Takaosan or Mount Takao is a mountain located in western Tokyo and only about 50 minutes away from Shinjuku by train, making it a popular hiking spot and a pleasant day trip to a natural environment close to central Tokyo.
It has been regarded as a sacred mountain for a long time and every year on a second Sunday of March, the fire-walking festival or Hiwatari-matsuri is held. There is a traditional belief in Shingon Buddhism that fire has the power to cleanse. The annual festival consists of the ceremonious lighting of the pyre and participants walking across burning coals in order to purify body and soul. We were so curious when we heard about it and couldn’t resist the urge to witness this rare festival!
Since the festival was in the afternoon, we took the opportunity to explore Takaosan and spent our morning getting to the summit. We decided to take the cable car halfway up the mountain and hike from there which took us about 50 minutes. It was a cold and rainy day but we finally made our way to the top with one stopping at Yakuoin temple to make a prayer for better weather for the rest of the day.
After an enjoyable lunch, we walked back to the station, took the cable car back down and excitedly went straight to the festival’s venue. Luckily, the rain had stopped by the time we got there and we managed to secure a good watching spot on a small hill next to the main stage!
After a long chanting and some ritual processes, the pyre was lit and it was an exciting sight to see. We could feel the fire’s warmth even though we stood further away from the center. The walk began from the monks when the fire had reduced itself to smoking ashes. After the monks have crossed, the path was opened to the audiences who wish to try fire-walking. The line was incredibly long and we waited for nearly half an hour until it was our turn. Whether you are a Buddhist or not, or whether you just watch or walk the fire yourself, the ceremony can be enjoyed equally so make sure to give it a try next year!
We are always on the lookout for new and interesting places to visit from Tokyo, and were excited to learn about Sarushima from this article from rocketnews24.com. WOW, what a pleasant surprise!
1) A deserted, all-natural island and…
2) An atmosphere that just like the one from the famous Miyazaki animation, “Castle in the Sky – Laputa”
That’s like all things good wrapped in one bundle. Well, we just had to make a trip there! And off we did!
The island is located in Tokyo Bay, but is part of Yokosuka city. Yokosuka is known as the town of little U.S. due to the large number of US Navy bases in town. The atmosphere in this town is quite different from the typical Japanese town anywhere else!
From Mikasa port in Yokosuka, it is a short 10 minutes boat ride to Sarushima. That’s much closer than I had expected!
Even though it is just another Sunday, discovering a new place and meeting and laughing with friends from all over the world made a perfect holiday for me. It was relaxing to get out of the city and enjoy the timelessness of the forests of Sarushima.
And apparently, I heard that it is possible for us to have a barbecue in summer… Isn’t that a great reason for us to go back again? 😛
Winter time, and some of us are thinking of ways to spend the short and cold days. If you are into winter sports, there are plenty of ski-grounds you can visit on a day or weekend trip!
Hakuba, in Nagano prefecture, is a ski village in the Japanese Alps, famous for its powder snow! It served as the site for the 1998 Winter Olympics. Today, it is a popular ski village, offering many options in the numerous ski resorts! It is easily accessible from Tokyo via a direct bus. It may not be the most comfortable option, but it is economical and saves you the hassle of having to change trains. If you are on the JR Pass, you may consider taking the train to Nagano or Matsumoto before changing to a bus or local train respectively.
So, now you may be thinking, if you don’t snowboard or ski, there is probably not much in store for you. Well, if you are looking for a short getaway from the city, here’s our suggestion of what you can do in Hakuba!
Day 1: Tokyo – Hakuba
Set off early in the morning and catch the highway bus bound for Hakuba. Notice the change in scenery as you leave behind the city and its skyscrapers onto the highway, and finally into winter wonderland.
The ride is about 5 hours and depending on when you leave, you may be able to squeeze in a night ski session if you are interested. If not, have a wander about town. There are several night shuttle buses that take you to different parts of town.
Happo Town: One of the most popular accommodation option, this area is situated at the foot of Happo One Ski Resort. There are many accommodation, restaurants, shops and a Lawson convenient store within walking distance. The visitor’s center is also in the area. Probably the most happening part of town.
Wadano: Right next to Happo Town, this area also has a fair share of restaurants and accommodation, especially for skiiers heading to Happo One. There are a few onsens in the area.
Echoland:Located a little further, in a quieter area of town. It is about 10 mins ride away from both the station and Happo Town. There are a handful of restaurants in the area, as well as an onsen.
Day 2: Hit the slopes!
Well, the truth is you can’t say you’ve been to Hakuba if you ain’t gonna try skiing or snowboarding! Most accommodations can help you with rental gears and wear, and there are free shuttle buses to the ski grounds. Alternatively, you can also do the rental from the ski grounds. There are also plenty of ski schools offering lessons (both group and private) in English, so fret not!
We recommend Hakuba Goryu + Hakuba 47 for beginners! You can get a day-pass for both ski resorts and they are connected by bus and by the chair-lifts. Don’t forget to take the gondola up to the restaurant at the top for lunch with a magnificent view!
Day 3: Snow Monkey + Zenkoji, Nagano
This seems to be a popular side-trip for visitors staying in Hakuba. There are many tour operators running bus tours from Hakuba to the snow monkey park and Zenkoji temple in Nagano. Alternatively, you can also hire a taxi for the day. Generally it should be about 10,000yen per person.
As touted in the advertisements, the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park is the only place in the world where you can see wild monkeys bathing in pure hot spring water. Indeed, I have to agree that the monkeys are irresistibly adorable and human-like in their behavior and watching them having a good time in the hot spring makes me want to jump into one too (not to mention the cold weather)! There are about 200 monkeys living in the mountain and the souvenir shop at the entrance has lots of interesting trivial about them. Most of the bus tours from Hakuba will arrive at around 10:00~11:00, so if you want to avoid the hoard of tourist, it’s best to go around lunch time!
Another sightseeing spot that is often paired with the monkey park is the Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City, one of the most important and popular temples in Japan. Unlike other temples, you will notice that Zenkoji has very luxurious ornaments. But the most interesting thing about this temple is that there is an underground chamber in which you have to walk in darkness in search for the “key to paradise” along the passage.
Outside, there is a shopping street leading up to the temple where you can find many souvenir shops and restaurants selling local cuisine like soba noodles and oyaki dumplings.
Day 4: Snowshoeing and other snow activities!
Back in Hakuba, it’s time to try out other snow / winter activities. Even if you are not inclined to going down the slopes at fast speed, you may develop a liking for hanging out in the soft powder snow of Hakuba.
Guesthouses and ski schools or operators can arrange for activities such as snowshoeing or snow-mobile rides, with equipment provided. Snowshoeing usually involves taking the gondola up to the mountain top and walking through the forest and pristine snow to a look-out point with a panoramic view of the surroundings. The guide may also explain to you about the animal tracks or activities, and offer you a mug of nice warm hot chocolate.
For the more adventurous, you may want to go on the snow mobiles or snowrafting for some speed and thrill. There will be a safety brief and a quick introduction to the basics of driving a snow mobile. Riders can then choose from a variety of courses, whether through the trees, or on wide open snow fields.
End the day with a nice soak in one of the many open-air hot springs in Hakuba town, enjoying your last night in winter wonderland Hakuba.
Located at the foot of the majestic Mt Fuji, Hakone has always been a favorite destination of both Japanese and foreign visitors. It’s famous for its hot springs, beautiful scenery of the lake and Mt Fuji, Owakudani, an active volcanic area that smells of sulphur, and the onsen-tamago (eggs boiled in the natural hotspring). It took some time to get there and required a few transfers along the way, but eventually we made it to our first stop, Owakudani.
Owakudani is the area around a crater created during the last eruption of Mount Hakone some 3000 years ago. Today, much of the area is an active volcanic zone where sulfurous fumes, hot springs and hot rivers can be experienced. It is accessible via the Hakone Ropeway from Souzan. The view from the ropeway was totally spectacular as we could see the whole valley and the steam rising from below. Once we reached the actual site, the smell of sulfurous fumes was incredibly strong and almost intolerable! Despite that, we made our way further up the trail.
One of the most famous things in Owakudani is Kuro-tamago (literally “Black egg”), a local specialty of eggs cooked in the natural hot springs. Because of sulfur in the water, the egg shells are blackened. Consuming the eggs is said to prolong one’s life by seven years so surely we wouldn’t miss a chance to try it.
We then took the ropeway down to Togendai where we had to transfer to the Hakone Sightseeing Cruise. Before that, we stopped to have lunch at Togendai View Restaurant which is located inside the station building and overlooks Lake Ashi. The highly recommended dish is the fluffy rice omelet made with fresh eggs from nearby Gotemba Plateau and the curry with deep-fried pork cutlet made with pork raised on the Asagiri Plateau. Here we could enjoy our lunches while watching the scenic view of Lake Ashi.
After finishing lunch, we headed to board the pirate ship-shaped sightseeing cruise. It was cold and windy but the beautiful view was totally worthwhile. Although we could not see Mt Fuji from there because it was too cloudy, we enjoyed a breath of fresh air and the magnificent scenery along the coast.
Our next destination is Hakone Shrine which is about ten-minute walk from where we got off the cruise. To get to the main building of the shrine, we walked up a series of steps through the forest where the atmosphere was so peaceful and refreshing. We finished up our trip at Hakone-Yumoto by shopping for souvenirs or soaking in an onsen after a long cold day.
A little over an hour away from Tokyo, the town of Misaki and neighboring Jogashima Island offers an excellent day trip out of the city. For this trip, I highly recommend that you purchase the Misaki Maguro Pass, as we did for this trip.
Misakiko, a major tuna port, hosts a fish market similar to the likes of Tsukiji. Unfortunately, we decided to meet up an hour later, so we when we arrived to market at 9, the vendors were already packing up.
But there is still much to do around the area. We took a quick stroll around the Urari Seafood Market, which sold fresh fish to the public, as well as interesting treats such as tuna and red bean bun and tuna madelines, neither of which I was brave enough to try.
From there, on our way to the Kainan Shrine, we took a quick stroll through the town shopping districts, Shitamachi Shotengai and Misaki Ginza, which had a retro charming atmosphere of the Showa period.
Luckily, the Kainan Shrine was hosting a Shichi-go-san ceremony, a coming of age celebration for children, so we were lucky enough to see Japanese children dressed in traditional kimono. The shrine is also home to an 800-year-old ginko tree.
Next, we took the bus towards Jogashima Island. One of the benefits of the Misaki Maguro Pass is that it includes unlimited transportation around the Misaki area. After exploring the shoreline for a bit, we had lunch at Shibuki-tei. The Misaki Maguro Pass includes a meal coupon at 21 different restaurants around the area, and often offers meal options as well. When we mentioned to our waitress that one of us couldn’t eat raw fish, she was very accommodating and brought out Tuna Katsu don. The rest of us had the option of Tuna sashimi don or a Tuna and squid combo don. Both came with an assortment of side dishes, as well as a jar of the restaurant’s specialty tuna miso, made only in Misaki.
After a hearty lunch, we decided to walk along the rocky beach towards the one of the main attractions, the Jogashima Lighthouse. About a 30 minutes walk away, the Uma-no Sedomon, the famous rock arch formation is another popular attraction. Jogashima offered spectacular sights. When the sky is clear, you have a great view of Mount Fuji.
The Misaki Maguro pass also offers admission to a hot springs facility, the aquarium, or a glass boat ride.
We chose the aquarium, which was a bit small, but still enjoyable. The highlight of that excursion was seeing the sunset from an observatory.
I’m chewing on some Okinawan sugar cane and enjoying the warm afternoon breeze as I am writing this, reminiscence of my short-lived holiday in sunny Okinawa.
Having lived in Japan for a couple of years, I’ve travelled and visited most parts of Japan. However, it has never crossed my mind to visit Okinawa. Perhaps it is because my idea of Okinawa consists mainly of beaches, sunny weather and a culture and cuisine largely similar to back home. I also heard that it is dominated by the Americans and the Filipinos, which made me think; “If I were to go to a sunny beach destination with an international culture, there’s plenty of cheaper options in Southeast Asia.” Perhaps, that explains why I have never visited Okinawa in my years of travelling Japan.
Thanks to Follow Me Japan and the Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau, I had the opportunity to visit Okinawa and experience a different side of Japan. There are no tall buildings or departmental stores; no sickeningly cute maid cafes or noisy pachinko parlours; no overcrowded sushi restaurants or trains filled with drunk salarymen.
What there is, is the warm hospitality of the Okinawan people, their sunny disposition matching that of the climate, the rustic charm of the island villages, a slower pace of life in the islands of longevity, and a strong Ryukyu culture that reflects its key position in maritime trade with Southeast and east Asia, especially China.
My 5-day trip to Okinawa was barely the tip of the iceberg, and now I can’t wait to get back and explore more of the Okinawa islands. And here are five reasons why Okinawa should also be your next place to visit in Japan.
1. Sun. Sand. Sea.
Does it need more explaining? The image of a picture-perfect beach destination is almost synonymous with the word vacation. Even though Japan has never really been known as a beach destination, you just need to google images of Okinawa and you will realize what you’ve been missing out. Apart from the beautiful clear blue sea and soft white sand, the Okinawa islands also have some of the world’s most abundant coral reefs. There is a wide array of water activities to choose from, snorkeling, sea-kayaking, fishing, diving or even just being fascinated by the whale sharks and manta rays in Churaumi Aquarium.
2. Think you know Japan? Think again. Okinawa has a culture and history so rich and unique from the rest of Japan.
Never been a history buff myself, I was surprised to find myself intrigued by the history of Okinawa and the Ryukyu Kingdom. Unlike the rest of Japan, which prides itself on the homogeneity of the people, Okinawan culture resembles a mix of its early maritime trading partners, from China, Japan and Southeast Asia.
Even the modern-day Okinawa has its influences from the presence of the U.S. military bases. Walking down the streets, it is pretty common to see Japanese-Western couples, as well as military-related shops and western shops like A&W, something I have never seen elsewhere in Japan.
3. Learn the secret to longevity!
Also known as the islands of longevity, Okinawa people have one of the highest life expectancy in the world. In addition, Okinawa also boasts a population with the highest proportion of people living beyond 100 years old. The secret to this? The Okinawan diet. It consists of a large amount of vegetables, tofu, konbu seaweed and local produce like the Okinawan purple sweet potatoes and bitter melon, Goya.
Of course, being an archipelago, Okinawa also has abundant seafood. In fact, the Okinawan people eat only the freshest sashimi. Don’t be surprised if your sashimi does not come served on ice because ice is not even needed! And unlike the rest of Japan where sushi is only made by a sushi chef, sushi in Okinawa is made by housewives and eaten at home.
4. Go island-hopping and enjoy island life!
ALOHA! Don’t be surprised to see this word commonly used in the shops, for Okinawa does give off the same laid-back vibe as Hawaii. The archipelago consists of more than 160 tropical islands, so have your pick! Whether it is diving in Ishigaki island, hiking in the tropical forests of Iriomote island, visiting the traditional Ryukyu villages on Taketomi island, relaxing on the beautiiful beaches of Miyako Island, or even shopping on Kokusai Street in the main island, I’m sure you’d be able to find out to suit your preference. Time to escape the big city, kick back and relax with a glass of awamori, the local distilled liquor made from Thai rice.
5. If you think the Japanese are polite and kind, then the Okinawan people are super friendly.
Perhaps it is because of Okinawa’s history and interaction with its trading partners, or perhaps it is just the island lifestyle… The people of Okinawa seem to be more open and friendly to visitors. Everywhere we went, we were greeted by the warm and bright smiles of the locals, with their cheerful greetings.
I had the opportunity to visit Minami Daito island, a small island village known for its sugar cane plantations and I was simply blown away by the locals’ hospitality and warmth toward this group of foreigners. They shared their food and culture with us, and even went out of the way to catch some bonito fish to make fresh sashimi for us!
I hope I have whet your appetite about visiting the beautiful Okinawa islands. To find out more about where to go and what to do in Okianwa, keep a lookout for our upcoming blog posts!
Ojariyae! “Konnichiwa” in Minami Daito’s local dialect.
Literally located in the middle of nowhere, this small island is probably one of the most remote places, yet also the most unforgettable trips I’ve been on in Japan. Well, geographically it is located 400km east of Okinawa island, but in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. Perhaps this explains its nickname, “The Island in the Endless Sea”. This remote island is made out of corals and given its geographical formation of sharp cliffs all around the coast, the only way to get there is through a short flight from Okinawa main island, or a ferry, with a “special” transit system to get passengers on shore.
You should also know that the cultural background of this island is quite unlike any of the other Okinawan islands. The first inhabitants of this island were from Izu Hachijo island, near Tokyo, and not Okinawa. As such, the local culture is a mix between Okinawan and Izu culture. In addition, it was the Russians who first discovered this island in 1820, naming it South Borojino island. Truly, this unique cultural blend can only be found this “Island in the endless sea”.
Our small propeller plane landed on the runway with greenery on both sides, and we stepped out into the blistering heat of the island. We were greeted by the warm welcomes of the locals as soon as we arrived at the airport. As our van pulled out of the airport, we could only see sugarcane plantations and the occasional building. The circumference of the island is only 21.3km2, barely half of a marathon! The guide happily pointed out the buildings – the only supermarket, the big sugar factory, the local post office… and 10 minutes later, we arrived in the “community center” where we attended a cooking class conducted by the local residents.
We were introduced to Daito-sushi, sushi commonly eaten in the Daito islands. Daito-sushi is made from sawara, Spanish Mackerel, which can be caught all year round in the Daito Islands, unlike in the rest of Japan. The main difference of the sushi is that the sashimi was thinly sliced and soaked in soy sauce before being placed on the rice. Like the rest of Okinawa, it is not unusual for the people of Daito to make and eat sushi at home, so we too, were taught to make our own sushi, from slicing the fish (apparently the most difficult step!), marinating it, and shaping the rice. Then, we enjoyed a typical local lunch of Daito-sushi, goya (bitter melon) seasoned with soy sauce, and winter melon broth.
After satisfying the growling stomachs, we set off to see what this beautiful little gem has got to offer! First stop, Kaigunbo Pool by the coast. As mentioned earlier, the geographical formation of this island meant that instead of sandy beaches, cliffs surround the coastline. In fact, there are no beaches for swimming on this island! As such, the villagers made Kaigunbo Pool, a reef pool for children to swim safely. In the summer, this place is filled with local families swimming, fishing and catching crabs and shellfish! From the cliff, you can also get an unobstructed view of the majestic Pacific Ocean.
Apart from the beautiful coastline, you’ll be surprised to find some pretty spectacular underground limestone caves on the island. We visited the Hoshino Limestone Caves, where we can observe the stalactites and stalagmites of the pink rock cave. Of course, no touching!
The other natural wonder of the island is the inland black mangrove of the island. As you may know, mangroves are formed when fresh water meets sea-water. However, on this island, the black mangroves are landlocked, isolated from the open sea! The locals have discovered that the surface of this water body is fresh water whereas the bottom is saltwater!
This island is simply filled with so much treasures and the simple lifestyle of the villages had kept the natural beauty pretty much intact. With limited telecommunications reception, and limited shops and modern-day entertainment, this is definitely the island to go to to “escape” it all!