You can sample home-made sake known as Doburoku at a traditional winter festival, Dobekko Festival.

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Instructors at Furusato Village are known as “Maburitto members,” or “protectors” in the Iwate dialect.

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Cultural Experience Activities at Tono Furusato Village
Village Hours: 9am-5pm (Mar. to Oct.), 9am-4pm (Nov. to Feb)
Access: 25 minutes from JR Tono Station by bus
Admission: 540 yen (Adults), 320 yen (Children)

Pictures © Tono Tourism Association Tono Furusato Village


Denshoen Park

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Traditional farming, authentic culture and local wisdom are carefully preserved at these charming thatched roof houses. Here, you can listen to Japanese folklore, try your hand at making Japanese crafts and savor local specialties.

Oshira-sama is a household deity unique to the Tohoku region. Made with 30 cm long mulberry sticks, Oshira-sama statues usually come in pairs, with the male figure representing a horse and the female a human.

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Cultural Experience Activities at Denshoen Park
Hours: 9am-5pm (Last entry at 4:30pm)
Access: 25 minutes from JR Tono Station by bus
Admission: 320 yen (Adults), 220 yen (Children)

Pictures © Tono Tourism Association Denshoen Park

Come on over to Komatsu (5) : 1300 year old Ryokan – Houshi

Being established in the year 718 Houshi was once recognized as the oldest hotel in the world before another ryokan in Yamanashi prefecture beat its founding date by 13 years. Still, Houshi has been operated by the same family for forty-six generations giving it an amazing history.

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The ryokan’s hot spring is said to be founded by a monk. While he was climbing the holy Mount Hakusan he had a dream where the mountain’s deity told him about a spring with restorative powers and ordered him to find it for the people of Awazu.

It has 100 guest rooms and a ‘Hanare’, a private guest residence. There are two indoor and two same-sex-only outdoor hot spring baths. Two family baths can also be privately reserved by guests. There are a total of four buildings belonging to the Ryokan; Shinshun no Yakata (early spring building), Haru no Yakata (spring building), Natsu no Yakata (summer building), and Aki no Yakata (autumn building).

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The entrance to the building is very impressive with a beautiful decorative carpet. When you first arrive, you are welcomed with a cup of matcha and a sweet while looking at the inner garden.

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When you stay at a ryokan, food is served in your room and an attendant is there to help you explain the dishes and later to help you make your bed.

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After eating you can visit the amazing outdoor and indoor baths for a nice long and relaxing soak. The water is beautiful and it is not difficult to believe the legend that it has special curative powers given by a god.

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If you want to be truly luxurious, you can stay in the special VIP room where emperors have stayed before. It is a big complex that is more than just one room. But if that is out of your budget, you can still enjoy the view of the thousand-year old garden.

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Other entertainment at Houshi include a bar, occasional Noh plays and a small museum featuring crafts from the region.

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Access

Awazu Onsen, Komatsu-shi
Ishikawa-ken 92383
Website: http://www.ho-shi.co.jp/jiten/Houshi_E/home.htm

Read Also:
Come on over to Komatsu (1) : The City of Kabuki
Come on over to Komatsu (2) : The Forest of Wisdom
Come on over to Komatsu (3) : Craft Theme Park
Come on over to Komatsu (4) : Natadera, the temple in touch with Nature
Come on over to Komatsu (6) : Rojo Park
Come on over to Komatsu (7) : The 7 wonders of Komatsu

Toshichi Onsen

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Toshichi Onsen is situated in the Towada Hachimantai National Park, which lies between Akita prefecture and Iwate prefecture. Sitting at an altitude of 1,400m, it is the highest hot spring in Tohoku region. It is said that its name came from the name of a logger, Toshichi, who discovered the hot spring. In this area, there are some open-air baths where you can take a bath and feel the fresh mountain air at the same time. Many climbers and skiers visit here every year. Towada Hachimantai Hot spring Resort including Toshichi Hot spring is designated as one of the Public Hot spring Resort in Japan.
Toshichi-Onsen-300x188Toshichi Onsen Saiunso It is a ryokan which stands around the summit of Mt. Hachimantai. Toshichi Onsen Saiunso has some open-air baths from which you can enjoy breathtaking view of both Mt. Iwate and Mt. Hachimantai.  The spring water is milky white and it contains sulfur that is effective in treating neuralgia, digestive disorders, diabetes, hypertension, various skin conditions, poor circulation, etc.

[ Information ]
Address : Kitanomata, Matsuoyoriki, Hachimantai,
Iwate Phone : 090-1495-0950
Hours: 8AM – 6PM
Admission: 600 Yen
Web: http://www.toshichi.com/index.html (Japanese only)

Fly me to the ONSEN

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“To an onsen!”
This was what most WAttention readers said when asked where they’d like to go when they visit Japan. There are more than 2,400 formally registered hot springs all over Japan.
The number will double if you include private onsens or those that are currently being drilled. So you’ll have plenty of choices when it comes to which onsen to visit. You can go to practically any part of Japan to enjoy an onsen.

What is an onsen or a hot spring?

Onsen technically means either a place or phenomenon where hot water springs from the ground. According to “the hot spring law”, onsen water must have temperatures of above 25℃ in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and South Africa, above 20℃ in European countries like Italy and France, and above 21 ℃ in USA. The water must also have at least more than one of 18 compounds, including manganese, ion and radium salt, to qualify it as a hot spring. Often in Japan, the springs have much higher levels of such compounds than required.

Read also: Japanese Bathing For Beginners

Each onsen location offers different water types and qualities – such as carbonate springs, sulfur springs or intense salt springs – but a common characteristic among them is the rich content of minerals in the water that is known to be beneficial for health; it can give you smoother skin, ease stiff shoulders or even aid in slimming. The medicinal value of these hot springs have been recognised since ancient times, and have been known to alleviate symptoms like nerve-related pains, excessive sensitivity to cold, diabetes, ringworm and so on. Traditionally in Japan, many who hope to cure chronic diseases often immerse themselves in therapeutic baths called “tooji”, and stay for longer periods at such spas.

Charming open-air hot springs – “roten-buro”

Can you imagine dipping yourself in an open-air hot spring bath – with the wind rustling past and sunlight bathing you – as you soak in the surrounding scenic beauty? This is a quintessential “roten-buro” experience, whether you’re enjoying the lush greens of summer, the splendid bright colours of autumn, quiet snow scenes in winter or a night bath under a starry sky. Relaxing in a hot spring bath and falling in love with the scenery around you makes for a memorable experience.

Japan is blessed with many hot springs, each with a distinct characteristic. Here are some of the more popular places:

turunoyuTsurunoyu (crane’s hot water), a part of Nyuto hot springs (Akita Prefecture), is situated in a deep mountain and earned its name from an old local folklore as a place where cranes used to go to nurse their wounds. This is a very popular place because visitors love the unspoiled natural beauty of the mountains while relaxing in the milky hot spring with a sulfurous content. Many foreign travellers come here from all over the world.

 

kuroneiwaburoKuroneiwa-buro (Shizuoka Prefecture) is located by the sea and has an open atmosphere. It is a wonderful spot to enjoy the scenery of the vast ocean spread right in front of you while you soak in the hot spring. The scent of the ocean and sound of waves add to the sense of relaxation. It’s a mixed bathing place, but don’t worry! You can wrap a towel around yourself when entering the bath. The hours between 19:00 and 21:00 are allocated exclusively to ladies.

 

shirahoneShirahone (Nagano Prefecture) is a public open-air hot spring at the confluence of two rivers – the Yuzawa and the Yukawa. Surrounded by a forest of broadleaf trees, the autumn scenes are simply breathtaking, creating a heavenly experience when bathing during this season.

 

 

Mixed bathing is a part of time-honoured Japanese culture

You may be astonished and even feel repulsed, but don’t be, because this has been a common custom since the Edo period (1603-1868). Public baths have served as social gathering places, where everyone – including men and women, old and young – enjoyed each other’s company. In those days, hot springs were meant for locals who knew each other very well, and would uninhibitedly scrub each other’s back while enjoying local gossip. Mixed bathing in modern days is the legacy of this custom in agrarian Japan. Many historic hot springs, such as Houshi Onsen (known to be 1,300 years old) and Lamp no Yado Aoni Onsen are meant for mixed bathing.

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Lamp no Yado Aoni Onsen
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Houshi Onsen

One good aspect of mixed bathing is that the whole family or a couple can take a bath together. Nowadays, the tendency to prefer mixed baths is getting popular among young women. Some would say that they felt shy in the beginning, but with their boyfriends nearby, they felt very safe. Others don’t enjoy hot springs when they have to be separated into single-sex sections. “Going to an onsen on a weekend is a special occasion for us. We enjoy bathing in an onsen together.”

Enjoying a dip together with friends in an onsen to chat or to enjoy the view would definitely make for a memorable holiday.

Reserved open-air onsen, gaining popularity

For those of you who find bathing with total strangers totally unacceptable, there is a solution! You can reserve an area in a hot spring – either open-air or indoor – exclusively for you and your loved ones. Many inns and hotels offer rooms with these exclusive onsens.

Here are a few inns and hotels that offer private open-air onsen:

Hellish Hot Pot @ The Lockup

This winter, prison themed restaurant The Lockup offers a new super spicy nabe (hot pot) menu from hell for their fearless guests. Are you brave enough to try its burning hot soup with so much chili it looks like a bloodbath?

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Meticulously decorated like the setting of a horror movie, not only the food, but also the staff are waiting to torture and suffocate you, so be prepared!

 

The Lockup Shibuya Outlet

Address: Utagawa-cho 33-1-B2 Shibuya

Hours: 5pm-1am (5pm – 4am on Fridays, 4pm – 4am on Saturdays and the day before public holidays, 4pm – 4am on Sundays and public holidays)

New Year’s Day celebrations in Japan

After the New Year’s Eve celebrations, it’s the real deal. Japanese people go back to their family home during the holidays and spend time together eating and talking.

Enjoying company and food

You could say that New Year’s in Japan is like Christmas in Western countries. Most important is to get together with your family and enjoy a nice meal together.

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After returning from your first shrine visit people usually read their nengajo, New Year’s cards. If you are with family you get together to share your Osechi, New Year’s lunch box. If you are with friends or on your own you usually share a meal as well. Even if you don’t have a fancy osechi box, almost everyone eats ozoni. This is a soup with mochi and the preparation varies from every region and every family. Try this recipe to make your own ozoni.

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During the first seven days of the new year, there is a “cooking ban”. Traditionally this is to appease the fire god Kohji. This god would get upset if you made fire early in the year and cause natural disasters. Over time this became more of a “rest period” for housewives who worked so hard in preparation for the new year.

Gifts

Besides beautiful nengajo, delicious food and family reunions there are also gifts to be given. If you’re 22 years or younger you’re in luck, you get an otoshidama! This is money in a fancy envelope given by your parents and grandparents. The amount depends on the generosity of your family…and probably also if you’ve been a good kid the past year.

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For adults who no longer receive otoshidama there are fukubukuro. These lucky bags contain secret items worth at least twice the price of what you paid. Every shop makes a limited amount of fukubukuro so people often line up well in advance to get a deal at their favorite shop. If you’re lucky bag hunting, here’s a handy guide. During the fukubukuro period (1st – 2nd of January) you can also find winter sales in many shops. So try your New Year’s luck!

Lake Toya Hot Spring – The Lake View Toya Nonokaze Resort

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Private-use hot springs: Yes
Rooms with private view spa: Yes

With views of Nakajima Island and Mt. Yotei (also known as Hokkaido’s Mt. Fuji) across the serene lake waters, and active volcano Mt. Usu in the south, Lake Toya is perhaps the most scenic spa resort in Hokkaido. Enjoy the balance of tradition and convenience with their wide selection of Japanese-Western style rooms, all of which face the lake, and some of which include a private view spa. Along with the top floor public spas, featuring chloride spring, sulfate spring, sodium bicarbonate saline spring, the private onsens are perfect for catching the evening fireworks shows on the lake between April and November.

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Access:
Take the JR Rapid Airport Train from New Chitose Airport to Minami Chitose, then take the JR Limited Express from Minami Chitose to JR Toya Station. A 15-min. taxi ride from the station.

WEB:
http://en.nonokaze-resort.com/

Noboribetsu Hot Spring – Takinoya

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Private-use hot springs: No
Rooms with open-air baths: Yes

Surrounded by the lush greenery of Shikotsu-Toya National Park in southwestern Hokkaido, Noboribetsu is heralded as one of the world’s most extraordinary hot spring resorts, boasting nine types of water. With four of these—salt/saline spring, iron-rich ferruginous spring, radium spring, and sulphur spring—sourced from the nearby Jigokudani Valley, Takinoya is an ideal hide away for physical healing. The three onsens here come with a variety of beautiful backdrops, including rich forestry and a beautifully manicured Japanese garden. Though lively in the spring and summer, winter also makes for a great quiet escape, under the gentle cover of snowfall.

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Access:
Take the JR Limited Express from New Chitose Airport to JR Noboribetsu Station. A 10-min. taxi ride from the station.

WEB:
http://takinoya.co.jp/ (Japanese)

Kawabaonsen – Yutorian

Experience Japan’s original surroundings at this hot spring lodge just 2 hours from Tokyo

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Kawaba Village in Gunma Prefecture, which is blessed with good quality onsen water, is where the elegant ryokan Yutorian – rich in history and nature – is located. What is unique about this place is not just the fact that the kayabuki building was constructed using kayabuki from all over Japan, and that it comprises “Annex Yuzan” which prides itself for its view from 634 meters above sea level, but the way of getting around via battery-run carts and monorails is also unique. The onsen water here is known to be highly effective in beautifying the skin.

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Spacious suites over 100m2 wide, complete with their own outdoor hot springs.

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A kaiseki dinner at Yutorian featuring local produce in all 11 dishes.

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Address:
Gunma Prefecture
Tonegun, Kawaba Village, Yuhara 451-1

WEB:
http://kawabata-yutorian.jp (Japanese)

Yakushionsen – Hatago

Enjoy a hidden onsen with character at Yakushionsen Hatago

An old country house sprawling over 23,000 sq m and a reconstruction of the village days of old in Japan, Kayabuki no Sato is a popular ryokan just two-and-a-half hours from Tokyo. Set amidst the glory of nature, one can enjoy natural spring water that has been gushing forth for over 200 years here. There are two types of rooms, the “yasuragikan” which comes with a partially open-air cedar bath, and the “seseraginokan” which is a new block along the stream. A kaiseki meal cooked over a “irori”(hearth) using local produce is very popular.

Enjoy a dip in this outdoor onsen with a view of the waterfall right before your eyes.

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All “yasuragikan” rooms come with an open-air bath. Japanese rooms with a hearth-space and another separate room.

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Enjoy the ambience of a hearth and the taste of local produce.

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Address:
Gunma Prefecture
Agatsumagun Higashiagatsumamachi, Motojuku 3330-20

WEB:
http://www.yakushi-hatago.co.jp/en/

Gero Hot Spring – Gero Onsen Yamagataya

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Private-use hot springs: Yes
Rooms with open-air baths: Yes

Named one of Japan’s top three onsens back in the Edo era, this region is still renowned for its ancient hot springs, with footbaths, public spas, and ryokans scattered all across town. The simple thermal spring waters here are known commonly as the “springs for the beautiful”, dating back to the 10th century, and Gero Onsen Yamagataya has been providing numerous ways to enjoy them for 180 years. Rest at the outdoor spa while surrounded by bamboo and maple trees, or listen to the soothing sound of the streaming Hida River from the private onsens. If you come in autumn, you can also catch amateur kabuki performances in town.

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Access:
Take the Limited Express Hida train from Nagoya Station to Gero Station. A shuttle bus is provided at the station.

WEB:
http://yamagata-ya.co.jp/lg_en/

Hakone Yumoto Hot Springs – Mikawaya Ryokan

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Private-use hot springs: Yes
Rooms with open-air baths: Yes

Collectively known as the “Hakone Seventeen Springs”, Hakone has been a favorite holiday onsen resort for nearby Tokyoites in particular since the Meiji era. For a classical Japanese inn that has been drawing artists and celebrities since 1883, Mikawaya Ryokan best maintains the historic atmosphere here while providing modern amenities like western toilets. Get a rare glimpse of its Meiji style bath with umbrella roofing, or gaze at the stars from the recently renovated large public bath. With the low alkaline hypotonic spring waters and simple thermal spring waters, your stress and fatigue will surely be relieved. Or for some onsen fun, head to water amusement park Hakone Kowakien Yunessun just a 3-min. walk away, where you can take a dip in sake, coffee, wine and more!

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Access:
Take the bus from JR Odawara Station towards Motohakone/Hakonemachi, and get off at the Houraien bus stop. A 1-min. walk from the bus stop.

WEB:
http://www.hakone-mikawaya.com/language/09en.htm

Hida Takayama Hot Spring – Hanaougi Bettei Iiyama

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Private-use hot springs: Yes
Rooms with open-air baths: Yes

Just a 50-min bus ride from World Heritage site Shirakawa-go, explore Hida Takayama’s charming townscape at this secluded 17-room ryokan. Hanaougi Bettei Iiyama offers a personal touch, with lovely wooden architecture from local trees, and even assigns a serving lady to take care of you from arrival to departure. And thanks to the spring waters 1,200m underground here, you can soak in the silky sodium bicarbonate saline spring waters in your room’s onsen and the public and private spas. The bi-annual Takayama Festival—considered one of Japan’s most beautiful—makes a trip here in the spring or fall ideal, while the melt-in-your-mouth local Hida beef is delicious all year round.

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Access:
Take the Limited Express Hida train from Nagoya Station to JR Takayama Station, then take the free shuttle bus from the station.

WEB:
http://www.hanaougi.com/english/

Gora Hot Spring – Gora Tensui

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Private-use hot springs: Yes
Rooms with open-air baths: Yes

Take a picturesque ride along the Hakone Tozan Railway to its final stop, Gora, 550m high in Hakone’s mountains. Just a minute walk from the station, this stylish resort welcomes you with a footbath café and bar where you can dip your feet while sipping on a cool drink. Take your pick of eight styles of rooms, as well as two private onsens, including the “Myojin no Yu” microbubble function bath. This frothy spa offers a panoramic view of Mt. Myojogatake, towering at 924m, which lights up with a flaming “大” character and bursting fireworks on Aug. 16 for the Hakone Gora Summer Festival Omojiyaki—an awe-inspiring sight!

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Access:
Take the Hakone Tozan Line from JR Odawara Station to JR Gora Station. A 1-min. walk from the station.

WEB:
http://www.gora-tensui.com (Click on “English” site)

Fun Onsens

Even animals in Japan can’t resist a luxurious dip in an onsen. Have fun watching the onsen monkeys dip in the outdoor onsen till their faces turn redder than usual, or the capybaras monkeying around in their mandarin orange onsen.

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For out of this world onsens, do the Beppu Onsen “hell tour” of various coloured onsens!

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Read our full article on the Beppu Onsen “hell tour” here :
http://www.wattention.com/do-the-hell-tour-at-beppu-onsen/

 

Jigokudani Monkey Park
Nagano Prefecture
http://www.jigokudani-yaenkoen.co.jp/english/html/top_e.htm

Izu Shaboten Park
Shizuoka Prefecture
http://izushaboten.com/

Beppu Hell Tour
Oita Prefecture
http://www.beppu-jigoku.com/

Overnight trip from Tokyo- (2) Nostalgic Nagano

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Located to the northwest of Tokyo, Nagano is easily accessible with Hokuriku Shinkansen and serves not only as an ideal overnight trip from Tokyo, but also a great stopover on the way to Kanazawa. In this article we will bring you to Iiyama, Zenkoji Temple, and Karuizawa and show you what they have on offer. Join us and expect to discover a different Japan!

Suggested itinerary

Day 1: Tokyo Station 7:52 – (Shinkansen) – 9:32 Iiyama Station – (8 minutes on foot) – Iiyama Handicraft Paper Studio – (15 minutes on foot) – Mayumi Takahashi Museum of Doll Art – (10 minutes on foot) – Rokubei for lunch – (7 minutes on foot) – Tanakaya Brewing – (1 minute on foot) – Patisserie Hirano – (15 minutes on foot) – Iiyama Station 16:28 – (Shinkansen) – 16:39 Nagano – Check in at Hotel Metropolitan Nagano – (20 minutes on foot, or take a local train to Gondo and then walk 10 minutes) – Azumaya for dinner – (back to hotel) – Bar APOLLO of Hotel Metropolitan Nagano

Day 2: Nagano Station – (7 minutes by bus) – Zenkoji Temple – (7 minutes by bus) – MIDORI Nagano / Nagano Station 13:05 – (Shinkansen) – 13:36 Karuizawa Station

Option 1 (love nature): Karuizawa Station 14:00 – (bus) 14:23 Shiraito Waterfall 15:30 – (bus) – 15:53 Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza/Karuizawa Station 18:51 – (Shinkansen) – 20:00 Tokyo Station

Option 2 (be sporty): Karuizawa Station 14:15 – (bus) – 14:35 Karuizawa Ice Park 17:02 – (bus) – 17:32 Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza/Karuizawa Station 19:41 – (Shinkansen) – 20:52 Tokyo Station

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Day 1: Iiyama

Tokyo Station 7:52 – (Shinkansen) – 9:32 Iiyama Station

Located to the north of Nagano city, Iiyama is a compact small town reminiscent of rural Japan. Especially suitable for a walking tour.

Iiyama Handicraft Paper Studio

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Iiyama Station – (8 minutes on foot) – Iiyama Handicraft Paper Studio

For over 350 years, craftsmen in Iiyama have been making the durable Uchiyama washi paper. Here you can try your hand at making washi and creating your one-of-a-kind postcard.

Mayumi Takahashi Museum of Doll Art

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Iiyama Handicraft Paper Studio – (15 minutes on foot) – Mayumi Takahashi Museum of Doll Art

Based in Iiyama, Mayumi Takahashi seems to possess an innate ability to capture the essence of countryside life in the good old days. Once you step into the museum, you will be impressed by the dolls’ amusing facial expressions and thoughtfully designed details that recreate the heartwarming scenes occurring in everyday countryside life.

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Though it was the first time I visited the museum, I had a feeling I’ve seen these dolls somewhere sometime in my life. Maybe because they are so real that I had this déjà vu kind of feeling?

RokubeiJapanese traditional cuisine with a local twist

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Mayumi Takahashi Museum of Doll Art – (10 minutes on foot) – Rokubei

If trying local food is important to you when you travel, this is the place to be. Because of the harsh winter in Iiyama, people have been using plant fibers to replace wheat in making the local Tomikura soba, which gives the noodle a unique springy texture. Another local dish you can’t miss is Sasazushi (Sushi on bamboo grass), a local variation of sushi that has its root as portable food for troops of the famous warlord Uesugi Kenshin.

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Tomikura soba and Sasazushi
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Miyuki pork steak rice bowl

Tanakaya Brewing

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Rokubei for lunch – (7 minutes on foot) – Tanakaya Brewing

Delicious Japanese sake made with local ingredients and by local employees. Come and sample the sake of your choice.

Patisserie Hirano

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Tanakaya Brewing – (1 minute on foot) – Patisserie Hirano

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The patisserie offers a wide selection of cakes and pastries at reasonable prices, and is highly popular among local people and tourists. We had coffee with an apple tart, a matcha mousse cake, and a sakura swiss roll cake. After you tried its cakes, you will have no doubt why it’s a neighborhood mainstay.

Hotel Metropolitan Nagano

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Patisserie Hirano – (15 minutes on foot) – Iiyama Station 16:28 – (Shinkansen) – 16:39 Nagano – Check in at Hotel Metropolitan Nagano

After exploring Iiyama, we headed to Nagano, the capital city of Nagano Prefecture. Tonight we stayed at Hotel Metropolitan Nagano, a modern city hotel boasts superb location (directly connected to Nagano Station), comfy guest rooms, and an elegant bar offering creative cocktails and charming night view. Certainly it is an ideal base to explore Nagano.

Azumaya – Treat yourself to a slice of Japanese high life

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Hotel Metropolitan Nagano – (20 minutes on foot, or take a local train to Gondo and then walk 10 minutes) – Azumaya

This was the place we had dinner in Nagano city. Hiding in an unassuming alley near Zenkoji Temple, Azumaya is a fine dining Japanese restaurant whose buildings are renovated from Japanese traditional storehouses with almost 200 years of history. Local delicacies served are as pretty as pieces of art. Recommended for those want to experience Japanese hospitality.

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Bar APOLLO of Hotel Metropolitan Nagano

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The night is long and we are not yet ready to call it a night! Bar APOLLO is located in the top floor of the hotel and offers creative cocktails and great night views. My personal favorite is the APOLLO cocktail mixing apple cidre, apple juice, and peach liquor.

Day 2: Zenkoji Temple and Karuizawa

Zenkoji Temple – Discover the mysteries of National Treasure

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Nagano Station – (7 minutes by bus) – Zenkoji Temple

Zenkoji Temple is an ancient Buddhist temple worshipped by many generations. The Hondo (Main Hall) is designated as National Treasure, and also the third largest wooden structure in Japan.

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The streets leading up to the temple are lined with souvenir shops, stylish cafes and soba restaurants.

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Mystery 1: The Buddha enshrined here is said to be the oldest in Japan and no one has ever been allowed to see it. Thus it is known as the “Secret Buddha”.

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Mystery 2: Go down into the crypt passage and search for the “key to the paradise” in absolute darkness. The key to finding it is to keep faith and just move forward.

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Mystery 3: Find the plaque under the eaves of the Sanmon Gate and take a close look at the first character (善). It is stylized to look like the face of a cow due to an old Japanese saying that goes “following a cow to Zenkoji”.

Mystery 4: Take a look again. Can you find 5 pigeon figures hiding among the strokes of the three characters?

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Free guided tours are available in several foreign languages. Check out the details at http://www.zenkoji.jp/ENGLISH/guide/

Nagano Station & MIDORI Nagano – Everything under one roof

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Zenkoji Temple – (7 minutes by bus) – Nagano Station / MIDORI Nagano

Nagano Station is not only a perfect gateway to exploring Nagano, it is also a shopping haven as well! You can get everything you need from souvenirs to a taste of local gourmet at MIDORI Nagano without stepping out of the station building. Since Nagano is most famous for its honey sweet apple, why not choose something from an array of souvenir snacks made from Nagano’s apple?

Karuizawa

Nagano Station 13:05 – (Shinkansen) – 13:36 Karuizawa Station

Before going back to Tokyo, we made a stop at Karuizawa, and propose you the following two options for a quick of the famous resort. Both options require travelling on bus. While you can follow our itinerary listed here, make sure to check the latest bus schedule (Japanese only) to ensure a smooth trip.

Option 1: Shiraito Waterfall – Artful and graceful

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Karuizawa Station 14:00 – (bus) 14:23 Shiraito Waterfall

Standing 3 meters high and 70 meters wide, the crescent-shaped Shiraito Waterfall is named so because the water off the rock surface looks like hundreds of white threads (shiraito) are flowing down. The waterfall is refreshingly cool in summer and ever flowing in winter because geothermal heat keeps the water temperature at about 11 degree Celsius even in wintertime.

Option 2: Karuizawa Ice Park – Play chess on ice

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Karuizawa Station 14:15 – (bus) – 14:35 Karuizawa Ice Park

Checkmate! No, we are not talking about moving chess pieces on a chessboard but sliding stones on a sheet of ice. This is curling, a unique winter sport in which two teams take turn sliding stones towards a circular target. A great deal of strategy is involved, that’s why curling is often called “chess on ice”. Here at Karuizawa Ice Park, the curling venue for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, basic curling lessons are offered all year round for anyone interested in learning the game. Come and give the unique sport a shot. You will fell like an Olympian! After you have experienced curling, you may try ice skating before the next bus comes.

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Information: 2,380 yen per person for a 60-minute curling lesson. Inquiry and reservation by email: [email protected]

Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza – Indulge in a shopping spree before going back to Tokyo!

NAGANO (4)

If you followed option 1: Shiraito Waterfall 15:30 – (bus) – 15:53 Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza/Karuizawa Station 18:51 – (Shinkansen) – 20:00 Tokyo Station

If you followed option 2: Karuizawa Ice Park 17:02 – (bus) – 17:32 Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza/Karuizawa Station 19:41 – (Shinkansen) – 20:52 Tokyo Station

NAGANO (25)

Located right next to JR Karuizawa Station, Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza is a shopping heaven less than 90 minutes away from Tokyo. Find outlet shops of overseas designer brands and local specialty food and products at this huge shopping mall set among acres of grassland. If you are looking for distinctive souvenirs to bring home, head to the Souvenir Court for a great selection of local delicacies of Nagano. And of course tax-free shopping is available here!

Key takeaways

Boasting the highest life expectancy of all 47 prefectures in Japan, people in Nagano seem to exude friendly warmth as naturally as the sun gives out heat. In this article we have shown you an itinerary covering top tourist attractions and places off the beaten tracks. The rest is up to you to experience!

Previous in the series:

Overnight trip from Tokyo- (1) Countryside Gunma and Snow Country Niigata

Discover the beauty of Northern Tohoku – Part Ⅱ Shirakami Sanchi

Discover the beauty of Northern Tohoku - Part II

Precious heritages of the Shirakami Sanchi

A number of beech forests around the world have lost much of their ecological diversity due to the formation of continental glaciers some two million years ago; however, the beech forests and primeval plant population survive in Japan because continental glaciation did not occur here. Moreover,the Japanese didn’t cut down beech trees for centuries because they served little purpose to them.

After World War II however, Japan’s beech forests were logged gradually. This situation threatened wildlife habitats, so an active conservation movement to preserve the forests was begun. This movement garnered so much attention from the world that in 1993, UNESCO recognised the value of beech forests and declared the 16,971 ha area of Shirakami Sanchi as a World Natural Heritage Site. Today,the precious beech forests of Shirakami Sanchi remain almost entirely undisturbed.

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This is an area of wilderness with no access trails or man-made facilities,and more than half of the heritage site comprises of deep valleys with steep slopes. Numerous kinds of plants grow in this precious beech forest, while various species of animals call this place home, despite the high altitude. Having escaped glaciation, these 8,000 year-old forests are home to 500 plant species that have been identified as those generally seen in alpine and sub-alpine zones, of which 108 have specially protected status.

There are threatened and semi-endemic species present, such as Ranzania japonica, Hylotelephium tsugaruense, and Tipularia japonica.

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Ranzania japonica

The beech forests have played a vital role in the ecosystem for thousands of years. All mammals found in the Tohoku region exist in Shirakami Sanchi, including the black bear and Japanese serow. There are 87 bird species currently identified in the area, including the Golden eagle and Hodgson’s hawk eagle. There is also a particularly rich insect population, with 2,212 recorded species.

Black bear and Japanese serow
Black bear and Japanese serow

Read also : World Heritage (1): Shirakami Sanchi

The outstanding beauty of Juniko

Juniko
Juniko

Juniko, which literally means “twelve lakes,” consists of 33 lakes and ponds scattered across a 780 ha area of beech forests in Shirakami Sanchi. These were created by a big earthquake of about 300 years ago. It is said the name Juniko comes from the fact that the twelve lakes can be seen from the top of a mountain.

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Aoike Pond, part of Lake Juniko, is known for its inky-blue beauty and clarity. The fallen beech trees lurking beneath the surface appear as ever-changing illusions. Oike, the largest of all ponds, is made up of two (eastern and western) ponds and Wakitsubo Pond is designated as one of the best water sources in Aomori Prefecture. Other drawing points here include 0’kuzure and the Nihon Canyon, a breathtaking gorge with steep, rugged rocks that are huge and dynamic.

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Please note that if you prefer touring all 33 ponds,it will take a full day and you would need a car. However, visiting the major ponds and forest area along the hiking trail will take just about an hour.

“Resort Shirakami” train

kumageratrainIf you travel to Tohoku, riding a train on the Gono Line is recommended. The line, stretching 147.2 km, was first opened in 1908 between Noshiro (now Higashi Noshiro) and Noshiro City (now Noshiro) as a branch of Japan National Railways’ Ou mainline. In 1936, the railway line fully opened when the final section between Mutsu Iwasaki and Fukaura was completed. Today, the railway line is known for providing one of the most scenic views in Japan.

Debuting in 1997 at the same time as the Akita Shinkansen, the Resort Shirakami is a train that operates in three configurations, named the Aoike, the Buna and the Kumagera. These limited express trains run from Akita along the Gono Line to Hirosaki, and then turn around before continuing northward along the Ou Line to Aomori. The train trip offers alluring vistas of the Japan Sea and the Shirakami Sanchi highlands, as well as expansive panoramas of the Tsugaru Plain. Specialty bentos (lunch boxes) are popular among passengers and if you are lucky, there will be local events taking place. You can also stopover to enjoy a soak in an onsen.

As the train trip is popular, seats may easily be sold out during some periods of the season, thus making a reservation in advance is recommended.

More information for Resort Shirakami or Gono Line:
https://www.jreast.co.jp/e/joyful/shirakami.html

More attractions around Shirakami Sanchi

There are a lot more attractions to draw tourists along the Gono Line.

Ajigasawa, situated on the west coast of Aomori Prefecture, connects the Sea of Japan in the north and Shirakami Sanchi. There are rich beech forests along the headwaters of Akaishi and Nakamura rivers to provide a freshening breeze. The town has highly-reputed onsen facilities and fried squid is a popular local food there.

Kikusui-breweryNoshiro in Akita Prefecture has a unique background, known as the “the town of basketball,” thanks to the success of the Noshiro Kogyo High School team. You will see a hoop at Noshiro Station. The town is also famous for its pine forest, which is one of the largest in the country. For sake lovers, there is a Kikusui Brewery that uses an old railroad tunnel.

How to get to Aomori

japanmap AomoriTo Shirakami Sanchi
It is a 5-hour train ride from Tokyo via Hachinohe (Tohoku Shinkansen Line) to Hirosaki Station on the JR Tohoku Line, and a 50min. bus ride from Hirosaki Bus Terminal to Tashiro. Alternatively, it’s 3 hr 55min. from Tokyo to Akita by Akita Shinkansen Line, then 50min. from Akita to Higashi-Noshiro station by JR Ou Line, and 33min. from Higashi-Noshiro to Akita Shirakami by JR Gono Line.

To Shirakami Sanchi Visitor Center
A 5min. walk from Nishimeya Murayakubamae bus stop. The Nishimeya Murayakubamae bus stop is approx. 50min. by Konan bus (to Tashiro) from the Hirosaki Bus Terminal near the JR Hirosaki Station.

To Lake Juniko
From the JR Juniko Station on Gono Line,it’s a 15min. ride by Konan bus bound for Juniko. The Juniko Yogyojo bus stop is in front of the Juniko Visitor center.

Special thanks to: APTINET AOMORI Prefectural Government, JR East, and JNTO

Tohoku Secluded Hot Springs: Lamp no Yado Aoni Onsen

Away from modern life

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Quality hot spring are scattered throughout the mountainous Aomori Prefecture, but for the most authentic experience, head over to Lamp no Yado Aoni Onsen. The writer of this article has been to many different hot springs throughout Japan, but calls this the real deal.

That doesn’t mean it has the most gorgeous looking bath or spectacular ryokan attached to it, but actually kind of the opposite…hear me out!

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Located along Aoni Valley deep in the mountains of Aomori, every twist your bus or car makes up to the mountain, is a step away from modern society. It was only the beginning of the winter during my visit, but thick snow had already piled up so much it wasn’t hard to believe that Aomori is the snowiest city on earth.

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While too white to be true during winter, nature brings much more to these mountains than just snow. During autumn, the area is known for its golden foliage, and expect lots of fresh verdure as well as bright hydrangea flowers during the summer. The ryokan itself is surrounded by some sakura trees which are usually in full blossom during May, a bit later than in most other parts of Japan because of the long winters.

The moment you arrive at Lamp no Yado, which translates itself as “Inn of Lamps”, you will realize that you have come to a true mountain retreat completely surrounded by nature.

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Heading inside the ryokan, you make a slip in time to a more traditional Japan, completely untouched by the invasion of convenience stores and hamburgers. Electricity here is scarce and the whole ryokan is lit only by oil lamps, which add an authentic touch to the Japanese style rooms.

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Expect no power sockets in your room, but consider it a small price you pay to experience something truly unique.

The mountain vegetables and freshwater fish make for a divine, healthy meal that will allow one to appreciate the blessings of nature.

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Dinner at Lamp no Yado

The fish are grilled on an irori, a traditional Japanese hearth, which together with the tatami mats, a Japanese wooden table and your yukata (the kimono you wear at the inn), create an atmosphere that is about as Japanese as it gets.

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Lamp no Yado comes with a total of 4 different baths. One of these baths is a rotenburo, or open-door bath. The lukewarm water allows one to stay in for a long time without getting too hot. Ladies should note that this bath is gender free, which was more common in the old days in Japan. Special ladies only hours are available from 11am to 12pm and from 5pm to 6pm.

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Lamp no Yado’s open-door bath

The other 3 inside baths each look at the scenery from a different angle. The scent of the large wooden tubs add a lovely fragrance to the hot water. Ladies can feel at ease as men and women go in separate baths here.

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Lamp no Yado’s indoor bath

According to the owner, the natural hot spring water here is not only good for the body, but also has the power to “make a love that has cooled down hot again”. I believe that it is not only the water, but the unforgettable experience Aoni Onsen Lamp no Yado provides as a whole, that brings the romantic inside one. While its inconvenient location and lack of electricity make it a destination that is certainly not for everyone, if you appreciate a truly secluded hot spring far away from the hustle and bustle of modern society, this is one of the best mountain retreats to forget about the stress and worries that come with modern life. A relaxing soak in the middle of nature together with the precious people in your life next to you here, will be a lifetime memory for sure.

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Taste of Northern Tohoku

The rich land and sea of Tohoku produces great delicacies all year around. Indulge in fresh gifts of nature during the harvest season, as well as great local dishes to warm up to in the crisp winter!

NOODLES
Slurp varieties of unique local noodles

Don’t forget to try unique and delicious local noodles! To eat like the locals, don’t hesitate to slurp loudly!

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Wanko soba
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Morioka rei-men
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Miso-curry-milk ramen

SWEETS
Fresh ingredients turn into mouthwatering sweets

Rich and fresh dairy products and fruits of Northern Tohoku are made into delicious sweets. Try anything with the region’s seasonal specialty – apples!

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Cheese cake from Koiwai Farm
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Sake jelly
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Apple pie

MEAT
The rich land nurtures great local meats

Get ready to be blown away by locally-grown meats of Northern Tohoku! From savory beef to flavorful chicken, the fertile land has the best meats to offer.

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Iwate wagyu-beef
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Sasuke buta-pork
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Hinaijidori oyakodon

SEAFOOD
Rich bounty of the sea turns richer in cold season

Surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan, fresh seafood is abundant in Northern Tohoku. Tuna from Oma in Aomori is regarded one of the best in Japan!

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Scallop
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Nokke-don at Furukawa Market in Aomori

Yokote Kamakura (Snow Huts)

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Yokote Kamakura, Snow Huts in Yokote, Akita Pref.

Playing in snow huts is a popular pastime in winter for children living in the heavy snowfall areas. They make snow huts called “Kamakura ” in which they play games and eat traditional delicacies.

Yokote City in Akita prefecture is known for the Kamakura, and the locals have been celebrating Yokote Kamakura Festival for more than 400 years. The festival is held every February where about 100 snow huts and a number of snow creations are built on Kamakura-dori Street, in front of Yokote City Hall branch office and at Yokote-jo Castle. A wide range of events are held during the festival including Kamakura making and mini-kamakura illuminations.

Access:
(1) The JR Ou Honsen Line to Yokote Sta., and then walk 10 min.
(2) 3 min. by bus from JR Yokote Sta. to Yokote Chiikikyoku-mae Bus Stop.

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kamakura-night

Sapporo Snow Festival

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Sapporo Yuki Matsuri, Snow Festival in Sapporo, Hokkaido

The festival, the biggest in scale of this kind, started in 1950, and has become one of the most popular events in winter for now. Approximately 230 snow creations and ice sculptures are exhibited at three sites, mainly at the Odori Site with enormous snow creations and many attractions, at the Susukino Site with fantastic ice sculptures, and at the Tsu-dome Site with the huge playground where children and adults can play in snow. http://www.snowfes.com/english/index.html

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Access:
(1) The JR Hakodate Honsen Line to Sapporo Sta.
(2) About 50 min. by bus from Shin-Chitose Airport to Sapporo Eki-mae Bus Terminal.

Ski in Japan: Resorts Near Tokyo

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Here are our picks for slopes near Tokyo that will give you a satisfyingly ski-filled day trip and still leave you time to head back to Tokyo in the evening in time to watch the city light up.

Snowtown Yeti (Shizuoka Prefecture)

 

Yeti1English instructor : No
Number of courses : 5
Located on the southern foothills near Mt.Fuji, Snowtown Yeti starts its skiing season from October, perfect for those who can`t wait to ski. This resort is mostly for beginners, and night-skiing is available for those who find the winter daytime too short.

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Address: Fujiwara 2428, Suyama-aza, Susono-shi
Access: Take the Yeti Bus from Gotemba Station to Snowtown Yeti
Web: www.yeti-resort.com/en

Fujiten Snow Resort (Yamanashi Prefecture)

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English instructor : Private lessons only (advanced booking needed)
Number of courses : 7
Fujiten Snow Resort makes for a great ground to learn the basics of skiing, and has child-friendly courses as well. You can also enjoy a day of skiing with Mt.Fuji in the backdrop.

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Address: Fujisan 8545-1, Narusawa-mura, Minamitsuru-gun
Access: Take a taxi from Kawaguchiko Station to Fujiten Snow Resort
Web: www.fujiten.net/pc/en

 

Prince Grand Resort Karuizawa (Nagano Prefecture)

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English instructor : Yes
Number of courses : 10
How about skiing in the chic town of Karuizawa? After skiing, you can shop at an outlet mall or enjoy the hot springs in the area. This is the ultimate integrated winter resort near Tokyo.

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Address: Karuizawa-machi, Kitasaku-gun
Access: A 10-min. walk or 1-min. by taxi from Karuizawa Station. Free shuttle bus is also available.
Web: www.princehotels.com/en/ski/karuizawa/index.html

 

Discover the beauty of Northern Tohoku – Part I Aomori

Discover the beauty of Nothern Tohoku

The best way to travel to the Tohoku region is to take advantage of the Shinkansen (bullet train). It will take just 3 hours and 20 minutes from Tokyo to Shin-Aomori station in Aomori prefecture, which is best known for its marvellous Nebuta Festival, one of the Japan’s most famous and beloved festivals. It also has distinct cultures rooted in local communities, as well as an abundance of seafood and sansai (mountain vegetables). It is also an all-season resort: in spring, beautiful cherry blossoms bloom; in summer, verdant forests and lakes are found; in fall, leaves turn brilliant red or yellow; and in winter, snow blankets towns and mountains ranges.

Majestic nature and Exciting Festival

The northernmost prefecture on Honshu island, Aomori is endowed with abundant nature, including the well-known Mt. Hakkoda, Lake Towada, a large dual crater lake surrounded by beech forest with wild animals, and Oirase Stream, a striking mountain stream with over a dozen waterfalls. Also, the Shirakami-Sanchi (Shirakami Mountains), a World Natural Heritage site, is spread across 130,000 hectares on the border between Aomori and Akita prefectures.

Facing both the Japan Sea and the Pacific Ocean, Aomori is blessed with various seafood which never fails to draw gourmands. Its most popular attraction is the Nebuta Festival, which brings in about 3 million visitors each year. For history enthusiasts, the Sannai-Maruyama Ruins – the largest archeological site of the Jomon Period (about 10,500-300 BC) – is a recommended destination.

sannai-maruyamaSannai-Maruyama Ruins

cooltrekoirase5Oirase Stream

Things to do in Aomori

Enjoy spectacular view of rich nature

Aomori has a number of tourist spots, including outstanding natural sites such as Mt. Hakkoda and Lake Towada. Roads for buses and cars, as well as climbing routes and paths have been improved in recent years. Mountain cable cars are built so that children and the elderly can explore them too. However, note that it is a heavy snowfall area and you need to wear suitable winter clothing.

hakkodaMt. Hakkoda

Experience the tradition through festivals

Nebuta Festivals are celebrated in several northern regions, mainly in Aomori prefecture. The Aomori Nebuta Festival, which is celebrated annually from August 2-7, is the most recognised. Over 20 gigantic three-dimensional Nebuta (papier-mache dolls) depict ancient warriors, legendary creatures or Kabuki characters that illuminate the night with bright colours. Today, the Nebuta floats are made of a wood base,carefully covered with Japanese paper and lit from the inside with hundreds of light bulbs. Quite a few spirited dancers (called “haneto”) in native Nebuta costumes, surround the floats and dance to the tune of flutes and beating of drums.

For those who missed the Aomori Nebuta Festival, there is an exhibition hall, Neputa No Yakata, that displays three floats all year around in Goshogawara city. Situated 25km west of Aomori city, Goshogawara is another site of the Nebuta Festival – this one is called “Neputa.” It is said that the name came from the local direct “neputai,” which literally means “sleepy,” and the festival itself is a “sleepless festival” that prays for safety and a good harvest.
The 3 displayed Neputa, at 22m high and weighing of 16 tons, will be moved for 1.5km around the city from August 4-8. There is also a studio where visitors can see the work in progress and have a hands-on experience. Visit the official website (in Japanese) at www.tachineputa.jp.

In Hirosaki city, a central part of Tsugaru district, crowd-pleasing events include the Hirosaki Neputa Festival (characterised by 60 small and large fan-shaped floats) and Hirosaki Cherry Blossom Festival. Throughout the year, there are several flower festivals held in different cities throughout Aomori.

nebutaAomori Nebuta Festival
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Where is the most famous Onsen in Aomori?

There are a number of onsen (hot springs) with good reputation and high spring quality in Aomori. Koganesaki Furofushi Onsen is one of the most popular and is often featured in magazines and TV programs. Its name “furofushi” means “immortality” in Japanese. Bathers can see the wild waves of the Japan Sea while soaking in their outdoor spa, with a view of the distant horizon and a splendid sunset. For more information about the onsen, please visit www.furofushi.com.

hot-springKoganesaki Furofushi hot spring

Taste the season’s best

Enjoying local delicacies is a must during your journey. Aomori is known for its abundance and high quality seafood. Ohma tuna, one of the best grade tunas, is caught at Ohma Port facing the Tsugaru Strait that connects the Japan Sea with the Pacific Ocean. These tunas feed on fresh Pacific sauries, sardines and squids, and are sold almost exclusively to high-end sushi restaurants. Other seafood like squids and scallops caught in adjacent sea are also tasty.

Aomori Prefecture is Japan’s largest apple producer – there are approximately 60 kinds of apple varieties, thanks to its significant difference in temperature and improved cultivation methods,which are shipped seasonally. You can try apple picking in several farms, but there is a charge.

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How to get to Aomori

From Tokyo to Aomori
From JR Tokyo station, take the Tohoku Shinkansen (Northern Shinkansen) “Hayate” to Shin Aomori station. Hayate is the fastest train category on the Tohoku Shinkansen and it takes 3 hours 20 minutes to there.

Join the Kase-dori Festival and bring in a prosperous year

If you happen to visit Yamagata prefecture during February, don’t miss the Kase-dori Festival held in Kaminoyama City.

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Participants wearing straw coats dancing around the neighborhood.

Yamagata, one of the northern prefectures of Japan, is known for its snow laden climate and great ski resorts such as the Zao Onsen Ski Resort. The average temperature during February hovers somewhere around zero degrees (32℉), so I think you would agree that going outside without a decent coat or warm clothes is probably a bad idea, right?

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Half-naked young men waiting to become Kase-dori.

Well, the people who are participating in the Kase-dori Festival would beg to differ. Because, the main participants of this 350-year-old festival are wearing nothing but a simple straw coat called a Kendai and a loincloth underneath.

They are dressed as Kase-dori, a bird-looking creature that carries the spirit of God. The bird symbolizes a few different things: fire prevention, good harvest, and good fortune.

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The festival begins at Kaminoyama Castle where a group of Kase-dori dance around a bonfire. Then, they start making their ways into the neighborhood. Spectators bring a bucket of water and sprinkle (or dump) it on the Kase-dori to pray for fire prevention and a prosperous year. The outside temperature is slightly above freezing, getting a shower of ice cold water would be, well, excruciatingly cold I imagine…

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Spectators drenching the Kase-dori with water.

And don’t forget, if you see a strand of straw falling off from a Kendai, tie it in your hair (if you have a dark hair) or give it to a nearby girl who has a dark hair. Because the legend says that those who tie the straw from the Kase-dori in their hair will have a lifetime of lush and radiant hair.

At the castle and throughout Kaminoyama City, there are numerous stalls selling regional food and Kase-dori related goods. The locals, both kids and adults participate in the festival.

Dancing with the Kase-dori, trying out the local flavors, or dumping a bucket of water on a mythical creature, taking part in a regional festival like this one, is a great way to experience the local culture.

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Kids help out as well, selling Kase-dori charms and goods.

[ Information ]

Address: Motojonai 3-7, Kaminoyama, Yamagata
Access: A 12-min walk from Kaminoyama Onsen Station (JR Yamagata Shinkansen)
Date: February 11, 2017
Hour: 10am to 3:30pm

Abashiri Ice Breaker Cruise

Abashiri is a major tourist destination in winter. Its shores by the Okhotsk sea are the southernmost point where the ocean freezes.

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icebreaker cruiseOne of the most popular attraction is the Drift Ice Sightseeing Icebreaking Ship Aurora that takes passengers out amid the outstanding whiteness of the ice. Departing from Abashiri Port, a highlight of the trip is when blocks of ice strike the bottom of the boat and cause its entire body to shake as the Aurora ship proceeds at a constant speed of 3 knots. But don’t worry! The boat is very safe and sturdy, and the sailing is overall very smooth.

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Be astounded by the sight of drift ice stretching across the ocean horizon and see the ice shift and churn while being greeted by sea birds and seals. Recommended for all nature and scenery lovers.

Seagull resting on the ice
Seagull resting on the ice
Seagull (Umineko)
Seagull (Umineko)
Black-tailed gull (Kamome)
Black-tailed gull (Kamome)

The 491-ton, 3,000-horsepower ship usually operates from late January to March. Hope for fine weather as the ships do not sail when the weather is bad.

[ Information ]
Address: Minami 3, Higashi 4-5-1, Abashiri city, Hokkaido
Fare: 3,300yen (Booking required)
Phone: 0152-43-6000
Web: ms-aurora.com/abashiri/en/

 

A Taste Of Sh旬n: Anglerfish Hotpot

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Say Ahh..nkou!

The ankou, or anglerfish, is one of those grotesque deep sea creatures (not unlike the hoya) that one wouldn’t fathom putting in one’s mouth. But the ankou is a winter delicacy that many Japanese look forward to eating, usually in the form of a hotpot. It is popular with the ladies for its reputed high collagen content in its gelatinous skin.

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The springy flesh of the anglerfish – similar to that of the fugu, or puffer fish – makes it suitable to be boiled in a hotpot. The ankou nabe (anglerfish hotpot) is usually flavored with a miso-based soup with the ankou liver mixed in with a splash of sake.

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The ankou liver – or ankimo – is known as the “foie gras of the ocean” for its rich taste and smooth texture.
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In fact, all parts of the ankou can be eaten, from head to tail. Due to the slimy nature of the skin, it is sliced and gutted while hung. This is a much anticipated spectacle, like that of a tuna cutting show.

There is a saying that “Fugu in the West, Anglerfish in the East”. Ooarai in Ibaraki Prefecture is famous for its catchment of anglerfish, and there’s even an Anglerfish Hotpot Festival every November. So don’t forget to try the ankou while it’s in season from December to February!

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

 

Furano Ski Area

Blessed with the lightest and driest snow in Hokkaido, as well as great view of the Daisetsuzan Mountains, the Furano Ski Area attracts all levels of skiers in winter.
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Situated in the center of Hokkaido, this area benefits from Siberian storm systems that pass over the Sea of Japan and dump powdery snow. Even though Furano gets relatively fewer snow than other ski areas in Hokkaido, it gets more days with fine weather and it still gets knee-deep and the occasional neck-deep snow in some areas.
The Furano Ski area even hosted the International Ski Federation Downhill World Cup 10 times. While Japanese top skiers choose this area as training base due to the great conditions, about 80% of areas are rated beginner or intermediate.


The resorts and ski schools there are also quite accommodating for families, providing child care and ski lessons for children in English. Furano is made up with two zones, the Kitanomine zone and the Furano zone with various accommodation options. Aside from skiing and snowboarding, you can also try snowmobiling and backcountry skiing.

Read also: Top 3 Hokkaido Resorts


[ Information ]
By train:
From Chitose airport or Sapporo, Furano can be accessed by JR train via Takikawa Station which takes approximately 2 hours. JR runs a “Lavender Express” from Sapporo Station to Furano Station too. Take taxi from Furano Station to the ski area which will take 5-10 min.

By bus:
Take Chuo express Bus from a bus terminal in the basement of Sapporo Station to Downtown Furano. Buses run hourly from 8AM to 7PM. (3 hrs., 2,260 yen one way). There are direct buses from the New Chitose Airport to the Furano resort (3 hrs., booking required), too.

Open: from Nov. 26, 2016 to May 7, 2016 (Dates are subjects to change)
Lift ticket: Adult 4,000 yen (From Nov. 28 to Dec.11 and Mar. 22 to May 5), Adult 5,200 yen (From Dec.12 to Mar. 21), Senior 3,500 yen (From Nov. 28 to Dec.11 and Mar. 22 to May 5), Senior 4,700 yen (From Dec.12 to Mar. 21)

[ Address ]
18-6 Kitanominecho, Furano-shi, Hokkaido

7 Great Winter Activities in Northern Tohoku

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1. Get sporty

Winter in Northern Tohoku is a paradise for those who enjoy winter sports. Majestic mountain ranges carpeted in fresh powder snow provide a number of great ski hills all over the region. Most ski hills, provide rental equipment and lessons, so it’s a great place to pick up skiing as well.

Read also:
Top 4 Central Japan Resorts

2. Get festive

Despite being famous for their grand summer festivals, Tohoku has a list of amazing winter festivals as well. Yokote is known for its Kamakura Festival where people can eat and drink inside snow domes, while artistic snow sculptures at snow festivals in Towadako and Iwate attract huge crowds every year.

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Yokote Kamakura Festival
Access: Yokote is 1 hour on JR Ou-honsen line from JR Akita station

3. Walk in Nature

The beech forest of Shirakami has a special beauty in winter. Go snowshoeing with a great guide and enjoy nature to the fullest. If you are up for something more authentic, try a “jifubuki” (ground snow storm) session and discover the harshness of Northern Tohoku winter first-hand.

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Trekking in Shirakami
Access: 1 hour bus ride from JR Hirosaki station

4. Indulge in Great Winter Food

Winter, like any other season, is full of seasonal delicacies. ­There are a number of local hotpots that let you enjoy a variety of local products in one pot. Another way to stay warm in the cold winter is by drinking atsukan (warm sake). Match locally-brewed sake with native dishes as they tend to create a wonderful harmony with each other.


Dinner at Lamp no Yado
Read also: Tohoku Secluded Hot Springs: Lamp no Yado Aoni Onsen

5. Warm up in Hot Springs

“Yukimi buro”, literally meaning “snow viewing bath”, is what the Japanese indulge in during winter, as soaking in hot springs at an outdoor bath is one of the best ways to enjoy the tranquil beauty of snow. Fortunately, since scenic hot springs are scattered all around Northern Tohoku, you can enjoy “yukimi buro” in various regions during the snow-covered winter.

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Tsurunoyu at Nyuto Hot Springs
Access: Approx. 1 hour bus ride from JR Tazawako station

6. Submerge in Local Music

The Tsugaru region of Aomori is known for its Tsugaru jamisen, a 3-string instrument widely performed around the region. Its lively and rhythmic music is unlike other Japanese folk music, and sounds more like rock. You can enjoy a performance at various places in Aomori, including restaurants and bars.


Enjoy 30-min. performances at the ASPAM tourist center, offered twice daily
Access: An 8-min. walk from JR Aomori Station.
Read also: Training Through Tohoku (1): The Must Do List

7. Witness the Vast Nature

The northern tip of Honshu is lined with amazingly scenic landscapes along the coast of the Sea of Japan. To fully enjoy the view, hop onboard the Resort Shirakami, a special train where you can enjoy astounding scenery at every turn. You can also enjoy a shamisen performance and local folk songs as you enjoy the harsh yet breathtaking beauty of nature from within the warm train.

Resort Shirakami
Access: From JR Akita or JR Aomori station
Website: JR East Joyful Shirakami

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Tsugaru Shamisen performance

In Harmony with the Seasons: Zoni

text & coordination/ Rieko Ido, photo/ Hajime Watanabe, decoration/ Junko Kibe

The pictured zoni dish is a soup of chicken dashi stock with simmered root vegetables,
to which roasted mochi and fragrant mitsuba (cryptotaenia japonica) has been added.

Zoni is the name of a soup containing mochi that is traditionally eaten in Japanese households on the first day of the New Year. Depending on the region, the ingredients can vary, and the soup may be a clear soup, soy sauce-based, or made with miso or white miso. But whatever the style, zoni is a combination of a soup containing several vegetables.

Preparations for a New Year’s feast traditionally begin on December 31. Considering that the first day of the month had been called tsukitachi (rising

of the moon), a dark, moonless night was important for resetting everything, and eating zoni on the morning after that also meant that the body was being prepared to accept new things.

Burying yourself in the diversity of a full year—despite being surrounded by an array of happenings, the people of ancient times must have focused their wisdom and consideration for their health into these tiny servings of zoni, praying that they could continue to live on.

 Eating mochi, where the god of the New Year had been believed to dwell, first thing in the New Year, is an act that represents receiving their energy. For the Japanese, this god had no been doubt a manifestation of their ancestors.


Rieko Ido
A graduate of Kokugakuin University, researcher of ancient Japanese customs and knowledge, conducting technical analysis on findings to apply them to modern lifestyles. Currently teaches at Tama Art University.

Kakizome: The First Writing Of A Year

Happy New Year!

Out with the old and in with the new. The beginning of the year is a perfect time to decide what we want to accomplish for that year.

So what is your New Year’s resolution?

Spend more time with your family? Learn a foreign language? Travel more? Advance in your career? Run a marathon?

Whatever it may be, there is proven evidence that if you write down your resolution on a piece of paper you’re more likely to achieve that goal. I guess Japanese people have known this phenomena for a long time, since they have a special custom of writing their New Year’s resolution with a calligraphy brush on the 2nd of January. This tradition is known as Kakizome: the first writing of a year.

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In the distant past, Kakizome used to be practiced only among imperial household members. But thanks to temple schools and literary education, this tradition became popular among common people during the Edo period. Nowadays, Kakizome is a favored New Year activity among the young and old alike.

There is a phrase often used in the world of Japanese calligraphy: Sho Ha Hito Nari (calligraphy reveals personality). This notion is quite common among Japanese people and contributes to a strong emphasis on having beautiful handwriting.

Calligraphy is a mandatory subject in elementary school, where Japanese kids learn not only how to write letters beautifully but also the correct writing posture and ways to hold and maintain brushes properly. Quite often, teachers assign kids to do Kakizome over the New Year holiday.

The practice of calligraphy is not in vain since there are many opportunities to show your handwriting skills. For example, many Japanese companies still require handwritten resumes from job applicants. Beautiful handwritten resumes almost always give a good impression.

Here are some popular auspicious words you can try!

希望:Hope

平和:Peace

旅:Journey

夢:Dream

喜:Happiness

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Kakizome was, and still is, a special ritual where people clear their mind and focus on expressing their determination using beautiful lettering. To prepare for Kakizome, one has to get a fresh water, pour it into a square basin, grind charcoal gently until its fresh scent wafts into the air. Once everything is set, he or she dips the tip of the calligraphy brush into a pool of fresh ink then makes a steady stroke. Every line, dot, stroke and stop is consciously made.

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Caption: Don’t own a calligraphy brush? Not to worry! There are a handful of affordable calligraphy pens available at any stationary store in Japan.

 

When you are done with Kakizome, hang it on the wall. The bold strokes on a piece of pristine white paper might give you the determination and will to accomplish your New Year’s resolution. Or perhaps it’s just a beautiful piece of art to look at.

 

A New Year marks a new beginning. I hope it brings you lots of joy and success.

 

 

 

In Harmony with the Seasons: Toshikoshi Soba

text & coordination / Rieko Ido, photo / Hajime Watanabe
text & coordination / Rieko Ido, photo / Hajime Watanabe
The tradition of eating soba on the last day of the year – Dec 31, also called omisoka – has been around in Japan since the mid-18th century, or the mid-Edo era. This came to be known as toshikoshi soba, or year-crossing soba. Eating soba right before the new year is meant to symbolize cutting off or puting an end to all bad events that happened within the year, hence the choice of soba, as it can be easily cut by chopsticks. On the other hand, the fact that it is long and thin is meant to symbolize longevity and a sustained prosperity for the family.
 In addition, the soba plant also embodies resilience and sturdiness as it survives even in cold climates and recovers quickly from damage by wind and rain with just a little sunlight, plus, it is known to be good for cleansing the blood and lowering blood pressure, hence it is said that eating soba helps to clean the body from the inside to welcome the new year.
There is another interesting saying that goldsmiths in the Edo era would, on the last day of the year, use a ball made from
soba flour to gather all the gold dust that had gathered within the year off the tatami mat, and this association between soba and wealth accumulation made toshikoshi soba popular.


Rieko Ido
A graduate of Kokugakuin University, researcher of ancient Japanese customs and knowledge, conducting technical analysis on findings to apply them to modern lifestyles. Currently teaches at Tama Art University.

A Taste of Sh旬n: Christmas, A Time For…Fried Chicken?

For most part of the world that celebrates Christmas, a roast turkey is the main star of the Christmas meal. But in Japan, Christmas means a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

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There are various theories as to how this tradition came about – either from a very successful marketing campaign by KFC years back, an innate Japanese preference for all things smaller and more compact (stemming from a perception that bigger objects tend to taste bland with a less refined taste), or even perhaps the uncanny resemblance between Colonel Sanders and Santa Claus…

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Ho,ho,ho…goes Colonel Sanders, laughing all the way to the bank.

Orders are taken for the KFC bucket around two weeks before Christmas. And, in a bid to get a piece of the Christmas pie, convenience stores and supermarkets have also started frying up chickens in zest.

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If you don’t want to queue at KFC, just head to the combini.
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7-11 (left) and Circle K Sunkus amost those joining the fowl play.

So, if you haven’t already placed your KFC orders and don’t fancy a long wait for fast food, you know where to go for your Christmas Fried Chicken. Or, you could just go cold turkey.

Here’s wishing all our readers a Merry Christmas!

 

BQpedia: Oden

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BQpedia: Your guide to the underbelly of Japanese cuisine

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

Today’s BQ menu: Oden / oʊ·ˈden

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

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

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

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What’s inside:

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

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

ICHIRAN New Branch Opened in Asakusa

The best ramen with the best company

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Fukuoka based ramen shop ICHIRAN, a favorite of many tonkotsu (pork bone broth) lovers will open its 13th Tokyo branch in Asakusa on December 10, 2015. It will be the first branch in Tokyo with the “ICHIRAN Yatai” concept, which resembles the spirit of ramen food stalls common in Fukuoka. Different from ICHIRAN’s separated seats that make sure you are not distracted and can concentrate on the noodles, “ICHIRAN Yatai” is a cozy open space were you can enjoy the ramen and other dishes together with your friends!

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ICHIRAN focuses purely on tonkotsu ramen, striving to bring you the best bowl in the genre. Topped with its iconic red-pepper sauce, the classic tonkotsu ramen here can be customized according to  your preferences. The order sheet (which is available in English, Chinese and Korean) allows you to choose the strength and richness of the flavor, the amount of garlic, spiciness of the red-pepper sauce, firmness of the noodles and more.

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This classic bowl of tonkotsu ramen is one of WAttention’s favorites, and it feels great to finally be able to enjoy it with company!

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Together with Tokyo’s first ICHIRAN Yatai, Premium Sliced Pork – Kamadare Style – also makes its Tokyo debut. Topped with nori, these juicy pork slices go great with rice during lunchtime or as a snack together with your beer after a hard day of sightseeing.

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For dessert, how about a green tea flavored annin tofu, or matcha annin tofu? Although annin tofu is a common dessert in Japan, green tea flavor is a rare find!

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ICHIRAN Asakusa

Price range:1,000 – 2,000 yen

Location: Asakusa 1-1-16 B1F Tatio

Access: 1-min from Asakusa Station (Ginza Line, Toei Asakusa Line, Tobu Skytree Line)

Ski in Japan: Top 5 Central Japan Resorts

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

APPI Snow Resort (Iwate Prefecture)

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

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

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

Manza Onsen Ski Resort (Gunma Prefecture)

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English Instructors: Advanced booking recommended
Number of courses: 9

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

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

Gala Yuzawa Snow Resort (Niigata Prefecture)

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English Instructors: Yes
Number of courses: 17

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

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

Zao Hot Springs Ski Resort (Yamagata Prefecture)

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

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

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

Shizukuishi Ski Resort (Iwate Prefecture)

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English Instructors: Advanced booking recommended
Number of courses: 13

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

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

Niseko Ski Resorts

Being called as the “St. Moritz of the Orient”, Niseko has about 100 years of history as a ski town. The perfect powder snow and its long ski season which lasts until early May have lured skiers every winter. From late 1960s, commercial ski areas such as Niseko Moiwa, Niseko Annupuri and Niseko Higashiyama were opened one after another. The resort is internationally renowned while the number of Australian tourists has been increasing these years. For people who want to try all the slopes, Niseko all mountain pass is recommended.

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Niseko Mt. Resort Grand Hirafu
Niseko Mt. Resort Grand Hirafu is the biggest ski resort in Niseko and stretches from Niseko Annupuri’s summit (elevation 1,308.5 m) to its base. Foreign skiers are increasing especially in this area. English speaking instructors provide ski and snowboard lessons to all level of skiers.
Address: 85 Niseko, Niseko-cho, Abuta-gun
Phone: 0136-58-2021
Web: www.grand-hirafu.jp/winter/en/

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Niseko Village Ski Resort
Niseko Village Ski Resort is a world-class ski area which combines adventure and nature with superb facilities and amenities with English speaking staff available. It has a long 5,000-meter slope, and is rather suitable for intermediate or advanced skiers.
Address: Higashiyama Onsen, Niseko Cho, Abuta Gun
Phone: 0136-44-2211
Web: www.niseko-village.com/english/winter/

Niseko Annupuri International Ski Area
Located in the quasi-national park land, the Niseko Annupuri International Ski Area is family-oriented and attracts skiing beginners. Experienced skier can also enjoy its runs including a 565 meter champion course and 250 meter challenge course.
Address: Higashiyama Onsen, Niseko Cho, Abuta Gun
Phone: 0136-44-2211
Web: http://annupuri.info/winter/english/
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[ Transportation]
By train: Take Ishikari Liner from Sapporo to Otaru, transfer to Niseko. (90min. 2,100 yen). From Dec. to Feb., “Niseko Express” goes between Sapporo and Niseko (Reservation required).

Take taxi or bus from Niseko station to all ski areas for 15 min. By bus: Take ski bus (Chuo or Dounan) to Niseko ski area from Sapporo station. (3 hr. – 3hr. 45min. 2,300 yen. Reservation required)

By car: 2 hr. drive from Sapporo to Niseko (via Route 230).

[ Address ]

204 Yamada, Kutchan-chō, Abuta-gun, Hokkaidō 044-0081

Do the “Hell Tour” at Beppu Onsen

Beppu in Oita Prefecture is probably the most famous onsen resort in Japan, producing the most hot spring water than any other area. The type of hot spring water varies on the location of the onsen, such as whether it is near the sea or the mountain.

Other than soaking in a hot spring, a popular activity is to do the Jigoku Meguri, or Hell Tour. There are a total of 8 Hell Hot Springs in an array of colors, but there probably isn’t a need to visit all of them unless you prefer to watch animals in hot springs than dip in one yourself. Here is a selection of six of them.

LAKE OF BLOOD 

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The high temperature of the hot spring water here (about 78 degrees) and the resulting volume of iron oxide and magnesium oxide in the water gives it its blood red colour.

SEA OF HELL

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Formed from a volcanic explosion around 1,200 years ago, this hot spring is nearly 98 degrees Celsius and the high content of radium iron sulphate gives the water its turquoise color.

SHAVEN MONK’S HEAD HELL 

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The bubbles forming in this hot spring of grey mud are said to look like the shaven head of  a monk. As the water temperature here hits around 99 degrees Celsius, dipping in this onsen is not advised, however, a foot bath facility is available on premise. There’s also a public bath next door with various pools to dip in.

WHITE POND HELL 

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This steaming milky white hot spring lake is surrounded by a Japanese garden and has an aquarium with rare tropical fish such as the man-eating piranha.

TORNADO HELL 

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This geyser erupts every 30-40 minutes for up to 10 minutes at a time, reaching around 50m in height.

MONSTER MOUNTAIN HELL 

 

 

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Over 80 crocodiles and alligators inhabit this hot spring which was the first hot spring facility to rear crocodiles over 90 years ago.

 

 

 

Ski in Japan: Top 3 Hokkaido Resorts

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

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Top 3 Hokkaido Resorts

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

Niseko United

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

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

Hoshino Resort Tomamu

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

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

Furano Ski Resort

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

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

 

A Taste of Sh旬n: Feeling Crabby?

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Clockwise from left: hairy crab, taraba crab and the snow crab

Crab season is officially here, with the start of the snow crab fishing season beginning off the Sea of Japan last week. The snow crab, or zuwaigani, is a much-loved winter delicacy by the Japanese. Other popular types of crabs include the hairy crab and taraba crab. The season lasts till around March next year.

AS SASHIMI

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Snow crab sashimi (left) and taraba crab sashimi (right)

As with all things fresh in Japan, snow crab is best savored raw with soy sauce or ponzu (a citrus-based sauce). However, as crab has to be handled very carefully in order to be served raw, this is not always available at restaurants.

BOILED IN A HOTPOT

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Another popular way is to boil the crabs in a hotpot, either on its own or as part of a mixed hotpot, which will lend a sweetness to the resulting broth.

GRILLED

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For many, the aroma of grilled crab wafting in the air is irresistible. As the crab meat is already flavorsome, no additional sauce or seasoning is necessary. Just enjoy the natural juices of this tasty crustacean!

SHABU-SHABU

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Another popular way is to briefly blanch the snow crab legs in hot soup in shabu-shabu style.

CRAB MISO 

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While the flesh of the crab is tasty, many a crab fan will tell you that the best part of the crab lies in its “miso”, or a greyish-green mix paste which is a mix of internal organs. It has a creamy texture and flavor perhaps best described as close to that of uni (sea urchin).

 

MISO SAKE 

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To round off the crab feast, pouring hot sake into the crab shell to result in a complex flavorsome brew is a must try! Boiling the sake in the shell crab to extract more of the essence of the crab and miso is highly recommended.

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

 

Hokkaido By Rail and Car: Day 3 – Kamikawa, Sounkyo

Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest island, is also referred to as the “The Big Land in the North” by the locals. Blessed with picturesque nature and bounty from the sea and land, it is a favorite getaway destination for the Japanese and tourists alike. WAttention flew in to Sapporo and did a 5D4N rail and rental car tour through the big land. Follow our trip and train details here!  

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L’EX Okhotsk No.2

Day 3:
7:21 Board the L’EX Okhotsk from Kamikawa Station
9:41 Arrive Kamikawa Station

BEAR PARK AND ICE PAVILION

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Feed the bears and experience minus 21 degrees all in one venue!

Bears roam freely on some mountains in Hokkaido, but you don’t have to head to the deep forests to see one. In fact, you can see 12 huge bears at the Asahikawa Bear Park at the Daisetsu Mori-no-Garden and watch how they try to charm you for cookies (provided by the park). After that, find out why the bears decide to hibernate in the Hokkaido winters by entering the Ice Pavilion, literally the coolest entertainment place in Japan with temperatures going below minus degrees Celsius.
Around 15 minutes by car from the station.

LUNCH @ FRATELLO DI MIKUNI

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Set lunch at Mikuni, a fine dining restaurant by Mikuni Kiyomi

Within walking distance from the Daisetsu Mori-no-Garden, is a fine dining restaurant with a view of the Daisetsuzan Mountain Valley, run by renowned chef, Mikuni Kiyomi, who is also known as the Food Ambassador of Hokkaido.  Enjoy the tastiest food of the season here at prices that won’t break the bank!

KURODAKE ROPEWAY 

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Autumn foliage from the ropeway

Mt. Kurodake is the highest peak in the Daisetsuzan National Park at 1,984m and is easily accessible by ropeway which leads to the 5th Station halfway up to the peak. From there, one can take a chairlift further up to the 7th Station. The view of the carpet of autumn foliage on the dramatic mountain ranges is simply stunning.
Around 30 minutes by car from Fratello Di Mikuni.

GINGA WATERFALL AND RYUSEI WATERFALL

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Two minutes’ drive from the ropeway are two waterfalls around 80m high, with water that comes from melted mountain snow. Ginga (silver river)  is meant to be a “female” waterfall for the way it falls in several strands and Ryusei (meteor) is thought to be a “male” waterfall for its powerful straight stream.

SOUNKYO ONSEN

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What better way to end the day than to soak in an outdoor hot spring, with autumn foliage and the background soundtrack of the gushing river?

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And the onsen experience of course wouldn’t be complete without a kaiseki meal featuring foods of the season such as river fish!

DAY 4 brings us to Furano!

Here’s the rest of the series:
Hokkaido By Rail & Car: Day 1,2 – Sapporo, Lake Toyako
Hokkaido By Rail and Car Day 4: Biei and Furano
Hokkaido By Rail and Car Day 5 : Feasting at Furano

Three Ways To Eat Fugu

Fugu, Safe and Yummy

Being a poisonous fish, Fugu, or pufferfish is one of the most notorious delicacies in Japanese cuisine. Although most of our  readers are probably familiar with it, I assume that most of you have yet to try it out for yourself.

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While between 1 to 6 people die by Fugu poison per year in Japan, calling an evening at a Fugu restaurant “Japanese roulette” would be unfair. More than 90 percent of the Fugu poison incidents do not occur at restaurants, but at home by eating self-caught and self-prepared fugu.
To be allowed to serve Fugu at a restaurant, all the chefs need to have a license, which can only be obtained by 3 years of hard training. Furthermore, the liver, a Fugu’s most poisonous part, is forbidden to be served.
While eating an amateur prepared Fugu can indeed be very dangerous, having Fugu at a restaurant is a lot more safe than for example driving a car, practicing sports or even eating fast food!

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The iconic Fugu of Tsubora, a famous Fugu restaurant in Osaka

While Fugu is widely renowned for being poisonous, what is less known, is how it is eaten.
At a Fugu restaurant, a dinner course that has several dishes with Fugu prepared in different ways is generally ordered. Here are the 3 major ways in which Fugu is often prepared.

1. Fugusashi

Fugusashi, or Fugu as sashimi, is without a doubt the most traditional and most famous way of serving fugu. Due to Fugu’s firm texture, normal sashimi slices would be too hard to chew. This is why fugu is cut in slices so thin that they are transparent, also making it a feast for the eyes. The slices are served on a large plate, often in the shape of a crane.
Fugu as sashimi is dipped in Ponzu (citrus soy sauce) rather than plain soy sauce.

 

2. Fugu  no karaage

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Today, Fugu chunks deep fried in a thin layer of flour are one of the most popular ways to eat Fugu. These crispy delights can be dipped in either Ponzu or salt.

 

3. Fugunabe, or Techiri

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The main dish of a fugu course is usually Fugu nabe, a hot pot dish with a konbu (seaweed) broth soup that includes many vegetables as shiitake, enoki mushroom, Chinese cabbage, spring onions etc. which are simmered together with the fish. Once only the soup is left, the dish can be finished by adding some salt and rice. This is called zousui and is also common in other Japanese hot pot dishes.

Other popular Fugu dishes include Shirako (Fugu’s soft roe), jellied Fugu, Hire-zake (dried fugu fins served in hot sake), and the now forbidden Fugu liver.

Onsen Oasis: Kinugawa Nioson Plaza

An onsen for everyone, with everyone

Kinugawa is a popular onsen retreat in Tochigi Prefecture, located near famous world heritage site Nikko. In the old days, it was a sacred onsen only for monks and Daimyo  (feudal lords) after their prayers in Nikko. Today many spas, ryokans and hotels are located along the leafy valley of Kinugawa.

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Other than onsens, a wide arrange of activities can be enjoyed here. Take a leisurely boat trip downstream or go whitewater rafting along the Kinugawa river. Also be sure to visit the Tobu World Square, a museum park where famous buildings and world heritages have been rebuilt on a 1/25 scale.

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Tokyo Skytree is huge even when its 25 times smaller!

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Located along the Kinugawa river, Nioson Plaza is a great place for families or couples to stay and soak in an onsen for a one or two day trip to combine with Nikko. The traditional tatami rooms here create an authentic atmosphere, and the romantic view of the river from the outdoor baths while soaking in the 100 percent natural onsen water is amazing.

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One of the outside baths is entered with a swimsuit and is gender free. That means that you can enjoy this great onsen experience as a couple or even with the whole family!

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Another outside bath is a real Japanese riverboat filled with onsen water. How about staring at the boats descending the Kinugawa river from your own boat?

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


Kinugawa Onsen Nioson Plaza

Location: Kinugawaonsen Ohara 371-1 Nikko, Tochigi

Access: 10-min by taxi from Kinugawa Onsen Station (Tobu Line)

URL: http://www.niousonplaza.com/ (Japanese)

A Taste of Sh旬n: Ode to Oden!

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O, Oden!

For the past three days, I’ve had oden for lunch. Oden, for the uninitiated, is a staple winter dish in Japan that comprises fishcakes, tofu, radish, konjac, boiled eggs , kelp and anything that can a) soak up the flavor of the  broth, or b) contribute to the flavor of the broth or both.

With the weather getting cooler in Japan past mid-autumn, oden stalls can be seen in combini (convenience shops) throughout Japan.

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You pick whichever morsel you fancy, pour in the soup and pay at the counter, where you’ll be asked if you’d like miso sauce, Japanese mustard or yuzu kosho (yuzu pepper paste) as a condiment.

People from different regions of Japan have different condiments of choice: for example, if you are from Nagoya which has a strong miso-culture you’d definitely choose miso to go with your oden.

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Toyama Oden, where kelp is a topping

 

In Toyama prefecture, where kelp is heavily consumed, shredded kelp is commonly added as a topping.

 

Coming from Singapore, the dish reminded me of something we have back home called Yong Tau Fu, which means stuffed tofu–but various vegetables, not just tofu, are also stuffed with fish paste, and lots of other ingredients including fishcakes are also available for the picking.

 

 

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That said, the sight of floating white marshmallow-like things in the soup did seem rather strange to me–these white fluffy things being the “hanpen”, made basically from whipped fish paste and egg white.

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Shizuoka Prefecture is famous for its “black hanpen”, which is darker because it uses fish like mackerel and sardines rather than cod for the fish paste.

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So, the next time you are in a convenience store or izakaya, don’t forget to give these steamy morsels a try!

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

 

Ramen for Beginners

For a smooth slurping experience

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It has become almost impossible to find someone that has never had ramen before, let alone someone that has never heard of it. Still, without knowledge of the Japanese language, stepping into a ramen shop in Japan can be a little bit intimidating. That said, this is an experience not to be missed, so get familiar on how ramen is served and slurped in Japan with this article before you duck under a noren, or shop curtain.

1. How to order

Most ramen shop menus are very simple, but that doesn’t mean ordering is simple if you don’t know how to. While ordering methods differ depending on the shop, here is some basic knowledge that won’t hurt you on your ramen rendezvous.11992214_949889525069984_530041929_n

Ticket vending machines: At the majority of ramen shops, you purchase a food ticket at a ticket machine (usually located at the entrance) and put this ticket on the counter in front of your seat or on your table. If the ticket machine has no pictures and you can’t read Japanese, find any of the following characters for a portion of ramen → ラーメン らーめん 中華そば
Once you get used to purchasing food tickets in advance, it is easy to forget to pay at ramen shops that have no ticket machines, so be mindful!

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From Konaotoshi to Barikata: At most ramen shops, you can order how you want your noodles cooked. This is especially common in Fukuoka Prefecture, where you will hear customers loudly shout their preferences. If you see people around you do this, how about giving it a try yourself? Just shout any of the following: konaotoshi (almost uncooked), harigane (extremely firm), barikata (very firm), kata (firm), futsu (normal), yawa (soft), bariyawa (very soft).

2. Mastering the art of slurping, or deciding not to.

Depending on your culture, slurping noodles might be unheard of. However, in Japan, slurping your ramen (or other noodles for that matter) are the basics of the basics. Noodles are slurped not with the pure purpose of cooling them down, but also to allow the soup’s flavor to spread throughout one’s mouth. This might sound strange if you are not used to the concept, but note that wine experts are on the side of the Japanese as they prefer to slurp their wine in order to savor its fragrance throughout the mouth. Slurping your noodles can also be seen as a gesture towards the master, showing that you are enjoying your bowl to the max.

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Once you have mastered the way of slurping (and even if you decide to go on without doing so), let’s move on to the next step!

3. Don’t take too much time!

Dining at ease while enjoying a conversation is great, but not advisable when you are having ramen. The noodles loose their firmness and become too soft after a short period of time, so eating them right after they are served is considered best. Also, keep in mind that popular ramen shops often have people waiting in long lines in front of the shop to get their hands on a bowl of ramen, so staying too long after finishing your dish can be impolite.

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4. End with a gesture from your side

Some might say that the customer is king, but showing that you enjoyed your slurp will make your ramen master’s day. If you are sitting at a counter seat, putting your finished ramen bowl back on the counter top is a gesture that is always welcome. Don’t forget to say “Gochisosama”  (thank you for the meal), and give a friendly nod as you leave.

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All About Ramen

Everything You Need To Know To Become A Ramen Expert

Just like how spaghetti is served in different sauces (tomato-based, carbonara and alle vongole come to mind), ramen comes in a wide array of different soups. The flavor of these soups vary from each other just as much as the character of one ramen master varies from another. However, most ramen can be categorized in the following types.

Shoyu (Soy Sauce) : The Classic Ramen

 

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This Shoyu Ramen is served at Nidaime Nyaga Nyaga Tei in Tokyo

Shoyu Ramen is the most basic version of Japanese ramen, and has its roots in Tokyo. A soy sauce based soup similar to that of Japanese noodles as soba and udon was used to familiarize the Japanese with a type of noodle that was still foreign to the nation at the time. Together with soy sauce, a wide array of ingredients such as chicken bones, niboshi (dried sardines) and vegetables are used to bring out an original flavor.

Shio (Salt) : The Delicate Ramen

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This Shio Ramen is served at Mendokoro Honda in Tokyo

For those that want something a bit lighter on the stomach, Shio Ramen is the best choice as the soup is not as thick and fatty as most other ramen. Together with salt, which is used as the basic ingredient for the soup, chicken bones and pork bones are often used in the soup broth, but aren’t boiled as deeply as in other ramen, resulting in a more delicate flavor. Tanmen, a popular type of Shio Ramen, is especially beloved by the ladies as it is topped with a mountain of fresh vegetables.

Miso: The Heartwarming Ramen

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This Miso Ramen is served at Kanazawa Noko Chuka Soba Shinsen in Ishikawa Prefecture

Miso Ramen first came to life when a customer at a small eatery in Sapporo asked the cook to put ramen noodles in his tonjiru (miso soup with pork meat) in the fifties. Today, miso ramen is often mixed with pork bone broth and pork lard to keep you warm during the winter. Corn and butter are often used as topping, which you will not often see in other ramen.

Tonkotsu (Pork Bone Broth) : The Heavyweight Ramen

This Tonkotsu Ramen is served at Kourakuen throughout the country

You could say that Tonkotsu Ramen is what cream sauce is to spaghetti. The deeply boiled pork bones create a thick, creamy soup that is without a doubt the heaviest on the stomach among the basic ramen soups. Although Tonkotsu Ramen – which has its origins in Kyushu – is arguably the most popular sort of ramen today, it was not until the nineties that it became popular throughout the country.

Tsukemen: Another way to serve ramen

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This Tsukemen was prepared by the disciples of Kazuo Yamagishi.

Tsukemen puts the main focus on the noodles rather than the soup by serving them separately to dip in the soup. Tsukemen noodles are usually thicker than that of standard ramen, and are cooled down to create an extra firmness. Tsukemen was invented by Kazuo Yamagishi of Taishoken Ramen in 1955, who passed away in April 2015.

The dashi

The essence of a ramen’s soup lies in its dashi, or soup stock. A number of different ingredients are boiled over a long time so that their flavor is extracted. The choice of ingredients for the soup stock and how long to boil them, are crucial elements that heavily influence the flavor of the soup, and a true ramen master will keep perfecting this art for his entire life.

Regular soup stock ingredients are:

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From left to right: Tonkotsu (pork bone), Torigara (chicken bone), Niboshi (dried sardines), Konbu (dried kelp), Katsuobushi (dried bonito shavings)

The noodles

Ramen noodles differ in texture, thickness and shape.
In Japan, you can specify the firmness of your noodles – hard, regular or soft. 
In general, the Japanese prefer chewy, firm noodles, but in some regions a more soft texture can also be popular. Of course, this is a matter of personal taste, but it cannot be denied that just as in Italy, al dente is how the majority likes their noodles cooked.
And like how the type of pasta changes to match the sauce used, the same goes for the shape of ramen.
For Tonkotsu Ramen, the main focus is the soup, which is why Hosomen, or thin noodles are often used to keep the dish from being too heavy. Futomen, or thick noodles, go better with Tsukemen as the dipping soup finely escorts their chewy texture.
When the soup is light in flavor, straight noodles might not be able to carry the soup to one’s mouth even if the art of slurping is properly executed. But fear not, in a case like this, chijiremen – or curly noodles – will do the job, keeping a hold on the soup due to their curled shape.

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From left to right: Straight Hosomen (thin noodles), Chuboso Chijiremen (curled noodles of medium thickness), Futo Chijiremen (thick curled noodles)

The toppings

The picture is only complete once the chashu (roasted pork), a boiled egg, leek, nori, menma (fermented beansprout) and naruto (fishcake) are topped on the ramen. These toppings also give the dish a more healthy balance (well, at least to some extent). Toppings vary depending on the ramen in question, but these are the most common.

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First row from left to right: Chashu, Menma, Negi Second row from left to right: Ajitama, Nori, Naruto

With this knowledge, we hope you will be able to enjoy ramen to the max the next time you get to slurp one of these yummy bowls. Don’t forget to let us know once you find your favorite ramen!

World Heritage (5): Shirakawa-go & Gokayama

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

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

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Ogimachi village, the largest village in Shirakawago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shinyokohama Raumen Museum: Ramen in Showa fashion

A delightful “timeslurp”

Contrary to its naming, Shinyokohama Raumen Museum is more a theme park than a museum.
But fear not, by theme park I don’t mean crazy, looping roller coasters, pendulum rides, drop towers and what not, as such attractions would not be very good on one’s stomach after slurping a portion of ramen noodles. However, what Shinyokohama Raumen Museum’s atmospheric ramen stalls do have in common with such attractions, are the lines you will have to queue at before you get your hands on your bowl of choice.

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The stairs to the museum’s basement floor serves as a time machine that takes you to a nostalgic Japan of a long-gone era. As you make your way through narrow alleys with replicas of drinking holes, tobacco kiosks and bathhouses of postmodern Showa facade, you might bump into a policeman on an old model bicycle who gives you a friendly nod as he passes by.
The main square is decorated with movie posters of Japanese film’s glory years and the publishing firm on the corner looks so real you wouldn’t be surprised to see literary legends such as a young kimono-clad Yasunari Kawabata or Yukio Mishima walk inside with a manuscript under arm.

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Of course, the main attraction of this food-themed attraction park is the ramen, and Shinyokohama Raumen Museum does not disappoint in this field either. A total of nine famous ramen shops from all over the country and even overseas are gathered here to bring you their version of Japan’s now internationally beloved soul food.

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*Please note that these ramen images are posted for the mere purpose to give you an idea on what to expect and are not the actual products available at the Shinyokohama Raumen Museum.

Although eating all 9 ramen on one day is a nearly impossible task, the available “mini ramen” make slurping more than just one ramen possible even for the ladies. The 9 ramen stalls change from every 3-months to 1 year, so even in the unbelievable case that you manage to eat all 9 bowls, this museum is still worth a second visit!

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The connection between ramen and the museum’s postmodern theme, you ask? Good question! Apparently, the museum is replicating a Japanese urban landscape of 1958, the year in which Abe Momofuku invented instant ramen. Ramen itself, was already in Japan before WWII, but only started its journey to become the Japanese soul food it is today after the war ended and soldiers tried to recreate the Chinese noodles they couldn’t forget about.

Shinyokohama Raumen Museum

Location: Shinyokohama 2-14-21 , Kohoku, Yokohama

Access: A 5-min walk from Shinyokohama Station (Tokdaido Shinkansen, JR Yokohama Line, Yokohama Municipal Subway)

Entrance Fee: 310 yen (13 or older) 100 yen (from 6 to 12)

URL: http://www.raumen.co.jp/english/#manual

 

Japanese Bathing For Beginners

A step-by-step bathing lecture

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

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

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

STEP 1: SHOES OFF

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

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

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

STEP 2 ENTER THE RIGHT DOOR

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

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STEP 3 UNDRESS YOURSELF

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

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STEP 4 CLEAN YOUR BODY FIRST

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

STEP 5 ENTER THE BATH

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

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

2. Diving, swimming or splashing the water.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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Funky facades are Lucky Pierrot’s Trademark

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

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

Squid Burger, as Hakodate is famous for its squid

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

 

 

 

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

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Hakodate Snow Burger:

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As well as curries…

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Pasta…

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

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All featuring the much-loved Chinese Chicken.

 

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

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Soul food for the locals.

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

Onsen Oasis: Yumori no Sato

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spot information

Name: Yumori no Sato

Price range: 1000 yen

Hours: 10 am – 10 pm

Location: Jindaiji Motomachi 2-12-2, Chofu

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

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

Onsen Oasis: Arima Onsen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arima Onsen

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

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

Onsen Oasis: Dogo Onsen

Get spirited away at one of Japan’s oldest hot springs

At Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama City, Ehime Prefecture, you soak in the historic atmosphere just as much as the hot spring itself. While Matsuyama as a whole has become a vibrant, modern city, the Dogo area remains the laid-back hot spring town it has been for over 3,000 years.
It is said to be Japan’s oldest hot spring together with Nanki Shirahama Onsen in Wakayama Prefecture and Arima Onsen in Hyogo Prefecture.

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At Dogo Onsen Honkan

When stepping out of Matsuyama City’s streetcar at Dogo Onsen Station, you make a time slip to the late Meiji Era, with a quaint old Western-influenced station building and a nostalgic locomotive. Here, you can hop on the “Botchan” locomotive named after the novel by Natsume Soseki, who used to frequent the onsen when he was working nearby as a teacher. The foot baths under Japanese parasols at Hojo-en park complete the package for a classic hot spring station.

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Standing in the center of this hot spring town is Dogo Onsen Honkan, which is without a doubt the most imposing public bathhouse I have ever seen. The 1894 wooden architecture, looks gorgeous enough to be mistaken for a small castle.

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Ghibli Studio fans might notice that the building’s facade has a mystic feeling to it similar to that of Aburaya, the bathhouse in “Spirited Away”. This is not a coincidence; Ghibli Studio has acknowledged that Aburaya was roughly modeled on Dogo Onsen Honkan.

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Not only the facades have spirit in common. Much like Aburaya, the inside of Dogo Onsen Honkan is a maze with many different baths and other rooms. The two main baths go by the divine names of “Bath of the gods” and “Bath of the spirits”, but probably the most famous – and at the same time least used – bath has to be the Yushinden, a bath exclusive to the Imperial Family, which can be viewed by guests.

After you’ve had your fill of the bath, wrap yourself up in a yukata and cool-down at the tatami salon with some Japanese tea and dango (a rice-cake sweet), or observe the street view from a private room that novelist Natsume Soseki used to relax in. 

In front of Dogo Onsen Honkan, is a cozy hot spring town where one can walk around in a yukata without standing out from the crowd. Souvenir shops and restaurants fill the nearby shopping arcade, and the Dogo-Biru-Kan serves local brewed beer you won’t easily find in Tokyo, let alone your home country.

dogobeerAnother thing that you might want to note on, is that while the Dogo Onsen Honkan is by far the most popular bathhouse among tourists, locals tend to prefer to soak at the Tsubaki no yu nearby because it is cheaper and less crowded. If the Dogo Onsen Honkan is too full, how about rubbing soap and shoulders with the locals?

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

Spot Information

Name: Dogo Onsen

Location: Dogomachi 1, Matsuyama, Ehime (Dogo Onsen Station)

Access: From JR Matsuyama Station, take the Jonan Line streetcar for Dogo Onsen Station.

Spicy Ramen Walker: Shibuya

WAttention Tokyo’s editor Tor Ching Li went to three popular ramen restaurants and demanded the spiciest they had to offer to gauge how spicy Tokyo’s ramen is to the Singaporean palate.

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Moukotanmen Nakamoto 蒙古タンメン中本

Serving up umakara (spicy but yummy) ramen since 1968, Moukotanmen Nakamoto now has 15 stores throughout Tokyo and is famous amongst ramen-lovers here. I ordered the miso-based Hokyoku Ramen which Nakamoto rates at a spiciness of 9, and upped it to the max of 5 times of that. “Will I die?” I asked staff. “It’s quite spicy,” he said, deadpan. For the full Nakamoto experience, I ordered the mabo tofu and rice set add-on.

The thick, curly noodles went well with the tasty soup – or should I say, gravy. The supposedly spicy mabo tofu was like an almond tofu dessert to me after finishing this!

The fiery red soup stings the nose at first and leaves your lips and tongue (and later, stomach) on fire, but is actually quite tasty and I managed to finish this. This really is quite umakara, and I can see why some people crave this. For Singaporeans who train their heat tolerance regularly with chili padi, this would be a doable (but sweaty) walk in the park. (Warning: Be prepared to feel lightheaded afterwards.)

Ching Li’s Chili Rating: 7/10

Shop Info:

Address: 2-6-17 Dogenzaka Shibuya-ku Tokyo, Toho Cinema Shibuya B2F

Phone: 03-3462-1236

Hours: 11am – 11pm everyday

Website: www.moukotanmen-nakamoto.com (Japanese)

 

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Mount. Chili Powder

Ramen Nagi Butao

Level 1’s spiciness is in the regular mee rebus or mee siam comfort zone. But Level 100 is not food. It’s an experiment on how much chilli powder it takes to absorb a bowl of pork broth. Best avoided unless challenged!

Ching Li’s Chili Rating: Off the scale/Infinte chillis

Shop info:

Address: 1-3-1 Higashi Shibuya-ku, Kaminito Bldg 1F

Phone: 03-3499-0390

Hours: Mon-Sat: 11am – 3am; Sun and national holidays: 11am – 9pm

Website: www.n-nagi.com (Japanese)

 

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No sweat lah

Hokkaido Ramen Santouka

This chain, harking from Hokkaido, also has 2 outlets in Singapore.

Shibuya and Harajuku are the only outlets to offer Akakara Tsukemen, or literally, Red Spicy Tsukemen. The thick noodles are smothered in chilli oil and come with a spicy miso-based dip. This would be a good entry level dish for the heat intolerant – though some may find it a bit lacking in character and taste.

Ching Li’s Chili Rating: 1/10

Shop Info:

Address: 3-13-7, Shibuya, Shibuya-ku, Gojo bldg 1F, Tokyo

Phone: 03-3797-3500

Hours: 11am – 12 midnight everyday

Website: www.santouka.co.jp/en

Onsen Oasis: Zao Dairotenburo

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King of Onsens – The Princess Water hot spring

Some hot springs are so good you never forget them. For me, the Zao Dairotenburo Hot Spring in Yamagata prefecture is one of those. A decade has passed since my trip there, but I can still remember thinking to myself excitedly, “So this is what a real onsen is like!” as the sulphuric hot spring smell became stronger and stronger and started to permeate the taxi as we ascended the mountain.

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What I saw upon arrival, was beyond my expectations. While famous throughout the country, Zao Dairotenburo Hot Spring has managed to resist modernization into a tourist attraction, and I mean that in the very best possible way.

Unlike other man-made onsens that are designed and dugged, this is a natural onsen around which some basic structures have been built to allow people to enjoy it – so don’t expect any saunas, showers or any drink dispensing machines!

All you will find, is the huge crater-shaped natural stone baths located on the top of a mountain hill surrounded by mountain forests. As you soak in the steaming hot, silky smooth, milky water, you realize that people must have come to enjoy this hot spring in the exact same way for centuries.

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The milky water feels like music to your skin, or rather makes your skin sing! This is not is not just one’s imagination, as the water comes from a natural sulfur spring with strong acidity. The water is so good for softening and whitening the skin that it has become known as “Princess water”.

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The Zao Dairotenburo Hot Spring is open from mid-April to the end of November. You will be mesmerized by either fresh verdure or golden foliage depending on the time of the year, but whenever you visit, this hot spring and its surrounding nature are well worth you visit and make for an authentic experience you will not forget!

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

Spot information

Name: Zao Dairotenburo Hot Spring

Price: 470 yen

Hours: 6 am – 7 pm (clost from end November to mid-April)

Location: Zao Onsen 832, Yamagata

URL: http://www.joy.hi-ho.ne.jp/ma0011/T-Yamagata01.htm (Japanese)

Restaurant Review: Sapporo Ramen Republic

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Your one stop for ramen in Sapporo

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

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

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

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

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

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