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Exploring Kagoshima

This week in Exploring Japan, we go back to Kyushu to take a look at Kagoshima.

Kagoshima is the southernmost prefecture on Kyushu, and includes several islands that extend down toward Okinawa.  It has a population of 1,703,406. The capital city is Kagoshima.  The 5 largest cities are:

  1. Kagoshima (605,855)
  2. Kirishima (127,727)
  3. Kanoya (104,174)
  4. Satsumasendai (99,589)
  5. Aira (74,611)

The overall population of Kagoshima has been dropping for quite some time, though the city of Kagoshima is growing.  This is a common trend amongst many prefectures.

Castles

Kagoshima Castle, also known as Tsurumaru Castle, is located in Kagoshima city, and is a very unusual castle.  It was built in such a way that it would’ve been easy to take.  It was built without a main tower, as well.  Apparently, it was made so small so that it wouldn’t attract the attention of Tokugawa.

Things to see and do

Kagoshima has a large number of popular and very attractive subtropical islands, including the Amami Islands and Yakushima.  It also has a famous active volcano, Sakurajima, which is right across the bay from Kagoshima city.

Kagoshima city is a fairly compact city that’s easy to get around.  But probably the biggest attraction is Sakurajima, easily accessed via ferry. It’s a very active volcano, and you can’t go within 2 km of the crater.  Kagoshima Prefectural Museum of Culture seems to be very interesting.  Ishibashi Park is home to 3 bridges that were damaged severely in floods, and so they were moved and repaired.  This park was created in 2000. There are a couple of notable gardens, Sengan-en, and Kagoshima Botanical Garden. Other places to see are the Kagoshima Aquarium, Museum of the Meiji Restoration, and Tenmonkan Shopping Arcade.

Minamikyushu is a small city that was created by the merger of several towns, including Chiran.  In Chiran, there are a couple good places to see.  Chiran Special Attack Peace Museum shows photos and letters from kamikaze pilots in World War II.  The town has a great collection of samurai houses, as well.

Ibusuki is famous for its hot springs.  The hot springs, Ibusuki Onsen, is actually on the beach where you can relax while covered by hot sand.  Climbing Mt. Kaimon gives you a good view of the area.  The Ibusuki Experimental Botanical Garden should be interesting to see, as well.

Izumi is a good place to see some samurai houses, but it’s also famous for the Izumi Crane Migration Grounds, where thousands of cranes flock every year.

Kirishima is known for its mountains, including Mt. Kirishima, an active volcano.  This is part of the Kirishima-Yaku National Park, which also includes Yakushima.  In Kirishima, the mountains provide a landscape that has been described as like being on the moon.  In the city, there’s also a large shrine, Kirishima Jingu. Uenohara Jomon Forest is a historical park that is an archaeological site and includes an exhibition centre.

Kanoya is an agricultural city that is famous for the Kanoya Rose Garden.

Tanegashima is one of the larger islands of Kagoshima, home of JAXA, and is famous for the Tanegashima Space Center, Japan’s main spaceport. It’s free to enter, but is restricted on launch days.  Also on the island are the Chikura Caverns, Takezaki Beach, and Cape Kadokura.

Yakushima is an island that is on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list.  It’s a beautiful island with ancient forests and tall mountains. It’s a popular destination and very well developed. The thing to see is the Yakusugi forest, very old cryptomeria trees.  You can see the Yakusugi Museum to learn about the forest.  Also available are the Yakushima Fruit Garden and Shitogo Gajumaru-en Banyan Garden. It’s also the largest nesting ground in the North Pacific for the loggerhead sea turtle.

Amami Oshima is the largest of the Amami Islands, and the main city is Amami.  In the city, you can see the Amami Islands Botanical Garden. Probably the most popular thing to do on the island is rent a bike and take a look around, as well as go to the beaches.  Beware of the habu, a very venomous snake that inhabits most of the island.  It’s also the best place to access the other Amami Islands, many of which have beautiful beaches, great diving and swimming.

Food

Kagoshima is mostly agricultural, so there are a lot of local foods.  Black pork is a specialty of the prefecture, being the most highly prized pork in Japan.  And on the topic of pork, Tonkotsu ramen is quite popular here.

Have you been to Kagoshima? Do you have any other recommendations? Please leave a comment!

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Exploring Iwate

This week in Exploring Japan, we look at Iwate Prefecture, one of the prefectures severely damaged by the 2011 tsunami.

Iwate is in the Tohoku region on the eastern side, facing the Pacific Ocean.  It’s one of the nearest prefectures to the 2011 Tohoku earthquake.  The population is 1,330,530.  Morioka is the capital city.  The 5 largest cities are:

  1. Morioka (300,740)
  2. Ichinoseki (128,571)
  3. Oshu (127,804)
  4. Hanamaki (102,455)
  5. Kitakami (93,142)

Iwate’s population has been dropping for many years, as people move away to the big cities. Many of the coastal cities and towns have been severely damaged or destroyed due to the tsunami. It’s safe to visit those areas now, but the cleanup and rebuilding continue. If you do visit the coastal regions, be sure to spend some money to help the local economy.

Castles

Morioka Castle in Morioka was one of those castles built without a main tower.  Instead, a turret was built.  However, all buildings were demolished during the Meiji Restoration, and nothing has been rebuilt.  However, the stone walls made of white granite remain and Iwate Park occupies the castle grounds.

Things to see and do

I never really knew much about Iwate, other than the fact that Morioka is the sister city of Victoria, BC, where I went to university.  But I understand that there’s some amazing skiing in Iwate.

Morioka has a great view of Mt. Iwate.  But what is there to do?  You could visit Morioka Zoo.  There are a couple of festivals that seem quite interesting.  The big one is Sansa Odori, which is the taiko drum festival in summer, and supposedly has 100,000 participants.  Chagu Chagu Umakko is a parade with around 100 horses that are decorated.  Iwate Museum of Art has some local art. Hoonji looks to be an interesting Zen Temple.

Hachimantai is a small city that is known for just one thing, All Season Resort APPI.

Hanamaki has some hot springs, and also the Kenji Miyazawa Museum.  There are some festivals, such as Hanamaki Matsuri, which has many synchronized dances, including the dance of the deer (Shishi Odori).

Hiraizumi is probably the biggest attraction in Iwate.  Several sites in this town became a World Heritage Site in 2011.  It rivaled Kyoto in size at one time.  Chusonji temple is famous for its Golden Hall.  Motsuji temple is known for its Pure Land Garden. Kanjizaio-in Ato was a garden, but is now more of a park.  Muryoko-in Ato used to be a temple, but only the pond remains. Yanaginogosho Iseki is the site of the former palace, though only the foundation and pond remain. The final World Heritage Site is Mt. Kinkeisan, where Buddhist sutras were once buried.  There are other attractions, as well.  Takkoku no Iwaya Bishamon-do is a cave temple that looks very interesting.

Ichinoseki has some interesting sights.  There are a couple of gorges that look worth seeing, including Genbikei and Geibikei.  Tsuriyama is a hill that is supposed to be beautiful when cherry trees are blooming.  Haishiwa Shrine is at the top of a hill with huge trees and very long staircase.  The Yuugendou caves also look quite interesting.

Iwaizumi, a small town, is famous for its caves.  Ryusendo is one of the largest limestone caves in Japan.  There’s also the Sugawatari Tankendo Cave and the Kumanohana Observatory.

Tono is a small city that’s famous for its folktales.  The Folk Villages are traditionally built and have artisans making traditional crafts. The largest is Tono Furusato Village.  There are a couple of museums, the Tono Municipal Museum and the Tono Castle Town Materials Museum.  Fukusenji temple has a five storey pagoda that’s apparently quite beautiful. Jokenji temple has Kappabuchi, a pond that is said to be the home of kappa, which are mythical water creatures.

I would list some other cities or towns, but those that have been omitted were damaged so severely that the sites likely don’t exist anymore.  If they do still exist or have been rebuilt or restarted, please leave a comment.

Food

Wanko Soba is a popular dish that consists of a small portion of soba noodles and some condiments.  It’s also popular to eat it as all-you-can-eat.

Have you been to Iwate? Did I miss anything?  Leave your recommendations in the comments.

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Exploring Ishikawa

The next prefecture in Exploring Japan is in the Chubu region, Ishikawa.

Ishikawa Prefecture is on the Japan Sea side of Honshu and much of it extends out into the sea on the Noto Peninsula.  It’s very historic and there are many natural places.  The population is 1,168,929.  The capital is Kanazawa.  The five biggest cities are:

  1. Kanazawa (462,478)
  2. Hakusan (110,654)
  3. Komatsu (109,285)
  4. Kaga (73,492)
  5. Nanao (58,204)

The population of Ishikawa is dropping, similar to many prefectures, though Kanazawa is growing.

Castles

Kanazawa Castle in Kanazawa was once a very impressive castle.  Today, several buildings have been reconstructed using traditional methods, so they are quite authentic looking.  They were reconstructed only recently, starting in 1999.

Things to see and do

Ishikawa Prefecture is one place I’ve always wanted to see because of the beautiful scenery on the Noto Peninsula, but also because of the historical districts in Kanazawa.

Kanazawa is probably one of the best cities in Japan to see very well preserved historic districts.  Arriving in Kanazawa by train, you’ll notice the amazing architecture of Kanazawa Station and the Tsuzumimon, a massive gate that was completed in 2005.  Probably the best place to see is Kenrokuen, one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan.  The Nagamachi Samurai District is a great place to walk around in with very well preserved buildings.  Higashi-Chayamachi is a famous geisha district with many of the houses still in use.  Kazuemachi and Nishi-Chayamachi are other districts with well-preserved and restored geisha houses.  There are several temples and shrines worth seeing, as well.  Myoryuji, or the Ninja Temple (actually not related to ninja) seems like a very interesting place to tour.  Oyama Shrine has stained glass windows.  Tentokuin was the largest temple in Kanazawa during the Edo Period. Daijoji is an old Zen Buddhist temple that is very active. The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art seems interesting. I’d also like to see the Ishikawa Prefectural Museum.  Of the festivals in Kanazawa, it seems that the Hyakuman-goku Festival is the one to see in early June.

Hakusan is probably best known for Hakusan National Park.

Kaga has some great natural beauty.  There are also several museums, such as Kitamaebune Ship Museum, Nakaya Ukichiro Museum of Snow and Ice, and Nippon Origami Museum.  There are also plenty of hot springs. Kaga is famous for its porcelain, so the Kutaniyaki Art Museum and Kiln Museum are good to see.

In Komatsu, the popular place to go is Nata-dera Temple, which has beautiful grounds and caves. You can also see the Motorcar Museum of Japan, which has 500 working cars.  Yunokunino Mori is a resort with plenty of traditional architecture to see.  Rojo Park is a beautiful park to see.

Nanao is the main city on the Noto Peninsula.  Here, you can see the Notojima Glass Art Museum, Le Musee de H Confectionary Museum, and the Nanao Art Museum.  All seem to be pretty interesting.  Nanao Castle Ruins has  very little in the way of ruins, but has a great view of the bay.  The Seihakusai Dekayama Festival looks very interesting with its huge floats. Notojima Aquarium looks to be pretty good. The Issaki Houtou Festival also looks interesting with its massive floats.

Wajima is a small city known for its lacquerware. It’s also known for its lanterns, so you can visit the Kiriko Museum or see the Wajima Taisai, a festival in which they carry large kiriko lanterns.  Also, along the coast is the 1000 Rice Fields, or Senmaida.  It’s a very scenic place with 1004 rice fields on a hillside.

Hakui is a small city that is famous for being the UFO capital of Japan.  There are a couple of things to see, the UFO Museum and the Sumo Festival in September.

Food

Ishikawa is well-known for its seafood.  There are many different fish and other seafood available, depending on what’s in season.  The Noto Peninsula is known for oysters.  Also, a popular local dish is Noto-don, a kind of donburi (rice bowl) dish that uses only local ingredients.  And finally, you can try Wagashi, a kind of sweet that’s made of rice and sweet bean paste.

Have you been to Ishikawa?  What do you recommend?

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Exploring Hokkaido

Exploring Japan returns to the northern part of the country, this time with Hokkaido.

Hokkaido is the northernmost prefecture in Japan, and it occupies an entire island.  It is also Japan’s largest prefecture.  It is the most similar area of Japan to my home country of Canada.  The population is 5,507,456. The 5 largest cities are:

  1. Sapporo (1,921,831)
  2. Asahikawa (352,105)
  3. Hakodate (279,851)
  4. Kushiro (183,757)
  5. Tomakomai (174,216)

Hokkaido’s population is dropping, as are most of the cities in the prefecture, but Sapporo and Tomakomai have increasing populations.

Castles

Matsumae Castle is the only castle in Hokkaido, and it’s located in the town of Matsumae.  It is the youngest traditional castle in Japan, though what you see is a reconstruction.

Sports

Hokkaido has plenty of professional sports to watch.

In baseball, they have the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in Sapporo.  In J-League soccer, there is Consadole Sapporo. And then, in the Asia League Ice Hockey, there are the Nippon Paper Cranes in Kushiro and the Oji Eagles in Tomakomai.

Things to see and do

Hokkaido is one of the best destinations in Japan for nature, hiking, and skiing.  Shiretoko National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most remote areas in Japan.  Sapporo hosts the Sapporo Snow Festival with many ice sculptures. These are two things I really want to see.

Sapporo is one of the largest cities in Japan. The Tokeidai (Clock Tower) is the symbol of the city, but it is also considered one of the most disappointing sights in Japan. Odori Park is a very long park running through downtown Sapporo. At one end is Sapporo TV Tower, a copy of the Eiffel Tower with an observatory. You can also do some beer tasting at the Sapporo Beer Museum.  Hokkaido Pioneer Village shows what Sapporo was like during the industrial age. The 100th Anniversary Memorial Park has a tall tower that can be climbed and provides a good view of the area. Asahiyama Park has a beautiful garden and has a great view of the city. JR Tower has a good view of the city, and it even has a men’s room with a view! For art lovers, you can see the Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art and Sapporo Art Park. Moerenuma Park seems like an interesting park with a glass pyramid. For more gardens, the Hokkaido University Botanical Garden is good to see. Finally, the Hokkaido Shrine is a big shrine that would be worth seeing.

Abashiri is a northern city with some interesting looking museums, including the Abashiri Prison Museum and the Museum of Northern Peoples.

Asahikawa is Hokkaido’s second largest city, but also the coldest in Japan.  It’s home to Asahiyama Zoo, a zoo famous for its penguins, bears and seals.  The Otokoyama Sake Brewing Museum is a good place to do some sake tasting.  Asahikawa Winter Festival is Hokkaido’s second biggest festival, but has the largest ice sculptures.

Furano is located in the centre of the prefecture, and is famous for its incredible skiing conditions in winter and its beautiful lavender fields. Also, for some locally made wine, there’s the Furano Winery.

Hakodate is one city that I really want to see.  It’s known for its amazing view of the city from Mt. Hakodate.  Both day and night views are incredible from the pictures I’ve seen. On the mountain, there’s also Tsugaru Fort, a World War II battery.  Fort Goryokaku is Japan’s first western style fortress, so it’s not quite a castle. Goryokaku Tower has a great view of the area. Motomachi is the historic area with a lot of European style buildings, churches, and former consulates. Red Brick Warehouses were built at the end of the Meiji Era and have some good seafood restaurants.

Kitami isn’t a major city to visit, unless you really like peppermint.  They grow it there.

Nemuro is the easternmost city in Hokkaido, and has some sights, such as lighthouses and a wild bird sanctuary.  But the reason to go here is food.  It apparently has some of the best seafood in Hokkaido.

Obihiro is a city that can mainly be used as a gateway to other destinations.  There are a lot of dairy farms, if you’re interested in that.  But the big draw is the trekking and hiking opportunities at Mt. Hidaka and Mt. Daisetsuzan.

Otaru is an interesting place, I think.  A big feature is the scenic Otaru Canal, which is lined with gas lamps that light up at night. The Otaru Music Box Museum has plenty of music boxes.  Just outside is a Steam Clock given to the city by Vancouver.  You can also blow your own glass in the city.

Wakkanai is Japan’s northernmost city, and that’s mainly what it’s famous for.  There are some sights, though. Wakkanai Park sounds nice, and it has the Motoe Hiraku Centennial Memorial Tower with its view of the cape, Rishiri volcano, and sometimes even Sakhalin. Cape Soya is the northernmost point on Hokkaido. To see some animals, you can visit the Harbour Seal Observatory, Lake Onuma Bird Observatory and the Noshappu Cold Water Aquarium.

Niseko is a town that’s famous for its ski resort.

Noboribetsu is a city that’s known for having the largest hot spring in Hokkaido. It’s a hellish-looking place.

Akan National Park is known for its calderas and clear lakes.

Daisetsuzan National Park is famous for its volcanoes, wildlife, and very rugged hiking.  It’s Japan’s largest national park.

Shikotsu-Toya National Park is a very popular national park that’s famous for the caldera Lake Toya.

Food

Hokkaido is considered to have some of Japan’s best food.  It has the best seafood, including crabs, shellfish, sea urchin, and it has great sushi.  It’s also an agricultural area, so dairy products are famous.  It also has its own variety of ramen.

Have you been to Hokkaido?  What do you recommend?

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