Category Archives: travel

Tokyo German Village – Winter Illumination

Tokyo German Village  08
Tokyo German Village is a park in Chiba, located about two hours from central Tokyo. The park offers facilities for families, flower events, a souvenir shop and German food. It’s not an educational place meant to teach you German – in many ways it’s very much a Japanese park.

Winter is time for the illumination festival when the whole park turns into an LED wonderland. Illumination festivals at parks like Tokyo German Village (Tokyo Doitsu Mura 東京ドイツ村) are usually more impressive than the festivals in central Tokyo. The festival lights and motives also change every year, encouraging people to visit the park at least once a year.

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This year’s Winter Illumination Shangri-La started on November 8 and will continue until March 31. The lights are switched on from 4 to 8 pm, last entrance is at 7.30 pm. Until early January, a shuttle bus will run from Sodegaura Station (Uchibo Line) to Tokyo German Village. The whole trip took me about two hours, but it was well worth it! Read the rest of this entry

Taking the Highway Bus in Japan

Inside Willer Express Theater Bus
Trains in Japan are excellent but pricy, especially long distance ones. If you are lucky enough to stay in the country for more than one month, travelling by bus is the cheapest option to explore the country. Also, as fewer overnight train services are offered, buses become the only way to travel at night (unless you have a rental car, of course).

I used both trains and busses during a three-month trip to Japan, visiting three great festivals in Northern Tohoku (Aomori Neputa Matsuri, Hirosaki Neputa Matsuri, Akita Kanto Matsuri) and the cities Osaka and Takayama. For Tohoku and Osaka, I used the Japan Bus Pass by highway bus company Willer Express.

Neputa Matsuri  Aomori

The Bus Pass is Willer’s equivalent to the Japan Rail Pass but is more flexible. You can travel either three or five days of your choice within two months from purchase. It’s exclusive to short term tourists of Japan i.e. if you are a resident of Japan, you can not buy the pass. Reservations have to be made beforehand and if you plan to do a round trip on the same day, one of the buses has to be a daytime bus. You can cancel a reservation up until a day before and make a new one.

Willer Express offers a variety of buses and the pass is valid on all except the premium ones. I used the theater and relax bus. Read the rest of this entry

Ushiku: Great Buddha and Fireworks

Ushiku Great Buddha
Talking about Japanese towns with great Buddha statues, one would likely mention Nara or Kamakura. But the Ushiku Daibutsu dwarves them all: At a height of 110 meter it is one of the tallest statues in the world. Every year on August 15, there is a light-up and fireworks festival and this year I decided to skip one traditional fireworks festival in favor of the Buddha plus fireworks combination.

Arriving at the station, there was nothing indicating that there is a festival in Ushiku. The Buddha is also not visible from the train station or anywhere in Ushiku. Bus service was scarce, so I took a taxi to the Great Buddha (about 3300 Yen). It is quite a distance from the station to the Buddha.

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Ushiku Daibutsu has probably more parking spots than some shopping malls and they expect their visitors to stay a while. You’ll pass various shops on the way to the Buddha. Usually there is an entrance free but on the festival day there was none from 5pm. However, I couldn’t enter the statue which contains a museum and an observation floor.

The statue was built in 1993 and depicts the Amitabha Buddha, it was built to commemorate the birth of the founder of the “True Pure Land School” of Buddhism. Read the rest of this entry

Mito

Mito
Stop two on my Ibaraki trip was Mito. Mito is most well known for Kairakuen Garden, ranked as one of Japan’s three best landscape gardens. This park is even served by a seasonal train station during plum blossoming season. But what else does Mito have to offer?

Mito is the capital of Ibaraki Prefecture and with a population of 263000 it actually feels like an urban city. More important for the visitor is that you can easily explore the town on foot – the garden can be reached in a walk along Senba Lake if the temporary station Kairakuen Station is not served. I would avoid the bus next time – there’s no list of stations on the bus, so it’s hard to figure out if and when the bus stops at the garden.

Natto Statue

Mito is famous for Natto, the fermented soybean dish which is sometimes called an “acquired taste” because of its smell. But there are lots of people who enjoy Natto without having grown up in the parts of Japan where the dish is most popular, of course. Close to Mito Station is a Natto Statue.

Mito Glockenspiel

Not traditional, but cute is the Glockenspiel at every full hour. This is also next to the station. Happy children and rabbits dancing.

After a 10, 15 minute walk from the station, an architectural highlight waits for Mito visitors: Art Tower Mito. Read the rest of this entry

Hitachi Seaside Park

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I started my day trip to Ibaraki Prefecture with a visit to the Hitachi Seaside Park. Depending on the season, this park has huge and beautiful flower fields. Summer is the season for sun flowers and the park is not the only place celebrating a “Himawari Matsuri”. The closest train station to the park is Katsuta on the JR Joban line.

I wouldn’t recommend walking there though, as it’s a dull 30 minute walk from the station. Take the bus instead, or better, use a car.

Seaside Park is a big park near the coast and is probably one of the more bicycle-friendly ones with its special bicycle lanes. An amusement park, BBQ space and BMX course are part of it. All signs are in Japanese only.

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The sun flowers were near the amusement park. Lots of flowers and most looked fine although the season is almost over. There were other flowers in bloom as well. Read the rest of this entry

Turning NEX train seats

NEX

One of the great features of many Japanese trains is that the seats always face the driving direction. Personally I’m fine sitting in the opposite direction because I’m usually sleeping anyway. Some trains turn the seats automatically after they’ve reached their final stop, in others it’s done manually. I recorded this video of the NEX, JR East’s airport train. You can see how easy it is, but don’t worry, they won’t turn accidentally.

Even if you don’t care whether the seats turn, levitate or give you a back massage, there is something nice about this train feature: Since the seats have to be able to turn, there needs to be enough space for them – which gives you enough space for your legs when you sit down 🙂

NEX train

From Hakodate to Sendai by train – going underground

Super Hakucho
The Shinkansen bullet-train is one of the trademarks of Japan, yet, there’s no Shinkansen on Hokkaido. Routes have been proposed as early as the 70’s but it wasn’t until 2005, when construction was finally started. In 2015 the first part will be finished, connecting Shin-Aomori (and Tokyo) to Shin-Hakodate. Currently you have to change trains at Shin-Aomori.

Fortunately, train connections are already advanced enough to offer express trains. So I took the Super Hakucho from Hakodate to Shin-Aomori and changed there to the Tohoku Shinkansen for Sendai. The green hakucho train almost looks as if it has a mouth, doesn’t it?

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Hokkaido and the main island of Japan, Honshu, are connected by a 54 km long tunnel which is 240 meter deep at its deepest point. JR Hokkaido seemed to have the train fan in mind, when they made the info graphic. When riding the train, it just feels like a long tunnel, nothing special at all. Read the rest of this entry

An evening in Otaru

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There is one other city in Hokkaido I visited during this trip to Japan: Otaru. Otaru is close to Sapporo and can be reached in just 40 minutes via the Hakodate Line from Sapporo Station. The city also has its own snow festival which is supposed to be less commercial – whatever that means. Unfortunately, I spent more time at the Historical Village of Hokkaido than anticipated and arrived in Otaru after 6pm.

Otaru has a population over 130000 but I guess many commute to Sapporo for work. I got off at Minami Otaru Station which is a good start for a roundtrip. The immediate area around the station was quite sleepy, but my first destination, Marchen Square, was just a short walk away.

Marchen Square  Steam Clock  Otaru  03

On the way to the square I passed “Kinderlieb”, a hands-on toy store with a German name. “Märchen” is German for fairy tale. On the square (which is more like an intersection) there is a steam clock in front of the music box museum. The clock is activated every full hour:

Otaru has a well-preserved historic street and may also be called the Venice of Hokkaido. Read the rest of this entry

Iris Flower Festival in Itako

Itoko
This is maybe the biggest iris flower festival in the Kanto region and it involved a longer train ride via the JR Kashima line which of course doesn’t run as frequently as the Chuo one. There are approximately one million iris flowers in bloom and unlike the Meji iris flowers, the flowers aren’t surrounded by trees.

The way from Itako Station too the festival was easy as the festival is held on a long stretch of land next to a river. You can take a boat ride from the festival site, on the weekend dance and music performances are scheduled. It’s still worth to go even on a weekday.

Itoko2

Itako is in Ibaraki Prefecture and the festival is called Itako Ayame Matsuri. Travel time is over two hours from Shinjuku, but the trip can be combined with a visit to Narita (Naritasan) and Kashima (Kashima Shrine). Look up the schedule of the Kashima line before leaving the station to avoid waiting at the train station.

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Ah, Soka – あ、草加? Visiting Soka in Saitama

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Some places I only visit because I find their name particularly interesting. “Reading” near London is an example, “Naganuma Park” another. Sometimes I just take a map, zoom in and then look up the cities to find out if there’s anything worth visiting.

So why Soka? Soka (草加) is a city in Saitama prefecture and I picked it because it sounds similar to そうか (“right/really.”). Besides it’s near Kasukabe where one of the last fireworks near Tokyo was held. So I did both towns on one day. My Japanese sister would call both of them “random places”. “What are you doing in Soka?”

Soka Saitama

The city’s website actually contains descriptions of some sight seeing spots (a walking tour). There is a long park located next to a river/channel.

Bridge in Soka, Saitama

And a very long bridge!

Would I go to Soka if I haven’t been to most famous spots in the Kanto region? Probably not, but I think you should always visit some places which aren’t on everyone’s list. There are many people here in Japan with a love for obscure places – most of the sites which introduce these places are in Japanese of course.