Archive for 5 Things

5 top photos of 2016

Here are the top five JapanesePhotos.Asia photos of 2016. It’s been a busy year, and so for adding to my portfolio, it hasn’t been so easy. However, this year I’ve been fortunate once again to work with some great and talented models and makeup artist. This year, strangely enough, was also the first time I went to Tokyo. It was exciting, and I look forward to going again in 2017. So, without further ado, here are the top five, which are all available on my PhotoShelter portfolio and Alamy.

Runner up. Getting smoke blessings at Senso-ji Temple, Asakusa, Tokyo.


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5. Boudoir portrait.


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4. Sensoji-Temple special effects at night, Asakusa, Tokyo.


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3. Tourist girl in Tokyo.


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2. Umbrella girl.


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1. Girl in the City of Ghosts.


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As you can see one model stood out the most this year. Special thanks to Miyu who is a fantastic model to work with. Ksara a great makeup artist, organiser, help, and conversationalist. Also thanks to Joanie and Ana. And thanks to you for inspiring me to do more. May 2017 be another great year for all of us.

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5 things the Japanese tourism industry must fix before 2020



A young Japanese lady at Tokyo’s iconic Sensoji Temple, with Tokyo Sky Tree in the background.

 

The Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in 2020 are seen as a potential cash cow, despite no city since the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics had ever been able to turn a profit. However, financial success is what is hoped, and that depends on getting tourists into Japan before, during, and after the Olympics. It also depends on tourists’ willingness to spend, and spend often. However, no one wants to spend money on things they are uncertain about. Currently, I have seen very little action or plans made to make it easier for tourists to Japan to spend, spend big, and spend often. Admittedly, some dodgy Japanese companies have made tracks into providing “free” wifi around the place. Better connectivity is meaningless, if tourists have no good or useful information to access. Here are five things that Japan must fix.



A young American lady leaving a restaurant in central Nagoya.

 

1. “English” websites

The Nagoya City Art Museum provides the perfect example of everything wrong with Japanese webdesign thinking. The Japanese version of the site is informative, interesting, updated, and provides news on what’s coming up. The “English website” provides a generic pdf document providing general information that is uninteresting, and suggests there’s nothing special here. This type of “English website” is sadly common. One vineyard in Shizuoka provides their “English website” link, which takes you to Rakuten; however, it only provides hotel booking forms, and all information about the attached winery is noticeably absent.

Speaking of noticeably absent, and that’s English on Google Maps. Toyota Car Rental is one guilty example; see this Kyoto example, zoom in a little bit more so you don’t confuse it with another rental agency. You can book a car on their English website, but find where the shop is on Google Maps? Nope, unless you can read Japanese. This is sadly common practice for hotels, temples, and other key tourist sites.

Another point regarding absence, are English websites. For instance, Japan Today has this page on “onsens” (hot spring resort hotels). The resorts listed here are in English, but after clicking on the link, you are often taken to a Japanese-only webpage, which is of zero value to international guests, and may appear to some guests as exclusionary. Try Hazu Gassyo for instance.

 

2. “English” menus

Have you ever heard of things like sundubu, chodofu, mulnengmyun? Two of them are my favourite Korean foods, and one is Taiwanese, but distinctly smelly. Of course, you know them right? Who doesn’t love a nice bowl of mulnengmyun on a hot summer’s day, right? Fortunately, I will give you some meaningful translations of these: spicy tofu soup, stinky tofu, and icy noodle soup respectfully.

However, Japanese are oblivious to this. Japanese assume you will understand words like okonomiyaki, takoyaki, ika, and so forth. It’s obvious to them, so when it’s written in the Roman alphabet it magically becomes English, and so apparently we can understand these. There needs to be a push to actually provide meaningful translation for Japanese menus. However, I suspect that Japan will attempt at solving a simple problem with overly complex technology. I’m sure someone will say, “Hey, let’s make a translation app”, and it will provide non-nonsensical output.

Already, some Japanese restaurants don’t use waiters, but have a machine near the front door with a computerised menu. You push the buttons for the food you want, get some tickets, give the tickets to the lady, find a seat, and wait for the food come. Sounds simple, right? Wrong. Such computerised menus are provided in only Japanese, and no other language. Also, typically, no one can provide quality help.



The famous Nagoya-based JR Central bullet trains at Tokyo Station use non-English terms in the Roman alphabet.
Similarly, JR trains need to address this issue too. You obviously can tell the difference between the “hikari”, “kodoma”, “shinkansen”, “nozomi”, and “Green Car”, right? Well, here’s a very important tip, “Green Car” does not mean an environmentally friendly benefit, it’s code for “1st class” or “premium”. Also, just so you know, “shinkansen” means bullet train, and the other words mean the different types of bullet trains, ranging from local (kodama), express (hikari), and limited express (nozomi, requires an additional ticket). See Wikipedia for more info.

 

3. Use internationally popular websites

Many Japanese tourist spots advertise themselves on Japanese websites like Rakuten. However, no one outside of Japan uses Rakuten. Rakuten bills themselves as an outward looking international company, but in fact, they’ve only ever made waves here in Japan. They have no effective presence outside of Japan, and have even closed some of their European offices. I’ve only ever booked a hotel once on Rakuten, only because that area does not use international websites like hotels.com. When travelling through many countries, it is far easier to use a few familiar websites like hotels.com, Tip Advisor, Google Maps, and others. These are international multi-lingual websites. Users have become accustomed to using them, and it’s easier to keep using the same website, rather than finding a new one that may or may not be good or complete, and having to learn how to use their system. But most Japanese tourist spots are not aware of this. They only advertise on local websites believing it to be the best.

In fact, if a tourist site does appear on Trip Advisor, typically there is little or no meaningful information. For instance, how much useful information can you get from this Trip Advisor entry? Similarly, there’s often missing information on Google Maps or it’s only in Japanese. Having no or little English information makes the tourist site appear to be a poor outfit, with little to offer. Consequently, foreign tourists look elsewhere for places to go. Providing lots of information on important websites is key. Better still, multi-lingual information.

 

4. Experiences, not food

For many Japanese people, when they think of travel, they think with their stomachs. They want to see things that they can post on Line or Twitter, which is evidence that they’ve done something interesting. So, architecture and pictures of food are important. However, Westerners don’t think like this. In addition to architecture, many Westerners may prefer experiences such as doing a tea ceremony, seeing a ninja show in Iga, experiencing a theme café, and such. These things are far more memorable than a plate of food. However, many Japanese hotels front-line their restaurants as being the main attraction (example on Hotels.Com). And honestly, to me, often the food does not look appealing, especially with the poor quality of photography often used. In short, what is missing is actual research on what foreign tourists want.



Food is a big part of Japanese people’s travelling experiences. People eating at a restaurant near a major tourist site in Tokyo.

 

5. Providing comforts

Kyoto is a great city. I love it. In Kyoto, you have to take over-crowded buses on over-crowded streets to get anywhere. Also, everything in Kyoto requires a lot of walking. You are guaranteed to end the day worn out and foot-sore. I cannot stress enough how important it is to raise your fitness levels and to have comfortable walking shoes for Kyoto. Additionally, there are no park benches anywhere. If you want to sit down and have some water from your own bottle, you have to sit on the ground. No one in Japan sits directly on the ground. Instead, you’re expected to go to a cafe and spend. This makes the Kyoto experience more grueling and more tiring than it has to be.

For couples, the hotels are a barrier. Last year I saw some hotels saying “women only”, which means in a small city like Kyoto in the last few weeks before your travels and all other rooms are booked out, there’s no where for a man to stay. In addition, twin beds. That means, couples cannot share a bed, but expected to live like strangers in two separate single beds (like this hotel again on Hotels.Com). This might be fine for Japanese travellers and couples, but this spoils the romantic experience for non-Japanese couples. Semi-double beds maybe too small for many foreign couples, and normal double beds are very rare or over the top expensive.



Trainee tour guides in Kyoto. Travelling through Kyoto involves an immense amount of walking, but nowhere to rest.

 

Of course, the list could be longer, but these are just some of the key points that stand out to me. A lot of the issues does seem to be language related. The Japanese education system emphasize test performance, but not actual communication. Consequently, it’s no surprise that tourist communication is a weak point of the Japanese tourist industry. Finally, an alternative way of viewing these five “problems” is that they are not problems at all. Instead, these contribute to a genuine travel experience akin to what early explorers might have had, albeit, in a modern age.

 



Like many tourist shops in Kyoto, this kimono rental store offers only limited and fragmentary information in English, and maybe none in Chinese. For information on how to rent a kimono in Kyoto, see this kimono rental blog post.

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5 things to do in Tokyo

Tokyo is an exciting city with many things happening all the time. If it’s your first time, I really recommend you stay at a hotel in Asakusa (Google Maps), so you’re close to the rickshaws, Sensoji temple, kabuki theaters, the vibrant restaurant districts that are typical of Japan (but these ones have English menus), and a casual walk to Tokyo Skytree Tower.


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1. See the Shibuya Crossing

It is said that in peak hours about a thousand people cross at each light change (every two to three minutes). I guess this is in the evening when people are coming from and going to work, and going to a night out with colleagues. This is the crossing that has featured as “Tokyo” in various movies including Resident Evil, and has it’s own Wikipedia entry (Wikipedia). You watch could watch this fascinating coordination of people scrambling from the Loccitane Cafe (pictured, the yellow place behind the tree), the Metro station, or Starbucks 2nd floor in the Tsutaya building (pictured, to the right), and you might be lucky enough to get a rarely opening window seat. You’d have to case out the place and figure out who is camped out for a few hours, and who are there just for the view. The ones who are there for the view will probably be bored after about half and hour and leave. Be ready to grab your tray and claim a spot quickly. Interestingly, “Tall” is the largest size this Starbucks serves.


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2. Visit Sensoji Temple

Sensoji Temple is in Asakusa near the Asakusa Metro station on the Ginza Line. It is perhaps the oldest or first religious site in Tokyo, and the most visited tourist attraction. Despite the ominous promise of crowds, it’s not that bad, and other tourists are nice and respectful.


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3. Rent a kimono

It is possible for men and women to rent a kimono for the morning, afternoon, or the day in Tokyo and Kyoto. The best place in Tokyo is probably in Asakusa, near Sensoji Temple. It’s a small area, and so you don’t have to walk far wearing it, and have all the great photo ops you can imagine. A model of mine has written about this experience before, see here for Mariko’s kimono story.


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4. Try the food

DON’T do McDonalds! Ramen is a cheap, classic, healthy, and hearty food. It’s quick and easy to order, and is a real friend to weary travelers at the end of a long day. Also see previous blog posts on food, including ramen and sushi blog posts.


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5. See the sumo

Sumo is held for middle two weeks, every second month. It also is held in different cities. The schedule is January-Tokyo, March-Osaka, May-Tokyo, July-Nagoya, September-Tokyo, November-Fukuoka. Tickets go on sale about two months before the tournament, and can sell out quick. It is possible to book tickets online in English. See previous blog posts for more info about sumo.


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Bonus: Rickshaw rides.

Rickshaw rides are best had near Sensoji Temple, Asakusa. The rickshaw pullers have some English language abilities, lots of energy, and will tell you about the neighbourhood they’ll take you through, with lots of unique photo ops you’ll never get back home. They can even give you some additional advice and perhaps discount offers for other unique Japanese things like tea ceremonies and more.


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I’ve only been to Tokyo once for two short days, and couldn’t even scratch the surface of this busy city. There’s lots more to see and experience, including maid cafés, kabuki, Japanese tea ceremonies (held at some hotels), restaurant pubs, the city view from the Mori Building, and lots more. My advice is spend at least a week there, and may be do a day trip to Mt Fuji. Finally, make plans to go back for more exploration.


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5 things about eating in ramen restaurants in Japan

One of the most well known foods in Japan is ramen (Wikipedia), however, it’s actually a Chinese food. There’s a few different kinds, and it’s a delicacy that each ramen restaurant (or franchise) wants to be distinguished from the competition. That is to say, each restaurant will have slightly different styles and tastes, but are generally quite similar. One restaurant I went to, the noodles were quite eggy in flavour, others not at all. Because it’s also a dish that Japanese people have very particular tastes for, there are options that you can request when ordering. You don’t just say “ramen”, and a bowl of it magically appears, there are questions. Of all the places I’ve seen, this place featured below is definitely the most visitor friendly with English info. So, here are 5 things about ordering and enjoying ramen in Japan.


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1. Street displays. Most places will show pictures of their products outside to lure you in. Here you can get a sense of what you want and the prices, and can compare to other nearby restaurants. As you can see, you can expect to pay between 690 to 900 yen (USD$6-10) for a hearty, healthy, and great tasting meal.


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2. Ordering. Many places now have a machine that you put money in, push buttons, and get tickets. You give the ticket to the staff member. Often they’ll ask you these questions you see in the picture below. It’s quite ok to say in English “regular”, “medium”, or “normal” or in Japanese “futsu” or “zembu futsu” for ‘everything normal’. I recommend keep all communication simple and to single words, so there’s little chance of confusion. Once you start using English sentences, communication quality drops. Single words for simple communication.


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3. What’s in it? It’s basically a soup broth, either fish, miso, or pork broths, Chinese wheat noodles, a slice of pork, sheets of seaweed, maybe half a boiled egg, and some vegetable matter. This one pictured below also includes a local type of spinach, and spring onions. The varying flavour between restaurants is usually down to the broth and the secret ingredients they use. This one below is a common pork and pork-broth ramen, with some spring onions, local spinach, and seaweed. It’s actually my favourite.


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4. What to do. Actually, this picture below has pretty good advice. Once you get it, try it, and you can adjust it with condiments and seasonings that are usually on the bench near you. I usually like to add some diced spring onions, or a small spoon of mashed garlic, depending on how I feel that day. The particular restaurant I went to gives some rice for free that you can add to your noodle soup. You’d need the Chinese soup spoon to scoop it up. I never do, as it’s already a lot of carbohydrates, but it’s additional energy that weary travelers might actually need.


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5. How to eat. I eat it in the same way Korean ladies do, just because it’s easier, I look less of a fool, and perhaps less sloppy. Step one, use the chopsticks to load about a mouthful of noodles onto the small Chinese spoon (like the one shown below). Step two, once you’ve got a manageable amount on the spoon, then it’s easier to pick up the noodles as a bunch with the chopsticks and transfer the load to your mouth. Step three, repeat for each mouthful. Once you’ve finished, you can use the spoon to drink up the soup one scoop at a time. It may be a little salty though, so you don’t need to drink much, some people do finish it. Most places provide courtesy jugs of water, so you can wash the salt of your tongue or re-hydrate after a long day in the summer heat. Jugs are replaceable by the staff, so don’t worry about emptying the shops supply or the local lake. Also, there are tissues provided so you can wipe your mouth and the the surrounding bench of splashes.

The picture below also shows below the shelf the other condiments you can add to your ramen. Don’t add them all, just open and sniff and figure out what might be to your liking. As you can see, I was thirsty from a long day travelling and photographing, so the jug is almost empty.


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Bonus advice. Never settle on a “favourite way” to enjoy ramen in your first few visits. Try a variety of different flavours and combinations of condiments, at least until you can settle on something you are in love with.

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5 things about visiting a sushi restaurant

A chef working in a sushi restaurant in Japan

A chef working in a sushi restaurant in Japan

There’s some simple things that you to know about in a real Japanese sushi restaurant. There’s of course a lot more you can learn if visit with a sushi aficionado, but let your orientation to Sushi Restauranting 101 begin here.

1. When you first sit down. Step into the door and look for a young shop assistant who’ll ask how many people you’re dining with, and then he or she will direct you to a place to sit. Near your place is the hot water dispenser for your green tea. Usually at each section along the conveyor are tins with green tea powder. Just put one heaped spoon in your cup and add water. Place the cup against the large round button, and push. Of course refills are allowed.

Using the hot water dispenser for green tea at a sushi restaurant in Japan

Using the hot water dispenser for green tea at a sushi restaurant in Japan

2. What to do. You’re free to take any plate you like from the conveyor, but once you take the plate etiquette is you keep it. Even if you don’t eat it all, never put a half consumed plate back.

3. Plates are colour-coded. Each plate pattern equals a certain amount of money. There’s usually a chart somewhere on the walls that shows you the value of each plate design. Keep your own plates and never trade with other people, and never put them back on the conveyor. When your finished dining, tell one of the young waiters that you want the bill, “okaike kudasai”, and he or she will tot up the bill based on the number and types of plates you’ve stacked up. Typically plates cost from about ¥220 to about ¥650, and you’d have about six plates to a meal. I’ve never paid more than ¥1,500 for a good meal that gives me lots of energy for the next day.

A salmon plate at a sushi restaurant in Japan

A salmon plate at a sushi restaurant in Japan

4. Ordering plates. Yes, even if what you want to try isn’t currently doing the rounds, you can order from the menu. Usually on quiet evenings they don’t put out their whole menu, as it’d be wasted at the end of the night. The menu almost always includes a range of tuna, salmon, octopus, squid, salmon roe, shrimp, and egg servings. Usually sake, beer, and Japanese style deserts are available.

Dining at a sushi restaurant in Japan

Dining at a sushi restaurant in Japan

A small dipping bowl with soy and wasabi a sushi restaurant in Japan

A small dipping bowl with soy and wasabi a sushi restaurant in Japan

5. This little plate is for your soy and wasabi. It’s not the usual soy sauce, but one that’s especially formulated for sushi. Pour some onto your little dish. Add a small dab of wasabi on the side, and stab at it and mix it into the soy sauce. Gently dab the rice part of your sushi into the soy and then put the whole lot into your mouth in one go. But be aware that usually there’s already a dab of wasabi between the rice and the meat. Oh, and in case you didn’t know, wasabi is hot, and in large quantities it has the magical powers of sinus clearing. So be conservative at first on how much wasabi you add to your little dish.

A stack of plates after dining at a sushi restaurant in Japan

A stack of plates after dining at a sushi restaurant in Japan

Bonus. Finally, if you’re unsure about something, do what I do. Just stop and watch what other people are doing. In all my travels, for any new experience, it’s almost always better to be chaperoned by a local who can give you a little guidance, inside info, and interesting personal accounts of something. In short, it’s more fun with friends, especially if they’re locals. Enjoy.

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5 Things to enjoy in Nagoya Japan

It’s kind of hard to believe that this city needs an introduction. It is home of the Toyota Motor Corporation, it’s parent company, and the other subsidiaries, and the swathe of other automotive related companies. It is the home of the famous JR Central bullet trains (the white and blue-stripped ones) that service between Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto, and Osaka. The shape of modern Japan evolved from the Battle of Sekigahara (site is a 20 minute train ride from Nagoya station) where Japan was unified by Nobunaga Oda (born in Nagoya Castle), and Ieyasu Tokugawa (born in nearby Okazaki Castle). Tokugawa was the first Shogunate of Japan in 1603 and the Tokugawa Clan had remained the rulers of Japan until the Meiji Restoration era when the US sent naval ships to force Japan to open up to foreign trade. The Tokugawa Clan survives today, though they seem to be based in Tokyo, and manages the Nippon Yusen shipping company.


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A fashionable young man riding through Sakae.

More photos of Nagoya are on my portfolio.

Nagoya today, is a thriving city, with land prices that rival Tokyo and London. It has the world’s largest train station (by floor area, which includes a department store, offices, and a luxury hotel). It is steeped in history, and thoroughly a member of the 21st century.

 

Getting to Nagoya:

Nagoya is very well connected. It is serviced by a domestic airport at Komaki (on the Meitetsu train company from Nagoya Station), and the Centrair International airport (aka Chubu airport), on a different Meitetsu train line. Nagoya is on the main Tokaido bullet train line between Tokyo and Osaka. It can also be reached from Osaka by the cheaper Kintetsu train company. Commuting in the city is really super easy with the Nagoya City Subway (aka chikatetsu), Meitetsu, Kintetsu, and JR train companies. The buses are mainly part of the Nagoya City Subway system. The most popular transport ic card used is the Manaca (but buying single-use tickets with coins is normal, too).


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So, what is this best kept secret of Japan? Here are five things to introduce the city to you (there are of course more, but this is a start).

 

1. Nagoya & Inuyama Castles

These two castles are night-and-day different to each other. They are a world apart in so many ways. You must have a “castle day” on your itinerary. Firstly, see Nagoya Castle (Wikipedia). It’s a replica, or reconstruction, though the locals don’t put it that way. They prefer “rebuilt”, especially since the US air force fire-bombed the original. This reconstruction was completed (with concrete and an elevator for lazy samurais) in 1959. Today it’s a museum, and not a military strong-hold any more.

A young lady using a guidebook in Japan.

A young lady at Nagoya Castle. Buy this Cormorant Fishing photo

In contrast, Inuyama Castle (Wikipedia) is in original condition, with timbers hundreds of years old. Low beams to duck under, and a deck you can walk out on for excellent panoramic views, including the battle field of Sekkigahara, where the Tokugawa’s won Japan. There are great local festivals there, especially worth seeing the cherry blossom festival and portable shrines. Also, as seen below, there is cormorant fishing demonstrations at night for the middle months of the year. Because of the nature of Inuyama Castle, I’d really recommend you spend the morning at Nagoya Castle, have lunch in nearby Sakae, and then go to Inuyama Castle for the afternoon. It’s great to experience the modern, and then authentic in this order.

Cormorant Fishing
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Above, cormorant Fishing near Inuyama Castle

To get to Nagoya castle from Nagoya station, take the subway (yellow Higashiyama Line) to Sakae, and change to the Meijo (purple) Line. Get off at Shyakusho Station. It takes about 10 to 15 minutes. To get to Inuyama Castle (Google Maps), from Nagoya station, take the Meitetsu train company on the Inuyama Line to Inuyama station or the one after it, Inuyama Yuen Station. From Nagoya to Inuyama Yuen Station it takes about 30 minutes for about ¥600. Stroll through the town until you get to the castle. See Hyperdia.Com for train schedules and current ticket prices.

 


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Nagoya Castle

 

2. Shopping

Ask anyone in Nagoya what their hobbies are, they typically reply “shopping, eating, and sleeping”. I agree, these are not hobbies per se, but this is how they do spend their time. The main places for shopping is in the underground arcades in front of and behind Nagoya Station. These are called Esca and Unimall. Also in Sakae at the street level department stores, back alley shops, and the underground arcade. Finally, young people love to hangout at the street level arcades at Osu. There are lots of fashion stores for women, electronics stores, and some bookstores. Osu often has events on, and the visually striking Osu Kanon Temple is worth checking out.

To get to Sakae, from Nagoya station, take the subway two stops to Sakae (¥200, about 5 minutes). To get to Osu from Nagoya, take the subway one stop to Fushimi and change to the Tsurumai (blue) line, and go for one stop and get off at Osu Kanon Station. Total travel time is about 10 minutes, ¥200. Follow the crowds to and past Osu Kannon Temple. See Hyperdia.Com for train schedules and current ticket prices.


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Osu is the centre of Nagoyan youth culture, and shopping.

 

3. Restaurants / Nightlife

Nagoya is a Japanese-foodies heaven. There are restaurants galore everywhere around Nagoya station, Fushimi, Sakae, Sakae-Machi, and Osu. I cannot recommend one, simply because you cannot swing a cat without hitting it against some kind of bar, café, restaurant, or other eatery. Food is really cheap, like about ¥1,000 (USD$10) for a good plate or “set menu” of quality food. If you had to shoe-string it, you can get noodles or a bowl of beef and rice for under ¥400 (USD$4).


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Restaurants use curtains, like shown above, to indicate that they are open for customers.

A lot of places, including department stores and regular shops, are open late, like up to 9pm. Note that Korean and Taiwanese stores are often open later. In Japan, though, there is a caveat. Most Japanese people don’t go out to mix and meet new people; that’s really rare. So don’t expect to find much in the way of pubs and nightclubs like back home. Instead, they spend time with people they already know getting drunk at restaurants known as an ‘izakaya’ (kind of a restaurant-pub). Food there is usually high quality. However, I’m finding (things are changing) that cheap prices is starting to equal cheap food. Good prices equal properly good food. Also, if you think you’re going to enjoy a good Italian restaurant, think again. It’ll be a Nagoya take on Italian style. So expect shrimp on your cabonara, Japanese-rice seasoning on your spaghetti, or a side of rice with a seaweed seasoning on top. The only thing that really annoys me is that cheap restaurant’s (or expensive restaurants scamming their customers) idea of salad is simply shredded cabbage with dressing. If you really did want to go to a pub or nightclub, these places are typically frequented by the expat community, so it’s a great way to meet expat locals. In Nagoya notable places include Shooters, The Hub, Coopers, and probably the best of the bunch, Red Rock (see Nagoya Info).

Regarding transport, be aware of the last train times for you. The last train is typically 11.50pm or just after midnight. Taxis are about, but expensive. Finally, Japan is not a rowdy, raucous type of country. So nights out are typically peaceful and light-hearted.


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Fashionable young women out at night shopping in Sakae.

 

4. Events

There are a whole bunch of things happening in Nagoya for much of the year. For instance (there are many others):


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Contestants in the Nagoya street dance competition, “Domatsuri” in Sakae, Nagoya.

 

5. Atsuta Shrine

This shrine attracts about 9 million visitors each year (Wikipedia), and is one of the three most important sites for Shinto, the state religion. The three important places are Ise Shrine, Atsuda Shrine, and the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Ise Shrine, two hours away in Mie prefecture, is like the Vatican; and Atsuta Shrine is like St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The third most important place is where the Emperor lives, the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Each of these three sites have one of the three important relics (Wikipedia) that give the right to rule to the Emperor. There are no known drawings or photographs of these items, and so there is no independent verification that these items are housed at the purported locations, or even exist. The sword is kept at Atsuta Shrine, the mirror is kept in Ise Shrine, and the jade is kept in the palace in Tokyo.

At Atsuda Shrine, there are many little wooden buildings on the grounds, and each of these house a god of some specialty. Usually, there are retired men hanging around the grounds. Often, these men want to simply keep their English up, and so they like to just introduce themselves to tourists and offer a kind of free tour and some info. Take them up on their kind offer, they are friendly and actually quite informative. Take some sort of sweets to share with them; I’m sure they’ll appreciate it.


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There are festivals and events held often through the year. The shrine is insanely packed with people shuffling shoulder to shoulder on the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th of January each year. They return the previous year’s wooden arrow which brings fortune, pray for the new year, and get a new wooden arrow for the new year. Each year, these arrows are ceremoniously burnt as an offering to the Shinto gods. There is a ceremonial archery event on the 15th January. A lantern festival is also held in July. Every weekend there is something happening, usually Shinto style weddings, and Shinto-christenings for infants are often held here.

Take the Meitetsu train from Nagoya to JinguMae station (about two stops) for about ¥230, or JR for ¥190. See Hyperdia.Com for train schedules and current ticket prices.


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One of the main buildings at Atsuta Shrine.

 

There is of course more to see in Nagoya. These are my picks, but you might find something more to your taste here at Nagoya Info, Trip Advisor, and Lonely Planet websites. However, I can offer you a…

Naked Man Festival, Kounomiya
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The Naked Man Festival, at Kounomiya, usually held in February each year.

 

Bonus: Nagoya City Art Gallery

This is the oddest thing I’ve experienced so far this year. I went to the city owned art gallery and discovered that they had an exhibition of not one, but a few Andy Whorhols, Calder, and a Chagall. They have a good permanent collection, and often something interesting on most times through the year. Annoyingly, the “English website” for this gallery is actually just an old pdf document, but it’s here, Nagoya City Art Museum (also see Trip Advisor, & Wikipedia). The gallery was designed and constructed by renowned Kisho Kurokawa between 1983 to 1987, and opened in 1988. It is a five to ten minute walk from Fushimi subway station, which is a 2 minute ride from Nagoya Station on the Higashiyama (Yellow Line), or 2 to 5 minutes from the Osu Kanon Station on the Tsurumai Line (Blue Line). Follow the signs, and see Google Maps. See Hyperdia.Com for train schedules and current ticket prices.

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5 Things to do this Spring in Japan

Are you thinking of what to do in Japan these Spring holidays? Look no further. Of course I talk mainly of Nagoya in central Japan. In case you don’t know. Nagoya is the major city in between Tokyo and Osaka. It is the home of the Toyota Motor Corporation, and the famous blue Central JR bullet trains. Land prices here rival that of Tokyo and London, and it’s one of the richest cities in the world. It’s also a convenient base for travellers. So, if you’re going to be in Japan and looking for travel ideas, start with these. Oh, and here’s one little trivial point to mention. The Spring holidays start mid-Winter (end of January), and finish in early Spring (early April). Don’t ask me why, just go with it.

For each below, there are links that include How to Get There information.


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1. Plum blossoms

Plum flowers typically bloom in about the last week of February and last until about mid-March (depending on the species and the weather). These flowers have more petals than cherry blossoms, last longer, and have more vibrant colours. These flowers used to be the most revered until a Kyoto poet captured Japanese hearts for the cherry blossoms. Plum flowers can be enjoyed at many major parks, including private botanic gardens like Nabana no Sato, the Nagoya Agricultural Centre, and Higashiyama Park (at Higashiyama Koen Station, Higashiyama Line).

Plum flowers
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2. Osaka Sumo Tournament

The Osaka Sumo Tournament is a little unique. It’s the only sumo tournament where the wrestlers need to walk through the public areas between the fighting mound in the centre of the stadium, to the changing rooms out back. So you can get close enough to get clear photos of the wrestlers just before and after their bouts. The tournament runs from the second Sunday of March for fifteen days until the fourth Sunday. Tickets are available online and can be picked up at the venue from special machines; don’t forget your purchase code and info. Learn more about the sumo here at the Going to a Sumo Tournament post.

Osaka Sumo
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3. The Naked Man Festival

Don’t worry, they’re not all men; they’re not completely naked; and it’s not so much a festival that you have to take part in… unless you really want. It’s held annually on the 15th of January in the lunar calendar (usually between mid February to early March). In 2015 it was held on the 3rd March (Gregorian Calendar). The festival attracts about 13,000 participants (males from about 6 or 7yo, to those about 70 or 80. You’ll even see tattooed gangsters playing their part as members of the community, too. You’ll have to bump your way through a crowd of perhaps 150,000 to 200,000 spectators of mainly excited women and girls. The festival is also known as the Hadaka Matsuri (“hadaka” is ‘naked’, and “matsuri” is ‘festival’).


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4. The Fertility Festival

Like the Naked Man Festival, this festival traces it’s roots to ancient Japan and is held with strong religious connections. It basically is a large wooden phallus being joyously carried through the Tagata township. On the internet it’s also known as the penis festival. It’s held on the 15th March each year (Gregorian Calendar). See here for specific info on the Tagata Fertility Festival.


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5. Cherry blossoms / Sakura

Of course, no mention of Spring and Japan is complete without mentioning the delicate and fleeting petals of a tree that bears no fruit, yet covers almost every temple and shrine and park in the country for about one week. The image below was taken at Nagoya Castle. You can get there via the subway Meijo Line, at the Shyakusho-mae Station in downtown or central Nagoya. The castle is also a museum and has the Nagoya gymnasium which hosts the July summer sumo tournament. There are some specific things you can do in this fleeting time, typically one week, and it involves friends, alcohol, bad decisions, and can be day or night. Learn five things about hanami here (hanami literally means “flowers-see”).


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Bonus: Tado Horse Festival

The Tado Horse Festival is held in the Golden Week holidays, the end of April and early May. It’s held in Tado, a small township just outside of Kuwana city, which itself is outside of Nagoya. The festival typically attracts about 120,000 spectators. It’s major.


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5 Things: A holiday to Vietnam

Everyone dreams of a “once in a lifetime holiday”, though in truth, many take several of these in their lifetimes, and even annually. This post isn’t for the newbie or veteran holiday makers so much, but for those who haven’t been to Vietnam yet. I have to begin with a caveat, everyone travels differently, and so the following account is based on my own personal experiences. Without further preamble, here are 5 Things about going to Vietnam.



A Vietnam Airlines aeroplane in Nagoya airport. It seems the hostesses had better English than the JAL ones.

 

1. Getting there is easy.

It really is. Do I need to say anything more on this? Ok, so for me to fly from Nagoya Japan to Saigon was double the price than going to South Korea or Taiwan, but I’ve already done those countries. For most people, you need to apply for a visa in advance at the Vietnamese embassy long before you fly. For certain countries who were not involved against Vietnam’s struggle for independence (including the Vietnam war), they can just arrive in Saigon and Hanoi and get a landing visa. Japanese citizens can get a landing visa, but I had to post my passport to the consulate in Tokyo a couple of months before I flew. Like many flights to and from Nagoya in the off-peak time, the flight was empty. The photo below shows that in a row of six seats, five three were empty.



The flight and food was nice, but notice the paperback in-flight entertainment system?

 

2. Plan your trip.

Don’t do what I did, and just have a vague idea to go to a scuba diving company, and then make up the rest as you go. For me, the flight from Nagoya Japan to Saigon was too short for me to work out other things I could have done whilst I was there. I kind of missed out, but still filled my time and leisurely way. No regrets.



May be it’s the wine talking, but diving at Nha Trang sounds great!

 

3. No real language barrier

Compared to Japan, I think travelling in Vietnam is perhaps easier. I’ve heard lots, and lots of stories of how travellers to Japan ask for directions, but the train station staff reply in Japanese believing the traveller will understand him. In contrast, the waitresses, some taxi drivers, have better English than some Japanese-English teachers. The hotel staff learn French and English, and are very good at English (I’ve not tested their French). So, for first timers, I think Vietnam is a better welcome to Asia than Japan.

Staff at a hotel in Vietnam.

Staff at a hotel in Vietnam.

 

4. There are lots of things to do

This is where you realise that you don’t have enough time for the itinerary you want to have. Hoi An has the lanterns (wish I knew about that), Hanoi is a backpacker magnet for it’s rustic charm and refusal to be dragged into capitalism. Nha Tang turns out to have a seedy reputation, but the diving is good, especially for my limited level of experience.



Vietnam is a pretty good diving destination. For general travelling, perhaps it’s safer to go there than to the Philippines and Thailand at the moment.

 

5. Watch out!

On my first day there, the concierge at the hotel said, “don’t go walking along the beach front after midnight”. Sensible advice, I thought. On my second day, a pair of German girls told me how another German girl had her bag snatched in Saigon, as she was walking along the street by a guy on a scooter. She lost her passport, credit cards, and smart phone. On day three, a pair of English girls said that a Canadian girl also had her bag snatched also by a guy on a scooter, and she lost her passport and credit cards. On day four, a German guy at the Nha Trang airport wouldn’t tell me why, but he was getting out of the country post haste. On day five, as I was walking along the street I heard a guy saying to probably a Vietnamese lady “they took my camera, they took my money, they took my…”. On day six, in my hotel room I discovered my toothbrush was missing! (True story). I stayed in my hotel room all morning peering out the window. The point is, leave your credit cards, passport, surplus money, and other key valuables in your hotel room safe. Oh, and choose a hotel that explicitly states that each room has a safe. When you’re out walking, keep the strap of your shoulder bag over your opposite shoulder, and keep the bag in front of you. With a backpack, have one strap over one shoulder, and also have it in front of you, too. Don’t wear anything that might suggest you’ve got money (no jewellery or Louis Vuitton labels), and only carry enough money for what you need for your morning or afternoon adventure. I’ve heard of people using dummy wallets in their back pockets as a means to protect a little money pouch in the front. It seems bag snatchers work in pairs on a single scooter. The rider comes in slow and close to the nearest person to the road, and the other guy whisks the bag off of shoulder of the victim.


Probably mum, son, granddad, youngest son.

 

Bonus. The people are friendly

They are. They will help you and the English speaking ones are normally very happy to talk to you. Just ask them questions and learn about their life and country from their perspective. I’ve seen lots of travellers ask about things, and then answer their own questions (and merely reiterating stereotypes), but not letting the local talk. Ask your question, wait (they might need time to process your language), and then they’ll start talking, perhaps tentatively at first. But ask more questions about their responses. They’ll warm to you.



Beautiful (and tacky) souvenirs and cheap clothing in Ben Thanh Markets in District 1, Saigon.

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5 Things about typhoons in Japan

As yet another typhoon approaches (number 18 for 2014), I thought this information might be timely for many people. I’ll keep it brief, mainly because there isn’t that much to say. For current typhoon information see http://www.jma.go.jp/en/typh/. For current and general weather warnings (including snow and other), see http://www.jma.go.jp/en/warn/. For rainfall and radar maps see http://www.jma.go.jp/en/radnowc/. For news, see http://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/.

 

1. There’s nothing to see here

Typhoons are not that dangerous… any more, at least. If you’re super rich and live in a good neighbourhood in a sturdy house, or like most expats, live in a very sturdy apartment or condominium building, there’s nothing to worry about. Basically it’s just a windy, rainy day, and it has no effect on you, whatsoever. However, if you live in a low-lying area, near canals or rivers, in an area with storm-surge barriers near the sea, then you might have something to worry about (think New Orleans). Furthermore, if you live in Taiwan (with dodgy illegal rooftop structures all around you), or other places with flimsy building construction, then you shouldn’t stay too long near the windows or on your balcony and definitely don’t venture out. In countries like China, Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, and others there will be a lot of debris flying about.

An office worker with an umbrella walking in a typhoon past a canal that is about to breach.

An office worker with an umbrella walking in a typhoon past a canal that is about to breach, in 2011. He probably was allowed to return home halfway through the day because of a change of JMA advisory.

 

2. Employers expect you to go to work

That’s right. Even if your home is at risk, and your family too, you’d better have a good reason not to come into work. Fortunately, most companies allow their employees to either stay home or return home when the Japanese Meteorological Agency (JMA) says that their is a “Warning” level for “storms” (or red on the JMA maps, but listed for “storms”). That means that the slow response the JMA has in updating their websites, and the near server crashes they experience from hundreds of thousands of hopeful employees means that when the information finally comes through, many employees could be in the brunt of the typhoon as they are travelling home. In contrast, Taiwan is much, much more organised. When the government announces closures of government offices either the night before or before 7am on the morning of an expected landfall, all businesses follow suit, so no-one is in harms way unnecessarily. I’ve seen news reports in Japan of children at a school sports day being killed by a marque blowing over in the middle of a typhoon. Japanese do tend to deny nature exists. It is a country of engineers and bureaucrats, not humanitarians.

 

3. Japan Meteorological Agency website is a problem to itself

I guess the JMA doesn’t quite understand that itself is a small natural disaster. Their information does not appear useful to non-Japanese people who are in Japan. On their Japanese version of the website, their typhoon probability circle times are in Tokyo time, but the English side it’s in GMT, a fact I didn’t know for the first eight years I lived in the country (I hadn’t heard of “UTC” until recently). I always wondered why there were such discrepancies in the expected arrival times. Furthermore, the language is not descriptive enough to adequately communicate the level of threat you face. They did bring out a new level last year. So there are now (my translation in parenthesis):

  • Grey: No warning or advisory (no danger)
  • Yellow: Advisory (moderate danger)
  • Red: Warning (high danger; risk of injury and damage)
  • Purple: Emergency Warning (extremely high danger; expected loss of life and serious damage to property in some places)

Furthermore, they still use Japanese and Japanese-English terms on their English website that no-one else understands. Here are some that you’ll see with a translation (republished from September 2012 JMA Information blog post):

  • Ku: Ward (like a suburb)
  • Cho / Mura: Town
  • Shi: City (like “Nagoya-shi” is just a city called “Nagoya” in regular English)
  • Hokubu: Northern areas
  • Nambu: Southern areas
  • Tobu: Eastern areas
  • Seibu: Western areas
  • “Storm”: Extremely high danger winds
  • Gale: Very strong wind, but only moderate danger
  • JST: Japan standard time, though the English website quotes everything in UTC (Greenwich Mean Time). Use TimeAndDate.Com Meeting Planner to convert.

That’s right, the word “storm” refers to strength of wind, not the normal English definition of violent weather that includes thunder and lighting.

One more thing on this point, JMA doesn’t give names to typhoons, but they count them. The one that is bearing down on me as I write this is “number 18 of 2014”, as you can see here, http://www.jma.go.jp/en/typh/141824.html The English version of the website does include the international name of the typhoon. However, all the local news services refer only to the number, not the name.

Japanese Meteorological Agency website screenshot from September 2013.

Japanese Meteorological Agency website screenshot from September 2013. Click on your area of the JMA map on their website, and it’ll take you to information for your specific city or region.

 

4. What is actually dangerous about them in Japan?

Some simple facts. The slower the typhoon moves north, the more energy it has. Also the slower it moves, the more rain will pummel the storm area. The more rain in an area, the greater the risk of run-off overwhelming flood barriers, and the greater the risk of land and mud slides in hilly areas. A slow moving typhoon might track between 8 to 15km/h. A faster moving typhoon might move from about 20 to 25km/h. From about 30km/h it seems they start to loose organisation and fall apart. Also, from eye-balling the JMA satellite imagery, if you can easily and very clearly see a large hole in the centre, the eye, then it’s a seriously strong typhoon (see below). In my experience, the central pressure of typhoons is in the 900-1000hPa range. If it drops quickly, that means it’s getting stronger. I think I have seen typhoons under 900hPa, which is seriously strong and quite dangerous. Wind speeds or gusts over 200km/h is considered strong, but speeds over 300km/h are extremely rare and would make international headlines for weeks to come. The most dangerous or wild part of the typhoon is usually the northern arc, not so much the southern for some strange reason. Rainfall of anything over 150mm (I think in a 24hr period) is expected of almost all typhoons, over 200mm is more normal. However, rainfall in the range of 300 to 400mm is a lot. I think rainfall of 50 to 80mm/hr is a lot and expected in the centre of typhoons.

Typhoon season in Taiwan is typically in July and August. In Japan it is typically in August, but mainly September and October. It’s rare to get one in May, June, or July, but not unheard of. I’ve seen typhoons approach and hit South Korea in August.

A satellite image showing a very well formed super typhoon, on 9th October 2014.

A satellite image showing a very well formed super typhoon, on 9th October 2014.

 

5. Blue skies afterwards

Usually after a typhoon all the pollution in the skies have been blown away and you’ll see the most amazing blue skies. Also, it’ll be a hot day, too. I’m not entirely sure why. Typhoons tend to follow the warm or hot ocean currents, but warm air or rather, warm days follow typhoons.

Clear blue skies are usually seen after typhoons have past.
Expect clear blue skies and very warm or hot days after typhoons have past.

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5 Great reasons to be in Japan this summer

There’s usually plenty of reasons to be in a major city like London, Melbourne, or New York during summer. Though, I’ve heard Parisians tend to evacuate their city in summer. Anyway, summer seems to be the time when office workers discover a world outside their buildings, uni students discover life after exams, communities look over their garden walls and discover they’ve got neighbours. As you’ll also soon see, Japan is a land of superlatives. Here’s the top 5 reasons why summer in Japan is great.

 

5. Sumo in Nagoya

Nagoya is Japan’s fourth largest city, and is conveniently situated between Tokyo and Osaka. The Nagoya Summer Grand Sumo Tournament is held for the 15 days (from Sunday to Sunday) in the middle of July.

For this sumo photo, and others like it, see the Sumo gallery at my PhotoShelter portfolio. This is the hottest sumo tournament. Really, you’ll be sweating a lot in the stadium. You’ll need to pay inflated prices for cool drinks, but fans are free.

 

4. Festivals

There’s lots of them. Everywhere, almost every weekend from about the end of July to mid to late August. Look up some travel related websites to find out what’s going on, where, and more precisely when. There’s a variety of festivals including sea / marine, fire, community, dance, and more.

The Kuwana Stone-bringing festival is held on the first weekend of August, annually. This is apparently the loudest festival in Japan. See here for the Ishidori / Stone-bringing Festival gallery on my PhotoShelter portfolio.

 

3. Tenjin Festival

This festival, yes another festival, is supposedly the biggest in Japan with possibly a million people gathering in the festival vicinity at some point during the day or evening. The Tenjin Festival is held on the 24th and 25th of July each year.

The men's part of the Tenjin procession.

The men’s part of the Tenjin procession.

For this photo, and others like it, see my agent’s website, “Tenjin Matsuri“.

 

2. The World Cosplay Summit

It’s usually held on the first weekend in August in Central Park, Sakae, in the centre of Nagoya. The World Cosplay Summit (WCS) is trying to become the central or focal point of the cosplay culture. However, the main rule is that all costumes must be of a Japanese origin comic, animation, video game etc. So no Star Wars, no Harry Potter, no foreign stuff. In short, it’s a big soft-touch diplomacy thing to centralise and promote Japan. That said, it’s still great. Unfortunately, the actual competition performances are bilingual up until the main TV sponsor, Aichi TV, starts to air the competition later in the evening, then all the announcements are in Japanese only.

The Finnish team parading on the Red Carpet on the day of the World Cosplay Summit competition performances.

The Finnish team parading on the Red Carpet on the day of the World Cosplay Summit competition performances.

For this photo, and others like it, see my Cosplay gallery in my PhotoShelter portfolio and my agent’s website, “Japan Cosplay“. One of the Finnish girls admitted to me that she was warned that it would be hot and humid, and not the choose a costume that is inappropriate for the heat. She admitted they thought they made a good decision, but it seems summer in Nagoya is not like summer in Finland.

 

1. Fireworks

I don’t know why, but Japanese people associate fireworks displays with feeling cooler. Somehow high temperature explosives gives them some relief from the night time heat. Firework displays are held probably every weekend from mid July to late August somewhere in the country. This display in Kuwana city is held on the last Saturday of July. A weekend later Tsu city has it’s display, then a weekend after that is another in Gifu, and it goes on. It’s a time when families bring out the eskies / cooler boxes, with cool drinks, beers, dinner, insect repellent, picnic rug or folding chairs, eat, chat, and wait for the fireworks to begin.

For this photo, and others like it, see my Night in Japan gallery on my PhotoShelter portfolio. Note, this photo was taken a some distance, and with my widest angle lens (at 17mm), and it just fits in the frame.

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