Thursday 23 June 2011

Tips for ALT's travelling in Japan with Family and friends

Travel with family and friends: Making it work.

              Showing your family and friends around Japan is always going to be exciting during the lead up to the trip. However there are a few things you should keep in mind. Creature comforts at home your family take for granted, such as being to travel by car anywhere being absent can cause tension. If your family is anything like mine, these small things can cause big problems, and no one wants their holiday to be ruined by grumpiness and misunderstandings. Here are my 10 tips for a smooth trip with ‘The Fam’!

1.      Let your peeps know what they’re in for. If you forewarn your guest, they are less likely to get culture shock. It’ll make the whole trip smoother.  

2.      Let them know this is your home; You may be surprised that you get offended by small comments that are made, that to you seem insulting to your current home and way of life. Try and take things with a pinch of salt and remember how Japan was for you when you first arrived; your guest will most likely be experiencing similar feelings.

3.      Oh my god…. SHOES! Shoes are a crucial element of any Japan trip. Make sure your family brings shoes that are appropriate for your plans (not brand new! Oh no blisters!)

4.      Lead by example. Things like lining up for the train correctly and how to eat with chopsticks won’t be second nature for them.

5.      Give yourself a breather. I’m always too tempted to cram my schedule stupid with all kinds of cultural and crazy fun. Don’t forget, travelling is tiring, and being tired makes people grumpy. Make sure you schedule a sleep-in or two!

6.      Space. If you have visitors for a long period you may want to consider sending them off for a short interlude (eg. Ryokan in Kyoto, day trip to Kobe). Giving yourselves some space will help you both recoup and refresh, ready for the next lot of adventures together!

7.      Try and visit somewhere new. It’s always nice to go somewhere new with those you love, so you can share the experience and excitement; too many ‘been there’s and ‘done that’s may leave you feeling like an underpaid tour guide. 

8.      Don’t leave out your town! Bright lights of Tokyo, shines and Maiko of Kyoto and the beaches are all very beautiful and exciting, but most families (and some friends too) want to see what you are doing and where you live also. For those of us longer staying JET, it helps our peeps understand just why we are still here…

9.      Check-in online and take an early train to the airport. My sister may have wound herself in some trouble if she had not. The typhoon delayed trains by an hour and traffic created further delays; it could have been an interesting end to her trip!

10.  Don’t get drunk with the Yakuza. Enough said.

Friday 13 May 2011

Cycling Paradise: The Shimanami Kaido

It is only in recent years that I've discovered this thing called 'fitness'. Simply put, I was an 'indoors' kind of girl, unless whatever I was doing involved the beach or a pool. You see, living in Western Australia, one does not need to actively seek sunshine, it's a part of everyday life. Most days you get enough vitamin D just driving your car.

Living in Japan however is a different story. Some weeks pass without the sun peeking through the clouds, and it can rain for days on end. So when the sun does show itself, you feel an uncontrollable urge to run and skip outside in the sunshine. So after yet another Japanese winter I decided it was time to do just that.

I'd been hearing stories of this epic bike ride called the 'Shimanami Kaido', 7 bridges that span between the islands from Onomichi, Hiroshima Prefecture to Imabari in Ehime Prefecture. After further research I found out that the first bridge (if you start in Onomichi) is usually bypassed as it is very out of the way, and not suitable for pedestrians or bikers, so 6 bridges, no worries right? 71 kilometres of sunshine and cycling, here we come!

Before heading off, you can book the type of bicycle you'd like to rock (or ride, as it were). Electric engine-assisted (800yen per day), bikes with gears, and fixed mamacharis (both 500yen per day) are all available. The main bike terminal at Onomichi Port has the longest opening hours, is very accessible (Onomichi JR station) and has a large selection of bikes to choose from. If you leave from one of the minor hire stations, it's important to book ahead so they have the bike you need ready for you. Unfortunately, it's impossible to pre-book for 'Golden Week', you'll just have to get there well ahead of opening time if you hope to get anything decent, as I did.

My journey started from the second bicycle hire terminal on Mukaishima (free parking here guys!). Rocking up 7:50am, I managed to snag one of the last remaining decent and geared bikes complete with a lil' basket for my luggage.

Some of the ramps are fairly steep and short, while others span over a steady incline of nearly 2 kilometres. Whizzing down the other side of the bridge is pretty damn fun, just be sure to watch out for other bicycle folk, the occasional wild boar and unexpected brontosaurus statues! Most of the course runs along the coast line, providing beautiful scenery along well marked paths.

One of the highlights along the route is the Kosanji, and Kosanji Temple Museum on Ikuchijima Island. The gardens are a lush green and in May are filled with blooming wisteria vines. The large koi pond is home to the goldest fish I've ever seen. The completion of the temple took 30 years, and each building is modeled after some of the most famous temples in Japan, including Nikko Temple's Yomeimon Gate and Byodoin's Phoenix Hall. Follow the temple path around, and underground and you'll find a cavern lighted delicately by the ornate lanterns and filled with many images of Buddha, but first you must descend down along halls displaying artwork that depicts the tortures of Buddhist hell...

At the rear of the temple is the winning piece of the 2005 international "Marble Architectural Awards". Created by artist Kazuto Kuetani, "Miraishin no Oka" (Heights of Eternal Hope for the future) this series of Italian Marble sculptures are described by the artist himself as his 'life's work". Although this instalment has no part of the temples religious functions, it's really something quite special.

Beware the hill on Oshima, you may need need to walk your bicycle. It's the second highest point along the route, second only to the impressive Kurushimakaiyo Bridge. Kurushimakaiyo Bridge is actually 3 connected bridges that span the gap between Oshima and mainland Shikoku. On a clear day the view from the bridge is spectacular, and I spent a while in the middle of the bridge watching ferries and cargo ships come and go.

For those that don't want to cram the 71k into one day, you can drop off your bike at a rental terminal along the way, for a small fee. From these points you can either take a ferry to your next destination, or jump on the highway bus. There are also spots along the route where you can hire camping gear and chill out for the night, including the Onomichi Marine Youth Centre on Mukaishima. A list of accommodation can be found in Japanese (unfortunately the English website is far from complete) on the Kaido's official homepage The islands also have some beautiful beaches along the way, so if you can make time for a dip!

Imabari town was the end of the cycle for me. Here, you can find a lovely little castle, with an impressive display of samurai armour. But one of the true gems worth visiting in Ehime is Matsuyama. Matsuyama is home to the very famous Dogo Onsen. This is the bath house that inspired Yubaba's hot spring in spirited away. The hot spring can be very, very crowded (especially in Golden Week), so be prepared to fight the crowds. The line to enter the hotspring for one of the bathing packages (including access to other baths and a snack) can stretch around the building, spilling out into the street.

This is another of my trips in Japan that left me feeling a little proud. 71k is a lot to tackle at any fitness level. And just to prove to myself that I could do it again, I rode back the whole way after just one days rest; blissful exhaustion. 

Surviving the Shimanami:

Clothing: Although terribly unfashionable, I highly recommend investing in a pair of padded biking shorts. Even with these shorts you'll be left a little saddle-sore. I'd also recommend grabbing a pair of riding gloves.

Sustenense: It's handy to take some snacks for the ride. There are a few places to stop and eat along the way, but you never know when you'll need to rest and refuel so come prepared. Arm yourself with some 'Sweat' or Aquarius too.

Protection: Sunscreen! The sun can get pretty intense, especially on the tops
of those pumpin' legs. Sunnies and a hat wont go astray either.

Money: Make sure to take small change to pay the bridge fees along the way. If you plan to cross all six bridges, you can purchase discount coupons at the cycle stations. ATMs are also few and far between, so come prepared.

To book your bike you'll need to fill in the form and fax it in at least 1 week before your intended departure date. There are other block out periods in 'Silver Week' in September and in the summer holidays in August. The form can be found here:

Tuesday 10 May 2011

The Japanese Tourism Industry needs you!

A great credit to all Assistant Language Teachers I know, we ‘man’ed up. Many of us found avenues to donate toiletries, stationary, second-hand clothes and the like. Now, there is another way we can all help, and it’s all in the name of fun.

Self restraint is underway in a big way. That pesky old law that requires dancing establishments to have licensing for events after 1am (a costly and difficult process) that was largely ignored by officials in the past, has now become strictly enforced.  Highways that were notoriously congested during Golden Weeks of the past were comparatively easy to pass. Sunday afternoon at Osaka Aquarium has become a stroll in the park, rather than the normal chaotic fight for a good vantage point.

This is what has prompted me to write this article. As a tourism advocate, I feel that it is my duty to spread the word. If you were needing an incentive to travel, well, here it is. GET TRAVELLING, THE JAPANESE TOURISM INDUSTRY NEEDS YOU!!

Akasaka district has become eerily deserted. The visitors information centre normally sees 3000 people per day, but numbers have dropped dramatically to 500-600 people daily. An employee at the visitors centre said that in all her 20 years of working there, they had never before had so few visitors.

Just so you can get idea of what kind of numbers we are looking at, between March 11 and the end of March, accommodation in the Beppu Hot Springs area alone received 33,000 cancellations. Touhoku and Kanto regions suffered 390,000 cancellations, while another 170,000 were reported in other areas of Japan.

Misinformation in the media has damaged people’s confidence in tourism in greater Japan, when it is only a small percentage of the country that has been shut down to tourism. All major power outages in the Kantou region stopped well back at the end of March, and the beginning of Golden Week also saw the restoration of the Tohoku Shinkansen Line. On the international front, JNTO (Japan National Tourism Organisation) branches around the globe are scrambling to repair the damage done to Japan’s reputation as a tourism destination.

For those working in Japan, summer holidays are just around the corner, and exam week is even closer. It is not only our duty, but our job to enjoy all our paid leave and inject some money into the tourism industry, and thus Japan. People back home, get on board. International visitors spend more money and stay longer, injecting further funds into the now flailing industry.

So when you travel around Japan in the coming months, spoil yourself, you’ll only be helping Japan too. 

More information

Thursday 5 May 2011

Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route

In April, when the snow has melted away, there is one place you can count on for a mountain of snow. The Northern Japanese alps are the steepest and considered by some to be the most beautiful in Japan. The route, at its highest point has an altitude of 2500 metres. The route can be accessed from Tateyama in the north and Ougizawa station in Nagano Prefecture.
Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route lies upon the boarder of Nagano and Toyama prefectures. For any that get a thrill out of tunnels, this is the perfect trip for you. The electronic trolley bus will take you through the tunnel, the thickest point of which took over a year to cut through. No less than 9 modes of transport will take you the length of the Alpine Route, including the cable car, electric trolley bus, and ropeway.

Throughout the open season (spring,summer and autumn) you might be lucky enough to see the nationally protected bird, the snow grouse, which has reportedly existed since the ice age. Its feathers change colour with the seasons. Martens also roam the region, so you may be lucky and spot these cute ferret like creatures.

The highlight of my trip to the Alpen Route last year was the Snow Walls, which are 18 metres tall at their highest. Take a stroll down along the snow walls, but don't forget to rug up, its pretty icy up here! 

You can even see snow in Mordor! Ehem… sorry I mean Murodo. Murodo is the highest point of the Alpen route. In the spring season it is covered in snow, and you can walk out to the lake and hot spring across the snow too, just make sure you bring non-slip shoes. Murodo also boasts the earliest Autumn Colours in Japan, which start to turn in late September. And not unlike the inhospitable terrain of Mordor, Murodo has it's very own Jigoku-dani (Hell Valley) where you can witness the gas and and hot water spewing from the ground. 

Winter sports can be enjoyed up here earlier than the rest of Japan, as Mt Tateyama is completely covered by snow in November.  

During the summer months, you can enjoy hiking and mountain climbing, and also enjoy a cruise in a ‘pleasure-boat’ across the waters of the Kurobe Dam. Walk along the walls of the dam, and you are looking at one of the largest dams in the world. Water is discharged from the dam from late June, and you can often see rainbows in the mist. 

As impressive as the Alpine route is, I recommend not neglecting the surrounding areas! If you should decide to pay a visit in Golden Week, you can also enjoy the Tonami Tulip festival. Fields upon fields of tulips of many shapes and colours (including black) and even tulip flavoured icecream (tulips taste like musk apparently!) Get your photo taken with the Tulip Princesses, and mascots. The park smells devine, and you can easily loose hours walking through the different exhibits of not only more than 450 kinds of Tulips, but local produce. Try the black pork, it’s delicious! Tonami Tulip Fair is a 15 minute walk from JR Tonami Station. 

On the eastern side of the Route, you aren't far from Matsumoto castle. On the western side lies the famous Takayama in Gifu prefecture, and the much loved 'little Kyoto', Kanazawa, perfect stops for a tour of the region. 

So, since one does not simply walk into Murodo, (at the very least you will have to take the cable car and Highland bus from Tateyama station) how does one get there? The Thunderbird Express will get you to Toyama from Osaka Station (from 8000 yen, unreserved seat), and then take the local train from Toyama station to Tateyama (60 minutes @ 1170yen pp). 10,490 yen will get you to Kurobe Dam for a day return ticket, or you can pay for the legs of the trip as you go. Hotel Tateyama (in Murodo) is the highest mountain hotel in Japan, so it's a great option to take your time to explore. Should you come out the other side (in Nagano) you can take the Train from Shinano Omachi to Osaka using the local train, Wide View Shinano and Hikari Shinkansen for 10,540 yen (taking just over 5 hours). By Car, it takes roughly 6 hrs to both Toyama and Shinano Omachi Station, and plenty of parking is available at both ends of the Alpen Route. 

So why not head over to this beautiful and often neglected area of Japan? Rich in history, nature and transport technology, its well worth the trip. 

To see further details of the Alpen Route prices, check out 

Tuesday 22 February 2011

Northward Bound; Niseko and Sapporo, Hokkaido

Travelling to the snow festival can be an expensive activity; packages deals have a premium, many schools want to join in on the powdery fun. It doesn't have to be expensive, if you have the time and resources.

If you say, happen to be not busy at 9:30am JST (Japan Standard Time) 2 months before you want to fly, you may be one of the lucky few to get a super discounted ticket via SKYMARK (That is also if you have a decent internet connection, servers seem to be quite congested at this stage). Although I was not super lucky, I did manage to get a more than reasonable price of tickets, under 20,000 yen return!

This trip also gave me an opportunity to visit my good Japanese friend Sacchan (Sasaki Yuko) from Youjyou Seminar (The floating university) way back in 2006, who is now working in Sapporo.

After an 'alarm malfunction' I woke up at 6:45 before my 08:00am flight. Thanks to my friends work alarm, and a kindly Japanese lady on the train, I was able to make it with 15 minutes to spare, and still check in my baggage ( I in no way encourage people to turn up 15 minutes before a domestic flight from Kobe Airport). As you can imagine, the grin of relief on my face was ear to ear. It had never ever crossed my mind that I may miss a flight (through fault of my own) before this trip.

After a smooth flight seated next to a nice Australian family, I headed straight to the 'white liner' desk, where I was put onto the next available service, 10:40 (although I was booked for 11:40).

I found this company while searching online, they have a 20% discount for return bookings made 3 days prior to the departure date, and also allowed me to book a 'return' ticket for New Chitose Airport > Hirafu > Sapporo JR Nikko Tower Hotel. Although the website says that there must be 6 passengers booked for the shuttle to go ahead, there were a total of 4 pax on my bus, and it still went ahead. A whole coach for 4 passengers, travelling in reclined comfort. Bliss!

On my arrival at the Hirafu Welcome Centre, I was given directions to my little hostel, Niseko Yubokumin (Niseko Nomad). It was fairly simple to find, as Niseko is based on a grid system. Just a short walk down the icey road. Snow was piled high everywhere.

The owners of Yubokumin are a lovely Japanese couple, who make every effort to make your trip a success. The rooms are simple, but very comfortable and you are able to order a Japanese style breakfast and dinner, which are eaten in the common room upstairs.

I was offered skiing lessons at 2000 yen per hour, and ski boot, ski and stock rental for 1000yen per day. Although the equipment was a little old, my lack of skill meant this made no difference to me.

I used my afternoon to get my bearings, pick up some groceries and sort out arrangements for the next 2 days skiing. Being a unexperienced skiier, I decided to buy a 2 day Hirafu pass. You can also buy an all mountain pass, which gives you access to the Annupuri and Niseko Village lifts as well.

Trying to clear the roof of snow... 

Night run, Grand Hirafu

Later, I head off to the Irish pub, in search of other people to socialise and ski with. After sitting down for a while with my Irish coffee, a bunch of people from the Frunkfurt Ski Club, joined me and we had many drinks that lasted well into the night. Tamashii Bar was on the list of pubs visited, but Wednesday dart night made it virtually impossible to get a drink, so next we frequented Barunba and then (my favourite of the night) The 'fridge' bar. The door was literally a fridge door, but inside was a spacious bar with a great atmosphere. The night ended at a reasonable hour and I walked through fresh crunchy snow to Yubokumin.

As I set of skiing (starting from the family lift) It was good to see that I wasn't completely useless. After a few practice runs, I set off to conquer the green runs of Grand Hirafu. I stopped for lunch on the middle of the hill before finally getting in touch with my new friends. They were at the other side of Hirafu, Hanazono 308 restaurant. For most people it would have taken 30 mins tops to make it... for me after much sweat and almost tears, I arrived an hour later to see the boys finish their 'beer tower'

For some reason, I always seem to loose my skiing confidence after lunch, so the run I completed in the afternoon, coupled with the complete white out, was lets say, less than impressive.

The second evening, I met up once again with the Frankfurt Ski club and we headed out for a nice dinner. The Vale, Bar and Grill is located at the base of the Ace Family Lift. The food was reasonably priced, and had good servings. I had the Salmon and Nori Roulades, and the mushroom risotto for main, and was completely stuff! Yum!