Thursday, April 30, 2009

Aizu Travel Guide

Aizu Travel Guide
basic information
Tsuruga Castle

Aizu, located in western Fukushima Prefecture, is a region with a long samurai tradition that is proudly put on display for visitors. A story well known throughout Japan, a group of young soldiers from Aizu committed ritual suicide upon thinking that their castle, Tsuruga Castle, had been taken by the enemy in a battle accompanying the end of Japan's feudal age in 1868.

Though the soldiers had been mistaken and their castle was still standing, the Aizu forces did indeed eventually lose the battle. The imperial forces, who they had been fighting, abolished the Aizu domain and tore down Tsuruga Castle. The castle has since been restored and is now open to the public.

References to Noguchi Hideo, perhaps the area's most famous citizen, can be seen around town. Born and raised in Aizu, Noguchi was a famous Japanese doctor in the early 1900s who made significant advances in the study of syphilis. Tourists may find his face familiar, as Noguchi's portrait adorns the 1000 yen bill.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Oshima and Fukuurajima

Oshima and Fukuurajima
basic information

Oshima and Fukuurajima are two islands close to the pier of Matsushima which are open to the public and suitable for pleasant walks. Oshima can be accessed for free over a short bridge, while a fee applies for crossing the long, red bridge to Fukuurajima.

Oshima, the smaller of the two islands, used to be a retreat for monks. Decorated meditation caves can still be found on the island. Fukuurajima is much larger and contains a botanical garden and walking trails.


Any advice or questions? Voice them in the forum!

how to get there

Oshima is a 5-10 minute walk to the left of the pier when arriving by boat, and Fukuurajima a 5-10 minute walk to the right.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Zuiganji Temple

Zuiganji Temple
basic information
Main Hall

Zuiganji was founded in 828 as a temple of the Tendai sect. It is now one of the Tohoku's most famous Zen temples, well known for its beautifully painted sliding doors (fusuma).

The proud entrance fee of 700 Yen includes admission to Seiryuden, the Zuiganji Art Museum found on the temple grounds.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Matsushima Bay

Matsushima Bay
basic information

Matsushima Bay has been celebrated as one of Japan's three most scenic views (the other two are Miyajima and Amanohashidate). The bay is dotted by over 200 small islands covered by pine trees.

A good way to enjoy the bay is to get on a cruise boat. There are round trips starting and ending at Matsushima and boats from Matsushima to the nearby city of Shiogama. Longer cruises will get you to the more remote areas of Oku-Matsushima which are less spoiled by industrial and urban development.

Any advice or questions? Voice them in the forum!

how to get there

Cruises depart from Matsushima Pier, a 5-10 minute walk from Matsushima Kaigan Station on the JR Senseki Line, and from Shiogama Pier, a 5-10 minute walk from Hon-Shiogama Station, three station ahead of Matsushima Kaigan Station on the same line.

A popular route is taking the Senseki Line from Sendai to Shiogama, then the cruise boat to Matsushima, before returning to Sendai from Matsushima Kaigan Station, or the other way around.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


basic information
Weeping cherry trees in the samurai district

Kakunodate is a former castle town and samurai stronghold in today's Akita Prefecture. While Kakunodate Castle no longer remains, the town is famous for its samurai tradition and its hundreds of weeping cherry trees (shidarezakura).

Apart from the loss of its castle, Kakunodate remains remarkably unchanged since its founding in 1620. The town was built with two distinct areas, the samurai district and the merchant district. Once home to 80 families, the samurai district still has some of the best examples of samurai architecture in all of Japan.

Kakunodate is also well known as the location of one of the Tohoku Region's most popular cherry blossom spots. Around late April and early May, large crowds of people come to see Kakunodate's special combination of pink blossoms and historic homes.

Friday, April 24, 2009


basic information
Hirosaki Castle

Hirosaki used to be the political and cultural capital of the Tsugaru Region during the Edo Period, and remains one of the culturally richest cities in the northern Tohoku Region. Hirosaki's main attractions include its castle, samurai district and temples.

Hirosaki Castle (1) Most famous cherry blossom spot in Tohoku.
best of the best best of Japan outstanding
(1) - (99) most visited attractions
How to get to Hirosaki
From Tokyo, take the JR Tohoku Shinkansen to Hachinohe (about 3 hours), transfer to the JR limited express to Aomori (about 1 hour) and then to a local JR train to Hirosaki (about 45 minutes). The whole one way trip takes around five hours and costs 17,200 Yen.

Important Notes:

  • Above fees and schedules are subject to change.
  • For exact train schedules and fares, consult the external link section of our railway page.
  • For the current Yen exchange rate, click here.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


basic information
Motsuji's Pure Land Garden

During the Heian Period (794-1185), Hiraizumi was the seat of the ruling Fujiwara clan's "Northern branch" and rivaled the capital of Kyoto culturally, politically and commercially at its peak in the 12th century.

In 1189, however, Hiraizumi was razed by Minamoto Yoritomo after the local Fujiwara supported and provided a refuge to Yoritomo's rival and brother Yoshitsune. The city never recovered to its former glory, but still features some of the Tohoku Region's cultural highlights.

Motsuji Temple (2) Temple famous for its Pure Land Garden.
Chusonji Temple (1) Hiraizumi's most famous temple.
Takadachi Gikeido (4) Memorial dedicated to Minamoto Yoshitsune.
Takkoku no Iwaya (3) Temple constructed at the foot of a cliff.
best of the best best of Japan outstanding
(1) - (99) most visited attractions

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Oirase Stream

Oirase Stream
basic information

The Oirase Stream is a picturesque mountain stream which starts at Nenokuchi, a small town at the shores of Towadako Lake and flows down the narrow and densely wooded Oirase Valley. A hiking trail leads along the most scenic, upper passage of the stream from Ishigedo to Nenokuchi (about 10 km).

Unfortunately for hikers, but fortunately for car drivers and bus passengers, a road runs through the Oirase Valley from which one can see much of the stream. For hikers, however, the busy road can be a distraction, even though the traffic noise is sometimes overpowered by the stream's noise and the birds' songs.

In autumn, when the many maple and other trees turn their color, the Oirase Valley becomes one of Japan's most popular spots for autumn foliage viewing.

Any advice or questions? Voice them in the forum!

how to get there

From Tokyo:

From Tokyo, the Oirase Valley is most conveniently accessed by JR Tohoku Shinkansen to Hachinohe, followed by a bus ride bound for Towadako. By Hayate Shinkansen (all seats reserved) the trip to Hachinohe takes about three hours and costs 15,350 Yen. The one way bus ride to Ishigedo by JR Bus takes another one and a half hour and costs 2,000 Yen. The Japan Rail Pass is valid on both shinkansen and the JR Bus.

From Aomori City:

From Aomori Station, there are several direct JR buses to the Oirase Valley each day. The one way ride to Ishigedo takes about two hours and costs 2,400 Yen. The Japan Rail Pass is valid on these JR buses.

(Fees and schedules are subject to change.)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Dining out

Dining out
basic information

Entering the Restaurant

Many restaurants in Japan display plastic or wax replicas of their dishes at the entrance. These replicas serve both to entice and inform patrons and can be especially helpful for foreign tourists who do not speak Japanese. These displays offer a very accurate, visual description of the style and price of meals found inside.

Show window displaying food replicas

Upon entering a restaurant, customers are greeted with the expression "irasshaimase" meaning "please come in", or "welcome". Waiters and waitresses are trained to be very efficient, polite and attentive, and will usually immediately lead you to your table. If they don't, you can assume that it is okay to sit at any table.

While a majority of restaurants in Japan are equipped exclusively with Western style tables and chairs, restaurants with low traditional tables are also common. Some restaurants feature both styles side by side. In traditions Japanese interiors, you are usually required to take off your shoes at the restaurant's entrance, or before stepping onto the seating area.

A restaurant with traditional low tables
Gourmet Navigator


After you sit down, a glass of water or tea will be served for free and later refilled. You also receive a wet towel (oshibori) for cleaning your hands. If chopsticks are not already set, you can usually find some in a box on the table. Most often, they are wooden chopsticks that need to be separated into two before usage.

At some restaurant, such as izakaya, it is common for everyone in the party to order and share various dishes. At restaurants that serve set menus, bowl dishes (such as domburi or noodle soups) or Western style dishes, each person usually orders and eats their own meal.


The bill will be presented upside down, either as you receive the meal, or after you finish eating. In most restaurants, you are supposed to bring your bill to the cashier near the exit when leaving. Some restaurants, especially cheaper ones, have slightly different systems for ordering and paying.

For example, in many ramen and gyudon restaurants, "meal tickets" are bought at a vending machine near the store's entrance and handed over to the staff who then prepare and serve the meal.

Tipping in Japan is not common or expected and the staff may chase you out of the restaurant in order to give back any money left behind. Instead, it is polite to say "gochisosama deshita" ("thank you for the meal") when leaving.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Visiting Cards

Visiting Cards
basic information

If you are visiting Japan on business, double-sided business cards in Japanese and English are a must. Why? They show potential partners that you are serious, and that you understand and respect their culture. This small effort on your part establishes trust, and maximizes your opportunity for excellent results.

Business Card Exchanges Guidelines:

  1. Cards are exchanged at the beginning of a meeting; make sure you have enough available for everyone.
  2. It is best to stand up when exchanging cards with those of higher rank.
  3. Facing your counterpart, bow slightly and hand your card (with the Japanese side pointing up!) either with your right hand or both hands. The same rule applies when receiving a card from someone else.
  4. Make time to review your counterpart's card carefully. You might want to speak his/her name and position to be sure of correct pronunciation. If the meaning of his/her job position is in any way unclear, it would not hurt to ask for an explanation. Basically, you want to show interest in and respect to the other party.
  5. DO NOT shove the card into your back trouser pocket!!
    • If you are meeting in passing, then you may just carefully place the card in a shirt pocket or in a wallet or notebook.
    • If you are seated at a meeting, place the card gently on the table in front of you. Look at it often during the meeting in order to refer correctly to your counterpart's name and position. If you are meeting more than one person and have received multiple cards, arrange them neatly in front of you.
  6. The Japanese hand out their business card at the drop of a hat. Don't be left out! Give your card to anyone that you want to hear from again. You'll likely go through a lot more cards during your trip to Japan than you would back home.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


basic information

In Japan there are certain things one does not do because they are thought to cause bad luck. A few examples are:

  • The number four:
    The number four is considered inauspicious because it is pronounced the same as the word for death (shi). Therefore, one should not make presents that consist of four pieces, etc. In some hotels and hospitals the room number four is skipped.
  • Stick chopsticks into the rice:
    Do not stick your chopsicks into your food generally, but especially not into rice, because only at funerals, chopsticks are stuck into the rice which is put onto the altar.
  • Give food from chopstick to chopstick:
    This is only done with the bones of the cremated body at funerals.
  • Sleeping towards the North:
    Do not sleep towards the North beacause bodies are laid down like that.
  • Funeral Car:
    If a funeral car passes you should hide your thumb.
  • Cut nails at night:
    If you cut your nails at night, you will not be with your parents when they die.
  • Lie down after eating:
    If you lie down immedeately after eating, you will become a cow.
  • Whistle in the night:
    If you whistle in the night, a snake will come to you.
  • Black cat:
    There are also some imported superstitions such as the believe that black cats crossing the street in front of you cause bad luck.

In many shrines, temples and souvenir shops, amulets are sold that are supposed to bring luck, safety or good fortune. There are amulets for money, health, love, success on exams, safety on the streets, etc. Small pieces of paper (omikuji) that predict your future are also available. These pieces of paper are tied around the branch of a tree after reading; either to make the good fortune come true or to avoid the predicted bad fortune.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Japanese names

Japanese names
basic information

Name order:

In Japan, like in China and Korea, the first name follows the family name. A person with the first name "Ichiro" and the family name "Suzuki" is, therefore, called "Suzuki Ichiro" rather than "Ichiro Suzuki".

Family names:

Most Japanese family names consist of two kanji (Chinese characters). The meanings of many of the kanji used in family names are related to nature, geographical features or locations, for example, mountain (yama), tree (ki), rice field (ta), island (shima), village (mura), bridge (hashi), between (naka), below (shita) etc. Some of the most common Japanese family names are Sato, Suzuki, Takahashi, Tanaka and Watanabe.

First names:

Japanese first names also commonly consist of two kanji. The meanings of those kanji are often positive characteristics such as intelligence, beauty, love or light, names for flowers, the four seasons and other natural phenomena, or the order of birth (first son, second son, etc.).

Since quite a few kanji have identical pronunciations, first names that are pronounced the same, are not necessarily written with the same kanji. For example, there are about five common versions for the popular female first name Yoko, depending on the kanji for "Yo".

Not seldomly, the gender of a person can be guessed by the ending of his/her first name. First names ending with -ro, -shi, -ya, or -o are typically male first names, while names ending in -ko, -mi, -e and -yo are typically female first names.

The names of foreigners are usually written in katakana.


The Japanese commonly address each other by last name. Only close friends and children are usually addressed by first name. In addition, people rarely address each other just by name, but usually attach an appropriate title to the name. There is a large number of such titles depending on the gender and social position of the person you are addressing. Some of the most frequently used titles are:

  • san: (for example Sato-san)
    This is the most neutral and famous title, and can be used in most situations. Only in formal situations, san may not be polite enough.
  • sama: (for example Sato-sama)
    This is a more polite form of san, commonly used in formal situations and letters, but too polite in a casual context.
  • kun: (for example Yusuke-kun)
    This is an informal title used for boys and men that are younger than yourself.
  • chan: (for example Megumi-chan)
    This is an informal title used for young children and very close friends or family members.
  • sensei: (for example Sato-sensei)
    This is a title used for teachers, doctors and other people with a higher education and from whom you receive a service or instructions.

Seimei Handan:

Seimei handan or name diagnosis is a type of fortune telling concerning names. Its theories center around the number of strokes that are required to write the characters of a name. (Note that there is a defined number of strokes for every Japanese character).

Depending on the total number of strokes, and the sums of strokes for different parts of a name in relation to each other, a name is considered more or less auspicious. Some people consult seimei handan when selecting their child's name or their own artist name.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Giving Gifts

Giving Gifts
basic information

In Japan, gifts are given on many occasions:

Oseibo and Ochugen
Twice a year, in December and in June, it is common for co-workers, friends and relatives to exchange gifts. The gifts are called Oseibo and Ochugen respectively. On average, they are worth about 5000 yen and may be food, alcohol, household items or something similar. The gift giving seasons coincide with company employees receiving a special bonus in addition to their monthly salaries.

Temiyage and Omiyage
In order to thank somebody, one often presents a gift (temiyage), such as Japanese sweets or sake. Similarly, when a Japanese person returns from a trip, he or she bring home souvenirs (omiyage) to friends, co-workers and relatives. In Japan, tourist sites are generally surrounded by many omiyage shops specializing in souvenir gifts, often in the form of beautifully wrapped and packaged foods.

Birthday and Christmas
Gift giving on birthdays and Christmas is not originally a Japanese tradition. Due to the strong influence from the West, however, some families and friends exchange gifts also on these occasions.

Gifts are given and received with both hands. There are a few rules about what not to give, since certain gifts in certain circumstances or a certain number of gifts are believed to cause bad luck.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Doing Business in Japan

Doing Business in Japan
basic information

Business Meeting Etiquette

  1. Casual American-style attire is still uncommon in the Japanese business place. You should dress appropriately for the occasion when meeting your counterparts on business.
  2. When sitting down to a business meeting with your Asian counterparts, the seating arrangement will be determined by the status of the participants. Do not just sit anywhere; as the guest, you will be directed to the appropriate seat.
  3. As a general rule, the highest ranking person from the host side will sit at the head of the table. Then, other people will take their seats starting from the seats closest to him and working to the other end of the table. Those of higher status sit closest to the "head honcho".
  4. You should stand at your seat and wait for the top guy to tell you to be seated. Then, when the meeting is finished, wait until he has stood up before standing up yourself.
  5. Non-alcoholic drinks will probably be served at the beginning of the meeting and they will be distributed in the order of descending importance of recipients. You may want to wait for the top guy to drink from his glass before starting on yours.
  6. Gifts are always appreciated. Consider bringing a small souvenir that represents well your hometown to give to your host. Don't be surprised if your hosts give you something from their country too. If the gift is wrapped, don't open it until you leave. If the gift is not wrapped, make sure to express copious appreciation (whether you like it or not). Ask some questions about the gift to show interest.
  7. You may want to take notes during the meeting. This will show that you are interested and will be appreciated by your hosts. However, you should make certain never to write anyone's name in red ink (even your own) and so carry a black or blue pen.
  8. Click here for information about Japanese business cards.

Social Interaction

  1. Your hosts may bring up the idea of getting together socially later. This may be a sincere invitation to dinner; it may just be polite banter. Do not be offended if an invitation turns out to have been just talk and don't aggressively bug your counterpart about when you can get together. He may not say "no" directly so you might need to read from his body language what he really wants.
  2. If you do go out for dinner, keep in mind that "going Dutch" is not normal in Japan. If you're the buyer, you'll likely be in for a free evening of entertainment. If you're the seller... well, if you were a local, you'd probably be picking up the tab. However, it's not quite this simple since your hosts may still insist on paying because you are a visitor in their country. Also, it is normal for the inviting party to pay.
  3. In all cases, if your host is planning to bear the dinner expenses, make at least a meek attempt to pay. Don't worry... he won't let you. But even your insincere attempt to pick up the tab will have looked good. And, you can offer to pay for his dinner when he visits your home country.
  4. Japanese are unlikely to invite you into their homes. It is normal for dinner meetings to be held in restaurants. Also, it is common to extend an evening's entertainment by going out to a coffee shop (or a second round of drinking) after the meal. If your host has paid for the meal, you might want to consider being even more pushy about paying for the coffee or drinks. But be careful! In some settings (especially where hostesses are involved), drinks can get very expensive.
  5. Japanese are liable to ask you questions that make you uncomfortable, such as your age. You don't have to answer, but at least be gracious about it. They are certainly not trying to be offensive; it's just that some questions you would consider rude back home are not necessarily impolite in the country you are visiting.
  6. Japanese love to drink alcohol with and after dinner. If you don't drink... well, that's a strike against you. You should try to drink. But if drinking is completely out of the question, make up an excuse and be ready to explain it several different ways and times. Your hosts may push you to drink and you should be careful not to get angry.
  7. If alcohol is served, DO NOT drink from the bottle. You should pour the beverage into a cup or glass provided and then drink. Tipping is not customary in Japan and you don't have to do it.
  8. When eating with your hosts, try to eat some of everything and look like you are enjoying the food. If there are certain kinds of food you don't like, it would be helpful to alert your hosts to this before they choose the restaurant or the meal. They'll appreciate hearing that you like their food.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Nagoya Port

Nagoya Port
basic information

Nagoya Port, south of the city center, is one of Japan's largest ports. One part of the port, the Garden Pier, has been redeveloped in recent years as a leisure district and offers an aquarium, shopping mall, amusement park, museums and green space.

The Port of Nagoya Public Aquarium is one of Japan's larger and better aquaria. In two buildings, it exhibits and educates about marine mammals including dolphins, orca and beluga whales and other marine creatures from five aquatic regions between Japan and the Antarctic Ocean.

Moored in the harbor is the Fuji icebreaker, the ship used by Japan to explore the Antarctic Ocean from the 1960s to the 1980s. It is now accessible to the public as Antarctic Museum.

Any advice or questions? Voice them in the forum!

how to get there

Nagoya Port is best accessed by the Meiko Subway Line. The various attractions are within walking distance of Nagoyako Station, the subway line's terminal station.

From Nagoya Station, take the JR Chuo or JR Tokaido Line to Kanayama Station (3 minutes, 160 yen) and transfer to the Meiko Subway Line to Nagoyako Station (10 minutes, 230 yen).

From Sakae Station, take the Meijo/Meiko Line Subway Line to Nagoyako Station (15 minutes, 260 yen). Roughly every second train on the Meijo Line operates on the Meiko Line from Kanayama to Nagoyako Stations instead of continuing on the loop of the Meijo Line.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Tokugawa Art Museum

Tokugawa Art Museum
basic information

During the Edo Period (1600-1868), Nagoya served as the seat of the Owari, one of the three major branches of the ruling Tokugawa family.

The Tokugawa Art Museum preserves and exhibits the belongings of the Owari, who in terms of wealth were surpassed by only four of the nearly 200 feudal domains of the Edo Period. The exhibits include warrior armors, swords, tea utensils, no masks and costumes, poems, scrolls and maps.

The Tokugawaen, a Japanese landscape garden, is located next to the museum. The garden used to be part of a retirement residence of the local lords, but was destroyed during the war. Starting in 2001, the garden was reconstructed as traditional Japanese landscape garden and reopened to the public in 2004.


Any advice or questions? Voice them in the forum!

how to get there

The museum is a 10 minute walk from the South Exit of JR Ozone Station, which can be accessed from Nagoya Station by the frequently operating JR Chuo Line (12 min, 190 yen). Alternatively, the museum is a 3 minute walk from Shindeki bus stop.

How to get to and around Nagoya

hours and fees

Hours:10:00 to 17:00 (entry until 16:30)
Closed:Mondays (closed Tuesday instead, if Monday is a national holiday), and mid December to early January
Admission:1200 yen (museum), 1350 yen (museum and garden)