Monthly Archives: August 2013

Japan by Train to Resume

Ever since my daughter was born, I haven’t had much time to go out and see things.  In fact, I haven’t been able to do this since my wife was pregnant.  And lately, I’ve been feeling this itch to get out and explore.  The way things are right now, Japan just doesn’t feel like Japan.  It doesn’t feel like what I came here to see.  Everything is routine, work, family, sleep.  That’s going to change.

Starting in October, I’m going to resume exploring areas around train stations.  However, I’ll be bringing my daughter with me.  I’ll be adding playgrounds to as places to see.  Japan by Train will be returning, even though I have yet to make a single blog post for it.  Unfortunately, many of the earlier explorations may have been lost due to a Blue Screen of Death on my old computer where I have all those photos stored.  I may be able to recover them, as it’s just my system32 directory that’s corrupt.  My current Exploring Japan may also not be done every week, as I always work on it on Thursdays, and that’s the day I’d be out exploring.  But it’ll be finished early next year anyway.

I’m feeling pretty motivated to do this, and it’ll be great for some father-daughter bonding, as well.


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Exploring Nara

This time in Exploring Japan, we look at the ancient capital region of Nara in the Kansai area.

Nara Prefecture is located in east of Osaka, in the middle of the Kii Peninsula, and it’s completely landlocked.  The population is 1,396,849. The capital city is Nara.  The 5 largest cities are:

  1. Nara (366,591)
  2. Kashihara (125,605)
  3. Ikoma (120,304)
  4. Yamatokoriyama (89,023)
  5. Kashiba (75,227)

The prefecture’s population is decreasing steadily, as is the population of Nara city.  However, Kashihara, Ikoma, and Kashiba are all growing, which is a bit unusual.  Usually, it’s the biggest city that grows while the smaller ones lose people.


Koriyama Castle in Yamatokoriyama has some reconstructed turrets and a gate, but the rest is ruins.  However, it seems that what remains is quite impressive.

Things to see and do

Nara has an incredible wealth of historic sites, and has more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other prefecture in Japan.  Three cities or towns have served as capitals of Japan, and there’s something to see in every place.

Nara is one of the most famous tourist destinations in Japan.  Many of the sites can be found in Nara Park.  A lot of people like to go there to see and feed the deer.  Todaiji temple is very famous, and it’s home to Japan’s largest Daibutsu, or Great Buddha statue.  There’s a lot to see there, including the deer.  Kofukuji temple has a three storey and five storey pagoda, the latter being one of the tallest in Japan.  Sarusawa Pond is a good place to view Kofukuji.  Nara National Museum is an impressive museum and hosts one of the best collections of Buddhist art and artifacts.  Himuro Shrine is well-known for its cherry trees.  Ukimido seems interesting, as it’s a hexagonal building built on Sagaiike Pond, and it looks like it’s floating.  Kasuga Taisha is a temple that has an impressive approach and a great forest, Kasuga-yama Primeval Forest.  Isuien Garden is small, but very beautiful. Yoshikien Garden is next to it, and is also quite pleasant, and free for foreigners.  Shin-Yakushiji temple has some impressive warrior statues.  Outside of the park, there’s also plenty to see.  Heijo Palace is a very impressive and well-preserved historic site with very recent replica buildings, including the Daigoku-den.  Nara City Museum of Photography is good for photography fans.  Yakushiji temple is a reconstructed temple after a fire, and is quite impressive with its two pagodas (one dating back to 730 CE).  Gangoji temple is an interesting place to visit with its many statues, particularly the demon statues. Toshodaiji temple is a very important temple in Japan, as it helped spread Buddhism in the country.  Nara Century Hall has plenty of events.  The Mount Wakakusa Fire Festival has fireworks and dry grass is set on fire.  In March, Shuni-e is a Buddhist memorial service that has been carried out since 752 CE without missing a year.  Nara Toka-e is a festival in August where 10,000 candles are lit around Nara Park.  Naramachi is a historic area that dates back to the 8th century and has several small museums, restaurants, shops and more.

Kashihara was also an old capital of Japan, known as Fujiwarakyo.  Here, you can visit the site of Fujiwara Palace.  But also, there’s Kashihara Shrine and Imaimachi, a well-preserved historic district.

Asuka is a village where another old capital existed, Asukakyo.  In fact, it’s considered the first capital of Japan.  Ishibutai Burial Mound has one of the largest burial chambers found in Japan.  Takamatsuzuka Burial Mound has colour frescas that were found, which are now in the museum next to it.  Asuka-dera temple is said to be Japan’s first Buddhist temple, and it contains a Buddha statue.  Oka-dera temple is also a very old temple, and it has a clay image of Nyoirin Kannon from the 8th century.

Yoshino is a small town that is home to several temples and shrines that are part of the Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range.  Among these are Kinpusenji temple and Yoshimizu Shrine. Also visit Nyoirinji temple, Yoshinomikumari Shrine, and Yoshino Shrine.  You can also visit the Miyataki waterfall.  This mountain town is in the Yoshino-Kumano National Park.

Ikaruga town has one of the most famous sites in Japan, Horyuji temple.  This is a very large temple complex with many impressive buildings.  The Chumon gate has guardian statues that are the oldest in Japan.  Kondo, the Golden Hall, is the oldest wooden building in the world at more than 1300 years old.  Gojunoto is a five-storey pagoda that is the oldest in Japan.  Daikodo is an impressively large building dating back to 990.  Hokkiji temple is another important temple, and it has a three-storey pagoda that is the oldest of its kind in Japan. Horinji temple is another old temple, though some reconstruction has been done due to fire as a result of lightning.


A local specialty is kudzu, a plant that can be used for many kinds of food.  Also, Narazuke is a local kind of pickle traditionally made from melon cucumbers.  Kaki-no-hazushi is a kind of sushi made with mackerel or salmon wrapped in persimmon leaves.  And finally, you can try somen, a kind of noodle made from wheat.

Have you been to Nara?  Did I miss anything?  Leave a comment!


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Exploring Nagasaki

We’re going back to Kyushu in this week’s Exploring Japan with Nagasaki.

Nagasaki prefecture is situated on the northwest part of Kyushu and consists of peninsulas and many islands on the East China Sea.  The population is 1,407,904. The capital city is Nagasaki.  The five largest cities are:

  1. Nagasaki (443,766)
  2. Sasebo (259,800)
  3. Isahaya (141,151)
  4. Omura (90,517)
  5. Minamishimabara (50,363)

The population of Nagasaki and its cities has been declining for quite a long time, since at least the 80s.


Shimabara Castle in Shimabara is a reconstruction of the original castle.  It’s mostly concrete with not much left of the ruins.  It looks nice, but I’ve heard it’s not impressive.

Hirado Castle in Hirado is another reconstruction.  It’s situated on the top of a hill surrounded by the sea.  It sounds pretty nice.  I’d like to see that.  The main tower is a museum.

Kushima Castle in Omura is the remains of a castle with a reconstructed turret.  The walls are in great shape, so it’s probably worth seeing.  The grounds are now a park.

Kaneishi Castle in Tsushima is located in an interesting place.  It’s on Tsushima Island halfway between Japan and Korea.  There’s a turret gate and some stonework still there.

Things to see and do

Nagasaki is probably most famous for the second atomic bombing by the Americans in World War II.  However, it’s got a rich history with a connection with Europe, particularly Portugal and the Netherlands.  It also has the largest proportion of Catholic people in Japan.

Nagasaki city has a lot to see and do.  The 1945 bombing is commemorated by a couple places.  First is the Atomic Bomb Museum.  Also, try the Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims and the Oka Masaharu Memorial Nagasaki Peace Museum.  And of course, the Nagasaki Peace Park. For some foreign flavour, there’s also plenty to see.  Glover Garden is a collection of European style houses from the 19th century.  The Twenty-Six Martyrs Museum and Monument is a memorial for the 20 Japanese and 6 foreign missionaries that were crucified in the 16th century. Koshibyo Confucius Shrine is the only Confucius shrine that the Chinese built outside of China. Sofukuji temple was also constructed by the Chinese, though they were residents of Nagasaki.  Oura Catholic Church is the oldest church in Japan, though it’s no longer a church. Urakami Cathedral is a reconstruction of the original, having been destroyed in the bombing.  Dejima was the only port in Japan that remained open to the Dutch, and is now a reproduction of the original, allowing you to walk around and see what it was like. Nagasaki Chinatown is the oldest Chinatown in Japan. For something more Japanese or contemporary, there’s plenty to offer.  From the top of Inasayama, you get an amazing view of Nagasaki, and it’s considered one of the top 3 night views in Japan. Nagasaki Penguin Aquarium is a very good aquarium that’s next to the beach. Suwa Shrine is a good place to visit.  The Kofukuji temple was one of the only historic places to escape destruction. Also enjoy the Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture, as well as the Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum.  Off shore, there’s an island called Hashima.  It’s nicknamed Gunkanjima, Battleship Island.  The small island is actually a ghost town, the abandoned ruins of a tiny mining city that used to be the most densely populated place in the world.  Enjoy the Lantern Festival, a Chinese festival featuring thousands of Chinese lanterns.  Also, Kunchi, Nagasaki’s biggest festival with plenty of food and floats.

Sasebo, the second largest city, also has a bit of foreignness about it.  Apart from the US Naval base, there’s plenty of tourists.  The biggest draw is Huis Ten Bosch, the Dutch-themed amusement park.  Sasebo Zoological Park and Botanical Garden is decent, hosting plenty of plants.  Pearl Island Resort is a small shopping mall, and you can also see the small Sasebo Aquarium and IMAX Theater.  To see the history of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, check out the Japan Maritime Self Defense Forces Museum. You can also go on a tour of the Kujuku Islands by boat.

Shimabara, next to Minamishimabara, has a few things to see.  In addition to Shimabara Castle, there’s also Hara Castle Ruins, which consists of foundations and remnants of the Shimabara Rebellion. The main attraction is Unzen-Amakusa National park.  Mt. Unzen is an active volcano, and you can also visit the Mt. Unzen Disaster Memorial Hall.  Mizunashi-honjin Fukae has 11 well-preserved houses that were quickly covered by pyroclastic flows, but are now available for public viewing.

Tsushima is a city that is also an island.  It’s a fairly big island that’s located halfway between Japan and South Korea.  The island has some good things to see.  The Arirang Festival is a Korean-Japanese friendship festival that has unfortunately had a problem, and is suspended for at least 2013.  Tsushima Wildlife Conservation Center is dedicated to only one animal, the Tsushima yamaneko, or Tsushima leopard cat.  Ayumodoshi Nature Park is a good place to go hiking, swimming, and camping. Tsutsuzaki-Osakiyama Park provides a beautiful view of the sea. Tsushima has numerous small mountains that can be hiked, as well as many places to go biking.  There are plenty of beaches to enjoy, as well.


The local favourite in Nagasaki is champon, which is similar to ramen, but uses a lot of seafood.  Ringer Hut is a chain restaurant throughout Japan that specialises in Nagasaki champon.

Have you been to Nagasaki?  Leave a comment with your recommendations!


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The World Spa & Travel Magazine Blog

I’ve got myself a little official writing thing going on!  I am writing for the World Spa & Travel Magazine‘s travel blog, focusing on the area I live in.  It’s a weekly post that I do, and it won’t take away from my regular posting here.

So far, I’ve written two posts, one about the three most popular beaches in the Shonan area, and the other about festivals in Japan, focusing on the Kamakura Festival, Hiratsuka Tanabata, and the much smaller Warabi Festival.

So, I suggest you go and check out the blog and keep watching for my posts.


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Exploring Nagano

In this week’s Exploring Japan, we return to central Japan with the mountainous prefecture Nagano.

Nagano Prefecture is located in the central part of Honshu in the Chubu region.  It’s very mountainous, so has little room for habitation.  It has a population of 2,148,425.  The capital city is Nagano.  The 5 largest cities are:

  1. Nagano (387,146)
  2. Matsumoto (243,571)
  3. Ueda (158,187)
  4. Iida (104,877)
  5. Saku (100,552)

The population of Nagano is slowly declining, with most cities losing people.  However, Matsumoto seems to be growing steadily.


Matsumoto Castle in Matsumoto is considered one of Japan’s top 3 castles.  It’s an original, and the appearance is unique due to its black and white colour.  This is one castle I want to see very much.

Takashima Castle in Suwa is a reconstruction, and it’s in a unique location, on an island.  It was reconstructed in 1970, and is apparently pretty decent.

Matsushiro Castle in Nagano city is a partially reconstructed castle.  Many buildings have been reconstructed, though the main tower has not.  From what I can tell, it looks pretty nice.

Ueda Castle in Ueda consists mainly of gates, buildings and walls.  It appears to be fairly well-kept.

Komoro Castle in Komoro has a couple of gates and some ruins.  Inside the castle grounds, there’s an amusement park and zoo.

Takato Castle in Ina has a couple gates and a reconstructed turret.  It also has a park that’s good for cherry blossom viewing.


Matsumoto Yamaga F.C. is Nagano’s representative of J League soccer. They’re in division 2.

Things to see and do

Nagano is famous for a few things, especially its ski and hot spring resorts, as well as Matsumoto Castle.  It’s the location of the 1998 Winter Olympics, of course.

Nagano City has a few attractions, but most people go there because of the nearby ski resorts outside the city.  In the city, the biggest attraction would be Zenkoji, a very old temple with a street lined with old houses and restaurants leading to the gate.  Nishi-no-Mon is a sake brewery and restaurant that’s nearby.  Also nearby is the Nagano Prefectural Shinano Art Museum.  Binzuru is Nagano’s biggest summer festival and it leads up to Zenkoji. Kagai Onsen Ichiyoukan is an interesting hot spring with brown water. Men and women can bathe separately or together. Omura Onsen Makibanoyu is another hot spring with a great view of the valley. Sports facilities from the Olympics also remain open, including M-Wave (the speed skating arena), Big Hat arena, and Aqua Wing arena (now an aquatics centre).

Matsumoto, the second largest city, has some attractions, but like Nagano, most attractions are outside the city in surrounding towns.  But in the city, other than Matsumoto Castle, you can also visit a couple museums.  The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum is a very large museum of the traditional form of art.  Also, there’s the Matsumoto Folkcraft Museum, which isn’t very large. Kaichi School Museum is dedicated to Japan’s first junior high school.  Nawate-dori is a traditional shopping street along the river. Saito Kinen Festival Matsumoto is a classical music festival founded by the famous conductor, Seiji Ozawa.

Azumino city is known for wasabi.  Daio Wasabi Farm and Water Mills is Japan’s largest wasabi farm.  Hotaka Shrine has an incredibly long 100 metre shrine building.  Todoriki Residence is an Edo period hunting lodge. Hot air balloon rides are available through Azumino Kisen Hot Air Balloon Rides.

Chikuma city has an incredible amount of historic sites despite its small size.  Temples and shrines include the beautiful Chourakuji, the large Zenkoji Daihongan Branch temple, the small Chishikiji, Fukeiji and its beautiful gate, and the big Takemizuwake shrine. Joyama Historic Park and Arata-jo Mountain Castle feature castle ruins.  Mori Shogunzuka Burial Chamber features a 1600 year old tomb, the Shinano no Sato Historic Park with a replica village from that time, and the Nagano Prefectural Museum of History.  Other museums include Nishizawa Piggy Bank Museum, Togura Kamiyamada Onsen Museum, Shuzo Collection Sake Museum, Kurashikan Museum (in a restored traditional building), and the Koshoku Furusato Cartoon Museum.  Enjoy the Kamiyamada Onsen Summer Festival, the Togura Fireworks Festival, and Jomon Festival.  There are numerous hot springs to experience, though Zuisho has a beautiful garden. Lots of hiking and cycling is also available.

Komagane is a small city with a couple interesting features. Kozenji temple seems worth a visit.  Komagane Kogen Art Museum features Japanese art. Komagatake Ropeway takes you up Mt. Komagatake with a possible view of Mt. Fuji.

Shiojiri city has a couple things to experience.  It’s known for its wine, so you can enjoy drinking.  It also has the Hiraide ruins archaeological site with a museum.

Suwa is a small resort city that has plenty to do.  Suwa Taisha is a major shrine and hosts the Onbashira festival.  This is one of the most dangerous festivals in Japan, where logs are pulled down into the valley and men try to ride the logs. Suwa Geyser Center has an hourly geyser eruption of about 10 metres.  Hiking the Yatsugatake is popular, as is biking around Lake Suwa.  Suwakoland is a great place for swimming, exercising and enjoying hot springs.  The Suwa Fireworks Festival is considered one of Japan’s top fireworks displays every year on August 15.

Ueda city has a few good things to see.  Anrakuji temple is a beautiful temple that has Japan’s only remaining octagonal pagoda.  Ueda City Museum has some well-preserved samurai armour.  Yamamoto Kanae Memorial Gallery celebrates the art of Kanae Yamamoto and his support of allowing children to do art freely. For more art outdoors, visit Utsukushigahara Open-air Museum.

Hakuba is famous for its ski resorts.  There are 7 main ski areas.

Karuizawa is a small town famous for its summer resort.  It has plenty of shopping, including an outlet shopping mall and the Old Karuizawa Main Street (or Old Karuizawa Ginza) with its high class shops.

Joshin’etsu-kogen National Park is the second largest national park in Japan.  It’s known for Shiga Kogen, the largest ski resort in Japan.  Mount Asama is in this park, and is the most active volcano on Honshu. Jigokudani Yaen-koen is where you can see Japanese macaque monkeys enjoying hot springs.

Kiso Valley has some interesting small post towns to see.  Magome is the most touristy, and gets pretty crowded on its historic main street.  Tsumago is a wonderfully preserved and restored village with Edo period buildings.  Narai is quieter than the other two villages, but you can see an original section of the Nakasendo trail.  The hike between Magome and Tsumago is one of the most famous in Japan.

Obuse is home to the famous Hokusai Museum.  It features art of the famous artist Katsushika Hokusai, who painted the well-known The Great Wave off Kanagawa, part of the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.


Nagano’s most famous foods include soba, especially Shinano soba.  It’s also known to have the second best apples in the country.  You can also get wasabi in Nagano, as it has the largest wasabi farm in Japan.  And for the adventurous, try inago, which is stewed grasshoppers.

Have you been to Nagano?  What would you recommend?  Please leave a comment!


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