Gaijin on Getas Blog

Umami

Posted on June 23rd, 2017 by Mike Roberts

This blog is about one of my favorite subjects: Japanese food. If you have done any research on Japanese cooking, you will have heard the term “umami”. All Japanese cookbooks, cooking shows, etc. will talk about “umami”. It is said this it is what gives Japanese food it’s unique flavor. The term is a shortened version of “umai” (delicious in Japanese) and “mi” (taste in Japanese). Increased “umami” is the primary goal of all Japanese chefs.

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Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage Day 1 – Temple 1 to 10

Posted on June 12th, 2017 by Mike Roberts

My plan for today on the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage was to visit Temples 1 though 10. If you look at a map of Shikoku with the temples shown on the map, you will see these 10 temples are very close together, heading generally west from Tokushima.

Pilgrimage supply shop at Ryozenji (Temple 1)

Pilgrimage supply shop at Ryozenji (Temple 1)

I started the day by driving from my hotel next to Tokushima station to Ryozenji (Temple #1), which was only about a 30 minute
drive. After arriving and parking the car, I stopped at the shop next to the parking lot selling all the items you need on the Shikoku 88 temple pilgrimage. A long list of items is needed for the pilgrimage, and I will cover that in later blogs. I already made some purchases from online web sites in Japan specializing in supplies for the Shikoku pilgrimage, but I made a few small purchases from the shop.  If you are not able to purchase anything prior to the start of the pilgrimage, no need to worry, they have everything you will need. 

I will be making other posts on the proper procedures to follow at each temple, etc., but for now I am only going to write about the temples I visited that first day. I am not going to write about every temple, but will talk a little about the temples that made an impression with me. 

Temple #1 – Ryozenji

Ryozenji's (Temple 1) Main Gate

Ryozenji’s (Temple 1) Main Gate

Ryozenji’s most notable characteristic is, well, it’s number 1. While it is not necessary to start here, many people do. Having said that, it is a very pleasant temple with a small pond filled with Koi and a statue of Kobo Daishi watching over the pond, a small pagoda and some interesting statuary. The main statue here is famous with high school students for promising academic success at the university level. Because it is number 1, everyone wants to visit the temple. So the temple was busy and noisy, which was not what I expected.

Ryozenji was founded by Gyogi in the eighth century on the orders of Emperor Shomu, and Kobo Daishi visited the temple in the 9th century. Like many other temples on Shikoku, Ryozenji was destroyed in the late 16th century by Chosokabe Motochika, the daimyo of the Tosa province (today’s Kochi prefecture) in the late 16th century near the end of the Sengoku Jidai (Period of Warring States). 

Temple #2 – Gokurakuji

Gorakuji's (Temple 2) Cedar of Long Life and Main Hall

Gorakuji’s (Temple 2) Cedar of Long Life and Main Hall

It was less than a 5 minute drive from temple #1 to temple #2, but it was like a different world. While Ryozenji was crowed, Gokurakuji was very quiet with not many people. It was also created by Gyogi in the eighth century. Kukai visited this temple and carved the temple’s main diety – the diety of light. According to legend, long ago it was difficult for fisherman in nearby Naruto Bay to catch fish because of the bright light from the main statue of the temple. To prevent this, the fisherman built a small artificial hill behind the main hall to block the light. Gokurakuji was also destroyed in the late 16th century. 

In the courtyard in front of the main hall is a cedar tree said to be 1,000 years old known as the Cedar of Long Life that was planted by Kobo Daishi. If you pray while touching the tree you will be granted a long life. The tree is also popular with women for easing childbirth. The temple is known as the temple that grants easy childbirth and is dedicated to expectant mothers. 

Temple #4 – Dainichiji

Pilgrims Chanting Sutras (Buddhist Prayers)

Pilgrims Chanting Sutras (Buddhist Prayers)

The first three temples are surrounded by urban sprawl, but temple #4 is located at the base of the mountains at the edge of town with a green forest behind it. Kobo Daishi founded this temple, and has been destroyed many times, including the late 16th century. Since that time, the temple has gone through continuous cycles of disuse and reconstruction. The Main Hall and Daishi Hall are connected by a walkway where 33 Sanju Kannon statues are on display.  

 

Temple #5 – Jizoji

Jizoji's (Temple 5) Rakan Statues

Jizoji’s (Temple 5) Rakan Statues

Kobo Daishi founded this temple in 821 on the order of Emperor Saga. As with other temples, the temple was destroyed in the late 16th century. What makes this temple different is the long U-shaped building behind the main hall that houses 200 statues of Rakan (enlightened followers of Buddha). Each statue has a different facial expression, and, in keeping with Rakan traditions, are generally humorous. All 200 statues were carved out of wood by two Buddhist monks in the 18th century. There are two wells where you can hear when even one drop of water reaches the water below. One is next to the Main Hall and the other is close to the stairs after entering from the main gate. 

Temple #6 – Anrakuji

Anrakuji's (Temple 6) Nio Statue

Anrakuji’s (Temple 6) Nio Statue

The temple was originally founded by Kobo Daishi  about 2 km north of its present location. Legend says he struck his staff into the ground creating a hot spring with curative waters. Since then, people have used the hot spring water to cure illnesses. On the temple grounds, there are 33 types of deity statues and an upside down pine tree said to ward off misfortune planted by a hunter after his father was cured of an illness in the waters here. The temple is located among numerous rice fields. To get to the temple, you have to navigate the many narrow roads between the rice fields. 

The thing that caught my attention were the pair of well-preserved Nio statues on either side of the main gate. Nio statues are angry-faced, muscular guardians of the temple, and can be found at the entrance to many Buddhist temples in Japan. 

Temple #8 – Kumadaniji

Kumadaniji's (Temple 8) Main Gate

Kumadaniji’s (Temple 8) Main Gate

Kobo Daishi founded this temple, and the temple (once again) was destroyed in the late 16th century. The Daimyo of Awa province (today’s Tokushima prefecture) visited the temple for a moon viewing party. The main gate built in 1687 is considered to be the finest and oldest gate of all 88 temples. Legend says a band of robbers once lived on the second story of the gate. In the garden is a pine tree which looks like a dragon. 

Temple #10 – Kirihataji

Temple #10 is the first introduction to a mountain temple, however, it is not far away from the city. The temple is at the top of 333 steps from the parking lot, although the steps can be avoided by continuing up the hill by car. Kobo Daishi founded the temple in honor of a girl he met while performing religious activities for seven days at a hut on the mountain. Legend states she supplied all of his needs for the entire seven days. When Kukai asked for some old cloth, the young woman presented him with a brand new kimono. The woman told Kukai she would like to become a saint and help save people. Shortly thereafter she changed into a Senju Kannon. The large tower was moved here from Sumiyoshi Shrine in Osaka in 1873. 

After finishing my visit to Temple #10, I drove back to the hotel which took about 45 minutes. 

Observations, Thoughts, Impressions of the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage (up to this point)

First of all, if I had to do it over again, I would not have visited 10 temples on the first day. While it was not hurried, as much as I enjoy going to temples and shrines in Japan, by the 8th or 9th temple I was starting to think “OMG, another temple.” Next time, I will break up the first 17 temples into 3 days. 

I was not prepared for how busy Ryozenji (Temple #1) was. But what was even more surprising was how quiet the rest of the temples were compared to Ryozenji (except for those temples where I ran into the large bus tour groups). 

I was prepared to see many large bus tour groups. However, I only ran into 3. (Two at temple #1 and another at temple #8). And none of the buses seemed to be doing what I was doing (starting with temple 1 and visiting all of the temples from there). Although, because some of the streets leading to the temples were very narrow, I would think it would be very difficult to get to some of the temples by large bus. The largest vehicle I would think that would be able to get to all of the temples are the 10 passenger vans we use on our Rail and Drive tours. 

I did keep meeting the same groups at each temple. There were a couple of large vans taking smaller groups, and a number of passenger cars all doing the same thing I was doing. I talked with one of the van drivers, and he said he worked for a travel agency that specializes in providing tours for smaller groups of the pilgrimage. I took one of his cards for possible future reference. I only saw 4 or 5 people walking, and 1 person on bicycle. Although, I was surprised to see that many. Starting the pilgrimage in early June means they would probably finish before the worst heat of the summer, but it would still be hot. 

The small groups in the larger vans were taking the pilgrimage very seriously. I was able to watch them at most of the temples, and they followed the same routine at each temple (I will be writing another blog sometime soon documenting the procedures) without exception, and the procedures they followed were the recommended procedures for visiting the temples. Most of the people in the passenger cars were not so diligent and serious. 

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It provided some quiet time for reflection, a purely “off-the-beaten-path” Japanese cultural experience and an excellent way to see the beautiful island of Shikoku. I am looking forward to the rest of the pilgrimage. 

 

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

Posted on June 8th, 2017 by Mary Brown

 

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.

Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage

Posted on June 5th, 2017 by Mike Roberts

What is it?

The Shikoku Pilgrimage is a multi-site pilgrimage of 88 temples associated with the Buddhist monk Kukai (Kobo Daishi) on the island of Shikoku. Large numbers of pilgrims (known as henro in Japanese) still undertake the journey for a variety of reasons (if you ask 100 people why they are doing it, you would get 100 different reasons). The pilgrimage is traditionally done on foot, but modern pilgrims use cars, taxis, buses, bicycles, motorcycles, public transportation or a combination of all these. The standard walking course is approximately 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) and can take anywhere from 6 to 8 weeks to complete. 

History

It is believed that the founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kobo Daishi, (774 to 835) either trained or spent time at some of these temples. Thus, he plays a significant role in this pilgrimage. Although there are references to people making this pilgrimage from around the 12th century, it did not become popular until the first guidebooks were published in the 17th century. Since the Edo Period was a time of peace and prosperity, most people in Japan at that time had the time and money to travel. As a result, the popularity of the pilgrimage remained high until World War 2. 

After the war, most people once again did not have the time or the means to make the pilgrimage, and interest in the pilgrimage decreased. In the 1950’s, a tour bus company in Ehime Prefecture introduced the new concept of performing the pilgrimage by chartered bus which became popular overnight. And today, the vast majority of the 300,000 people per year who complete the pilgrimage do so by tour bus, and the number of people walking the pilgrimage is relatively small. 

Differences from Other Pilgrimages

The immediate difference that is immediately obvious is the length of the pilgrimage. I am not aware of any other pilgrimages in the world of this length. But if you look at a map of the pilgrimage, you will see another difference. The Shikoku Pilgrimage is a circular route around the island of Shikoku. Most pilgrimages have a distinct begin and end point, and after reaching the journeys end and after a celebration of worship the pilgrim returns home. 

But the Shikoku Pilgrimage is a circle with no beginning and no end. It is not important where one begins. But what is important is that one go all the way around and return to one’s starting point. One must close the circle. 

There are no rules how to do the pilgrimage. It can be started at any point, and it is not necessary to complete the pilgrimage at one time. Because of the length of the pilgrimage, most people don’t have the time to do this at one time (including me). So it is very common for people to keep going back many times before completing the pilgrimage, as I will be doing. 

My Approach

I am a purist, especially when it comes to things like this. I would love to walk the pilgrimage, but I am not able to at this time. The best times of the year to walk the pilgrimage is during the spring and fall. However, that is our busy times of the year and I don’t have the time during those seasons. The summer is too hot to walk the pilgrimage. I walked the Kumano Kodo once during the summer, and it was very difficult because of the heat. So I have decided that I will drive. This is the second most common way to perform the pilgrimage today after the bus tours. The benefit of driving is it will take less time, and I will be able to follow the pilgrimage during the summer months. 

So I hope you will follow my future blogs and photos as I make my way around the island of Shikoku.

Japanese Films

Posted on May 18th, 2017 by Mary Brown

Movies can be another fun and interesting way of learning more about another culture, and this applies to Japanese films as well. Traditional Japanese performing arts, such as Kabuki, Noh and Bunraku are audio visual. There is typically very little plot and character development when compared to western performing arts. The main purpose of these entertainment forms is the strict, stylized movements and the colorful costumes and makeup. Japanese movies are typically the same, at least when it comes to plot and character development.

At times, there are often long periods of conversations during Japanese movies, making the movies somewhat slow at times. A good example of this is last year’s “Shin Godzilla”, the latest and 31st movie in the Godzilla franchise. It was the largest grossing live-action movie of 2016 in Japan. You would think, giving the subject of the movie, it would be a fast-moving and action- packed movie. I have seen the movie, and there are several parts of the movie that are 20 minutes or even longer of discussions on how to handle the problem of Godzilla, making the movie a bit slow at times by western standards. (But then, this is Japanese way for the most part, and indicative of the Japanese culture.)

As you know, Hollywood movies take years to make and have huge, multi-million dollar budgets. In Japan, movies are made in months with much smaller budgets. It is not uncommon in Japan for a director to make 3 to 5 movies in a year. Most movie theaters in Japan are owned by the movie studios. Naturally, they will feature their studio’s movies only. So, they need to produce enough movies to fill the theater over the course of a year, and have enough variety to sell more tickets.

Just as with western movies, there are many different kinds of movies. But there are some genres in Japan that are not found in the west. Here are a few of the more common Japanese film genres. It should be noted that many times a movie could be included in more than one genre.

Jidai-geki

Literally meaning “period dramas”, these movies usually take place during the Edo Period (1603 to 1868). These movies rely heavily on costumes, makeup, set design and language. They will often feature Samurai and “bushido” themes, the Samurai code for living, and often feature the conflict between “giri” (duty) and “ninjo” (personal feelings). Examples – Seven Samurai, Harakiri, The Twilight Samurai, Chushingura

Chanbara

These are the “sword-fighting” movies, and are really a sub-genre of the Jidai-geki as they normally take place sometime in Japan’s history. These movies are the equivalent of American westerns, with samurai playing the part of American cowboys. Examples – Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman series, Rurouni Kenshin Trilogy, Lone Wolf and Cub Series, Yojimbo

Anime

Anime is hand-drawn or computer generated animation. The name is an abbreviation of “animation” in Japanese, and describes all animation in Japan. However, outside of Japan, the name usually is used to refer specifically to animation from Japan. Japanese anime usually features colorful graphics, vibrant characters and fantastical themes. Examples – Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, One Piece, Naruto Shippuden, Fullmetal Alchemist

Yakuza

This popular film genre focuses on the lives and dealings of yakuza, the Japanese organized crime syndicates. During the 1960s, a sub-genre called “Ninkyo eiga” (chivalry films) became popular. These movies portrayed the yakuza as honorable outlaws torn between the contradictory values of duty and personal feelings. This changed in the 1970s when another sub-genre, “Jitsuroku eiga” (actual record films) portrayed yakuza not as honorable heirs to the samurai code, but as ruthless and treacherous street thugs. Examples – Battles Without Honor and Humanity Series, Outrage, Abashiri Prison Series

Pink film

In its broadest sense, these movies include almost any film that includes nudity or deals with sex. This encompasses everything from dramas to action thrillers and exploitation films. Although, some Japanese film scholars reserve this term for movies produced and distributed by smaller independent studios. These movies became popular in the 1960s, but in the 1970s some of the larger studios such as Toei started creating another sub-genre called pinky violence films, which included violence in addition to the adult content. With their access to higher production values and talent, some of these films went on to become critical and popular successes. Examples – Female Convict 701: Scorpion Series, Female Yakuza Tale Series, Delinquent Girl Boss Series

Japanese Horror

Japanese horror is noted for its unique thematic and conventional treatment of the horror genre when compared to western horror films. Japanese horror tends to focus on psychological horror and suspense involving ghosts and poltergeists. Many movies also feature ancient folk religion stories of possession, exorcism and shamanism. Examples – Ringu, Battle Royale, Kwaidan, Audition, Onibaba, Ugetsu

Gendai-geki

Unlike the jidai-geki genre of period dramas, whose stories are normally set in the Edo Period, gendaigeki stories are contemporary dramas set in the modern world. Examples – Shall We Dance, Departures, Vengeance is Mine

Shomin-geki

Realist films which focus on the lives of common working class People. Examples – Tora-san Series, Tokyo Story, One Wonderful Sunday

Kaiju

This genre features monsters, usually attacking major cities and engaging the military and other monsters in battle. The popularity of these films started in 1954 with Godzilla, and continues today.Examples – Godzilla Series, Gamera Series, Mothra Series, Rodan Series

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

Yatagarasu (three-legged crow)

Posted on June 1st, 2016 by Mary Brown

DSC_0437

 

The Yatagarasu (three-legged crow) plays an important part of the mythology of Hongu Taisha. The first is a statue is on a post office box on the Hongu Taisha grounds, and the second is a banner at the main gate of Hongu Taisha. It is said the Yatagarasu is a messenger of the Shinto Sun Goddess Amaterasu. Emperor Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan and a direct descendant of Amaterasu, was born on the southern island of Kyushu about 2,600 years ago. He and his army traveled by boat to the Kii Peninsula. It is the site of today’s Wakayama Prefecture and Hongu Taisha. Legend says that a Yatagarasu led Emperor Jimmu and his army through the rugged mountains of the Kii Mountain Range to the Yamato Plain (where the present-day city of Nara is located). He and his army defeated the local armies there and he proclaimed himself as the first emperor of Japan. The current emperor is the 125th generation of direct descendant from Emperor Jimmu.

 

DSC_0442

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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