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Destination Spotlight – Sanriku Coast

Posted on July 17th, 2018 by Stephanie Miera

Nothing beats Tokyo for bright lights and exciting nightlife. But when it comes to natural beauty in Japan, it’s hard to top Tohoku.

Located in the north of Japan’s main island of Honshu, the Tohoku region is made up of six prefectures: Aomori, Akita, Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi and Yamagata. It is well known for its countryside, mountains, lakes, hot springs, high quality rice and rough winters.

Extending from Aomori Prefecture in the north, through Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures to the south, the Sanriku Coast (Sanriku Kaigan, 三陸海岸) is a rugged and beautiful stretch of coastline with countless bays, cliffs and coves that stretches for over 200 kilometers along the Pacific Coast of the Tohoku Region.

Some highlights of the Sanriku Coast include:

Kitayamazaki (北山崎) is one of the most impressive landscapes of the Sanriku Coast, where 200-meter cliffs stretch across 8 km of coastline. It is part of the Sanriku Recovery National Park.  

You can view the Kitayamazaki Coast from the Kitayamazaki Observatory, a park at the northern end of the coastline that offers three observation decks at various heights where you can take in the picturesque cliffs. While the view of the coastline below the observatory is excellent, to get the full effect of the coastline it’s recommended you take a sightseeing boat. Boat cruises depart from a small port near Shimanokoshi Station. Four cruises are operated daily from late April to early November (additional departures are operated on busy days). They last about 50 minutes and cost 1460 yen.

Jodogohama Beach is the most popular site along the Sanriku Coast. Jodogohama means “Pure Land,” which is a Buddhist concept of paradise and is the same name as a sect of Buddhism. The beach is located in Sanriku Fukko National Park, and is one of the 100 best beaches in Japan as designated by the Japanese government. Clear waters and rugged rock formations along the coast make the dramatic view popular with both Japanese and foreign visitors.

The Sanriku Coast was hit hard by the tsunami in 2001. As you travel, you will encounter numerous signs marking where the tsunami hit. While many businesses and tourist sites were quickly up and running, reconstruction is still ongoing in many areas. However, tourism is one of the most important ways to help Tohoku recover from the disaster. It’s a great chance to support local business directly and to support the future of Tohoku.

The Sanriku Coast is part of our TRD tour.

Japanese Dining Etiquette

Posted on July 3rd, 2018 by Stephanie Miera

Upon arriving at a restaurant, guests are greeted with a friendly Irasshaimase (Welcome!) and will then be led to a table. Once the guests are seated they are given a wet towel to wipe their hands in preparation for the meal. In Western culture it is perfectly normal to rub wooden chopsticks together to scrape off any slivers before using them, however that practice is considered quite inappropriate in Japan. Chopsticks are never to be placed vertically in a bowl of rice, or used to pass food between people, as both of these practices have associations with death. When setting them down, they are to be placed in a chopstick holder (if provided), or laid horizontally across a bowl or plate. It is also customary for drinking companions to pour drinks for one another. Once a glass is empty, someone should offer to refill it. As a result, it is not appropriate for one to fill their own glass.

At the end of the meal the host almost always picks up the bill. However, it is considered good manners for everyone else to make an effort to pay. Typically a Japanese person will offer to pick up the bill two or three times, as it is ritual to refuse an initial offer or two. If the host still insists on paying, the others at the table will thank him and offer to pick up the next one. Tipping is also not custom in Japan, as a 10-15% service charge is already added to bills ahead of time.

A few more etiquettes to keep in mind while dining in Japan: rice bowls should be passed with both hands; soup and broth should be sipped directly from the bowl instead of with a spoon; slurping is acceptable and shows a good appetite and appreciation of the meal; rice should never be drowned in soy sauce, but instead should be dipped in a small amount poured in the soy sauce dish.

It is always a challenge to adapt to another culture, especially when customs can be quite different from what one is used to. In Japan, there is much forgiveness and understanding for foreigners, so dining can be a fun and exciting experience for anyone willing to step out of their comfort zone and enjoy the amazing cuisine that Japan has to offer!

Tokyo Disney Resort

Posted on July 3rd, 2018 by Stephanie Miera

After our 15 day Best of Japan tour, my then three-year-old had experienced more culture than she ever had before in her life. Temples, shrines, castles, trying new foods, riding on bullet trains and hearing everyone around her speak a foreign language. We decided to end our trip in Japan with something familiar and kid-oriented. What we didn’t know was that the familiar mouse ears would be the perfect cultural conclusion to our Japan adventure!

Tokyo Disney has two parks, Disneyland and Disney Sea. Each park has it’s own unique features and a lot of similarities to Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida.

Getting to Disney from Tokyo is easy. From the Tokyo Station the Keiyo Line will take you to the Maihama Station in a short 16 minutes, which is the best stop to get off to access both parks and nearby hotels. From the Maihama Station, you can access the Disney Resort Line, a monorail that circles Tokyo Disney Resort and stops at major destinations within the Resort.

We chose to stay at a nearby, non-Disney hotel that had a free shuttle to both of the parks. There are many hotels the area, and staying in Tokyo is not unreasonable either. Because we went to both parks during the week, we did not pre-purchase tickets, but rather purchased a 2-day ticket at Tokyo Disney Resort Ticket Center at Maihama Station. 

We spent one day at each park, and I would not recommend anything less. To say that our visit was magical is an understatement. We opened and closed the parks, rode every ride and met every character that we could. Disney parks are always amazing, in my opinion. But Tokyo Disney seemed a step above. The colors seemed more vibrant, the shows perfected and mixing Disney service with Japanese customs provides for the most amazing service you will encounter.

While Samurai Tours does not purchase Disney tickets as a part of our packages, we are more than happy to assist in setting up accommodations and transportation for a pre-tour or post-tour visit to Disney. I didn’t regret it, and I don’t think you will either! When you go, make sure to purchase the refillable popcorn bowl. Each area of both parks has a different flavor popcorn to try.

Farm Tomita

Posted on March 29th, 2018 by Stephanie Miera

Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, is known for its natural beauty. Full of beautiful onsens, massive volcanoes, magnificent waterfalls, and untouched wilderness, Hokkaido is home to some of the most breathtaking views in all of Japan. One of these unique places that is not to be missed is Farm Tomita.

Known for its vast lavender and flower fields, Farm Tomita is one of the most popular tourist destinations on Hokkaido. With over 13 flower gardens and 14 shops and cafes, the farm displays a dream-like fantasy of color and wonder. The summertime reveals fields covered in a rainbow array of flowers, and the wintertimeoffers a photographic winter wonderland.

 

Summertime is the most popular season to visit the farm, as the flowers and lavender are in full bloom, and the shops are open for business. Farm Tomita is also known for its lavender flavored soft-serve ice cream that you can enjoy while relaxing in one of the quaint cafes after a day of exploring the flower gardens. You can also purchase lavender-based products such as potpourri, perfume, and soaps that have been cultivated at the farm since 1958. The farm opens its own station during the summer (LavenderFarm Station) so that it can be accessed easily by train and a 7 minute walk. In the wintertime, travelers can access the farm with a 25 minute walk or short taxi ride from Nakafurano Station.  

 

You can visit Farm Tomita on our escorted Hokkaido Rail and Drive tour, or on our self-guided Hokkaido Independent Package. Don’t miss the opportunity to explore one of the most colorful and majestic gardens in Japan!

Hanami

Posted on March 21st, 2018 by Stephanie Miera

Hanami, literally means “flower viewing,” is the traditional spring enjoyment and appreciation of cherry blossoms. There is nothing so typically Japanese as sitting under the blooming sakura trees in a park or on a river bank. It is also popular to make a special trip to a famous viewing area, or to attend a hanami festival. Scenic spots such as castles, temples and shrines are popular destinations, as is taking a boat trip to view the blossoms along the banks of a river. Some people even go to see a single tree that is particularly famous. Around 60% of the population takes part in hanami celebrations every year.

For some hanami is just a stroll in the park, but most people organize a picnic with their friends or colleagues. Everywhere cherry blossoms are to be found, you’ll see groups of people sitting around eating and drinking. The most popular spots become so crowded that there’s hardly a speck of empty ground to be seen. Some companies will send their junior employees to reserve a space for an after-work party, so you might see men dressed in business suits sitting around in a park all day on their blue tarps, waiting for their colleagues to show up. Along with alcoholic drinks like sake, beer, and shōchū, revelers bring food such as fried chicken, sushi, onigiri (rice balls), and edamame (soybeans). Some even go as far as to set up barbecues to cook on the spot. It’s often said that most people are really only interested in eating and drinking, and that the cherry blossoms are just an excuse for a big party.

The cherry trees bloom at a different time every year, and earlier in the warmer southern areas of Japan than the north. Newspapers and TV report on the progress of the blossoms and provide news and forecasts about the “cherry blossom front” as they try to predict when they will come out in each part of the country. The flowers reach full bloom about a week after the first blossoms open, and will be falling after another week or so, though wind and rain sometimes speeds up the process. Perhaps best of all is the end of the season, when the petals fall like snow whenever there’s a gentle breeze.

The special attention paid to cherry blossoms is often attributed to their fragility and short lifespan — a visual reminder that our lives, too, are fleeting.

Studio Ghibli

Posted on March 1st, 2018 by Anna Summers

    Studio Ghibli is an animation studio located in Tokyo. Often referred as “the Disney of Japan”, Ghibli is an National icon in Japan. This studio’s work is visionary and deserves its own recognition. Studio Ghibli offers a number of unique and whimsical stories. Their films draw you into a fantasy world that delicately balances the fantastical elements with great realism. The studio still relies heavily on hand-drawn animation. Less than 10% of any project can be comprised of digital animation.

Their compelling stories might convince you magical worlds do exist. The emotional core of these films rest heavily on character development. My favorite aspect of a Ghibli film is the relationships between the characters and viewing their personal growth. These films explore all types of relationships and do not limit themselves to typical stereotypes. I also enjoy seeing the importance of nature reflected on film. Central themes often explore how you interact with, and affect the world around you.

Recommend Movies (Personal Favorites)

Spirited Away

Ponyo

Not ready for the adventure to be over? You can visit the Ghibli Museum on your trip to Japan! The museum features animation demonstrations, a theater showing Studio Ghibli shorts, board the Totoro Cat Bus and of course find fantastic gifts in the gift shop. The museum’s slogan is most fitting, “Let’s Lose Our Way, Together”. The Ghibli Museum attracts a large number of visitors. Tickets are limited and you will need to purchase tickets in advance. To purchase your tickets we recommend visiting https://online.jtbusa.com/inquiries/ghibli.aspx. Once you have your tickets make sure to arrive on time. Plan to spend two to three hours at the museum.  

Takachiho – The Land of the Gods

Posted on January 22nd, 2018 by Mike Roberts

Amano Yasukawara Cave

Amano Yasukawara Cave

Takachiho, located in the northern central area of Miyazaki Prefecture on the southern island, is steeped in Japanese mythology. It is known as a “power spot”, a place of profound religious importance and natural beauty, which radiates spiritual energy. It is the disputed landing place of the gods who were sent down from heaven to establish the lineage of Japanese emperors. And it is the supposed site of the legend where Amaterasu, the Shinto Sun Goddess, hid herself in a cave to escape her brother’s cruel pranks sending the world into darkness. This prompted the other gods and goddesses to lure her out, which they did successfully thereby returning light to the world.

 
Today this legend (and others) are reenacted in a series of 33 dances. On winter weekends, people gather to watch the all-night performances called “Yokagura” (night dances). Each weekend the performances are held at different locations, sometimes even at private homes. A shortened version of the Yokagura is performed every night throughout the year at Takachiho Shrine. The one-hour show, performed by masked dancers and accompanied by traditional instruments, consists of a few scenes from the story of Amaterasu. My favorite, however, is the last dance of the evening, which includes Izanagi and Izanami, the gods who, according to Shinto mythology created Japan. This comedic dance follows them as they make sake and end up drinking too much of their product. As a result, they walk among the crowd, fraternizing with the audience. It has been my observation they like to choose foreigners, so if you are lucky enough to attend a performance, be prepared. Many of our tour members in the past have had the good fortune to enjoy this experience. 
 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jo5JvpAhWQ4
 
About 10 km (about 7 miles) outside of town, is the Amano Iwato Shrine. Here, you will find the cave where Amaterasu is said to have hid herself. The cave itself cannot be approached. However, there is an observation deck behind the shrine’s main building located on the opposite side of the river from the cave. You must inquire at the shrine office in order to access the observation deck, and a priest will give you a guided tour in Japanese. 
 
If you keep walking past Amano Iwato Shrine along the road and down a pathway to the river, you will find the cave known as Amano Yasukawara. This is said to be the cave where the gods and goddesses met to discuss their stategy of luring Amaterasu out of hiding. The natural beauty of the cave and surrounding nature lined by countless stacks of stones make Amano Yasukawara a place not to miss. 
 
Takachiho Gorge

Takachiho Gorge

Located on the edge of town, Takachiho Gorge is a narrow chasm cut though the volcanic rock by the Gokase River. The sheer cliffs lining the gorge are made of slow-forming volcanic basalt columns. Partway along the gorge is the 17 meter high Minanotaki waterfall cascading down to the river below. You can view the gorge from a rental rowboat, or there is a paved path that runs along the edge of the gorge. The path is about one kilometer (about 2/3 of a mile), is relatively level and easy to walk. 

 

Access

Access to Takachiho is by bus or train. An infrequent tourist bus connects the main sights with the bus center on weekends and public holidays. There is no bus service around town on regular weekdays. Because of this, the best way to visit and tour Takachiho is by car. 
 
Takachiho is included on our Shikoku and Kyushu Rail and Drive tour. Please find more information about this tour (and others) here: 
 
 

 

 

裸の付き合い (Hadaka no Tsukiai) Naked Friendships/Relationships

Posted on June 8th, 2017 by Stephanie Miera

 

Picture By: Ogikubo-san

By: Mike Robers, Owner

As previously printed in March 2017 newsletter.

There are many things different and unique about travel in Japan. Of these, there is one thing that I have come to really enjoy: Japanese baths. Everywhere you go in Japan, there is hot mineral water either gushing out of the ground or being pumped from underground. The baths are an important part of the Japanese culture and are a part of life in Japan. True, other countries around the world have hot mineral baths. But nowhere near the numbers in Japan. And the Japanese have lifted it to an art form. 

While it is changing, many family members will bathe together at their homes. And when they travel to an onsen for a quick vacation, parents will always take children to the baths with them. I will often see fathers with sons and young daughters in the onsen baths. It is even more enjoyable to watch when proud grandparents take their grandchildren to the baths. The baths are something that are started at a very young age. 

Sentos (neighborhood public baths), were, and still are, an important part of the community where people could meet and talk. However, like everything else in Japan, this is starting to change. Modern homes all have modern baths, so the Sentos are not as needed as they once were. 

In Japan, relationships are very important and you first have to build a relationship. Only then,  can you expect to do business in Japan. What better way to do this than in a bath? Since all clothing is not allowed, in a Japanese bath everyone is equal. You have to leave your “armour” or “uniform” (depending on how you want to look at it) from the outside world in the changing room. 

The Japanese call it “裸の付き合い” (hadaka no tsukiai), which translates to “naked relationships” or “naked friendships”, an open relationship with everyone being on the same level. When you’re naked, it doesn’t matter if you are a company president, sports star, celebrity or a working stiff like me.  It allows, or even forces you, to be yourself. 

I know many westerners cannot think of doing something like this. But when you visit Japan, I highly recommend you try it. I know you will enjoy it. The baths are actually an excellent place to strike up a conversation with a Japanese person. After all, what’s the worst thing that can happen? 

PLEASE NOTE: The drawing was created by Etsuko Ogikubo, the person who keeps our Tokyo staff in line; which is not an easy job. In addition to her other skills, she is a talented artist. Everyone at Samurai Tours is always waiting to receive the next drawing from her. You will be seeing more of her artistic works in the future.

Trekking the Kumano Kodo!

Posted on June 11th, 2016 by Anna Summers

                                             IMG_1134

 

After a few train rides and a long flight, we are back in Colorado. Corina and I spent our Jet lagged nights (3am texts when sleep just won’t come) talking about our time in Japan and how wonderful it was. We are still full from all of the good food, and are beyond grateful  for the amazing experiences and the wonderful Samurai Tours staff in Japan. They really make traveling in Japan easier and more fun.

We debated a lot, but finally decided on a favorite location in Japan, trekking the Kumano Kodo.

The Kumano Kodo is a series of pilgrimages that stretches across the Kii Hanto peninsula, just south of Kyoto. It is a truly magical experience as you walk in the footsteps of the Samurai, Feudal Lords, and peasants that used these ancient trails so long ago.

We only hiked a very small part of the Kumano Kodo, but what an experience it was! Towards the end of our trip, we traveled from Kyoto to the tiny town of Yunomine Onsen. Calling it a tiny town is an understatement, as we could walk from one end to the other in about five minutes. Located in the middle of the town is a little onsen that has been used by those who walk the Kumano Kodo for over 1,000 years, and is still used today. Interestingly enough, some of the mineral water that is used for the onsens is so hot that people actually boil eggs and vegetables in it with the hope that the minerals will keep them healthy.

After a delicious dinner and some relaxation in the onsens we were ready to venture onto the Kumano Kodo trail the next morning. We hiked from Hosshinmon-oji to Hongu Taisha–about 7 miles. Now, I live in Colorado and am totally spoiled by beautiful mountainous scenery, but there are no words to describe the unique beauty of the Kumano Kodo. Not only did we hike on trails through 800 year old trees that covered the skies like a canopy, but we also walked through small villages  where we passed rice fields and green tea bushes. We passed tons of oji shrines and a few torii gates. It was a magnificent introduction to the Kumano Kodo.

Our end goal of that day was to reach Hongu Taisha where the largest torii gate in history was built. The history and stories surrounding this area were inspiring, and the small museum was quite enlightening. After a long day of hiking and “oo-ing and awe-ing” at Japan’s majesty, we were ready for some relaxation. We stayed overnight in Kii-Katsuura in what can only be described as the most incredible hotel I’ve ever seen. Hotel Urashima is offered on our tours as an updated luxury option, but it is well worth the extra money. It is located on an island just across the bay from the Kii Katsuura mainland, and you must take a ferry to get to it. The top of the hotel has a magnificent view of the ocean, and the onsens are located inside of caves where you can see the ocean and hear the waves crashing up on the rocks. It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, not to mention the luxurious buffet dinner with fresh tuna that is cut up right in front of you.

The next morning we took a bus to Daimonzaka where we hiked up about 2 miles of stairs to Nachi Taisha. Let me tell you, it was well worth the hike. Nachi Taisha is one of the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano (along with the Hongu Taisha and Hayatama Taisha) known for the 436 foot waterfall that was worshipped as a deity as far back as year 317. We hiked down to the base of the waterfall where we were able to experience the true majesty and power of it. As the fog starting coming in it quickly became one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen.

Although we only experienced two days of the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage, we both felt like we gained incredible knowledge and insight into the significance of nature for the Japanese. I guarantee that anyone who sees even part of what we did will surely be brought to their knees by the beauty and majesty of the Kumano Kodo.
We offer a Kumano Kodo Highlights tour, as well as a Kumano Kodo trekking tour. We can also make these tours into Independent versions of these tours, for the adventurous traveler.

Miyajima & Hiroshima

Posted on June 2nd, 2016 by Corina Byram

 miyajima 1   hiroshima

Miyajima Island may be one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring places in Japan. Even the ferry ride from Hiroshima to the island is quite something. Seeing Miyajima Island from a distance as you slowly ferry towards the port gives you a glimpse into all of its splendor.   

When we arrived on the island we were greeted by friendly little deer who have no problem asking for a little scratch behind the ear. Don’t get too comfortable with them though….they have no boundaries when it comes to your food and will literally take it out of your hand.

Strolling down the boardwalk during sunset is truly spectacular. We walked barefoot on the beach and watched as the tide started coming in. The most popular tourist attraction, and perhaps the most well-known tourist attraction in Japan, is the Itsukushima Shrine (known for its “floating” torii gate). This torii gate sits in the water, and when the tide is low enough you can actually walk to it and understand how massive it really is. At sunset it becomes an incredible photogenic masterpiece, and at night it is lit up and looks truly magical.

In the morning we took a short hike up to where you can catch a cable car that will take you to the top of the island. I would recommend taking the cable car to anyone visiting the island, as this gives you a view of the entire island, and incredible perspective that you can’t get from anywhere else. There are many activities to do on the island including hiking, visiting the aquarium, and shopping, however Miyajima Island is known for its food so be sure to come with an appetite!

On our way back from Miyajima Island we stopped in Hiroshima for a few hours to check out the Peace Park and museum. This is a sensational experience that hits home for many people as you can see incredible pieces of history come to life, as well as stories and memories of people who were so affected by WWII. Although there isn’t too much to see in Hiroshima, the Peace Park and Museum are well worth the few hours.

Miyajima Island and Hiroshima are two places that seem to be well-known by many, but experienced by few. There is such majesty that can be found in these small areas of Japan, and we were so happy to get to experience them.

 

miyajima 3       miyajima 4