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!
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.
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.
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.
Finally! We reached the Daihbutsu.
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.
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.
There are several places for Kimono or Yukata rental around Asakusa (浅草), a district in Tokyo, famous for the Senso-ji, a Buddhist temple dedicated to the bodhisattva Kannon.
Kimono (着物), which literally means a “thing to wear” (ki “wear” and mono “thing”), is a Japanese traditional garment. People tend to associate kimono with the formal robe typically made from silk and worn to formal occasions. Yukata (浴衣), with the same basic construction as kimono, are made from cotton, unlined, and usually worn to summer festivals.
I and my friends got to experience wearing Kimono at Asakusa. We rented Kimono from a shop called Asakusa-Shichihenge. (http://www.asakusa-7henge.com/) English is available on the website. The staffs at the shop also speak English. Therefore, it is easier to communicate and choose the rental packages. In summer, you can rent Yukata. But in winter, you can rent Kimono. I and my friends went to the shop in November so we could experience wearing Kimono.
There are several rental packages from basic Kimono to Furisode Kimono. We chose the basic package. It is only 3,500 Yen (tax included) per person but if you go with a group of 2 or more members, the price is down to 2,500 Yen (tax included). If you do not have Japanese socks to wear with Kimono, you will have to buy the socks for 300 Yen. The package includes Kimono and Japanese shoes for all day (from 10:00-16:00). It takes around 15 minutes to dress 1 person. The shop also provides hairdo services but you have to pay 100 Yen for hairpin rental. (Please make a reservation in advance.)
Do not worry about the size. There are many sizes of Kimono. And you can choose the pattern of the Kimono by yourself. If you cannot decide, the staffs will help you choose and match the color for you. Because we went in Winter, we could also rent the outerwear for Kimono.
We went to the shop on the rainy day but it was really fun. We wore Kimono and walked around Asakusa area. We even went to the Japanese restaurant. It was pretty cool, wearing Kimono and eating Japanese traditional clothes. After having lunch, we went to the temple, took Omiguji, and took some pictures around Asakusa.
If you come to Japan, I recommend you to experience wearing Kimono. It was really interesting and fun!
On 11 Feb, the day of Japan’s Country Foundation Day, we went to Kamakura to walk around, and more importantly, to witness a strange religion ceremony. This ceremony is a disciplinary ceremony / training for monks in training.
As some of you may know, there are many shrines and temples in Kamakura, so, it is sometimes called “Small Kyoto”. The town is a famous and popular sightseeing spot among Japanese as well.
From Shinagawa to Kamakura, it takes around 1 hour by local train.
At first, we visited Chosho-ji (長勝寺) to watch the religious ceremony.
Monks in training came….
Cold water was poured over their heads with chanting reading sutras!!! Note, this is February, deep in winter!
IT LOOKS SOOOOO COLD! o(>_<)o
To warm ourselves out from that “cold” experience, we went for lunch near Kamakura Station and walked around the area..
After walking around Kamakura and Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, we took tram and visited this famous site.
At last we visited the beach and said “See you again!”
Of course winter is off season, so it was really quiet and tranquil…
After all Kamakura is good place to visit any number of times!!!
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.
Everyone’s image of Tokyo is that big metropolitan city, sky-scrappers, anime town, insanely-crowded scramble crossing, shopping, eating, partying… Over the weekend, we embarked on a trip like no others before! We had boarded the JRYamanote Line, the famous loop line that goes around city, and explored the city in depth! We plunged into the quiet residential neighborhoods, walked down the narrow streets, peered into tiny little shops, went into the enclaves and experienced a different side of Tokyo!
We bought the JR Tokunai Pass which cost only 750 yen and gives you unlimited rides on the Yamanote line, making it a cheap and fun way to explore the city! So off we go!
Station #1: Nippori Station
This area is said to be reminiscent of the old Tokyo, with its narrow streets, old houses, shrines and temples. We arrived at 9:30am, a little too early for the shops, but we could enjoy walking down the quiet narrow streets, something different from the hustle and bustle of the big city. We walked down Yanaka Ginza Shopping Street, which was lined with shops and bakeries.
Station 2: Ueno / Okachimachi
With the shops beginning to open for business, we left behind quiet little Nippori and headed to Ueno, where we walked along the tracks to Okachimachi. Along this stretch is the famous Ameyoko-cho, which was bustling with shoppers. There is a strange combination of shops… Don’t be surprised to find the fresh seafood stand next to the the handbag bargain shop, where everything goes for ¥3,000, or the kebab stand next to the sportswear shop. It seems like there is a shop for everyone!
Station 3: Harajuku
We went halfway round the Yamanote Line to Harajuku.. not in search for fancy cosplay or the latest fashion trend in Tokyo, but in hopes of seeing some of the youths from the Coming-of-Age ceremony at the Meiji Shrine. The vibes from the temple grounds seem to be a world’s different from the busy Takenoshita-Dori on Harajuku, famous for its crepe stands, shops filled with Tokyo fashion, and cosplayers. It seems like a really strange juxtaposition to have the temple and shopping street right next to each other.. but I had to remind myself that anything is possible in Japan!
Station 4: Takadanobaba
We headed to Takadanobaba, an area populated by the students of Waseda University. Walking along the streets, I noticed that the roads here are wider, compared to Nippori and Ameyoko-cho. The shops are also busier, with restaurants catering to the student population.
As it was a public holiday, we couldn’t go to the university canteen for lunch. However, we did find many small shops with relatively cheap food for lunch!
Station 5: Sugamo
Also known as the Harajuku of old grannies, this area is known for its shops catering to the older generation. Here you can find the famous Aka-Pants (red underwear) shop, meant to bring good fortune to the wearer! Also, there are plenty of traditional Japanese snacks, such as the Shio-Daifuku, a salted mochi.
Station 6: Shin-Okubo
Stepping out of Shin-Okubo station, I had to do a double-take as it felt like I was in Korea! Known as Little Korea, the street was lined with shops selling K-pop merchandise, Korean cosmetics and Korean restaurants! And we could also hear the passers-by speaking Korean. It certainly felt different from the usual Japanese neighbourhood!
Although we only covered 6 out of the 29 stations, it was interesting and insightful to see a different side of Tokyo! I’ve always believed that walking is the best way to explore the city and what better way than to start with the neighbourhoods along the Yamanote Line?
Kawagoe (川越) is a city in Saitama Prefecture located about 30 minutes by train from Ikebukuro, which makes it a perfect day trip from Tokyo. Our first destination once we arrived in Kawagoe was Kita-in, a renowned temple built around 1200 years ago. At the entrance of the temple, we were pleasantly greeted with some red maple leaves, the well-known symbol of autumn.
After walking around for a while, we entered the buildings of the former Edo Castle, the only remaining palace buildings which have survived the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and World War II. Taking photo was not allowed inside the building unfortunately, but we got to see the room which the Shogun was born as well as his dressing room and toilet. From the back of the building, we could have a nice view of the Japanese garden and enjoy some more autumn leaves.
Our next spot was Hikawa Shrine which was just a few minutes from Kita-in by bus. On the day of our visit, many parents and children dressed up nicely in kimono were there for “Shichi Go San”, a traditional ceremony to celebrate children of age three, five, and seven. Also, there was a wedding ceremony going on when we were there, so we considered ourselves really lucky to have a chance to observe both ceremonies at the same place and same time.
After Hikawa Shrine, we moved on to Kawagoe’s Warehouse District, had lunch and strolled around to take in the historic atmosphere. Definitely, we did not forget to try some local specialties such as sweets made from purple potato, Kawagoe’s beer, takoyaki senbei, and miso bread!
On the way back to the train station, we happened to notice that some kind of festival was going on so we decided to step in and have a look. Interestingly, we were told that it was a “Kitsune Matsuri” or literally “Fox Festival” which was held for the first time. There were lots of people wearing costumes and fox’s masks and some even had fox’s tails! It was such a fun and impressive way to finish our trip.
By Kate P.
Kate is an avid traveler in Japan who can’t wait to expand her journey in Japan and share her amazing experiences with everyone. ^_^