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Regions of Japan – Kansai to Okinawa June 14, 2011

Posted by Dru in Chugoku, Japan, Kansai, Kyushu, Okinawa, Shikoku, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Regions of Japan – Kansai to Okinawa” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-F0

Kansai is probably the second most popular area to visit by foreigner.  It is home to Japan’s second largest city Osaka, after discounting Yokohama.  It is also home to the most historically important cities in Japan, Kyoto and Nara.  Kobe is another major city but like Yokohama it can be considered as a suburban city of Osaka.  Kansai is also home of Wakayama which is famous for their Buddhist temples and the ability of foreign guests to spend a night and wake up to the prayers within the temples and Himeji, home to Japan’s most famous castle.  There is so much to talk about in Kansai that it is impossible to summarize it in one paragraph.  The people are very distinct and they have their own dialect.  It is often considered the comedy capital of Japan due to the number of comedians who call Kansai their place of origin.  The people are very outgoing and it is often easy to strike a conversation with a stranger compared to the cold and private Kanto region.  It is often a bit colder than Kanto but the warmth of the people more than make up for it.  There is a bit of a rivalry between people from Kansai and Kanto but I do believe it is more in jest rather than prejudice.  As for the food, Kansai is considered the capital for Japanese “soul food”.  They have things such as okonomiyaki and takoyaki.  They are experts in yaki soba and tonpei yaki.  It is mostly fried food but it is delicious.  Kyoto is a small exception as they specialize mostly in traditional Japanese foods that cost an arm and a leg at times.  Either way Kansai is a food lover’s paradise, unless you are trying to eat healthily.

The western end of Honshu is Chugoku.  It can easily be misinterpreted as China as Chugoku is also the same word for China.  This region is best known as the home of Hiroshima and Okayama however the Sea of Japan side includes Tottori and Shimane which are wonderfully beautiful rural areas in Japan.  The Yamaguchi prefecture is also a beautiful place but I have yet to visit that region.  The Sea of Japan side of Chugoku is best characterized as a rural area that appears to be disconnected to Japan itself.  The people seem to not worry about anything and tend to live life as an independent region to the other regions.  They are a proud area that is popular for domestic travel.  The southern region, in contrast, has been stigmatised by the tragic bombing of Hiroshima.  Most people will overlook Okayama and just visit Hiroshima.  It is a very important historical location and it is a place I highly recommend people to visit if they get the chance.  Unfortunately it can be a terribly humbling place due to the amount of artefacts that remind us of the terrible outcome of the atomic bomb.  You can’t travel within Hiroshima city without seeing reminders left right and centre about the bombing itself.  The people in the city are great and they try to live their lives as normally as possible.  The food is delicious.  They are famous for their oysters as well as okonomiyaki.  Of course Kansai is famous for okonomiyaki but the Hiroshima style is different and in my opinion, better.

Shikoku is a small island that is located just below Honshu.  It is an area that only a few Japanese people visit if they don’t have family in the area.  It also happens to be one of my favourite areas to visit.  It is a diverse region that is made up of 4 prefectures.  Each area is also unique.  The eastern side of Tokushima and the southern prefecture of Kochi often fight over who is better.  There is a very old and popular festival in both prefectures that are visited by thousands of Japanese people each year.  Both festivals claim to be the best and most exciting festivals in Shikoku and to be honest they are both wonderful to see.  While I haven’t been to either in person, it is difficult to travel the region and not see video of the traditional dancing during the festivals.        Ehime is the western prefecture that is well known for its onsen, Dogo onsen.  It is considered the oldest onsen in Japan and has various healing factors.  A little north of Matsuyama is Imabari which is famous for its towels.  In the north, you can also visit Kagawa.  It is famous for its udon noodles and also for Naoshima which is a famous art island.  It is a small island that is filled with various modern art sculptures.  Most of it is free however the main museums are not.  Overall, Shikoku is a very diverse region that rivals most regions of Japan.

Kyushu is the final region.  It is the western most main island of Japan.  It is famous for its food and onsen as well as its nature.  Most people will travel only as far as Fukuoka and northern Kyushu.  This is the area that has the best onsen as well as the best food.  Fukuoka is well known for its regional delicacies as well as being close to Nagasaki.  Nagasaki is not as popular but important for foreign tourists.  The southern region is not as well known but they are famous for shochu and various poultry and pork products.  One of the more interesting, yet overlooked, areas is Yakushima.  It is a small island just south of Kyushu’s main island and setting for Hiyao Miyazaki’s Princess Monomoke.  It is one of the few natural environments unique to Japan.  South of Kyushu is the Ryukyu Island chain which encompasses Okinawa.  Most people will lump Okinawa and the Ryukyu into Kyushu but that shouldn’t be the case.  Okinawa is, in its own right, a separate area.  They have a different history compared to Japan and have been fighting for their own rights as a small “nation within a nation”.  The entire chain of islands is beautiful, from the pictures I have seen, and make a nice vacation spot with lots of opportunities to relax on the beaches.  The culture is very unique with a unique style of music, dress, and language.  The food has been heavily influenced by the regional natural fruits and vegetables as well as the heavy presence of the US military.  One of the most famous items has to be Taco Rice which is basically taco filling on a bed of rice.  They also make use of bitter melon which is unique in Japan as other regions cannot grow bitter melon easily.

There is one region that almost never gets named when talking about regions of Japan.  These are the Izu and Ogasawara Islands (Bonin Islands).  These are a set of small islands that stretch south of Tokyo for over 1000kms.  The Izu Islands are a set of islands that are somewhat populated.  They have a lot of tourism however don’t expect access to be easy.  Farther away are the Ogasawara Islands in which only two islands are inhabited.  The Ogasawara Islands are historically more important that the Izu Islands.  Iwoto, or previously known as Iwo Jima is part of this group of islands where the US fought hard to get a foothold in taking down the old Imperial Japanese Army.  It has been a long time and few people visit these sets of islands.  In fact it is very difficult to get to any island other than Chichijima and Hahajima.  Most people in Japan never even consider visiting these islands so they have evolved into a very self sufficient area.  It is hard to believe that they are Japanese yet they are very much Japanese.

As you can see, Japan is a very long and diverse country.  Each region ranges from cool temperate to sub-tropical.  Japan is bound by 4 seas and 1 ocean.  There are 4 main islands and hundreds of other small islands that span over 1000 kilometres from one end of Japan to the other.  There are several mountain ranges and many diverse rivers.  Each region has their own distinct version of Japanese culture along with their own distinct foods.  People imagine Japan as being a homogeneous culture but they either forget or neglect that there are two indigenous groups, the Ainu in Hokkaido and the Okinawans in Okinawa.  You can also see the various culture differences between each region of Japan that is accentuated by the differences between people in the Kanto region and the Kansai region.  It is a wonderful country with many things to see.  Visiting only a few areas is not enough and visiting at one time of the year is not enough.  It can take a lifetime to fully explore every corner of Japan and even then you’d still have trouble experiencing everything.

Regions of Japan Information:

Wikipedia:
Japan:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_regions_of_Japan
Kansai:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kansai_region
Chugoku:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ch%C5%ABgoku_region
Shikoku:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shikoku
Kyushu:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ky%C5%ABsh%C5%AB
Ryukyu Islands:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ryukyu_Islands
Okinawa: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Okinawa_Prefecture
Izu Islands:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Izu_Islands
Ogasawara Islands: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bonin_Islands

Japan Guide:  http://www.japan-guide.com/list/e1001.html

このblogは英語のblog。もし私の英語は難しい、日本語のquestionは大丈夫。

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Kobe April 26, 2011

Posted by Dru in Japan, Kansai, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Kobe” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/s2liAm-kobe

 

Kobe is a quaint suburban city that is akin to the relationship of Yokohama to Tokyo.  It is a major city in the Kansai region and less than an hour away from Osaka.  It is steeped in history but appears to suffer a little in the sense that they are always trying to step out of Osaka’s shadow.  Realistically, Kobe is a city that could never rival Osaka.  It is no different than asking a suburban city to be more popular than the nearby big brother.  Kyoto and Nara have a similar relationship.  Everyone talks about Kyoto and how great it is, yet many people overlook Nara.  They are both very similar and yet they are also very different at the same time.  Kobe and Osaka are similar in this respect.  Osaka has grown into a very modern large city that appears to be leaving all of its history in the past.  Kobe however seems to be embracing their past and expanding with the future.

There is no better way to experience the past of Kobe than to explore the Kitano area.  This is a small area that houses various old consulates.  It is situated on at the bottom of a hill near Shin-Kobe station.  Walking around the small streets in this area can make you feel as if you stepped back in time a little to when the Europeans were settling in the area and doing a lot of trade.  Today, the small streets can be a little dangerous as affluent Japanese drivers zoom past you in their Mercedes Benz cars.  The old European style homes can be visited for a fee in some cases, but the exteriors are very quaint.  It has a very relaxing nature that makes you wish there was a nice coffee shop with a terrace so you can enjoy some afternoon tea in the sun.  Kobe also feels a bit like a wedding capital of Japan.  I cannot confirm this but the number of wedding chapels I saw in Kobe was astonishing.  The Kitano area is no exception.  There are several wedding chapels and halls in the area that will help you hold a traditional western wedding.  The Kitano area is also a great starting point to do some hiking in the mountains that border Kobe.  The views from the mountains are considered to be some of the best in Japan as evidenced by Mt. Rokko.  Away from the Kitano area is a ropeway that brings you up to the top of Mt. Rokko which is reported to be one of the top 3 night views of Japan; the other two being in Nagasaki and Hakodate.  Unfortunately on my trip I didn’t get a chance to visit the mountain peak.

Central Kobe can be described as an area around Sannomiya Station.  While Kobe Station is not located in this area, Sannomiya is the heart of Kobe.  All around Sannomiya you will find various department stores.  Almost all train lines in and around Kobe run through Sannomiya.  All of the major department stores are represented in this area as well as a large and long shopping arcade that runs from Sannomiya out to the western suburbs.  It is also the centre of all drinking to be done in Kobe.  It can be difficult to get around with so many people in the area but it is a wonderfully busy place.  At the main intersection, you can see all kinds of people.  I would liken it to Shibuya Crossing or the east side of Shinjuku.  You can see various musicians playing their music and trying break into the industry.  You can also see various people looking for donations to various charities.  Flower road is also a famous street that passes through Sannomiya.  Flower road is a road that stretches from Shin-Kobe Station all the way to the harbour.  It is a nice wide road that is lined with various flower boxes and statues.  The statues can be a bit surprising for a country such as Japan since most of the statues depict naked women.  Most people ignore them but for me it was a surprise.  They aren’t in any sexual positions but for such a conservative country, I was nonetheless surprised.  Towards the end of Sannomiya is Kobe’s Chinatown.  Officially called Nankinmachi (after Nanjing), it is your typical Chinatown.  I actually enjoyed this one the most out of the 3 main Chinatown areas in Japan.  Yokohama is the largest but it is also too busy and doesn’t feel real.  Nagasaki is too small and it doesn’t feel as welcoming as Kobe.  Nankinmachi is very open and very friendly.  You will see many buskers selling various foods as well as many restaurants lining the area.  You can’t go around the area without filling your stomach and the smells will keep you there.

The port area is the last place I visited in Kobe.  It is a wide area that has a lot of reminders of the past Great Hanshin Earthquake.  On one end you have Mosaic and Harbourland.  Mosaic is a modern shopping complex that is similar to the shopping complexes in Odaiba.  It is an open air area with many small shops alongside some brand name shops.  It is a place for couples to go and enjoy a date.  It is teaming with young couples but on weekdays when everyone is working or at school, it can feel a bit like a ghost town.  Harbourland is adjacent to Mosaic.  It is a small urban amusement park where you can ride various amusement rides such as small roller coasters and Ferris Wheels.  Across from this area is Meriken Park.  This is a large open park that houses the Kobe Maritime Museum, the Kawasaki Good Times World, and the Kobe Port Tower.  The museum and Good Times World are in the same building and showcase the history of the Port of Kobe as well as showcasing the technology of Kawasaki.  Kobe Port Tower is an icon of Kobe.  It is a tall red tower that looks similar to a baton.  It is usually lit up at night but on my visit to Kobe they turned off the exterior lighting in order to conserve energy.  The park itself is also used for Christmas light displays each year.  While the museum and tower are interesting, the earthquake memorial is more fascinating.  At the memorial you can read about the effects of the Great Hanshin Earthquake as well as see a small section of the port that was destroyed and left as is after the quake.  It was a little ironic that I would visit this section as I was taking a spontaneous vacation to escape the aftershocks from the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake.  If being on solid land is starting to get boring you can also take a boat cruise that leaves from a section between Meriken Park and Mosaic.  The ships embark on cruises that take you around Kobe harbour, the Akashi Bridge, or even to Kobe Airport where you can watch the planes land.  One of the ships has been designed to look like a gaudy pirate ship that came straight out of a Chinese “Disneyland”.  It looked cheap and a bit fake looking.  It looked like a lot of fun for kids but for most adults it was probably something we wouldn’t care much for.

If you head east of Meriken Park you will walk along a highway where you’ll be able to see a bit more of the earthquake history.  Minatonomori Park is located in an evacuation centre that is literally nestled between elevated highways.  It is a large open park that is popular for doing sports.  There is a skate park for inline skaters as well as skateboarders.  You can find a small hockey rink, no ice of course, as well as tennis courts and a small soccer pitch.  There is a large field for you to just relax as well.  Inside the park is a small monument where an old clock is preserved.  It marks the moment that the earthquake struck.  It is somewhat sombre but the activities in the park keep the atmosphere light.  Across the way is another park that has yet another monument to the great earthquake.  This monument is more hopeful as there is an eternal flame that was lit with flames gathered from all neighbourhoods that were affected by the earthquake.  It is a very interesting concept and something that should be repeated in the future.  For those who have even more time, heading south of this region on the Port Liner will take you to Port Island.  On Port Island, you can enjoy various cultural activities.  There are several different museums to visit however the cost to access the area may make people think twice.  I didn’t get a chance to visit Port Island but I’d like to try on a future trip to Kobe.

Overall, Kobe is a wonderful city to visit.  There isn’t a lot to do but if you take your time and just relax, you will have a lot of fun.  It isn’t a city where you can rush and enjoy everything.  While it can be visited in a day to get a general feel of the area, I do recommend a couple days to just enjoy everything.  For an average tourist, however, I doubt it would be very interesting.  For residents of Japan it’s a wonderful place to get away from the big city and yet keep all of the conveniences of a big city.

Kobe Information

Official Tourism Website:  http://www.feel-kobe.jp/_en/
Japan Guide:  http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2159.html
Wikitravel:  http://wikitravel.org/en/Kobe

このblogは英語のblog。もし私の英語は難しい、日本語のquestionは大丈夫。

Sakura April 21, 2009

Posted by Dru in Japan, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Sakura” complete with pictures.  http://wp.me/s2liAm-sakura

Late March into mid-April is the Sakura season in Japan.  Every year, within a two week window, the cherry blossoms start to bloom turning Japan into a sea of pink.  It marks the true start to spring.  If you plan your trip to coincide with this season, you will not be disappointed.  You’ll be able to experience a unique Japan that very few tourists will ever experience.

Many people wonder what is so special about the cherry blossoms.  It isn’t, necessarily, only the fact that they are beautiful, but also some of the history of the cherry blossoms with Japan.  It has been part of their culture for centuries, if not millenia.  There is a fairy tale saying that there is a body buried underneath each cherry tree.  Cherry trees are the only trees in Japan that have flowers that bloom before leaves are grown.  While I cannot verify this claim, it does help promote the tale.  This also brings a feeling that cherry trees are somewhat magical and it can bring about powers to many people.  It is very common to see cherry trees planted within temple grounds, parks, along rivers, and almost everywhere else a tree can be planted.

The most popular thing to do in Japan during the sakura season is to go to a hanami.  In fact, many Japanese people don’t say “sakura season” but rather “hanami season”.  Literally translated, this means flower watching season, or more specifically watching the cherry blossoms.  On weekends, it’s common to see families enjoying a nice stroll in the park or along the river enjoying the beautiful cherry trees.  You can see many friends playing Frisbee or just having a nice time talking to one another.  It’s a great time to have a picnic.  These usually involve bentos (Japanese style packed lunches) and onigiri (rice balls with some type of filling and seaweed wrapped around it).  When the sun goes down, things can change dramatically.  Often, there are many floodlights that are turned on to make the pink blossoms stand out even more.  It can create very surreal experience.  It is also when all of the office workers come out to party.

Hanami parties are very common for offices and friends.  For the two weeks that the cherry blossoms are blooming, almost every office in Japan will have their own hanami party.  While this is probably declining in recent years, it’s still a popular tradition among the older companies.  Being the end of the fiscal year for most companies, and the start for most new recruits, it’s the final menial task for new recruits who are about to enter their second year with a company.  They have one, and only one mission.  Find a nice spot in a park, a park that has been decided by the office, and start camping out there from the mid-afternoon.  The spaces under the cherry trees, themselves, are often taken by noon, and some workers must camp out there all day.  It’s a long and boring task that essentially involves unfurling a large blue tarp, making sure it’s secure, and then sleeping all day.  They can also play games on their phone or whatever electronics they have.  Once their co-workers finish for the day, they can start to party.  Generally, it’s a loud, crowded, and jovial event.  If you are weary of such crowds, it’s best to avoid the parks at night, but there are a few places you can visit that are still nice, and not too bad.

In Tokyo, there are several great places to visit.  Ueno Park is one of the most famous places in the north.  The entire park is lined with cherry blossoms, but unfortunately, the entire park is paved, so there is very few, if any, grassy areas to sit, eat, and enjoy the cherry blossoms.  It’s also one of the most crowded areas in this season.  Another area is Kudanshita.  It is an area north of the Imperial Palace.  There are many areas here that can be enjoyed, along with almost any other place around the Imperial Palace.  Yasukuni Shrine is another famous, if not controversial, place to visit.  There are many cherry trees within the shrine and along the streets surrounding this shrine.  It’s a beautiful place.  Shinjuku Gyoen is also highly recommended, as is Shiba Park at the foot of Tokyo Tower.  The Sumida River and Meguro River is also famous and worth a visit if you have the time; and you aren’t tired of looking at cherry blossoms.

If you need to get out of Tokyo, Kyoto is always highly recommended.  The cherry blossoms are always nice, but I have not had the chance to see them.  I would also recommend visiting Himeji.  It becomes more beautiful with all the pink blossoms providing a new look to the castle.  It’s somewhat rare to see the white castle framed with cherry blossoms.  The park in front of the castle is also very nice and extremely popular for locals to enjoy the weekend.  If you get a chance, I’d also highly recommend visiting Himeji during this season as well.

The cherry blossom season is a beautiful time to visit.  Just remember that you have to be very lucky to get your timing right.  Pick a few weeks to visit and cross your fingers.

このblogは英語のblog。もし私の英語は難しい、日本語のquestionは大丈夫。

Himeji October 28, 2008

Posted by Dru in Japan, Kansai, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Himeji” complete with pictures.  http://wp.me/s2liAm-himeji

On September 26, I ventured down to Hyogo to see the famous Himeji-jo.  It is famous for being one of, if not the only, true Japanese castle in Japan.  Most castles in Japan have been restored, or rebuilt as they were destroyed in the war.  Hiroshima-jo looks very beautiful, however once you step inside, you are greeted with a modern concrete museum.  Osaka-jo was also rebuilt and has a very strange glass elevator that takes you from a lower level to the entrance of the castle.  Looking at public pictures of the castle, it looks very out of place for a “heritage” site.  Thankfully, Himeji was lucky to be bombed only twice still retains most it’s the original architecture.

Himeji city is a very small city.  It is located roughly one and a half hours by express train from Osaka, or 40 minutes by Shinkansen.   There are only 2 things to do within Himeji itself.  The most popular is to go to Himeji-jo, and the second is to go to Shoshazan (Mount Shosha).  The latter is famous for being the filming spot for the Last Samurai staring Tom Cruise.  Unfortunately, I spent too much time in Himeji-jo to go to Shoshazan.  Spending the night in Himeji is not necessary unless you spend almost the entire day there.  It’s better to spend the night in Kobe, or Osaka instead and leave Himeji as a day trip.

As mentioned, the main attraction of Himeji is Himeji-jo.  It’s a very beautiful place and it costs 600 Yen to enter, but the fee is worth it.  You start off walking up a small hill and then you have a choice of directions.  Himeji castle is built to be confusing and maze-like.  As you approach the main castle, you have to travel in a generally spiral direction.  Head left and you’ll be taken to the “women’s quartres”.  You will be granted a taste of how people might have lived when it was a real functioning castle.  As you continue to access the castle itself, you will be given views of various courtyards and water wells before reaching the main courtyard in front of the castle.  Within the castle itself, you’ll find it cooler and bigger than expected.  The design tends to make you think it’s smaller than it really is.  Inside, you’ll be able to see some representations of Samurai armour, various weapons, and several gun racks.  Aside from the hike up the castle, there isn’t too much to see, but the experience is more important.  There are various places to go and look outside.  Once at the top, you’ll be greeted by many people who are just checking the view and looking around.  There really isn’t much to see, but it’s a must do.  The way up, you will use the original stairs, but going down, I believe they made new stairs to relieve pressure from all the people who visit the castle.  Upon exiting the castle, there is a few ways to return to the station.  The main route will take you to the Harakiri courtyard.  It is the main place where people killed themselves.  The story of how it came to be is unknown, and there was still blood on the walls until 50 years ago.

このblogは英語のblog。もし私の英語は難しい、日本語のquestionは大丈夫。

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