Mystic mountains, ocean-side onsen, and the best hospitality. The best reasons to visit Yakushima.Read More
Hokkaido in the summer means National Parks, Jazz, Art and all humidity free goodness.Read More
Japan is known as the country of 7,000 island, 6,852 to be precise. But where are all these islands exactly?
We think we found them, or at least a good portion of them, while cycling the Shimanami Kaido from Onomichi to Imabari. The Shimanami Kaido is a highway connecting Hiroshima Prefecture to Ehime Prefecture in Shikoku. It was built with cyclists in mind, as there is a very clearly marked path for the entire 70KM. Along the way you cross six architecturally-unique bridges and from the bridges you can see the green/blue ocean dotted with countless volcano-shaped islands.
The waterways running between the islands are teaming with life: cargo ships moving majestically from port to port, fishing boats out checking their nets, and teenagers taking advantage of the sun to do a little wakeboarding.
Cycling the Shimanami Kaido gives you a glimpse into a pocket of Japan that changed drastically since industrialization, but hasn't caught up to Tokyo, Osaka or even Fukuoka in terms of pace of life and density of the population. Still plenty of green space here.
It's also a region that residents are surprised foreigner's pick to visit - "Why here?" residents ask.
Well, because…...it’s scenic, an experience of rural Japanese life that isn't so far out of the well and well connected, it’s not an intimidating distance by bike, very accomplishable, the architecture of the bridges is iconic, the area has a rich history and there is delightful Japanese hospitality to be experienced along the way. It's an easy decision really.
If you are thinking of trying to fit this experience into your itinerary - here is a bit of information to help you do that.
Shimanami Kaido Itineraries
The whole route is about 70 KM (43 miles), and can be covered in one day, but doesn’t have to be. Below are a few different ways to incorporate the Shimanami Kaido into your Japan itinerary.
1. Half-Day - Electric Bicycle - Distance 28.5KM
This itinerary has you starting and finishing in Onomichi. It enables you to use electric cycles and takes you across a few of the bridges. I would recommend this for someone who is interested in cycling, but doesn't want to commit to the distance. It's a nice
- AM - Have a hearty breakfast and pick up some water and snacks for the road.
- 9:00 - Pick-up bikes from rental store at Onomichi Port
- 9:15 - Ferry from Onomichi to Setoda [Ferry Schedule]
- 9:54 - Arrive in Setoda
- 12:00/13:00 - Start to cycle back toward Onomichi (if you are cycling at 10KM per hour it should take about three hours to get back)
- Cross the Ikuchi Bridge and Innoshima Bridge before ferrying from Mukaishima to Onomichi
- 15:00/16:00 - Return cycles to the rental station where you picked them up!
- Potentially stay the night in Onomichi - there are some great views and good baths to be had
41.5 KM or 48 KM
2. One-Day - City Bike (w/ basket) - Distance 41.5KM or 48KM
The beauty of this plan, is it gives you a lot of freedom around where you start and finish. If you rent a regular bicycle you can drop if off at any of the terminals along the way. In my opinion the bridges between Ikuchijima to Imabari were more architecturally stunning and so I would focus my time on them. In this example, you start from Imabari, but you could also start from Onomichi and accomplish the same route.
- Let's imagine you spent the night before the ride in Matsuyama after ferrying over from Hiroshima - after waking up and having a good breakfast you would make your way to JR Matsuyama Station and take the Yosan-line Limited Express bound for Imabari.
- 8:10 - Train departs Matsuyama for Imabari
- 8:46 - Train arrives at Imabari
- 9:00 - Pick-up bicycles at the rental terminal at the train station
- Bike from Imabari Station to Setoda Port (48KM)
- Cycling at 10KM an hour this would take almost five hours
- Cross the Kurushima-Kaikyo, Hakata Oshima and Tatara Bridges
- Explore around Setoda (Kosanji Temple + Hirayama Ikuo Museum)
- 18:00 - Return your bicycles to the rental station by Setoda Port before it closes
- 18:40 - Ferry from Setoda Port to Onomichi (arriving at 19:19)
- Alternatively, you could stay at one of the Ryokan on Ikuchijima and return to Onomichi the following day
3. Two-Days - City Bike (w/ basket) - Distance 70KM
If your itinerary allows for more time along the road, all the better. That way you can move through the islands slowly, and give yourself time to deviate from the path to explore. You'll need to rent a bicycle that can be dropped off in a different place then it was picked up. I would also recommend having a basket on your bike, so you don't have to carry things on your back while you ride. City bikes have a basket and can be dropped off anywhere along the course, so fit this itinerary well!
- Day 1 : Onomichi to Setoda (28.5 KM)
- 9:00 - Pickup bicycles from rental station by Onomichi Port
- Ferry from Mukaishima to Onomichi and then bike across the Innoshima Bridge and Ikuchi Bridge
- Stop along the way for Botanical Gardens and mountain top views
- Arrive in Setoda - visit the local sites (Kosanji Temple + Hirayama Ikuo Museum)
- Check-in to your ryokan, have a nice bath and delicious dinner
- Day 2: Setoda to Imabari/Sunrise Itoyama (48KM/41.5 KM)
- Enjoy breakfast at your ryokan and then get on the road
- 9:30 - Cycle from Setoda to Imabari crossing the Tatara, Hakata-Oshima and Kurushima-Kaikyo Bridges
- Stop along the way for mikan ice cream, beaches and sweet cafes
- 18:00 - Return cycles to Sunrise Itoyama (just off the Kurushima-Kaikyo Bridge) or to Imabari Station Terminal
- Spend the night in Imabari or train over to Matsuyama and stay there
4. One-Day - Cross Bike - Distance 70KM
This is the simplest of all the itineraries. It is for a physically fit person that wants to accomplish the course in one day. You can start from either Imabari or Onomichi - although the onramp to the Kurushima-Kaikyo Bridge can be intimidating, so it may be better to start from Onomichi and go down it rather than up!
- Pick-up bikes the night before your ride, so you can get a head start on the day.
- 8:00 - After a hearty breakfast, start out on the road
- Work your way across the bridges, stopping for photos, snacks and potentially a sight seeing spot or two (time allowing).
- If you are cycling at 10km per hour you it will take between 7 - 7.5 hours to cycle the whole way.
- 18:00 - Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to arrive at your destination and return your bicycles to the store by 18:00 when they close.
- If you are renting from Giant you can pay 3000 yen extra to be able to drop it off in a different location than you picked it up! Definitely recommend this option, this way you get the advantage of a nice bike with lots of gears, and the convenience of returning it when you finish.
- If you rent a normal bicycle from the Shimanami Rent-a-Cycle, you can leave your bike at any station along the way
Rental Cycle Options
***Recommend reserving bicycles ahead of time****
- Giant - a range of cross bikes, more gears, lighter bikes, no baskets. Can pay 3000yen extra to drop off at a different location than where you picked up.
- Shimanami Kaido Rent-a-Cycle - range of options from electric, to tandem, to city bikes. Less expensive than Giant. Different bikes are available at different terminals, so reserving ahead is crucial.
- You can pick-up a map of the area/course at any of the rental cycle centers or tourist information centers.
- Bella Vista - Gorgeous Seaside Hotel
- Setouchi Minato no Yado - Minimalist, traditional house
- Airbnb - Entire house, bright and airy, sleeps four
- Suminoe Ryokan - Right next to Setoda Port, traditional ryokan, lovely garden and sea views
- Juicy Fruits - Closer to Sunset Beach, man who runs the pension is a farmer and will share oranges when in season!
- "Log House" Airbnb - Entire house, air mattresses for beds, sleeps eight, 10 minute cycle from the port
- "Koune Paradiso" Airbnb - Private room, sweet host, provide food
- Shimanami Guesthouse Airbnb, Imabari - Entire house, sleeps five, free parking available, right in front of Imabari Station
- Shimanami Cycling Airbnb, Imabari - Entire home, sleeps eight, 20 minute walk from station
- Sen Guesthouse, Matsuyama - Bunk or private rooms available, lovely staff and roof to watch the sunset from
- Tatami Suite Airbnb, Matsuyama - Private room, sleeps 5, engaged hosts, close to the castle in Matsuyama
Here is the best site with list of accommodations along the Shimanami Kaido.
If you are moving around the country by train, here are recommended routes to access the Shimanami Kaido.
- Hiroshima → Onomichi
- Okayama → Onomichi
- Matsuyama, Shikoku → Imabari
- Matsuyama to Imabri (35 mins) by JR Limited Express Shiokaze
- Kyoto → Onomichi
It would be cumbersome to carry your luggage with you while biking the Shimanami Kaido. Luckily though, Japan makes it super easy to send it ahead. You can ship your luggage from any hotel or convenience store. They say to leave at least 48 hours for luggage to arrive, but I think 24+ hours is enough if you are shipping within the region (for example: Hiroshima to Onomichi). If you are shipping from a hotel, they will help you fill out the form, you just need to give them the address, contact number and delivery date desired.
If you are sending from a convenience store, then you'll need to go and request a haitatsu (配達) form - the blank one below is called a yu-pa-ku.
I've filled in the below form with the address of Suminoe Ryokan on Ikuchijima. You start with the zip-code, then the address, then the name of the hotel and finally the phone number. Do that for the destination as well as the original location. The attendant will help you fill in the arrival date, size of luggage, arrival time, etc.
It's very reasonable to ship luggage, for a 30 liter backpack I've paid about 1,300-2,000 JPY. So worth it to not have to worry about carrying everything!
This past February BeHere made our second journey to Japan's northern most land of Hokkaido. The first trip was in January of 2016 to go skiing in Niseko. I’d heard that it had some of the best powder in the world and as a newbie, I wanted something really soft to fall into. The ski did not disappoint and I loved every second of pizza’ing my way down the mountain overlooking Hokkaido’s version of Mt Fuji, Mt Yotei. I highly recommend individuals interested in skiing make a trip to Niseko. And since you've come all the way North, there are a few other destinations you should visit.
This second trip focused on the other amazing winter attractions Hokkaido has to offer. I built my itinerary around the annual Snow Festival in Sapporo and also visited Otaru, Yoichi, Abashiri, and Utoro along the way. Again. I loved every second of winter in Hokkaido. It was like living in a snow globe. At the end of this post you'll find our Google Map with all the restaurants, attractions and cafes we loved in Hokkaido.
First stop on the adventure was Sapporo. It’s a very modern and vibrant city, the largest in Hokkaido. In the summer I can imagine it full of beer gardens and more manageable summer temperatures. But right now it’s snowy and icy. There are convenient sand stations on most corners and I was amazed to see concerned citizens sprinkling the sand on icy patches on their way to and fro.
The main draw to Sapporo had been the annual snow festival which takes over Odori Park for two weeks in February. During the day you can tour the ice sculptures and watch performances. You’ll also find school children running around chatting with visitors and practicing their conversation skills. They’ll even teach you a thing or two about Hokkaido’s best products. Absolute delights!
At night the festival is all lights and sound. The ice sculptures turn into backdrops for projections, stages open for concerts, the beer and fish are abundant and the ski jump is active. It’s almost a completely different event from the daytime and I would recommend experiencing the festival at both times.
Next stop was Yoichi to visit the Nikka Whiskey Distillery. We took the scenic train from Sapporo to Otaru and then a bus to Yoichi (about one hour in total). From the train station it’s a five minute walk to the distillery. The distillery offers tours in Japanese that will introduce you to the facility and the whiskey making process, ending with a complimentary whiskey tasting! The facility has English translations under the plaques around the distillery, so if you don't speak Japanese, you can tour the facility independently. Whiskey is not brewed during the winter because of the cold temperatures, but will restart again in the Spring. Even still, the distillery was a gorgeous site, covered in a blanket of fresh white snow. Beyond the distillery there isn't much to do in Yoichi, so after I finished the tour I took the bus back to Otaru. If you are interestedIf in learning more about the founder of Nikka and his Scottish wife, watch Massan, a made for TV series about the pair!
Otaru is absolutely charming and a haven for seafood lovers. Coinciding with the Sapporo Snow Festival, Otaru holds its annual lantern festival where it places tea lights in snow sculptures along the canal and walking paths in the city. After touring around the canals and lantern lit walkways we made my way to Sushi Kodai for a three and a half hour sushi feast. Normally a standing sushi bar wouldn't entertain customers for so long, but the chef at Sushi Kodai makes it feel more like a family reunion and encourages interaction between the 11 or so diners at the bar. The tight quarters create a warm and friendly environment and I’ve never had so much conversation across sashimi before.
The last train returns to Sapporo from Otaru at 11:10 PM. You just have to make sure you've finished your Nihonshu by then!
From Sapporo we headed way, far north to Abashiri on the Ohotsuk sea. Abashiri is home to many ancient ruins from the Ainu culture - one of Japan’s native cultures - as well as a creepy prison museum, so much delicious crab and blue beer. The real attraction that brought us this far north was the possibility of seeing ryuhyo - drift ice. The cold winds from Siberia make it possible for drift ice to form in Abashiri and all along the Ohotsuk sea off the northern coast.
There is a bit too much to see in just one day, so if you can spread out your travels to include at least a day and a half in Abashiri it would be better. There is the drift ice cruise on the Aurora, the Museum of the Northern Peoples, the Ryuhyo Museum and the Abashiri Prison Museum. You could easily spend a couple multiple hours wandering around the massive prison museum - and since it closes at sundown you need to get there with plenty of time before that. The bus system is well organized, and amazingly on time even with all the snow. They run two buses an hour between all the major tourist destinations. A day pass will cost you 800 Yen.
From Abashiri it's about two hours to Utoro, a destination within Shiretoko National Park. Shiretoko is a nature lover's paradise, from the bus we saw wild foxes running along the ice and huge eagles nestled out in the waters. There are tour companies in Utoro that bring you out onto the drift ice for a walk and a swim, we worked with Gojiraiwa! It was mind blowing. The fact that technology has created a fabric that keeps us warm and dry and able to get into arctic waters without contracting hypothermia is incredible.
The Aurora Ice breaker ship in Abashiri and walking on the drift ice in Utoro deserve their own article, stay tuned for more details in the next blog post!
What struck me most this trip, was the amount of external influence I saw in the buildings, industry and historical figures. In Hokkaido industries were both foreign and familiar all at once. There was dairy farming, beer brewing, a prison system and while it was an idea you would normally associate with Europe or America it had it's own Japanese twist. At times I would look around and wonder if may we had wandered our way to Amsterdam or Berlin by accident. Just because the surroundings were so reminiscent of those destinations with the brick building, roofs and canals. Hokkaido was largely populated during the Meiji Era when Japan was opening itself up to ideas from the Western world. It set up commissions with foreigners to help consult on the industrialization of the area and it shows. But not in a, "Japan lost it's culture" way, but more in a appreciation for their ability to accept new ideas, refine those ideas and incorporate them into their lifestyle.
It was hard to leave at the end of the week. But the saving grace was a last minute stop into New Chitose Airport's ONSEN! The onsen is open 22 hours a day, from 10am to 8am. And you can stay there overnight if you have an early morning departure.
If you are planning an adventure up to Hokkaido here is a handy Google map with some of my favorite destinations from the trip!
Let’s say you only have five days in Japan and you want to do something that will give you a holistic picture of the many rich traditions this country is founded on—more than visiting Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka—I would recommend doing the Kumano Kodo.
The Kumano Kodo is a series of trails linking the three grand shrines of Hanto Peninsula: Kumano Hongū Taisha (熊野本宮大社), Kumano Nachi Taisha (熊野那智大社) and Kumano Hayatama Taisha (熊野速玉大社). Some of the shrines have been around since the 9th Century, and are still in good enough condition for UNESCO to grant them the title of World Heritage Site (see more about the criteria). The trails are mostly wooded, with the occasional highway walk. The towns along the way are small, a world apart from the chaotic heaps of Tokyo. And the history and spirituality are rich. Japan’s first religion was Shinto, a form of nature worship, many of the waterfalls, trees and rivers you encounter along the way were once revered as gods with living spirits. Even now, you still feel the reverence for nature as you walk along the trails.
You can walk for as short as one to two days or as long as 10-12. In October, I took a group of three down to Wakayama Ken and we spent 4 days working our way on foot, by bus and a boat from Kii-Tanabe to Kii-Katsuura. To date, it is one of my favorite experiences in all of Japan.
Day 2 - Kii-Tanabe to Chikatsuyuoji
- Wake up early and grab snacks for the trail before getting the bus from the station to Takijiri.
- Once you get off the bus at Takijiri stop into the Kumano Visitor Center and pick up any additional maps, stamp books, and snacks you want for the trail.
- Stay at Minshuku Chikatsuyu.
- We didn't leave enough daylight to make it to our accommodations. So ended up having to call them and they were able to pick us up in their car and bring us back, thank you so much!
Day 3 - Chikatsuyuoji to Yunomine Onsen via Hongu Taisha
- Take the bus to Hosshinmon and hike to Hongu Taisha from there. Along this route, you'll be able to see down onto the large torii marking Hongu Taisha.
- From Hongu Taisha walk to Yunomine Onsen.
- Yunomine Onsen has a Unesco World Heritage Site onsen, Tsuboyu. Get your entrance ticket to Tsuboyu across from the public bath in town. They let two people in at a time for 30 minute sessions. Bring your own towel and no soap!
- Stay at Minshuku Yunotaniso.
Day 4 - Yunomine Onsen to Kii-Katsuura
- Take the bus from Yunomine Onsen to Kumano Gawa Village.
- From Kumano Gawa Village float down the Kumano Gawa toward Shingu.
- Once in Shingu visit the second of the three grand shrines, Hayatama Taisha.
- Take the train to Kii-Katsuura - beautiful fishing village.
- Stay at Nakanoshima - my absolute favorite ryokan to date.
Day 5 - Kii-Katsuura to Tokyo
- Wake up and take the bus leaving from the train station to Nachi Taisha. You can get off a few stops ahead and walk up the beautiful stone path through the trees.
- There are a few different places to visit, the main shrine, the pagoda and the waterfall. All are worth it. Hike back down to the bus, to Kii-Katsuura.
- Highly recommend Amai Cafe for a spot of lunch or coffee before the train.
- Another 5+ hours of trains to get back to Tokyo. The Kuroshio line hugs the coast most of the way to Osaka and is a truly beautiful and scenic ride.
I’ll be taking a very small group to hike the Kumano, March 26th - 30th (slightly different itinerary than the above). Message me for me details - as of now we have two spots left!
Or you can book accommodations through:
There is a delightful little temple about one hour east of Tokyo towards Chiba.
It feels more like visiting the house of your aunt/uncle, than a holy place. But in many ways, that sense of familiarity and approachability make it all the more sacred.
A day here will leave you feeling joyful and at peace with the world.
The temple is run by a monk named Bidou San. He has been the head monk since he was in his 20’s (over 20 years now). He took the position young, as it was passed down from his grandfather, to his father, to him.
In Bidou San’s sect of buddhism - Nicihren Shu - monks are allowed to marry, eat meat and fish, drink alcohol, basically, whatever they please. They live a modern life, with a strong sense of spirituality blended in.
When you visit Bidou San at his temple, he’ll take you on a tour of the grounds (outside and inside) and explain the meaning behind the symbols/books/rituals around the temple grounds.
I loved learning about why their are dragons painted on the ceiling above alters - one as a symbol of transporting the souls from this world to the next and the other as a bringer of water, to put out fire - historically fire was one of the temple’s biggest dangers.
I’ve been to so many temples (definitely over 100 now since living in Japan). But this was the first time I was able to get so close to all the special objects and to receive such in-depth explanations of their inclusion and meaning on the altars.
After touring the grounds we went for a calligraphy lesson. Calligraphy is also an act of meditation and requires the same kind of purifications that you would go through when going into the main temple. The room, body and heart are all cleansed before you pick up your brush.
Depending on time and weather after you finish calligraphy, you may have the treat of attending a tea ceremony hosted by Bidou San’s lovely wife. They’ll guide you through proper ways to handle the cup and drink the tea. It is truly a moment to relax, slow down, and just enjoy one another’s company. It was during the tea ceremony that I got to learn more about Bidou San and his family, and what their lives look like day to day.
Takao San is a 599m high mountain, 50mins from Shinjuku, Tokyo by express train.
It’s height is humble in comparison to neighboring mountains like Fuji-san. But the draw to it is large.
On New Year’s Eve you’ll find many devoted, hiking the mountain to be at the summit for sunrise.
In summer, you’ll find hoards of friends, cheers'ing in the beer garden (which is nomihodai and tabehodai - all you can eat and drink).
And for those not interested in hiking, but still interested in a good view, the summit is easily accessible by lift or cable car.
In general, Takao, with it's crisp mountain air, is just a welcome respite from the concrete induced heat of Tokyo.
While weekdays are less crowded than weekends, you can still expect to have companions on the trails. Takao is a really popular spot for day trips from schools, for seniors to get in their exercise and for trail runners.
Tip: Take the Keio Special Express that runs from Shinjuku to Takaosanguchi. Since Shinjuku is the first stop, you may even be able to get a seat. The Special Express will have you at the trailhead in less than 50 minutes (leaves from platform 3).
There are many different trails to climb, all varying lengths and difficulties. Here is a site with a good breakdown of the different paths and lengths.
We took Trail 6 up the mountainside. It is the longest, but also a super gradual slope that follows the river bed - after strong rains part of the trail turns into a stream and you can hop from rock to rock, or hike straight up through the stream.
Tip: Wear waterproof shoes.
The water was crystal clear and there is actually a spring that you can drink water coming straight out of the mountain side. It was delicious!
At the summit there are food and drink stalls, but we brought our own picnic. And found a quiet spot to sit down and eat.
There is a great viewing platform on the summit - that on clear days you could see as far as Shinjuku - or even Mt Fuji! It was way too foggy to see anything for us, but we could imagine it’d be nice.
On the way down we took the Inariyama Trail. It’s the second longest. It was super slick after the rain - with lots of mud. This path is a bit steeper and full of stairs. The mud, stairs combo made the descent a little treacherous, may have been helpful to have some walking poles on the way down!
I’d be interested in trying some other trails to see if they are more scenic or enjoyable for the descent. Or I’d just go back down the same trail we came up (#6) because it was so beautiful.
After you get down from the mountainside, you could checkout the newly built onsen, or soak your feet in the ashinoyu - both by the station.
Definitely make sure to clean your boots before you board the train. They have the sweetest little station complete with bucket and scrub brushes right out front! #onlyinJapan
If you are a visitor, and have come to Japan after the Fuji climbing season is over - Takao is a great alternative. If you want to make it extra special, you could stay in accommodations close by and summit at sunrise. The mountain is open to hikers as long as they bring their own light.
There are more beautiful mountains in Japan to climb, that’s for sure. But Fuji is worth doing once in your life. There is nothing like the view from the summit - or soaking in an onsen overlooking the iconic mountain afterwards.
Hikers.Before, During and After.
My companions on this Fuji Hike were Angelica, Jesse and Yesenia. All first timers, all active in their own way - surf, cycle, yoga. They braved altitude sickness, sleeping very close to strangers and sore knees to summit. They all agreed that the payoff at the top was worth it, but that there were ways to make the experience better. Here is a bit about what we learned in prep for your own Fuji climb.
We left Tokyo at 7:45am from the Shinjuku Highway Bus Terminal. Were at the 5th Station by 10am and on the trail by 11am. We worked our way up at a fairly quick pace, stopping at stations along the way for water, treats (Snickers!) and photo opportunities.
We arrived at our accommodation, Goraikoukan, for the evening by 3:30pm. After lounging around on the tatamis and stretching, we ate dinner (5:30pm) and climbed into our bunks. The cabins are crowded, everyone said you are sleeping like sardines, and they weren’t kidding. You are lying arm to arm - 8 people to one bunk section. It was a little overwhelming. And the cabin cleanliness was questionable. I highly recommend bringing your own sheet, or maybe a micro sleeping bag to put a little distance between you and their linens. Lights out in the cabin was 9pm and it was mostly quiet till around 2am when everyone started getting up in prep for sunrise.
Tip: Bring a clean sheet, eye mask and earplugs. Will contribute greatly to getting good rest.
Our party woke up at 3am, drank hot tea, ate toast with jam and then headed on our way up for the final ascent.
You can see all the headlamps working their way up the mountain side. It was relatively less crowded than on a weekend, but we still waited in line to get to the summit. The climbing season for Fuji is short, the Yoshida trail is only open from July 1 - Sept 10th. Weekdays are less crowded than weekends. If you can manage to go on a weekday,
Tip: Time your climb for after school is back in session to avoid the bulk of the crowds.
Being above the clouds and watching the sun peek out over the horizon is unforgettable. It was very cold and windy at the top of the mountain, so it was good to have gloves, hat, scarf and extra jacket.
Tip: Bring a thermos and fill it with hot tea or coffee, you’ll appreciate a nice warm drink while you stand still, and wait for the sun.
Most previous hikers emphasized that going down Fuji was much harder than going up. It's true. The descent, on switchbacks, with loose gravel is harrowing for the knees. Having hiking boots with good grip and hiking poles to stabilize you as you work your way down was crucial. We made our way down the mountain in 2.5 hrs.
Tip: Wear a face mask on the descent to keep all the dust out of your mouth and nose!
Post Climb Onsen
Almost exactly 24hrs after leaving Tokyo we were back in the Fuji 5th Station Parking lot. We had a cup of coffee at one of the Station cafes and then took a bus to Kawaguchiko Station (about 30mins). At Kawaguchiko Station we caught a local bus to Yurari Onsen (15 mins). For 1300 JPY you get access to amazing baths and on clear days, a beautiful view of Fuji. A post hike bath was exactly what we needed to refresh ourselves and feel comfortable getting on the train/bus back to Tokyo.
Tip: Pack sandals and a clean pair of clothes for after the baths.
Hiking poles (so helpful on the walk down)
Warm wool socks
Thermals (top and bottom)
Water proof layer
Beanie, Gloves, Scarf (summit is CHILLY!)
Change of clothes for after onsen
Sheet or sleeping bag (for hut - cleanliness is questionable)
Face masks/bandana to cover nose and mask (keep the dust/soot - out of your nose/mouth)
Approximate budget - 22,000 JPY
Accommodations - 8500 JPY
Transportation - 7000 JPY
Hiking Poles - 2800 JPY
Incidentals - 2400 JPY
Onsen - 1300 JPY
I always recommend for travelers coming to Japan to get the Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass). But recently I’ve been getting questions if it is actually worth the cost - around $300 USD for a 7-day and $460 for a 14-day (ordinary, not green).
While I had a feeling it was more economical to use the pass, I wanted to double check. I picked four itineraries that I’ve made for previous clients and compared the prices for reserved-seat tickets, non-reserved tickets and JR pass holders*.
Bottom line: For anyone traveling by Shinkansen to a handful of destinations around Japan (2+), the JR Pass is DEFINITELY worth the cost.
Let’s take a look at a few different itineraries below:
Laura and Mike - Tokyo + Kyoto + Naoshima + Hiroshima + Yakushima
Laura and Mike are really avid hikers. They’ve been around the world on trails and spend most weekends, back at home in California, in the forest. For them, doing the Kumano Kodo and visiting Yakushima were huge priorities. They saved over $400 USD by getting the JR Pass.
Kathy - Hiroshima + Naoshima + Kyoto + Hakone + Tokyo
Kathy was starting in Hiroshima and working her way to Tokyo over the course of 7 days. Even though Kathy wasn’t buying a round trip ticket from Tokyo to Hiroshima the JR Pass was still worth it. By using the JR Pass Kathy was able to save around $70 USD.
Erin and Brendan - Tokyo + Kyoto + Nara + Hiroshima
Erin and Brendan had basically planned out their trip by the time we got in touch. They were really interested in history and wanted to visit Kyoto and Hiroshima along with a little bit of time in Tokyo. For them getting the Pass saved them about $170 USD.
Kendra - Tokyo + Kanazawa + Yokohama
Kendra was coming to Tokyo for work and just looking to escape the city and see a different side of Japan. For her I recommended a long weekend in Kanazawa and a quick ½ day trip to Yokohama. With the pass she saved $58 USD. Even if Kendra chose not to go down to Yokohama, I can still imagine that the Pass would be worth it to cover the cost of her trips on the JR trains within Tokyo.
When the Pass isn't Worth it
The scenarios above all justify the cost of the JR Pass. But, I can think of situations where I wouldn’t recommend someone purchase it. For example:
- Just visiting one destination during your trip (Kyoto for example)
- Taking overnight buses/trains instead of Shinkansen
- Traveling to a place like Okinawa or Hokkaido with the discounted airfare for foreign passport holders. Here is a list of carriers/discounts
- Visiting places like Hakone from Tokyo - where there are other pass options (2-Day Odakyu Pass)
The scenarios are endless. If you are on the fence about whether or not to get the pass, take a quick look at the links below and example itineraries above and you'll be able to get a rough estimate if it is worth it or not.
Resources for Train Schedules, Prices, etc.
Google Maps - it's coverage of Japan is very extensive and you can explore the schedule to find trains leaving/arriving at certain times
JR Fare Calculator - Doesn't cover all stations, but gives you a good idea for major stations
Shinkansen Fare Calculator from TokyoCheapo - all fares originate in Tokyo
Tokyo Metro Fare Calculator - The Metro lines are not covered by the JR pass, so this can give you a better idea of what you may spend
*To make the price comparison I used prices from JR Websites, Google Maps and TokyoCheapo. Because the JR Pass does not cover travel on Nozomi trains, I only used Hikari and Kodoma trains for price comparison. Fares can change by day and time, so the stated prices above may be different then what you pay.
Festivals are a huge part of Japanese culture. They happen from north to south pretty much all year round, with a large concentration in the summer. Almost every other night and definitely every weekend throughout August, you can go see fireworks.
This week (August 16th) was the Daimonji* Festival in Kyoto. Daimonji* is the last day in a week long festival of Obon. During Obon the Japanese celebrate the return of their ancestors' souls to the living world. Daimonji* is the day that they see the souls off, back to the afterlife. Lighting the fires on the mountainside - or lanterns in the river - represents the lights that will guide the souls home.
It was my first time and felt like a combination of Thanksgiving, Halloween and Fourth of July. The festival is important to family and friends and involves everyone gathering together. Our party started at 2pm and ended around 11pm. We drank 15 liters of beer, one large bottle of sake and ate for 9 hours straight - with the last course being delicious, HOT rice. Beyond the eating and drinking, there were moments of silence for those we’d lost and lots of fire and smoke. It was amazing, even in the pouring rain. I can highly recommend experiencing a festival for yourself during your time in Japan.
Working a festival into your itinerary is easy. Here are a few tips to make sure you get the most out of the experience.
1. Plan Ahead
Festivals are so major events for the locals and you can expect an increased amount of visitors - be sure to book your accommodations in advance - and if you are traveling there by train, get your tickets a few days before you go. Try a site like Airbnb and stay with a local to get their perspective on what the festival means to them
2. Wear Yukata
Festivals are the perfect occasion to get dressed up in yukata, a casual form of kimono for summer.
If you think you may wear yukata more than once it's almost worth it to just get one from a vintage store - like Kimono Daiyasu in Kyoto. But there are also rental shops where you can get a yukata for just one day. Regardless of which route you choose, work with someone experienced to dress you. Yukatas may look simple, but they are not easy to put on - tying the obi (the belt that keeps the robe on) is especially troublesome. The nice folks at most stores will make sure you are properly suited up.
3. Make it Meaningful
To avoid the feeling of pure spectator sport, try and find a festival that is personally relevant to you. Having just lost a close friend Daimonji was very meaningful for me. Here is a list of festivals around Japan and a few I found particularly interesting: the naked festival in Okayama, the dancing festival in Tokushima and the snow lantern festival in Akita.
*I was using Daimonji as the name of the festival in Kyoto - but that is actually the name of one of the shapes being burnt into the mountain side. The actual name of the festival is Gozannookuribi.
What to do with a repeat visitor to Japan, who only has one full day between when his business trip ends and he returns home??
Active, intrepid and looking to get out of the city - the answer was easy - Minakami, Gunma, Japan. Minakami serves as a hub for adventure sports in Japan. Andrew and I got to try our hands at Canyoning. The best way to describe canyoning....it's like rafting, without the raft.
Canyoning gives "going with the flow" a whole new meaning.
Top-10 Canyoning Takeaways
1. Always be breathing out, or plug your nose.
The experience of canyoning is 10 times more enjoyable when you don't have water going up your nose!
2. Be the first in the canyon, start early!
We started our adventure at 8am and were able to do a whole lap in the canyon before other groups showed up. It's way more leisurely and playful when you have the canyon to yourself. The canyon can get really crowded during peak season (August) so try and go during shoulder season, or on weekdays to avoid the crowds.
3. Going down head first isn't as scary as you think.
You seem to stay shallower then going feet first. Just cover your face as you surface in case you come up by rocks.
4. Allow for adequate space between individuals when jumping together into pools.
5. Roll away from waterfalls.
If you keep the water rolling off your back, you can keep the fall from pulling you to the center and getting your head pounded. For this fall we rolled to the right and kept the water rolling down our left shoulder.
6. You don't need goggles.
The water is crisp and clear!
7. Pulling your own ripcord is hard, but rewarding.
Just make sure to stand up before you let yourself go so you don't butt flop.
8. Train timing is crucial!
There is a 15:46 Shinkansen from Ueno to Yuzawa and then a quick local train to Yubiso, that will have you arriving by 6:25pm. Just in time for a 7pm BBQ! Make sure to double check the schedule, because in the countryside the trains run much less frequently.
9. When canyoning, it's hard to look graceful....
Andrew pulls it off better than me....
10. You'll never need a raft in a river again.
Who we worked with: canyons.jp
A great provider with facilities in both Minakami and Okutama. Mix of foreign and local staff. All knowledgeable and friendly. They know what makes a great keepsake and are sure to capture the best moments on their waterproof camera. They have shuttle services that they run from the major train stations so check-in with them about their schedules - very helpful!
How to get there:
There are also local buses that run in the area when trains stop. A good backup option if you end up arriving once the local trains have stopped running.
*Check Hyperdia for schedules.
島 (shima/jima) = Island
The closest of the inhabited Izu Islands is two hours away from Tokyo by ferry, the farthest is seven. The islands are an outdoor adventure lovers haven with plenty of ocean side camping, natural onsen and scenic hikes. You also have access to creatures like dolphins and sea turtles in their natural habitat, so much better than the zoo.
I've had the privilege of visiting Oshima, the largest and closest of the chain of islands. It is an absolute gem.
The food is stellar. Unique. They have these tasty chilis they used instead of wasabi because there are no rivers on the island that wasabi could be grown in.
The scenery is gorgeous - everything from black sand dunes, to coral reefs for snorkeling. It was so surprising to find such a subtropical paradise just two hours from Tokyo.
I made the journey during rainy season and got to experience peak bloom of the hydrangeas. It was breathtaking.
And beyond the natural beauty, the island is home to some really amazing people. Especially, Suguru, my host on Oshima.
Suguru runs a guesthouse called Island Star House. He did all the renovations on the home, by himself over the course of three years. He'd work Monday through Friday and then ferry over to the island, build Saturday and Sunday and be back in Tokyo for work on Monday. Talk about dedication and vision.
Here is a little bit of information to help you plan your own adventure!
- Nantoukan - traditional island food, super yummy, be sure to go with someone who can speak Japanese, and even better if you can call ahead and let them know you are coming
- Takoyaki - he's a master, with a little red food truck, you'll smell the delicious food before you spot him.
- Ice cream from the Burratohouse farm.
- Taiyaki - savory and sweet options available, so delicious - set inside another guesthouse.
Very much looking forward to island hopping this summer, below are a few of the other islands and what they are known for:
- Niijima (surfing)
- Mikurajima (dolphins)
- Hachijojima (sea turtles)
- Shikinejima (beaches and onsen)
- Aogashima (only accessible by helicopter, an unbelievable double volcano!)
- Kouzushima (camping and diving)
Another random fun fact to peak your interest in visiting: During the Edo period, Nii-jima, Miyake-jima, and Hachijō-jima served as places of exile for criminals....I can imagine that was isolating, but what amazing water front property they had!
Summer may be hot, 100% humid and at times, rainy - but it is still an incredible time to be in Japan. From Hokkaido to Okinawa, there are parts of the country that are unlocked, only in this glorious season.
There are icy cold rivers and waterfalls to splash down.
Towns for strolling in yukata and watching fireworks.
Sunrises to take in from mountain peaks.
Beautiful blue oceans to swim in.
Rowdy festivals that go on for days.
Countless stars to ponder from your tent.
There are even dolphins to swim with.
The possibilities are endless.
Bring on the heat. Summer in Japan, I love you.
If you are planning a visit to Tokyo and looking for insight on where to go and what to do, here are 5 of my favorite Instagram/blog accounts.
12 days. 88 temples. 1 island. Lots of udon! An example itinerary including best eats, attractions and accommodations, for anyone hoping to complete the Shikoku Ohenro.Read More
Reflections from the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage
When I set out to do the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage I didn’t know what to expect. I was disappointed that I only had time to complete it by car, and that I wasn’t going to be able to walk. I had thought that using the car was going to limit my interactions with others and reduce the “transformative power” of the journey. I’m happy to say I was completely wrong. The journey was incredible, not only did I get to explore the entire island but I also got to practice Japanese and make friends.
In one day I received 3 oranges, an onigiri (triangle-shaped-rice snack), 2 bananas, a pair of slippers, 2 temple charms, a bath towel, 3 candies, many bows, a hug and was treated to lunch. These were all gifts from strangers, whom I had the pleasure of sharing a brief conversation.
One of my favorite interactions was with a couple, we’ll call the “coffee and compliment” couple. I never learned their names. We met on the last day of my adventure. I was at temple 7 reading the heart sutra, and they hung back to listen. When I finished they approached and asked if I had been practicing and complimented me. We made small talk as we walked over to the stamp office where they proceeded to tell the staff about my “reading.” It was sweet and I was touched. We said our goodbyes in the parking lot, but then at Temple 6, I saw them again! This time we chatted a bit longer over coffee. After we finished our drinks we got in our respective cars and drove away. I was a little sad when I didn’t see them at Temple 5, but figured they had stopped for lunch. But when I pulled into Temple 4, there they were. Waiting for me in the parking lot. The husband ran up to my window and said his wife had been worried sick. “Where had I gone? Why had it taken me so long to get there? Was everything okay?”
I was so surprised and reassured them of my own coffee stop and thus delay. I told them not to worry “心配しないでください” and thanked them for their concern. And that was it. Once they knew I was safe they went back to their car and continued on.
They have no idea how much that experience impacted me. How for the rest of the day I looked for opportunities to share the love they had bestowed on me, even if it was just smiling at someone at the temple. I still smile when I think of those two. Such characters. Absolute treasures.
Another amazing interaction occurred in Matsuyama. I was pulling into my hostel for the evening and asked a couple standing out in front to help me while I parked. They turned out to be from Switzerland and were spending the summer biking their way through Japan. They were staying in Matsuyama longer than planned because one of them had twisted their ankle and needed to rest it. Since they couldn’t bike, I offered to take them to the temples I was visiting the following day, and they accepted. We went to temples 44 and 45, which were gorgeous mountain temples surrounded by gigantic trees. When we were getting ready to part ways we were approached by two French Pilgrims – they were having trouble booking a place to sleep for the evening. Since the Swiss couple spoke French fluently they acted, as middlemen, translating into English what the French men needed, and then I would speak in Japanese to the inn owners. The first few places we called were full, but we eventually found them a place to stay! The teamwork was incredible. And for my personal goal of learning Japanese it helped to build my confidence and motivation. Every time I said something and the native speaker actually understood me was like Christmas! It was such an enjoyable and practical way to solidify what I had learned in the classroom.
I could tell you stories for days, about the people I met on the journey and the experiences I had. There was the taxi driver that turned our car into a roller coaster. Or the pitch-black tunnel that reminded me just how grateful I am for friends, family and partners in this life (more about that here). And the sisters from Kobe that took me under their wing and taught me everything they knew about proper temple etiquette.
Since I’m not Shinto or Buddhist, these connections were the most spiritual part for me. Feeling that shared humanity – what we all have in common – is what touched me most deeply.
Out the window on the train back to Tokyo from Shikoku I saw one last pilgrim, dressed in white with his cone shaped hat, walking in the rice fields. It was a gorgeous scene and it pained me to think that I wouldn’t have that visual reminder of the experience when I was back in the city.
But then I thought, if a pilgrimage really means “life viewed as a journey” then all of us are just pilgrims in plain clothes.
I'm heading back to where I started, to begin again.
Thank you to Forrest, Joe, Kate, Luis, Marguerite, and Megan - couldn't have put this together without you.
Hello from Tokyo! Elizabeth here. I'm so excited about all the Japan has to offer and am working to connect travelers to locations based on their interests and passions.
If you want to experience the Shikoku Ohenro or would like support in planning your trip, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and we can set-up time to talk.
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私がこのお遍路旅の中で出会った人でもっとも印象に残っているのは、私が “coffee and compliment” カップルと呼んでいる日本人夫婦のことです。（私は彼らの名前を聞いていませんでした.）
Notes on Japanese Translation
Translating this post from English to Japanese was a team effort. My tutor Akari Sensei and I went sentence by sentence introducing new vocabulary and sentence structures as they were needed. I would translate the sentence first and then Akari would show me where I went wrong and how to make it flow better. It was an incredible learning experience. Very different from the classroom setting in terms of the order they would teach something, but was a structure that suited me. Akari and I plan to record her reading the entire post and then have me listen and practice reciting. In the hopes that the vocabulary and sentence structures really sink in.
I am so grateful to have found Akari Sense, she is an incredibly talented teacher. Cannot recommend her enough for anyone looking to learn Japanese.
About the Author:
Elizabeth moved to Japan in the Fall of 2015. Since arriving she's spent her time exploring from Hokkaido to Yakushima and learning the language. She founded Be Here Asia to help English speaking tourists find their way to amazing, but remote destinations in Japan.
Would love to hear from you with ideas for future destinations to visit, email email@example.com.
One of the last lines in the new film about Banksy's 31 day residency in New York City poses the question:
Such a powerful question. And Yes, yes I would.
But what does that look like?
To me, it looks like James Turrell's House of Light in Niigata, Japan. The man has managed to turn a home into not only a painting/sculpture/performance piece, but also a community center and retreat space. It's incredible.
Last weekend we took a group of 10 individuals from all over the world up for a night to experience it for themselves.
We saw shooting stars, took multiple baths, feasted on delicious food and woke up ridiculously early to watch the sunrise.
We were all sad to leave, but know that we'll get to go back another day and share the experience with more people.
Hope you can join!
Yulia Skogoreva is the amazing photographer who captured all these photos: http://www.yuliasko.com/.
You can see more of Yulia's photos from the trip on Facebook.
Just returned from my inaugural trip to Naoshima - one of the three art islands located in the Seto Inland Sea - right between Shikoku and Hiroshima.
My travel companion on the trip was Laura Polkus, a designer and stylist, visiting Japan from San Francisco. You should follow her on Instagram and Twitter. Not only is she talented, but also HILARIOUS! I wanted to show her a place that might inspire her future design/styling work and Naoshima did not disappoint. From Tadao Ando’s architecture to the amazing site specific artworks - Naoshima was truly awe inspiring.
A return visit is definitely in order to spend more time on Naoshima as well as visit Teshima and Inujima.
For future trip takers here are a few things I learned that will ensure you get to experience the works in all their glory:
Give yourself two days on Naoshima - it can be done in one, but you have to be more focused and less leisurely in your explorations.
When you arrive make reservations to experience the pieces below:
The bar in the Oval at the Benesse House is open to all hotel guests between 9-11pm. Let the front desk know when want to go up and they’ll run the monorail for you.
Lee Ufan Museum was the least inspiring - I’d skip it.
Visit the sento (I <3 湯） by the ferry port - it’s delightful to soak in such a kitch bathhouse.
- Rent a bike! Such a great way to get around the island - buses/shuttles are available too, but the bikes will give you greater flexibility and are adorable.
This is the second area that I’ve visited in Japan that made a destination out of art. I’m very curious about the role art/artists/institutions are playing in the revitalization of rural areas in Japan. And what impact these projects are having for the local communities? Will continue to explore and inquire on future trips.
Access from Tokyo
Shinkansen (Tokyo to Okayama) (3.5 hrs)
To bus/train (Okayama Station to Uno Station) (55 mins)
Ferry (Uno Station to Miyanoura Port) (20 mins)
Where to go next