Guest post: Online Resources for Planning a Trip to Japan!


Say ‘hello’ to the blog’s first ever guest writer – engineer, Japanophile and cosplayer Kate (UchihaSasuK8 on Twitter)! She is the author of the brilliantly resourceful Japan tourism blog Nihon-go.org and she brings us a very handy guide on how to plan your trip to Japan! Whether you’ve been before or visiting there still seems like a far-off dream, there’s something for everyone is this guest post.

Online Resources for Planning a Trip to Japan

So you have seen the anime and want to see and real live Gundam. You have eaten sushi but are hungry for more. You want to find a Geisha to steal your heart. You are planning you first trip to Japan!

The first thing to know is that it is not difficult. While all the talk of the language of indecipherable symbols and the complex etiquette may be intimidating, you should know that a trip to Japan is only as challenging as you want it to be.

That said – here is an introduction to a few resources that will make it even smoother!

Where to go:

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Japan National Tourism Organisation (JNTO) : This is a really good starting point for planning your trip. If you are struggling to decide what areas or activities you want to focus on; use the high quality photos, Interactive Map, or the Suggested Itineraries to whet your appetite and inspire you. JNTO also provides libraries of “Practical Travel Guides” that contain the most essential information this is perfect to print out and take with you as an easy reference.

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Japan Guide : An Extensive guide to Japan broken down by region with a very helpful star rating (out of 3) that provides great information on individual attractions and sites, with a summary of sites by topic – such as “Museums” or “Castles” – as well as a number of general guides such as “Train Travel” and “Dining Out” to help you make a wish list. It also has a really active Question Forum where you can ask for advice or run your ideas by more seasoned Japanophiles.

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Japan Tourist : Written by travellers for travellers, this website has a huge number of review articles by people who have actually been there, and done that.  This is a great way to find out about more off-the-beaten-track or specialised interest places from people with a real enthusiasm for Japan who are more than happy to share and answer questions.

How to get there:

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Japan Rail Pass : Anyone who is thinking of travelling in Japan should at least consider a Japan Rail Pass. It is a pay-once/unlimited-use ticket that allows you to make the most of Japan’s highly efficient rail network. It is available from a huge number of places online, but nowhere has as a comprehensive break down of the validity, ticket offices and other details on how to actually use the pass as the original JR site. Make sure you check it out especially if you intend to collect your pass from somewhere other than the airport or validate it part way through your trip.

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Hyperdia : Even if you decide the Japan Rail Pass is not for you, Hyperdia is likely to become one of your most used bookmarks. It is the indispensable tool for planning any rail trip in Japan – and even has an English language app for iPhone and Android. Take some time to get used to its search features such as the “No Nozomi” features to make the most of it.

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Nohi Bus : Nearly everywhere in Japan is best accessed by rail, but there are a few exceptions. Sadly, their websites tend to be less tourist-friendly and have less English translations but are perfect for travelling to the very popular Shirakawa-Go and the Hida Takayama area.

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ToCoo : With the undoubted prowess of the rail system many people do not consider car hire in Japan, but it can be a great way to get way out into the country or tour along the coast line at your own pace. ToCoo is an English language car hire site that checks rates at many of the major dealers.

Where to Stay:

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Japanican : A good place to look for Hotels or Ryokan (Japanese Style Inns) nationwide, with useful search features such as “with Onsen Baths” or “Easy Train Access”.

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Rakuten : A little more clunky to use than Japanican, but with a wider range of accommodation choices (particularly at the “budget end”) and often cheaper.

Business Hotels: There are a number of hotel chains such as the Japanese Premier Inn or Travel Lodges that offer good value, no-fuss rooms in a number of cities – check out Dormy Inn, Chisun Hotels, Super Hotel, Toyoko Inn.

Something More?

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Sakura House : If you are considering staying in Japan for more than a few weeks you might want to consider a “Gaijin House”, which are properties available to rent to foreigners. Often these are shared properties similar to University Halls of Residence where you have private bedroom and a common kitchen and bathroom, but Sakura House have many types on offer.

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Rentaphone : If you’re worried your phone will not work or just about getting ripped off on your roaming charges, then consider renting a Japanese phone. Rentaphone send an easy-to-use phone to your door before you fly, complete with a postage paid return envelope.

Blogs: As patronising as it sounds – don’t forget to Google! There are a huge number of blogs written by people all over the world specialising in a huge number of things and Japan is no different, particularly if you have special interest in an activity, field or subculture. Want to be on the pulse of Harajuku Fashions, or the freshest powder, or the finest dinning? It’s all there.

Some of my favourites include:

Tofugu – the best of the weird and the wonderful.

Green Shinto – Learn more about Japan’s indigenous religion and its naturalistic spirituality.

Abandoned Kansai – Searching out the empty, the derelict and forgotten places of Japan. Not so much to ‘go where no one has gone before’ – but where they don’t go anymore…

Obviously, all your normal international mainstays are just as valid for Japan as anywhere else. But if this is you first big trip or you usually go with a package I recommend you check out these:

SkyScanner, Trip Advisor, Rough Guide

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A huge thank you to Kate for putting this post together! To say it’s informative is quite frankly an understatement. I, for one, will definitely be referring to this when I plan my next trip to Japan (hopefully this year)! If you have any questions for Kate, you can find her on twitter as UchihaSasuk8 and make sure you check out Nihon-go.org too!

If you’re interested in contributing to Sophie’s Japan Blog, you can find out more here.

Don’t forget to... vote on the poll I’m running at the moment and help solve the greatest  mystery of all time: what is the greatest Final Fantasy song of all time?

Send Sophie to Japan: Blog to Japan competition entry


Here it is, the fruit of my labours for the past few weeks. This is my blog entry for Inside Japan Tour’s Blog to Japan competition, which coincides with the tour group’s 12 year anniversary. Entrants have to present twelve reasons as to why they should be selected as the lucky winner. The prize is a two and a half week adventure around Japan and the winner has to share their experience of this wonderful country by writing a daily blog.

The video…

So, here is the video I have spent a good week editing and re-editing to make as persuasive as possible! Every campaign needs a name and this one is appropriately named Send Sophie to Japan.

Here is a lovely photo of my friend Leah with the mother of Koshi Inaba, one of the greatest rock stars in Japan. For some reason this picture didn’t appear in the Youtube video so I’m including it here so it makes sense!

As you will see in the video, I should be sent to Japan (in a box, if necessary!) because:

1) I’m a proven and passionate Japan blogger

2) I’ve visited Japanese events and written articles in the UK and Europe

3) I’m adventurous!

4) I know where I want to visit and want to step off the beaten track

5) I love Japanese history, especially the samurai

6) I want to write a novel set in Japan and need to do some research to make it authentic

7) I want to meet the wonderful Japanese people in their home country

8)  I love Japanese food

9) I am in love with Japan’s natural scenery, especially the famous Nihon Sankei

10) This is the perfect opportunity to put my language skills into practice

11) I have penfriends scattered across Japan who I’d love to meet in person

12) Just ask my friends!

I also made a top 12 list of things I want to do in Japan:

1) Take in the majesty of the Nihon Sankei: Matsushima Bay, Miyajima Island and Amanohashidate

2) Dance in the crowded streets during a matsuri

3) Read manga in a cat cafe

4) See a Takarazuka performance

5) Experience a traditional tea ceremony

6) Meditate in a remote Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine

7) Buy the freshest sushi at the Tsukiji fish market

8) Eat traditional gyutan (beef tongue) in Sendai

9) Stock up on anime memorabilia in Akihabara

10) Visit the Studio Ghibli Museum

11) Ride the high speed Shinkansen

12) Meet up with my friends in Japan and take them out for dinner… and make some new ones too!

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About Sophie’s Japan Blog

The fact that Sophie’s Japan Blog is celebrating its one year (12 month!) anniversary at the moment makes me feel like it was fate that I found out about this competition. In the past year, I’ve learned much more than I thought was possible just by researching, blogging and speaking to other bloggers in Japan and the UK.

If you have a look around the website, you’ll see how it’s grown and developed. I ran a Japanalphabet Twitter campaign last year, where I shared some particular features about the country’s traditional and modern culture with my followers. I’ve also written a couple of guest articles for various websites and magazines and expanded my reading list with a dedicated Book of the Month feature.

One of my secret hopes when I started this blog was that someone would pick it up and send me to Japan… and perhaps I can really realise this dream!

If you Send Sophie to Japan…

On a daily basis, you could expect to see plenty of photos and short video blogs accompanied by the music I’d no doubt discover over there, sprinkled with observations and comments from my travel companion and myself. I’m famously generous with my camera so there would also be plenty of footage with which to make some longer videos and posts when I got back! I would also create a section on the blog dedicated to the competition so the experience would be digitally immortalised for all to see!

There would even be something in it for the readers too! I often run giveaways through the blog, so it would be wrong if I didn’t buy something on my travels for a lucky someone.

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Winning this competition would allow me to combine my two greatest passions; writing and travelling.

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Thank you

I really hope that you’ve found this entry interesting as it’s certainly been fun and challenging to make. I’d like to thank my friends who appeared in the video and all of my readers who motivated me to enter. The next stage of the competition is the selection of the three finalists, who the public will then vote on! So, if I’m lucky to make it that far, I’ll let you know! It’s been quite eye-opening putting this entry together. One thing is for certain, I think I have a good voice for documentaries!

All images from the Inside Japan Tours website and Leah Holmes

Week 14: Okaeri!


Welcome home! Sort of . . . Perhaps this isn’t home but I didn’t know how to say ‘the blog is ressurected’ in Japanese! Due to a mixture of heavy workload, illness and having other articles to write (which I will post here when they are published), I had to take some time off of the blog. Check out the bottom of this post for a list of people who helped spread the word about the blog on Twitter, despite its brief inactivity. You are wonderful, thank you!

Now, I’m back, so let’s jump in.

News Story of the Week:

In the time that the blog was on hiatus, the Japanese Emperor Akihito, age 77, was hospitalised for bronchial pneumonia and has now been discharged from hospital and resumed his duties. In the wake of this event, discussions about the imperial succession have been renewed.

Prince Akishino, the youngest son of Akihito at 46 years old, has said it will become necessary to hold talks on whether there should be an age limit for ruling emperors. Currently, the emperor serves for life but, considering the state of Emperor Akihito’s health, this law is likely to be questioned.

This story will no doubt carry on and continuously change over the next few weeks and months, so I will endeavour to keep this blog up to date on the situation.

Source: straitstimes.com

Destination of the Week: Tateyama

This is perhaps a little bit confusing; the Chiba province is home to Tateyama City, the Tateyama mountains and Tateyama town. The focus this week is on the mountain route!

Tateyama is best known for the Kurobe Alpine Route, which provides a spectacular view through the Northern Japanese Alps. As you can see from these images courtesy of Japan-guide, it has these impressive huge snowy walls which build up in the winter. People come from all over Japan to traverse this scenic route, which was completed as recently as 1971.

The glorious Mount Tateyama is the main attraction of the Kurobe Mountain Route and, regardless of the time of year, is always a sight to behold. It is also home to the very rare Snow Grouse or ptarmigan, which changes colour in every season, and has come to symbolise the seasonal cycle of the mountain range. The mountain has a fascinating history and is one of the three most sacred mountains in Japan, along with Mount Fuji and Mount Hakusan. The Oyama Shrine, the sanctuary of the Tateyama Religion, is a solid indicator of the mountain’s religious importance.

Many people go hiking across the mountain range in summer and autumn to Jigokudani, an active volcanic valley. Jigokudani means ‘Hell Valley’ and, according to legend, has 136 ‘hells’ where ghosts appear to hikers. If that’s not enough, you can also experience the grandeur of the valley without the use of your legs by taking the 1.7 kilometre-long Tateyama Ropeway. This destination is one for the nature lovers!

Source: Japan-guide.com

Japanese Saying of the Week: Minu ga hana

This is a lovely short proverb that literally translates to ‘not seeing is a flower’. This means that things can never be as you can imagine, so it is better not to see them . . . Explanation: reality cannot compete with imagination.

I guess this explains why I write stories and watch anime. Reality just cannot compete with samurai and murder mysteries (two of my favourite things). I mean, does your reality have THIS?

Source: froyonation @ WordPress

Samurai of the Week: Okita Sōji

I always feel exceptionally proud of myself when I choose a samurai who is NOT from the Sengoku era. This week, we’re going forward in time to the 19th century, to the time of the Shinsengumi and end of Japan’s two hundred years of isolation.

Here is the history of the Shinsengumi in a nutshell: US Commadore Matthew Perry arrived in Japan (Yokohama) in 1853 and, over the years, slowly pushed for greater American involvement in Japanese politics. The authority of the Shogun, who was seen to be the strongest figure in Japan, was severely undermined and this led to a split in support. The Shogun founded the Rōshigumi, a group of 24 masterless samurai, to respond to the violence and murder in Kyoto. This group later became the Shinsengumi, which translated to ‘Newly Selected Corps’. They became famous overnight after the Ikedaya Affair of 1864, where they prevented the burning of Kyoto and this led to a surge in troops. However, the newly-established Meiji government saw the Shinsengumi as a threat to the new ‘western’ ways and a remnant of the past. The fighting continued outside of the new capital Edo, later to become Tokyo, and the leaders were eventually killed and the party disbanded.

With this, we can better understand the role that Okita Sōji played in Japanese history. Born into the lower-ranking Shirakawa han Samurai, he trained under Kondo Shusuke at the prestigious Shieikan dojo and was a prodigal student. He became the head coach at the age of 19 and later became one of the founders of the Shinsengumi, He was also present at the Ikedaya Affair and fought almost alone on the second floor for two hours, before he collapsed. He contracted tuberculosis and became gravely ill, forced to return to Edo during the Shinsengumi’s later campaigns, and died in 1867 at the age of 25. His grave is in Keisho-ji, Tokyo, and allows visitors just once a year.

For once, a short and succinct samurai feature! I’m no expert on the Shinsengumi but the above is a quick summary of Okita Sōji, a name still familiar in Japan and popularised in film and television. In fact, he features in this week’s series of the week. Try guess what it is before you scroll down the page!

Interesting fact: This photo is ‘believed’ to be a photo of Okita Sōji but it is hard to confirm. If it is, it is the only one in existence.

Source: fyshinsengumi @ Tumblr

Bento of the Week: Creepy cat

This would have been a good bento to feature for Halloween, which is what Were Rabbits (where this image is taken from) certainly did! This is rather eerie for a bento. The bed is made from black rice and the shape of the cat was made from a pattern cutter. There are two versions on the website, which you can check out in the link, but the one I am showing below also uses vegetables for the added effect.

Source: Were rabbits @ WordPress

Series of the Week: Hakuōki

Congratulations if you guessed what this week’s show! It only made sense that I went with a show about the Shinsengumi. It’s also a show whose name I repeatedly spell wrong. Also also, there are spoilers here. I can’t review this show without them, sorry.

Originally a romantic adventure game (both in the dating sim and sword-swishing action sense), an anime version of Hakuōki hit Japanese TV screens last year in two mini series that each spanned 12 episodes. There was also an OVA but I haven’t seen that so cannot comment. The first series was simply called Hakuōki and the second Hakuōki Hekketsu-roku. I’ll get this out of the way – I didn’t make it to the end of Hekketsu-roku and that’s not because I didn’t like it . . .

The story begins with Yukimura Chizuru, a young girl who arrives in Kyoto searching for her missing father, a doctor. She witnesses a fight between the Shinsengumi and  Oni (demons) and is taken in by the Shinsengumi for protection, once they realise that her father is the man that they are also looking for. In the shadows, a strange ‘medicine’ that supposedly grants strength is circling amongst soldiers and corrupting them into demons. Apart from this minor detail, the backdrop and story is remarkably historically accurate. It features all of the important historical characters of the period (hooray for Okita Sōji!), the battles and exchanges with pro-westerners, which teach you the basics in Japanese history.

However, by the middle of the second series I felt the show took far too many liberties. My main problem (and I’m being deliberately vague about this) is the ‘vampire’ route that it suddenly wandered down. After a while, I couldn’t even entertain the idea any more.

By all accounts, I should have fallen in love with Hakuōki. For one thing, it’s actually largely historically accurate, not to mention there’s lots of samurai and bishounen (that’s young good-looking men to you normal people), which is always a plus. However, it’s this accuracy that forced me to stop watching it. To put it mildly, things didn’t end well for the Shinsengumi. Almost everyone either left the group, was beheaded or died. The second series was full of this and, knowing that my favourite characters would inevitably die, I decided to spare myself the torment.

That said, I did enjoy this show for the most part and have plenty of friends (all of them girls, unsurprisingly) who watched the whole thing and loved it. I recommend it, providing you don’t get too emotionally attached to any of the characters.

Source: kisuki.net

Weird Thing of the Week: Dakimakura

Dakimakura are better known as ‘love pillows’ Someone suggested this to me ages ago and so it’s probably about time that I write about it. If anyone else has uncomfortable things that they want me to write about, post it on the Facebook page!

Dakimakura are part of the wider anime ‘fetish’ circle that, like it or not, is very prominent in certain groups in Japan. I’ll let you guess what those groups are. They come in all kinds of designs; some flip over to reveal variously skimply clad versions of the characters and others have holes in them . . . I don’t think those ones are TOO common.

Now for the linguistic part. Dakimakura literally translates to ‘hug pillows’, combining the words daki (cling) and makura (pillow) and is the same shape as an orthopaedic pillow. From the western viewpoint, it is better known as the ‘love pillow’ because the ones in Japan feature anime-style girls. The idea is that you imagine yourself getting intimate with these characters whilst hugging the pillow. Sexist? Well, there are male dakimakura too. Whilst browsing for reference images, I came across a Kamina (Gurren Lagann) one. Nothing is sacred.

So, why are dakimakura so popular? As I already said, they are just one strand of the ‘fetish’ sub-culture that is not entirely unusual in Japan. Having been to Japan twice now, I can say with a degree of certainty that sex is much more ‘out there’. That is not to say that everyone in Japan is into it by any means. I know plenty who think it’s beyond weird and creepy! The popularity of the dakimakura can probably be rationally explained but I’m going to go with the ‘it’s a sex thing’ argument.

For ‘alternative uses for your dakimakura’, check out this brilliant article by Danny Choo. Some of the pictures aren’t safe for work, so be warned. I swear I’ll make up for this next week by writing about something nice and innocent!

Source: NebsTV@ Photobucket

This is a photo of the pillow covers only. Feel free to risk scarring yourself with an elaborate image search like I did.

Recipe of the Week: Beef Sukiyaki

I had nothing but delicious Japanese food for dinner last weekend (London’s China Town has some amazing restaurants), as well as a lot of supermarkets for Japanese cookery. I’m particularly fond of sukiyaki, a big ‘hot pot’ style dish that is perfect for this miserably cold weather. This week’s recipe has been taken from fukuokadreaming.com, a brilliant blog written by a Fukuoka local, so you should definitely check it out.

Ingredients (serves 4-5)

  • 400-500 g Sliced beef (Usugiri)
  • 200- 300g Shirataki Noodles (I substituted udon noodles, which are easier to buy in the UK)
  • 100g Enoki mushroom
  • 100g Shimeji mushroom
  • 1 Onion (sliced)
  • 2-3 Naganegi (Long spring onion)- sliced in 2cm size
  • 80g Gobo (Greater burdock root)  -thinly sliced and quickly boiled
  • 1 block of Firm Tofu (ideally Yaki-tofu)
  • Sukiyaki Sauce (100cc soy sauce, 100cc rice wine, 100g sugar)

Method

1)  Heat 1 big spoon of cooking oil in the pan and cook beef. When beef is cooked, add seasonings for sukiyaki sauce (soysauce, sake and sugar).

2) Move the beef to one side of the pan and add shirataki, white cabbage, gobo, long spring onion, onion, tofu and mushrooms and cover the pan. (Only part of the ingredients will be soaked by sauce but they will shrink.)

3) When the ingredients shrink, mix them (among their portion of the pan) so that those on top will be soaked as well.  Cook for 5 to 10 minutes.

4) Taste and adjust flavor by adding sukiyaki sauce ingredients if necessary.

.5) Serve hot.  Eat it with rice or udon which you can add in the remaining soup after you finish eating meat and vegetables!

Source: fukuokadreaming.com

Final Thoughts

It’s high time that I do another Youtube video. I plan to post one next week, so stay tuned!

I also would like to thank a couple of people who have helped to promote this blog over Twitter. These lovely people have either retweeted or mentioned me this week and helped spread word about the blog. The least I can do is ask you to follow them too:

  • okellyjaneo – a wonderful friend who has now tweeted me several times. You may know her as KellyJane from Demyx Time.
  • anneneko – another lovely friend and fellow Sengoku Basara nut.
  • Starfox118 - reviews LOTS of video games! Known him for a few years now and love him to bits.
  • @nessiesenpai – a great friend of mine who said lovely things about my blog on her own!
  • theotakuHQ – runs a great website for … you guessed it, otaku! Also on my affiliates list, so check him out!
  • L1kemike – has a gaming blog. Go check it out!
  • ali_Haikugirl - a lovely fellow Japan blogger!
  • danimmediacy – from Bossastudios, a social gaming company!
  • DawnKestrel – a cosplayer with a brilliant Deviantart account!
  • demyxfangirlXD – I think the name says it all!
  • MrFatChance - an ace Londoner with an equally great Tumblr account.
  • frozen_lullaby – a lovely Swedish cosplayer.
  • rikumiyano – lives in ‘here and now’, apparently. I approve!

Week 10: Recommendation Week!


I thought that it might be nice to refer readers to some of the Japanese organisations and people that have been following me on Twitter and vice versa by mentioning them in this week’s features! Incidentally, if you have Twitter and want to follow me, please do!

News Story of the Week: 15 Japanese restaurants receive coveted Michelin 3 star award

Anyone with half a brain will tell you that Japanese food is delicious, so it does not come as a great surprise that Tokyo holds the greatest number of 3 star Michelin restaurants in the world. There are 15 in Japan, compared to 10 in Paris.

Seven of these 15 Michelin star restaurants are located in Kyoto and five of them are in Osaka. For the first time ever, Kobe and Nara have also received the coveted award. West Japan may now be considered the world centre of fine dining and the Michelin guide to Tokyo, established in just 2007, enjoys a loyal following.

Of course, Japanese food doesn’t have to be expensive. A lot of the time it can be cheap and cheerful! If you want to go all the way, though, then Japan is clearly a great country for those of fine taste.

This week’s story comes courtesy of The Tokyo Times!

Source: straitstimes.com

Destination of the Week: Uji

This week’s destination was picked after browsing the Japan National Tourism Organisation’s website. Uji is one of the oldest cities in Japan located between Kyoto and Nara, both of them historical capitals. Needless to say, it’s well worth a visit if you’re planning a historically-enriching holiday.

Uji is historically significant because it was on the crossroads between Kyoto and Nara, and flourished from the trade conducted there. There are stores here that have been in business for hundreds of years and the city is especially known for its tea, which has been grown in the region for a thousand years. It is therefore the perfect place to witness the famous Japanese tea ceremony.

There are a number of historically significant sites that should not be missed if you are visiting Uji. The Byōdō-in Temple, on the west bank of the Uji-gawa River, was the former home of the powerful Fujiwara family, who dominated the Heian period. There is a Buddha statue in the Phoenix Hall, which was built by the Fujiwara in response to fears that Buddhism would vanish in Japan. The modest Ujigami Shrine is also worth a visit, as it is believed to be the oldest Shinto shrine in Japan. Finally, there is the Mimurotoji Temple, one of the settings from the historic Tale of Genji, said to be the first novel in the world. There are a couple more shrines in Uji and none of them are to be missed if you want to experience the truly traditional side of Japan.

If Japanese tea is of particular interest to you, this is the perfect place to go. There is a tea festival held every October and, all year round, you can experience the traditional tea ceremony in the Taiho-an Tea House.

For ideas on organising a historical trip around Japan, JNTO London and Inside Japan both come highly recommended!

Do:

  • Buy some tea, as Uji is famous for its tea leaf production
Source: Globeimages

Japanese Saying of the Week: Gou ni itte wa, gou ni shitagae 

Gou ni itte wa, gou ni shitagae translates literally to ‘entering the village, obey the village’. A more familiar translation would be ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’. It’s interesting that you don’t just ‘do’ but ‘obey’ in the Japanese version, which gives us a sense of how the emphasis traditionally placed on conformity in Japanese society.

Source: Redbubble

Samurai of the Week: The 47 Ronin

Technically, I don’t have to write about samurai for another 46 weeks seeing how I’m writing about a whopping great 47 here!

The history of the 47 ronin is an important part of Japanese history, as their story takes place during the Edo period; a time when the meaning and purpose of the samurai was drastically changing. The Sengoku jidai, the period of the warring states, had ended with Tokugawa Ieyasu and samurai did not have to serve their masters in the same way anymore as there was no need to wage war.

The story begins with Asano Naganori, a daimyo who was tasked by the shogunate to entertain envoys from the royal family. He worked under the highly-ranked Kira Kozukenosuke Yoshinaka who expected him to monetarily compensate him for his troubles but Asano insisted that he was performing a ‘duty’ and refused to pay him. The two strongly disliked each other and, in April 1702, Asano reached the end of his tether with Kira’s insults and drew his sword on him. He was merely wounded but drawing a sword on a man in anger, and without the shogun’s consent, was against the law. Kira was ordered to commit ritual suicide, seppuku, by slitting his stomach open.

He left behind a group of retainers who, after some disagreement, relinquished Asano’s castle to the shogunate and began to plot their revenge. These men were samurai who had been left masterless, otherwise known as ‘ronin’. Led by Ôishi Kuranosuke, the group waited two years before taking their revenge. Kira had built up his defences, expecting attack, and so the men began to act disrespectfully, visiting brothels and so on, in order to lull him into a false sense of security. One man approached Ôishi and spat at him, saying that he was not a true samurai. In 1706, they attacked Kira’s mansion and, although one ronin lost his life, there was no real spirited resistance. Kira was presented to Ôishi, who decapitated him with the same knife with which Asano had commited suicide.

The now 46 ronin had acted as samurai were supposed to, remained loyal to their master and offered their enemy the chance to commit seppuku before killing them themselves. They handed themselves in to the shogunate and were ordered to commit ritual suicide but were buried together when they all died.

Unsurprisingly, the tale of the 47 ronin still provokes historical debate over the way of the samurai (bushido) and the actions of the shogunate. The tombs, in Sengaku-ji, Tokyo, are still visited today. Buried alongside them is the man who had previously insulted Ôishi. He had visited the grave and apologised for not calling him a true samurai and then committed seppuku himself.

Source: gaijinlife @ wordpress

Bento of the Week: Hello Kitty

It’s Halloween soon, so this is a very appropriate bento for the week! Here we have not just Hello Kitty, the universally-recognised unofficial mascot of Japan, but pumpkins too! As an extra treat, Just Bento, where this image has been taken one actually tells you how to make it. So, why not try your hand at making some Hello Kitty bento?

Source: Just Bento

Series of the Week: Mononoke

I wanted to watch a new short anime series to review for this week, so I put the vote to the blog’s Facebook page. The winner was Mononoke and, staying true to my word, that is what I’m going to talk about this week.

Mononoke is, in a word, atmospheric. Artistically, it’s very different from most modern anime and at times looks almost painted. That said, it’s also quite eerie, which isn’t surprising as it is a spin-off show of the Japanese horror series, Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales. The anime was produced by Toei Animation, who are responsible for very popular anime including the Dragonball series and Sailor Moon.

The series is just 12 episodes long as it has a number of short ‘arcs’ that span a couple of episodes. The only recurring character is a mysterious character known only as the Medicine Seller, who wanders Edo Japan and exorcises mononoke, demon spirits that linger in this world. He must expose the spirit’s shape, truth and reasoning in order to draw his sword and slay it, and he does this by speaking to the characters around him, who have dark secrets to hide.

I’m afraid to say that I did not enjoy Mononoke as much as I thought I would. It’s certainly different but it is very difficult to engage with any of the characters, mainly because the only one who appears regularly is the Medicine Seller. Stylistically, it’s very impressive but it does not have any sort of overriding plot, which I found disappointing. If you are looking for a series that you can watch quickly and requires minimal commitment, then Mononoke is worth a watch. Other than that, I’m afraid I found it quite unexciting.

Score: 6/10 (You should watch this for the art rather than the plot or characters)

Source: lucid dreams @ blogspot

Weird Thing of the Week: Dekotora

This week’s weird thing comes ocourtesy of The Otaku HQ. I had never even heard of Dekotora before, so this is something completely new and interesting to me! Dekotora is an abbreviation of ‘decoration truck’.

Dekotora are … well, crazy, like many things in Japan! Westerners might recognise them as monster trucks, although they aren’t used for the same thing. Dekotora are, as the name suggests, largely decorative. They commonly have neon lights, stainless steel extensions or feature an anime or manga character on the side. They are built by workers either for fun or for special events.

Dekotora have been around since the 1970s when Toei Animation (also responsible for Mononoke!) released a series called Truck Guys, which featured an outrageously-dressed man driving a garish truck over Japan. This spawned a lot of people to go about making their own trucks and so dekotora were born. Since the 1990s, they have been largely influenced by the Gundam series, a staple anime series. (A quick google image search will give you an idea if you have no idea what Gundam is.)

Dekotora have, unsurprisingly, spawned plenty of video games and TV series in Japan. Zenkoku Dekotora Matsuri is a dekotora design simulator and the anime Initial D features a character called ‘Emperor’, who drives a dekotora.

So, in a nutshell; dekotora are huge, garish and crazy. They also happen to be ridiculously awesome, as these pictures show.

Source: ibreak4bacon.com

Source: minilau.com

Recipe of the Week: Pork Ginger

This week’s recipe is taken from JapanEats, an excellent website with a wealth of original and unusual Japanese recipes. It took some time to pick my favourite but I went with one of their recent ones; pork ginger (buta no shogayaki). This is a well known comfort food or snack but can also be served with rice or noodles to make a proper meal!

Ingredients:

  • 200 – 250 g pork (thinly sliced)
  • 150 g cabbage
  • 2 tablespoons of flour
  • 1 clove of ginger
  • 2 tablespoons of soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons of sake
  • 1 tablespoon of sugar
  • 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
  • 100 g chopped onion
1) Wash the cabbage leaves and remove the core. Pile the leaves together and then roll and cut into 1 mm slices. Place them in cold water for 10 minutes, and drain.
2) Place a frying pan on the gas table and add one tablespoon of oil. Warm on a low heat.
3) While heating the pan, take the slices of pork and coat them in a thin layer of flour. Now increase the heat to medium and sauté the pork until brown. Be sure that the pork strips are cooked evenly. When they are ready, take them from the pan and on a plate.
4) Add 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil to the pan and warm it on a low heat. Slice the onion into pieces 5 mm thick – cut against the grain. Sauté the onion until it softens and becomes translucent.
5) Now pour the sake, sugar, and soy into the pan. Turn up the heat to medium. Put the pork back into the pan and add the ginger. Mix and cover the pork and ginger with the sauce. Serve with sliced cabbage and a generous helping of the sauce.

Whilst I didn’t have time to cook this in time for this post, I did make a trip to the Japan Centre on Regent Street and bought all the necessary supplies … along with some Japanese sweets and an anime magazine! Always thinking about the blog!

Source: japaneats.tv

http://japaneats.tv/2011/08/30/recipe-buta-no-shogayaki-pork-ginger/

Final Thoughts
As you have probably guessed, I have finally discovered the benefits and draws of Twitter. The blog is still on Facebook of course but why not do me a favour and feed my ego by following me on Twitter as well?

Next week’s blog will take a slightly different format. I will be briefly departing from the regular ‘stuff of the week’ and be discussing a variety of anime – from old to new – and recommending some good ones. So, if you like your anime, be sure to check back next Friday! 

Week 9: And the winner is…


The results are in and a winner has been drawn! Thank you to everyone who entered the art competition and do keep your eyes peeled as I plan to do more competitions in the later weeks. Anyway, here is the new mascot drawn by the lovely Natalie aka the-dazhrak-lady on deviantart.com!

I especially liked the headpiece and simplistic colouring scheme, as well as the fact that the blog name is on there! If you’re looking at it for the first time, you know what you’re going to be reading about!

I will hopefully get round to ordering some business cards this weekend. Pictures will be posted when they arrive!

News Story of the Week: Free flights to Japan?

No, I haven’t gone completely insane but this is quite possibly the most unbelievable news story that I have come across in a while. In fact, I thought this had to be a joke when I first heard about it. It’s not officially confirmed yet but the government has proposed funding a number of return flights to Japan.

Why? Well, above all, tourism levels have dropped hugely since the Fukushima earthquake. People are still visiting Japan (I am living proof!) but nowhere near in the same numbers as before. Fears of radiation and another major earthquake have put a lot of people off going, which is a shame given how much Japan has to offer.

Of course, this is not just meant to be an excuse for a holiday. You have to work to earn your place! Passing on the message and documenting your holiday is undeniably the best way of attracting people to a country. I like to think this blog has already done that at least a little bit!

There’s still some time to wait. The earliest this motion will be approved is April 2012, so it’s worth keeping an eye out if you are serious about the situation in Japan. For more information, check out the JNTO website!

Source: japantravelinfo.com

Destination of the Week: Otaru

Time to visit Hokkaido, Japan’s northern island! Otaru is a historical port city in Japan with a wonderfully preserved canal and many traditional buildings. Interestingly, the island of Hokkaido was not colonised until the late 1800s and Otaru served as a major trade destination. The remaining warehouses and office buildings give the city a special and distinctive character.

The Herring Mansion is worth a special mention. Herrings were essential to Otaru’s commerce and buildings such as this one were set up specifically to process these vast quantities of fish, which were used more as fertiliser than food! Behind it is Aoyama Villa, a luxurious building built by the wealthy Aoyama family who were important to the herring industry.

Sakaimachi Street is another example of how well Otaru has preserved its commercial history. There are many old western-style buildings lining the historic streets and there are a number of glass workshops, where visitors can test their own skills.

Hokkaido is perhaps best known for being a fantastic skiing destination in the winter months but this island has plenty more to offer. Otaru is a fine example of the island’s unique commercial history and it would be an ideal detour for tourists who are heading for the mountains, as well as a relaxing and unusual holiday destination in itself.

Do:

  • Try to visit Otaru in the first week of February, when the Snow Light Path Festival takes place. Each year, the city is decorated with lights and small snow statues and is transformed.
  • Visit the Otaru Music Box Museum and buy your own traditional music box!
Don’t:
  • Forget your warm clothes, especially if you are going in winter. Japan’s north is quite like Britain’s north!

Japanese Saying of the Week: He wo hitte, shiri tsubome 

This is pretty amusing – ‘breaking wind, closing buttocks’. The meaning for this one is that there is no point squeezing your buttocks after you have farted (I can’t believe I’m writing this). A more western-friendly version would be ‘there is no use shutting the stable door once the horse has bolted’. In other words, don’t bother trying to stop something when it has already happened!

Source: cs.cmu.edu

Samurai of the Week: Maeda Toshiie

To make up for what is usually a very long feature, I have condensed the wonderful history of Maeda Toshiie, daimyo of the Kaga province in the Sengoku jidai.

Toshiie was a retainer to both Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi (apparently he was also one of Nobunaga’s male concubines). He entered the military service of Nobunaga in 1551, at the age of 13, and rose through the ranks to become a samurai leader.

He was also likely friends with Hideyoshi and the two of them were known as the dog and monkey respectively; Toshiie for his sternness and Hideyoshi for his easygoing nature. The two actually fought each other in the Battle of Shizugatake but Toshiie submitted to Hideyoshi after his commander, Katsuie Shibata, died in battle.

Through his military career, Toshiie made the acquaintance of important samurai as well as some enemies; notably Akechi Mitsuhide, who later went on to assassinate Nobunaga, and Tokugawa Ieyasu, who eventually betrayed the Toyotomi.

In his dying days, Hideyoshi made Toshiie one of the council members entrusted to protect his heir, Hideyori. However, he died a year after his master from illness, thus leaving the Toyotomi open to defeat by Ieyasu.

Toshiie’s family also deserve a mention. His wife, Matsu, was a skilled martial artist and resented Ieyasu. When her husband died, she became a Buddhist nun and gave herself over as a hostage to the Tokugawa shogunate to ensure the safety of the Maeda. One of his daughters, Ma’a, was also a concubine of Hideyoshi.

Source: Wikipedia

Bento of the Week: LOST

So, LOST is by no means a Japanese show but that doesn’t mean it can’t be bentofied. I am sure a few readers must be fans of this series, so enjoy. This definitely isn’t ‘traditional’ Japanese but I’m still using it!

Source: aibento

Series of the Week: Occult Academy

Occult Academy (Seikimatsu Occult Gakuin) is a brainchild of Aniplex, which has been responsible for so many excellent anime including Full Metal Alchemist and Soul Eater. It aired in Japan last summer and, although just twelve episodes long, was quite popular. I certainly enjoyed this series as it finely balances plot, maturity and humour.

The story takes place in Waldstein Academy, where the headmaster has recently died (mysteriously, obviously) and left this so-called occult academy to his daughter Maya who dismisses magic as nonsense. Enter Fumiaki, a time traveller who has been sent from the future where aliens have taken over the world. Very reluctantly, he is tasked with finding the Nostradamus Key, an item that caused the invasion, and destroying it.

The best thing about this series is the relationship between Maya and Fumiaki. Fumiaki is a bumbling fool and Maya is forever serious but, naturally, there’s plenty of chemistry there. It was one of my favourite shows to air last year and I hope that we might see a western release in the future.

Score: 8.5/10 (I’m going to start giving half ratings where it’s appropriate!)

Source: animehere.com

Weird Thing of the Week: Host Clubs

I was unsure what to write about this week, so I put the vote to the blog’s Facebook page and the votes were overwhelmingly in favour of host clubs. Host clubs are unique to Japan and most westerners will only have a vague idea of what they entail.

Host clubs are, as the name suggests, the male equivalent of hostess clubs. Women go to these clubs, where the male hosts are working, and pay for their company throughout the evening; from pouring drinks to dancing to magic tricks. It should be stressed that this evening entertainment does typically not lead to sex,  as the men are here to do a job and make money, at the end of the day.

You will find plenty of host clubs in Japanese cities and the greatest indicator of whether you are nearby one will be the handsome, well-dressed men trying to lure you into an establishment. I was in Shinjuku in June with two girlfriends on a Saturday night and there were loads of them! It was nothing like being on a drunken night out in Britain getting wolf-whistled by balding men. These guys are paid for their charisma and that’s how they rake in the female customer’s money.

Here is a quick summary of your night at a host club. On entry, female guests are presented with a ‘menu’ of male hosts and indicate who they want to spend the evening with, although they will probably meet most of them throughout the night anyway. Many of them take stage names, often after anime and manga characters or historical figures. Pay is usually determined by commission on drink sales but their regular wage is usually at the minimal level and those hosts that do not perform well are usually forced to quit early on in their career.

The business strategy of the hosts is, as you might have guessed, to make the female clients feel loved and attractive without having sex with them. That said, if the two like each other enough and the client pays enough, there is the possibility. In the business, there are a number of terms for this such as ‘a colourful love business’ and ‘pillow business’.

How do you spot a host? Generally, these men are in their early twenties, have bleached hair, a dark tan and wear dark suits and silver jewellery. It all sounds very effeminate but that is very much the style among these men. Go to Tokyo and you won’t see many teenagers with natural black hair, unless they are job-hunting.

I cannot comment on my own experiences at a host club as I have never been to one but here is a very interesting one on the CNN News website. I won’t lie, I am curious to try it mself although I know that I’d not only get embarrassed easily but also wouldn’t have much money to spend there!

So, is the Japanese male host just a glamorous sex worker? The majority of Japanese people will strongly disagree. Whilst a good number of them might disapprove of it and look down on it as a fruity profession, it is popular for a reason. The hosts definitely aren’t “manly” but that’s not really what the attraction is. What woman doesn’t like to be paid attention to?

Source: projecthitchhiker.com

Recipe of the Week: Chicken Yakitori

Yakitori is very easy to make and something you’ll find in all east asian restaurants. Given its simplicity and deliciousness, it seems that this is a good week to cook yakitori because it’s getting darker quicker and Britain’s freak heatwave is definitely over for good.

Ingredients:

  • 800g chicken breast
  • 2 leeks
  • Bamboo skewers (normal skewers will do)
  • 120ml soy sauce
  • 120ml mirin
  • 4tbsp sugar
1) Soak the bamboo skewers in water for an hour before using, to prevent them from burning.
2) Slice the chicken and leek into bite-size pieces and place on the bamboo skewers.
3) Boil the ingredients for the sauce until they have reduced by 1/3.
4) Grill the chicken and leek, brushing with the sauce 1-2 times whilst grilling. Serve with lemon.
Final Thoughts
Did you know that the armour of Takeda Hidetada (the son of Takeda Shingen) is on display at the Tower of London? Well, I didn’t and I was pleasantly surprised when I saw it on display. If you do happen to live in London or are planning a trip, it’s worth a look!