Gaijin on Getas Blog

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: 
 
 

 

 

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!