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Exploring Nagasaki

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

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

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

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

Castles

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

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

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

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

Things to see and do

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

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

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

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

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

Food

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

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

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Exploring Mie

For this week’s Exploring Japan, we continue with another Kansai prefecture, Mie.

Mie prefecture is in the western part of Kansai, though it has closer ties with Nagoya than Kansai.  It faces the Pacific Ocean.  It has a population of 1,855,177.  The capital is Tsu.  The 5 largest cities are:

  1. Yokkaichi (307,382)
  2. Tsu (298,980)
  3. Suzuka (198,598)
  4. Matsusaka (167,107)
  5. Kuwana (140,796)

The population of Mie is pretty steady, while the larger cities are growing.  Those in the north are basically industrial cities and bedroom communities for Nagoya.

Castles

Iga Ueno Castle in Iga is a reconstructed castle.  The main tower collapsed about 400 years ago and wasn’t reconstructed until 1935.

Tsu Castle in Tsu has a reconstructed turret, though it’s not historically accurate.  There is decent stonework and a gate in existence, as well.

Kameyama Castle in Kameyama doesn’t have much remaining.  All that’s still standing is one turret and the stone walls/foundation.

Kuwana Castle in Kuwana is mainly a park now, though it has two reconstructed turrets.

Things to see and do

There wasn’t much I knew about Mie, other than the UNESCO World Heritage Site Ise Jingu shrine and the Suzuka Circuit, Japan’s most famous racetrack.  As I researched about Mie, I noticed that each city doesn’t have much to see, but there is plenty to see in the entire prefecture.

Tsu, the prefectural capital, doesn’t have much to see.  Of course, it has the castle ruins, but other than that, there is a festival that might be good to see, the Tojin Odori.

Yokkaichi, the largest city, is a mostly industrial city.  Surprisingly, it has little to see.  There are some festivals, though, including the Amagasuka Ishideri Festival, the Great Yokkaichi Festival, and the Matsubara Ishideri Festival.

Iga, which is home to Iga Ueno Castle, the best castle in the prefecture, has several things to see.  The Iga-ryu Ninja Museum is probably worth seeing, originally used by the Iga Ninja clan, one of Japan’s most notorious ninja clans.  The Basho Museum looks interesting on the outside, and it’s dedicated to the haiku master Matsuo Basho.  You can also see the Tenjin Festival in October. Also, there’s a 5 week long festival dedicated to ninja, the Iga Ueno Ninja Festa.

Ise city is home to Mie’s most famous site, and probably the holiest shrine in Japan, Ise Jingu. A lot of the shrine is inaccessible to the public, but there is still a lot to see.  Kawasaki Kaiwai is the historic merchants area of the city. Meoto Iwa are a pair of rocks in the sea that are joined by a Shinto rope that weighs more than a ton.  They are also known as the Wedded Rocks or Husband-and-Wife Rocks. Futami Sea Paradise is a small aquarium. Oharai Machi and Okage Yokocho are historic areas that are good for shopping and dining.  Also, while in Ise, it’s probably worth trying Ise-ebi, or Japanese spiny lobster, though it’s quite expensive.  Much of the city is within Ise-Shima National Park, where you can enjoy the coast, islands, mountains, and forests. And of course, the Ise Festival is quite popular.

Kumano is a small city further south on the Kii Peninsula.  There, you can see some natural formations, including Shishiwa, or the lion rock, and the Onigajo, or demon castle.  The latter is a rock cave formation.  Hana no Iwaya is a very old shrine. Senmaida is a thousand rice paddies that is planted by hand every year.  It’s on the side of a hill, so no machines can be used.  You can hike the Kodo, part of an old pilgrimage route.  Doro Gyo is a gorge you can ride a boat through.

Matsusaka has the Matsusaka Castle ruins, but also beef.  Matsusaka beef is one of Japan’s famous types of wagyu beef.

Shima is known for its pearl cultivation.  It also has some sites. Parque Espana is a Spanish village theme park. Goza Shirahama is a very popular and crowded beach. Shima Marine Land is a small aquarium.

Suzuka is famous for one thing, the Suzuka Circuit.  It’s Japan’s most famous racetrack, and is part of the Formula One race circuit. You can also visit the Tsubaki Ogamiyashiro shrine.

Toba is a city near Ise that’s very popular for holidays.  You can see Mikimoto Pearl Island, which is dedicated to the cultured pearl and has demonstrations by Ama, female pearl divers.  Toba Aquarium is considered the best aquarium in Japan, and only one of 4 aquariums in the world to have dugong. The Toba Castle ruins are also available to see.

Owase is a small city, but has plenty to see. The Kumano Kodo Center is made entirely of cypress, and you can see the history of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage, as well as go hiking nearby.  Owase Shrine has a very old tree, while the Kongobuji temple next to it has some fierce statues at the entrance.  Mikisato Beach has beautiful water.  Sugari and Kuki are fishing villages nearby that you can look around and take a tour. Finally, you can see the Nakamurayama Castle ruins, which is a park now.

Kuwana, next to Nagoya, has a couple places to see.  Nagashima Spa Land has an amusement park and shopping mall, and it includes one of the largest roller coasters in the world, while in summer, you can enjoy waterslides.  Kyuka Park features a sumo ring. Tado Shrine holds a big festival every year, the Tado Festival.

Food

Mie is most famous for its Matsusaka beef, the local variety of wagyu beef.  For seafood, spiny lobster is very well-known.

Have you been to Mie?  What would you recommend to see and do?

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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 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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Mt. Fuji after the rain

After nearly 40 straight hours of constant rain, the sky began to clear up in the afternoon.  The air was absolutely clear.  What does that mean?  A very clear view of the Tanzawa Mountains and Mt. Fuji.  I took this picture from work today, and it was incredible to see.  Mt. Fuji was capped by clouds, but you can see that it’s still covered by snow.  It’ll be a while until it’s snow-free.

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I love being able to see Mt. Fuji regularly.

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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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