Exploring Sado Island

Sado Island, just a little bigger than the area of Tokyo city, has only 60,000 inhabitants compared to Tokyo’s 10 million. That’s a lot of space per person! I’d say the residents are living the ultimate remote, peaceful ‘island life’. The kids run around making their own fun, while the teenagers take the ferry over to the mainland to go shopping and hang out. Once they’ve finished high school, most of them leave the island to study at university or look for work. But interestingly, many rediscover the comfort of their island home and end up coming back to settle down. Sado Islanders are proud of where they come from, and with good reason.

In January, I took the 5-hour trip up to Niigata Prefecture and out to this relatively unknown (outside of Japan) place. As we drove through the centre of the island, we could see rice paddy fields stretching for miles, with mountains in the distance providing a dramatic backdrop. The air was biting cold, but there was hardly any snow on the ground. I was told the fields are usually covered in a thick blanket of snow, but thanks to the El Niño conditions this year they were brown and bare. But not to worry – this was one trip where I wasn’t interested so much in the landscape.

Sado is known for a bunch of random different things: sake; gold; crested ibises; Noh theatre; oysters and seafood; the taiko group, Kodo; and being the place where an Emperor, a monk and various others were exiled to. Intriguing!

Our first port of call was the Sado Island Taiko Centre. The centre featured a big practice hall made entirely with timber sourced from the island. It had a very earthy, organic feel to it, which was obvious not only visually but also came through in the vibrations made from the taiko. I love the deep and powerful sounds Japanese drums make and when you see a group of professionals performing together, it’s really something special. There were 2 giant drums in the centre – both made from the same tree – with ox skin rather than cow skin used as the drumhead. The one sitting on the ground had a pig’s nose-shaped hole on the side, and when you put your cheek up against it and someone struck the top of the drum, it was as though the tree was letting a big one rip in your face! Lucky it didn’t smell… Seriously though, the force was pretty incredible.

After warming ourselves up on the drums for an hour or so, it was time to go panning for gold! In the Edo Period (1603-1868), underground mining began at Sado Kinzan, Japan’s largest gold mine. It was a huge mining boom and ran for over 300 years, financing the government. At its peak, the gold mines on Sado produced 400kg of gold a year. The mines have since closed down, but we can still try our luck either in controlled troughs, or in the river outside. I managed to get a tiny fleck of gold which is apparently worth about $40. I wonder if I can cash that in somewhere…

With all the rice growing in the area, it’s no wonder the Sado Islanders have gone into the rice wine, or sake, business. The breweries are a fun place to visit and do some taste testing. Each have with their own tastes and some have even won international awards. The key to their success is apparently the locally grown rice grains, the locally sourced mountain water, the generations of dedication and experience, and the magical touch the island itself offers. Whatever the ingredients, the sake here is seriously good.

Aside from music, drinking and gold mining, the wildlife is also a major reason the island is popular amongst local tourists. The Japanese crested ibis, known as toki, was once found all over the country. But they were hunted and as the country developed they lost their natural habitat. In 1960, they were officially designated a protected bird and breeding programs were set up to keep them alive. Similar species were sent over from China and a few chicks were born before the last wild toki, Kin, died in 2003. Now, the Toki Conservation Park is home to many crested ibises and they periodically release them into the wild. It’s been a success, but one which should not have been necessary in the first place.

I feel like I learnt so much while exploring Sado Island! I’ve heard the ocean turns into the most beautiful, crystal clear, turquoise blue during summer and I’d love to go back one day when it’s not so cold. It’s always fun to discover new places and venture off the usual tourist path, don’t you think?

Top 10 Trips around Japan in 2014

I can’t believe it’s already the final day of 2014! It has been an incredible year, full of adventures, making new friends, and just enjoying life as much as possible! It was my second year living in Tokyo and I’m feeling more and more like a “Tokyoite”. Living on the west side of the city means I’ve gotten to know Shinjuku, Shibuya and Harajuku pretty well. Seeing the famous Shibuya Scramble no longer gives me that rush of excitement – it’s now kind of amusing seeing tourists running out to take their pictures of the masses crossing the intersection! These days, I like to think I’ve got Shinjuku Station down pat. And by that I mean I only sometimes get lost there – in my defence there are more than 200 exits, okay?! And in Harajuku, I’ve discovered some pretty cool little cafes.

2014 was also a year of many many ‘firsts’. I visited the United States for the first time, I finally got my Japanese Drivers Licence and drove for the first time in Japan, I watched a Japanese musical (The Little Mermaid), attended a sports match, and joined in on the Japanese custom of sending nengajo (New Year postcards)!

I also squeezed in a lot of travel within Japan – on holidays, weekends, and days off – so much so that this post is going to be based on these trips. I had a lot on my travel to-do list this year, and it’s an awesome feeling to say that I’ve ticked off most of them. It’s all about determination and organisation!

Without further ado, I give you my Top 10 most memorable trips around Japan this year (in chronological order).

Tokamachi Snow Festival (February)

Tokamachi is serious snow country in winter. It lies in the middle of Niigata prefecture, about a 2-hour train ride north of Tokyo. I went to the Snow Festival there with my mum who was visiting back in February. Of all weekends, it just happened to be on one that saw a major blizzard sweep across the country. We were forced to stay longer than we had planned, and all of the snow sculptures were unfortunately covered with fresh snow, but it was still one of the coolest things I’ve seen! I’d definitely go back again next year.

Visiting Hokkaido for the first time (April)

I was super pumped to fly to Hokkaido for the first time. It had been on my bucket list since moving to Japan. This northernmost island of Japan is most famous for its powder snow, so a friend and I went up for a few days of snowboarding. I met some extremely kind people who made the trip all the more special, visited a chocolate factory and a beer factory, ate a lot of fresh seafood and discovered the wonderful Otaru Canal – a beautifully preserved waterway that used to link the warehouses with ships in the bay.

Snow Corridor and Japan Alps (May)

After visiting snowy Hokkaido, I was inspired to see the famous Snow Corridor in Toyama prefecture. This road is along the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route, and is closed for the duration of winter. A snow wall, up to 20 metres high, is created when they clear the road in spring, and is visible from April to June. Beyond the snow wall is Mt Tateyama, a part of the Northern Alps. This pure white landscape was truly spectacular!

Rainy season at Meigetsu-in (June)

A bit closer to home, Kamakura is a city just an hour or so south of Tokyo. I went to a temple called Meigetsu-in for the first time, after hearing about their beautiful hydrangea stairway. I loved seeing the unusual shapes and colours of the flowers, some which are only found in Kamakura.

Fuji Rock Music Festival (July)

I’d wanted to go to the Fuji Rock Music Festival for ages, and finally made it happen this year. A friend and I went for the final of the 3 days and camped overnight there. It is a massive festival, with 7 main stages plus many smaller ones as well as other attractions. The festival is located at a ski resort in the middle of nowhere in Niigata prefecture. It really is like a rave in the mountains!

Climbing Mt Fuji (August)

By far one of my best memories of 2014 was witnessing an epic sunrise from the summit of Mt Fuji. It was a tough hike. We started at 2,300m at 7pm, getting to the top, 3776m, around 2am. We eventually made it back down around 9am. Luckily we had amazing weather the entire time. I was left with some foot related injuries, but I still think it was one of the best experiences of my life!

Matsumoto Castle (September)

One of 4 castles that are national treasures, Matsumoto Castle is the only black one. It’s nicknamed the Crow because of its colour, and was never actually attacked by enemies which has left it in a remarkable condition. Matsumoto Castle is in Nagano prefecture, about 2.5 hour bus trip from Tokyo. The day I went, there happened to be an event celebrating Matsumoto’s sister city relationship with a town in Switzerland. I got to watch an amazing taiko (drum) performance, as well as hear some genuine yodelling!

Discovering Karuizawa (October-November)

One of my new favourite places in Japan is the town of Karuizawa in Nagano prefecture. It’s known as a summer resort with lots of sporting, shopping and outdoor activities for young and old. I visited the town for the first time in October and fell in love with the natural beauty of the area! I was back a few weeks later to enjoy the mesmerising autumn colours. It’s an easy 2 hour trip from Tokyo, so I will definitely be going back many times in 2015!

Road trip to Ibaraki (October-November)

After finally getting my act together to get my Japanese Drivers Licence, some friends and I went on 2 road trips to Ibaraki prefecture, a few hours north-east of Tokyo. I was very excited to be back behind the wheel! On our first trip, we went to the Hitachi Hillside Park to see the bright red kochia shrubs. The second time was an overnight trip, visiting a few autumn leaves spots like Fukurodo Falls. Ibaraki is beautiful in autumn!

Autumn colours in Toyama (November)

The BEST autumn leaves spot of 2014, in my opinion! After talking with a sweet elderly lady who we met on our way to the Snow Corridor back in May, my friend and I decided we would return to Toyama to visit the Torokko Train. I’m so glad we listened to her advice. The scenic train winds through the Kurobe Gorge, parallel to the emerald-coloured Kurobe River. We timed our trip perfectly and were able to see the colours at their peak. It was an unforgettable experience and I’ll always treasure the memory of being there.

As you can see, most of my trips were to Nagano, Niigata, and Toyama prefectures which are all in the Chubu region of Japan, and no more than 3-4 hours from Tokyo. If you’re planning a trip to Japan in 2015, please consider these places for a day or overnight trip!

As for me, there’s still so much more to discover in Japan. Some places at the top of my 2015 list are Shikoku, Yakushima, Okinawa, Niseko, as well as return to northern Tohoku. Can’t wait!!

Happy New Year to you all! Party safely!

Summer Festivals: Fuji Rock

Try to picture this: you are up in the mountains, 40 minutes from the nearest train station, in a ski resort-come-festival grounds; surrounded by forest and low-lying clouds; music beating from every direction (200 different performers over 3 days); 11 stages spread out through the valley connected by paths that lead through forests and over shallow rivers; disco balls raised above the paths which bounce pieces of light off into the dark forest at night; camping grounds full of colourful tents; and 100,000 happy festival goers enjoying this amazing event.

Fuji Rock festival was on July 25, 26, 27. My friend and I went just for the final day/night. Tickets are fairly expensive – for a one-day pass plus camping, we paid about $200 each! But it was so worth it. If the lineup is good next year, I definitely want to go again, and probably for the whole weekend – one day isn’t enough to soak it all up!

The first ever festival, back in 1997, was at the base of Mt Fuji, which is where its name comes from. Although it featured some pretty big names – Green Day, Foo Fighters, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against the Machine – it wasn’t very successful due to bad weather. The next year they tried a venue in Tokyo, and the following year they eventually moved to its current location up in Niigata prefecture at Naeba Ski Resort.

I’ve been to a few music festivals in my life. Usually it’s a one-day event with a bunch of stages, a couple of big tents, some side show alley type entertainment and a lot of greasy food. Fuji Rock takes festivals to a whole other level!

Fuji Rock

A very colourful, magical, fun, and well thought out concept!

Unexpectedly, there were lots of young families. I guess there’s no reason kids should miss out! For the little ones, there was even a designated ‘Kids Land’. It reminded me a bit of Pocahontas-land! Super fun and cute.

Some of the different stages on the east side. It was a fair hike from the main stages on the west side!

John Butler Trio! An Australian rock/reggae band who play a lot near my hometown actually. They are really popular in Oz. John Butler is the lead/singer/guitarist (on the left) – his guitar skills are pretty insane. The newest member is Grant Gerathy on the drums. Loved how he was smiling for the whole gig. And on the right is Byron Luiters, who played the bass, keyboard and cello, and even sang a little!

Lorde! An amazingly talented 17 year old electropop/rock singer from New Zealand. She talked to the crowd about how grateful she was to be there, as did all the acts we saw, but she just seemed really honest and mature beyond her years. I love love loved her! The climax at the end of her show with the streamers bursting out still gives me goosebumps!

Possibly the biggest crowd drawer for the night – OutKast! If you’ve been under a rock for the past couple of decades, they’re a hip hop group from the U.S. The duo, André 3000 and Big Boi, were probably most well known back in the early 2000s, and this year are doing their ’20th anniversary world tour’. It was so cool to hear songs like ‘Hey Ya’ and ‘Ms Jackson’ which everyone knows, and André was pretty funny – at one point he jumped up and sat on the speakers, but couldn’t get down because it was raining and the stage was slippery! Someone had to get him a towel to land on. That’ll teach him!

Can’t wait for next year!!

Tokamachi Snow Festival

The Tokamachi Snow Festival is like one of Niigata’s best kept secrets. Most of my Japanese friends have never heard of it. But, each year it attracts about 300,000 people – 5 times the town’s regular population! For Tokyoites, it’s a cheaper/closer alternative to the world famous Sapporo Snow Festival in Hokkaido. It was originally created to ’embrace’ the enormous amount of snowfall (up to 3m) the region sees, and give the locals as well as tourists something to get excited about in the middle of winter.

Unfortunately, on the exact same weekend as when I went, a massive snowstorm swept across the country. We made it to Tokamachi with no problems, but we arrived to see most of the snow sculptures covered in snow, which was a huge shame for the artists that had spent days carving out the fine details! If that wasn’t bad enough, the next day, we also learned that the snowstorm had shut down the train network and people couldn’t get in or out, including us! We were forced to stay a second night. We were fine with that, as it meant we could stay to watch the grand finale performance… until we heard that that too had been cancelled. So, all in all, it was just a trip to see a whole lot of snow and test how long we could put up with the cold!!

Despite feeling like my frozen toes were going to fall off, it was great to walk through the town and find different beloved characters – Doraemon, Anpanman, Totoro and Hello Kitty. The festival’s masterpiece of Mt Fuji and two shrines was incredible, but my favourite sculpture was one sponsored by the Lions Club dedicated to the Sochi Olympics. It was in an unroofed area within a building, so we could go and see it up close. Even covered in freshly fallen snow, the detail of the dragon was not lost.

It would be great to visit this festival again someday!

 

 

 

Weekly Photo Challenge: Inside

This post is in response to the Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge. This week’s theme is “inside. 

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I recently went to Niigata prefecture which is on the west coast of Japan. In February, the sleepy town of Tokamachi is transformed into a buzzing snow festival, with snow sculptures built and showcased all around the area.

One of the sculptures was based on the Studio Ghibli movie, My Neighbor Totoro (originally released in 1988). This movie is arguably the most famous and most loved of the Ghibli films and everyone knows the characters: Totoro, the cat bus, Satsuki and Mei.

Seeing the snow sculpture from afar was impressive in itself. But, as I got closer, my attention was drawn to a massive hole under the cat bus. At first, I thought it was a tunnel to lead to the other side. I soon realised it was in fact a sculpture inside another sculpture! Very clever and impressive!

Totoro snow sculpture

Totoro snow sculpture Totoro snow sculpture