The Mighty Gion Matsuri

It’s festival season! For enduring the hot summer months in Japan, we are rewarded with dozens and dozens of exciting festivals… traditional street festivals, lantern festivals, obon dance festivals, fireworks festivals, awa dance festivals, you name it!  Continue reading “The Mighty Gion Matsuri”

Island Hopping in Japan’s South (Part 3)

After 3 days exploring Okinawa, I realized I had been crazy to ever doubt whether this place was worth a visit. I now completely get why so many people love this prefecture, and return year after year. And in fact I’m a little surprised at how underrated it is. For those of you who haven’t been to Japan, how much do you know about Okinawa, I wonder?

Days 1 & 2 had taken us around Okinawa-honto, Day 3 to Ishigaki Island and Taketomi Island, and we had just 1.5 more days left to soak up this slice of paradise before heading back to Tokyo.

Day 4: Iriomote Island & Yubu Island – the slow life

Our 4th day was spent exploring two more islands in the Yaeyama chain. From Ishigaki, we took a jet boat 25km west to Uehara Port on Iriomote Island. The sea was calm and flat as a pancake, which made for a very relaxing and peaceful ride.

Iriomote Island is a place where you could easily forget about the rest of the world. Time seems to stand still here, or at least ticks by at a very leisurely pace. Despite being the second largest island in Okinawa, only about 2,000 people live on Iriomote and few people travel here because of its remote location. There is just one main road that follows the coastline partway round the island, so your view is always the emerald sea on one side and dense, mountainous forest on the other.

The island is packed with activities for nature lovers – hiking to waterfalls, kayaking down rivers, cruises through mangroves, snorkeling at beaches and diving in reefs. In the mangrove forests, you can see the fascinating Looking Glass trees, famous for their buttress roots. The largest tree is said to be 400 years old. The fauna on Iriomote is also amazing. I swear I’ve never seen so many butterflies fluttering around in my life. I felt like we were driving through a butterfly sanctuary! And incredibly, the island is home to its own unique wild cat called the Iriomote-yamaneko which the locals are especially proud of.

Unlike Kaiji Beach on Taketomi Island, Iriomote’s northern Hoshizuna Beach is actually full of star-shaped sand. You literally just have to scoop up a handful of sand and you will see hundreds of teeny tiny stars. It’s so amazing! There are apparently 2 shapes – one is the standard star, the other can be described like how people draw suns, circular in shape with a bunch of lines pointing outwards. If you manage to find the latter, you should consider yourself very lucky!

 

Located a few hundred metres from Iriomote’s east shore is Yubu Island. There’s no bridge or road connecting the two islands, and the only way to get there is by water buffalo cart. I’d heard about these buffalo carts that cross between islands during low tide and was so excited to see them in real life. Our driver sat at the front singing traditional Okinawan songs with his sanshin, an Okinawan banjo, as the buffalo ambled through the water, definitely in no hurry at all. Though the ride was short, it made us slow down and appreciate everything around us – the great big blue sky, the mountains behind us, the island in front of us, the ocean out in the distance.

Sometimes we forget to breathe deeply, we worry about things out of our control, stress about things that don’t matter and end up missing out on our own life. Places like Iriomote, and the whole of Okinawa for that matter, make us hit the pause button and reevaluate what’s important.

 

 

Day 5: Ishigaki Island – beach day

Our last day had arrived. It was finally beach day – an actual chilling on the beach, swimming and snorkeling kind of beach day. The hotel we were staying at had direct access to a beach, so as soon as we finished breakfast, we were out, sand in our toes, smiles on our faces! Snorkeling was tons of fun and I was ecstatic to see so many Nemos. They’re just so cute! The reef wasn’t too colourful, though. I’m sure it’s better further out, as is the same for the Great Barrier Reef. It was great to see the kids having a great time in the water and on the beach. Next year they will be in their final year of high school, so this was the last big school trip for them before things get more serious.

 

As we got on the plane back to Tokyo, we were all completely exhausted but extremely happy. An unforgettable 5 days. Okinawa is a magical, tranquil, unspoiled dot in the ocean. Even though it’s technically a part of Japan, they have their own culture, language, traditions, music, food and drink – it’s like the Ryukyu Kingdom is still alive. I will leave you with some snaps of all the food and performances we enjoyed, and a link to my favourite Okinawan song:  BEGIN 島人ぬ宝

Okinawa
A piece of Okinawa at home

 

Island Hopping in Japan’s South (Part 2)

The first two days of our Okinawa trip had been a fascinating glimpse into the history of Japan’s southern islands. I had been shocked by the horrors that had taken place there during the war, learned about the Ryukyu Kingdom which existed before Okinawa came to be, and been just metres away from some huge whale sharks at Churaumi Aquarium. The Main Island was lots of fun and a great introduction to Okinawa, but I had no idea of the pristine natural beauty and displays of Okinawa’s unique culture that awaited us on the smaller islands further south. Excited for some island hopping, it was time to hit the sky again!

Day 3: Ishigaki Island & Taketomi Island

Our third day in Okinawa was packed from start to finish. After a 1-hour flight from Naha, we landed on Ishigaki Island, part of an archipelago called the Yaeyama Islands. With Taiwan only 30 minutes away, we may as well have been in a foreign country. Tokyo felt a long, long way away.

Ishigaki is about 140km around, surrounded by a beautiful coral reef and covered in an interesting mix of sugar cane, pineapple farms, banana plants, palm trees and pine trees! Outside of the main town and agricultural plots, the island is largely untouched. Driving down roads lined with overgrown vegetation made it feel like we were exploring a deserted island!

And boy, the sky – it was constantly painted in the most beautiful shades of blue, dotted with bright, snow-white clouds. Everywhere we went, I was always drawn to the vast sky above us. Maybe I’m just too used to the city life, especially in Tokyo, where we are crammed in and there’s always some building obstructing the view. With much less pollution than many parts of the world, the sky in the Yaeyama Islands seemed the purest and most radiant I’d ever seen.

Our first port of call was Yaima-mura, an open-air museum featuring a small collection of traditional buildings set up like an actual village. There were displays explaining the life of the Yaeyama fishermen – including giant sea turtles and giant shells used for cooking over fires. We were kept busy with craft activities, an enclosure full of cheeky and playful squirrel monkeys, and a restaurant where we tried yaeyama soba topped with pork, fish cake and green onions.

After a few hours at the village, we headed to the port to catch a ferry to a nearby island.

Though the smallest island on our itinerary, Taketomi was by far my favourite. I wish I could have stayed there forever! I love going to remote locations and this island couldn’t have been more perfect. The only way in is by boat, and with a population of only 300, it never gets busy.

Taketomi is only 9km in circumference, and the best way to get around is by bicycle. Especially under the intense summer sun, there is no way walking is an option! With loose, sandy roads, the going is not so easy but that’s part of the charm. It was so much fun going from beach to beach, feeling the wind in our faces as we pedalled down palm tree-lined roads.

In the middle of the island is a quaint village of traditional Ryukyu houses – all with “shisa” statues out the front warding off evil spirits. The red-tiled roofs, stone walls, and water buffalo-drawn carts sauntering through the white sandy streets, was the quintessential Okinawa view I’d seen in pictures many times before. It was as though those images had come alive before my very eyes.

Aside from the village, it’s the beaches for which Taketomi is most famous. I can still clearly picture in my mind walking out from the clearing at West Wharf and seeing the crystal clear, turquoise waters for the first time. Ahh-mazing. The sky was dreamy. The air was fresh. In the distance we could see Kohama Island. In the water we could see fish swimming about. Everything just took my breath away!

The crescent-shaped Kondoi Beach was by far the most heavenly, with pristine, shallow waters, and fine, white sand stretching out into the distance in both directions. It was one of those pinch-me moments and a place I’ll never forget.

Kaiji Beach is known as one of only two places in Okinawa you can see ‘star sand’. These stars are actually incredible, tiny pieces of coral that get washed ashore after the coral dies. These days it’s hard to find star sand at Kaiji, but it’s fun to wander the shore searching for them. And if all else fails, you can buy cute little bottles of them from a local vendor.

So far, we had been to three islands – Okinawa Main Island, Ishigaki Island and Taketomi Island. Each were so beautiful and offered something different. The days were extraordinarily humid and boiling hot and the nights also very warm, but that’s a small price to pay for being able to visit paradise!

We still had two more days and one more island, the most remote of all the places we visited, on the itinerary. Stay tuned for Part 3!

Dancing the Night Away

As the train doors opened at Koenji Station, a familiar sound immediately filled the air. Beating drums… whistling bamboo flutes… clanging bells… twanging shamisens… Ahhh, the sound of a Japanese summer festival!

The streets of Koenji were packed with hundreds of thousands of people this weekend for one of the most famous annual events in Tokyo, the Koenji Awa Odori. The wet weather did little to deter the masses – the drizzling rain of late has actually made it unusually cool for this time of the year! My friends and I donned our yukatas – probably for the last time this year – and joined the crowds to watch this exciting dance spectacle.

The festival lasts for 2 days, with events all day and the highlight, the dancing, in the evening. This year, there were 30 official dance teams, and roughly 80 general entry groups. In total, there were around 10,000 performers!! The groups begin from different start points and make their way around a circuit, chanting and pumping up the crowd as they go!

Each dance group is made up of a leader who carries lanterns on a long bamboo stick, followed by female dancers wearing a special straw hat, male dancers and entertainers wearing a bandana, and the musicians bringing up the rear. The main difference between the men’s and women’s style of dance is that the guys crouch down lower and are more open with their movements whereas the girls are more upright and elegant.

I love that even children got involved in this festival. Two hours of non-stop dancing is tiring even for adults, so it was really cute seeing the little ones doing their best to keep up! The colourful female dancers, in their high geta sandals and pointed hats, looked extra tall and beautiful. As a synchronised group, they were fantastic! The men were a little more rough and rowdy, but their happy nature and smiles were infectious!

The Koenji Awa Odori is energetic, vibrant and so much fun. It’s like the last hurrah, a farewell to summer.

The little performers:

The musicians:

The entertainers:

The dancers:

Summer in Japan

A few days ago, I came back to Japan after a business trip and holiday to Australia. Being in the Southern Hemisphere, it was coming to the end of winter. Winter in Oz is fairly mild, especially in the north where I’m from. It gets a bit chilly at night, but the days are beautiful and the sun-rays are still surprisingly strong; you can feel your skin burning after just a couple of seconds outside! I definitely turned a few shades darker over my trip! The amazing weather made it perfect for days at the beach, driving in the mountains, eating alfresco and relaxing outside at home. I tried to enjoy it as much as I could, because I knew once I got back to Tokyo, it’d be a completely different story…

It was 7 at night when we landed. As I got off the plane at Narita Airport and stepped onto the tarmac, I was hit with a wall of humidity. It was an abrupt welcome back to summer. Hot, sticky and uncomfortable summer. Quickly realising how humid it was, the other passengers were ripping off their jackets like there was no tomorrow! Granted, I did miss the worst of the heat wave while overseas, so I can’t complain as much as the rest of the folk who had to endure the mid-summer heat, but it felt like we had got off the plane and walked in a concrete box with no air.

During my first night back, I was really not thinking straight and didn’t bother to turn the fan on, just left the windows open. Silly me. I woke up in a panic at some ridiculous hour feeling like I was suffocating inside a sauna. I don’t like sleeping with the air-con on, but sometimes it’s just unavoidable.

Japan can be painfully hot in the summer time, reaching temps of 37°C most days and even up to 40°C on really hot days. The concrete buildings and roads seems to trap the humidity and turn the city in a sweltering hot house. Luckily, aside from sitting in front of the fan at home and carrying around a little portable fan outside, there are plenty of other ways to make the heat more bearable.

These are some of the ways that the Japanese get through the hottest time of the year, to stay cool and enjoy yourself at the same time!

1. Eating kakigori (shaved ice)

Kanna is one of the most popular shaved ice cafes in Setagaya, if not the whole of Tokyo. Apart from serving a delicious selection of flavours like mocha pudding, tiramisu, azuki beans and grapefruit, their claim to fame is that they get their ice from the mountains of Nikko. The naturally formed ice is transported to the restaurant rather than being artificially chilled, which results in the softest, lightest cool treat!

Kakigori

2. Eating matcha ice cream

Ice cream is a standard any time of the year, but it is especially good when it’s hot outside and you have to battle to lick it up before it melts all over your hand. Matcha (green tea) is by far the most popular flavour in Japan. Delish!

Matcha ice cream

3. Eating hiyashi chuka

As the same suggests — chuka means Chinese (ramen is from China) and hiyashi means chilled — this is a cold ramen dish eaten only in summer. The toppings usually include a soft-boiled egg and thin slices of omelette, cucumber, ham, seaweed and radish. Sometimes it’s even served with ice to keep it extra cool. It’s the perfect meal for a hot day.

Hiyashi chuka

4. Walking under mist sprays

I’d only ever seen mist sprays at Disneyland before coming across this one in Kagurazaka. It’s a nice treat for shoppers as they stroll the streets in the heat!

Mist spray

5. Having fun at water parks

I’ve only been to two water parks in Japan. One was in Nagoya, the other was this one at Showa Kinen Park in Tokyo’s west. Entry will set you back about 2,000+ yen, but the facilities are amazing. This one had waterfalls, fountains, water slides, a wave pool and a river (floating pool). Just make sure you bring your sunnies and lather on SPF30!

Water park

6. Eating chilled cucumber

At every summer festival in Japan, you’ll see these kyuri (cucumber) sticks. I’m not a fan of cucumber, but people seem to love munching on them straight out of ice buckets!

chilled cucumber
Image courtesy of: Hiro – Kokoro☆Photo (Flickr)

7. Hanging out at beer gardens

Beer gardens and rooftop bars are a popular place to be on balmy summer nights in Japan. Getting together with a group of friends and sweating it out together is definitely a bonding experience. There are loads of beer gardens, you just have to find them! Usually, department stores with a rooftop terrace will convert it into a bar during summer. A lot of beer gardens have cheap all-you-can-drink options, so you can just drink drink drink. Kanpai!

Beer garden

8. Wearing a yukata

Yukutas are summer kimonos. You’ll see loads of men and women wearing yukatas at summer festivals, as well as just casually during the day. Lots of people choose to wear them because they are a cooler alternative to regular clothes. They are made from thin cotton fabric, with loose, breathable sleeves. The collar is worn pulled back, and hair worn up so that your neck is left airy and cool.

yukata

9. Visiting an ice house

If you’re really dying of the heat, there are always ice houses you can dash through! Ice World in Yokohama is -30ºC and is supposed to be like a trip to the North Pole. I didn’t last a minute before I was ready to get out! Though I definitely felt much cooler afterwards.

Ice world

10. Listening to furin (wind chimes)

Lastly, this one is not so much about cooling down your body, but rather cooling down your mind. Fu means wind, and rin means bell. These glass wind chimes have been hung up every summer for hundreds of years. Their soft, soothing sound could relax anyone battling the heat!

Wind chime

What reminds you of summer? What are some things you do/eat/see to help you get through the hot months in your country?

Waterfall Paradise in Nikko

I arrived in Nikko well after sun down. A stunning, pink-washed sunset had been quickly replaced by the black night sky. As I got off the train, I breathed in the cool, fresh air. It was good to be back!

The township looked pretty deserted. There was no music blaring from bars, nor people eating in busy restaurants, as you would usually expect on a Saturday night. It was very calm and quiet. The only shop that was open was a convenience store, so I picked up a few things to eat for dinner and headed up the road to my lodgings for the night. My accommodation was a hostel right by the rushing Daiya River. It was so loud it sounded like rain was pounding on the roof. After getting some local knowledge from the owner of the place, I knew I had to be up early to make the most of my one-day to explore. I went to sleep to the sound of the river, excited for the following day.

I’m never one to get up early, so not surprisingly, it was already 8:30am before I was up and on my way. It was probably a blessing in disguise as I had a big day ahead of me and needed all the rest I could get. After picking up a Bus Pass, I jumped on a bus that snaked its way up into Oku-nikko, the hinterland of Nikko. In about 45 minutes, we had ascended roughly 700 metres. My first stop was Lake Chuzenji and Kegon Falls, the most famous waterfall in Japan.

For the massive waterfall that it is, Kegon Falls was surprisingly easy to get to. From the bus stop, it was a quick 5 minute walk. The upper (free) platform gives you a teasing peak at the top half of the waterfall. It really is worth it to pay for the elevator ride down through the rock to the lower platform where you get a magnificent view of the whole waterfall, plus a few others in the vicinity. With gusts of cold water spraying over us, we stood in awe of the amount of water that was tumbling off the cliff from Lake Chuzenji and smashing on the rocks 97 metres below. Kegon Falls itself has such a grand, powerful presence, yet with all the greenery around it, it also had a softer feel. There’s no doubting its status as one of Japan’s most beautiful waterfalls.

After tearing myself away from Kegon Falls, I had a quick look around Lake Chuzenji, before jumping back on the bus and climbing higher up into the mountains. The next stop was Ryuzu Falls. In Japanese, this double waterfall is called ‘dragon’s head’. Ryuzu Falls is most famous in autumn when the deciduous trees change to red and yellow. Being summertime, the trees were full of green leaves which made for a pretty scene, but at the same time, covered up a lot of the water. A souvenir shop and restaurant sit basically at the edge of the bank, which kind of ruins the atmosphere. In the photo below, I’m standing on the balcony. I was so close I felt like I could have almost touched the waterfall. I would have moved on straight away, but my stomach was telling me it was lunchtime. At least the view from the restaurant encouraged us to slow down and admire the beauty in front of us!

After slurping down a delicious bowl of soba, I was eager to keep going. Above Ryuzu Falls was an intriguing staircase of rocks, the ‘tail’ of the dragon. The water looked like it was flying past on a magic carpet. My immediate thought was that this would make a fun waterslide! This slope was actually created from the powerful force of lava, and you can easily imagine the burning hot liquid crashing down through the trees.

From the top of the falls, a hiking trail follows the river upstream, through the woods and on into the Sanjogahara Marshlands. This area was so unexpectedly gorgeous that it was probably my favourite part of the whole trip. There was waterfall upon waterfall breaking up the cool, crystal clear river. Some waterfalls were like a washing machine, vigorously churning bucketloads of water. Others were gentle and calm, sweeping over the moss-covered rocks.

Above, the trees rustled in the breeze and birds continually called to each other. A few carefree ducks swam by every now and then. There were just a few other hikers that I passed, and each time we greeted each other warmly.

It was just a beautiful place!

Oku-nikko

Oku-nikko

Oku-nikko

After wandering through the marshlands, I decided to catch the bus again, but not before indulging in an ice cream! I bought what was probably the most delicious strawberry ice cream I’ve ever eaten! I’m not sure what ingredients were used, but it was advertised as available for a limited-time only. It could have been the best 300yen I’ve ever spent!

With a satisfied stomach, I hopped on the bus and made my way to Yudaki Falls. Like most of the waterfalls in Nikko, Yudaki flows down a rock cliff created from the lava flow of a nearby volcano. From the top of the waterfall, the Yugawa River seems to just drop off the earth and vanish! It was a little scary. The waterfall surges down at a steep 45 degree angle. As you walk down the zigzag stairs along the side of the waterfall, you can really feel its strength and force. Nothing can get in its way!

Oku-nikko

From Yudaki Falls, Yumoto Onsen was a 15 minute hike away. The final stop for me. Yumoto Onsen sits on the northern shore of Lake Yuno where there were many fishermen in boats and families playing at the water’s edge. It’s almost 1,500 metres above sea level, so a little breezy and chilly. There were numerous times when I thought I should get my jacket out of my backpack, but managed to get by without it. In winter, this town actually turns into a ski resort!

The town is made up of 22 hot springs and had that distinct smell of sulphur, although it wasn’t as strong as places like Beppu in Oita. The milky-white water is believed to have healing powers as well as being good for beauty (skin). There’s only one thing to do in an onsen town: get in the water! I found a ryokan that had an outdoor hot spring bath and soaked for an hour so, giving my body the relaxation it desperately needed. It was the best way to wrap up an incredible day.

I’d spent 5 hours getting from Nikko town to Yumoto Onsen. The return trip, past Lake Yunoko, Yudaki Falls, the marshlands, Ryuzu Falls, Lake Chuzenji, down the mountain and back to reality, was just 75 minutes. An unusually talkative young Japanese guy sat next to me on the bus, and I had a great 3-hour conversation with him, all the way back to Tokyo in fact!

The final descent on the winding Irohazaka Road gave us a spectacular send-off. A little Bambi even came out to greet us. She dashed onto the road, and the bus slowed down to avoid hitting her! Then she proceeded to prance up the road, past 3 or 4 other cars, before realising it was not a good idea to be there.

Oku-Nikko is a waterfall paradise; a treasure for nature lovers; a wilderness escape up in the clouds; and in my opinion, one of the prettiest places in the world!