Gaijin on Getas Blog

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: 
 
 

 

 

Gaikos- Taking Japan’s Past Into the Future

Posted on January 22nd, 2018 by Stephanie Miera

Geiko (modern day Geishas) are arguably the most iconic symbol of Japan. Their kimonos and white makeup distinguish them as an almost Japanese celebrity.  The name Geiko translated literally means “person of the arts” as they are highly trained in various performing arts, including traditional Japanese dance and classical music. Some of their other training includes learning how to be great conversationalists and leading tea ceremonies to entertain their clientele. These young women start their journey as Maiko, meaning a Geiko in training, spending years practicing different skill sets before graduating to Geiko status.  It may surprise some to learnthat the very first geishas were actually men. It was almost two decades later when women would take over the Geisha role.

Traditionally, Geishas started painting their faces white so they could be better seen in candlelight. They continue the tradition today in honor of their history. The makeup a Maiko is wearing can also be indicative of where theyare in their training. If you see a Maiko with only their lower lip painted, this means that they are new to the training and have not earned the top lip being painted. Girls as young as 14 can decide to join the house and start their training. Their training typically takes about 5 years to complete. Once the Maiko graduate to Geiko status, they are free to live and work on their own, although, they are not permitted to get married. If the Gaiko decided to get married, they have to forfeit their Gaiko status.

Today, you will find the Geikos and Maikos in the Gion District of Kyoto. If you are in the area and very lucky, you may spot one walking to their evening appointment. You can tell the difference between the two in very subtle ways. The Maiko will have more ornaments in their hair and a more brightly colored Kimono, while the Gaikos wear a more simple, sophisticated Kimono and hairstyle.

Many of our tours offer a Tea Ceremony and other cultural activities that feature a Maiko performance. Clients have the opportunity to learn matcha making and drinking skills, ask the Maiko questions, and take some pictures with her. The cultural experience gives clients a great sense of how Japan is bringing its past into the future.

Jigokudani Yaen-Koen Snow Monkey Park

Posted on December 26th, 2017 by Stephanie Miera

After a short bus ride from the Nagano station you will find yourself on the side of a hill with a sign depicting a monkey in water urging you upward. These signs will lead you on a short walk through a small town to a forested path that will end at the snow monkey park.The path is easy and well marked, surrounded by tall trees and vines and it is not hard to believe this is the home to the monkeys you are looking for.  After about half an hour of walking you will see a geyser shooting water high into the air and a nearby onsen across the river that you are now next to.  You will climb several flights of stairs on your side of the river to the small shack where you will pay your meager 500¥ to enter the Jigokudani Yaen-Koen Snow Monkey Park.  

Once inside, you will follow a trail lined with warning signs about not feeding or touching the monkeys.  This is no zoo with cages of animals brought to you.  Instead you have come to their home so must watch your manners to avoid upsetting your hosts.  The path is not long but follows a stream with some small waterfalls where you can see baby monkeys playing and trying to keep up with their parents.  The path ends at a wall of large stones that the monkeys love to lounge on next to the hot spring bath.  When they climb into the water and begin to relax and calm down, the monkeys seem even more human-like. You will want to join them but keep in mind they are wild animals.  

While this trip will fill a day if coming from Tokyo, it is definitely worth it.  Not only will you get to make your friends jealous of getting to see such a well-known Japanese attraction, but if you enjoy a relaxing hike through the woods and some beautiful countryside you will not be disappointed.  For a taste of the experience a man from Google with a strange 360 camera backpack has made the trek and you can follow along with Google Street View.  Then check to see who is currently in waters with a live camera feed from the parks website here.

Google street view

https://www.google.com/maps/@36.7326444,138.4621934,2a,75y,264.85h,90.02t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1siB8gCPaUj52te4tMj1zceA!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

Live cam

http://en.jigokudani-yaenkoen.co.jp/livecam2/video_en.php

Fugu: A Deadly Meal

Posted on December 26th, 2017 by Stephanie Miera

Japan is well known for its unique and delicious food, however many people don’t know just how unique some meals can be. Fugu, or blowfish, is one of these delicacies. 

There are over 100 species of poisonous fugu world-wide, and many are sold in Japanese restaurants as a luxury dish. The poison (tetrodotoxin) is contained in the intestines, liver, andovaries of the fish, and can be up to 1,200 times deadlier than cyanide. In fact, a single fugu fish has enough poison to kill 30 people. If ingested, it causes numbness around the mouth followed by paralysis, which leads to a rapid death.

Proper preparation is critical to ensure that no poison has contaminated the thin slices, typically served as sashimi. Afterwards, the chef will dispose of the poisonous parts of the fish in a sealed and locked container where it will eventually be burned. Although accidental deaths do happen from eating fugu, they are very rare in Japan today, and most occur from amateur fishers who attempt to prepare the fish for themselves.

Although many would consider this a crazy endeavour, the danger makes it all the more exciting for many people. Tokyo and Osaka contain some of the best fugu restaurants in Japan, and therefore some of most highly skilled chefs. You must have a special license to serve fugu, and the training itself takes a minimum of two years. A full fugu meal typically starts at $100 USD, but people are often willing to pay much higher for the assurance of the fugu chef license.

If you are looking for something profoundly unique and exciting to eat, check out one of the fugu restaurants in Tokyo or Osaka, and enjoy bragging to your friends about your Russian roulette Japanese eating experience!

Zatoichi – The Blind Swordsman

Posted on December 5th, 2017 by Mike Roberts

Zatoichi - The Blind Swordsman

Zatoichi – The Blind Swordsman

I am writing again about one of my favorite subjects: Japanese movies. One of my favorite Japanese movie series is Zatoichi, The Blind Swordsman. A total of 26 movies were made between 1962 and 1989, and 105 television shows were made between 1974 to 1979 making it the longest-running action series in Japanese history. Oddly enough, all of the movies and television shows feature the same person playing the main role. Shintaro Katsu, the son of a Kabuki actor, was an actor, singer, producer, director and shamisen player who appeared in more than 110 movies, but became synonymous with his role of Zatoichi.

The Zatoichi movies are formula movies in the same fashion as Bond movies and Law and Order television shows. Each movie has a similar storyline and plot. Zatoichi, a traveling blind masseur and sentimental drifter is a man who lives staunchly by a code of honor and delivers justice everywhere he goes during the late Edo Period (1830s and 1840s). He meets old friends or makes new friends who are forced to suffer some kind of harm or injustice by oppressive and/or warring yakuza gangs. In the meantime, Zatoichi, through no fault of his own stumbles into harm’s way. Eventually, Zatoichi overcomes his own problems, and comes to the aid of the unfortunate and innocents. (The Japanese love a good revenge story.) And, after every sword fight, there is the signature way Zatoichi slowly sheaths his cane sword.

Because of his blindness, his other senses are more finely attuned. His keen ears, sense of smell, sensory perception and his wits in a fight, combined with his incredible lightning-fast sword skills make him a formidable adversary. In addition to his sword skills, he also has a fondness for gambling on dice games where, once again, his other senses make up for his inability to see. He wins large amounts of money by his ability to identify whether the dice have fallen on even or odd, and the ability to identify loaded or substituted dice by the difference in their sound.

A number of sequels have been released since the last Zatoichi was released. There was even one that was about Zatoichi’s daughter. Recently (2003) a remake was released with Takeshi “Beat” Kitano playing the leading role of Zatoichi (he also directed the movie). Kitano did an excellent job creating the movie, and his portrayal of Zatoichi was spot on. It won a number of Japanese Academy Awards as well as a Silver Lion Award at the Cannes Film Festival.

Omoide Yokocho “Memory Lane”

Posted on December 4th, 2017 by Stephanie Miera

It’s easy to get lost in the towering skyscrapers and bright lights when walking around the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, but if you look closely enough you will find a cramped alleyway called memory lane (known as piss alley to the locals). This local hotspot started out as an illegal drinking quarter after World War 2 and quickly became one of the most popular and affordable places to eat and drink.

Located near the west exit of Shinjuku Station, entering the alleyway is almost like stepping back in time. Japanese lanterns light the tight alley as all different kinds of aromas fill the space. Each restaurant and bar could only be described as tiny, most having only about 6 seats. As you walk down the alley, you will see shopkeepers working over grills or caldrons, carefully preparing their shop’s specialty. The food here ranges from Yakitori (grilled skewers) to Nikomi (thick Japanese stew)  and one particular restaurant famous for it’s odd offerings. While food is the highlight of Piss Alley, the drinks available are the perfect pairing. The small bars are the perfect place to meet other foreigners or Japanese locals for a truly Japanese experience.

We would recommend taking the evening to tour Piss Alley, as it is easy to take your time making multiple stops at different eateries. You will likely not find an English menu, but with that comes an adventurous evening, eating things you may love before ever learning what they are.

Kaizen (改善 – “Good Change”)

Posted on September 6th, 2017 by Mike Roberts

The literal translation of Kaizen (改善) is good change, but the connotation and idea behind Kaizen is continual improvement . In business, kaizen refers to activities that continuously improve all functions and involve all employees from the CEO to the assembly line workers. It also applies to processes, such as purchasing and logistics, that cross organizational boundaries. Toyota has made Kaizen famous, but a number of other Japanese companies adopted this philosophy after World War 2. Read the full post »