Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Usuzan Ropeway

Usuzan Ropeway
basic information

Mount Usu (Usuzan) is a volcano which has erupted four times in the past 100 years. Its most recent eruption occurred in the year 2000.

The Usuzan Ropeway brings you close to the volcano's summit. The upper station's observation deck offers panoramic views of Lake Toya and neighboring Showa Shinzan. From a second observation deck a short walk away, there are views of the ocean and Mount Usu's largest crater, which was formed in an eruption in 1977.

A walking path connects Mount Usu's summit with the volcano's west crater, which was formed during the eruption of 2000. The walk takes about an hour one way.

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how to get there

The ropeway departs from "Kazan-Mura", a small town of souvenir shops at the foot of Showa Shinzan. From Toyako Onsen, it can be reached in 10 minutes by car or 15 minutes by bus (330 yen, four buses/day, no service during winter).

How to get to and around Lake Toya

hours and fees

Hours:9:00 to 16:00 (longer hours during summer)
Closed:A few weeks in January and February
Admission:1450 yen

Lake Toya Travel Guide

Lake Toya Travel Guide
basic information

Lake Toya (Toyako) is part of the Shikotsu-Toya National Park. In addition to the lake itself, the Toyako region features hot springs and an active volcano, Mount Usu, which last erupted in the year 2000. The area also offers many fishing, hiking, and camping opportunities.

The picturesque lake was chosen as the location of the the G8 summit which Japan will host from July 7 to 9, 2008. The leaders of the world's eight major industrialized democracies will meet at the Windsor Hotel Toya Resort & Spa.

Shiroi Koibito Park

Shiroi Koibito Park
basic information

Shiroi Koibito Park is a kind of theme park by Ishiya, a local chocolate company. The company's flagship product are the Shiroi Koibito cookies, two thin butter cookies with white chocolate in between, a mandatory item on the souvenir shopping list of most visitors to Hokkaido.

The park consists of various Disneyland style buildings housing shops, a cafe and, most interestingly, a chocolate factory, which is open to the public. Besides some windows, from behind which visitors can observe the production process of the chocolate cookies, there are many chocolate related exhibits.

Part of the Shiroi Koibito Park is a soccer field, the practice ground for "Consadole Sapporo", the local J-League soccer team. There is also a small collection house about the team's history.

Open: Daily 9:00 to 18:00 (enter by 17:00).
Admission: 600 Yen (chocolate factory)


basic information
Odori Park

Sapporo ("important river flowing through a plain" in Ainu language) is the capital of Hokkaido and Japan's fifth largest city. Sapporo is also one of the nation's youngest major cities. In 1857, the city's population stood at just seven people.

In the beginning of the Meiji Period, when the development of Hokkaido was started on a large scale, Sapporo was chosen as the island's administrative center and enlarged according to the advice of foreign specialists. Consequently, Sapporo was built based on a North American style rectangular street system.

Sapporo became world famous in 1972 when the Olympic Winter Games were held there. Today, the city is well known for its ramen, beer, and the annual snow festival held in February.


basic information
Bonsai is the art of cultivating miniature trees. The pine, a tree that grows many meters tall in wild nature, is the most typical plant used for bonsai, but many other tree species can be used.

To achieve miniaturization, the tree is frequently transferred into new pots, and on that occasion its roots are cut a little bit. Bonsai skills include the knowledge of when and how much to cut the roots, how much fertilizer and water is ideal, and which branches should be pruned to give the plant an aesthetic look.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


basic information

Sashimi is thinly sliced, raw seafood. Many different kinds of fresh fish and seafood are served raw in the Japanese cuisine. Sashimi, while similar to sushi, is distinct for its absence of vinigered rice. When slices of fish are served on top of a small ball of rice, it is called nigiri zushi.
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Sashimi is usually beautifully arranged and served on top of shredded daikon and shiso leaves. The sashimi pieces are dipped into a dish of soya sauce before being eaten. The daikon and shiso can also be dipped in soya sauce and eaten; both have a fresh, minty taste. Depending on the kind of sashimi, wasabi or ground ginger may accompany the dish and be added to the sashimi as a condiment.

Some of the most popular kinds of sashimi are:

  • Maguro: Tuna
  • Toro: Fatty Tuna
  • Ebi: Prawn
  • Saba: Mackerel
  • Ika: Squid
  • Tako: Octopus


basic information

Gyudon (beef bowl) is a popular domburi dish consisting of beef and onion served over a bowl of rice. The meat and onion are cooked in a mixture of soy sauce, mirin, sugar and sake giving the dish a sweet, salty flavour. Many chain restaurants (gyudon-ya) specialize in gyudon making it an informal, inexpensive dining option frequented by students, and ideally suited to travelers on a budget.

Typically, beni shoga (pickled red ginger) and shichimi (red chili mix) are available at the table and added to taste. Tofu or konnyaku (devil`s tongue) may be cooked along with the beef although these ingredients are more common in home recipes than at restaurants. Common restaurant additions are a beaten raw egg stirred into the finished product, or green onions sprinkled on top of the meat.

From left to right: beni shoga, soup, raw egg

Between 2004 and 2006, a Japanese ban on imported American beef drastically affected the production and sale of gyudon, causing upset among gyudon lovers. However, the ban increased the popularity and frequency of butadon and tondon, which are both pork variations of beef bowl.

Gyudon ya are numerous and often open 24 hours. These restaurants operate in one of two ways. Either a staff member takes one's order as usual, or the meal is paid for in advance at a vending machine located near the restaurant entrance.

A side bowl of miso soup may come with the meal or be offered in a combo set. Other side dishes are salad and kimchi. Tea and water are offered for free with refill jugs available on the table for customers to serve themselves.

Japan's three largest gyudon-ya chains are:

1062 outlets in Japan as of March 2008
Yoshinoya's orange sign and logo are almost synonymous with gyudon. It is Japan's largest gyudon chain and has overseas locations in Hong Kong, Taiwan, China and the US. A standard size gyudon serving costs 380 yen.
995 outlets in Japan as of March 2008
Sukiya offers are broader range of menu items and markets itself as a "suburban family restaurant". Its restaurants typically have more booth space than the other two large chains. A standard size serving of gyudon is 350 yen.
719 outlets in Japan as of January 2008
Matsuya is the smallest of the three big chains. Their gyudon bowl is called gyumeshi on the menu and is always served with a side bowl of miso soup. A standard size serving of gyumeshi costs 350 yen.


basic information

Samurai Armour
The samurai (or bushi) were the members of the military class, the Japanese warriors.

Samurai employed a range of weapons such as bows and arrows, spears and guns; but their most famous weapon and their symbol was the sword.

Samurai were supposed to lead their lives according to the ethic code of bushido ("the way of the warrior"). Strongly Confucian in nature, Bushido stressed concepts such as loyalty to one's master, self discipline and respectful, ethical behavior.

After a defeat, some samurai chose to commit ritual suicide (seppuku) by cutting their abdomen rather than being captured or dying a dishonorable death.

Heian Period (794-1185)

The samurai's importance and influence grew during the Heian Period, when powerful landowners hired private warriors for the protection of their properties. Towards the end of the Heian Period, two military clans, the Minamoto and Taira, had grown so powerful that they seized control over the country and fought wars for supremacy against each other.

Kamakura Period (1192-1333)

In 1185, the Minamoto defeated the Taira, and Minamoto Yoritomo established a new military government in Kamakura in 1192. As shogun, the highest military officer, he became the ruler of Japan.

Muromachi Period (1333 - 1573)

During the chaotic Era of Warring States (sengoku jidai, 1467-1573), Japan consisted of dozens of independent states which were constantly fighting each other. Consequently, the demand for samurai was very high. Between the wars, many samurai were working on farms. Many of the famous samurai movies by Kurosawa take place during this era.

Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573 - 1603)

When Toyotomi Hideyoshi reunited Japan, he started to introduce a rigid social caste system which was later completed by Tokugawa Ieyasu and his successors. Hideyoshi forced all samurai to decide between a life on the farm and a warrior life in castle towns. Furthermore, he forbade anyone but the samurai to arm themselves with a sword.

Edo Period (1603 - 1868)

According to the Edo Period's official hierarchy of social castes, the samurai stood at the top, followed by the farmers, artisans and merchants. Furthermore, there were hierarchies within each caste. All samurai were forced to live in castle towns and received income from their lords in form of rice. Masterless samurai were called ronin and caused minor troubles during the early Edo Period.

With the fall of Osaka Castle in 1615, the Tokugawa's last potential rival was eliminated, and relative peace prevailed in Japan for about 250 years. As a result, the importance of martial skills declined, and most samurai became bureaucrats, teachers or artists.

In 1868, Japan's feudal era came to an end, and the samurai class was abolished.

Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573 - 1603)
basic information

Oda Nobunaga achieved control over the province of Owari (around the modern city of Nagoya) in 1559. As many other daimyo, he was keen in uniting Japan. Strategically favorably located, he succeeded in capturing the capital in 1568.

After establishing himself in Kyoto, Nobunaga continued to eliminate his enemies. Among them were some militant Buddhist sects, especially the Ikko sect (Pure Land Sect) which had become very powerful in several provinces. Nobunaga destroyed the Enryakuji monastery near Kyoto completely in 1571. His fight against the Ikko sect continued until 1580.

Rather fortunate was Nobunaga concerning two of his most dangerous rivals in the East: Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin. Both of them died before they were able to confront Nobunaga. After Shingen's death, Nobunaga defeated the Takeda clan in the battle of Nagashino (1575), making use of modern warfare.

In 1582, general Akechi murdered Nobunaga and captured his Azuchi castle. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a general fighting for Nobunaga, reacted very quickly, defeated Akechi, and took over control. Hideyoshi continued to eliminate remaining rivals. He subdued the Northern provinces and Shikoku in 1583 and Kyushu in 1587. After defeating the Hojo family in Odawara in 1590, Japan was finally reunited.

In order to bring the country under absolute control, Hideyoshi destroyed many castles that were built throughout the country during the era of civil wars. In 1588 he confiscated the weapons of all the farmers and religious institutions in the "Sword Hunt". He forbade the samurai to be active as farmers and forced them to move into the castle towns. A clear distinction between the social classes should increase the government's control over the people. In addition, a land survey was started in 1583, and a census carried out in 1590. In the same year, Hideyoshi's large castle, the Osaka Castle, was completed.

In 1587, Hideyoshi issued an edict expelling Christian missionaries. Nevertheless, Franciscans were able to enter the country in 1593, and the Jesuits remained active in Western Japan. In 1597 Hideyoshi intensified the persecution of Christian missionaries, forbade further conversions, and executed 26 Franciscans as a warning. Foreign traders and missionaries had acted aggressively and intolerant towards native Japanese institutions in an era when their fellow countrymen were conquering and colonizing other parts of the world in the name of Christianity.

After uniting the country, Hideyoshi attempted to realize his rather megalomaniac dream of conquering China. In 1592, his armies invaded Korea and captured Seoul within a few weeks; however, they were pushed back again by Chinese and Korean forces in the following year. Hideyoshi stubbornly didn't give in until the final evacuation from Korea in 1598, the same year in which he died.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, who had been an intelligent partner of Hideyoshi and Nobunaga, succeeded Hideyoshi as the most powerful man of Japan.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


basic information
Himeji Castle

History of Castles

The need for castles arouse after the central government's authority had weakened in the 15th century and Japan had fallen into the chaotic era of warring states (sengoku jidai). During that era, Japan consisted of dozens of small independent states which were fighting each other and, for defense purposes, were building small castles on top of mountains.

When Oda Nobunaga reestablised a central authority over Japan about a century later, and his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi completed the reunification of Japan, many larger castles were built across the country. Unlike the earlier castles, they were built in the plains or on small hills in the plains, where they served as a region's administrative and military headquarters, and became the centers of "castle towns".

During the Meiji Period, many castles were destroyed as unwelcome relicts of the feudal past, and even more were lost in World War II. Only about a dozen original castles, i.e. castles that date from the feudal era (before 1868), survive today. Furthermore, several dozen castles were reconstructed over the past decades.

Castle Structures and Castle Towns

The typical, large castle consisted of three rings of defense, with the so called honmaru ("main circle") in the center followed by the ninomaru ("second circle") and sannomaru ("third circle"). The castle tower stood in the honmaru, while the lords usually lived at a more comfortable residence in the ninomaru.

In the town around the castle, the samurai were residing. The higher their rank, the closer they lived to the castle. Merchants and artisans lived in special areas, while temple and entertainment districts were usually located just outside the city. Tokyo and Kanazawa are two good examples among many Japanese cities which evolved as castle towns.

The main construction material for castle buildings used to be wood, as can be witnessed when visiting the interior of one of the surviving original castles. Most newer reconstructions, however, are made of concrete, and their interiors are modern. Most castles now house a museum.

The following are some typical castle structures:

Castle Tower (Tenshukaku)

Also known as donjon or castle keep, this is the innermost, best defended and most prominent structure of a castle. Most castle towers have between two to five stories, and there are usually more floors inside than there are stories on the outside.
Example: Castle tower of Kumamoto Castle

Guard Tower (Yagura)

Also known as turrets, these are watch towers and storage rooms along the castle walls.
Example: A guard tower of Hiroshima Castle

Walls and moats

Several rings of walls and moats served as a defense measure. Osaka Castle and the former Edo Castle (now Tokyo's Imperial Palace) offer the most impressing examples.
Example: Castle walls and moat of Osaka Castle


The typical castle gate consists of two gates which are placed in a 90 degree angle to each other, creating a small inner yard which is heavily defended from all sides.
Example: Sakurada Gate of the former Edo Castle

List of Japanese Castles
Original Castles
Himeji Castle Japan's best preserved feudal castle.
Matsumoto Castle Original and relatively complete castle.
Hikone Castle A designated national treasures.
Hirosaki Castle Most famous cherry blossom spot in Tohoku.
Matsue Castle One of Japan's largest, original castle towers.
Inuyama Castle Claimed to be Japan's oldest surviving castle.
Matsuyama Castle Relatively complete, original castle.
Kochi Castle One of Japan's few surviving original castles.
Shuri Castle Reconstructed former Ryukyu royal palace.
Osaka Castle Reconstruction of the large castle.
Kumamoto Castle Beautiful reconstruction of the original castle.
Nagoya Castle Reconstruction of the original castle.
Ueno Castle Beautifully reconstructed feudal castle.
Hiroshima Castle Reconstruction of the former castle.
Okayama Castle Reconstruction of the former castle.
Palace Style Castles and Ruins
Nijo Castle Former Kyoto residence of the shogun.
Imperial East Gardens Park on the former grounds of Edo Castle.
Nakagusuku Castle Beautiful ruins of a former Ryukyu castle.
Nakijin Castle Ruins of another former Ryukyu castle.
Kanazawa Castle Slowly being reconstructed.
Fukuoka Castle Ruins Ruins of the city's former castle.
Honmaru Goten Kawagoe Castle's only remaining building.
Hagi Castle Ruins of the former Hagi Castle.
Takamatsu Castle Ruins of one of Japan's few seaside castles.
Aoba Castle Ruins of the former castle of the Date clan.
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