Taking a stroll through Sankeien Garden

Spending time in the outdoors does not always mean engaging in sports, whether traditional or modern, nor does it mean that one has to commit to bungee jumping or skydiving, far from it actually. Japan is a nation adept at offering the ideal outdoor settings for all possible tastes. Whether one wishes to get moving to get their blood flowing or simply enjoy a cup of tea in a beautiful garden – everything outdoor is possible in Japan.

For those more inclined to relax and soak in the stunning visuals of Japan’s traditional cultural establishments as well as blooming flora, the Sankei-en Gardens may be the ideal destination. Located in the Naka Ward of Yokohama, the Sankei-en Gardens are traditional Japanese-styled gardens. Generally, Japanese-style gardens are entire landscapes miniaturized in a often highly stylized fashion, often even reaching into levels of abstractness.

The Sankei-en Gardens have much history associated with them. Built and designed by a silk trader known as either Tomitaro Hara or his pseudonym Saneki Hara, the gardens opened in 1906. They suffered substantial amounts of damage from bombings during World War II, but have been restored to their former glory since. Most of the garden’s buildings have some sort of historical significance and were bought by Hara himself. They originated in prefectures and cities across the country, including Tokyo and Kyoto. The garden is home to several structures deemed by the Japanese government as cultural heritage, increasing its attractiveness to foreign visitors by even more.

The garden and its features cover an area of 175,000 square meters (43 acres) and has an impressive amount of variety among its area. Near the entrance is the Kakushokaku, the former residence of Hara’s family. Today the building is used as an event location and can be rented for private parties.

Behind the Kakushokaku is the Outer Garden. This is the part that was initially made available to the public in 1906 when Sankei-en opened for the first time. The Outer Garden is located next to the Main Pond and is home to several of the noteworthy buildings spread out over the entire area. The next point of interest is the Inner Garden, which was opened to the public in 1958 following the garden’s post-war reconstruction. It houses the mansion of the Kii House and is commonly compared to some of the most intricate and historically important and generally lavishly decorated mansions and villas across the country.

 

First image by jtbgmt.com

Second image by Lemuel Montejo on flickr.com

Shooting down the Kumagawa Rapids

Kayaking and rafting have been mentioned here before as some great outdoor activities to pursue while looking for a way to spend some time in Japan’s beautiful summer. The locations mentioned in the previous article were Aokiko Lake and the Tone River, both ideal locations capable of catering to suit the needs of the beginners seeing to get started on the water as well as advanced and experienced thrill seekers.

While Japan is riddled with ways to spend time in the great outdoors and enjoy some of the most breathtaking views in all of Asia, there are outdoor activities that allow for some good thrills to be had while doing so.

The Kumagawa River, frequently shortened to Kuma River, is located in the Kumamoto Prefecture, which in turn is part of Kyushu, a part of the far southwestern part of the Japanese islands. The river spans roughly 120 kilometers in length and is overall considered to be one of the three most rapid rivers along side the Mogami River and Fuji River.

This makes the Kumagawa River a well-frequented tourist spot. Aside from that, the river waters the nearby ricefields of the prefecture and flows out into the Yatsushiro sea. Well over 60,000 tourists visit the river yearly. While some may come for the view and surrounding attractions of Kyushu, most that pay a visit to the Kuma River are there in order to ride it – after all, it is one of the three fastest flowing rivers in Japan and is definitely worth telling stories about back home.

Two courses are available at the Kuma River. For those wanting to enjoy a slower and steadier ride, the “clear stream” course is the obvious choice. On the clear stream, the boat will travel around 8 kilometers over the span of 90 minutes and is great for enjoying the local scenery, taking pictures of the river’s fish and adjacent waterfalls, as well as breathing in the clean river air. The “rapid stream” option however, is, as its name implies, quite a bit faster as the boat will traverse 10 kilometers over the same time span. The course is dynamic and fast and really puts the boatman’s skill to maneuver and control the boat in the spotlight.

It is important to note that the Kuma River is only open to riding for 7 months of the year and is generally always in high-demand, making it crucial to reserve seats in advance.

First image by visitkyushu.org

Second image by kumanago.jp

Hakone Open-Air Art Museum

Japan is a country filled to the brim with art. For decades, generations, even centuries, the Japanese have managed to incorporate qualities into their culture that give its history and way of living an oddly persistent aura of elegance. The Land of the Rising Sun is artistically enthusiastic, both in the categories of modern and traditional art. In the traditional aspect, many facets of culture that seem ordinary or standard for the Japanese are perceived to be aesthetically pleasing or outstanding, especially by western cultures.

Many have given their own descriptions of the overall style of Japanese art. Words such as serene, elegant, precise, dynamic and flowing come to mind, especially when looking at Japanese art throughout history. Whether it’s the art of forging a sword, such as the famous Japanese Katana, the ancient part of playing ancient string instruments, creating paper figurines called Origami or even more modern arts such as flower arrangements and cinema, Japan is much accomplished in all major fields of art. Another integral part of Japanese culture is nature and generally the outdoors. The variety Japan has to offer in the outdoor department is as diverse as its contribution to the world’s arts, celebrating diverse seasons and unlimited opportunities to enjoy nature’s gifts.

One place that combines these two naturally connected forces, nature and art, is the Hakone Open Air Art Museum. The term “art museum” is normally associated with exhibition galleries, especially famous ones such as France’s Le Louvre, however, the Hakone Open Air Art Museum takes a different approach to letting visitors experience art.

Located in the town of Hakone in the Ashigarashimo District of the Kanagawa Prefecture, the Open Air Art Museum showcases art in balance with nature, built on spacious and lusciously green grounds surrounded by mountains. It’s a perfect place to unwind and experience two of Japan’s finest qualities at the same time.

 

The gallery opened in 1969 and features over 1000 sculptures, with works by various famous artists in the industry such as Picasso and Henry Moore. The fact that the exhibition is located outside sets the tone for the types of collections there are to see in the museum. Many different types of sculptures can be seen, with some even constructed upon water. The Picasso collection is most likely the centerpiece of the museum’s collection, a pavillion dedicated to the genius’ works featuring 188 pieces of his ceramic work that the museum had been able to acquire.

First image by japan-guide.com

Second image by bornplaydie.com

Hiking On the Nakasendo Highway

Japan is a country that places much value and emphasis on its culture and the origins of its traditions which have been cornerstones of Japanese society for decades now. Many of the historical centerpieces of the centuries past still remain as landmarks today and make for some great attractions throughout the Land of the Rising Sun.

The Nakasendo Highway is such an attraction. Among the many things to do in the Japanese outdoors, hiking along the Nakasendo Highway is perhaps one of the most complete cultural experiences one can get when visiting the country.

Much history surrounds the highway, its roots found all the way back in the Edo period, perhaps the single most influential period in shaping Japan towards what it has become today. During that time, the Nakasendo Highway was very important as one of the five highways connecting the capital, called Edo back then, to the nation’s outer provinces. This particular highway was one of the two that  connected modern-day Tokyo to Kyoto and was regulated by the state.

 

The highway is measured to be around 540 kilometers (330 miles) and crossed through five provinces at the time, which are now called Shiga, Saitama, Nagano, Gunma and Gifu. Its name can be roughly translated to “central mountain route” as it lead inland and was often preferred by travellers for not crossing any rivers.

Nowadays, the Nakasendo Highway is a great to soak in the history of the country. Some of the stretches are even today still as they were originally, some have been restored to reflect the history behind the highway.

The most popular part of the Nakasendo Highway is in the Kiso Valley, between the Tsumago-juku post in the Nagano Prefecture and Magome-juku post located in the Gifu Prefecture. This section is roughly 8 kilometers long and is a definite location to visit for anyone enjoying the outdoors, Japanese culture and history, or simply hiking. To cover the entire 8 kilometers will take the average traveller anywhere between 2 to 4 hours depending on weather and walking speed. There are plenty of sights to see and spots to take breaks at on the way. There are historical post towns to explore and purchase souvenirs at, perhaps a good place to grab a bite to eat. The path is paved and hiking down the highway leads to magnificent sights of waterfalls and the local forests, in some occasions even some local wildlife.

 

Images by paulstravelpics on blogspot.com

Riding a River Bus

If there is one thing many people who have visited Japan can agree on, it’s that the Land of the Rising Sun is a country like no other. There are many things that make Japan unique in its own way – some a westerner might find odd, funny, quirky or even downright different. As a visitor to Japan, there are literally thousands of things one could do in the country to spend time in an enjoyable manner.

One of the things that stands out in Japan is the efficiency and effectiveness of its public transportation system, heralded as the best in Southeast Asia by a significant margin. Not only is it reliable, spread widely throughout the entire country, it is also extremely safe and as environmentally friendly as currently possible. Japan boasts a huge variety of things to do in its outdoors, and as odd as it may seem, one of the interesting things to experience in the Japanese outdoors is to ride one of their more unique forms of public transportations.

Busses, taxis, trains, trams and even jeeps are rather common in many countries throughout the world and are commonly accepted as the general forms of transportation. Few countries however have a developed and active ferry system – ferries used for local transportation and not long distance travel.

Making use of its status as an island nation an an abundance of bays and rivers, Japan has its own River Bus system. As the name implies, boats and ferries are used as if they were busses, ferrying people from point A to B for a small fee – exactly how a bus works in any other instance, only that this one rides on water instead of concrete.

Tokyo especially makes use of this system as the ferry companies are able to use very convenient routes at speeds that ordinary land transportation would not be able to hope to match. Simply the fact that there’s very little traffic on the sea and rivers gives the river busses an edge.

 

The River Busses generally cover distances used by trains, with one-way rides lasting between 20 minutes to an hour of travel time. Depending on the route, this could take twice as long on conventional transport. The boats have observation decks to take advantage of on a nice day, as well as panoramic glass windows on the inside to see the city of Tokyo was one commutes along the river.

First image by japan-guide.com

Second image by prafulla.net

Yakatabune on Tokyo Bay

When people think of Japan, the first images that come to their minds are often associated with the country’s most impressive level of modernization and incredible levels of technological advancements. Tokyo is often thought of as the Japanese version of New York with an even more impressive display of light shows and consumer advertising. Therefore it doesn’t come as a surprise that almost everyone who visits the Land of the Rising Sun pays a visit to Tokyo and stays there for an extended amount of time.

However, Japan does not boast only an extensive level of metropolitan beauty as the nation is one of the most naturally diverse in terms of flora and fauna across the Southern Hemisphere and has much outdoor beauty to offer its visitors.

Those staying in Tokyo however, don’t have to travel far to experience some of the serene settings and beautiful sights that the country has to show. Tokyo Bay is a great way to experience the city away from the hustle and bustle of the city while still being able to appreciate the sights around.

One way to enjoy Tokyo Bay is to simply have dinner there. There are a good amount of establishments serving dinner on actual cruise boats that will traverse along the bay while serving full course meals. This allows patrons to view the city from the bay at night in all of its illuminated glory while enjoying some of the best cuisine Tokyo has. It’s quite popular among people in the corporate world taking their associates out for dinner, as well as families who wish to enjoy the novelty of the experience. These dinner tours normally last two hours and pass by the Rainbow Bridge and Hamarikyu Gardens, some of the visually pleasing attractions to see.

The boats upon which such dinners are normally held are called Yakatabune. The term Yakatabune implies “house boat,” and have been in existence for generations. They’re privately owned and range from being fully functional homes to being lavishly decorated party venues. In the older times, Yakatabune boats were often used by royalty, warlords and the affluent to entertain guests should an occasion call for it. With their traditional feel they also make for an interesting way of exploring Tokyo’s waterways as well as seeing some of the famous Japanese sights, in an direct contrast to the looming skyscrapers that surround Tokyo Bay.

First image by mytokyoguide.com

Second image by tokyotravelpal.com

Spending a night in a traditional Temple!

Modern Japanese culture is riddled with things and aspects with roots and foundations that date back centuries and longer. Literature, entertainment, festivals, sports, education, celebrations and other traditions that are common occurrence in the Land of the Rising Sun have been around for generations upon generations. One of the more culturally ingrained aspects for Japanese culture is the nation’s long and intertwined history with their Buddhist beliefs and Shinto teachings, dating back thousands of years.

Next to Japan’s flourishing and highly diverse pockets of nature, a tourist is likely to notice that temples and shrines are a close second in the diversity of sights to see or experience that Japan has to offer its guests. Many have been simply kept for historical and cultural purposes instead of actual use, however, there are still quite a few temples that still serve the same purpose today as they did decades and centuries ago and are still inhabited and maintained by orders of monks and priests.

Many of these temples are open to visitors, often because tourism signifies an important part of the funding that contributes to a temple’s upkeep, normally alongside donations by the general public.Therefore it is very much possible to visit one of the numerous temples and spend an entire day and night there to experience the lifestyle of the monks and priests in its fullest.

This can be a whole-day adventure for those with a vested interest in the old Japanese culture and history, as well as perhaps for those looking to spend a night in a rather unique way away from home.

The Ekoin Temple is one such place to experience. Located in Ryogoku, Tokyo, the temple is conveniently located for those visiting the country as they are most likely to stay in Tokyo, or close to the capital, regardless. The Ekoin Temple is over 1200 years old and as a Buddhist temple, has much history to it.

Visitors can book a traditional buddhist room in the temple for a night – including traditional style tatami mats, rice paper doors and even access to the temple’s hot spring baths. Views in the temple include a beautiful garden to watch over while enjoying a vegetarian buddhist meal. Those wanting to emerge themselves fully for their stay are also encouraged to sign up to learn the arts of Ajikan Meditation as well as Buddhist Sutra writing in the comfort of one’s own room with qualified teachers.

Images from ekoin.jp

Miyako Island

Japan is a country blessed with a significantly large variety in what nature has to offer, meaning that the Land of the Rising Sun has something to offer and appease all tastes throughout the entire year and its four glorious seasons.

One common characteristic that Japan shares with most of its Southeast Asian neighbors is an abundance of beautiful beaches and small islands that make perfect getaway spots for relaxation and fun. And let’s face it – who doesn’t enjoy lazing around in the sun on a clean sandy beach with the infinite sights of the Pacific Ocean right at one’s feet?

Miyako Island is one of the best destinations Japan has to offer to its locals and tourists when it comes to taking advantage of the blazing summer heat and desire to spent it at a beach. Miyako Island is commonly referred to as Miyakojima, lies roughly 300 kilometers (185 miles) from the main island of Okinawa and belongs to the same Okinawa Prefecture. Miyako Island is the fourth largest island in the entire prefecture and is generally known for its status as one of the best diving and snorkeling spots in that part of Japan. Population wise the island is rather small and lacks any significant mountains or other forms of heights and is thus covered in a few towns, many restaurants and sugar cane fields. Tourism is the main industry of the island and it shows in its wide offering of accommodation, restaurants and activities to enjoy when visiting.

The beaches offered on Miyakojima are often referred to as some of the most scenic and prolific throughout all of Japan. The two best beaches are called Yonaha-Maehama and Yoshino Kaigan respectively. Yonaha-Maehama beach is located in the southeastern corner of the island and is suited for those looking for some fun and relaxation. Spanning over 7 kilometers, the beach proves itself ideal for engaging in water sports, swimming in the crystal clear water or simply lying at the beach to enjoy the famously stunning sunsets of Miyako.

The other contender for the spot of the best beach on the island is Yoshino Kaigan beach. Yoshino beach has a bit of a different target demographic than Yonaha-Maehama as it is generally considered the best spot on the island to SCUBA dive and snorkel in. Visitors can enjoy the colorful underwater wildlife of the island with some rented gear and relax at the picturesque beach afterwards.

First image by keiko.com on flickr.

Second image by reefcentral.com