6 unusual but fantastic places in Japan – What didn’t make it? + New theme for the big column

What didn’t make it on the list of our 6 unusual but fantastic places in Japan?

Throughout the past three months Inari showed you the 6 places it had chosen for the column ‘6 unusual but fantastic places in Japan’. We took you from the mysterious Yakushima to the exotic Miyakojima continuing to the art piece Naoshima. Afterwards we showed you the dream for Japanese urban explorers in Nara Dreamland and we took you to the different cute Animal Lands. Last week we finished our list with the breathtakingly beautiful Kumano Kodō.

But you might be wondering “What about the places that didn’t make it on the list?”. Well, we’ll show some of them briefly in this article. When we made our list of 6 places we started from a list containing 21 locations so we can’t just put all of them here, but we’ll show you the four other which were in our top 10.

Yoro Park – The Site of Reversible Destiny

This experience park was designed by the artists Shusaku Arakawa and Madeline Gins in 1995 and is located in Yōrō Town in the Gifu Prefecture. This park was made to make people encounter the unexpected so they can get to the conclusion that items differ if you watch them from an unusual perspective. The park is divided in different components that each have their own special encounter or perspective, making people reevaluate their physical and spiritual identity. Sounds complex? That’s because it is! When you enter the park, you receive a helmet because the park is actually not quite safe but we believe that the weirdness of this place makes it worth it. If you want to read more about it, this person visited Yoto Park and has written a nice article about it.

A view over the park.

A view over the park.

Kawachi Fuji Garden

This stunningly beautiful garden is located in Kitakyushu, which is a 5-hour drive with the bullet train away from Tokyo, and contains more than 150 Wisteria plants. Their luscious flowers form a dreamlike tunnel with the most astonishing view you can get in a garden. There are more than 20 different species of Wisteria that create a colourful sea of white, purple, blue, pink and much more. The best time to visit Kawachi Fuji Garden is from the end of April until mid-May. Otherwise you might not see the view that is presented on the photo underneath. If you have already had the opportunity to visit this place, let us know!

The dreamlike tunnel in Kawachi Fuji Garden.

The dreamlike tunnel in Kawachi Fuji Garden.

Motonosugi Inari Shrine

Of course we wanted to add an Inari Shrine into the list but the other locations were just even more spectacular. This shrine is faces the Japan Sea near Nagato City in the Yamaguchi Prefecture. To get there, you have to walk through the 123 red torii. The contrast of the red od the torii and the bright blue of the sea is a sight to remember. The shrine is fairly new but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth visiting. It even has one of the most challenging offertorres in Japan. The offertory is located on the top of a giant torii at the beginning of the path towards the shrine. If you manage to throw money into it, you will be lucky for the rest of your life!

You just want to walk underneath those torii!

You just want to walk underneath those torii!

Arashiyama and Sagano Bamboo Groves

Located in the western outskirts of Kyoto is Arashiyama and the Sagano Bamboo Groves. This natural setting is very popular during the cherry blossom season and autumn. In the North, you can find the Sagano part of this location. In Sagano are giant bamboo groves that have a curved path carved through it. This makes a wonderful setting for a walk or bike ride. Especially when the bamboo trees are lightly swaying in the wind, turning the entire grove in a green sea of bamboo. We think this is just one of the most peaceful places to walk through and we definitely recommend you visiting it!

Perfect place for a stroll underneath the bamboo trees.

Perfect place for a stroll underneath the bamboo trees.

What will be the theme of our next big column?

We hope you enjoyed our column ‘6 unusual but fantastic places in Japan’ but starting April, it is time for our new column. For the next three months we will write the column ‘6 ways of expression in traditional Japan’. In this column we will tell you more about art, music, theatre and much more. If you have suggestions for other bigger themes, don’t hesitate to let us know via comments or mail.

Until the next time!

6 unusual but fantastic places in Japan– Kumano Kodō 熊野古道

Kumano Kodō – Find your spirituality on these old pilgrimage routes

To finish our column ‘6 unusual but fantastic places in Japan’ we decided to choose the Kumano Kodō. These old pilgrimage routes are located on the Kii Peninsula, which is the largest peninsula on Honshu, and have been travelled for ages. They offer the most spectacular views and the chance to find yourself in a spiritual way. Since 2004 these trails have become part of the Unesco World Heritage of Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range. Koyasan, Yoshino and Omine Mountain are also part of this site. For this article we have decided to focus on the Kumano Sanzan, the three main shrines along the Kumano Kodō. But if we want to tell you more about these wonderful routes and places in Japan, we have to tell you something about the Japanese ‘religions’ as well. Join us on our journey on the Kumano Kodō and become enlightened by the raw nature and spiritual energy residing in these mountains.

The largest torii in the world at Kumano Hongu Taisha.

The largest torii in the world at Kumano Hongu Taisha.

Buddhism and Shintoism – a short introduction into the region

The Kii Mountains have been a spiritual place for a long time. In the third century BCE, when the Japanese people began to harvest rice and settled down, a religion called Shintoism began to emerge. In this religion natural features such as mountains, trees, rivers and many more were seen as gods and were treated like them as well. However it was thought that the mountain gods had control over the flow of water and thus also over how and where rice grew. For this reason the mountain gods were revered even more. In the 6th century CE, Buddhism was introduced in Japan and quickly adopted as religion for the nation. Each province had temples and slowly the Buddhist concept of the Pure Land was associated with the Kii Mountains. During the 8th century, the Buddhist sect Mikkyo, which became the Shingon school, was brought to Japan. The focus in this sect was put on training in the mountains to attain awakening. This sect was again quickly embraced by the Emperor and various aristocrats. It also started to be combined with Shintoism, creating a religion that held its ground until the 19th century.

Kumano Kodo

Typical Yamabushi on resting during their walk on one of the Kumano Kodo.

This focus on mountain asceticism made the Kii Mountains even more famous. Due to social unrest in the 9th and 10th century, the number of pilgrims visiting the Kii Mountains grew and most of the modern pilgrimage routes, or Kumano Kodō, were made. The rising popularity of the Buddhism-Shintoism combination brought even more people to the Mountains and during the 11th and 12th century the temples, shrines and land received support by the Imperial family and aristocrats. Because a pilgrimage on the Kumano Kodō was believed to guarantee a better life in the hereafter, retired Emperors and aristocrats started visiting the Mountains as well. This resulted in the creation of inns and Oji, which were small shrines lining the different pilgrim trails, the improvement of shrines and better management of the site. Thus at the end of the 12th century the Kii Mountains were established as the main sacred mountain site in Japan and the Kumano Kodō became well-travelled.

A typical Oji shrine. This one is dedicated to the god Inari.

A typical Oji shrine. This one is dedicated to the god Inari.

During the following centuries, the military government took power away from the Imperial factions resulting in the weakening of Imperial and centralised authority but also in the growth of economic stability. The pilgrimages were now open to anyone who could afford the journey instead of only those of wealth. Improved roads made it even easier to reach the Kii Mountains and tourists began to walk the Kumano Kodō as a fun activity instead of a spiritual journey. In 1868 Japan was opened by the West and the Emperor took control away from the militaristic government. In an attempt to become a stronger and more modern state, the government introduced the Shintoism and Buddhism Separation Decree that prohibited activities related to the fusion of both religions. Statues of Buddha were removed from shrines and temples and both received less support, but thanks to the demand of society to maintain the Kii Mountains and its shrines and temples, the Ancient Shrines and Temples Preservation Law was introduced. Because of this law, the Kii Mountains’ shrines and the Kumano Kodō were well-maintained. After the Second World War, the economy grew stronger again and visitors once again were able to return to the region in a quest for their lost spirituality. Visitors still walk the trails of the Kumano Kodō in large numbers.

A lone pilgrim on the Kumano Kodō

A lone pilgrim on the Kumano Kodō.

Kumano Sanzan

As mentioned above, Inari would like to focus on the collection of three shrines called the Kumano Sanzan or the Three Mountains of Kumano. You will find separate descriptions of all three shrines below.

Kumano Hongu Taisha

The Kumano Hongu Taisha is one of the three major shrines in the Kumano Region. It was already established around the 9th century CE and is the head shrine over 3000 other Kumano shrines. In 1889 its location was changed due to flooding problems and the only thing left on the original location is the biggest torii gate in Japan with a height of 33 meters. Besides being known for its beautiful shrine where the Kumano gods and the Sun Goddess Amaterasu are revered, Kumano Hongu Taisha is also very famous for its onsen or hot springs. There are three onsen: Yunomine, Kawayu and Wataze. Yunomine is so old that one of the bathhouses in its domain is a Unesco World Heritage Site and pilgrims use these onsen as a form of spiritual cleansing. Wataze is mostly known for having the largest outdoor bath in western Japan. Kawayu is known for its unique hot spring. A hole is dug in the gravel riverbank and then hot spring water flows into the hole creating a unique temperature for the visitors.

The beautiful World Heritage Site of Kumano Hongu Taisha.

The beautiful World Heritage Site of Kumano Hongu Taisha.

Kumano Hayatama Taisha

The Kumano Hayatama Taisha is a shrine that was built in the 12th century on the Kumano riverbank and was recently rebuilt. It houses religious artefacts going back to the 3rd century CE that show that the place was worshipped even before the shrine was built. There is even a legend that three Shinto deities or kami fell down from the sky on a rock not far away from this location, of course this rock has been worshipped until this day. On the site is also a thought to be over 800-year-old tree that is worshipped as well. But the Kumano Hayatama Taisha is mostly known for its Treasure Hall that has over a dozen national artefacts existing out gifts from pilgrims on the Kumano Kodō.

Kumano Hatayama Taisha.

Kumano Hayatama Taisha.

Kumano Nachi Taisha

The last of the three main shrines in Kumano is the Kumano Nachi Taisha and it’s simply stunning. It is a clear example of the Buddhism-Shintoism combination as the shrine is built directly next to the Buddhist Seigantoji temple with its famous three-story pagoda. To complete the perfect picture, the shrine and the temple are built next to the tallest waterfall in Japan called the Nachi no Taki. It measures 133 meters in height and is thought to be a kami. To this day visitors are still amazed by the sight of this majestic wonder of nature. For people who want to experience the pilgrimage routes but don’t have much time, Kumano Nachi Taisha is a perfect choice. You can hike up the Daimon-zaka on a 600 meter long paved trail and see the gates of Kumano Nachi Taisha.

The breathtaking view at Kumano Nachi Taisha of the Seigantoji pagoda and the Nachi no Taki.

The breathtaking view at Kumano Nachi Taisha of the Seigantoji pagoda and the Nachi no Taki.

The most important pilgrimage routes

There are quite some pilgrimage routes in the Kumano Kodō but we decided to choose the three most important ones for you. These are the Nakahechi Route, the Kohechi Route and the Iseji Route. The first one connects the Kumano Hongu Taisha with Tanabe on the western coast of the Kii peninsula. It’s fairly easy to walk and is about 40 kilometers in length with some minshuku or Japanese B&B along the way. The Kohechi Route connects the Kumano Sanzan with the breathtakingly beautiful Koyasan. This location is one of the most mysterious and beautiful places this author has seen in Japan and an article just about this place is bound to happen. It is a very challenging route and it should not be taken without preparations. The last one is the Iseji Route and it leads towards the famous Ise shrine in the Mie Prefecture. It has mostly been covered by paved roads but in some places the original route still exists. Especially the Matsumoto Pass on this route is definitely worth it.

The different trails of the Kumano Kodō.

The different trails of the Kumano Kodō.

How to get there

Getting to the Kumano Kodō is fairly easy since you can get there by train from every major city in the vicinity like Osaka, Nara and Kyoto. If you don’t feel like walking the trails, you can always take a train to the Kumano Sanzan but then you would miss quite a lot of what the Kumano Kodō has to offer.

The railroad through Kumano.

The railroad through Kumano.

This was our final entry in the column ‘6 unusual but fantastic places in Japan’, if you want to find out more, don’t be afraid to leave a comment, send us an email or visit this page. We hope that you have read this column with much enjoyment and perhaps you might even visit some of these places. Next week we will tell you more about what locations were close to being added to the 6 places and also what our next big column will be about.

Japanese Prefectures – Iwate 岩手

Iwate – Temples, history and a lovely beach

Welcome to the third installment of “Japanese Prefectures”. Last month we told you more about Aomori, today the Iwate prefecture will be our chosen prefecture. Iwate is mostly known as the home of the famous World Heritage Site of Hiraizumi, a collection of Buddhist temples of the Pure Land school. The main industry revolves around communication and semiconductors and the Iwate blueberries are to die for. This prefecture was hit by the 2011 Touhoku Disaster and was badly damaged with costs ranging to ¥371.5 billion or €2.9 billion.

Iwate

A beautiful view of Iwate.

Geography

Iwate is the easternmost prefecture of Honshu, the main island of Japan, and is bordered by the Aomori prefecture in the north, the Akita prefecture in the west and the Miyagi prefecture in the south. The only body of water on its border is the Pacific Ocean in the west. The border with the Akita prefecture is mostly defined by the Ou mountains. This mountain range still contains active volcanoes and Mount Iwate dwarfs most of them with its 2,038 meters. The much older Kitami Mountains run through the middle of the prefecture and haven’t been active for a long time. In between these mountain ranges flows the Kitakami River. Its fertile basin is where most of the large cities, industrial parks and farms are located. Besides these defining geographical elements, Iwate is mostly covered by forests and has a fair amount of warm water resources. During the past, the prefecture was mostly used for the mining of gold, iron, coal and sulfur but this has stopped. The famous cities are its capital, Moroika, with the Moroika Castle, Oshu City with its Fujiwara themed park and Kitakami City with beautiful old cherry trees.

A nice map of the Iwate prefecture.

A nice map of the Iwate prefecture.

What now is known as the Iwate prefecture used to be part of the home of the Emishi people, a group of people who are believed to be the descendants of the Jōmon people. Thanks to the Emishi it took the Japanese government, or Yamato, quite some time to occupy any part of what would become Iwate. It was one of the last provinces that was conquered. Because they couldn’t be conquered by the normal means of warfare and occupation, the Yamato had to try other ways to take the region. With the help of trade, the Emishi became dependent on the Yamato for valuable goods and after a covert operation to burn the crops and kidnap the Emishi women and children, the original people of the region surrendered. The leaders that survived the years of battles were taken to the Emperor and beheaded. As a result of this violent act, the Emishi people were enraged and kept battling the Yamato for twenty or more years until finally the Emishi were defeated. Until 1876 it was known as the Mutsu Province but during the Meiji Restoration the Iwate prefecture was created.

The Emishi.

The Emishi.

Must-see locations

Iwate 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.

The most famous location is Iwate in the World Heritage Site of Hiraizumi. As said before, this is a collection of five Buddhist Pure Land sites from the late eleventh and twelfth century. Four of these sites are temples and the fifth site is Mount Kinkeisan, a summit used for sutra burials. The most famous temples are the Chūson-ji and the Mōtsū-ji. Both were founded by the Fujiwara Clan, a clan who ruled most of Northern Japan during the twelfth century. Chūson-ji is famous for its Kojiki-dō, or Golden Hall, that contains the mummified remains of leaders of the Northern Fujiwara Clan. It is a wooden building completely covered with gold leaf. Mōtsū-ji is the location of two ancient temples ruins. This beautiful temple complex used to have 50 pagodas and 500 monasteries at the height of its glory but all was burned in 1226 and was never rebuilt. The new temple was created during the eighteenth century and is located in a Pure Land garden containing both ruins and the new temple.

The beautiful Golden Hall of Chūson-ji.

The beautiful Golden Hall of Chūson-ji.

The next must-see location is the Esashi Fujiwara no Sato or the Fujiwara Heritage Park located in Oshu City. As mentioned above, the Fujiwara clan was the ruler of most of Northern Japan during the twelfth century. This theme park is built as a typical city during that time. Many buildings in this 20 hectare park are reconstructions of the buildings you would have seen during the twelfth century. It’s a true paradise for people who are interested in Japan’s history. You can even enjoy the food that was typical during the rule of the Fujiwara clan. A walk around the park takes about two hours and is certainly worth it.

The view in Esashi Fujiwara no Sato.

The view in Esashi Fujiwara no Sato.

With more than 10,000 cherry trees planted along the Kitakami River, the Tenshochi Park in Kitakami City is definitely worth the visit. It is even among the top three cherry blossom spots in the Touhoku region. The trees form a two kilometer long flowery tunnel for two weeks in late April and can be seen during a nice walk or by taking one of the many sightseeing boats that float past the beautiful trees. During the walk you can eat amazing food or participate in festival events. So if you are in the Iwate prefecture during the last weeks of April, make sure to visit this amazing park and see the beautiful cherry trees in bloom.

The amazing tunnel of flowers.

The amazing tunnel of flowers.

The last location in this list is the Jodogahama Beach, or the Pure Land Beach, at Miyako City along the Sanriku Coast. The scenic beauty of this place combines sharp, white rocks with green pines and an amazingly blue sea. The landscape was named after the Pure Land, the Buddhist paradise, thanks to its beautiful scenic value and once you see the view, it’s quite logical that this beach is ranked among the 100 Best beaches of Japan.

The lovely Jodogahama Beach.

The lovely Jodogahama Beach.

How to get there?

Iwate is very easy to reach. You can get there by plane, train, bus, boat or car. The Hanamaki Airport can be reached from Osaka and Sapporo. Because of the two high-speed shinkansen and seven local lines, going by train is also a good option. Iwate also has quite some ports so if you want to go there by boat, go ahead. It might take some time but the view might be worth it.

How to get around in Iwate.

How to get around in Iwate.

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

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

6 unusual but fantastic places in Japan – Animal Lands

Animal islands in Japan

Welcome readers to what is already our fifth installment of ‘6 unusual but fantastic places in Japan’. Today we take a peek at the places that are devoted to the hairy, the fanged and the cute. I’m of course talking about animals. Animal worship is no strange thing in Japan and the following places are a tribute to that. Without further ado, let’s get our inner beast ready to go to these places!

Tashirojima (田代島)

A short ferry ride away from Ishinomaki (石巻市) in the Miyagi prefecture lies an island where paws are abundant and milk flows richly. Cats are lord and master here and dogs are not allowed to set foot upon this island. Originally silk was produced here and cats were introduced in the late Edo period (1603-1868) to protect the silk worms from mice. Slowly the cats grew in numbers and the human population dwindled. Once, after fisherman accidentally killed a cat, they buried it and enshrined it in a cat shrine or nekojinja, which can still be found in the middle of the island today.

Animal island with cats

You’ve come to the wrong neighborhood!

Lastly the island is also known as ‘manga island’ because a manga-themed camping can be found there. This camping is filled with several cat-shaped cottages decorated with artwork by various manga artists.

animal houses

‘Cattage’.

Ōkunoshima (大久野島)

The rabbit controls this land and not even cats may set foot on this soil. If you enjoy fluffy bunnies then this is the place to be for you! The island, located in the Hiroshima prefecture, has a rather grim history however: it used to be the location of a factory of poison gas. In the late twenties it produced more than six kilotons of mustard gas and tear gas, and rabbits were used in an experiment testing the effectiveness of the gas. These rabbits were all killed when the factory was destroyed. If interested, you can visit the Poison Gas Museum located on the island.

the abandoned poison gas factory

The abandoned poison gas factory.

After World War II the island was developed as a park and many new rabbits were set loose on the island. Now there is a hotel, a camping ground and a six-hole golf course ready to be visited.

Rabbits! Rabbits everywhere!

Rabbits! Rabbits everywhere!

Fox village

We return to the Miyagi prefecture, but this time to the mainland. Near Shiroishi (白石市) the Zao Fox Village is waiting for you to visit and see its six different breeds of foxes. For a mere 100 yen you can buy small packages of food to feed them. Take caution however, because these are still wild animals, and hand feeding is not encouraged. You can, however, touch and pet them and other animals in the first part of the village, where a small petting zoo is located. Bold adventurers venture forth and explore the rest of the village, which is also a scenic route into the Miyagi mountains.

boop!

boop!

And that was our quick peek at various places where the animal is king. Have you ever been to these places? Or do you have any more questions or remarks? Don’t be afraid to say it in the comments or send us a mail! Don’t forget to join us in two weeks for our final part in the series! Inari out.

Japanese holidays and festivals in March

Japanese festivities during March

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 March. In this month, you will see dolls, giant penisses and much more.

Doll’s Day or Hinamatsuri (雛祭り)

The first Japanese festival to take place in March is Doll’s Day or Hinamatsuri, a festival that is celebrated on the 3rd of March. Hinamatsuri originated in the Heian-period (794 – 1185 CE) when the dolls were used to contain bad spirits. Japanese traditions tell us that after displaying the dolls for a couple of weeks, the dolls were set afloat and sent down to the sea to get rid of the bad spirits. The problem of fishermen finding these dolls in their nets changed this custom and made people bring their dolls to the temples where they were burned collectively. In modern days, this Japanese festival has changed completely. Nowadays the festival is celebrated in houses of families that have daughters by displaying dolls in a Heian Court setting. The people also drink shirozake which is an alcoholic drink made from fermented rice and eat hina-arare, small colourful crackers, and hishimochi, colourful diamond shaped ricecakes.

Hina-arare!

Hina-arare!

The display has different tiers and each tier has its own set of dolls or miniature items. The first tier consists of the Emperor and the Empress, also called the Imperial dolls, and they are placed in front of a gold folding screen. The next tier is the special place for three courtladies who each are holding sake equipment. In between the courtladies are typical miniature tables with fake Japanese delicacies on top. The dolls on the third tier are musicians and each one except the singer has an instrument. Three have their own varying size of drums, one has a flute, and the other one is the singer. The fourth tier is for the two ministers, the Minister of the Right and the Minister of the Left. In between them are again miniature tables with either bowls or ricecakes. The last tier with dolls is reserved for the three helpers or samurai that are used to guard the Imperial pair. Each one has a face resembling the amount of sake they have drunk. The following two tiers are for imperial furniture at the palace and when away from home.

Japanese display hinamatsuri

A typical Japanese display for Hinamatsuri.

Harvest Festival or Hōnen Matsuri (豊年祭)

The next Japanese festival takes place on the 15th of March. The Harvest Festival, or Hōnen Matsuri, is a fertility festival to celebrate a good harvest and all forms of fertility and wealth. The main celebration consists out of Shinto priests playing instruments, all-you-can-drink sake and a parade that revolves around a 280 kg and 2.5 meter long wooden penis. People come together at 10 a.m. at the last shrine to drink sake and eat mostly penis-shaped snacks. At 2 p.m. they march towards the first shrine and start carrying the wooden penis to its destination. After arriving at the final shrine, they spin the wooden penis around and finally place it on its resting place. Afterwards the participants are showered with small ricecakes and at around 4.30 p.m. the celebration is concluded. If you want to experience this amazing festival, we recommend you to go to the City of Komaki, close to Nagoya.

A giant wooden penis.

A giant wooden penis.

A typical snack on Harvest Festival!

A typical snack on Harvest Festival!

Vernal Equinox Day or Shunbun no Hi (春分の日)

The final holiday takes place around the 20th or the 21st of March and originally was all about paying respect to the past Emperors and the Imperial family. After the Second World War this rather Shintoistic custom was changed into the Vernal Equinox Day in an attempt to separate state and religion. Nowadays this Japanese festival is mostly about praying for good harvest in the spring. People also visit the graves of lost ones and bring flowers. There is of course an alternative holiday at the beginning of autumn to celebrate the good harvest and to thank the world for it.

Flowers on the Vernal Equinox Day

Flowers on the Vernal Equinox Day

These are the most important Japanese holidays and festivals that take place in March. 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 April.