Tag Archive for travel guide

Where should I go? Making a travel guide and get incredible autumn photos


In short, I will make a travel guide for a autumn-colours tourist spot here in Japan.

There is fledgling community of patrons following JapanesePhotos.Asia at Patreon.com/ablyth. There, I post a photo a week and share travel guide information for followers. From the 1st October a poll opens only for patrons in the $5 tier. I am looking forward to hearing your ideas on where I should go. I hope to create a great travel guide for a place to see autumn colours here in Japan. If we get enough funding, then I can travel to more adventurous places, or get the help of models (may be in a kimono).

Join the community, have your say, and access content including photos. Usually, these photos cost USD$25 each, but the minimum is $1 or $5 (whatever you can chip in).

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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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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.
  2. All new travel articles and travel guides will be published on our Patreon page; we hope to eventually do this monthly. Included will be large-sized photos that patrons can download and use without any watermarks. Patrons can also use these photos for their own personal use including blogs.

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Various Japan-related scenes.

Various Japan-related scenes.

Become a Patron!

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5 Times to avoid travel in Japan

Sadly, this is the last time we will publish a travel related article for free on our own blog. However, we have not given up, and we will not quit. We have lots, lots, LOTS more to write about, photograph, and share. All our new travel articles will be published on our Patreon page.

I’ve had models come from overseas and want to work with me, and I’ve had to give them warnings and advice on moving about in Japan. Generally, there’s a few key pieces of information that all travellers must have. You simply cannot just turn up and expect everything to work; in this otherwise well managed, smoothly functioning country.


 

Japanese get very few holidays and little chances of having time off. They are expected to work like slaves through out the year and their lives. For instance, even though legally maternity and paternity leave is generous, generally men can get only really the day of their child’s birth off (and may be a couple more days). That means, there’s just a few opportunities in the year to do things like head back to their home towns. Many Japanese were raised in a different city to where they currently work. Consequently the transport system gets very, very, clogged at the start and end of the holiday periods. Major companies used to coordinate their holidays to be held at the same time, so that it was easy for staff to know if another company is contactable on particular days or not. This led to Friday afternoon jams on public transport like the bullet train, airports, and highways. A two hour trip could become an eight hour ordeal. At the end of the break the so called “U-turn” rush is just as bad. Companies kept this schedule for decades, but only recently have they started to relent to pressure to stagger their holidays, or offer “flexible” holiday periods for their employees. Flexible in quotation, as their is still heavy restrictions on when they can start and end their breaks.

The major holidays

1. The Golden Week Break

This is a collection of holidays including Children’s Day that were bunched together because having a scattering of days off was too disruptive for companies. The GW holiday usually starts from the last few of days of April and ends at around the 5th of May. The exact dates vary from year to year, and depends on when the weekend is.



The bullet train is known by the locals as the “shinkansen”

2. The New Year Break

The New Year holiday replaces the family focused Chinese or Lunar New Year (CNY) that was celebrated until this post-war period began, and is now largely forgotten from Japanese culture. For European cultures, Christmas is the big family time of year, but CNY was that for Mandarin influenced cultures. Today in Japan, they have completely adopted the Gregorian Calendar, and so the European New Year is celebrated instead. The break normally starts at around the 27th December (depending on when the weekend is), and lasts until about the first weekend of the new year. Usually, you would have to avoid travelling on that first Sunday.

3. The Mid-summer festival break

This is also called Obon in Japan. In Mandarin influenced cultures, this is a mid-summer feast to celebrate the end of harvest. In post-agrarian Japan, it seems this is largely forgotten, and is known as a holiday to celebrate the ancestors. It used to be held according to the lunar calendar, but since Westernisation in the late 1800’s, the holiday was fixed to the Gregorian rather than the lunar Calendar, but is still a floating holiday. It generally runs from around the 11th to 16th August each year (depending on the companies). It’s not an official holiday, and so government offices are still open, and many services still operate on normal schedules.

On any given day

4. In the mornings

The subways can be crazy-crowded, especially in Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka. The times to avoid generally vary by station, by section, and especially by line. Generally avoid the main lines that connect to central nodes, especially between 7.30am to about 8.10am. If you take the train during this rush period, you won’t be standing only shoulder-to-shoulder (yes, let your imagination run wild). If you have a backpack, it’s best to wear it on your front when inside the train.

 



An office worker at a subway station probably wondering how to get home after an after-hours get together.

 

5. Late at night

Two things to be mindful of. The last subway train can run from around 11.40pm to maybe 12.20am. This means, if you miss it, expect an expensive taxi ride home. Check hyperdia.com for train times. The other thing is if there’s a special event or festival. Subway stations are not designed for big event crowds. So when a fireworks display, a baseball game ends, or even a town festival ends, crowds will generally descend on the closest (often only) nearby train station all at once. Don’t plan on any taxis being available, or even a way to drive anywhere between the event and the train station. Crowds can be so thick that even traffic wardens can keep cars at traffic lights waiting for over half an hour or longer, if the roads were allowed to be open at all.



Some festivals can attract crowds of anywhere between 100,000 for a small local festival, to many hundreds of thousands.

 

Bonus: Kyoto on any given afternoon

Kyoto residents are proud of their city’s heritage. So beautiful is it, that a captain in WWII in the US military who was tasked to choose bomb sites said that the city has such a cultural and architectural heritage that it should be spared from all bombing. Today, hoards of tourists descend on the city on a daily basis. Many Japanese and Chinese tour groups have their own buses, but North American and European travellers tend to find their own way about town. Consequently, when all the tourist places close at 4.30 or 5pm, suddenly, there are hoards of tourists all trying to cram onto buses or take taxis simultaneously. Consequently, the roads and buses are clogged with lots of very tired travellers and locals.



A Kyoto City bus in the afternoon just before tourist sites close for the day.

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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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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 Travel Tips for Japan

There’s lots of advice out there, and this blog has already contributed (5 things every visitor to Japan must know, and 5 things you must see in Japan, 5 things Guidebooks don’t say about Japan). Here is a another five, but a unique five ideas to make the most of travelling in Japan, especially in summer.

A tourist using Google Maps on an iPhone at a major tourist destination to find their way.

A tourist using Google Maps on an iPhone at a major tourist destination to find their way.

1. Use Maps

If you can use Google Maps. Of course to do so, you’d need to access the mobile phone networks with a data plan. There are very few and hard to get options to get a SIM card, mainly to make it difficult or impossible for criminal gangs to operate. See this link for info, and organise this BEFORE you leave your home country: http://www.bmobile.ne.jp/english/index.html.

 

2. Local info

Of course you’ll use your guide books, but it doesn’t hurt to use local info, too. Drop into tourist info offices, check street maps, or ask a local. You may find something unique not included in your guidebook.

The deer in Nara roam freely about the major tourist hotspots, especially the historic temples and shrines.

The deer in Nara roam freely about the major tourist hotspots, especially the historic temples and shrines.

3. Drink lots

Especially in the humid summers, you especially need to. When I visited Nara in mid-August it was hitting 37 degrees Celsius (about 100F), and about 70 to 80% humidity. Aquarius and the… err… uniquely named Pocari Sweat are ion drinks that have an osmotic value close to that of the body, which means the fluids can be much more easily absorbed by your body, thus staving off dehydration. Vending machine drinks cost ¥150 (USD$1.50, GBP£1).

Aquarius is especially good at rehydrating in the extreme summer

Aquarius is especially good at rehydrating in the extreme summer

4. Parasols and umbrellas

If you’re a lady, feel free to shade yourself from the sun. It often rains, and since cars are not often used, you’ll need an umbrella. In my experience, portable (small folding) umbrellas available in Japan are good enough for you not to bother to get one until you really need to while your here in Japan. Umbrellas are very easily available in convenience stores, and are almost as disposable as snack wrappers. Convenience store umbrellas cost about between ¥200-¥500 (USD$2-$5, GBP£1-£3).

Many young women use umbrellas and parasols to shade them from the hot sun.

Many young women use umbrellas and parasols to shade them from the hot sun.

5. Have fun

Of course! Isn’t that why you’re here? Travelling is very tiring and uses a lot of your energy and strength. Take your time, plan a rest day where you can just chill and relax in one of the many, many cafés, where you can read and restore your energy. Then just enjoy being here.

A tourist tries to get a deer to pose for her camera in Nara.

A tourist tries to get a deer to pose for her camera in Nara.

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5 Things guide books don’t say about Japan

Firstly, I have to admit it’s been years since I’ve used guide books, but still I doubt they suggest any of these below. You also need to remember that guide books cater to people’s expectations, so of course all guide books dedicate precious pages to things like Tokyo Tower, the Imperial Palace, Hiroshima memorials, how to get to those places, where to eat, places to stay, how much it costs, best time of year to go, who the bus drivers are, and etcetera. Consequently, you don’t get the bits of information that can make your trip special. When you go back to the office people will ask “Did you go to the [insert stereotype location]?”, but with this brief guide you can say, “I also discovered a really cool place that you can…”

So, below is a list of five things that guide books don’t say about Japan, and are things that can make you the envy of your friends and make you seem like a seasoned explorer.

A Japanese couple at Shirakawa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

1. Japan is an experience, not a postcard

If you want to photograph the Eiffel Tower, you can go to the miniature versions in Seoul or Las Vegas, and job done. If you want a picture of the Sydney Opera House, buy a post card, so you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars going to those places. That is to say, ‘experience’ and ‘visit’ are to different things. So, how can you ‘experience’ Japan? Here is a list of simple things you must put on a to-do list:

  • Stay in a capsule hotel (but spend most of your stays in a regular ‘business hotel’)
  • Spend a night or two in a temple in Kyoto
  • Don’t just have Asahi Super Dry, also try Kirin and Yebisu (Yebisu’s my favourite Japanese beer)
  • Eat in the franchise eateries like Yoshinoya or Coco at least once. These cater for the lunchtime office worker crowd, and allows you to get something akin to the office-worker experience that you hear about. Or get a lunch box (bento) from a convenience store
  • Take your traveling companion to a love hotel for an hour or two
  • Take any inner city train (Tokyo, Nagoya, or Osaka) at about 7.50am on any weekday, and at about 10.30pm on any Friday evening.
  • Take a Japanese friend or two, or be taken out to an izakaya (Japanese pub-restaurant)
  • Attend a festival or major religious event (there are lots of these in every month somewhere in Japan).
  • Travel only by and everywhere by train.
  • Get geeky (it’s ok, your friends aren’t looking). Indulge your inner geek at tech places like Akihabara, Tokyo; browse the amazingly large book stores; guys can visit a maids’ cafe in Akihabara, Tokyo, or Osu Kanon, Nagoya.
  • Get a haircut. The whole approach and execution of a haircut is a very different experience than in an anglophone country. In the anglophone countries electric shavers are overly used and can leave you with a lot of prickly hair sticking to you all day, but not a real Japanese cut.
  • Try the rice. In most Asian countries, including Japan, a different type of rice is used, it’s known as ‘sticky rice’. It clumps together much more easily than rice grown in Canada, the US or Australia, making chopstick use much easier. Sticky rice is perhaps a little sweeter than long grain or brown rice, and Koreans believe they have the best rice in the world (and so do the Japanese, and the…)
  • Watch Sumo on TV once or twice (in English) before seeing it for real in Tokyo (mid Jan), Osaka (mid March), Tokyo (mid May), Nagoya (mid Jul), Tokyo (mid Sept), Fukuoka (mid Nov). Seeing sumo on TV allows you to learn a little about the tournament, the order of appearance, who to look out for, and how they do the bouts.

Nagoya Castle in Autumn.

 

2. Visit small castles & temples.

The smaller and more remote castles and temples are so much better than the inner city ones. The war has decimated the original castles and most of the major temples and shrines in the major cities. So, for instance, whilst Nagoya castle looks like an image fit for a postcard, it’s made of concrete and has an elevator. The smaller Inuyama Castle is hundreds of years old, still made of timber, there are English-speaking volunteer guides to tell you about the local history and significant battles that changed the future of Japan. Inuyama Castle isn’t too difficult to find, and so totally a story you can brag about when you return home. One more thing about Inuyama Castle, because it is a genuine period castle, no footwear can be worn inside. You’ll be given slippers to wear, and a bag to carry your shoes in.

Religious objects in Jokoji Temple of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism.

Sutra books, prayer beads, sashes, and bell infront of the statue of Buddha inside the Jokoji Temple of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Japanese Buddhism.

 

3. Unexpected things

I’ve tried to compile a comprehensive list that most Westerners (North Americans and Europeans) would find handy.

  • Wear shoes that are quick and easy to slip on and off. Many temples, shrines, and pub-restaurants require you to take your shoes off to enter.
  • The ingredients used in food is different to what you’re used to. So even if you go to a ‘Western’ restaurant, expect the food to cater for local tastes. One example I can think of is thinking a white ball was potato salad, but it was actually egg salad. Potatoes are very rare here. The most extreme example comes from South Korea. During my first visit there in 10 years, I forgot that anything red is hot and spicy, including spaghetti bolognese.
  • People are polite and they do their jobs. A cleaner actually does cleaning, and they take pride in it (Japan is pretty much graffiti-free, and people don’t want to graffiti anything). Sales staff, hotel staff, train waiters, station staff, everyone works hard and tries to help you as much as it is in their capacity; a very different experience to what you might get in Italy.
  • Most banks in the city centre can do international currency exchange. However, I’d still organise money at the airport on arrival.
  • Paying a tip can imply that the service wasn’t that good, and the staff should use this extra money to improve something.
  • Americans love guns, Britons love tea, Australians love beer, and the Japanese all (without exception) have a serious fetish for food. You’ll find good quality restaurants almost everywhere; but especially look for the nighttime restaurant districts.

A group of patrons leaving a restaurant in Kyoto and waving down taxis.

 

4. The best places / events are not always the most famous.

You and all your friends probably know about Tokyo Tower and the memorials in Hiroshima, but there are much better and more interesting places than these. My list of the ten best attractions are summarised:

1. Kinkakuji pavilion (or Golden Pavilion), Kyoto, any time of year (picture shown below).

2. Kiyomizu Temple, Kyoto, any time of year.

3. Fushimi Inari Temple, Kyoto, any time of year.

4. A town festival, any where, but many are in early summer. One example is the Kuwana City Ishidori, held on the first weekend of August. Also see the ‘festival’ blog tags.

5. A cultural event. most places, particular times of year. One example is the World Cosplay Summit, Osu Kanon & Sakae Nagoya, first weekend of August.

6. Cormorant fishing, Kyoto and Inuyama, May to October. Cormorant (or ‘ukai’) fishing uses these birds to dive for fish. These birds have a string tied around their necks so they can’t swallow fish, but can catch them, and then spit them out for the fisherman.

7. Try sushi in a little old looking Ma & Pa restaurant in an out-of-the-way place, or upscale looking place in the most central parts of Nagoya, or Osaka. But best to avoid any place from Tokyo to the north, as there may be radiation concerns. Also avoid any road-side sushi franchise restaurants; some of these can be simply cheap and not that special. In fact, any restaurant that has a line of about 10 people is apparently worth going to. Get there at about 11.30am (or earlier).

8. Fashion shopping; Shinjuku in Tokyo, Sakae in Nagoya, Namba in Osaka; from about 10am to about 8pm (weekdays) and closing later on Saturday evenings.

Young women out shopping on a Saturday evening.

 

5. How long to spend in Japan

A few days isn’t enough. A week isn’t enough. Don’t believe that month is enough either. Staying at least for a full calendar year, and attending every festival you can find, meeting local and expat friends and going places makes the stay much more meaningful. The Japanese work like clockwork; there are so many wonderful annual events to see and do. While you are here, you really, really need to keep active in your hobbies, or start new ones. You can learn pottery, calligraphy, a martial arts (not just the standards like karate, judo, and others), cooking, flower arrangement (ikebana), and lots more.

Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion), Kyoto.

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