Gaijin on Getas Blog

Archive for May, 2016

Takayama and Koyasan

Posted on May 25th, 2016 by Anna Summers

 

Pano Koya

This has been an incredibly fast paced and adventurous trip for us. There is so much to see in Japan, and we have only seen a small bit of it. After trekking from Magome to Tsumago, we went to Takayama. Takayama is in the Japanese Alps and is filled with beautiful scenery and delicious Hida Beef. We spent our two days in Takayama exploring the morning markets, wandering around old shops and eating our weight in Hida Beef. The morning markets feel like a scene from a movie, with small tents and shops lining a river walkway. Each little shop specialized in something different, from homemade jewelry to home grown produce or honey. As we tasted samples and explored this beautiful place, we were reminded once again of how beautiful the culture of Japan is. They have somehow maintained their history and all the charm that comes with it.

After spending the entire day walking, we were hungry and ready for this famous beef…and let me tell you, it is the best beef I have ever had. Takayama is famous for its Hida Beef and there are many restaurants serving this delicious dish. We ordered a somewhat extravagant plate of beef and vegetables and cooked them on the small grill in the middle of our table. The beef is famous for its marbling, making it the most tender and succulent piece of meat you will ever eat. In the busy seasons, I would recommend getting to a Hida Beef restaurant early, just to be sure you get a table. Full disclosure: we ended up eating two large plates of beef. When in Rome…right?

From Takayama we traveled by express train, subway, cable car and bus to Koyasan. It took us about 6 hours to get there, but the trip was well worth it. We stepped off of the bus and into one of the most scenic and historical places I have ever seen. Koyasan was first settled in 819 and is considered the headquarters of Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism. Because of its vast and well maintained history, it is registered as a World Heritage Sight. One of the most unique things about staying in Koyasan is the chance to stay at a Buddhist Temple. The Buddhist monks prepare Buddhist vegetarian dinners and breakfast for the guests staying at the temples. These meals were delicious and different from anything I had ever eaten. After dinner we decided to walk through the Okunoin Cemetery, Japan’s largest cemetery. The pathway is lit by lanterns and the cedar trees seem even more towering at night (I would recommend walking the entire way in the morning). Each morning the temple holds a Buddhist prayer service before breakfast. The monks gather together to chant and pray while temple guests observe from the back of the room. Culturally speaking, this is one of the most fascinating experiences I had in Japan.

Many of our tour packages offer both of these experiences, and I can see why they are a top favorite among many of our clients. The traditional mixed with the modern culture in both of these places offers a truly exceptional experience…one that we will never forget.

Hida Beef                                                                 Shojo shin in

 

Koya grave                                                                    IMG_09510

So….what do I do in a ryokan?

Posted on May 23rd, 2016 by Corina Byram

Traveling to Japan is truly like stepping back in time with the traditions, history and majestic culture that fills the air, and staying in a ryokan really does offer the sense of time travel that many foreigners seek while traveling in Japan.

A ryokan is a traditional Japanese-style inn that are locally run. Travelers are welcomed in with a warm sense of hospitality and a large appetite.  Like any culture, Japan comes with rules and guidelines that are unfamiliar to many foreigners, specifically in ryokans. In today’s blog we will outline many of the rules that are not so obvious to the typical traveler.

First, shoes are strictly forbidden inside of the ryokan. Tatami mats are fragile, and shoes can easily damage them so it’s important to remove your shoes when you enter. This rule is easy to observe, as there are typically obvious places where your shoes are kept near the front door, as well as slippers that are waiting for you to wear as you enter.

These slippers are given upon entrance into the ryokan and are appropriate to wear on the wooden floors as you walk around. However, they should be removed when entering any room with tatami mat floors. When entering a bathroom you must take off your slippers and slide into the bathroom slippers that are often near the toilet or inside the stall. Once you are finished, you must again slide out of the bathroom slippers (leaving them where you found them) and back into the house slippers. Confusing, I know. It is very important not to wear the bathroom slippers anywhere else in the ryokan.

Dinner is typically served at a specific time. It has been lovingly prepared and is ready to be eaten as soon as you sit, so don’t be late. At least ten little dishes are sitting in front of you, each with something small yet tasty inside. Rice and miso soup will, of course, accompany the meal, and you can always expect green tea to be served. Something important to remember is to not leave your chopsticks inside of your rice bowl. This is taboo, as it is what the Japanese do during funerals.

Most, if not all, ryokans house beautiful baths or onsens in place of private showers. Most are separated into a men’s and women’s bath, and some have private or family baths. Upon entering the bath area remove your slippers. Then you will remove all clothing and enter the shower area. Everyone is required to shower before entering the bath. There will be wooden stools to sit on while you shower off, and typically there is provided soap and shampoo. After showering off you may enter the bath. It’s important to remember that these are traditional baths made for relaxation and healing, so talking loudly and splashing are strictly prohibited.

Many people are aware that it is taboo to have a tattoo when using the baths/onsens.  Having a tattoo is not common in Japan, so it is confusing and may be offensive to the Japanese if a foreigner enters the bath with a tattoo. With the high amount of tourists that visit Japan nowadays, it is becoming more and more common to see tattoos, so some baths/onsens may allow people with small tattoos to enter. However, it is always best to cover up your tattoos and to ask if you may still use the bath/onsen.

All ryokans will have a yukata for you in your room. These are like Japanese style robes that can be worn at all times inside (and oftentimes even outside) of the ryokan. You can change into the yukata to be more comfortable during dinner and walking around the ryokan. It is certainly not required that you wear your yukata, but since you are in Japan….why not?

There are many other fun quirks and small customs that you will come across in a ryokan, but the above are just to give you a basic understanding of what to expect. As housing foreigners has become more and more common in Japan, the ryokan staff have become understanding and forgiving of those who are not as familiar with the traditions and expectations. Staying in a ryokan is quite a unique experience, and one that many are eager to try. So come to Japan and experience lovely hospitality and delicious food while enjoying the pleasures of staying in a traditional Japanese ryokan.

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Hiking in the Samurai’s shoes

Posted on May 18th, 2016 by Anna Summers

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There is something magical or even slightly mythical about hiking in Japan. The history of this country is never ending and so well documented.   There are two small villages in the Japanese Alps called Magome and Tsumago. They were created to be post towns along the Nakasendo highway.  During the Edo period Feudal Lords were required to travel from Kyoto to Edo (Tokyo), so these highways were created for ease of access. The Nakasendo Trail boasts some of the most beautiful mountain landscapes I have ever seen (and I am from Colorado!)

Before hiking the trail, we traveled by train and bus to Magome. Old shops, restaurants and ryokans lined the cobblestone street before us. We were fortunate enough to stay in one of the ryokans and enjoy traditional Japanese food and hospitality. It almost feels like stepping back in time when you slip into a Yukata and walk around barefoot on tatami mats.

We spent the evening eating a traditional kaiseki style dinner and watching the sumo tournament on tv, so the next morning called for a bit of adventure on the Nakasendo trail. The trees towered over the trail, creating a canopy that engulfed the dense forest. Knowing that we were walking the same steps that many Feudal Lords and Samurai took was quite enchanting. The trail from Magome to Tsumago was  about 7 kilometers (about 5 miles), and half-way through we found a quaint wooden building. Inside we took a rest, ate Japanese candy, and warmed our tired feet by the fire. We even had the opportunity to strike up a conversation with other international travelers!

Something not to be missed on the trail is the opportunity to explore some glorious waterfalls. Taking a short detour, we followed signs into a lower area that opens up into two magnificent waterfalls. There is honestly nothing like sitting in a spot so many before have enjoyed…the feeling is indescribable.

From the waterfalls it was a short walk to finish the Nakasendo trail, leaving us in Tsumago. Tsumago was a quaint town, similar to Magome in its peace and generosity. Little shops and diners lined the streets, and you could feel such a historical presence as museums and historical buildings surround you. Walking through some of the old buildings where Samurai would eat and sleep was such an amazing experience.

We went straight to Takayama after touring Tsumago, and while relaxing in an onsen we were able to reflect the magnificence of the day. There are no words to describe the beauty of the Nakasendo trail. This part of Japan is my favorite place to explore and it is quickly becoming Corina’s as well.

A guided day in Tokyo

Posted on May 14th, 2016 by Corina Byram

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Like most independent tours we spent our first couple of days in Tokyo. The streets were filled with hundreds of well-dressed people, all eager to get to their destination. Amidst the skyscrapers and city lights of Tokyo you can still sense the respect that Japanese culture holds for quality and hospitality. Even the crowded Starbucks is sure to serve coffee and donuts wrapped nicely on a glass plate.

Charlie was fantastic as he guided us around the major sightseeing areas in Tokyo. Tsukiji Fish Market was a glorious introduction to the wonderful world of Japanese food. Handling over 2,000 tons of marine products per day, the market is filled with fast paced workers and eager customers ready to buy the fish eye or tuna to sell at their restaurant.

The Seaside Observation Deck was nothing short of enchanting. Gazing up and over the heart of Tokyo is thrilling from 40 stories up. Understanding where you are from a bird’s eye view gives such a new perspective into how massive Tokyo truly is. Onward into Ginza gave us a worm’s eye view of Tokyo, as buildings and stores towered over us. Ginza made us understand why Tokyo is considered one of the fashion and luxury centers of the world. Coach, Prada, Gucci, and Tiffany and Co. crowded the streets at every corner…any woman would be mesmerized.

Charlie took us to lunch at a Kushiage restaurant where we enjoyed delicious fried vegetable and meat skewers. Like every meal in Japan, miso soup and rice accompanied the meal, and let me tell you…American miso soup doesn’t hold a candle to the real thing in Japan!

After taking the Sumida River Cruise, we toured Asakusa. This was our last stop with Charlie, where we experienced a Buddhist Temple and a Shinto Shrine. Surrounding the temples were local shops filled with lovely little souvenirs and keepsakes, all of which seemed to be family run. Although tourists surrounded the temples, it was a great experience to also see locals pray and bow at the shrines, showing the basic worship rituals of the religions.

We chose to spend an evening in Shinjuku, a very lively part of Tokyo. After eating a delectable meal of Katsu we enjoyed the sights and sounds of the big city. One of the wonderful parts about Shinjuku is that in the midst of neon lights and thousands of people, you can always find little hidden treasures like Omoide Yokocho (or Memory Lane) and Golden Gai…narrow alleyways with tons of tiny bars and restaurants stuffed with people. It was a contrast to the ‘big city’ feel, but still as lively and loud.

Tokyo is such a unique city because it is exactly like what you would expect, but at the same time it is nothing like you would expect. In the midst of the excitement of the large city, there is still incredible tradition and fun places to explore. Discovering small secrets and delicious food is the best part- you never know what you might find!

Samurai Tours FIT team takes Japan!

Posted on May 12th, 2016 by Anna Summers

With tired eyes and excited hearts, we stepped off of the jetway and into one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Japan delivers such bountiful historical offerings and a decadent food experience, so needless to say we are thrilled to be here. Corina and I run our FIT tours (or fully independent tours) and have been planning this trip for the last few months.  Creating tours and organizing others’ travel has given us a unique insight into Japan and the vast sightseeing options.  We have created our itinerary in the hopes of gaining more expertise to help our clients get the most out of Japan. We will be wandering various city streets, traversing the mountains, staying in small traditional villages, eating lots of good food and living (loving) this dream of a job.  We invite you to come on this journey and to follow this great adventure here on our blog.  If you have favorite memories or any travel tips in the areas we are talking about,  please share them in the comment section of this blog!  

In between blogging, we will be updating Samurai Tours Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Please follow our adventures at #corannatakesjapan.