THE GREEN CAR: JAPAN’S LUXURY RAIL EXPERIENCE

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The Green Car on a Shinkansen is a top-notch travel experience.

The Green Car on a Shinkansen is a top-notch travel experience.

 

The Japan Rail Pass is reasonably priced and can be purchased for either one, two or three week durations. For the price of a round-trip journey by train from Tokyo to Kagoshima, you could buy a three week rail pass valid nationwide (excludes Okinawa). Given that the pass is so reasonable, you might very well consider indulging yourself by getting a “Green Car” ticket. The “Green Car” is Japan’s equivalent of first class, and it provides a truly luxurious touch to your voyages on Japan’s rails. You can purchase it as a supplement to the Japan Rail Pass which allows you to use the Green Car in any train you travel on. If you are just making a single journey, you can buy a single Green Car supplement to your normal ticket as well, giving you full flexibility over how to use it.

Enjoy panoramic views and ample room inside the JR Kyushu Sonic.

Enjoy panoramic views and ample room inside the JR Kyushu Sonic.

 

The benefits of the Green Car are numerous. Firstly, it gives you more legroom than you would find in the business class section of any domestic airline, and a plush seat that has a built in foot rest and reclines up to forty degrees. This will allow you to watch as Japan’s vistas float by your window, or perhaps to catch up on sleep after a busy day of sightseeing. In addition, on scenic routes such as the Sonic, which takes you along the north-eastern coast of Kyushu, the Green Car gives you access to the panoramic viewing windows at the end of the train. Finally, at busy periods such as New Years and the Golden Week holidays in May, Japanese trains often become uncomfortably crowded, especially if you are trying to travel with luggage. The Green Car is an oasis of calm even on the busiest days, allowing you to separate yourselves from the hustle and truly relax and enjoy your vacation. Such is the experience that when the time comes to disembark from the train and do some sightseeing, you may well find yourself reluctant to leave the comfort and class of the Green Car behind. But there is always another journey to be made, and the Green Car will always be available to give your trip an unforgettable note of luxury.

STAYING COOL IN JAPAN: 5 FAVORITE WAYS TO BEAT THE HEAT

1. DRINK MUGICHA BARLEY TEA

Mugicha, also known as Japanese roasted barley tea, is a traditional summer drink in Japan. It is a commonly held view among Japanese housewives that barley tea has cooling properties. This, along with the fact barley tea is full of Vitamin B, fiber, and iron, makes mugicha a beloved symbol of summer in Japan. During the hot summer months, many restaurants will serve barley tea instead of water and it is also readily available in vending machines, convenience stores, and grocery shops.

Mugicha provides cool summertime refreshment.

Mugicha provides cool summertime refreshment.

 

2. USE AN ICE PILLOW AT NIGHT

The concept is simple and surprisingly effective. Keeping your head cool while you sleep has long been associated with an increase in melatonin and most grocery stores in Japan sell several varieties of ice pillows during the summer. These adorable ice pillows come in all shapes and sizes, with animal shaped packs available in smaller sizes for children.

In a pinch, you can also buy an ice pack. They tend to be cheaper than the brand-name ice pillows but also tend to be slightly harder and not as comfortable to sleep on. Nevertheless, either method will work well and keep your body cool.

3. EAT KAKIGORI SHAVED ICE

Kakigori, also known as Japanese shaved ice, comes in two varieties. Festival style kakigori is simple shaved ice with artificial flavors such as lemon, green tea, melon, “Blue Hawaii,” or strawberry poured on top. Most street vendors will use either an electric or hand operated machine that rotates a block of ice over a stationary blade and shaves the ice flurries into the container below.

Green tea flavored kakigori is both sophisticated and cooling.

Green tea flavored kakigori is both sophisticated and cooling.

 

Another variety of kakigori typically served in restaurants is the green tea flavored kakigori,or uji kintoki, which is topped with sweetened red bean paste, ice cream, condensed milk, or tapioca pearls. These kakigori flakes are much thinner than their festival-style counterparts; they turn a street festival food into a sophisticated, traditional Japanese dessert.

4. GO OUT DURING THE HOTTEST PART OF THE DAY

This seems counter-intuitive, but it is by far the best way to beat the heat in Japan. Going shopping, meeting friends for karaoke, or visiting an artsy museum during the hottest part of the day (from about 12 noon to 3pm) splits up the day and gives your body a break from sweating. Even just an hour disruption from the heat and humidity of Japan can be a lifesaver. If you would rather spend the summer outdoors, beer gardens, parks, and botanical gardens typically have ample amounts of shade that allow you to enjoy the atmosphere without the risk of heat stroke.

Temple grounds, parks and gardens often provide ample shade. (Pictured: Jindai-ji Temple, Chofu, Tokyo).

Temple grounds, parks and gardens often provide ample shade. (Pictured: Jindai-ji Temple, Chofu, Tokyo).

5. CARRY AROUND A SUN PARASOL

The Japanese population may be one the biggest spenders per capita on skin care products, much of which are marketed towards reversing the damage of UV radiation. Along with these expensive skin care products, many women in Japan also carry sun umbrellas or parasols. These parasols are lightweight, come in all sorts of chic patterns, and provide an enjoyable amount of shade. Other options include carrying around a small handkerchief to keep sweat off your brow or foldable fan to provide a gentle breeze.

Parasols have long been a favorite way to beat the summer heat in Japan.

Parasols have long been a favorite way to beat the summer heat in Japan.

HOT SPOTS IN KYUSHU

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kyusyu_map.jpgFollowing the extension of the Tohoku Line, Japan Railways will open its new Bullet Train Route in the Kyushu area (the Southwest part of Japanese Archipelago) on March 12th 2011, which enables travelers to experience south western Japan with rich history, nature and onsen, hot springs more convenienly.

The new complete line will be 159.7 mile long betweenHakata and Kagoshima. From Shin-Osaka to the final stop of Kagoshima-Chuo, the traveling time will be 3 hours and 45 minutes, 77 minutes shorter than the current service. The new connecting line makes Kyushu’s historic landmarks and nature within an easier reach:Kumamoto Castle, built in the 17th century has very unique ninja-proof walls. Kagoshima, at the end of the line, is the gateway to Yakushima Island, home to a primeval forest of “Yaku-sugi” cedars dating back thousands of years.

Kumamoto Castle Yaku-sugi

Kyushu was once called the “Land of Fire” for its abundance with volcanoes, which brings remarkable views such as that of Mt. Aso, the world’s largest volcanic caldera in Kumamoto, and Sakura-jima, an active volcano where a rising column of smoke is sometimes observed from downtown Kagoshima. What’s more, the island is blessed with countless onsen, Japanese traditional hot springs: Ibusuki is known for its unique sand bath. Unzen, Beppu, Yufuin and Kurokawa are all beloved onsen resorts in Kyushu.

sakurajima.jpg Mt. Aso

Suna mushi buroTo make your trip easy and reasonable, JR Kyushu offers a discount ticket called theKyushu Rail Pass. It covers either the Northern Kyushu area or the whole Kyushu area, depending on the type you purchase, and can be used for unlimited times for both express and local trains. Please visit here to check out the details!

For Further Information, please visit
JR Kyushu Railway Company

5 FAVORITE OBON FESTIVALS

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No one can agree on the origin of the Nebuta Matsuri. However, some believe the nebuta floats were invented by General Sakanoue-no-Tamuramaro in the 800’s, when his army created these gruesome creatures from cloth and bamboo to scare away the enemy. As time passed, the size, shapes, and colors of the lanterns evolved into what’s seen at the present day Aomori Nebuta Matsuri. However, while historians cannot agree on the origins of the festival, no one can argue with the fact it is one of the most memorable and visually impressive festivals in Japan.

Aomori Nebuta Matsuri Festival Float

Colorful floats parade through the night.

 

Locals in Aomori will spend the entire year constructing the enormous nebuta floats. Unlike typical parade floats, the Nebuta Matsuri floats are 15 to 30 feet tall, made of fragile washi paper, hand-designed wire and a bamboo frame. Floats typically depict Japanese gods, historical figures, kabuki actors, and mythological beings. As a finishing touch, hundreds of light bulbs are weaved throughout the floats, illuminating the parade with amazing colors. The Nebuta Matsuri is lit up with every color imaginable. By day the nebuta floats are impressive, but by night they are absolutely breathtaking.

The best part of this festival is not necessarily the intricate floats, nor the taiko drums, dancers, or musicians. It is the audience participation. Onlookers, regardless of their age or ability, are allowed to participate in the festival, dancing around the hand-pulled floats and chanting “rassera,” a nonsensical phrase only seen during the Nebuta Matsuri. Anyone who is wearing a traditional haneto dancing costume is invited to join in the parade. Some costumes are passed from generation to generation, but they can also be purchased throughout the prefecture for 10,000 yen or rented along the processional route during the parades for 4,000 yen.

Aomori Nebuta Festival Colorful Floats

Truly a festival of brilliant colors!

 

There are three types of nebuta floats listed in order of grandeur; the children’s nebuta, the regional nebuta, and the local organization’s nebuta. For the first two days of the festival, from August 2nd to 3rd, only the smaller nebuta, often pulled by children, are paraded throughout the city. Because of their size, it is impractical to showcase the largest nebuta floats for the full seven days. These multistory creations require immense strength to move, and therefore are only displayed from August 4th to 7th.

While it is a festival drawing an average of 3 million people, the Nebuta Matsuri is also a competition. Each year the best floats are recognized, and on the evening of the sixth day, the top three floats are transported to ships in Aomori harbor to cruise along the bay.

However, as a tourist, you do not need to worry about the competition. You can just enjoy the festival food, haunting flute music, dancing, and brilliantly lit floats. Try getting some close-up pictures of the gorgeous, three dimensional nebuta floats. Also, if you are feeling adventuresome, trying renting out a costume and dancing alongside your favorite float. Very few other festivals in Japan allow this level of audience participation.

HIMI, TOYAMA PREFECTURE:A COUNTRY OF THE WATER

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Typhoon #18 is roaring up from the south Pacific toward Himi, the small fishing village on the Sea of Japan where I am staying at Umiakari, an onsen (hot springs) hotel. Waves pound the windswept coast. The fast-moving sky is low and gray. I am supposed to go out on a boat tomorrow to watch the famed fisherman of Himi ply their trade, but we may be grounded by weather.

Few Western tourists come to Himi, although it’s heavily touristed by the Japanese who come for the fish. Perhaps nowhere else in Japan can you get the variety and quality of fresh seafood year round. The Japanese come to eat fish and for the spectacular views over the big water of Toyama Bay to the rugged, snow-capped peaks of the Japanese Alps that rise over 10,000 feet from the narrow coastal plain.

I saw many photos of this magnificent panorama, of which the people of Himi are justifiably proud, but I never got see the scene itself. When I woke during the night, snug in my futon on tatami, I heard rain slashing the windowpanes. The next morning at 4:30 a.m., I padded in yukata and slippers through silent halls to the spring fed pool on a fourth floor terrace. There was an indoor and outdoor pool and both were lined with stone.

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I washed myself thoroughly, squatting on a plastic stool in front of a chest high spigot that filled shallow plastic tub with warm water that I splashed over my head and body again and again. Squeaky clean, I walked out a steamy glass door into stormy predawn. Rain pelted my face. Wave after wave broke below. Dim lights signaled the curve of the coast. I faced west toward the Continent. The water was very hot, up to my neck, and I was all alone. Wind and rain ruffled the steaming surface of the pool. Water tricked in from a stone shoot and sloshed out over an indentation in the pool’s lip. Water was constantly coming into the pool and going out. I leaned back. The country was a country of water. We had passed river after river, traveling south to Himi along the coast. This was the route the bullet train from Tokyo would run next spring when it opened up this coast and the mountainous interior: the folded land, the further north, the back of the beyond. Hokuriku was rich in hot springs. More of them were here than anywhere else in Japan. The Western Sea tumbled at my feet. The country was a country of water, fresh and salt, snowmelt and thermal. It was country of moving water and fish and restorative bathing. No matter what happened, how difficult things got, there was always the steaming water to slip into. It was so simple and available—the ultimate luxury. I breathed in the steam and squall. My body felt sleek, almost buoyant. The water had a texture to it, a silkiness and substance that with traces of earth and was both vegetal and mineral. It heated my core. The rain that whipped into my face and hair felt lifted from the Sea. It was cool but not cold, and it was delicious to wallow in the molten broth with my face and head cooled by the storm.

LET’S CLIMB MT. FUJI!

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Mt. Fuji is one of Japan’s icons for its perfect shape and snow-capped peak. Many visitors to Japan enjoy the view from the Hakone or Fuji-Goko (five lakes) areas. But have you ever thought of climbing it? Actually, it being a relatively easy climb, everyone from young kids to senior citizens can enjoy the experience. It takes about 6 hours to ascend and 3-4 hours to descend, originating from the 5th Station base point which you can reach by car or bus. When I say “relatively easy”, I do not mean it is not hard. You do not need special mountaineering knowledge or techniques, but you do need average physical strength and endurance.

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Mt. Fuji is 3,776 meters (12,388 feet) high. The climbing season is from the beginning of July to the end of August.

Many climbers start climbing in the afternoon, spend a night at a hut and start climbing again early in the morning to watch the sunrise at the summit. You should ascend slowly and steadily to avoid altitude sickness. You need to bring warm clothes since the average temperature at the summit is approximately 40°F even in the summer. Raingear is also a necessity due to weather changes. Other things you should bring with you are: suitable shoes; a hat; extra clothes for change; a towel; handy food such as chocolate; water; sunblock lotion; and a headlight or torch. (If you are prone to altitude sickness, bottled oxygen will help.)

Mountain huts are very basic and rustic. Some do not have showers. You are usually required to share a room, and there are certain rules you should follow, such as when to have supper and turn the light off. As they are sometimes very crowded, making reservations in advance is recommended.

The best moment is the sunrise. You will feel a sense of accomplishment, and it is a somewhat religious experience. It is no wonder that Mt. Fuji has been an object of local religions, and you may even meet people on pilgrimages in traditional clothes on the way to the summit. Yamanashi Prefecture issues a certificate of climbing to the top of Mt. Fuji for foreign visitors which will commemorate your achievement forever. (For more information about the certificate, send an email to kokusai@pref.yamanashi.lg.jp.)

You can try to conquer the summit of Mt. Fuji for yourself, although some companies offer guided climb tours:

JTB Sunrise Tours:
http://www.japanican.com/tours/tourdetail.aspx?tc=GMT01TYOOF777
IACE Travel:
http://www.iace-asia.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=779&Itemid=49
Whole Earth Nature School:
http://wens.gr.jp/english/03.html

SHOPPING: 6 “Must Have” Souvenirs From Japan

From New Year’s surprises, to matcha flavored munchies, tax-free bargains and more, Japan is a shopper’s paradise! To help create your shopping list, check out our tips for “must have” souvenirs from Japan:

1. Matcha Flavored Snacks

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Matcha is powdered Japanese green tea enjoyed for its bittersweet taste. While matcha is known for its use in tea ceremonies, it is also popular ingredient in snacks, including cookies, biscuits, cakes and chocolates. You may even find your favorite snack from America offering matcha flavored treats in Japan!

2. Fukubukuro

Fukubukuro

Visit Japan during the New Year to get your hands on fun grab bags filled with an assortment of store items at a deeply discounted price. You never know what you might get but that’s just the fun of it!

3. Japanese Traditional Goods

Japanese Traditional Goods

There a great deal of goods that positively scream Japan which means that you don’t always have to overthink it when looking for souvenirs. Items such a folding fans, fuurin wind chimes, and sake sets are easy to find in department stores and even 100 yen stores. You can also find great seasonal gifts such a yukata (summer kimono) in department stores such as Uniqlo.

4. Tax Free Souvenirs

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Shopping for the perfect souvenir doesn’t have to be a costly venture. Shop hundreds of stores nationwide that offer purchases free of sales tax! Go ahead and splurge on a little something extra for your loved ones with all the money you’ll save.

5. Plastic Food Replicas

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Surprisingly detailed plastic food replicas are prominently displayed at many Japanese restaurants, making ordering a breeze. These replicas are also available for purchase in areas such as Tokyo’s Kappabashi or Douguyasuji in Osaka. Plastic food themed gifts such as magnets and key chains are also available.

6. Japanese Ceramics

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There are many styles of Japanese pottery and ceramics, available in all price ranges. From rice bowls to tea sets and sake sets, you are sure to find a unique style that will be a treasured gift.

 

Japan Airlines “Japan Explorer Pass”

Travelling within Japan can sometimes require deep pockets, but now foreign visitors can travel domestically at an extremely reasonable rate thanks to Japan Airlines’ “Japan Explorer Pass” which offers year-round travel to 30 cities in Japan Airlines’ domestic network. There is a fixed fee of 10,800 yen (includes tax) per flight for 1-5 domestic flights (also called sectors) by Japan Airlines’ Group sold in one-way flights with a maximum of five flights. For example: Tokyo-Osaka-Fukuoka (2 flights or sectors) = 21,600 yen.

Eligibility for the Japan Explorer Pass:

  • 1. The pass can only be used by non-residents of Japan who arrive and depart by international flights (includes Japanese customers with permanent residences overseas)
  • 2. It is applicable for domestic flights operated by Japan Airlines and Japan Transocean Air.
  • 3. Reservations may not be changed after ticket purchase
  • 4. Non-refundable
  • 5. The ticket must be purchased via Japan Airlines’ websites including the new three overseas English websites for the Americas, the U.K., and Hong Kong
  • 6. The ticket is available for purchase up to 72 hours prior to the scheduled departure time of the domestic flight
  • 7. No restriction on which airline is used to fly to and from Japan

These prices are really a boon to visitors who would like to explore Japan, especially when traveling long distance, such as flying from Tokyo to Kyushu, Okinawa, or Hokkaido.

For more information, please visit here.

Haneda Late Night/Early Morning Bus Service

New convenient transportation for visitors to and from Haneda International Airport in Tokyo during the hours from midnight through early morning when access to trains is difficult is now available thanks to Keikyu (Keihin Kyuko Bus Co., Ltd.) which is offering bus service to and from Haneda to and from Tokyo Metropolitan and Yokohama (includes Shibuya, Shinagawa, Odaiba, Minatomirai, Yokohama, Kawasaki and Kawata areas). All buses depart from and arrive at Haneda Airport International Terminal, and have plenty of baggage storage space even for large suitcases.

For the entire list of origin and destination locations, please visit here.

Boutique Shopping and More in Tokyo’s Jiyugaoka

It’s hard to believe that Jiyugaoka is only ten minutes by train from Shibuya. Walking the calm and sophisticated streets of this leafy residential area, the gaudy neon and Manga inspired mayhem of Shibuya seem a world away.

For the discerning international visitor Jiyugaoka offers a glimpse of an urban Japan rarely seen by other tourists. For Tokyoites, however, this place is no secret and many dream of making a life here. It’s easy to see why as you join young families, dating couples and singles, all out to enjoy the area’s understated, yet creative and classy, shopping and dining scene.

Jiyugaoka is relatively compact and rewards an aimless stroll. Below are some suggestions for spending a half-day in the area.

Shop

There are a wealth of fashion boutiques and home-ware stores here that offer astute shoppers the chance to move away from high-street lines and find something unique. Many collections and pieces balance elements of European and Japanese design.

Jiyugaoka boutique

You’ll want to explore the many unique shops of Jiyugaoka.

Watashi no Heya and Quatre Saisons – Located on Sunset Street, these popular stores have collections of home-ware accessories, tending towards a clean, organic sensibility.

Popeye Camera – Enthusiasts will love this store just north of the station, which sells trinkets with which to deck out your camera along with frames and albums to display your Japan pics. There’s also a delightful collection of vintage cameras.

Luz – A smart little shopping center for Japanese fashion on Suzukake Street which attracts a younger crowd who want urban style without losing sophistication.

Jiyugaoka Department Store – Next to the train station (central exit) this department store harks back to an older era (and an older clientele). It’s an interesting local attraction without being a tourist trap, and a great place for authentic souvenirs.

Eat Cake

Jiyugaoka Cake Shop

Refuel for more exploration with sweets and a coffee.

The Japanese obsession with cake is astonishing given how slim everyone is. (Where does it all go?). Jiyugaoka has an abundance of French inspired boulangerie (French Bakeries) for you to drool over. A local favorite is Pais S’eveille on Hilo Street which sells an exquisite range of cakes, cookies and jams. For a more low-brow experience (yes, Jiyugaoka is capable) Sweets Forrest on Green Street has a whole floor of treats for you to enjoy.

Meet The Locals

Green Street Jiyugaoka

Green Street in Jiyugaoka is a great place to meet the locals.

Green Street, so named for the row of trees running down the center, is one of Jiyugaoka’s main thoroughfares. On the pedestrianized stretch south-east of the train station you’ll meet many locals, visitors and the occasional old-timer hanging out on benches beneath said trees. It’s the perfect place to enjoy a break with your purchase from the boulangerie and watch some beautiful people rocking the latest in tasteful Japan fashion.

Go To Temple

Joshin Temple Jiyugaoka Tokyo

Joshin Temple: A traditional treasure in modern Jiyugaoka.

Follow Green Street west out of town and you’ll arrive at Joshin Temple, also known as Kuhonbutsu. The temple is a mystery. The mystery being how a place so staggeringly beautiful and peaceful, surrounded by some thirty million people, could be so little visited. Founded in 1678, it’s a large complex of amazing buildings, Buddhas, gates and bells, hidden in an area of woodland. People spend days chasing around Kyoto for experiences like this. And it’s free! I almost feel guilty for writing about it.

Dine Al fresco

Jiyugaoka, Tokyo outdoor dining

Al Fresco dining opportunities abound in leafy Jiyugaoka.

Opportunities to dine Al fresco in crowded Japan are limited so take advantage of the charming options in Jiyugaoka to round off your visit. One of the nicest terraces belongs to the Rakeru restaurant on Hillside Street. Surrounded by greenery it offers privacy, peace and fresh air. Although it’s a chain restaurant it’s one of the best places to try an ‘only in Japan’ combination of omelet and rice. Otherwise known as omuraisu!

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