6 unusual but fantastic places in Japan- Miyakojima (宮古島)

Miyakoshima – sun, sand and sea

Our next stop in “6 unusual but fantastic places in Japan” is Miyakojima (宮古島). Miyakojima is an island roughly 300 km southwest of Okinawa island and 400 km east of Taiwan. Instead of the lush forests and relaxing onsen we talked about in our article about Yakushima, here you will find beautiful beaches and great snorkeling and diving spots.

Location of Miyakojima

Location of Miyakojima.

Beaches

Though the island has an abundance of sunlit beaches, each worthy of talking about, Maehama Beach and Sunuyama Beach are known as the best to visit. The former is located in the southwestern corner of the island and is ranked as one of the best beaches in Japan. Its white sand stretches 7 kilometers long and is ideal for watching the sunset.The latter of the two is a small beach 4 kilometers north of Hirara. At the bottom of a sand dune, you will find a view of clear blue waters, rocky formations and a large stone arch perfect for those that like some shade to their beach trip.

The stone arch at Sunayama Beach

The stone arch at Sunayama Beach.

Lovers of diving and snorkeling should visit Yoshino Beach at the eastern corner of the island. It is said this beach has the highest concentration of colorful fish on the island. Just off the beach starts a large coral reef filled with marine life. A perfect spot for starting and veteran divers alike.

the reef at Yoshino Beach

The reef at Yoshino Beach.

Other places to visit

Should you ever get tired of the sun, or you forgot your sun protection lotion there are still places to visit on Miyakoshima. The Miyakojima City Botanical Garden houses over 1600 tropical plants which you can discover on a leisurely stroll. If plants are not for you, maybe the Miyako Traditional Arts & Crafts Centre might pique your interest. On the second floor of this museum is a workshop where they still teach the traditional technique of minsa-weaving. Explores amongst us can rent a car and visit sites like the Tuyumya grave or Cape Higashi-Hennazaki, where a lone lighthouse awaits at the end of the 2 kilometer long peninsula. Finally they can also drive to three of the four smaller islands of Miyakojima connected by kilometers long bridges build over the sea.

Cape Higashi-Hennazaki

Cape Higashi-Hennazaki

How to get to Miyakojima

Since the Ferry services were discontinued in 2008 you can only get to Miyakoshima by plane from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, Osaka’s Kansai Airport, Naha Airport on Okinawa Main Island and a few smaller airports on the Ishigaki and Tarama islands. Most hotels and resorts provide shuttle bus services from and to the airport. To get around the island it is recommended to rent a car, scooter or bicycle.

one of the bridges connecting the smaller islands to Miyakojima

one of the bridges connecting the smaller islands to Miyakojima.

This marks the end of our second unusual but fantastic place to visit in Japan. If you have any questions or remarks you can post them in the comments or send us a mail.

Japanese Prefectures – Hokkaido 北海道

Hokkaido – nature, hot springs and bathing monkeys

Today marks the start of our new column “Japanese prefectures” in which we present to you the different prefectures of Japan and show you that every prefecture has its own reasons to visit. Every month we will tackle one prefecture for you until we have written about all 47. We will start with the northernmost and second largest island of Japan, Hokkaido. This island is mostly known for its unspoiled nature, hot springs and the Ainu people.

The different prefectures and regions of Japan

The different prefectures and regions of Japan

Geography

As said before, Hokkaido is the northernmost and second largest island of Japan. It is also the largest prefecture. Hokkaido is separated from the rest of Japan by the Tsugaru Strait or the Tsugaru Kaikyō, however it is connected through an underground railway. The island borders the Sea of Japan, the Sea of Okhotks and the Pacific Ocean. Hokkaido itself is often compared to northern Europe and has its fair share of mountains and volcanic plateaus. It also has quite some national parks and hot spring resorts. The most popular cities are its capital Sapporo and the two core cities Hakodate and Asahikawa. The climate is considered cooler than the rest of Japan and it is a  popular destination between May and August because of the lack of the typical Japanese rain season.

A map of Hokkaido

A map of Hokkaido

The island was first mentioned in the Nihon Shoki, the second oldest book of classical Japanese history that was published in 720 CE. Hokkaido was mostly settled by the Japanese during the last 100 years. Because of this the cities and architecture in Hokkaido are more modern than the rest of Japan. There were of course already some settlements but it was mostly inhabited by the Ainu people. The Ainu are thought to be the indigenous  people of Hokkaido and Russia. They live in a shamanistic culture with their own language and customs and are quite different from Japanese culture. They are extremely fascinating and Inari Press will definitely write about them in future articles.

The Ainu people

The Ainu people

Must-see locations

Hokkaido has so many places that must be visited and things to do that it is impossible to mention all of them in this article. That is why we decided to pick the most important for you.

As we have mentioned before, Hokkaido is the place to be for onsen lovers and at Jigokudani Monkey Park, the biggest onsen lovers are wild monkeys. The Jingokudani Monkey Park is, as you can derive from the name, a park that is the natural habitat of a group of Japanese Macaques. The name literally means “Hell Valley”, this is a common name that is used for Japanese valleys with volcanic activity. Most people visit this place to see the monkeys and it is recommended to visit them during the months of January and February. The area is covered in snow during that time of the year and you’ll most definitely be able to get the perfect view.

Just chillin'

Just chillin’

Hokkaido is also known for its national parks. The largest of these parks is Daisetsuzan and with its 2.267 square kilometers, it is even bigger then some of the smaller prefectures in Japan. You can go there to hike or observe the local wildlife. The park is home to several rare species and has the largest population of brown bears in Asia. If you’re more of a chill-out person, you can always visit one of the many onsen in the park. The autumn colors and  snow here are the first to be seen in Japan each year.

Beautiful Daisetsuzan.

Beautiful Daisetsuzan.

If you are more into the city life, we recommend Sapporo. Sapporo is the capital of Hokkaido and is the fifth-largest city in Japan. It is very popular thanks to its beer, ramen and annual snow festival. You can even visit the local Sapporo Brewery. People who love Japanese cuisine, should certainly visit the Curb Market, you can find almost everything concerning food here. If you want to experience the nightlife, Susukino is the place to be. It is the largest entertainment district north of Tokyo and is packed with bars, karaoke shops and more.

The city of Sapporo.

The city of Sapporo.

As the final item on this list we decided to go above the clouds. The Unkai Terrace is a must-see place where you get the opportunity to literally sit above the clouds. There is even a small restaurant there so it is possible to have your breakfast while observing the clouds underneath. The Unkai Terrace is only open from mid-May to the end of October and is most definitely a place that you must see.

Breathtaking.

Breathtaking.

How to get there?

Going to Hokkaido is actually very easy. The only land link to the main land of Japan is though the Seikan Tunnel, so most people travel to Hokkaido by plane. The biggest airport in Hokkaido is the New Chitose Airport but there are six more airports throughout the island. Once you are on the island, you can always use the well-developed railway. It is recommended though to rent a car since most cities are only accessible by car.

How to travel around in Hokkaido.

How to travel around in Hokkaido.

This was our short intro to Hokkaido. We hope that we have showed you the different reasons to visit this lovely place. If you want to know more about traveling to Hokkaido, leave a comment, send us a mail or please visit this site.

We will be back with another Japanese prefecture in February when we will tell you more about Aomori.

6 unusual but fantastic places in Japan – Yakushima (屋久島)

Yakushima – the place that inspired Studio Ghibli’s “Mononoke-hime”

To start off our bigger theme “6 unusual but fantastic places in Japan”, we chose Yakushima and its beautiful forest located in the Shiratani Unsuikyo ravine (白谷雲水峡). This subtropical island is located about 61,3 kilometers south of the Osumi Peninsula in southern Kyushu. It has been a natural World Heritage Site since 1993 and is covered by an extensive ancient cedar forest which contains some of Japan’s oldest trees. These trees are more than a 1000 years old and are called yakusugi (屋久杉), a combination of Yakushima’s ‘yaku’ and ‘sugi’, the Japanese word for cedar. The most ancient tree on the island, Jōmon Sugi, is even estimated to be between 2,170 and 7,200 years old. This island was one of the most inspiring places during the creation of Studio Ghibli’s movie “Mononoke-hime” and is known for its eerie sights and stunning nature.

Jomon sugi Yakushima

Jōmon Sugi, the largest conifer in Japan.

What is so special about Yakushima?

Yakushima is actually quite a rare sight. With a ecosystem unique in the Northern Hemisphere and an especially humid environment, the island is home to about 1,900 species and subspecies of flora, 16 mammal species and 150 bird species. It is the largest nesting ground for the endangered loggerhead sea turtle in the North Pacific and no record of tree cutting can be found in the Wilderness Core Area of the forest, which is over 12 square kilometers.

The beautiful Loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta, Picasa Creative Commons / Joseph & Farideh)

The beautiful Loggerhead sea turtle.
(Caretta caretta, Picasa Creative Commons / Joseph & Farideh)

The first people to arrive in Yakushima,  came there during the Jōmon period (12,000 BCE – 300 BCE). The island was traditionally used for forestry and the export of wood products. Now, export of oranges, tea and shōchū, and tourism have replaced the role of income for the island. Yakushima’s centre is mostly dominated by mountains reaching almost 2,000 m high. From the coast up to the central peaks, a sequence of natural progression makes this place significant for biological, scientific and aesthetic reasons. The flora changes from a coastal vegetation with subtropical elements to cold-temperate bamboo grassland and a high moor near the summit.

A map of Yakushima

A map of Yakushima.

As mentioned before, the Shiratani Unsuikyo ravine is a very famous part of Yakushima. Visitors can find some of the ancient cedars here or choose their own route along the well maintained hiking trails. This part was also the inspiration for the forest scenes in Studio Ghibli’s movie “Mononoke-hime” and the lead artist, Oga Kazuo, spent quite some time in these forests working on sketches for the movie. The longest trail you can follow takes you through the forest to Jōmon Sugi  and back. It takes about twelve hours to finish and is one of the most difficult routes on Yakushima.

A typical sight on Yakushima

A typical sight on Yakushima.

Ofcourse, there is more to Yakushima than the cedar forests. People also visit the island to scuba dive or visit museums and onsen. There is also a route around the perimeter of the island for driving that gives a beautiful view of the island. Especially the western side of the island is worth it, the World Heritage Site reaches the sea there and you can drive right through it on very small paths. The onsen are also very special. They are only reachable a few hours before and after low tide, the other times the onsen are usually flooded.

A typical Yakushima onsen.

A typical Yakushima onsen.

How to get to Yakushima?

There are quite some possibilities if you want to visit Yakushima. Most people go to Kagoshima first, to take either a high speed boat, a car ferry or a plane to the island. Kagoshima can be reached by train or by plane from Tokyo. However, it is also possible to get a direct flight to Yakushima if you depart from Osaka or Fukuoka.

Location in Japan

Location in Japan.

This was our first unusual but fantastic place to visit in Japan. If you want to know more about the beautiful Yakushima, you can always leave us a comment, send us a mail or visit this page. If you ever get the chance to visit this wondrous place, just do it!

Japanese holidays and festivals in January

Japanese holidays and festivals: January

Like every country, Japan has its own days and festivals to celebrate. In this article, Inari will tell you more about the Japanese holidays and festivals that take place during the month of January.

New Year or Shōgatsu 正月

The New Year comes with a lot of customs in Japan, varying from traditional food to displaying mochor rice cakes and performing the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven.

During the first week of January a lot of families love eating the traditional New Year’s dishes. The most popular is osechi-ryōri, a dish that is made with boiled seaweed, fish cakes, mashed sweet potatoes with chestnuts, simmered burdock root and sweetened black soybeans. Another popular dish is ozōni, a soup with mochi and ingredients depending on the regions of Japan. Additionaly, mochi is also made and eaten during this time of the year. These rice cakes are made by patting boiled sticky rice with water and then hitting it with a giant wooden mallet. But be careful if you are offered one, they are very sticky and have been known to kill several people every year.

Mouth-drooling New Year food

Mouth-drooling New Year’s food

Mochi is also used for making Kagami mochi, a traditional New Year decoration consisting of two round rice cakes, a daidai, which is Japanese bitter orange, and a leaf attached on top. These decorations are often very ornamented and are sometimes truly a piece of art.

Rica cake art

Rice cake art

Other examples of customs for this time of the year are sending postcards and otoshidama.  Sending postcards for New Year is mostly used to tell relatives or far away friends that you are still alive and kicking. The post offices guarantee to deliver all the postcards on the 1st of January, so it can be a very busy time of the year for the Japanese Post. Ofcourse the Japanese children have something to look forward to as well. Japanese people give money to them on New Year’s Day. This custom is known as otoshidama. The Japanese children get a small decorated envelope, also known as  pochibukuro, with a certain amount of money depending on the age of the child. Most of the time they get more than ¥10,000.

Typical examples of pochibukuro

Typical examples of pochibukuro

After a week of indulging in lots and lots of food, it is customary to celebrate Jinjutsu 人日 or Human Day. On this day, that is also known as Wakana no sekku or Feast of Seven Herbs, the Japanese people settle their stomachs with a seven-herb rice soup or nanakusagayu. This custom is also traditionally accompanied by singing folk songs.

Herby soup

Herby soup

Coming of Age Day or Seijin no Hi 成人の日

Traditionally this Japanese holiday was celebrated every year on the 15th of January. However, since the introduction of the Happy Monday System in 2000, a system where certain holidays were put on a Monday so people could have a long weekend,  this Japanese holiday was changed to the second Monday in January. It is held for everyone who turned 20 between the second of April of the previous year and the first of April of the current year and is a ceremony where these people embrace new responsibilities and rights that they receive with the coming of age.

The young adults are invited to the local city offices to attend speeches by government officials and receive small presents. Each person celebrates this day by wearing traditional clothing. For women this is a furisode, a kimono with long sleeves, and a pair of zōri sandals. Men typically wear a dark kimono with a hakama, a traditional form of skirted pants, but many wear a formal Western suit and tie. Once the ceremony is done, everybody goes out in groups and celebrate their new rights of drinking and smoking by partying.

Party time

Party time

It’s interesting to note that during the past years there is a certain decline in attendance of this Japanese holiday. Due to the shrinking percentage of young people in Japan and the increase in young adults who don’t feel like they have reached true adulthood, this traditional Japanese holiday is losing popularity in modern Japan.

Wakakusa Yamayaki Festival 若草山焼き

If you are travelling around the City of Nara during the month of January, the Wakakusa Yamayaki festival is a must-see. During this festival on the fourth Saturday of the month, or a week later if the weather is bad,  the hills of Mount Wakakusa, overgrown by dry grass, are set ablaze. Mount Wakakusa is a 342 m high mountain that is elevated above the City of Nara, so the fire is visible throughout the city.

View of Nara from Mount Wakakusa

View of Nara from Mount Wakakusa

The origins of this festival are not exactly known. While one source mentions a boundary conflict between Nara’s great temples as the first burning of the hillsides, another claims that the people of Nara used these wild fires to drive away wild boars. One thing is sure though, this festival has already been celebrated for hundreds of years.

During the day of the festival, small events take place around the base of the mountain. One of these events is a throwing competition where people have to throw sembei or giant rice crackers as far as they can. Each year a lot of people are eager to pay ¥300 to participate in this event.

Better loosen up those muscles

Better loosen up those muscles

The actual burning of the hillside happens in the evening. At 5 pm a procession of about 30 people walks to the base of Mount Wakakusa and lights a bonfire. At this moment thousand of spectators have also taken place in front of the hillside. While the bonfire is getting bigger, a giant fireworks show is held for 15 minutes. Afterwards, a line of people walks towards the edge of the grass with a torch that was lit in the bonfire and set the mountainside on fire. Depending on the conditions of  the grass, the mountain can be on fire for 30 to 60 minutes. This year the festival will be held on the 23rd of January or the 30th if weather conditions are bad on the first date.

The burning mountain

The burning mountain

Yaedake Sakura Matsuri 八重岳 桜祭り

While the rest of Japan has to wait until March or April to look at the blossoming sakura trees, the people in Okinawa can already enjoy this at the end of January. Mount Yaedake in Motobu, a small town on Okinawa Island, organises a festival to start the Japanese sakura season. Because Okinawa is  640 kilometers south of the rest of Japan, the conditions for the blossoming sakura are better and they bloom a couple of months sooner.

The blossoming sakura of Motobu

The blossoming sakura of Motobu

During this festival a lot of events are organised. The most popular of these events is the annual crowning of Miss Sakura. Other events are the Motobu Junior High school brass band concert, dances, traditional taiko drumming and kids shows. Most of these events take place at the Yaedake Forest Cherry Blossom Park.

The crowning of Miss Sakura

The crowning of Miss Sakura

 

These are the most important Japanese holidays and festivals that take place in January. If you want to know more about this subject, feel free to contact us or write a comment.

We’ll be back next month to tell you more about the Japanese holidays and festivals that take place during February.

Inari Press is back in action!

Inari Press is back, in a brand-new format!

After a few months of silence we have evaluated our articles and the way we published them. Starting next week we will be putting articles online every week. These articles will cover different themes with a little something for every reader. Our new format is very simple and it gives us the opportunity to write better and about great variety of subjects.

A typical Inari Press meeting

A typical Inari Press meeting

First of all, we will publish “Weekly Japan”, a short summary of what happened in Japan that week. This will always be posted on a Friday and if something big happens, we will post an additional article with more information.

Secondly, we will write a monthly article about the holidays and festivals of that month. We will focus on the customs that go together with these festive days and how the Japanese people celebrate them.

Thirdly, there will also be one article every month about the different prefectures in Japan. Each region or prefecture has its own specialties, nature, customs and story. With these articles we want to show you all the things Japan has to offer. Who knows, perhaps you will find new places to travel to.

A lot of potential articles

A lot of potential articles

These three subjects will be recurring constantly, but we will also have a bigger theme every three months. With a total of six articles per theme, we will paint you a bigger picture that will be published every two weeks. The first of these bigger themes will be “6 unusual but fantastic places to visit in Japan” in which we will tell you more about the lesser known but not to be underestimated places, buildings or regions in Japan.

In between all these, we will also publish extra articles about modern culture, folklore and social phenomena in the Japanese society. You can expect things like anime reviews, recipes, Monster of the Month and articles about hikikomori for example.

Our vision for Inari Press

Our vision for Inari Press

That is about everything for our written Inari Press. But there is more! We are working on a Inari Press Youtube channel. In that way we can also visualise the things we write about. Inari has a lot of plans for this channel and will be working together with the Department of Japanology at the University of Ghent to provide you with interesting movies about Japan. We will taste weird Japanese candy, talk about recent events and cook for you. This channel will go online starting February.

We hope that we can entertain you with our new format and we are looking forward to start! Also visit our Facebookpage on this site for more information about our new activities.

Greets,

The Inari Team