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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.

Castles

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.

Sports

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.

Food

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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Exploring Miyagi

We return this week to Tohoku in Exploring Japan with Miyagi Prefecture.

Miyagi Prefecture is on the Pacific coast of the northern Tohoku region of Honshu, and was one of the most severely damaged areas during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.  It has a population of 2,337,513.  The capital and largest city is Sendai.  The 5 largest cities are:

  1. Sendai (1,045,986)
  2. Ishinomaki (164,294)
  3. Osaki (135,129)
  4. Tome (84,070)
  5. Kurihara (74,932)

Due to the casualties suffered in coastal cities, there is no current population information.  Some of these may be outdated.  Both Sendai and Ishinomaki were hit by the tsunami.

Castles

Shiroishi Castle in Shiroishi is a recent reconstruction.  It was rebuilt using traditional methods, so should be quite faithful to the original.  It doesn’t appear to be very big.

Aoba Castle in Sendai consists of ruins and some reconstructed buildings.  There is currently some reconstruction or restoration going on. It’s also known as Sendai Castle.

Sports

In professional baseball, Sendai is host to the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. In J-League soccer, Vegalta Sendai in Sendai city is in the top tier.

Things to see and do

Due to the tsunami in 2011, some of the following places may be unavailable due to reconstruction or lack of reconstruction.  However, most of the prefecture is business as usual, so I definitely recommend going there and supporting the local economy.  It’s very important to help them out.

Sendai is the largest city in the Tohoku region, so is the central hub for the area.  It’s a very green city that’s close to both the ocean and mountains. Osaki Hachiman Shrine is an important and attractive shrine in Sendai and holds the Donto-sai Festival.  Just outside the city is a large statue of Kannon. Rinnoji is a nice temple with a big garden. Zuihoden is the mausoleum of Date Masamune.  Miyagi Museum of Art is good for some modern art and a garden. Sendai Mediatheque has interesting architecture. SS 30 Observation Lounge is an observation deck on the 29th and 30th floors of an office building that’s free to the public. Sendai City Museum should be interesting. The Museum of the Forest of Depths of the Earth sounds quite interesting, featuring the stone age. Yagiyama Zoo is the local zoo. Benyland is a small amusement park that should be fun. You can take a tour at the Nikka Whisky Distillery and finish with free whisky. You can enjoy the Michinoku-Yosakoi Festival, as well.  Finally, Sendai hosts the largest Tanabata Festival in Japan during August. Sendai has some natural sites, too.  Akiu Great Falls is one of Japan’s top 3 waterfalls. There are also hot spring areas in Akiu and Sakunami.

Ishinomaki is a famous fishing city.  It hosts a few interesting things, but not a large amount.  There’s a full-sized replica of the Japanese galleon San Juan Bautista.  You can also visit the Ishinomori Manga Museum. There are some interesting islands, as well.  Tashirojima is known as Manga Island. Kinkasan is considered a very holy site, and it hosts a shrine, as well as many hiking trails.

Kesennuma is a city that was hit very hard by the tsunami.  It’s begun to recover, but there’s a lot of hard work ahead.  It has an attractive natural spot, though. Oreishii is a rock that attracts a lot of people.

Matsuhima is a town that was hit by the tsunami, but the main sights were not damaged. Matsushima Bay is one of Japan’s top 3 best views.  Zuiganji temple is a top Zen temple with a long history. Kanrantei Pavilion is a large teahouse with a great view of the coast. Fukuura Island is a good place to take a walk, and is accessible by a bridge. Otakamori is a great place to see the bay, and requires a 1 km walk up the hill.

Osaki has an area called the Naruko Hot Spring Villages.  Naruko Gorge is a great viewing spot in autumn. Taki no Yu is a traditional bathhouse that uses water from two separate springs and creates artificial waterfalls.

Zao Quasi-National Park is on the border of Miyagi and Yamagata.  It has the complex volcano Mount Zao, which is also host to a ski resort. This is the most volcanically active area in Tohoku.

Food

Miyagi, especially Sendai, is famous for gyu-tan, or grilled slices of cow tongue.  You can also get shark fin soup in Kesennuma.

Have you been to Miyagi?  What did I miss?  Do you have any 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 Kanagawa

This week in Exploring Japan, we go back to the Kanto region with my home, Kanagawa prefecture.

Kanagawa is the southernmost prefecture in the Kanto region, just south of Tokyo.  It faces the Pacific Ocean and it’s quite easy to have an incredible view of Mt. Fuji from almost anywhere in the prefecture.  It has a population of 9,029,996, the second highest in the country.  The capital is Yokohama.  The 5 biggest cities are:

  1. Yokohama (3,697,894)
  2. Kawasaki (1,437,266)
  3. Sagamihara (719,677)
  4. Fujisawa (416,418)
  5. Yokosuka (414,960)

The population of Kanagawa is growing fairly rapidly, including the biggest cities (other than Yokosuka).  As the prefecture is quite small, it is densely populated and is mostly urbanized.  The only rural areas are the mountains of western Kanagawa and some of the Miura Peninsula.

Castles

Odawara Castle in Odawara is the only castle in Kanagawa, as all others were destroyed and never rebuilt.  Odawara Castle is a reproduction with extensive grounds.  A tour of the museum on the grounds will tell you that the moat and wall system inspired Edo Castle’s design.

Sports

In baseball, Yokohama hosts the Yokohama DeNA Bay Stars.  In J-League soccer, there are several teams: Yokohama F. Marinos of Yokohama, Kawasaki Frontale of Kawasaki, Yokohama F.C. of Yokohama, and Shonan Bellmare of Hiratsuka.

Things to see and do

I’ve lived in Kanagawa since 2005, so I know quite a bit about the prefecture.  I’m highlighting the best here, though.  Kanagawa is probably best-known for the city of Yokohama and its Chinatown, as well as the old capital Kamakura and its ancient temples and shrines.  But there is so much to see.

Yokohama is the largest incorporated city in Japan (Tokyo is technically not a city), so has a lot to see.  Chinatown is the largest Chinatown in Japan and one of the largest in the world.  The Minato Mirai district has the tall Landmark Tower with an observatory on the 69th floor, providing an amazing view of the city, Tokyo Bay, Mt. Fuji, and even Tokyo.  At the base are the Landmark Plaza and Queen’s Square shopping centres.  Nipponmaru is an old military ship with sails that was often used for training.  It’s now open for tours.  Pacifico Yokohama is a convention centre that hosts many events.  The Yokohama Museum of Art is nearby, and is quite extensive.  Rounding out Minato Mirai is the Anpanman Museum.  Going south, you can find the Cosmo World amusement park with the Cosmo Clock ferris wheel.  You can go shopping at World Porters.  There’s more shopping at Aka Renga, Red Brick Warehouse, which is now a shopping mall, but are historic buildings.  Further south, you can find Osanbashi Pier, where cruise ships dock, but is also a park.  Yamashita Park is to the south of that, and you can also visit Marine Tower, a lighthouse that provides great views.  The Hikawa Maru was a passenger ship that traveled to Seattle and Vancouver and is open for tours.  Next is Motomachi, a high class shopping district, which is next to the old foreign residential area, Yamate, which includes many old western houses.  Sankeien Garden is Yokohama’s best Japanese garden and hosts many old historic buildings.  Back around Yokohama Station, you can go shopping in many places, including Sogo and Yokohama Bay Quarter.  Yokohama has three zoos, the biggest being Zoorasia.  Nogeyama Zoo is free, and there’s also the Kanazawa Zoo.  Hakkeijima Sea Paradise is both an amusement park and an aquarium, which includes an area where you can touch dolphins. Kamoike Park is a good place to see ducks and fireflies.  Moroka Kumano Shrine is a famous shrine in Yokohama.  Shomyoji is a beautiful temple with a garden.  The Yokohama History Museum is built next to an archaeological site that dates back to the Yayoi Era. There are some quirky museums to see, including the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum, the Cup Noodles Museum, and the Doll Museum.

Kawasaki is Kanagawa’s industrial city and second largest.  Probably the most famous site is Kawasaki Daishi, or Heikenji.  It’s one of the busiest temples in the Tokyo area and has plenty to see.  Wakamiya Hachimangu Shrine is a famous fertility shrine, with a large phallus.  It also has a sex museum.  The Kanamara Festival is also known as the Iron Penis Festival, and features many floats with penises.  Nihon Minkaen is the Japan Open-Air Folk House Museum, which displays many traditional Japanese houses and even Nagoya Castle’s gate.  At night, the Kawasaki industrial zone has tours to see the factories lit up.

Kamakura is one of the most famous cities in Japan and a huge draw for tourists and locals.  It has a large number of famous temples and shrines, and it was the capital of Japan 800 years ago.  There are too many temples and shrines to list, but I’ll highlight the best.  Tsurugaoka Hachimangu is the biggest and most famous shrine in the city.  The grounds are huge and always busy.  Myohonji is near the station and is the temple dedicated to childbirth.  Kotokuin is the home of the Great Buddha, or Daibutsu, the 2nd largest in Japan. Hasedera has a great view of the city and has the largest wooden statue in Japan. It also has a cave filled with Benzaiten statues. Zeniarai Benten is a great shrine surrounded by cliffs where you can wash your money.  Nearby is Sasuke Inari Shrine, which is near the home of the precursors of the ninja. Kita-Kamakura has a collection of very famous temples.  Engakuji is quite beautiful and has many national treasures, including one of Buddha’s teeth.  Kenchoji is Kamakura’s most important temple, and it has the largest wooden structure in eastern Japan.  You can access the Ten’en hiking trail from here.  Tokeiji is a nunnery that was dedicated to protecting abused women.  It has a great atmosphere.  Meigetsuin is the hydrangea temple, filled with many hydrangea blooming in June.  In Ofuna, you can find the Ofuna Kannon, a giant concrete statue of Kannon’s bust.  It’s easily visible from the main street. Going east, Jomyoji is a pretty attractive temple.  Nearby is Hokokuji with its bamboo forest.  Sugimotodera is the oldest temple in Kamakura, nearly 1300 years old, and it has many steep stairs to the top.  I can keep going, but these are the highlights.  Also, it’s nice to visit Minamoto no Yoritomo’s grave.  Kamakura has some great beaches that are very popular in the summer.  There’s plenty of surfing, too, giving Kamakura a bit of a Hawaiian flavour.  Hiking is also popular, as there are several hiking trails through the city. Some good museums are Kamakura Museum of National Treasures and Kamakura Museum of Literature. Also, the Kanagawa Prefectural Ofuna Botanical Garden is supposed to be great. Having lived in Kamakura for 4 years, I got to know it pretty well.

Yokosuka is home to an American Naval base and a Japanese Self-Defense Force naval base.  Therefore, it has a lot of Americans and a strong Navy presence.  One major site is the battleship Mikasa, which you can take a tour of.  Perry Landing Park is around the spot where Commodore Perry opened up Japan to the rest of the world.  Verny Park is a nice park dedicated to a French engineer who helped Japan build its navy.  Kurihama Hana-no-Kuni is a great place to see flower, and there are a million poppies.  Sarushima is an island accessible from Kurihama.  It’s a private island and nature preserve, but it’s a good place for a picnic during the day.  Anjinzuka Park is the city’s best place to view cherry blossoms.  Chouganji is a historic temple with plenty of events.

Fujisawa is a coastal city known for its very popular beach, surfing, and its biggest attraction, Enoshima.  Enoshima is an island that has many attractions. Along with the shrines and temples on the island, there’s a very busy main town area with plenty of shops and resorts.  It also has a large marina.  On the south side of the island are the Iwaya Caves, which are interesting to explore, but not extremely large.  Probably the biggest features are Samuel Cocking Garden and the Enoshima Lighthouse.  Nearby, you can see the New Enoshima Aquarium, which includes dolphins, a false killer whale, a huge main tank, and a pool where you can touch sharks.  Enoshima and Kugenuma beaches are both popular, and include surfing and beach volleyball.  Shirahata Shrine is a nice small shrine to visit.  Shojokoji (Yugyoji) is an important temple in Buddhism.  Also, you can find Oba Joshi Park, which is the ruins of Oba Castle.  No ruins actually exist, but there is a beautiful park there now.

Odawara is mainly famous for its castle, but there are several shrines and temples to see as well.  But in 1590, there was another castle called Ishigakiyama Ichiya Castle, which seemed to appear overnight.  It was constructed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi behind the cover of trees during the siege of Odawara Castle, then the trees were cut down.  Stone walls remain.  Also, you can visit the Kanagawa Prefecture Museum of Natural History, which is quite informative.

Sagamihara may be the third largest city in Kanagawa, but it is mainly a bedroom community, though half of the city is mountainous.  The biggest attraction is Sagami Lake, which is wonderful for flowers, fireworks, and in winter, Illumillion light display.  Tsukui Lake is another popular lake with fishing, flowers, market, and a small mountain you can climb, Shiroyama. Myougenji temple seems like it might be nice to see.  The Tanamukaihara ruins are 20,000 year old paleolithic ruins that can be visited, and are the oldest ruins in Japan.

Zushi is a small seaside city that is popular for its beach.  There’s plenty of hiking to do in Zushi, too.  Hiroyama Park has a great view of the mountains and Mt. Fuji, and has a small zoo.  Gandenji temple is a very old temple and worth visiting. Jinmuji temple is also very old, and has some nice hills and hiking trails nearby.  Hosshoji temple is another temple that’s good to see.  You can watch the Zushi Yabusame, which is horseback archery. Osaki Park is famous for its cherry blossoms.  Nearby, Kotsubo is a small fishing village that’s great for fresh fish and the Ayu Festival.

Hakone is Kanagawa’s premier hot spring resort area.  The town is situated in the caldera of Mt. Hakone, and it’s a UNESCO Geopark. This is the place you go to for hot springs, but there are many other attractions.  Lake Ashi (Ashinoko) is the central feature of the area.  Hakone Shrine is situated on the lake with a torii gate in the water. Owakudani is a hot spring area that can be accessed via cable car, though you don’t want to get in the water.  Hakone Open Air Museum is an outdoor art museum situated in a park. For some sightseeing, take the Hakone-Tozan Cable Car, the Hakone Ropeway or the cartoonish Hakone Sightseeing Ships on Ashinoko. There’s also the Hakone Komagatake Ropeway to Mt. Komagatake.  Hakone Botanical Garden of Wetlands is good to see. And finally, you can see the Pola Museum of Art.

Isehara is a small city that is known for Mt. Oyama.  Oyama is a mountain that is easily climbed in a day, and it has a cable car that takes you halfway up.  The view from the top is beautiful.  At the base of the mountain is a long shopping area that’s famous for tofu.

Miura is a small city on the southern tip of the Miura Peninsula.  Along with the rugged coast and beaches, it also features Jogashima, an island that’s known for its tuna fishery.  Go there for some fresh sushi and sashimi.

Hiratsuka is situated on the Shonan coastal area, and is famous for one thing, the Tanabata Festival.  This festival is the largest Tanabata festival in the Kanto region and the second largest in the country.

Food

Apart from Chinese food (especially shumai and nikuman/pork buns), Kanagawa has a couple of local foods that are popular.  One is shirasu, which is baby sardines.  Also, in Kamakura, pigeon sable cookies are very popular.

Have I missed something that you think was notable?  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 Gunma

Exploring Japan returns to the Kanto region with Gunma Prefecture.

Gunma is in the northwestern corner of the Kanto area on Honshu.  It’s the second landlocked prefecture I’m covering.  It has a population of 2,014,608 and has some of the highest temperatures of Japan in summer.  The capital city is Maebashi.  Here are the 5 largest cities in Gunma:

  1. Takasaki (375,342)
  2. Maebashi (344,871)
  3. Ota (219,789)
  4. Isesaki (211,021)
  5. Kiryu (124,077)

Gunma has a slowly decreasing population, similar to many other prefectures.

Castles

Takasaki Castle in Takasaki has very little remaining.  But it’s apparently worth seeing some of the remaining buildings.

Numata Castle in Numata also has very little remaining.  There are some buildings, but not much left.

Sports

The only major professional team in Gunma is the Thespa Kusatsu Gunma soccer team in the J-League.  There was a team in Takasaki, but it had financial problems.

Things to see and do

When I think of Gunma, I think of two things, both of them hot.  First is the hot weather in the southeast, near Saitama.  It’s one of the hottest parts of Japan.  The other is hot springs.  In particular, the town of Kusatsu and its hot springs resorts.

In Maebashi, the capital, there isn’t really much to see or do.  You could watch soccer or take in a 360 degree view of the city at the Gunma Prefecture Governmental Building or see the Ogo Gion Festival.

Takasaki is more interesting than the capital.  It’s the home of the Daruma doll.  Shorinzan Daruma Temple is the origin of the Daruma dolls, and it has a small museum.  Mt. Kannonyama has a big Kannon statue at the top, as well as a cave and garden. For those who like history, Zenpou-Kouen-Fun has a lot of keyhole tombs that are 1500 years old and an archaeology museum. Gunma no Mori has a couple of good museums. Mt. Haruna has a very old shrine, as well as a scenic crater lake and the top of the mountain can be accessed by bus. Minowa Castle ruins are also in Takasaki.

Tomioka city is also worth visiting for its silk history.  It has Japan’s oldest modern silk mill. You can also see the Gunma Safari Park and the Tomioka Museum of Natural History, which has 30 dinosaur skeletons.

Kiryu has some great old architecture dating back to the Meiji era.  It seems like it’s a great place to walk around. Nearby is the Watarase River valley, which is considered Japan’s Grand Canyon.  Great place for hiking and seeing the gorge.  There’s also a 400 year old copper mine that you can see. The city is also well known for silk and pachinko factories.

Ota city is known as Japan’s “Little Brazil,” as there’s a large Brazilian population.  Also, Subaru’s headquarters are here.  Some things of interest are Daikoin Temple, as well as the remains of Kanayama Castle.  Also, the Yabuzuka Onsen is the local hot springs, but nearby is the Snake Center, which has a collection of rare snakes.

Tatebayashi is a city that’s pretty close to Saitama in the far southeast. You can see the Tatebayashi Castle ruins there.  But it’s also well known for azaleas, which can be see at Tsutsuji-ga-oka Park.  Morinji Temple is home to “Bunbuku Chagama,” tanuki tea kettles.

Kusatsu is a small town, but it’s very famous in Japan. Yabutake, a huge hot spring resort, looks very interesting.  There are more than 100 hot springs, plenty of museums, flowers, lakes, mountains, and a ski area.  It’s very popular to go there during winter to ski in the daytime and relax in the hot springs at night. Mt. Kusatsu-Shirane is an active volcano that you can take a tour of, and it has a crater lake.  It’s in Joshinetsu Kogen National Park, Japan’s second largest.  Asama Volcano Museum is a good place to learn about volcanoes.  Tropical Wonder Land has a lot of tropical animals.

Food

Gunma is famous for wheat and other agricultural products.  One popular food is udon.  The prefecture is also well-known for cabbage, negi (long green onion), and konnyaku (konjac).

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Exploring Gifu

Exploring Japan returns with a look at central Japan’s Gifu prefecture.

Gifu is in the central Japanese region of Chubu on the island of Honshu.  It’s the first landlocked prefecture I’m looking at.  It has a population of 2,074,158 and is one of the larger prefectures in the country.  The capital is Gifu.  The 5 largest cities are:

  1. Gifu (412,895)
  2. Ogaki (163,364)
  3. Kakamigahara (145,430)
  4. Tajimi (112,165)
  5. Kani (97,435)

Gifu is one of the prefectures that is shrinking in population as people move to the big cities.

Castles

Gifu Castle in Gifu city is a reconstruction of the original.  The castle contains a museum and the observation deck provides a 360 degree panoramic view of the city.  It’s located at the top of a mountain, so the view sounds amazing.

Gujo Hachiman Castle in Gujo is a wood reconstruction built in 1933.  It’s a pre-war reconstruction, which seems unusual.  It’s also a mountaintop castle.

Ogaki Castle in Ogaki is a reconstruction of a castle that was destroyed in World War II.  The interior is a museum with artifacts from the Battle of Sekigahara.

Sunomata Castle in Ogaki is a reconstruction.  It serves as a local history museum now.

Things to see and do

Gifu is famous for quite a few things, actually.  Some of the most famous things in Gifu include the historic village Shirakawa-go, cormorant fishing, and for people who love science, the Super-Kamiokande and KamLAND neutrino and antineutrino experimental facilities. It’s a popular place for skiing, hiking, and hot springs, as well.

In Gifu city, you can see Ukai, or cormorant fishing.  They use cormorants to catch fish.  In addition to Gifu Castle, Mt. Kinka is a good place to hike.  As for museums, I’d like to see the Gifu City Museum of History, Nawa Insect Museum, and Gifu City Science Museum.  Gifu has its own Daibutsu (Great Buddha), as well.  The Nagara River Fireworks Festival lasts 90 minutes at the end of July and beginning of August.

Hida city is a very historic city with a preserved historic city centre.

Mino is well-known for its Mino-washi Akari Art Exhibition, which is a paper lantern festival.

Tajimi is a great place to see ceramics.  Also, Eihoji temple is a beautiful Buddhist temple.

Takayama is a city that has some great historic sites. The Hida Folk Museum (Hida Minzokumura) is an open air museum that has Edo period buildings and people performing traditional jobs.  The Takayama Festivals are one of the largest Shinto festivals in Japan. Takayama Jinya is a beautiful old government building that is open to the public.

Yoro has a very unique attraction, The Site of Reversible Destiny in Yoro Park. It’s a theme park designed to disorient you.  Sounds very interesting.

Gero is famous for its hot springs. Gero Onsen is one of the most famous hot springs in Japan.

The Oku-Hida Onsen Villages are a great place for hot springs and hiking with beautiful mountain views.

Sekigahara is famous for its battle in 1600.  There are some museums dedicated to the battle.

Food

Gifu is best known for hoba miso, a soybean paste that’s grilled on a hoba leaf.  Also, you can find Hida beef, which is a marbled beef that is very expensive.

Do you live in Gifu, or have you visited Gifu?  What else is great to see there?

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