Tag Archives: rural Japan

Exploring Nokogiriyama and the largest Buddha in Japan

Contrary to popular belief, the largest Buddha is not located in Kamakura or Nara, but in Chiba.

After meeting at the train station at 8am, we headed over to Kurihama station, which took about an hour. From there, we took a ferry across the Tokyo Bay, which took us to the Boso peninsula. We opted to take the ropeway up and down the mountain, rather than to risk getting lost.

Traveling in a tiny cable car was exhilarating and kind of scary! We were stuffed in a box but the views were worth it. We were up that mountain in a matter of minutes.

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Even with the cable car, the path was mostly uphill, with more stairs than I cared for. But we stopped by the visitor center to grab a traditional Japanese meal and set off. The first path took us to a 30m high wall carving of Kannon, named Hyakushyaku. We got a nice tourist take a group picture, but unfortunately the head of the statue got cut off in the shot.

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Next, we made our way towards Nokogiriyama, or Saw Mountain, named after its profile that protrudes out of the mountain.

Though a bit cloudy to see Mount Fuji, this area did allow us to view panoramic views of the bay.

On the way to the Daibutsu, we came across hundreds of hand carved arhats. Surprisingly, many had different poses and facial expressions.

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Finally! We reached the Daihbutsu.

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Japan’s largest pre-modern Buddha, nearly double the size of large Buddhas in Nara and Kamakura

A bunch of us also bought charms and darumasan at a nearby vendor.

On our way back, we wandered around the beach.

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All in all, visiting Nokogiriyama was a nice getaway from the city. Though a bit confusing to explore, good company and the spectacular views made it a wonderful adventure.


 

By Erika

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Five reasons why Okinawa should be the next place you visit in Japan

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.

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Just kicking it back and watching the waves come rolling in on Minami Daito Island.
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The sugarcane fields of 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.

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Mensoure! Welcome to Okinawa!

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.

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Say cheese and immerse in some Ryukyu culture!

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.

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Contemplating a dive into the rock pool…
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Whale-watching in Okinawa 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.

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Enjoying a traditional Eisa dance at the Ryukyu Mura
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Seems like army fatigue is the fashion in Okinawa!

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.

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Goya Champuru – rich in vitamins and minerals and eaten to battle the summer heat
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No trip to Japan is complete without some sashimi.

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.

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Exploring the underground limestone caves in Minami Daito Island.
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Embracing the rustic charm of the island villages.

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!

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During our trip, we’ve been asked several times to join in the local dance! Who cares about my two left feet, I had fun!
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Goodbye Okinawa! I hope to be back soon!

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!

This trip has been made possible by Follow Me Japan and Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Lost in the Rustic Charm of Minami Daito Island (Part 2)

Although Minami Daito is known as the Island in the Endless Sea, another name for it is the Island of Sugarcane, for obvious reasons.

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Looking out, you can only see sugar cane plantations all over the island.
Enjoying the warm hospitality of the local villagers.
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The old and simple buildings that has withstood many typhoons on the island.

The first inhabitants from Izu Hachijo island use the island to grow sugarcane. Today, there are only 1,400 inhabitants on the island, but 90% of the population is working on the sugar-cane plantations all over the island. The island may be small, but 100 ton of sugar is processed every harvest to produce crystallised sugar for mainland Japan. With sugar production being the main form of revenue, almost everyone we came across is either working on the plantations, or in the sugar factory. In fact, the average income on this island is higher than elsewhere in Okinawa main island because farmers own large plots of land! Even our driver owns 13ha of land for his own sugarcane plantation!

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Until 25 years ago, sugar railway was used to send sugar cane from the fields to the factory. Today, we can still see the railway tracks on some of the roads.

We visited the Hinomaru Observatory, a short viewing tower on a slightly elevated ground that offers a panorama view of the island. From here, you can see that the island is mostly covered by sugar plantation, save for the few buildings in the village center. It also shows you, how small the island actually is, when you can actually see beyond the land and into the never-ending deep blue.

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A panorama view of the island.

Not surprisingly, there is also a rum factory on the island. The local brand, Cor Cor (short for Crown of the Coral, named after the shape of the island) is a big hit throughout Okinawa. The green label is made directly from sugar cane juice and only 600 bottles are produced every month! You may want to buy some of these Cor Cor home as souvenirs from this little remote island as it is much more expensive to get them on the main islands. Interestingly, the old airport is being used as the rum factory so don’t be surprised to see the boarding gate signs!

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Shopfront of the Cor Cor rum factory.
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Inside the factory, you can still see the signage for the old airport.
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The former boarding gate of the old airport. Signage reads “Only 1 carry-on luggage per passenger.”

The highlight of the trip has to be the heartfelt performance of the local folk music by a group of girls called “Borodino Musume” (Daughters of Borodino). The background of this performance is the bitter-sweet story of the children of the Daito islands. As there is no high school on the islands, all children of the islands have to leave their families and move to Okinawa main island at the age of 15. The folk music is a farewell dance to their loved ones and also serves reminds them of their identity and the beauty of their hometown. Although I do not understand the lyrics of the songs, the heartwarming story of the girls resonated with me.

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A wonderful performance of the local folk music, with traditional instruments such as the Okinawan sanshin.
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We were also treated to a dinner of local sashimi and marinated bonito fish.
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After the performance, we were invited to join in the local dance with the local residents!
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Having fun and playing with the girls, despite not speaking the same language. 
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And when the village has gone to sleep, have a glass of awamori (Okinawan sake) at the local pub.

My 2-day stay on this island is pretty short-lived, but the interactions with the villagers, and the rustic charm of this island village made it hard for me to leave. I wish I had more time just to wander the streets, have a dip in the reef pool, chat with the local grannies and enjoy the local folk music. Minami Daito island may be far out in the middle of nowhere, but it is definitely worth going the distance for.

This trip has been made possible by Follow Me Japan and Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau.

5 Things to do on Okinawa main island

We left behind the bustling streets of Naha City and travelled northward towards Motobu Peninsula, where the world-renowned Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium is located. With so many activities to choose from, here are some of our recommendations!

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Driving up to Motobu Peninsula
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Travelling on the wide roads of Motobu Peninsula, you’ll only see the beautiful coast and the greenery.

1.    Marvel at the marine life at Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium.

Did you know that “Chura” means “beautiful” in the Okinawan dialect, and “Umi” means “sea, or ocean” in Japanese? Hence, Churaumi, beautiful sea, is a name that aptly sums up what you are about to see in the aquarium. Don’t miss out on the Kuroshio Tank, a huge world-class tank where you can marvel at the majesty of the whale sharks, manta rays, dolphins, and other beautiful marine creatures. You should also know that the aquarium have started a world-first initiative to breed corals for eventual release into the sea!

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Admire the beautiful marine creatures at the world-class Kuroshio Tank.

2.    Get your hands dirty at the local crafts studios or bakery!

Ryukyu glass is one of the famous crafts of Okinawa. In Motobu, you can experience glass-blowing and make your own original Ryukyu glass at one of the local studios! Did you know that the Ryukyu glassware industry has a pretty interesting background? It all started after the war, when locals collected coke bottles from the military bases. At the same time, American soldiers returning home requested the local craftsmen to create original crafts representative of the islands. As such, Ryukyu glassware with beautiful gradient colors resembling the ocean is born.

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Try your hands at glass-blowing and make your own Ryukyu glass under the instructions of the master glassblowers!
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The vibrant colours that is characteristic of Ryukyu glassware.

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Or learn how to bake some bread using wild yeast and home-grown ingredients 

3.    Appreciate the culture of ancient Okinawa at the Ryukyu Mura

Set in the olden days of Ryukyu Kingdom, this cultural village/theme park is a great way to experience the Ryukyu traditions and the former ways of lives. You will also get a chance to watch, and even join in some of the traditional performances, such as Shishimai (Lion dance, very similar to the one in Chinese culture), Yotsudake (a kind of elegant court dance), Karate (as we all know it), and Eisa (the folk dance with Okinawan drums).

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Experience the old way of life at Ryukyu Mura – a demonstration of how water buffaloes were used at the sugarcane mill to get sugar juice, which is then boiled to make brown sugar.
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Traditional Eisa dance
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The Yotsudake court dance

4.    Admire the natural beauty of the East China Sea

Travelling along the coast, you will see plenty of attractive beaches, with the clear blue waters beckoning to you. Spend a day at the beach and enjoy sea sports with your friends and family, or kick back and relax at one of the ocean-view cafes. Also, don’t miss out the iconic scenic spot at Cape Manzamo, Onna village. The lush green grass atop the cliff is set against a beautiful backdrop of the glistening blue sea. It makes a great place to sit on the cliffs to enjoy the spectacular coastline.

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Manzamo can be said to be one of the most magnificent view of the East China Sea in Okinawa.
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It is also often referred to as The Elephant’s Nose due to the formation of the cliff!
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Take time to enjoy the sunset over the East China Sea at the end of a day of sight-seeing.

5.    Eat eat eat!

Not forgetting one of the most important aspects of travel, you may want to stop by Kyoda Road Station (apparently rated #1 in the nation by travelers) to try some of the local snacks like soft-served ice cream (with local flavours like black sugar, Okinawan calamansi, and even sea-salt & sesame!), Okinawan kamaboko (minced fish cake), and sata andagi (Okinawan doughnut)! You can also buy fresh local produce (fruits and vegetables) and other souvenirs!

And one of the highlights of Motobu Peninsula, is the Motobu Beef, Japanese black beef! Try it at the local yakiniku BBQ restaurant and I assure you you will not forget the taste of the meaty goodness melting in your mouth.

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Kyoda Road Station, rated number 1 out of 1030 stations in the nation!
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Famous andagi, Okinawa doughnut!

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Treat yourself to some top-class Motobu Beef.

This trip has been made possible by Follow Me Japan and Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau.

One day in Naha City

We flew into the swanky new international terminal at Naha Airport and were greeted by the clear blue skies and beautiful ladies clad in the traditional Okinawa kimono.

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Mensoure! Welcome to Naha City! 
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Me and a beauitful Okinawan lady in the traditional Okinawa kimono!

Located on the Okinawa main island, Naha city is the capital as well as political and economic hub. If you are looking for departmental stores, fancy restaurants, or anything slightly resembling the cities of mainland Japan, this is the most likely place to find it.

If you’re like us with only have a few hours to spare in Naha City, here are some of the places you should hit up!

1. Buy your souvenirs at Kokusai Street

Looking for a restaurant with traditional Okinawan music? Or a souvenir shop selling the shisa ornament or some local sea-salt? How about some Hawaiian-style accessories? You’ll definitely find it all on the vibrant Kokusai Street, probably the busiest street in Naha City. This main street stretches for 1.6km, with plenty of brightly lit shops and restaurants on both sides of the street. To my surprise, the shops were opened and bustling with activities even at 10pm, so no worries for late night shopping!

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The vibrant shops and busy shoppers on Kokusai Street.
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You’ll find plenty of shops selling Shisa, the mystical lion-dog creature which the locals believe will help to protect them from evil spirits.
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Sampling of sea-salt from all over Japan and the world.

2.    Savour local delicacies at Makishi Public Market

This is the place to go to for the local fare. On the first floor, you’ll find butchers, fishmongers, and green grocers selling local delicacies, from smoked pork’s face (yes, you read it right, pork’s face) to turquoise parrotfish, and safer options such as pickles and local produce like bittermelon and sugar cane. After you’re done picking your fresh ingredients, bring them upstairs and have the food stall cook it for you.

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No, these are not face masks. Smoked pork face, a local delicacy.
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How about the catch of the day?
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Or try other local cuisine in one of the restaurants on the second floor.

3. Enjoy the artistic charm of Tsuboya Yachimun Street

After a filling meal at the Makishi Public Market, take a stroll along Tsuboya Yachimun Street, a small street known for local ceramics craft and pottery. If you like, try your hands at pottery at one of the studios. Or perhaps, just sip on a cup of coffee at one of the small cafes, enjoying the quiet charm of this back street, which is a stark contrast to the busy Kokusai Street.

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One of the traditional pottery studios on Tsuboya Yachimun Street.
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Came across this odd vintage shop selling some very classic pots and toys from my childhood days.

4.    Take in the prowess of Ryukyu Kingdom at Shurijo Castle

For something more cultural, visit Shurijo Castle located in Naha. This is the castle where the kings of Ryukyu kingdom lived. If you have been to other castles in mainland Japan, you may notice a difference in the architecture. Indeed, the architecture of Shurijo is a combination of Chinese, Japanese and indigenous Ryukyu construction techniques. This technique is unique to Okinawa, and is a result of influences from Ryukyu’s maritime trading partners. Step into the castle grounds and relive the glorious days of the Ryukyu kings.

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Step inside and admire the grandeur of Shurijo Castle. (Photo from JNTO)
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The night illumination of Shurijo Castle makes it seem like a forbidden castle.

This trip has been made possible by Follow Me Japan and Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Tokachi & Obihiro – In search of happiness

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Day 1 of Hokkaido Roadtrip: Sapporo – Obihiro – Tokachi

(Read the overview story here.)

Early in the morning, all of us met up at Sapporo station and picked up our rental car from the Toyota Rental Car shop nearby. Then it was a 2 hours drive to Obihiro City, stopping at a supermarket to stock up on snacks and drinks for the road. At Obihiro, we popped into the visitors’ center at the station and got information for the day.

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Brilliant weather to start the trip!

At Obihiro, we had the famous Buta-don (“pork bowl”, roast sliced pork on rice). It was.. mouth-watering!!! And then we bought the 500yen sweets-coupon which allowed us to visit 5 confectionaries of our choice in the area. It was a mad rush for the sweets – soft-served ice cream, sweet potato pies, waffles, cheese cake…

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Buta-don, pork bowl
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Sweet potato pies
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Pudding
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Cheeeeseeeee!

Satisfied with the gourmet run, we continued our journey down into the southern area of Tokachi. First stop, the former Aikoku (愛国 – “Land of Love”) station, followed by the famous Kofuku (幸福 – “Happiness”) station. As you’d have expected, these two stations are famous because of their meaning, travelling from the Land of Love into Happiness!

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Catching the train from Aikoku….
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Bound for Kofuku – the station of happiness!
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The beautiful scenery of Tokachi

For the night, we rented out a log cabin near a dairy farm. It was huge, and smelled of the fragrance of wood. Since it was dark and rainy outside, with nothing for miles, we stayed in and made our own hot pot for dinner.

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Home sweet home! ❤
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The table is set, dinner is ready!

The best place to spend Japanese summer? Hokkaido.

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Driving through Hokkaido must be one of the best way to explore the region.

I often get asked what is the best season to visit Hokkaido. Most people would say it is during the winter, where you can visit numerous large-scale snow festivals and also enjoy the famous powder snow if you are a skiier or snow-boarder.

For me, I’d say the best season to visit is in summer, when the weather is comfortably warm (unlike the rest of Japan where it is humid and blazing hot), the days are long, and the flowers are blooming. That is why I organised a road-trip around Eastern Hokkaido.

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The famous flower fields at Furano.
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One of the Five Lakes of Shiretoko NP.
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The beautiful coastline of Urahoro, looking out into the Pacific Ocean.

Together with 4 other people I’ve never met before this trip, we covered 1,200km in 10 days, visiting

  1. Obihiro
  2. Hiroo & Urahoro
  3. Kushiro City & Kushiro Marshland NP
  4. Lake Akan & Lake Onneto, Akan NP
  5. Lake Mashu & Lake Kussharo, Akan NP
  6. Utoro & Shiretoko NP
  7. Okhotsk Coastline
  8. Abashiri & Koshimizu Lily park & Cheese Factory
  9. Sounkyou Hotspring
  10. Asahidake, Daisetsuzan National Park
  11. Hokuryu Sunflower Park
  12. Biei
  13. Furano

Here is a map of our tracks:

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It’s been a long journey and we enjoyed driving cross-country, stopping at the farms, beaches, national parks and anywhere else that caught our interest. It was late July when we went and we had a few rainy days but other than that, the weather was great!

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The uber-adorable calf from the dairy farm at Tokachi.

It’s hard to say what was the highlight of the trip, but if I have to choose, it would be the last day, when it was bright and clear after two days of pouring rain. We were driving down from Asahidake towards Biei and the view of the mountain ranges right in front of us was simply breathtaking. It was like watching a IMAX movie, if you get what I mean.

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A panoramic view of the mountain ranges of Deisetsuzan NP.

In any case, the trip had some of the most scenic drives I ever had in Japan, as well as some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been in rural Japan. And as the locals said, even though Hokkaido is cold, the hearts of the locals are warm! We were very fortunate to have stayed with some of very friendly and kind guesthouse / farmstay owners.

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Trying hard not to disturb the little calves.
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A happy family with our guesthouse owner, whom we affectionately call “Mother”, and her son, Yuji.

And although I had my own reservations about travelling on such a unconventional trip with people I do not know, I must say, those worries are unwarranted! Turns out that everyone was really chill and laid back… Afterall, we just wanted an amazing holiday in Hokkaido and guess what? We got what we wanted.

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