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Posts Tagged ‘Japan’

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The Way of Tea in Japan

Japanese tea ceremony

The Japanese Tea Ceremony, also known as the Way of Tea, is steeped in ritual and tradition, and can sometimes seem intimidating to the casual tourist. Luckily, we discovered this beautifully shot 3-minute video by Saneyuki Owada. It’s a presentation of the Way of Tea by Tea of the Men, a Japanese culture art performance group whose mission is to make the Japanese Tea Ceremony more enjoyable, more interesting, and easier to join for all.


Even the familiar is foreign in Japan

Shinjuku, Tokyo
“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”
– G.K. Chesterton

Imagine holding up a mirror and reflected back at you is everything you’re not.

Well, Japan is like that—which is why it’s so irresistible for those of us who yearn for travel experiences that make us question everything we thought we knew.

For one, they speak Japanese in Japan. Imagine that. English is not a predominant second language. In fact, outside of Tokyo, you’ll be hard-pressed to run into people who can actually converse with you. If you’re like me, this is all the more reason to go. IMHO Westerners are spoiled with English everywhere. Japan presents an opportunity to stretch ourselves in ways that few industrialized countries demand of us.

Oh, and the street signs? The train system information? The packaging on the things you buy? All written in Japanese! Folks, this is as foreign as it gets. You’ll be completely out of your element, and that, for those of us who really travel, is what we’re after, anyway, right?

Another thing, Japan is mostly Japanese. In this homogeneous society of 125 million, you’ll be a minority. Regardless of your race, if you’re not Japanese, you’ll be far outnumbered. It’s a startling experience if you’ve never had it before. And if you’re tall, you’ll feel like a giant in Japan. If you’re of medium height, you still might feel like a giant in Japan. (Sometimes like a big lumbering oaf, too.)

If you’re still with me, if you’ve got a sense of humor about all of this, book your trip and pack your bags. Japan is about to show you who you’ve never been.


10 Super Cool & Totally Affordable Things to Do in Tokyo

The Tokyo Tower & Rainbow BridgeSaturday night in Shibuya against a backdrop of flashing neon ads and music from up above, walls of Japanese pedestrians stand ten people thick at each corner waiting to cross forward, back and diagonally once the light turns. When it does, a moving mosaic of people mingles in a remarkably orderly fashion through the intersection, and you find yourself wondering—like so many other weirdly wonderful moments in Japan—is this for real? In Tokyo there are a lot of people. Like 13,000,000 or so. It’s the world’s most populous city ahead, even, of Delhi and Shanghai. And as far as global cities go, Tokyo is uber hip. It’s uber everything, really. So shake off your jet lag and get ready to take a juicy bite out of the Big Mikan*. Here are 10 super cool and totally affordable things to see and do in Tokyo:


9 Reasons to Visit Japan

Japan is a country of contrasts. While the society is 98.5% Japanese, it nonetheless encompasses a diversity of subcultures. Japan is home to some of the most densely populated cities in the world, while the great majority of the landscapes remain rural. The culture is quite conservative in many regards, while simultaneously light-hearted in others. Japan’s contrasts and contradictions make it an ideal destination for those looking to have a truly unique travel experience.

Here are 9 reasons to visit Japan:

1. Cities

In many respects, Japanese society is the pinnacle of metropolitanism. From ancient temples to futuristic architecture, Japan offers amazing urban experiences for the curious traveler to behold.

Shibuya Crossing, TokyoMust-see examples include:

  • Kyoto: Japan’s ancient capital, a garden-laden dream boasting some of the country’s most beautiful temples and shrines.
  • Tokyo: Japan’s modern capital, a neon-lit metropolis boasting the world’s tallest tower, the Tokyo Skytree.

2. Landscapes

Cherry blossomsOne of the biggest surprises about Japan may be how rural it is. Almost 75% of the land is covered by mountains and another 13% is devoted to agriculture. Just a short drive or train ride away from Tokyo, you’ll enter a completely different world, with lush mountains, large agricultural fields, and scenic coastal villages.

Some must-see examples include:

  • The Arashiyama bamboo forest: a dense green jungle of towering bamboo trees.
  • The Japanese Alps: a world-class skiing and hiking destination.
  • The Tottori Sand Dunes: massive rippling sand dunes that will make you feel like you’re in a distant desert, not southern Japan.
  • The islands of Okinawa: a tropical break with coral reefs, turquoise water and white sand beaches.
  • Hot Springs (known as “onsen”): Created from water heated naturally under the ground. There are over 3,000 hot springs in Japan. Animal lovers will especially appreciate Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park to see snow monkeys bathe in the steamy natural springs.

3. Animals

Macaques at Jigokudani hotspring in Nagano Photo by YosemiteFrom the snowy mountains to the tropical beaches, Japan claims a great diversity of habitats for a wide variety of wildlife species. Japan hosts approximately 130 species of mammals (including bears, foxes and wild cats) and 600 species of birds.

Here are some examples of some of the most interesting:

  • The Macaque: a snow monkey that lives further north than any other primate (except for humans).
  • The Wild Tanuki: a kind of racoon dog known for their mischievous nature. Statues of the Tanuki are often placed at temples to bring good luck.
  • The Green Pheasant: a large black and green bird found only in Japan. The green pheasant and the red crowned crane unofficially compete for the title of “Japan’s National Bird”.

4. Temples & Shrines

Kinkaku-ji Temple, KyotoMany important traditions in Japanese culture have grown out of the Shinto and Buddhist religions. Shintoism and Buddhism exist side by side in Japan, and the practices of both faiths are deeply ingrained in Japanese culture.

One way to learn about these traditions is to explore some of Japan’s (Buddhist) temples and (Shinto) shrines. There are over 100,000 temples and shrines across the country, and they differ wildly in size and design.

Some examples include:

  • Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto: this Shinto shrine features 10,000 crimson torii gates donated by business owners and shopkeepers in a bid for financial success.
  • Kinkaku-ji -Temple of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto: this Buddhist temple features the top two floors covered with pure gold leaf.

5. Festivals & Celebrations

Haari Boat Festival in Okinawa © JNTOThousands of festivals are held each year across the country celebrating seasonal changes, the natural world, and the annual harvest. Wherever you are and whenever you go, you’re likely to find a festival happening nearby.

Some examples include:

  • Rice Crop Art Festival in Inakadate Village: locals use different colored varieties of grain to skillfully depict giant images using rice paddies as their canvas.
  • Saporro Snow Festival: at the core of the festival is hundreds of sculptures made from snow and ice.
  • Miyako Odori in Kyoto: this geisha dancing festival translates literally as “Capital City Dances” as Kyoto used to be the capital. In English, the dances are often referred to as “The Cherry Blossom Dances”, because they take place in April when the cherry blossoms are in bloom.

6. Kawaii & Anime

KumamonWhile Japan may seem like a serious culture, they also have a soft spot for “cute”.

Kawaii is the word for a Japanese artistic and pop culture style that emphasizes all things “cute” using bright colors and animated mascots.

Anime is a Japanese style of film, TV, and video game animation. There are some magical anime films out there that are so creative that they impress even the serious adult (such as Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away).

Across the country, animated mascots adorn everything from food products to local monuments and even government agencies. One of the most famous mascots is Kumamon, a cheeky black bear who symbolizes a bullet train line in the city of Kumamoto.

7. Cuisine

Japanese sushi © JNTOJapanese cuisine (known as washoku) is so special that it’s been added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List, and it’s so diverse that it deserves its own blog post. The country offers a wealth of culinary experiences from the finest high-end restaurants to rustic food stalls, bustling seafood markets, and creative local sweets. Soup lovers will want to check out the Shinyokohama Raumen (Ramen) Museum.

8. Rail System

Shinkansen bullet train & Mt. FujiFor more than 50 years, Japan’s impressive network of high-speed moving bullet trains (called shinkansen) has zipped travelers and commuters from one corner of the country to the other. The network is incredibly well-functioning, with no accidents involving the bullet train network, even though trains operate at speeds of over 200 miles per hour. The trains are also known for being on time, rarely having delays of more than 50 seconds per train.

All travelers to Japan should take advantage of this rail system at least once. The Japan Rail Pass makes this an affordable option to quickly get around the country.

9. Hospitality

Mother & daughters in traditional KimonosThe Japanese may seem reserved at first, but soon you’ll find them to be kind, considerate and warm, even to those they don’t know. They are hard-working, meticulous, proud of their cultural history, and always eager to help. In fact, the more you learn about Japanese customs (start with a friendly, respectful bow), the more quickly you’ll be welcomed into this amazing culture.

For a traditional take on Japanese hospitality, stay at a Ryokan (inn). Dating back to the 1600’s, a typical ryokan is constructed using traditional Japanese methods, has a communal entrance hall where guests and owners can sit and talk, and most also feature a communal bathing area using water from hot springs.

Japan is a country of contrasts. From ancient culture to modern innovations, from the cities to the natural lands, and from serious cuisine to cuteness and hospitality, a visit to Japan will almost certainly be an experience of a lifetime.

Japan Tours and Packages with Friendly Planet Travel




Japan: A Top Destination for Foodies

Japan. Beyond sushi: foodie heaven

SushiIf you live to eat and enjoy exploring food culture around the world, Japan should be at the top of your travel wish list.

In Japan, cooking is an art guided by centuries-old culinary traditions, but there are also modern chefs adding new twists to longtime favorites. The country offers a wealth of culinary experiences from the very high end to inexpensive day-to-day treats. Whatever you prefer, there are foods to excite every kind of eater.

Japanese chef © JNTOJapanese chefs train for decades to perfect the work that they do. And this dedication pays off: Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world, more than Paris and New York combined. Food is so important to Japanese culture that the United Nation’s cultural organization, UNESCO, recently added traditional Japanese cuisine (washoku), to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list. It was only the second national cuisine to be given this honor, after France.

Japanese chefs use only seasonal and top-quality ingredients. Simplicity is key, and they do as little as possible to fresh ingredients to bring out the color and flavor. Umami, the rich flavor profile prized in Japanese cooking, is enhanced by using just a few ingredients including miso, soy sauce, mushrooms, seaweed, and bonito (fish) broth. The food is carefully plated and the finished dish often looks like a work of art.

In Japan, seafood is king and sushi lovers should take advantage of some of the freshest fish you will ever eat. But there is a lot more to Japanese food than sushi. Here are a few examples:

  • Yakitori © JNTORichly marbled Wagyu beef, often considered the finest in the world
  • Yakitori, chicken and vegetable skewers grilled over hot coals
  • Tonkatsu, deep-fried pork cutlet rolled in bread crumbs
  • Okonomiyaki, a batter pancake topped with meat, squid, shredded vegetables and garnished with sweet brown sauce, mayonnaise, seaweed and bonito flakes
  • Soba, udon, and ramen noodle soups

Japanese sweets © JNTOIf you have a sweet tooth, you’ll feel right at home in Japan. Each region has different styles of traditional sweets, known as wagashi. These delicate creations are often sold in convenience stores and train stations, and come in beautifully wrapped boxes because they are customarily given as gifts to friends and family. In the Kyoto area, look for yatsuhashi—thin, triangle-shaped sweet rice wrappers filled with red bean paste. Northern Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture is known for soybean production, so you’ll find edamame used in many local sweets, including ice cream and even Kit Kat bars!

Wine lovers will love trying sake, or Japanese rice wine. Sake has been brewed for over 2,000 years and the flavors vary greatly based on where it is made and the natural characteristics of the rice and water. Spirit and beer lovers should try local whiskey and craft beers, both growing in popularity.

Here are some unique food experiences to add to your list:

  • Kaiseki Ryori © JNTOKaiseki Ryori, a refined multicourse meal with a focus on fresh, seasonal ingredients. This is best experienced in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese hotel where the meal is served in your room.
  • Kawadoko ryori, a unique summer dining experience where you enjoy your meal seated on a platform built over a flowing stream.
  • Shojin ryori, the traditional cuisine of Buddhist monks served in a Zen temple.
  • Traditional Japanese tea service, to learn the ceremonial ritual and art of hand-grinding matcha green tea
  • Visiting local markets: Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market is the world’s largest wholesale fish market that sells over 700,000 tons of seafood each year. In Kyoto, check out Nishiki Market, a centuries old gourmet market that lets you sample all the local specialties.
  • Browsing the food stalls in a Japanese department store. The lowest levels are dedicated to specialty foods and offer many unique items, including beautifully packaged sweets and prized varieties of fruits, including melons fetching over $200 each!
  • Mingling with locals after work at the neighborhood izakaya, a casual bar that serves small plates of food.
  • Sampling international cuisine and foods you know from home—Japanese chefs often find ways to put their own unique touch on international classics.
  • The most adventurous eaters can try fugu, a poisonous blowfish. The dish has to be expertly prepared to be safe to eat, but it’s one of Japan’s finest delicacies.

Kaiseki Ryori © JNTODishes vary across the regions of Japan, but wherever you go you are sure to find something unique and delicious. So pack your appetite and a willingness to try something new on one of Friendly Planet’s tours to Japan — you won’t be disappointed!

Cassie Kifer is a freelance travel & food writer from the the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s the founder of Ever In Transit, an adventure & culinary travel blog offering travel tips, stories, and photography from destinations around the world. Connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest.

Traveler tips for a trip to Tokyo

Our staff at Friendly Planet is made up of many travel enthusiasts.  Most of us travel every chance we get, for both business and pleasure. When we return to the office, we often find ourselves having in-depth conversations with one another to share and compare our travel stories and experiences.

I’ve invited some of our staff members to share their travel experiences on the blog to give you a snapshot of some of the most fascinating places around the world, as well as their personal accounts from their trips. First up is Terence Foley, who works in product development here at Friendly Planet. Here’s his description of his most recent trip to Tokyo, in his own words:

“In September, I took a trip to Tokyo, Japan. This remarkable city is comprised of 27 special wards, each with their own distinct feel and attraction. From high-rise business centers and entertainment districts, to beautifully manicured parks and gardens, Tokyo has it all.

I visited most of Tokyo’s major attractions: Tsukiji fish marketMeiji ShrineGinza shopping districtTokyo-Edo Museum, and Asakusa Temple, just to name a few. I even went to Tokyo’s Sushi Academy and learned how to prepare fresh sushi. And, to top it all off, I also made a visit to the Tokyo Skytree’s observatory, 1,150 feet up, for a panoramic sunset view of the sprawling metropolis.

To be honest, I was a bit wary of using Tokyo’s metro system, especially after looking at the map, which looked like a plate of rainbow spaghetti. But to my surprise, it was actually quite simple. In fact, if you find yourself looking at a map for more than a few moments, a friendly Tokyoite is likely to approach you to offer help.

I’ve heard people planning trips to Japan say they were not interested in Tokyo because it’s just another big city. Well, Tokyo is big, but it is unlike any other major city I’ve ever visited. At times, I felt like I had traveled into the future, and other times back to the Edo period. The food was delicious, the people were friendly, and the culture was vibrant. I fell in love with Tokyo and I cannot wait to return!”

I share Terence’s enthusiasm for Tokyo, and can’t wait to return myself. Thanks for sharing about your trip Terence!

2 reasons why the Far East isn’t so far away for Friendly Planet travelers

We’re always trying to think of new, innovative tours to offer our customers at a great value. We’ve created two of these new tours in the Far East, which incorporate cities that are geographically close in proximity, but vastly different in history and culture. I wanted to fill you in on the details:

Tokyo skyline at night

Beijing and Tokyo: A Sale of Two Cities. On this 10-day tour, travelers visit two of the most attractive destinations in the world, Beijing and Tokyo, for an outrageously low price. The package combines two of Asia’s cultural and economic powerhouses that exhibit impressive modern achievements within ancient and incredibly rich cultures. Spend four nights in each city, with touring included, which provides just enough time to experience all that Beijing and Tokyo have to offer. Since we’re coming up on the cooler winter months, travelers will be able to take advantage of less crowds and incredible prices with this tour—a great perk! While the moderate temperatures in both cities throughout the winter months still provide an enjoyable climate for touring.

Taste of China and Hong Kong. This 13-day tour was created for the traveler who wants to see all of the sights and ancient culture that the vibrant international cities in China and Hong Kong have to offer. Visit three of China’s most awe-inspiring cities, ShanghaiXi’an, and Beijing, and then continue on to the beautiful, cosmopolitan city of Hong Kong. The best part? We’ve calculated that travelers will save over $1,000 with this tour, as compared to booking on their own. You simply can’t beat that for these attractive travel destinations!

Are there any Far East destinations that you’d like to see us offer next? Let us know in a comment below!

Making a very friendly return to Japan

Japan has been one of our favorite destinations for a long time. But we were forced to cancel all departures in March 2011 when one of the most devastating earthquakes ever recorded rocked the east coast of Japan. So in 2011, Friendly Planet Travel didn’t send a single traveler to this fascinating country.

But we’re excited to announce today that Friendly Planet Travel is once again resuming tours to Japan with a brand new series of departures on our Japan Panorama tour. We know it’s our time to return to Japan because you have been calling and writing to ask us when our departures would start. And for our part, we could not be happier to resume our tours. We know what a beautiful destination Japan is and how much it is appreciated by everyone who visits.

And on a personal note, tourism to Japan has truly suffered from the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunamis that followed. We can’t wait for our friends in the Japanese tourism industry to begin to feel the recovery by seeing the smiling and friendly faces of our travelers arriving to tour the country.

A recent survey conducted by the Japanese government found that 82 percent of Japanese people feel favorably towards the United States and its people. Visitors who go to Japan will sense the warmth and friendship as soon as they arrive in the country, along with it’s gorgeous scenery. Japan has dramatic scenery and ancient monuments juxtaposed with modern, sleek skyscrapers; sophisticated nightlife; and bustling cities.

Even more significant, its citizens are truly an example to the world of stoicism at its finest. When you see how the Japanese people have come together as a nation to help each other recover from devastation and loss, you will be touched and impressed. So there’s no better time than now to see what this beautiful country and its citizens are all about.

Check out our Japan Panorama tour to get all the details about where we’ll be going, what we’ll be seeing, and the fun things we have in store for travelers. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me or speak to a member of our reservations team at 800-555-5765.

Why we need to help Japan recover

A month has passed since the devastating earthquake and tsunami struck Japan. And as you know, Japan is being rocked with aftershocks and the nuclear crisis continues to threaten the country.

You would think that the Japanese people would be in a state of mayhem and disorder, but it’s quite the opposite. What we’re seeing in Japan is how evolved, calm, and reasoned people behave during a crisis.

There’s no looting nor protests, and everyone is trying to help one other. It is the dignity and grace of the Japanese people that make their country so wonderful.

For example, right now the cherry blossoms are in bloom in Japan. Their blossoming sparks celebration. People go outside and enjoy picnics, parties, music, and the beauty of the trees. But this is not the case this year.

In the southern part of Japan, the damage was minimal compared to the north. But the people in the south who aren’t dealing with the aftermath of the disasters feel that it’s not appropriate to celebrate while their countrymen are suffering so much.

Instead, everyone is cutting back on everything. From cherry blossom celebrations to ordinary things, such as electricity and water to conserve resources. They’re doing this to stand in solidarity with their countrymen and women, and essentially, to do whatever they can to help one other out.

There’s a strong sense of responsibility in the Japanese culture and psyche. Their consideration of one another is remarkable and worth appreciating. It’s also one of the many reasons why we want to resume tours to Japan as soon as possible. However, we won’t go back until we feel it’s safe for our travelers.

Unfortunately I don’t see us resuming our Japan Panorama tours this year. The touring season is very short in Japan, and so we’ll have to wait until 2012 to go back. But until then, we can help Japan recover through donations.

We’re always looking for ways to get money directly to those who need it the most, and right now we’re asking you to make donation to Doctors Without Borders and the International Red Cross. Thank you for your help. I know the people in Japan truly appreciate it.

Discussing Japan travel on Around the World Travel Radio

Although the nuclear crisis in Japan caused us to suspend Friendly Planet Travel’s Japan Panorama tours, we will be among the first tour operators to resume travel to Japan when it’s safe.

I was able to tell this to Arthur von Wiesenberger on Around the World Travel Radio last Thursday. Tune into the podcast to get an update on the situation in Japan and how it’s affecting travelers.

You’ll also find out why Friendly Planet travelers aren’t losing any money when we suspend tours, why other travelers should hold off on traveling to Japan until the nuclear crisis is resolved, and why the Japanese need time to recover before welcoming travelers back. Thanks again Arthur for having me as a guest!

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