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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 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 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 Kochi

This time in Exploring Japan, we return to Shikoku for Kochi Prefecture.

Kochi is the prefecture on Shikoku that faces the Pacific Ocean, and it’s also the largest prefecture on Shikoku.  It has a population of 757,914, one of the smallest in Japan.  It’s capital city is Kochi.  The 5 largest cities are:

  1. Kochi (340,515)
  2. Nankoku (49,040)
  3. Shimanto (35,968)
  4. Konan (33,830)
  5. Kami (28,766)

Most cities are quite small.  The population of Kochi has been declining for a long time.

Castles

Kochi Castle is the only notable castle in Kochi, and it’s an important one.  It’s one of the 12 original castles remaining in Japan.  There’s a lot to see, and it’s castle that was built during peacetime.

Aki Castle in Aki is mainly just ruins, but it seems to have some decent-looking stone walls.

Things to see and do

Kochi is famous for its hero, Sakamoto Ryoma.  He was from Kochi, and he was a famous leader who was instrumental in ending the Tokugawa government.  So, of course, you can visit the Sakamoto Ryoma Memorial Museum and Sakamoto Ryoma’s Hometown Museum.  Other museums include the Museum of Art, Kochi and the Kochi People’s and Liberty Museum.  Tosa Shrine is well-known, and Chikurinji Temple can be found on Mount Godaisan.  Godaisan Park provides great views of the city.  The Makino Botanical Garden is nearby and should be good to visit.  Harimayabashi is a famous, but small bridge from a well-known story.  Katsurahama is a famous beach with the Katsurahama Aquarium, and nearby is the remains of Urado Castle. You can also see the Tosa Dog-Fighting Center. The Sunday Market should be great for some shopping for fresh fish, vegetables, and more.  The Yosakoi Festival is a famous festival that involves teams of dancers.

Kami is a small city, but has plenty to see.  The biggest draw is Ryugado Cave, one of Japan’s top 3 caves.  Also, this is the hometown of Anpanman’s creator, so there’s the Anpanman Museum. Kagamino Park is a great place to see cherry blossoms, while Todoro Falls is one of the top 100 waterfalls in Japan.  For museums, you can see the Kami City Art Museum, Okumonobe Art Museum, and Yoshii Isamu Memorial Museum.  There are a few temples and shrines to see, including Hachioji Shrine, Shionomine Kujikata Shrine, and Koshoji temple.

Nankoku has a few historical sites, including the Oko Castle grounds, which are good for seeing cherry blossoms.  Tosa Kokubunji temple and Zenjibuji temple are on the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage.

Shimanto is a city where you can see a few natural things.  You can participate in outdoor activities around the Shimanto River, as well as head down to the nearby beach and see whales, dolphins, and turtles.

Cape Ashizuri is the southernmost point on Shikoku, and it has a few things to see.  It’s in Ashizuri-Uwakai National Park.  The best things to see are probably Tengu-no-Hana, a viewpoint that looks out over the ocean, and Kongofukuji temple, one of the largest temples on the temple pilgrimage. It was also here that Nakahama Manjiro was born, shipwrecked, and rescued by an American whaling ship.  He was the first Japanese man to travel to the USA, and he acted as an interpreter for Commodore Perry. So, there’s a statue dedicated to him.

Food

Kochi is famous for katsuo tataki, which is a bonito, or skipjack tuna, seared on the outside while the inside remains raw.  Sounds good.

Did I miss 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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