Archive for Travel Info

Totoro’s house

As I’ve said in previous blog posts, all future travel articles, travel info, and travel guides will be published on our new Patreon project. Currently, it’s called 52 Photos of Japan, but perhaps 52 Facts About Japan is better. Whatever it’s called, it is ladened with info about this weird, beautiful, some times crazy, sometimes delightful land. Today’s new blog post is a travel guide about how you can visit Satsuki and Mei’s house, a replica from the beautiful iconic classic My Neighbour Totoro. See it at Patreon.com/ablyth.

  • Photos: me
  • Story: me
  • Model: Chiaki 

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This project is really new, and we have BIG plans for it. It is exciting, and will be loaded with travel advice, travel information, and photographic ideas to make your next big trip fantastic. Best part is: It’s super cheap AND you can join in the discussion. Most travel books provide information one-way. Here, we will build a community, and you can have your say on what we can do next. That’s right, if you want to know more about a place in Kyoto, and other people agree, we can take you there with our Patreon blog.

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New exclusive work on Patreon

We have published a lot of great travel articles, travel guides, and more here on our blog. However, we don’t get paid for it. A lot of people are able to benefit for free, but we struggle to afford the trips and the models we need. Consequently, we will be doing two new projects on Patreon.Com/ablyth.

  1. The 52 Week Japan Photo Project, a photo per week will be given for free to patrons.
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Various Japan-related scenes.

Various Japan-related scenes.

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Okunoshima, aka Rabbit Island

A rabbit on Okunoshima, aka Rabbit Island, in Hiroshima Prefecture Japan.

Okunoshima is one of those very special experiences, and it will amaze your friends when you tell them about it. It is one of those places that is rare and unique, and having been there you can truly call yourself a traveller, not a tourist, but a Traveller.

In short, people go to Okunoshima for the rabbit experience. It must be the cutest and most heart warming experiences you can have in Japan. Like every coin has a second side, like for every yin there is a yang, the island also has a dark side; it was where the Japanese military made its’ illegal chemical weapons.

A rabbit on Okunoshima, aka Rabbit Island, in Hiroshima Prefecture Japan.

A rabbit on Okunoshima, aka Rabbit Island, in Hiroshima Prefecture Japan.

From start to finish the whole trip is like an adventure for my ten year old daughter and I. I didn’t tell her what to expect, I just said, “Let’s go on an adventure”, she replied, “Ok”, and so it began. Travelling from my home in Nagoya, it’s a two hour bullet train ride to Fukuyama, then a change to a local version of the bullet train to Mihara, then a change to a real local train for Tadanoumi. By this time it was dark, and we could only see the occasional lights. At Tadanoumi station we were kindly met by the AirBnB host, even though it was about 10pm at night. We could smell hints of the sea. I was dog tired and looking forward to collapsing in a bed. A habit of mine when travelling is to always keep my eyes peeled for restaurants, convenience stores, transport hubs, and other essentials. I spotted a Seven Eleven and felt relief. We dumped off our bags at the house, and walked back the five minutes to the Seven Eleven. Along the way, in the still and the mist of the seaside darkness we saw a fox bound out of the bushes ahead and leap across the near by railway tracks and evaporate into the darkness. We picked up some drinks and breakfast, and headed home in the still quiet night.

The bed was a typical Japanese futon in an old style house. It was thin and laid out direct onto tatami, and with a very thin pillow. Towels were like they were from the ¥100 Shop ($1 Shop), small, very thin, and I needed two to dry. Because this was mid August it was also mid summer in Japan, so it’s really humid and oppressively muggy-hot at 8am in the morning. Showering in the morning means you don’t actually get dry; you go from shower-wet to sweaty-wet unless you stand in front of the dehumidifying-air conditioner.



The view of the sea and nearby islands seen from the Tadanoumi high street.

 

Tadanoumi, as it turns out, is a seaside town. The name, I was told by my daughter, simply means, “It’s just the sea”, a very “duh” name made into an address; and it must raise a smirk for non-locals to hear. Seeing any town by daylight after arriving in the night is a surreal experience. Especially when discovering that the sea is right there. The ferry ticket office is is just off the high street (off the main road) right in front of the wharf where the ferry lands. It’s easy to find, just follow other people who are wearing hats, sunglasses, and backpacks, or else use Google Maps (link provided below). You may be lucky enough to stay at an AirBnB that provides a portable wifi for your use, otherwise double check your route and with Google Street View before you set off. FYI, now there are various small companies in Japan that can lease out portable wifi hubs if you would rather hold onto one for all your travels.

 



The ferry arriving at Tadanoumi.

 

Ferry tickets are ¥310 for adults and ¥160 for children, but you will buy them as return for ¥620 and ¥320 respectively. There are two types of ferries, one that takes only 100 people, and the main one that takes about 300 people and cars, bicycles, and light trucks. It costs ¥120 per bicycle, and up to large motorbikes and cars which are ¥500. Prices are current as of the 18th August 2017. The ferry time table is included in the Getting There section later. The ferry ride takes about 10 to 12 minutes, barely enough time to enjoy sitting, and barely enough time to cool down in the air conditioning on your return.



I didn’t know it at the time, but I took my first photo of Okunoshima here. It’s the closest one in this image, with Japan’s highest power lines.

Moments after getting off the ferry my ten year old daughter was startled, “Oh! Look! A rabbit!”. “What?! No way! It’s an island. There can’t be any rabbits here!”, I coolly replied. “Yes there is! Look! Another one! That boy’s patting it! And another! Wow! Oh!”. And it continued. This is the definition of “shock and awe”.

 

The Island

The Rabbits

First point to note is that they do not sell any rabbit food on the island. I’m not sure why, but my guesses are that in so doing, it doesn’t lead to overfeeding and overpopulation of the rabbits. This might be especially important as the number of tourists are not constant throughout the year. You can purchase a small bag of pellets at the ferry ticket office, or ask your AirBnB host for advice on how to get some cabbage. If you’re lucky, your AirBnB host might leave a bag of cabbage in the fridge for you, so please thank them very much if they do. Second point is, they are wild animals, not pets. That means there are rules for your safety, and for theirs. That means, don’t pick them up, and especially, don’t feed them by the side of the road. It’s dangerous for the rabbits if they become accustomed to expecting food right next to where buses and cars pass through. They also ask people not to abandon their pet rabbits on the island, which will have repercussions for the former pet who is not accustomed to life in the wild.



This photo was taken within 50 meters of the ferry.

 

Literally, within the first moments of stepping of the ferry and setting foot on land you will see rabbits. Nobody knows how many there are, but probably a thousand or so that can be seen from the main thoroughfares. The island is small, and takes only a couple of hours to walk around. In this couple of hours you will stop a lot, and spend time with bunnies. There are so many that you can tire yourself out. At the start everyone says “Oh! How cute!” and are eagerly and sincerely trying to get close to the bunnies, and have a real authentic interaction with them. However, close to midday I saw hot, tired, weak, lethargic people simply dropping bits of cabbage to rabbits before stumbling on.

 



A view of the old power plant through a tunnel.

 

Just off the ferry, you will be confronted with a choice of either going left or right. Most people go left towards the camp-ground, hotel, the swimming beach, and the main museums. However, I recommend going right to where it’s a bit quieter, and you can have a less distracting experience with the bunnies. Head towards the creepy looking old power generation building that seem to deter most Japanese people, so you can have more bunnies to yourself. I don’t recommend circumnavigating the island, as it can be a too long-a-walk; you will be worn out and won’t enjoy the experience any more. So, meet and feed the bunnies at the old power station, then head back towards the hotel.

 



People feeding and enjoying time with some rabbits near the power plant.


Feeding rabbits is one of the most unique experiences in your life. Interestingly, sometimes when they hop away they pee. It’s not squirted or dribbled, but by the hopping movement, it’s left like a trail frozen in the air for a moment before it falls to the ground. Also, watch out for where you put your hands, they can pee on them too! Another badge of honour that can be earned at bunny island.



A rabbit at Okunoshima.

A rabbit at Okunoshima.

Pro-tip: When photographing rabbits, don’t point your camera down at them from your eye level. Instead, put your camera down on the ground and photograph from their eye level.

 

Swimming

My AirBnB host said that the beach at Tadanoumi is great, as it’s clean, nice, and not crowded, but the beach at Okunoshima is dirty and crowded. My verdict is that the beach at the island is nice, a bit ouchy to walk on barefoot with the gravelly sand, and there’s some rocks under the surface of the water. There’s also some tidal current there, but not too strong. Just the same, there were very young children playing there, and a lifeguard who a few times per hour jumped on his board to rescue a blow up toy that was escaping the roped off area. I’m someone who always has to feel productive, so this was an amazing experience in itself. I put my phone down, and had no book, no laptop, only my thoughts. It was the most intellectually clarifying times I have experienced in many years. Warning, there’s very little shade here, and so you must have a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and lots of sunscreen. If you don’t like beaches, the hotel has a pool nearby.


The museums & ruins

The island today is a national park managed by the government. There are two main museums, one is the military related ones, and the other is the conservation one. There’s a lot of ruins on the island. The island was first settled by the army in 1902 during the Russo-Japanese War. They installed batteries (land-based naval canons), and a power station. Later, in 1927-1929 the Japanese army built facilities and began to create and store chemical weapons on Okunoshima. The 1925 Geneva Convention explicitly states that the use of chemical weapons was banned, but did not include the development, production, and storage of them. The Japanese army kept the development, production, and storage of them such a secret that the island was kept off many maps that was made. The island was chosen because it was considered far enough away from Tokyo to make the toxic chemicals like mustard gas. Ironically, the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant was the deadly one, and it was magnitudes closer to Tokyo. Within a year of the end of the Pacific war (ending in 1945), the remaining chemicals were destroyed at the orders of the US occupiers, so too the equipment, and so forth. The US military used some of the facilities to store munitions especially during the Korean War (1950-1953) before Japan was returned to self-rule in 1956. The ruins you will find there include observation lookouts, battery facilities, power house ruins, old bomb shelters, and so forth.



This image above is of the main storage place of the chemicals, which supposedly still has toxic traces today.

The nature conservation museum of course focuses on the rabbits, but also other marine life on and around the island. It is said that the rabbits were taken to the island so that they could test the chemical weapons. At the end of the war, the remaining rabbits were supposedly set free rather than being destroyed. However, no one is sure if any of that is true. Other theories suggest that the rabbits were introduced or reintroduced in the 1960’s. There appears to be one species of rabbit, with limited number of variations, which suggests a small number seeded the island, certainly at some point in the last 100 years.

 

The Shinto Shrine

There is a Shinto Shrine on the island, there is an information plaque, but nothing about it in English. This is strange as everything else is bilingual, but this. At the moment I don’t know anything about the history, the current status, or even the purpose of it. I hope to update this section eventually.



A Japanese tour group a the island Shinto Shrine.

Getting there

Okunoshima is not accessible by land transport, but only by ferry from Tadanoumi. The ferry does a few runs before 9am, and then frequency of services drops dramatically through the day, and picks up again in the late afternoon. There are two ferries, a small one, and a larger one that can take cars and upto about 300 passengers a time. For use on Google Maps and other electronic search functions, you might need to use both “English” and Japanese variants of the name, or else just copy and paste from this post. Okunoshima is written as oo ku no ji ma  おお く の じ ま which is converted to 大久野島 by the Input Method Editor on the iPhone. However, my Windows 10 IME struggled and failed to produce the correct Chinese characters.



Boarding the ferry to depart Okunoshima.

The best way to get to the island is to plan your trip via the town Tadanoumi 忠海. By the way, the name Tadanoumi literally means, “It’s just a sea”. The island is in Hiroshima Prefecture, and to get to Tadanoumi by bullet (aka Shinkansen in Japanese) and local trains it’s about:

  • Three and a half hours south from my home base Nagoya
  • Two hours south from Osaka, and
  • One and a half hours north from Hiroshima

On Google Maps Okunoshima is here: https://goo.gl/maps/xNNVHZEfzVF2.

Ferry ticket office and wharf is here: https://goo.gl/maps/iedNLQYRsNE2. Zoom in on the map to see the precise location of the wharf and ticket office.

The ferry time table that was current as of the 18th August 2017.

The ferry time table that was current as of the 18th August 2017.

 

Accommodation

I didn’t stay on the island, instead I found an AirBnb at the closest town called Tadanoumi; more on that below. There is a hotel on the island, but it doesn’t look like it needs to compete for customers. The exterior looks like it was designed by a bored bureaucrat with a migraine on a late Friday afternoon in the 1930’s. Almost all hotel lobbies in Japan greet you with near-ice cool, welcoming, relieving, air conditioning; which helps humanise you before going to the reception. Even though I was hot, perhaps suffering from a little heat stroke, the lobby did not have air conditioning, instead it was stuffy and more muggy inside; it was actually cooler to sit outside in the shade. I didn’t see the rooms, but I suspect they are not quite three star.



The hotel on Okunoshima, which also has the café, restaurant, and gift shop. This is where you’ll probably have your lunch.

The AirBnB place I stayed in was a very old Japanese style house that was modestly spruced up for travelling guests. I honestly didn’t feel comfortable there, as it was a real Japanese like living experience. The towels were thin, and very small, which is apparently normal for Japanese. The house overlooked a busy road and didn’t have curtains on the windows. I think you get the picture. To my horror, I realised that the host can even rate the guests, even though they are the ones who are in it for the business! Luckily I was nice, and clean. The host was super nice, super friendly, and super helpful.



Surprisingly, you can camp on the island. You can rent gear that includes what looks like a four person tent, fly, hammock, camp table and chairs. Yes, I did say “hammock”! There are campfire hearths for cooking, and a shower block too. Of course, there’s bunnies all about the place when you wake up. So, what can you do for food?


Eating

There are four ways to eat on the island. Only one of them is vegetarian or vegan friendly.

  1. The hotel restaurant
  2. The hotel café
  3. The beach side stall
  4. BYO

The hotel restaurant menu features octopus. Lots of octopus dishes. I do not eat seafood, and so I couldn’t find anything on the menu that I could eat (except for items in the drink and dessert menus).

The hotel café offers a lot of octopus dishes too, but also plain, cheap, Japanese cafeteria style bland curry with rice, which probably had bits of pork in it.

The beach side stall offered various meat-on-stick choices, and yakisoba, a pork and noodle food.


Yakisoba, which is pork and noodles. This seems to have been heated in a packet before serving. This food is also a popular festival food.

Of course you can bring your own food, but you cannot give it to the rabbits. There are lots of drink vending machines in Japan, and so you can find such things on the ferry, and at the main buildings on the island. The Seven Eleven near the Tadanoumi wharf has standard food and drink options, so you might want to bring your own snacks and lunch from Mihara city.

Transport

There are a few options to get about on the island. Ninety percent of people just walk. Some people hire bicycles from the hotel, but please don’t. The rental bicycles have really noisy squeaky brakes. However, the good part is the rabbits, like Pavlov’s Dogs, have learnt to associate squeaky brakes with food, and so they’ll come hopping. Very, very few people take cars, but hotel guests take the bus for the one minute ride between the ferry wharf and the hotel.



The shuttle bus that does the run between the wharf and the hotel, which takes about one minute.



Rental bicycles from the hotel. Children’s bikes are blue with blue love-hearts; good for both genders.

 

Dining at Tadanoumi

It turns out that there are just three choices in Tadanoumi. First is whatever you can find in the Seven Eleven. The second and third are the okonomiyaki restaurants. Luckily, the one we went to was great. We were tired, and it was amazing to watch how he made it right before our eyes. Okonomiyaki is normally made with batter, and a mix of basic veggies and a meat. This is Hiroshima style, and so it’s different. I won’t spoil it for you, but let you experience it for yourself. It was awesome!

The okonomiyaki restaurant in Tadanoumi.

The okonomiyaki restaurant Eshima in Tadanoumi.

The restaurant called Eshima was a little difficult to find. Since it’s one of two options in the town, the older lady at the petrol station knew exactly where it was and what I was talking about. The map shows three, but I was told there’s only two; feel free to explore. Here’s a map to help you get there. The guy running it is really nice and friendly. I hope you enjoy it. Google Maps link: https://goo.gl/maps/Fax6xgdwXVF2

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Okunoshima Island, aka Rabbit Island

Okunoshima (大久野島) is a paradise in Hiroshima Prefecture not just for humans, but for bunnies as well. It was fun shooting at This small island in Japan’s south. It makes me feel like trying the challenge of wildlife photography for real. I’ll hop to writing a travel article about this island in the sun on the JapanesePhotos.Asia blog within a week. The article will include info on how to get there, where to stay, and what to expect. Look out for it. 🐰 OMG! There are bunny emoticons! #🐰🏝  Update to the JapanesePhotos Instagram at: http://bit.ly/2uUSz1f.

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Tokyo is made of stairs

There are some things that travellers think they are prepared for, only to find that the guidebook said nothing about it. In this case, it’s that Tokyo is made of stairs. Well, mainly the subway public transport system; and not just Tokyo, but also Nagoya and Osaka too. As you will quickly realise on your first day here, it is tiring. Your feet may be sore, and your leg muscles worn, and you have quickly faded at the end of the day.


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Before you come to Japan, I strongly, strongly urge you to do a lot more walking as a part of your preparation. If you can use a stair machine, do. Sure, there are escalators and elevators, but stairs are the mainstay. Elevators are few and far between. Even though there is at least one elevator per station, these are impossible to find, or are very inconveniently located. So, if you’re carrying heavy suitcases, have a pram, or in a wheelchair, you will have troubles; so leave earlier than most people would. However, you will have a great time here. Bring high energy snacks to help you get about the place, but you will be a lot fitter for having lived or been here.


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Tourists to Japan now over 24 million annually

In 2015 the number of tourists to Japan was just under 20 million. However, 2016 saw a rise up to 24 million tourists (Japan Today). JT also reports that most visitors came from South Korea and China. Most travellers stuck to the so called “golden route”, and not visit the lesser known destinations in Japan. Japan Today did not define it, but it can only be supposed that the “golden route” must be the main guidebook attractions in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe.


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A young Japanese lady standing in front of Zojo-ji Temple, which Tokyo Tower in the background.

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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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Tejikara Fire Festival

I only heard about the Tejikara Fire Festival just a few days before it was held. I couldn’t find much information on it, and didn’t really know what to expect. It seemed to be one of those small local festivals that get passed over by the big inner city events. The mystery and the festival had to be explored. In short, I had minimal directions, and minimal info, and a camera. Here is my experience.

Tejikara Festival, at Tejikara Shrine, Gifu Japan.

Tejikara Festival, at Tejikara Shrine, Gifu Japan.

When: Annually, on the second Saturday of April.

Time: Officially: 6.30pm to 9.10pm. Actually: Get there a lot earlier to enjoy the festival foods and atmosphere, and to find a good viewing point in the shrine. When I got there just after 6pm, things seemed to already be in full swing.

Where: Tejikara, Gifu. See Google Maps.

Transport: Take the Meitetsu train from Gifu (city) station bound for Inuyama, for about 8mins, ¥230 (Hypedia.com, 2016), then follow the crowd. Be sure to get two tickets, as there is only one ticket machine at Tejikara station, and the line up for it at 9pm will be crazy. Also, for your return be sure to get on the platform closest to the shrine for your return to Gifu city.

Links: Gifu CVB, Japan Travel, Japan Travel Advice, and more.

History: Apparently, it’s been a small local festival running for about 300 years, and seems to have a little or unknown origin.

Tejikara Festival, at Tejikara Shrine, Gifu Japan.

Tejikara Festival, at Tejikara Shrine, Gifu Japan.

What: I’m still unclear as to what goes on. There are lots of fire fighters, and some fire trucks around the shrine. There’s lots of guys dressed in regular shinto festival outfits, sometimes topless. There are small shrines carried on the shoulders of groups of men from particular districts around the shrine. Each portable shrine has a different display. They stop at certain intervals in their approach to the shrine and set off firecrackers. I know from my Taiwan experiences that firecrackers supposedly scare off ghosts, so this might be related. There are loud bells being struck with hammers making a racket. The portable shrines are taken into the shrine for some sort of event, that I couldn’t see. You really need to get there early and stake out a spot.

Then when it’s dark large overhead lanterns are lit with fireworks running up guide ropes. Some of these fail, and it seems to be a challenge that the crowd cheer and applaud for. There are firework canons lit to create a vertical cascade of sparks, and some sort of story or performance of a traditional nature performed at the Shrine. I really need to go back, meet a local there and learn more. Usually, I’m on top of this sort of event, but I could not find a local to ask because I wasn’t in a position to this time. I’ll probably go back next year.

Tejikara Festival, at Tejikara Shrine, Gifu Japan.

Tejikara Festival, at Tejikara Shrine, Gifu Japan.

Photos & licensing: These photos will be available at my agent Henry Westheim, and at my PhotoShelter portfolio.

Advice: Festival food is a little expensive, but the whole point is for it to be a social event, and have food that you normally can’t have. Take a fist full of change, and enjoy a range of snacks like curried french fries, fairy floss, toffee apples, deep fried chicken, mixed fruit drinks, and more.

A food stall at Tejikara Festival, at Tejikara Shrine, Gifu Japan.

A food stall at Tejikara Festival, at Tejikara Shrine, Gifu Japan.

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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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