Japanese Prefectures – Miyagi (宮城)

Miyagi – Pine islands, painting-like environment and Sendai, home of the Date clan

Miyagi is not just the name of our favourite karate teacher but also the name of the fourth Japanese prefecture. It is home to the biggest city in the Touhoku region, Sendai, an amazing canvas of autumn colours, small islands filled with pine trees and is rich with Japanese history, specifically the Sengoku period. Join us on our trip to the Japanese Miyagi prefecture.

zao mountains miyagi

The Zao mountain range in Miyagi.

Geography

Miyagi shares its borders with the prefectures of Iwate in the north, Akita in the north-west, Yamagata in the west and Fukushima in the south. The only body of water on its borders is the Pacific Ocean. Along this coastline is the famous Sanriku Coast, a rocky coastline filled with countless bays and cliffs. Tiny islands dot the coastline and deliver a certain serenity combined with the openness of the ocean. Sadly, a number of these natural wonders were destroyed during the Touhoku Disaster in 2011 and are lost to both nature and time. Today, we know that the Sanriku Coastline was actually an amplifier for the strength of the tsunami due to its countless bays, coves and cliffs, making the tsunami larger and stronger. Miyagi was also the prefecture that was hit the worst by the disaster. A lot of places were rebuilt because it is thought that tourism is the best way to repair the region. For instance, in 2012 23% of Miyagi’s land area was assigned as Natural Parks, so if it’s nature you’re looking for, this is the place to go to. The capital of the Miyagi prefecture is Sendai, the largest city in the Touhoku region, and it has a population of just over 1 million people.

A map of Miyagi.

A map of Miyagi.

The history of the region is quite comparable to the history of the surrounding prefectures. During the biggest part of Japanese history, Miyagi was part of the Mutsu Province, the province that was made by taking the land from the local Emishi people. During the Sengoku period (1467 – 1603 CE), a period known for a lot of fighting and fragmentation of larger provinces, it was ruled by the Date clan, a strong ally of the Tokugawa family. They created the city of Sendai. During the Meiji period (1868 – 1912), the province formerly known as Mutsu was divided into 4 smaller provinces. What later would be known as Miyagi was part of the Rikuzen province but in 1871 the Sendai prefecture was established and a year later, its name was changed into the Miyagi prefecture.

A statue of Date Masamune, the leader of the Date clan.

A statue of Date Masamune, the leader of the Date clan.

Must-see locations

Miyagi 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. We do have to say that there is a island completely devoted to cats. This island is called Tashirojima and it was already a topic in one of our articles about ‘6 unusual but fantastic places in Japan’. If you want to read more about it, just click here.

The first location that you simply must visit is the city of Sendai and its surroundings. A castle, historical sites, temples, local food, nature, this city just has it all. Sendai is the place to visit if you are interested in the rich history of the Sengoku period. Historical sites from the Date clan are spread out through the entire city. The most important one is the Zuihōden, the tomb of Date Masamune who was the leader of the Date clan. You can also find a lot of artifacts from the Date clan such as Date Masamune’s armour in this beautiful city and her museums. Of course, there is more to see here than history. Around different onsen resorts you can enjoy the natural beauty of the region. One of the three greatest waterfalls, Aiku waterfall, is found in the lush autumn forests surrounding the city. Last but not least, a must-visit location about 40 kilometers from the city of Sendai is Kinkasan. This small island is one of the three most holiest places in the Touhoku region. It is told that if you visit the Koganeyama shrine on this island three years in a row, you’ll never have financial problems again.

Sendai, the largest city in the Touhoku region.

Sendai, the largest city in the Touhoku region.

It wouldn’t be Japan if there wasn’t an amazing natural sight or location in Miyagi. Enter Matsushima, a collection of small islands covered in pines. In total, there are about 260 small islands that you can cruise around by boat. These islands are part of the Three Views of Japan and should be visited by everyone who visits Japan. Thankfully these islands were not damaged a lot by the Touhoku Disaster and only a few islands like Chōmei-ana collapsed. The Miyagi prefecture has established four unique viewing points to look at the small and beautiful islands. These viewing points are the Magnificent View or sōkan (壮観) at Otakamori, the Beautiful View or reikan (麗観) at Toyama, the Enchanting View or yūkan (幽観) at Ogidani and the Grand View or ikan (偉観) at Tamonsan.

Two of the Matsushima islands.

Two of the Matsushima islands.

Just 70 kilometers away from Sendai we find an astonishing gorge called Naruko Gorge. This gorge is located in the north-western part of Miyagi and only 2 kilometers away from the small onsen town Naruko. You can walk through the breathtaking nature around and in the gorge on two different trails. The first one is called the Naruko Gorge Walking Trail and it runs along the two kilometer long gorge. It is definitely the most scenic route but sometimes it is closed due to the possibility of falling rocks. The second trail is the Ofukazawa Walking Trail that passes past the Ofukazawa Bridge and runs through the forested area around the gorge. The best time to visit the Naruko Gorge is during the autumn, especially from the end of October until the beginning of November. All the trees change their colours and the gorge transforms in a natural canvas with warm colours.

A breathtaking view over the Naruko Gorge and the Ofukazawa Bridge.

A breathtaking view over the Naruko Gorge and the Ofukazawa Bridge.

The last location on our list is the Okama Crater, an old volcanic crater that is now the home of one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. The Okama Crater is located in the Zao mountain range in south-west Miyagi on the border with the Yamagata prefecture. The name is derived from the shape of a typical Japanese cooking pot called a kama. The lake is also called the Goshikiko or Lake of Five Colours due to the different shades of emerald green during the different times of the day. Due to its highly acidic water, no animals or plants can survive in and around the lake. To get to the Okama Crater, you can go by foot, take a ski lift or go by car to a viewing deck. It is recommended though to visit the crater during the spring or summer. In the winter it is not possible to hike to the crater and you can only watch it from afar.

The Lake of Five Colours.

The Lake of Five Colours.

How to get there?

As most prefectures in the Touhoku region, you can easily reach Miyagi from Tokyo or other big cities in Northern Japan. You can get there by train thanks to the great amount of train lines that run through the prefecture, by car, by plane to the Sendai airport or even by boat. The possibilities are enormous.

The roads in Miyagi.

The important roads in Miyagi.

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

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

6 traditional forms of expression – drama

The art of acting, drama in Japan

Hello fellow readers, and welcome to the first entry of our new column ‘6 forms of expression’. In this theme we will take a look at how the Japanese traditionally expressed themselves. This ranges from poetry,to music, to martial arts and much more. So polish up your acting skills, take the stage and hear the applause, for today we will take a look at drama!

Noh (能)

Noh is one of the oldest forms of drama in Japan and finds its roots in several types of dance drama and festival dramas that emerged in the 12th and 13th century. It became its own genre in the 14th century (Muromachi period) at the hands of Kan’ami Kiyotsugu and his son Zeami Motokiyo. In the Tokugawa Period (1603-1867) the shogunate made Noh its official ceremonial art, which caused it to be standardised. Noh, or Nogaku (能楽), is derived from the Sino-Japanese word for ‘skill’ or ‘talent’.

Noh play at a traditional shrine stage - drama

Noh play at a traditional shrine stage.

But what kind of drama is Noh? Song and dance are the main focus. Movement is slow and the language is poetic. The costumes are visually rich and masked actors, who were until recently exclusively male, speak in a monotonous voice. Though we have just called them actors, they are more like storytellers who capture the essence of the story in their movements and symbolic gestures. This causes the layman to miss much of what is happening. Most of the Noh plays requires knowledge of the story prior to watching the play. It is to no (Noh?) surprise then that, throughout history, most plays were meant for the elite, though plays for commoners were also performed.

Kabuki (歌舞伎)

Another form of drama in Japan is Kabuki. Originating in the 17th century (Edo Period), it quickly became popular amongst the rising merchant class and the common people. Originally the actors were women, but due to the nature of the dances and movements, which were seen as arousing, lots of these women were also prostituted. This eventually caused the government to ban women from playing in Kabuki because of its ‘disruptive’ behaviour in 1629. Young boys then took on the roles, but once again the government banned these kind of actors for ‘moral reasons’. Ever since then Kabuki is played by older men, and some even specialise in female roles.

man portraying a femalerole

Man portraying a female role.

Kabuki relies heavily on the show-element of drama. Actors make exaggerated movements and exclamations, parts of the stage rotate and move, and the costumes and make-up are often extraordinary. This all has symbolic meaning (different types of make-up can indicate supernatural beings, main roles, villains,… for example), and if you plan to attend one of these plays, it is recommended that you do some basic research, though a heavy preparation like in Noh is not needed.

kabukiwow

The visual style of kabuki.

Bunraku (文楽)

The next form of drama we will talk about is Bunraku, or Japanese puppet theatre. This form of drama was founded at the end of the 17th century, when Uemura Bunrakuken started his own theatre in Osaka. This theatre was called ‘Bunraku’, hence the term given to the art.

a typical bunraku play

A typical bunraku play.

Each puppet is half life-size and is operated by three men in black clothes, which often cover the face as well. This means they are ‘invisible’ to the audience and ensures the attention goes to the puppet. The three men cooperate to move the string-less puppet. Next to all of this, there is a narrator that narrates the whole story, including the voices of all puppets. The whole play is accompanied by chanters, shamisen, and sometimes taiko drums. Be prepared for a long performance, since a play takes a whole day!

Rakugo (落語)<

Rakugo is often referred to as the ‘art of storytelling’. It became popular in the Edo Period as entertainment for the common folk. A lone storyteller sits in seiza position and tells a comical story to the audience. This sounds easy at first, but most stories are quite long and complex and the storyteller has to depict all the story and different characters with only a paper fan, a cloth, and his or her upper body and facial expression. Rakugo has been called ‘a one man sitcom’

rakugo storyteller depicting a scene

A rakugo storyteller depicting a scene.

This marks the end of our little introduction into traditional forms of Japanese drama. Questions or remarks? Feel free to post them below or send us a mail! You can also watch these movies on Youtube.

Inari out!

Japanese holidays and festivals in April

Japanese festivities during April

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 April. In this month, you will see birthdays, flower petals and much more.

Shōwa Day or Shōwa no Hi (昭和の日)

This annual Japanese holiday is held on the 29th of April in order to celebrate Emperor Hirohito who reigned from 1926 to 1989. On this Japanese holiday, which is actually the birthday of Emperor Hirohito, people are encouraged to think about the turbulent years that Japan had when it was under the reign of Emperor Hirohito and how Japan recovered afterwards. Some people attend lectures concerning Japan’s participation in the Second World War, others tell stories about what they remember so the memories continue to live on. This holiday is somewhat frowned upon by China, South-Korea and North-Korea because they see it as a way to celebrate Japan’s war past.  This is also the first day of the Golden Week. This week has 4 national Japanese holidays that in combination with a good placed weekend, provides 7 days of hard-earned vacation. A lot of Japanese people take the time to travel and relax during this week. The other three Japanese holidays take place during the beginning of May and we will talk about them in the next article about Japanese holidays and festivals.

Japanese Emperor Hirohito

Emperor Hirohito in his formal attire.

Hanami (花見)

Hanami must be one of the most known Japanese traditions. During the month of April, this tradition is done the most. Various cities hold festivals in honor of the blooming sakura trees, families gather underneath the falling blossoms and other people celebrate this tradition on their own way. There won’t be a park without people eating underneath the sakura trees. It’s a Japanese tradition to have a family or company picnic while looking at the blossoms that fall down like a feather. The picnic is most of the time accompanied by music, entertainment and quite some sake. The best location to watch the falling flowers is Mount Yoshino in Nara. With more than 30.000 trees it’s quite the view! If you’d rather see some festivals, the chances are great that you’ll find one while driving around during April. Most bigger cities have their own Hanami festival and even smaller towns also have some festivities to celebrate this amazing time of the year.

A typical flower viewing afternoon for Japanese families or companies.

A typical flower viewing afternoon for Japanese families or companies.

Takayama Festival or Takayama Matsuri (高山祭)

This Japanese festival that takes place during the 14th and 15th of April, is one of the three most popular festivals in Japan. During this festival in Takayama, Gifu, the local shrine called the Hie Shrine or Sanno-sama is celebrated. It also has a complementary festival during the Autumn. This is done over the course of the two days and hundred of thousands of people from all over the Japan and the world attend it! The most popular event during this festival is the display of the festival floats. These tall and heavily decorated festival floats are put in public in the streets of Takayama. Some of these festival floats also have some sort of mechanical dolls or karakuri on top of them. These karakuri perform dances and move the entire time. During all of this, a procession is held as well. The people from the shrine carry a portable shrine, or mikoshi, through the streets. This portable shrine holds the shrine’s deity or kami. At night, the floats are carried through the streets of Takayama while the visitors celebrate the shrine and enjoy themselves. If you want to witness this beautiful festival, be sure to book a hotel in advance. Due to its immense popularity, most of the available hotel rooms or other places to sleep are already taken. You could always stay in a neighbouring city but that might make it difficult to see the evening part of this amazing festival.

The Takayama Festival Floats and a karakuri.

The Takayama Festival Floats and a karakuri.

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

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.

6 unusual but fantastic places in Japan – Nara Dreamland

Nara Dreamland – the dream of urban explorers in Japan

Welcome to the fourth segment of our column “6 unusual but fantastic places in Japan”! For the fourth installment we decided to go to some place eerie and mysterious, a place of dreams and nightmares. Today’s topic is something that is also on this author’s bucket list and that most urban explorers in Japan know about. The eerie atmosphere and the unique sights in this abandoned theme park are the main reasons for its appeal. The abandonment of this theme park paved the way for some sort of demi-world, generated between the last cheers of joy of visiting children and the rebirth of nature taking over the yellow brick roads. Welcome to Nara Dreamland.

Abandoned Nara Dreamland

The Screw Coaster in Nara Dreamland.

Urban exploring

Before we go deeper in the mysteries of Nara Dreamland, it is important to talk about urban exploring, or haikyo (廃墟) in Japanese, and what it’s all about. Some readers might even wonder what’s so special about urban exploring  and whether or not is legal.

The answer to that first question is quite simple. Imagine yourself entering a place that has been deserted for years for an unknown reason but everything in that place is left just the same way as it was on the day it was deserted. Even though outside this location time passed in a normal way, time in this location stood still for years and years. The only thing that changed, is the atmosphere. Slowly all things in this location wore down and received some sort of eerie filter turning the building, or theme park in this case, in a unique place in our constantly evolving world. That is what’s so special about urban exploring, the thrill of walking around in a place that hasn’t been alive with people for years. That and also the thrill of doing something illegal of course. Because, the answer to question number two, urban exploring is considered trespassing a.k.a. a crime.

Nara Dreamland

Outside Nara Dreamland.

To make things clear, Inari does not encourage its readers to commit crimes. However, if you ever get the opportunity to visit Nara Dreamland, don’t hesitate to take it. Just remember to be careful and quiet and don’t be stupid. There are a fair amount of stories online about urban explorers who got caught or arrested, so whatever you want to do, do your research first and take your time to plan everything before going to a location and once you arrive. Google Earth and Google Maps are your friends! Also, don’t forget that it’s possible that certain abandoned places are guarded or are turned into a fortress so no one can enter. If you get caught, the fines can get as expensive as €950.

Nara Dreamland on Google Earth

Nara Dreamland on Google Earth.

Inari is not responsible for anything!

 

The story behind Nara Dreamland

The Nara Dreamland Theme park was built near the City of Nara in 1961. It was inspired by the famous Disneyland in California and attempted to recreate its magic. Sadly after years of the amount of visitors diminishing, Nara Dreamland was shut down on the 31st of August in 2006. An extra cause for the abandonment of Nara Dreamland was the success of the Tokyo Disney Resort and the Universal Studios Japan in Osaka, only about 40 kilometers away. Instead of selling all the rides and attractions, the owners decided to do nothing with it and just abandoned it, making it look like suddenly everyone disappeared. In one day time, the moving rides and crowd were replaced with stillness.

Nara Dreamland open

Nara Dreamland while it was still open.

There are actually a couple of things to see at the Nara Dreamland. First of all, you have the park in all its abandoned glory. Attractions ranging from wooden roller coasters to carousels and buildings like restaurants are worn and overgrown with the lush plant life. The carts of the different roller coasters are even still on the tracks. Secondly, to the east of the Nara Dreamland are the Eastern Parking Lot and Parking Garage which aren’t that spectacular but very easy to enter. You just have to step over a rope. Finally, you can also enter the abandoned Nara Dreamland Hotel that is located on the northern side of the parking lot. With its observation tower to watch the park from up high, it’s definitely worth entering. If you are lucky, you can find a way into this fortress and explore the entire building. Just be careful of the guard that passes by on his scooter frequently.

fountain nara dreamland

The old fountain at Nara Dreamland

How to get there

To find Nara Dreamland, you have to get to Nara first. Nara is easily reached by train via Kyoto, Tokyo and Osaka. The address for the Nara Dreamland can be found on Wikipedia so we decided to put it here as well: Nara Dreamland, 1900 Horen-cho, 630-8113 Nara. The rest you’ll have to figure out for yourself. Make sure to visit other places in Nara as well. They even have a festival where they put an entire mountain on fire.

Nara Dreamland's robot

Nara Dreamland’s robot

This was our fourth unusual but fantastic place to visit in Japan. If you want to know more about the eerie Nara Dreamland, you can always leave us a comment, send us a mail or visit this page if you want to see even more photos.

 

Japanese Prefectures – Aomori 青森

Aomori – Nature, history and festivals

Today it’s time for another entry in our column “Japanese Prefectures”. Last time we told you more about Hokkaido, today the Aomori prefecture will be our chosen prefecture. Aomori is mostly a traditionally industrialised prefecture known for its forestry, farming and fishing. It is even Japan largest producer of apples! Besides this it is of course also known for its culture and nature. Aomori has a magnificent giant Buddha, amazing festivals and a lot of history.

Mount Iwaki in Aomori

The lovely view from Mount Iwaki – often known as Aomori’s Mount Fuji.

Geography

The Aomori prefecture is the most northern prefecture of Honshu or the main island of Japan. It is bordered by the prefectures of Akita and Iwate in the south, the Sea of Japan in the west, Hokkaido and the Tsugaru Strait in the north and the Pacific Ocean in the east. Aomori has three peninsulas in the Tsugaru Strait. First of all is the axe-shaped Shimokita Peninsula in the east which northwestern tip is the northernmost part of Honshu. The second peninsula is the Tsugaru Peninsula in the west, which is one of the poorest and remotest areas of Japan. In between these two peninsulas lies the smaller Natsudomari Peninsula. The capital is Aomori City and other popular cities are Hirosaki City and Hachinohe City. The prefecture has a relatively cool climate with an average temperature of 10 degrees Celsius. Due to the Ou Mountains that go through the prefecture from the north to the south, a difference in climate between the west and the east part of Aomori is noticeable. The east has a lot less sun during the summer months and stays relatively cool while the west has its fair share of monsoons and hard winters.

The map of Aomori.

The map of Aomori.

Aomori used to be the northern part of the Mutsu prefecture. This prefecture was run by the Hirosaki clan. They decided to create a seaport on the northern coastline and because it was surrounded by beautiful green woods, it was called Aomori, which literally means green forests. After the beginning of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the prefecture Aomori was created and Aomori City was established. During the following years it quickly grew and swallowed surrounding cities making it the biggest city in the prefecture. At this moment, the prefecture has a population of about 1,373,164. The Aomori Prefecture is one of the prefectures that were affected by the tsunami in March 2011, where it hit the east coast.

Hirosaki Castle- the old seat of the Hirosaki Clan.

Hirosaki Castle- the old seat of the Hirosaki Clan.

Must-see locations

Aomori 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 first of these places is its capital, Aomori City. As we have mentioned before, this city was first a seaport that throughout the 19th and 20th century grew out to be the biggest city of the prefecture. Before the tunnel between Honshu and Hokkaido was built, this city was the only point where you could take a ferry to Hokkaido. Even though it lost a big part of its tourist crowd after the tunnel was built, it still has its fair share of must-see places and events. Aomori City has quite some fish markets spread out through the city. Here you can find the freshest and tastiest fish in the entire prefecture. It is also the home of the Aomori Museum of Art which has a great variety of modern and older art. But most people come to this city to see the Nebuta Matsuri during the summer, a festival where people march through the streets carrying 24 giant floats. These floats often depict gods, historical figures and popular characters from modern tv shows. We will definitely tell you more about this festival in our article about “Japanese holidays and festivals in July”.

A typical float during the Nebuta Matsuri.

A typical float during the Nebuta Matsuri.

The following place is a World Heritage Site in the Aomori Prefecture. Shirakami Sanchi or the Shirakami Mountains is an extensive mountain range in the west of the prefecture. In the center of these mountains is the last virgin beech forest of Japan, making it a World Heritage Site. It is home to a lot of popular hiking destinations ranging from the Anmon Falls, which are a set of three beautiful waterfalls, to the Juniko or twelve lakes, which are a collection of small lakes connected by hiking trails. The center of the mountain range, the World Heritage Site, is seldom visited by tourists but if you want to visit it, a permit is required. This is done to maintain the beautiful forest and to protect it from too much people walking underneath its magnificent trees.

One of the astonishing waterfalls in Shirakami Sanchi.

One of the astonishing waterfalls in Shirakami Sanchi.

As mentioned before, the Aomori Prefecture also has a historical value. Close to its capital, you can find the Sannai Maruyama Historical Site, which is an archeological site aging from the Jōmon Period (14.000 – 300 BCE). During the survey of the site an old Jōmon village was discovered underneath the ground. Entire longhouses, storage pits and above storage houses were excavated and this site has been important for finding out how this indigenous Japanese people first became sedentary. Besides these architectural findings, a lot of objects were found here as well. Things such as pots, burial jars, woven baskets etc. were found and are being displayed for the visitors. If you want to take a look at how the Jōmon people lived thousands of years ago, here’s the place to be.

A nice view over the Sannai Maruyama Historical Site.

A nice view over the Sannai Maruyama Historical Site.

The last must-see in the Aomori Prefecture is the Showa Daibutsu, the largest bronze seated Buddha in Japan. This statue is located in the Seiryuji Temple in Aomori City and was built in 1984. Measuring roughly 21,35 meters in height it is even taller than the Daibutsu in Nara. The modern Seiryuji Temple is also worth visiting. It has a beautiful five-story pagoda and is home to a lot of smaller Buddhist statues. The entire temple complex with the Showa Daibutsu as a must-see artifact, is most definitely the place to add in your travel schedule.

The beautiful Showa Daibutsu.

The beautiful Showa Daibutsu.

How to get there?

Getting to Aomori is quite easy. You can get there by plane, train, bus or car. Since Aomori City has its own airport you can fly there form almost any other Japanese airport. If you want, you can also take the Shinkansen from Tokyo and be in Aomori in only four hours. By bus it will take a lot longer of course, in eleven hours you can be in Aomori. Once you arrive in Aomori, you can rent a car to get everywhere or use public transportation. Thanks to its extensive road network, any place in Aomori is easy to reach.

Excessive road network.

Excessive road network.

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

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