Gaijin on Getas Blog
Posted on May 25th, 2016 by Anna Summers
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.
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.
Posted on May 18th, 2016 by Anna Summers
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.
Posted on May 14th, 2016 by Corina Byram
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!
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.
Posted on July 22nd, 2015 by Mike Roberts
Recently, I wrote a blog about 10 small things that Japan should be proud of. To be honest, most of the items in that blog were meant to be tongue-in-cheek. Well, there are many big/best things that Japan has to be proud of. So, once again, with my apologies to David Letterman, here are the 10 big/best things that Japan has to be proud of – Part 1.
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Posted on March 15th, 2015 by Mike Roberts
Shinto, a term that embraces a diverse body of beliefs and practices is an anachronism among the religions of modern societies, one that would seem to have little relevance to Japan today. Upon comparison with more organized religions, Shinto is characterized not by scriptures and buildings but by myths, a concern for purity and defilement, and a combination of shrines and rituals. It revolves around the rites and festivals of the community, not of the individual, in a way that can only be described as tribal. In other words, Shinto is not so much a matter of personal belief as it is of being Japanese. To most Japanese, Shinto is part of the backdrop of daily life. It is a set of ancient customs handed down from generation to generation that are to be followed more or less, but not to be pondered deeply.
Shinto, or “Way of the Gods”, only received its name in the sixth century to distinguish it from the newly arrived Buddhism. But Shinto was firmly entrenched in Japan long before Buddhism arrived. Gods (Kami) are felt to be present in natural phenomena (e.g.; mountains, trees, waterfalls, strangely shaped rocks, even in sounds). But Shinto is more than just a nature worshipping faith. It is a combination of attitudes, ideas and ways of doing things that for more than 2,000 years has become an integral part of what it is to be Japanese. Shinto is a personal faith in the Kami, a communal way of life in accordance with the mind of the Kami and a spiritual life attained through worship of and communion with the Kami. People are believed to be the children of both their parents and Kami and therefore owe their lives to both society and nature. In return for the love and protection they receive, they are obliged to treat both of them with loyalty and honesty, and to continue the family line showing kindness and guidance to their descendants.
Throughout most of Japanese history, Shinto did not play a particularly important role in state politics. This all changed, however, after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 when Shinto was deemed the dominant religion, largely to re-establish the importance of the emperor, as the emperor is considered to be a living Kami. At the same time, Buddhism was suppressed. This started the most sinister episode of Japan’s religious and political life called State Shinto.
State Shinto ushered in a period of extreme nationalism which lasted from 1890 to 1945. During this period, Japan’s mythological origins were taught as historical fact and people were encouraged to believe that all Japanese descended from Kami according to Shinto beliefs. At the same time, the traditional values of loyalty, inner strength and self-denial expressed in Bushido (Way of the Warrior) were promoted as desirable personal qualities. Such sentiments were milked by the 1930s military regime to foster a national sense of superiority. Ultimately, this created a highly dedicated nation on the eve of World War ll. After the war, Emperor Hirohito was made a mere a head of state, and the State Branch of Shinto was abolished.
Shinto Shrines are called jinja (Kami Dwelling), although you will also see the suffixes -jingu and -gu. These terms, and the Torii gates are the easiest way to distinguish between Shinto Shrines and Buddhist temples. The shrine provides a dwelling for the Kami, who are felt to be present in the surrounding nature, and it is also a place to serve and worship them. Although there are many styles of shrine architecture, initially they were traditionally built from unpainted cypress wood with a grass-thatch roof. After a time, they were painted a bright vermillion, and roof decorations were added.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of a shrine is the Torii gate which marks the gateway between the secular and spiritual world. Traditionally, these were plain and simple wooden structures consisting of two upright pillars and two crossbeams. Gradually various styles (such as the distinctive vermillion paint) evolved on the same basic design until there were over twenty different types of Torii. Today, they are also made of stone, metal and concrete, in which case they tend to remain unpainted. Once you pass under the torii, you are considered to be spiritually “purified.”
Inside the Shrine compound, you often find pairs of “Lion Dog” statues on the approach to the shrine building. One of the “lion dogs” has its mouth open, and the other has its mouth closed. The “lion dog” with its mouth open, is said to be saying “Ah” (the last letter of the Sanskrit and Japanese syllabary), and the one with the closed mouth is said to be saying “Un” (the last letter of the Sanskrit and Japanese syllabary). This is said to symbolize a beginning and end, or birth and death. You may also find animal messengers of the Kami, such as the fox messengers of Inari Shrines, the deity of good harvests. Somewhere in the compound you’ll often see a sacred object, denoted by a twisted straw rope (Shimenawa) sporting zigzags of white paper tied around it. In the past these objects were believed to be the special abode of a Kami.
A large shrine complex may also include many other buildings including subordinate shrines, on oratory, offering hall, abolution pavilion, shrine office and shop, priests’ living quarters, treasure house, a platform for sacred dances, a Noh drama stage or a sumo arena. It’s also worth noting that in some cases there will be no shrine building as such, but simply a Torii and a straw rope around a tree or rock to indicate a kami’s dwelling place.
Shinto Rites and Festivals
The Japanese pray at shrines for many different reasons, and this may determine which shrine they go to. It may be just to offer thanks to their local or clan Kami for their protection and blessing, or it may be to pray for something special (e.g., a successful childbirth). Kami are sometimes specialists in a certain type of blessing, so it’s no use going to a Kami who specializes in health if you want to pray for success in a forthcoming exam.
When visiting a shrine, there are three elements of worship. Of these, purification is perhaps the most important as it indicates respect for the Kami. Traditionally, anyone suffering from an illness or open wound, menstruating women or those in mourning are considered impure and are forbidden to enter the shrine. At the abolution pavilion (a water trough near the entrance), ladle some water over your hands, pour a little into your cupped hand and rinse your mouth with it. Afterwards, spit the water into the gutter below and raise the ladle above the handle allowing the remaining water to run down the handle and clean the ladle. Now physically purified, you can proceed to the shrine itself and the offering. This normally consists of throwing a coin into a box (a five yen coin is considered luckiest). Depending on the occasion, food, drink, or material goods are sometimes offered to the Kami. The third element is prayer. Pull the rope to ring the bell, bow twice, clap your hands twice at chest level, pray, and bow once again.
In very special occasions, a sacred feast will follow a special service or festival. It sometimes takes the form of consuming the food and drink offered to the Kami once the Kami has had its symbolic share. The feast starts with a formal toast of sake.
At the shrine shop you can buy charms (Omamon) against all manner of ills, fortune papers (Omikuji-If a person receives a good fortune, they will take it home with them. If they receive a bad fortune, they will leave the fortune somewhere at the shrine so the Kami can take care of the bad fortune. They will tie the paper fortunes to tree branches or racks designed for this purpose, etc.), and wooden votive tablets (ema). A person’s wishes are written on the tablet and tied up alongside the others.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Shinto for the visitor is its lively and colorful festivals. All shrines have at least one annual festival which is well worth hunting out. During the festival, the Kami is symbolically transferred from the inner chamber to an ornate palanquin (portable shrine). This is its temporary home while young men hurtle around the local area with it so that the Kami can bless the homes of the faithful. The passion with which they run, turning the portable shrine this way and that, jostling it up and down has to be seen to be believed, especially in rural towns where festivals are usually conducted with more gusto.
Spring festivals are designed to coax the Kami into the village and,
more important, to the rice paddies, where it transmits its powers to the seedlings. In autumn festivals, the Kami is given thanks for the harvest. Before the festival can begin, priests and other direct participants spend several days purifying themselves and the ritual sites, and offerings of food and sake are prepared. The festival begins with the head priest invoking the Kami’s name. The Kami is greeted, escorted through the villages and fields, offered sake, a sticky rice cake called mochi, and other foods. The purified participants also partake of these offerings, in an important communion with the Kami. Then the Kami is entertained. There are offerings of sacred dances, sumo, archery or plays.
Posted on March 15th, 2015 by Mike Roberts
Language 101 – Part 2
The Japanese have taken formal and polite language to a whole new level. The Japanese call it keigo, or honorific language. If you understand the rules of keigo,
when listening to a conversation between Japanese you can determine the relationships within the group. Many factors come into play that affects the level of language to be used such as relative age, family relationships, working relationships, the situation, etc.
I’m often asked what level of formality to use. Fortunately, as foreigners, we are not expected to understand the rules of keigo, so you will not be expected to use the appropriate speech for the situation. Having said this, a little understanding of the basics can come in handy.
There are many ways to say “Thank You”. I have listed a few of them below in increasing order from informal to more formal.
Arigato gozaimasu (current tense) or Arigato gozaimashita (past tense)
Domo arigato gozaimasu (current tense) or Domo arigato gozaimashita (past tense)
There are even more formal ways to say thank you, but they are for very formal occasions only and you won’t have to use those. As a foreigner, a simple Domo or Arigato will be sufficient in all cases. However, if you wish to sound more “Japanese”, you can use Arigato gozaimasu or Arigato gozaimashita. This is more formal, but not too formal and can be used for everyday speech.
Once again, there are many ways to say “Please”. I have listed two of them below in increasing order from informal to formal.
Kudasai is sufficient for everyday speech. Onegai shimasu is normally reserved for more formal occasions.
I’m also often asked the difference between Dozo, and Kudasai or Onegai shimasu. Dozo also means “Please”, but is used differently. When asking for something, such as asking for a glass of water at a restaurant you should use Kudasai or Onegai shimasu. If you are offering something to someone, such as offering a seat on the bus to someone or offering someone to enter an elevator before you, you should use Dozo.
Posted on January 7th, 2015 by Mike Roberts
The Japanese love to create lists of different things. There are the Nihon Sankei (Three Scenic Views: Miyajima Island, Amanohashidate and Matsushima), the Nihon Sanmeien (Three great gardens: Korakuen, Korakuen and Kairakuen), the Hyakumeizan (100 great mountains), etc. Most lists contain the largest or greatest. But since Japan is a small country, I thought it might be interesting to explore the small things that Japan has to be proud of. So (with my apologies to David Letterman) here are the 10 small things Japan has to be proud of.
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Posted on December 3rd, 2014 by Mike Roberts
- Total Elevation Gain: 1,650 Feet (500 meters)
- Total Elevation Loss: 1,300 Feet (400 meters)
- Net Elevation Gain: 350 (100 meters)
- Total Distance: 8 1/4 Miles (13.2 kilometers)
During the night it rained heavily, which meant one thing for today’s walk. It would be very humid. After having an excellent breakfast at the minshuku, I set out for Day 2 at about 8:30 for Tsugizakura-Oji.
For the first kilometer or so, the trail was over pavement, and then changed to dirt trail. For the first 5 1/2 kilometers, the trail steadily climbed past several important Oji to the former site of the Uwadaya-jaya Chaya. At about 700 meters (about 2,300 feet), this location is the highest spot on the trail between Takijirioji and Hongu Taisha Shrine. At one time, there were numerous chaya (literally translates to tea house) along the Kumano Kodo. These were places of rest, drink and food. Some chaya also offered lodging. These chaya were an important part of the Kumano pilgrimage infrastructure. In addition to a place of rest, they also served as centers of exchange between pilgrims and the locals. These chaya were not only found on the Kumano Kodo, but were also common along major highways in Japan such as the Tokaido and Nakasendo.
From here, the trail descended into a small river valley to the Osakamoto Oji. It is thought that the Oji got its name from the fact that the Oji is located at the base of what was once known as Osaka Pass. In his pilgrim’s diary from 1109, Fujiwara Munetada wrote “On the Osaka Pass, there is a tall tree on which a snake-shaped object is hung. It is said in the past, a woman was transformed into the object.” It is also thought that in the old days, at the site of the Osakamoto Oji there was an inn for lords. Read the full post »