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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.

Castles

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.

Food

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 Miyazaki

Back to Kyushu this time for Exploring Japan with Miyazaki Prefecture.

Miyazaki Prefecture is located on the southeastern part of Kyushu, facing the Pacific Ocean.  It has a population of 1,128,412.  The capital city is Miyazaki.  The 5 largest cities are:

  1. Miyazaki (399,834)
  2. Miyakonojo (168,072)
  3. Nobeoka (131,182)
  4. Hyuga (63,223)
  5. Nichinan (57,689)

The population of the prefecture and most of the cities are in a decline due to the low birth rate.  However, Miyazaki city is growing as many people move to the city.

Castles

Aya Castle in the small town of Aya is a reconstruction from 1985.  However, it’s design is based on pictures of other castles that were built around the same time Aya Castle was.

Obi Castle in Nichinan is mainly ruins, though the main gate has been reconstructed.  There are a few other buildings on the grounds, including a museum.

Nobeoka Castle in Nobeoka consists of ruins.  There weren’t many buildings at this castle in the first place, and no main keep.

Things to see and do

My impression of Miyazaki originally was fruit and surfing.  Miyazaki does attract a lot of surfers to its beaches, but Miyazaki is very well known for growing many kinds of fruits and vegetables.

Miyazaki, the capital, is a popular tourist and resort city.  Aoshima Beach is a major attraction.  It’s great for surfing and Aoshima island is also popular with its shrine and interesting geological features. The Aoshima Subtropical Botanical Garden should be nice to see. Miyazaki-jingu shrine is dedicated to Japan’s first emperor, Jinmu.   You can visit the Heiwadai Tower in Heiwadai Garden.  The city has a zoo, the Miyazaki-city Phoenix Zoo.  Tom Watson Golf Course is also in the city and is one of Japan’s most famous and popular golf courses.

Ebino city doesn’t have much to see, but I found a couple of events that seem interesting.  In late July, there’s the Cow Jumping Festival.  Cows jump logs to celebrate the health of livestock.  August sees the Taiko Festival and Odaiko Odori, both Taiko drum festivals.

Hyuga has an interesting sight.  The Mimitsu area has a lot of traditional, historic buildings from the 19th century.

Kobayashi city has several things to see and do.  Ikoma Plateau provides a great view of the city from its flower garden. Idenoyama Park has an aquarium, restaurants, and a lake.  It also hosts the Firefly Festival. Sannomiya Gorge would be great to see. Cross the Suki Suspension Bridge, and you can visit the Mamako Falls. Inyoseki is a fertility shrine with a rock shaped like a phallus.

Nichinan seems like a very interesting city.  Apart from the Obi Castle ruins, there’s plenty to see.  I’m interested in Udo Shrine, which was built into the side of a seaside cliff.  Horikawa Canal District features a restored canal. Tsu no Mine is a mountain with a good view of the port area. Sun Messe Nichinan features replicas of 7 Moai Statues of Easter Island. Aburatsu Port Festival has rowing and bow and arrow competitions.  The Obi Castle Festival has an interesting looking parade procession.

Saito city has a few interesting places to see.  Saitobaru is a National Special Historic site with a historical research facility. It features 311 burial mounds in 9 clusters. The Tonokori Castle ruins are also in Saito.  Tsuma Temple seems interesting, as well.

Takachiho is a small town that has some historic sites.  The Takachiho Gorge and the Minai Waterfall are great to see from a boat. The Ama-no-iwato shrine is situated above the gorge. There’s plenty to see at Shonenji temple, as well.  You can also see Takachiho Shrine and the Takachiho Onsen (hot springs).  At the base of the gorge, there are a couple teahouses that serve nagashi somen, which are noodles that flow down bamboo chutes.

Food

Miyazaki is famous for its fruit, of course.  But something that looks really good to me is the chicken. Specifically, sumibiyaki, which is chicken meat cut into small pieces and charbroiled.  Chicken Nanban is marinated in sweet and sour sauce, then deep fried.  Sounds good!

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

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Exploring Kyoto

For this week’s Exploring Japan, we go to the Kansai area with the old capital Kyoto.

Kyoto is situated in western Japan, with a small coastline facing the Sea of Japan, though the majority of people live in the south near Osaka.  It has a population of 2,633,428. The capital city is Kyoto.  The 5 largest cities are:

  1. Kyoto (1,473,746)
  2. Uji (189,929)
  3. Kameoka (92,889)
  4. Maizuru (88,669)
  5. Joyo (80,037)

The overall population is remaining quite stable for both the prefecture and the cities.

Castles

Nijo Castle in Kyoto was the Tokugawa Shogun residence until they moved to Edo.  The original castle burned down, but Ninomaru Palace now exists, and it seems to be quite impressive.

Fushimi Castle in Kyoto was to be a retirement castle for Toyotomi Hideyoshi.  However, it burned down, and was later rebuilt and then dismantled.  It was finally rebuilt again in 1964.

Fukuchiyama Castle in Fukuchiyama is a recent reconstruction. It’s now a local history museum.

Shoryuji Castle in Nagaokakyo has a few buildings on compact grounds.  The grounds were reconstructed about 20 years ago.

Sports

The only major team in Kyoto is Kyoto Sanga F.C. soccer team in J-League division 2.

Things to see and do

There is an extensive number of things to see in Kyoto.  I’d love to cover it all, but that would result in a very long post.  Kyoto is famous for being the old capital, and as such, it is a very historic city with an incredible wealth of historic places.  Kyoto was untouched during World War II, so almost everything is original.

Kyoto, the old capital, has 14 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  They are: Kinkakuji temple, which is the Golden Pavilion; Ryoanji temple, which has an amazing zen garden; the beautiful and extensive Ninnaji temple; Kozanji temple, famous for its autumn foliage; the beautiful red Shimogamo Shrine; the big and beautiful Kamigamo Shrine; Nijo Castle (see above); Nishi Honganji temple is an impressive-looking temple; Toji temple with the tallest pagoda in Japan; Kiyomizu-dera temple, the hillside temple that was built with no nails; Ginkakuji temple, often known as the Silver Pavilion; Tenryuji temple, with its beautiful grounds, destroyed or severely damaged 9 times, but always rebuilt; Saihoji temple with its beautiful moss garden; and Daigoji temple, with its five-storey pagoda. In central Kyoto, you can see the following: Nijo Jinya (samurai house), The Museum of Kyoto, Kyoto International Manga Museum, Higashi Honganji (with the largest wooden building in the world), Shoseien Garden, Kyoto Tower (with a good city view), Bukkoji temple, Mibudera temple, Shinsenen Garden, Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum, and of course the Kyoto Imperial Palace.  Western Kyoto has the following: Okochi Sanso, Nonomiya Shrine, Iwatayama Monkey Park, Otagi Nenbutsuji temple, Daikakuji temple, Adashino Nenbutsuji temple, Gioji temple, Jojakkoji temple, Nison-in temple, Horinji temple, Koryuji temple, Toei Movie Village (they filmed many samurai films here), Katsura Imperial Villa, Umenomiya Shrine, and Suzumushi-dera temple. On the east side are the following: Mount Daimonji, Sanjusangendo temple, Kyoto National Museum, Yogen-in temple, Heian Shrine (has a beautiful garden), Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art, Kyoto National Museum of Modern Art, Yoshida Shrine (holds a famous Setsubun Festival), Kyoto City Zoo, Hosomi Art Museum, Maruyama Park (great for cherry blossoms), Kodaiji temple, Chion-in temple (with a huge gate), Shoren-in temple, Ryozen Kannon Statue, Ryozen History Museum (about the Meiji period), Ryozen Gokoku Shrine (dedicated to the war dead), the Gion district with its traditional buildings, Yasaka Shrine (known for the Gion Festival), Kenninji temple, Honenji temple, Anrakuji temple, Kounji temple, Eikando temple, Nanzenji temple (with a 2-storey gate and aqueduct).  In the north, you can find: Daitokuji temple (big, with a beautiful garden), Imamiya Shrine, Hirano Shrine, Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, Myoshinji temple, Jingoji temple, Kyoto Botanical Garden, Shugakuin Imperial Villa, Entsuji temple, Myomanji temple, Shisendo temple, Jakko-in temple, Sanzen-in temple, Raigo-in temple, Amidaji temple, Shorin-in temple, and Hosen-in temple.  Finally, in the south, you can see the following:  Fushimi Inari Taisha (a very famous Inari shrine with hundreds of red gates), Tofukuji temple (with a beautiful garden), Jonangu Shrine, Zuishin-in temple, Kajuji temple, Oharano Shrine, Shoboji temple, Shojiji temple, and Yoshiminedera temple. And of course, a lot of people want to see Geisha in Kyoto. In the far northern part of Kyoto, you can also see the Kuramadera temple, and the Kurama Fire Festival.

Uji, the second largest city, is right next to Kyoto and also has several historic sites, including a couple UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  These include Byodo-in temple, which is known for the Phoenix Hall.  This building is on the 10 yen coin.  Also, the Ujigami Shrine is on the list.  It’s the oldest Shinto Shrine in Japan. Next to it is the Uji Shrine.  For literature fans, The Tale of Genji Museum is in Uji. Koshoji temple has a long tree-lined walk to the main temple.  Mimurotoji temple is well-known for its flowers and gardens.  Manpukuji temple was built with a Ming Dynasty style. Amagase Dam provides great views.  Uji is the tea capital of Japan, so the tea ceremony is very famous here, as is the Tea Festival.  You can also watch cormorant fishing. Mt. Buttoko offers great views of the area.

In Fukuchiyama, apart from the castle, there are some things to see.  You can see some art at the Fukuchiyama City Sato Taisei Memorial Art Museum.  If you like Japanese demons, or oni, you can see the Oni Exchange Museum.  Also available to see are Enman-in temple and the Fukuchiyama Zoo.

Joyo city has something that might interest some people.  That’s the Aodani Ume Grove, which contains 10,000 ume (Japanese apricot) trees.

Food

Kyoto is very well-known for matcha, which is green tea.  There are many ways to enjoy matcha, including drinking it, and the very popular matcha ice cream.  Also popular is yatsuhachi, a snack originally made with cinnamon, but also flavoured in a variety of ways, including strawberry, and of course matcha.  But probably one of the biggest things is kaiseki ryori.  This is traditional Japanese cooking, and people in Kyoto are very proud of it.  However, people from outside of Kyoto tend to say it’s rather bland.

Have you visited Kyoto? Please leave a comment with your recommendations!

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Exploring Kumamoto

In this week’s Exploring Japan, we return to Kyushu with Kumamoto Prefecture.

Kumamoto is situated in central Kyushu with a west-facing coastline.  It has plenty of mountains and volcanoes.  It has a population of 1,812,255. The capital city is also named Kumamoto.  The 5 largest cities are:

  1. Kumamoto (734,474)
  2. Yatsushiro (133,630)
  3. Amakusa (89,065)
  4. Tamana (69,541)
  5. Uki (62,678)

Most cities are dropping in population, as is the prefecture, but the city of Kumamoto is steadily growing.

Castles

Kumamoto Castle is a reconstruction, and a lot of restoration work has been done recently.  It’s one of the most impressive castles in Japan, and is quite extensive.  The Uto Yagura was originally the keep of Uto Castle, which is elsewhere in Kumamoto prefecture.  Even more restoration work is planned.

Yatsushiro Castle in Yatsushiro has well-maintained grounds.  Mainly the stonework and walls remain, but it appears to be quite nice.

Kikuchi Castle in Kikuchi is extremely old.  Some restoration work has been done, but from what I’ve heard, it’s very nice.

Hitoyoshi Castle in Hitoyoshi is another well-maintained ruin.  No buildings remain, but excellent walls and stonework remain, as well as the main gate.

Sashiki Castle in Ashikita is an interesting one.  It was rediscovered only recently, in 1997.  A lot of restoration work has been done on the grounds, and though small, it looks to be very interesting to see.

Sports

There’s one notable professional team in Kumamoto, and that’s the J-League division 2 team Roasso Kumamoto.

Things to see and do

Kumamoto is famous for a few things, namely Mt. Aso, one of the largest active volcanic calderas in the world, hot springs, and beaches.  Seems like a hot place.

Kumamoto, the capital city, is famous for its castle.  But there is more to see. Suizenji Jojuen is one of the country’s best formal Japanese gardens.  Shiki no Sato Park has hot springs and an animal park. Honmyoji temple seems to be very interesting, and is one of the most famous temples in Kumamoto. Fujisaki Hachimangu is Kumamoto’s best-known shrine. Hosokawa Gyobutei is the family home of the Higo daimyo, and is located near the castle. Hanaokayama is a hill near Kumamoto station with a great view of the city and Mt. Aso.  Mt. Kinpo has a great view of Kumamoto and Nagasaki. Kumamoto City Hall has a free observatory on the 14th floor with a nice view of the castle and city.  You can also visit the Kumamoto Prefectural Museum of Art, the Kumamoto Prefectural Theater, and the Kumamoto Prefectural Traditional Crafts Center.

Yatsushiro doesn’t have a lot to see, though you can check out the 777 Steps, where you can walk up the hill on a staircase that has 777 steps.  You can also visit the Hinagu Hot Spring.  The Myokensai festival in November has a lot of horses parading through the city, and there is also a very large fireworks display in the fall.

Hitoyoshi is a small city with a few historic sites.  Eikokuji is known as the Ghost Temple.  It has a scroll of a ghost drawn on it to keep the ghost away.  Aoi Aso Shrine has several National Treasures of Japan.  Hitoyoshi Craft Park Ishino Koen is a place where you can see traditional crafts as well as make them.  Kuma Kudari is a traditional boat cruise down the river. Mukashi Mukashi is a popular traditional crafts market.

Amakusa is a city located on the Amakusa Islands.  It’s accessible by car, ferry, or plane.  It’s also one of the fastest depopulating cities in Japan.  It’s well-known for Amakusa Dolphin Marine Land, where you can watch dolphin performances, see sea lions and penguins, as well as touch dolphins.  You can also see the Alegria Gardens.

Yamato town’s Yabe area is known for its 48 waterfalls and 17 stone bridges.  It seems interesting to see.  One bridge, Tsujun Bridge, is the largest stone aqueduct in Japan.

Yamaga has several places to see. You can enjoy kabuki at the Yachiyoza Kabuki Theater.  Fudougan is an interesting rock formation that looks like a person’s face.  It’s illuminated twice a year. Yamaga Hot Springs are quite old and well-known for their clear water. The Yamaga Lantern Dance Festival has a thousand women dancing to traditional music with lanterns on their heads. The Kumamoto Prefectural Ancient Burial Mound Museum is located in Yamaga.

Aso city has a lot to see.  Of course, it is home to Mt. Aso, a very large and active volcanic caldera.  There are many volcanic cones within the caldera. Aso Kuju National Park is the main attraction, including Mt. Aso, the Mt. Aso Ropeway and the Aso Volcano Museum. There’s a lot of hiking and many hot springs resorts to visit.  Aso Shrine is a well-known shrine.

Food

Kumamoto has several famous local foods.  I’ve tried one of them, and that is basashi.  Basashi is raw horse meat that’s served with soy sauce and ginger.  Karashirenkon is a popular food, with the holes of lotus root filled with hot Japanese mustard coated with flour and fried.  Ikinaridango is a dumpling filled with sweet potato and anko, a sweet bean paste.

Have you been to Kumamoto?  Have I missed anything? Please leave a comment!

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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 Ibaraki

This week on Exploring Japan, we return to the northern part of Kanto with Ibaraki Prefecture.

Ibaraki Prefecture is in the northeastern part of the Kanto region, and it’s mostly flat with many lakes.  It’s on the Pacific Ocean, so there are many beaches that are popular for surfing.  The population is 2,964,141.  The capital of Ibaraki is Mito.  The 5 largest cities are:

  1. Mito (265,993)
  2. Tsukuba (217,315)
  3. Hitachi (189,956)
  4. Hitachinaka (157,060)
  5. Tsuchiura (144,399)

The population of Ibaraki is fairly stable, though some cities are decreasing in population.  Others, such as Tsukuba, are growing quickly.  Ibaraki is also often mispronounced as Ibaragi.  I hear it all the time.  But it is Ibaraki.

Castles

Sakasai Castle is in Bando city, and is a rather recent reconstruction.  Apparently, it’s a pretty nice looking reconstruction, though not terribly impressive as far as size goes.  But it seems interesting.  Also, it isn’t easy to access.

Tsuchiura Castle in Tsuchiura doesn’t have much, but there is a gate still remaining.

Kasama Castle in Kasama has a couple gates and a turret remaining, but not much else.  However, it seems that some money has been allocated to do a survey of the castle grounds.

Ibaraki surprisingly has very little left in terms of castles.  Most have been almost completely destroyed.

Sports

In J League soccer, there are 2 teams in Ibaraki.  They are Kashima Antlers in Kashima and Mito HollyHock in Mito.

Things to see and do

Ibaraki always seems to me to have few things to see and do.  I know about Mt. Tsukuba, which I’ve wanted to hike up, but that’s about it.  But there is more!

Mito, the capital city, has a lot of historic sites.  It’s home to the Mito Domain, with the very influential Tokugawa Mitsukuni (or Mito Komon) as the daimyo.  There’s a very well-known samurai drama on TV in Japan about him.  In Mito, there’s a Mito Komon Festival. Kairakuen Garden is one of Japan’s top 3 gardens, and is the major sight in the city.  It includes the Kobuntei, historic samurai residences, as well as Tokiwa Shrine.  In the shrine, there’s a small museum called the Giretsukan.  Mito Arts Foundation has a tower that commemorates the city’s 100th anniversary. The Tokugawa Art Museum houses art from the clan’s collection.

Kashima city is famous for its Kashima Shrine.

Tsukuba is known for its mountain, Mt. Tsukuba, which you can hike.  At the foot of the hiking path and cable car station is Tsukuba Shrine.  Along the way to the top of the mountain, there’s a large stone Buddha, but it’s on one of the longer trails.  At the top of the cable car, there are several shops and restaurants, while the summit is a short hike away.  The twin summit has a shrine and a frog-shaped rock.  In the city, you can visit the Tsukuba Space Center, which has free tours.  I really want to see that! Tsukuba city is a planned city that was designed to focus on scientific research, a project called Tsukuba Science City.

Food

Probably the most famous food to come out of Ibaraki is natto, sticky and smelly fermented soy beans.  It’s popular in the Kanto region, but not so popular elsewhere in Japan.

Have you visited Ibaraki?  What else would you recommend?

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Exploring Hyogo

Exploring Japan goes down to the Kansai area now with a visit to Hyogo Prefecture.

Hyogo Prefecture is in the western part of the Kansai region.  It spans across the island from the Seto Inland Sea to the Sea of Japan. This is a very international prefecture that is also filled with historic sites.  The population is 5,582,978. The capital city is Kobe.  These are the five largest cities:

  1. Kobe (1,545,410)
  2. Himeji (535,945)
  3. Nishinomiya (483,598)
  4. Amagasaki (450,244)
  5. Akashi (290,776)

Hyogo has a slowly decreasing population, although Kobe and Nishinomiya are growing.

Castles

Himeji Castle is the castle to see in Hyogo, and quite possibly all of Japan.  It is probably the most famous castle in Japan, and it’s the best original castle.  It’s currently undergoing renovations until March 2014. It is a must see.

Akashi Castle in Akashi city is an original, although it never had a central tower.  There are two remaining turret towers, though.  Also, there is a base for the central tower, which was never built.

Ako Castle in Ako city is a partially reconstructed seaside castle.  There is no central tower, and it isn’t impressively big.  Some of the reconstructions were recent.

Izushi Castle in Izushi is mostly ruins, but some parts were rebuilt.  There’s a clock that was placed in the castle grounds, which is now a symbol of the town.

Sasayama Castle in Sasayama is another castle that never had a main tower.  Most of the buildings were destroyed, but the main hall was rebuilt in 2000.

Sumoto Castle in Sumoto on Awaji Island is a reconstruction made of concrete.

Sports

Kobe has several sports teams, including two professional baseball teams.  The very popular Hanshin Tigers are based in Nishinomiya, while the Orix Buffaloes are based in Kobe. In J-League soccer, Vissel Kobe is based in Kobe.

Things to see and do

Hyogo has a lot to see and do, and probably the biggest thing to see is Himeji Castle.  I’ve seen a lot of pictures of Kobe Port, which I’d love to walk around.

Kobe is a major tourist destination, and being very international, has some international sights.  Ijinkan is the foreign residences from the 19th century, and they’re built in different styles.  Likewise, Kyu-kyoryuchi near Motomachi has a lot of 19th century buildings that are now restaurants and shops. Meriken Park is a memorial to the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 and it features Kobe Port Tower, with a great view of the city. City Hall Observation Deck also has a good view. Chinatown is another popular place with plenty of Chinese food.  There are several parks, including the Fruit Flower Park and the Nunobiki Herb Park. Sorakuen Garden is a nice Japanese garden in central Kobe. There are also many sake museums and breweries to visit, such as Sawa-no-Tsuru Museum, Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum, Hamafukutsuru-Ginjo Brewery and Shop, and Kiku-Masamune Sake Brewing Company. You can also visit the Oji Zoo.  Mt. Rokko has a rock garden and a great night view of the city. Nunobiki Falls are one of the most important waterfalls in Japan. I’d also like to see Ikuta Shrine, one of the oldest in the country.

Akashi has a couple of things to see.  One is the Akashi Planetarium.  Another is the Akashi Brewery, which makes Akashi Beer.  The beach is known to be relaxing and not very busy.

Himeji has a lot of history to see.  In addition to Himeji Castle, there are plenty of other places to see.  Kokoen Garden is a beautiful Japanese garden that was created in 1992. Hyogo Prefectural Museum of History is a good place to see Japanese history. Himeji City Museum of Art features some local artists, while the Himeji City Zoo has various animals in small enclosures. Senhime Shrine gives a great view of Himeji Castle, while Engyoji is a beautiful temple.  Tegarayama Botanical Garden has a small aquarium. There are plenty of festivals, but hanami (cherry blossom viewing) features koto and taiko performances.

Nishinomiya is between Kobe and Osaka, and is really famous for one thing: baseball.  Koshien Stadium is home to the Hanshin Tigers, and also hosts the National High School Baseball Championship, which is a really big deal in Japan.  Hyogo Performing Arts Center shows a large variety of performances.  Manchidani Park is well-known for its cherry blossoms in spring, and is also featured in the novel Grave of the Fireflies. I’d like to see Hirota Shrine, Nishinomiya Shrine, and Kannoji Temple.

Takarazuka city is famous for a couple of things. Takarazuka Revue is a famous theatre group that features female actresses in all of the roles. It is famous across the country.  Also, it has the Tezuka Osamu Manga Museum, dedicated to the “Father of Anime.” The Takarazuka Gala Fireworks Festival is one of the oldest fireworks displays in Japan. Nakayamadera looks like a nice temple.

Awaji Island is a well-known island that features a fascinating natural phenomenon.  The Naruto whirlpools are accessible from the island. Akashi Kaikyo Bridge is the world’s longest suspension bridge, and it joins Awaji Island to Kobe.  Kiseki no Hoshi Botanical Garden is apparently quite beautiful.  Nojima Fault Preservation Museum is dedicated to preserving a section of the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995.

Food

Probably the most famous food out of Hyogo is Kobe beef.  This famous beef is known for its marbling and taste.  It’s fairly expensive.  I have seen wagyu beef (Kobe is a variety of wagyu) in the supermarket, and it is pretty expensive.

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