Japanese Elementary School Perks

One of the cool things about teaching at a Japanese elementary school is that sometimes, after work, they prepare food. Granted, it’s not usually a four course meal or anything, but it is quite tasty. On one of the colder days last week (winter is rearing his frigid head) one of the teachers prepared a suiton soup. If you’re not familiar with suiton, the best way I can explain it is that it’s kind of like a dumpling made of flour. On a cold day like this one, a bowl of this hot soup, chock-full of vegetables, juicy meat, and suiton, really hit the spot.

One day this week, one of the staff members diced up some sweet potatoes, cooked them with milk salt and sugar. I wanted to eat ALL of them! I didn’t, but BOY were they good.

So one additional perk about being at a Japanese elementary school is that it’s a great way to learn about Japanese food culture. As I am a foreigner, the teachers always try their best to explain to me the foods that I’m eating. This helps me to build some cool relationships with the teachers and staff around me.

The Joys of Japanese Noodles

Mom always taught me not to slurp my noodles, but the cool thing about being in Japan is that the slurping rule goes completely out the window. If you’ve ever been to a Japanese restaurant that serves any kind of noodles, or if you’ve been to a Japanese friend’s house for a meal, you probably know exactly what I mean.

My problem is that I’m so used to NOT slurping that I haven’t quite mastered the fine art of slurping without splashing noodle juice on myself and everyone around me. As a result, I enjoy that noodle goodness in silence.

Why do Japanese people slurp their noodles? I haven’t figured out the exact reason, but I have three theories. The first is maybe it’s like taste-testing. I remember watching this story about this professional coffee tester and she demonstrated how she tests coffee. She made the loudest slurp I had ever heard. She said she did it because it was the best way to quickly spread flavor and texture to the taste buds. I’m not sure Japanese noodle slurping is that “deep,” but it’s just a theory. My other two theories are a much simpler. Theory Number Two: Those noodles are hot, dude! Theory Number three: Those noodles taste good as hell!

Japan makes some of the greatest dishes on the planet. Let’s take a closer, mouth-watering look at a four of the most popular types of Japanese noodles: soba soumen, ramen and udon.

Soba (蕎麦-そば)

This is probably one of the healthiest of Japanese noodles. Soba is a buckwheat noodle that can be eaten either hot or cold.

The Japan Guy’s Soba Recommendations
Tanuki Soba (タヌキそば)
Raccoon dog soba? Don’ worry, these noodles don’t have pieces of tanuki animal in it. This soba has pieces of fried tempura batter. I usually eat this dish cold and boy is it good!

Tanuki Soba

See the fried bits of tempura batter? Yep, that’s tanuki soba!

Yaki Soba (焼きそば – やきそば)
I can’t say whether or not yakisoba is the healthiest food in the world, but damn all that!  I’ll fight somebody over some yakisoba.  It’s that’s good!  Yaki soba literally means fried soba.  This dish a bit oilier than some of the others on this list and contains cabbage, pickled ginger, and lightly sweet, yakisoba sauce.

Soumen (素麺そ-うめん)

Soumen is the fine, white Japanese noodle, maybe one of the thinnest noodles you will ever see in Japan. I remember trying them for the first time and thinking “Wow, if I wrap three of these together, I could probably floss with them.”

Being as thin as they are makes many of the soumen dishes very light and easy to eat. Don’t let their thin appearance fool you, though. These little guys, when prepared correctly can pack a delicious wallop of Japanese taste.

Though Soumen is primarily eaten cold, there is a dish called nyumen (煮麺 – にゅうめん)which uses soumen noodles in a hot, soy sauce-based broth(I haven’t had the pleasure of trying it yet, though).

The Japan Guy’s Soumen Recommendation
I don’t have the specific name of a soumen dish for you to try, but I usually eat my soumen cold, topped with spicy ground chicken, red peppers and green onions.

Ramen (らめん)

These Japanese noodles are my personal favorite! Though ramen is originally a Chinese dish, Japan has put it’s own tasty signature on this dish. There are countless types of ramen dishes. Some are your typical types of soup, while others are local specialties or even original restaurant concoctions.

These are the four major types of ramen:

  1. Miso (味噌 – みそ) or soy-bean paste-based broth
  2. Shouyu (醤油 – しょうゆ) or soy-sauce based broth
  3. Tonkotsu (豚骨 – とんこつ) or pork bones/pork belly based broth
  4. Shio (塩 – しお) or salt-based broth

I have tried every one of these types (except for salt) and every one of this is tasty. The cool thing about ramen is that no two shops will make it the same way and they can both be equally tasty.
Popular ramen ingredient additions: pork, bean sprouts, seaweed, kamaboko (steamed, fish-paste cake), and green onions.

Though these four standard types of ramen are wonderful, but there are other ramen dishes that are EASILY just as good.

The Japan Guy’s Ramen Recommendations
Tsukimi Ramen (月見らめん – つきみらめん)
Moon ramen. The way you know if you’re eating tsukimi ramen is if you see a raw egg (the moon) sitting in the middle of it. I know some of you may not be fans of going all Stallone-style, eating raw eggs. But if you stir the raw egg into your soup, not only will you not notice, you’ll might actually like it.

Yummy Tsukimi Ramen

See the yellow ‘moon’ right in middle?

Gomoku Ramen (五目らめん – ごむくらめん)
This is one of those dishes you can’t go wrong with. Gomoku loosely translates to mean a five ingredient mixture. I’m not sure of all five ingredients, or even if it always has to be five, but the gomoku I’ve tried generally has several types of vegetables, chicken, and mushrooms.

Tasty Gomoku Soba

Gomoku the noodles that mix it up. This is actually a picture of the soba version (I eat quite a bit of soba), but the same restaurant has gomoku ramen, too! TASTY!

*Did you also know that there are gomoku onigiri (rice balls) and gomoku sushi?
Now that the weather is starting to cool down quite a bit here in Japan, a hearty bowl of ramen is a perfect fall/winter food.

Udon (うどん)

The thick, Japanese wheat noodle. These are without a doubt the thickest noodles I have ever eaten, but they are so good! Udon noodles can also be eaten hot or cold depending on the dish.

The Japan Guy’s Udon Recommendations
Kitsune Udon (キツネうどん)
Fox Udon?! Again, this might be what you’re thinking. You’re not eating fox meat. This dish is made up of udon and aburaage (油揚げ – あぶらあげ – deep-fried tofu).

Curry Udon (カレーうどん)
Do you like curry? Do you like udon noodles? Well, if you do you’re a lot like me and this dish will be like a bowl of spicy, piping-hot heaven for you (wait, does it get hot in heaven?).  Ingredients: Curry, udon noodles, pork (or beef), diced onions.

Bowl of Curry Udon

The Japanese Breakfast vs. The American Breakfast

Please close your eyes for a second and think about your idea of the perfect, most delectable breakfast you could have. Think about every nuance. Are you eating it at a restaurant that really makes your tummy smile every time you go? Perhaps it’s at your Mom’s house or another family member. What breakfast foods are running through your mind? Please feel free to leave your ideas in the comments section.

The American Style Breakfast

When I think about the perfect breakfast, it’s gotta be one thing for me…pancakes. I think about a piping hot, short-shortstack of fluffy, buttermilk pancakes with whipped butter on top and just the perfect complement of maple syrupy goodness streamed on top. Throw in a serving of scrambled eggs and a class of chilled orange juice, and there we have it…breakfast heaven! You could just as easily replace the pancakes with a hearty plate of waffles, or french toast, and I’d still be a happy dude. There is just something about those syrup-based breakfast dishes that reminds of home. It reminds me of waking up at 6:00 am on an early fall Saturday mornings, where my brother Derrick and I would sit and watch the morning cartoon lineup together. Mom (or one my sisters) would wake up a bit later and sometimes ask the magic question. “Boys! Y’all want some pancakes?” Umm…YEAH!! They’d cook up a batch of slamming pancakes (sometimes with eggs if we were lucky) with turkey sausage. AHHHHHhhh…I think I feel a bout of homesickness coming on.

In my head, pancakes, eggs, sausage, and orange juice are the quintessential elements of a perfect, American-style breakfast. But if you ask somebody else, like maybe my Dad, you may get a different answer.
*I’m pretty sure Dad would say grits (like a cornmeal porridge) are a part of an ideal breakfast.

Now if we’re not talking ideal, but just your run of the meal weekday…it was always a heaping bowl of cereal with lowfat milk (Mom always bought 2% milk, and now I’m hooked on the stuff! Thanks Mommy!!). Cereals…I used to eat so many different kinds. As a kid I was more partial to the sugary cereals: The Original Cap’N Crunch, Fruity Pebbles, Lucky Charms, Apple Jacks, Count Chocula (General Mills), Boo Berry (General Mills), Cocoa Puffs, Golden Grahams…pant…pant…Reese’s Peanut Butter Puffs, Crunch Berries (a type of Cap’N Crunch), Trix, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Berry Kix, Cookie Crisp…I could keep going, but I’ll stop there. During the teenage years, I started to enjoy cereals like Clusters, Wheat Chex, Cracklin’ Oat Bran, Bran Flakes, and even started to get more into oatmeal. I won’t lie to you, though, I’m still a huge fan of the kids cereals, it’s one of my unabashed pleasures.

Though I know it’s not big for everybody, in the Ash family, breakfast was always a big deal.

The Japanese-Style Breakfast?

Even in America breakfast can vary from place to place and region. Breakfast menus can sometimes be a product of where you come from. Nowhere have I gotten to experience this more than in Japan.

When I came to Japan, it was so cool to hear some of the other things that people had for breakfast. Everybody had such different breakfast menu ideas. I don’t remember exactly what was common in England or Australia, but it was different from the American style. The Japanese-style breakfast, though, was nothing at all like the American style I was used to.

What exactly does a Japanese breakfast consist of? Well, much like back home, it depends on who you ask, but the standard breakfast that I’ve heard Japanese friends and co-workers mention consists of the following: miso soup (味噌汁), natto(納豆), steamed rice (ご飯 or gohan), and grilled fish (焼き魚 or yakizakana). I remember, when I first got here, thinking “Huh? Fish for breakfast??” It’s quite different from my Georgia-ideal breakfast, but it has really grown on me. Once you’ve gotten used to it, this can be quite a hearty, tasty breakfast, too.

I have heard other people mention eating fruit for breakfast here in Japan and, in rare cases, even cereal or pancakes**.
** Why the freak is maple syrup so expensive in Japan…and soooo thin. I’m not saying I want my syrup to be cane syrup thick, but if it’s going to be that expensive, I want it to really get the job done

Having tried both styles, I have to say that both have their benefits. I think the Japanese style breakfast is FAR healthier and far lighter than the American-style that I like. After eating this type of meal, I feel like I had my fill, but I don’t fell heavy…if that makes sense. After my ideal American-style breakfast, I feel like unbuckling my belt and unleashing my mighty stomach. On the other hand, when you talk about straight up deliciousness, I have to say the American style all day.

The 8 Standards Of Japanese Beauty

Ayase-Haruka-Smiling

One of the great things about being in Japan for as long as I have is that I’ve gotten to have some pretty fascinating discussions about Japan and why certain aspects of the culture are the way they are. A subject that’s been discussed and rehashed, time and time again, is the discussion on what makes a woman beautiful. Before you call me a chauvinist and put my head on a spike, please hear me out. I’ve had these conversations with more Japanese women than I have with Japanese men because it’s intriguing to hear how the conversation on good looks varies from person to person, and how the conversation varies from country to country. Beauty is a topic that pervades every culture and society.

Whenever I overhear, eavesdrop on, Japanese conversations bout aesthetics, my curiosity always gets the better of me. While minor things differ from conversation to conversation, some features, whether it was a man or a woman talking, are mentioned over and over again.

So here’s a list of the most common ones I hear, here list of the 8 Standards of Japanese Beauty:

1. LIGHT/WHITE SKIN

Ayase Haruka Smiling

Ayase Haruka is seen as one of the most beautiful actresses/models in Japan. She is known for having beautiful skin. I think I just drooled a bit…

While smooth, clear skin is considered a fairly universal standard of beauty, in Japan it seems the lighter the skin tone the more beautiful it is.

Where this popularity of lighter skin stems from in Japan is a mystery to me. Could it be historically linked to Japanese geisha? The 19th century, female entertainers who donned kimonos, white makeup and red lipstick accents; the former pinnacle of Japanese beauty and elegance.

Or maybe, in a bygone Japanese era, your skin symbolized they type of family you came from. Darker skin meant you were part of the lower, working class while lighter skin was characteristic of nobility? I am truly guessing here, but anyway…

Regardless of its origin, skin is a HUGE issue for women all over Japan* Pure, white, unblemished skin is extremely coveted here. Donald looks down at the skin on his typing hands… um well, maybe it’s different for guys…
*Not sure how much this standard affects the southernmost areas of Japan i.e.-Okinawa/Kyushu)

If you’ve been here in Japan during the summer, tell me if you can relate to this: You’re walking to the supermarket, it’s 10,000+ degrees outside, and you’re dripping sweat even in your your shorts and tank top. While you’re walking, a Granny Bike Ninja whizzes past you. A Granny Bike Ninja is a slightly older woman (late 40’s/ early 50’s perhaps) who has every piece of exposed skin covered during the summer. She’s wearing gloves that stop at the elbow, pants, sometimes a kerchief/scarf and a giant, black visor…

The reason you see woman so covered up on these hot summer days is primarily for skin protection. You know how tanning in America is considered cool? I don’t think it’s the goal for most women in Japan.

2. THE HIGH-BRIDGED NOSE

I remember having to get a CAT scan once at the Tsukuba University Hospital and as I was about the go in, one of the younger female nurses/trainees got super close to my face and told me “Sugoi! Hana ga takai.” She was admiring the bridge of my nose. I found this pretty interesting because in the U.S. I’ve gotten the occasional “big nose” comment, which I never really minded so much.

What makes a high bridge nose more desirable in Japan? If we just look at Western vs. Eastern cosmetic surgery patterns, we can get a bit of a hint. It’s always fascinating to find out what kind of cosmetic surgery people have done to make themselves more “beautiful.”

It seems that no matter where you go, people want a more “exotic” look. Some people take the word exotic to mean rare, but let’s change the word to “foreign” or “different” in this case. In the U.S. What to people usually have done to their noses? They get a skilled plastic surgeon to hack a their noses to make them smaller while fitting the natural contour of their faces.

In Japan, in Asia, it’s the opposite, and stronger, higher, slightly bigger nose bridge makes you unique, it makes you exotic. I’ve talked to women in Japan who have literally told me that they hate their noses because they’re too small! I guess every society has some type of physical appearance complex to deal with.

3. SMALL/SLIM FACE

After one particular Golden Week holiday (one of the important holidays in Japan), I remember asking a Japanese friend how his vacation was. He had taken a trip to Hokkaido and began to tell me about how good the food was and how beautiful the women were. Curious, I asked him why the women in Hokkaido were so beautiful? “They have beautiful, white skin and slim faces,” he replied. Though it wasn’t an incredibly in-depth discussion about what makes a women pretty here in Japan, I never forgot what said.

The slim/small face comment is one that I’ve heard countless times. So much so, that I would say it ranks as one of the top three beauty comments that I’ve heard.

I remember having a coworker once who I thought was gorgeous, but she was often down on herself because she was slightly heavier than the average Japanese women and had a round face. When anyone would tell her how pretty she was, she would kind of brush it off as something she couldn’t really believe.

4. THIN/PETITE

Do you know the expression “ぼんきゅぼん (Bon Kyu Bon)?” Well in Japanese it’s kind of like onomatopoeia but not exactly. This expression is used when talking about a woman’s body shape. The first “bon” symbolizes a large bust, “kyu” means having a small waist, and “bon” means having a large curve at hips. Bon kyu bon is the Japanese equivalent of an hourglass figure.

In Japan, I think the thin, slim, or petite woman is considered more beautiful the one with amazing curves. Of course there are exceptions and personal preferences, but I think in general this is the case.

This is probably the only standard on this list that’s a bit of a toss-up. I had this conversation with Japanese men and women and it seems that no two people will have the same answer. I recently asked a Japanese friend (woman) “Which is more popular? The hourglass figure? Or the slim/petite one? She said the hourglass figure.

When asking a male Japanese friend the same question, he insisted on the slim/petite physique. It’s kind of hard to tell which is generally more popular.

5. CURLY EYELASHES

Eyelash curler, metal

Every time I see one of these I cringe. I can’t be the only one who thinks it looks like a torture device.How do we know curly eyelashes are a standard of beauty in Japan? Here’s how. One of these days when you’re on the train you may come across a young lady who decides to have a full-blown makeup session on the train ride to work. When she finishes putting on powder, she may pull out a contraption that looks a lot like a torture device. This “device” was made to curl eyelashes into submission.Another thing that I’ve seen (not really a fan, though) is the women wearing the OBVIOUSLY fake eyelashes. Generally it’s younger women who wear them, or who sit on the train and glue them on, but if they look fake, doesn’t that kind of defeat the purpose?

Again some aesthetic features are universal and eyelashes ( are one of them. It’s why women here, women in the U.S., Europe and countless other countries use mascara to make thicker, fuller, curlier lashes.

6. THE DOUBLE EYELID

Since we’re in the eye area, we have to mention pink elephant in the room, probably one of the biggest ones on this entire list, the double eyelid! In Japanese they say “Futae (二重 – ふたえ) or Futae Mabuta (二重まぶた – ふたえまぶた)” and it’s another one of the big ones on this list. “

Why is the double eyelid a biggie? Well I’ve asked about this one, and the best answer I’ve heard was that having a double eyelid make the eye look bigger. I assume bigger eyes are more beautiful here in Japan.

Japanese women go to great lengths to get double eyelids. Many years ago a student of mine told me that she used to poke her eyelids with a spoon! A frickin’ kitchen spoon! There is also tape and double eyelid glue they sell in Japanese stores. And of course the double eyelid surgery is probably one of the more common procedures that Japanese women (Asian women) will have done.

The eyelid thing is one I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand. Personally, I’ve never looked at a woman and been like “Eww! Dude, she’s not cute at all because only has a single eyelid! There’s no way I’m dating her.” Just sounds kind of crazy to me.

7. LONG LEGS

Have you have snuck a peek a Japanese woman standing on train with a pair of amazing legs (it’s okay you can admit it, I won’t tell anybody. Women you can admit it, too). Well I think this is one Japanese women’s best assets. There are Japanese women with great legs!

The way I know great legs are important is because of how many women show them off regardless of the season. I’ve been sitting down, shivering, on the train in the winter and I’ve seen mini skirts short enough to almost show a bit of stockinged butt cheek. Sorry, but you’re not gonna hear me complain about that…not even a little bit :)

8. A POLITE PERSONALITY

They say beauty is only skin deep, but I disagree. A woman with a gorgeous exterior and a rotten core, or an abrasive personality kind of takes her down a few pegs on the ole attractiveness meter.

In Japanese culture, from the outside looking in, it seems as though personality and mannerism play a big role in how “beautiful” you are. An extremely poised/polite/elegant woman (think kimonos, hair pinned up, seiza (sitting on your heels), hands in the lap) is considered to be be more beautiful than say a wild and crazy, or brash one (think party girl, loud, drunk, or even rude).

While these are some of the typical characteristics I’ve heard here in Japan, beauty is relative. What’s attractive to me might not be attractive to you. What’s attractive to you may not be attractive to someone else. How “beautiful” someone is will be a debate that rages on until the end of time.

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

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