Friday, October 17, 2008


2h 40 min from Shinjuku (Tokyo) to Matsumoto Station by JR Chuo Line (limited express), and 1h from Matsumoto to Hakuba Station by JR Oito Line (limited express). 30 min from Matsumoto to Hotaka Station (Azumino) by JR Oito Line

is a highland resort, stretching out from the foot of the Hakuba-Sanzan Mountains (Hakuba's three mountains) in northwestern Nagano, where you can enjoy skiing, trekking and all kinds of other sports and activities throughout the year.
The magnificent view of the Northern Japan Alps and other beautiful mountains is the most recommended feature of this area. The 6-kilometer-long Happo-One Shizen-Kenkyu-ro (nature study path) is a popular easy trekking course. A ropeway and lift run throughout the year, offering an attractive aerial walk looking down upon a sea of trees.

Azumino is situated in the mid and upstream areas of the Azusa-gawa River to the south of Hakuba. It is a pastoral area that stretches to the north of the Matsumoto Basin. The greenery of the pastures and the remaining snow in the Northern Japan Alps together form a pleasant, peaceful sight. Azumino is also characterized by its many rivers that flow with sparkling clear water from the melting snow. The Daio Wasabi (Japanese horseradish) Farm, the largest farm in Azumino, takes full advantage of this natural gift and produces high quality Japanese horseradishes, which grow only in clean, pure water. Another symbol of Azumino is the Rokuzan Museum, an ivied, church-like building.
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Saturday, October 4, 2008


Until the Japanese suffered crushing defeat at the hands of the US in World War II, Japanese religion focused around the figure of the Emperor, a living God, whose subjects saw themselves as part of a huge family of which all Japanese people were members. Alongside this State Shinto, were a varied assortment of different Shinto and Buddhist sects, all combining to form a spiritual framework for the Japanese. Shinto was the religion of life, of living spirits (kami), who affected everyday living; Buddhism, on the other hand, was a religion of death, focusing on one's ancestors and the life to come. These beliefs were supported through a calendar of ritual and an intricate web of social custom.

The defeat in war, however, shattered many people's beliefs, as the frail voice of the Emperor was broadcast to the nation renouncing his deity. The period since has seen a secularisation of Japanese society almost as dramatic as the economic miracle which saw Japan's post-war economy go into overdrive.

However, much of the ritual has survived the collapse of religious belief. Japanese religion has become, for the vast majority of Japanese, a thing of action, behaviour which defines more their Japanese identity than any spirituality and something which at periodic times of festival, helps strengthen family and community ties.

There are, of course, exceptions to this. The spiritual vacuum left by the Emperor's renunciation was rapidly filled by a plethora of new religions (shin shukyo) which, with their rights enshrined in article 20 of the new constitution, sprang up across Japan.

Mainly concentrated in urban areas, these religions offered this-wordly benefits such as good health, wealth, and good fortune. Many had charismatic Christ-like leaders who inspired a fanatical devotion in their followers. It is here that the roots of such famous 'cults' as the 'Aum cult of the divine truth', who perpetrated the Tokyo subway gas attack of 1996, can be found.

However, the vast majority of new religions are focused on peace and the attainment of happiness, although many Japanese who have no involvement appear suspicious of such organisations. Tax dodging or money laundering are, according to some, par for the course.

Some of the new religions such as PL Kyoden (Public Liberty Kyoden) and Soka Gakkai have, however, become very much a part of the establishment in Japan, and it seems their role in politics and business is not to be underestimated.

For those who have an interest in Buddhism or Shinto, Japan is full of fascinating places to visit. Nara, in the Kansai region near Osaka, is thought to be the original home of Buddhism in Japan and features an extensive museum of Buddhist art and artifacts, as well as the huge statue of Buddha that is Nara's central visitor attraction.

Kyoto is full of beautiful shrines and temples and can provide a unique look back through history to a time when religious belief was a more significant part of everyday life, as well as being simply stunning to behold. In fact, everywhere you go in Japan, you will see the face of the country's religious heritage.
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Sports are a big deal in Japan. Indeed, it is said that the very origin of the Japanese race depended on the outcome of a Sumo match. Most large companies have various teams and exercises are done every morning in the office. At school, students attend club activities at the beginning and end of each day. Flamboyant players and outrageous managers fill the gossip columns and sports' pages, and in case you forget your own need to exercise, there's a National Sports day in October.

The most popular sport in Japan is not Japanese at all however, it's professional baseball and was brought to Japan in 1873 by a US teacher. The players and etiquette however, despite one or two big name, big-earning foreign imports, are very Japanese. Teams bow to each other before and after the matches and the emphasis is placed very much on team performance over individual talent.

There are two professional baseball leagues in Japan - the Pacific League and the Central League, the 6 teams in each league compete for the pennant over a 10 month season which is followed by a playoff, the Japan Series, to decide the overall champions. Matches are played in the day and the evening and tickets are pretty easy to get hold of.

Football, known as soccer in Japan, has always struggled to find a place in the nation's heart. The 2002 World Cup was of course held in Japan and Korea - and it was a fantastic event with the host countries both doing really rather well. Reality struck home in 2006 however when the national team put in a pretty dismal performance in Germany - losing a 2 goal lead against Australia and going out in the first round. The J League meanwhile continues to suffer from low turnouts and is most definitely in the shadow of pro baseball.

The one bright spot for Japanese soccer is most definitely the performance of its players abroad - Nakamura scoring wonder goals for Celtic, Takahara lighting up the Bundesliga and Yanagisawa playing for Messina in Italy. According to Celtic manager Gordon Strachan, Nakamura "Could open a tin of tuna with his left foot" - the Japanese sports papers are more likely to have these stories than much of a mention of the J League.

What of more Japanese sports?

Sumo is the most popular and the wrestlers still command high celebrity status. In Sumo the basic idea is for the higashi rikishi (east wrestler) to force his nishi (west) foe out of the ring or onto the floor of the dohyo (ring). It's generally all over in a few seconds but watch carefully and there is immense skill and artistry in the wrestlers' moves. There are six tournaments (basho) a year and it is well worth a visit.
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Japan is a country of drinkers - and a few rituals should be considered before taking a tipple. Never pour a drink for yourself; your friend or host should do this for you and you in turn should keep your companions' glasses filled to the brim! A word you'll hear quite often is kampai - this means 'cheers' in Japanese.

Whilst Sake (rice wine) is the national drink of Japan, lager-beer (pronounced beer-ru in Japanese) is the most popular. Widely available brands include Kirin, Sapporo, Suntory, and Asahi. They are all worth a taste and average about 5% abv.

Watch out for cheaper brands though - these are not actually beer at all but happoshu, a malt flavoured beverage. This looks and tastes like cheap beer but the low malt content allows the brewers to avoid beer taxes! As for the Sake, our advice is to have the cheap stuff (a little rough on the palate) hot, but drink the quality brands (strong and fresh tasting) well chilled.

A wide variety of alco-pops called Chu-hai are available. Get them from a Konbini (convenience store) such as Lawsons, Circle K or Family Mart, or in a restaurant or bar. Chu-hai is made from Shochu, a distilled spirit, which can be bought neat although this is not advised. Whisky is very popular amongst Japanese men - Scotch is considered the best and is highly sought after.
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Many Japanese restaurants specialise in one particular type of food. The best place to try Sushi (slices of raw seafood placed on lightly vinegared rice balls) and sashimi (slices of raw seafood dipped in soy sauce), is a kaiten-zushi bar.

You sit round a conveyor belt and pick plates of it - you generally pay per plate eaten. But Japanese food does not stop with raw fish; other specialities include teriyaki, marinated beef/chicken/fish seared on a hot plate), sukiyaki (thin slices of beef, bean curd and vegetables cooked in soy sauce and then dipped in egg), and tempura (deep fried sea-food and vegetables).

If everything so far sounds a bit meat and fish orientated don't be alarmed - there are vegetarian options in Japan. Try the wonderful zaru soba (buck-wheat noodles served cold), a bowl of Udon (thicker noodles) in a mountain vegetable soup, tofu steak or a vegetable okonomiyaki (savoury pancake). If you are feeling adventurous you could try natto, this is a sticky and slightly smelly concoction made of fermented soya beans. The Japanese liken it to marmite - you'll either love it or hate it.

If you want a more general selection, then the best place to go is an Izakaya (Japanese pub) where you will find an extensive and pretty cheap choice of food and drink. Izakaya often offer tabehodai or nomihodai - for a set price you get an hour or two to eat or drink as much as you like. Choosing exactly what to eat is made easier by well illustrated menus or plastic food displays at the doorway that Madame Tussaud would be proud of - just point and see what you get.

Western and Oriental foods are widely available in Japan. From a country that survived on a diet of mainly fish and vegetables just over a century ago, Japan has reached the stage where there is a steak house or McDonalds on nearly every corner.

Italian and Indian restaurants abound too, as well as some very good Chinese and Korean places. For a late night snack, a Ramen bar is a good bet, these can be found serving up steaming bowls of Chinese noodles, Japanese style, in various broth, until the small hours of the morning.
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1h 55 min from Tokyo to Nagano Station by JR Jo'etsu-Nagano Shinkansen Line, and 1h from Nagano Station to Togakushi-Chusha by bus. 25 min from Nagano to Kurohime Station by JR Shin'etsu Line. The Togakushi-kogen Highlands area is situated in the north of Nagano within Joshinetsu National Park. This volcanic area has an altitude of 1,200 meters and is located at the foot of two volcanoes, Togakushi and Iizuna. In the midst of a wood, with cedar trees that are over 100 years old, there stands Togakushi-jinja Shrine. At the shrine you can see the Kagura, a performance of traditional sacred music and dancing with themes selected from ancient myths, during the grand festival held in fall. Togakushi is also noted for the production of soba noodles.

The Kurohime-kogen Highlands spread to the southeast of Mt. Kurohime-yama, situated near the border of Niigata this mountain is also known as Shinano-Fuji. It is a popular summer resort with larch and birch woods, and skiing in winter. Around the area called a "forest of fairy tales," is the Kurohime Fairy Tale Museum that collects fairy tales from all over the world, as well as the O-ike Pond, Nanatsu-ike Pond, volcanic crater lakes, cosmos fields, and cattle grazing fields.

Lake Nojiri-ko at the eastern foot of Mt. Kurohime-yama gained sudden attention when fossils of a giant mammal called Elephas Naumanni (Naumann's elephant ) were discovered in the lakebed. You can see the fossils and other excavated articles in the Nojiri-ko Museum.
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From Tokyo: 3h 20 min via Echigo-Yuzawa Station (JR Jo'etsu Shinkansen Line) to Toyama Station. 1h from Dentetsu Toyama to Tateyama Station by Toyama Chitetsu Tateyama Line. From Osaka: 3h 10 min to Toyama Station by JR Hokuriku Line. The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route is an international mountain sightseeing route of some 90 kilometers long. The route goes across the 3,000-meter-high North Alpine mountains, the so-called "roof of Japan," and connects Toyama and Shinano Omachi. You can enjoy the panorama, from the fresh green of spring, to the red leaves of fall, to the new snow of winter, by taking a train, highland bus, trolley bus, cable car, and ropeway. Since the lines opened in June 1971, the Tateyama mountain area has been transformed from an isolated spot into one of the nation's best sightseeing areas, where a million guests visit every year.

Murodo-daira of Tateyama has one of the heaviest snows in the world, and the snow reaches about seven meters on average. In particular, the snow mantle at Otani, a five-minute walk from Murodo Station, sometimes gets more than 20 meters because of snowdrifts. The famous "Snow Walls" are formed by expelling this heavy snow, and the 500-meter-long area with such snow walls is open to sightseers from mid-April to late May.

The Kurobe Dam, built at the upper stream of the Kurobe-gawa River, an arched concrete dam 186 meters high, is the highest in Japan and is higher than a 50-floor skyscraper. From the dam's observatory, you see a panorama view of the Tateyama mountain range and the North Alpine. Visitors can see the dynamic water discharge from 26 June to 15 October.
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