Weather and When to Travel

Japan’s position as an island archipelago in the Pacific Ocean means that several different factors affect the weather during the year. Being aware of these weather patterns will help you plan your trip.

The Rainy Season

From the beginning of-June to mid-July is Japan’s wet season (in Okinawa May through June). It is extremely humid in most parts of Japan at this time and you may experience torrential rains. It doesn’t rain buckets, but bathtubs full! However, you will experience cooler temperatures during the rainy season due to the increased cloud cover. Hokkaido has no rainy season, so this is a good time to travel Japan’s northern-most island.

The Typhoon Season

The typhoon season in Japan is the month of September and, in some areas, also the month of June. This does not mean you won’t get the odd typhoon between these months, but if you come to Japan in September, you are bound to experience at least one typhoon. Japan gets over 20 typhoons per year, only half of which make landfall. The others either die while still at sea, or veer eastward towards China. Typhoons are formed in the seas south of Okinawa, making Okinawa and the Amami Islands risky places to travel during the typhoon season, especially if you are planning on snorkeling or scuba diving. Japanese typhoons are more on the scale of tropical storms and seldom become as strong as hurricanes in the US, but they will invariably disrupt public transportation, especially planes, ferries and trains. Most evacuations are due to flooding from heavy rain rather than wind damage.

The Summer Season

From mid-July through August and into September is the hottest time of the year in Japan. Many tourists are surprised at how humid Japan is. If you tend to sweat a lot, bring plenty of extra shirts to change into. Be aware that Kyoto and Nara are especially hot and humid in the summer as they sit in a valley that holds the humidity. Seaside towns and those along the Seto Inland Sea will always have a breeze and therefore be cooler. If you don’t handle the heat well, try to travel Japan in the Spring or Fall, both lovely times of the year. Even in the winter time, any place west or south of Osaka will only experience a mild winter, with clear, sunny skies and little, if any, snowfall.

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com

Japan’s Beaches

Japan's beachesThe swimming season officially opens in Japan with a ceremony by a Shinto Priest declaring the waters safe to swim in. This ceremony, called  Umibiraki (literally sea-opening), happens at beaches all over Japan and most Japanese people will not swim in the sea until then.

Some beaches open earlier than others, but all beaches will be open by July 1st. The summer season in Japan is short, from July to Obon (Aug. 16) because the summer school holidays are short. Also, as the rainy season doesn’t usually end until mid-July, which means the high season is really just one month, from mid-July to mid-August. Most schools break for summer holidays from the end of July through the end of August.

Most Japanese stop swimming at the end of Obon, as this is traditionally the end of the summer. It is said that if you do swim after Obon, kappa  sea nymphs will come out and pull on your legs!

Beaches

Tokyo’s Shonan Beach

Along the coast of Kanagawa Prefecture, an hour by train south of Tokyo and 30 minutes from Yokohama. 10 km from Kamakura. Beach bars all along the beach. Very crowded in July and August. Also, Enoshima Beach next to Shonan is even more crowded! Water sports available.

Osaka’s Shirahama beach, Wakayama-Small stretch of beach with some food stalls. Very small waves for surfing or learning to surf. Very crowded in July and August.

Inland Sea’s Shiraishi Island

Quiet beach on the Inland Sea, no waves. Never too crowded since you have to take a ferry from the mainland to get to it. Just one restaurant, one beach bar and beach shop. Water sports available.

Kyushu’s Aoshima Beach, Miyazaki

Surfing beach which is wide enough you can drive your car onto it. One or two big hotels, but other than that pretty spacious. You can walk out to Aoshima Island from here.

Shikoku–Kochi Prefecture

Shirahama Beach. Cute surfing town with not much else going on. Very laid back.

Links

Unfortunately, there is not much information on the internet in English about beaches in Japan. As an example of what Shonan Beach has to offer, see the website of one of the local beach bars called Umigoya.

For information on Shiraishi Island Beach, see the website of the Moooo! Bar.

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com

WWOOFing in Japan

WWOOFing in JapanIf you’re looking for a cheap, off-beat way to travel Japan, consider WWOOFing. WWOOF, (pronounced woof) stands for World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and helps connect travelers with organic farms around the world. Travelers volunteer a few hours a day of their time in exchange for room and board.

But WWOOFing in Japan allows you to see the lifestyles of real Japanese people and to witness the Japanese culture first hand, something impossible to do when you are limited to hotels and minshukus. And WWOOFing is not limited to organic farming anymore. These days you may find yourself collecting shitake mushrooms in Gunma Prefecture (see photo), bringing the cows in from mountain pastures in Hokkaido, working at a horseback riding school and learning yabusame  (horseback archery from the Heian Period) in Shizuoka, or working at a dog kennel in Kumamoto. There is even an eco village looking for people to help them maintain their electric cars. Yet other  hosts are interested in cultural exchange rather than labor. They’ll teach you tea ceremony or cooking, in exchange for help with buying the groceries or cleaning around the temple.

Volunteers can stay from a couple days to a year, depending on the needs and requirements of the hosts. Detailed information on each host and their requirements is available to members.

Membership

WWOOF Japan  works to facilitate visitors to Japan to get below the veneer of tourism  as well as to encourage the Japanese to have new experiences among themselves. There are approximately 170 hosting farms in the list available to members. The list costs US$40.00 and is available as a Pdf file. After you have the list, you contact the hosts directly. Most correspondence is through email, and you can even wait till you are in the country or that particular area before you contact them.

How to become a member

WHOOF Japan is located at Honcho 2-jo, 3-chome,6-7, Higashi-ku, Sapporo, 065-0042

Email: info{at}wwoofjapan.com

Web: WWOOF Japan

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com

Japan on 100 Yen

We’ve all heard that Japan is expensive. And it can be extremely expensive in a Paris, New York, Sydney kind of way. Public transportation, for one, is very expensive. But many things are cheaper in Japan. Most people don’t realize that Japan is much cheaper than it was 10 years ago.

This is because in the past 10 years, Japan has opened its doors to imports. This is called jiyuuka (jee-you-ka), literally “liberalization.” As a result, what cost 500 yen (US$4.10) 10 years ago, can often be found for only 100 yen (US$.82) now. The difference is in the origin of the product. A product that is made in Japan will still cost 500 yen, but, thanks to jiyuuka, you can now get the same product made in China, for just 100 yen. Apples grown in Japan will cost you 200 yen each, but because of jiyuuka, you can now get apples from America for 60 yen each.

At the forefront of jiyuuka are the “100 yen stores,” called “hyakkin” (hyak-keen) in Japanese slang. Hyakkin is the equivalent of the Dollar Store, and the quality of the products is usually excellent.

Souvenirs

In hyakkin, you can get Japanese souvenirs such as small Buddha statues, daruma key chains, maneki-neko keychains, noren curtains, paper lanterns, furin wind chimes, and Japanese indigo fabrics in traditional designs made into coasters and place mats. And, of course, there is a selection of hundreds of different kinds of chopsticks and chopstick holders. If you can bear the weight, hyakkin is also a great place to pick up ceramics such as rectangular sushi dishes, small square tsukemono (pickled vegetable) dishes, and Japanese tea and sake cups. They also have traditional Japanese toys such as wooden tops, paper balloons, and kenta games. Hyakkin gets in on the holiday cheer too, so if you are in Japan for New Year’s, for example, you can pick up paddles, kites, and other New Year’s decorations.

Food

Hyakkin also sells food, mostly instant freeze-dried packaged foods but also snacks like cookies and potato chips. Some stores even sell fresh vegetables and produce.

Where to find them

Hyakkin vary in size from a small corner of the local supermarket to the larger hyakkin chains such as “Daiso” that can be their own building several stories high. Usually these stores will have “100 yen” written all over the outside of the buildings, so you can’t miss them. These days they seem to be on every corner.

Tip

100 yen stores don’t bother with price tags. You can be sure that all goods cost 100 yen unless otherwise marked.

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com

Who Are Those Gods?

Who Are Those GodsAnyone who has ever been to Japan has seen the various little stone figures alongside the road or sitting inside a neighborhood shrine. Who are they, and what are they doing there?

Whenever you think of Japans most famous shrines, such as Meijij Shrine in Tokyo, you may have wondered exactly why these shrines are so famous and why so many tourists flock to them. For a Western tourist, just the fact that a site is famous is enough to want to go visit it. The Japanese, however, have different reasons for visiting these places: to pray to the gods at those shrines. It’s considered good form to occasionally visit the gods. Here is a guide to the most famous Shinto gods in Japan and what they are worshipped for.

There are many multi-purpose Shinto gods. A good example is Jizo, the protector of children, expectant mothers, travelers, and pilgrims. He is also the protector of aborted or miscarried children, so women who have lost a child will make offerings to Jizo regularly. Statues of jizo can be found alongside roads where travelers pass. People will often put out an offering of a piece of fruit or a few coins in respect for Jizo. A group of 6 Jizo statues can sometimes be found along busy roads or intersections.

Ujigami are the local shrines you see in neighborhoods. These deities are responsible for protecting the neighborhood and may have connections to the founding ancestors of the village or town. Each shrine has a yearly festival in its honor when the neighboring people will come, leave offerings and donate some money towards the upkeep of the shrine.

Suitengu shrines

Suiten is the goddess of water and is also the deity of fertility, motherhood and easy childbirth. You can often see stones devoted to her in the countryside written with Suiten on them in kanji.

Although the above shrines can be readily seen in any part of Japan, the following are bigger shrines that attract tourists or locals in the area for specific purposes.

Tenjin

There are over 90,000 Tenjin shrines in Japan. These shrines are for those famous people who become deities after their deaths, mainly the Emperor Meiji and Michizane Sugawara. Michizane is the diety of scholarship, learning and calligraphy, so students go to these shrines to pray to pass school entrance exams.

Jingu shrines are noted for their connection with Japan’s Imperial Family. They are dedicated to the deified spirits of the emperor and his family. The most famous is Meiji Jingu in Tokyo, dedicated to emperor Meiji, in which over 3 million people gather each year to make their traditional first prayer of the New Year on January 1st.

Inari Shrines

Over one third of the shrines in Japan are dedicated to Inari, the god (or goddess) of rice and harvests. Inari is the diety for farmers and merchants, especially those dealing with rice. The fox is used as a messenger for this god, so you will always see two foxes guarding the torii gate of an Inari shrine. People will often buy little fox statues as offerings and place them around these shrines. Inari shrines have vermilion torii gates.

So the next time you go to a shrine in Japan, you just might know why everyone else is there.

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com

An Introduction to Love Hotels

An Introduction to Love HotelsLove hotels in Japan are as ubiquitous as pachinko parlors. I avoided Japanese love hotels for a long time, equating them with ones I had seen in other parts of Asia. But make no mistake, Japan’s love hotels are first class: they’re clean, cheap, and oh so fun!

The closest thing you could get to a Japanese love hotel in the U.S. would be if you eloped to Lake Tahoe and rented one of those private honeymooner suites: think heart-shaped Jacuzzi bathtubs, round beds that revolve, and big-screen plasma T-Vs. All without having to take a honeymoon.

Although there is no doubt behind the purpose of love hotels in Japan, there is nothing that bars casual travelers, friends or same sex couples from staying in them. As a matter of fact, in true Japanese fashion, even the check-in process is automated, so you will likely never have to come in contact with a human being. Since love hotels are often rented by the hour, there is a high turnover and you can almost always find a room in any city, even when the regular hotels are all booked out for festivals or special events.

Love Hotels are easily recognized by their Disney style exteriors that exude romance–usually castles or palaces. There will almost always be a sign outside posting the hours and prices. There are daytime prices (by the hour) and night time prices (by the hour or all night). A typical deluxe room will typically cost 10,000 yen for the night for two people. There is no need to take towels or toiletries as all are provided, as well as a yukata robe and slippers.

How to Check In and Out

Once you go into the lobby, you will be able to choose from the different styles of rooms and the prices from the photos on a machine. You merely choose which room, hours and price you want and put your money into the machine. There are no room keys at a love hotel. Take the elevator to the proper floor, and look for the flashing light above the door. That is your room and the door will be unlocked as long as the light is flashing. Once you are inside, the door will lock and will stay locked. When you check out, you will have to telephone down to the front desk, who will then automatically unlock the door for you.

Warnings

Some small love hotels are family-run and have a manned front desk. These smaller places sometimes will not accept two women sleeping in the same room together, although I’ve heard that two men is no problem!

You are not expected to leave the hotel once you have checked in, so buy all your snacks and drinks to take inside beforehand.

You cannot leave your luggage at a love hotel.

Links:

  • Rabuho.com is a love hotel information site with lots of photos. 

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com

Finding Enlightenment Through Pilgrimage

Buddhist PilgrimageBuddhist pilgrimage, or holy hiking as I call it, has been around for thousands of years in Japan. There are over 100 pilgrimages in Japan and the Japanese are known to go out on weekends and do pilgrimages the way westerners tackle hiking or climbing trails. Although most Japanese pilgrims are retired people, with time on their hands, pilgrimaging is experiencing a bit of a revival in Japan. Young people are discovering the fun of taking off a few weeks from life just to go walking.

Even though most of Japan’s pilgrimages are Buddhist, anyone can be a pilgrim, no matter what religion, Pilgrimaging is a great way to discover the heart and soul of Japan. You will meet friendly people along the way who will appreciate your going out of your way to see their shrines and temples. Pilgrimage routes range from temple to temple pilgrimages that may take 6 weeks to complete (such as the 1,000km Kobo Daishi 88-temple pilgrimage in Shikoku) to small local pilgrimages of just a few kilometers, where pilgrims hike from small stone shrine to small stone shrine (see photo). These smaller pilgrimages can be done in just a day or two.

There are two main types of pilgrimages: the Kobo Daishi 88-temple Pilgrimage, based on the 88 places where the wandering priest Kobo Daishi found enlightenment in the 9th century and the Kannon 33-temple pilgrimage based on the 33 manifestations of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy and established in the 11th century. The most famous Kannon pilgrimage is the Saigoku route in Kansai. Most pilgrimages, even the smaller local ones, are copies of these two larger ones.

Pilgrimages can easily fit into any itinerary as there are no hard and fast rules on pilgrimaging. You don’t have to do an entire pilgrimage to completion, nor is it necessary to start at temple No. 1. Japanese people tend to do various parts of different pilgrimages over weekends or holidays, slowly progressing through a certain route over the years. You may find that just going to a few temples on a certain route is enough to give you the idea of what it’s all about.

For more information on pilgrimaging, check out these sites:

Recommended reading

The Traveler’s Guide to Japanese Pilgrimages by Ed Readicker-Henderson.

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com

4 Tips for Ohanami

4 Tips for OhanamiIt’s everyone’s favorite time of year-cherry blossom season. The opening of the cherry blossoms is the first sign of spring, and everyone is anxious to get outside and party under the cherry trees. “O-hanami,” or cherry blossom viewing, starts in Okinawa, the warmest part of Japan, in February and steadily continues sweeping northward as the weather warms up, hitting Hokkaido in May. Cherry blossom inspectors announce the official start of the viewing season in each area.

Be sure to grab some sake and enjoy sitting under the cherry trees while hundreds of white and pink petals fall like confetti all around you. All you need is yourself, a few friends, sake, snacks, and a ground cloth to sit on.

While there are many famous Ohanami spots in Japan, such as Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, where you can view the blossoms with hoards of other people who are drunk and singing bad karaoke, you can still find some places off the beaten track where you can have your own private cherry blossom viewing.

How do you find these places? Here are a few tips.

1. Stay away from public parks and gardens as this is where most people go for cherry blossom viewing. Cherry blossom parties tend to be made up of large groups of people who choose one day for everyone to go and have a frolicking time under the trees. 2. Any number of companies, clubs, schools or sports teams can have a Ohanami party in a public park or garden simultaneously.
2. Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines almost always have a few cherry blossom trees strategically placed on their grounds. Especially at the smaller local temples and shrines, you can have your own private cherry blossom party.
3. Try an island off the coast of Japan or in the Seto Inland Sea. Few Japanese people venture to such remote places, so you will experience a peace not found on the mainland.
4. Find wild cherry trees. The ornate cherry trees found in clusters in most tourist places have been planted with the specific purpose of having trees to blossom in that spot in springtime. “Yamazakura,” wild cherry trees that grow mostly in the mountains, do not attract as much attention as they are out-of-the way.  

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com

Fertility Festivals

Fertility FestivalsIt’s March, it’s fertility time! According to ancient Japanese Shinto rituals, Spring is the time to celebrate fertility, fecundity and rebirth. Consequently, fertility festivals in Japan abound around this time of year. Today, I’ll introduce you to two of the most famous fertility festivals in Japan: the Hounen Matsuri and the Kanamara Matsuri.

The fertility festival frenzy kicks off today, March 15 at Tagata Shrine in Aichi Prefecture. Today a 2.5 meter wooden phallus will be marched through the streets of Komaki, a town North of Nagoya. Where is this giant penis being carted off to? Down the street to Ogata Shrine, where the female deity of fertility resides. Here, the two deities will philander for a while in an event meant as much to celebrate a bountiful harvest as to promote fertility.

“Hounen” means bountiful year and refers to the agricultural roots of the area. The festival is to celebrate the fertility of the veggies as much as for its inhabitants. People from all over Japan attend the festival to pray for fertility, safe childbirth, or for curing childhood illnesses. Pregnant women will stroke a wooden phallus to ensure an easy, uncomplicated birth.

Ogata shrine holds charms and amulets in the shape of female genitalia whereas Tagata Shrine holds those of phalluses of all shapes and sizes. These amulets are offerings to the deities and were originally lent out to people, a pubic library of sorts, to bring luck. Those who borrowed the amulets would return them after their prayers were answered and upon returning the object, would donate another.

The Kanamara Matsuri, or Festival of the Steel Phallus, is held at Wakamiya Hachiman-gu shrine in Kawasaki, outside Yokohama at the beginning of April. This bawdy Shinto festival has its origins in the Edo period (1603-1867) when prostitutes would pray for protection against sexual diseases. These days the festival is used to help bring awareness to HIV and other sexual diseases. A giant pink phallus is paraded through the streets by transvestites (among others), you can play on a penis see-saw and you can even watch people carve penises out of giant daikon radishes.

Don’t worry, these are family festivals and plenty of children join in the fun too. So don’t be bashful. Instead, have fun and be fertile-the Japanese way!

12 Eclectic Museums in Japan

12 Eclectic Museums in JapanIf you’re looking for something really different consider visiting some of Japan’s unique museums. Here is a list of 12 museums, from the North to South:

1. Abashiri Prison Museum, Abashiri, Hokkaido

This museum is an “open air” museum and features the buildings of the former Abashiri Prison built in 1890 to house dangerous criminals. The prison was made famous through yakuza movies.

2. Trick Art Museum, Furano, Hokkaido 

Built in 1995, the Trick Art Museum features art and exhibits using distortion and imagery. Admission 1,300 yen. 

3. John Lennon Museumâ, Saitama City, Saitama Prefecture

Opened in the year 2000, the John Lennon Museum consists of 9 zones and 130 pieces of memorabilia donated by his wife Yoko Ono. See his guitars, costumes lyrics film and music. Includes the Museum Lounge where visitors can “bask in the afterglow of John’s spirit.” Admission 1,500 yen.

4. The Parasite Museum, Meguro-ku, Tokyo

Who wouldn’t want to visit this exciting museum about man’s worst friend, the parasite. Over 300 varieties of parasites to pore over. Don’t miss the 30 foot tapeworm exhibit! Admission: free.

5. Tobacco and Salt Museum, Shibuya, Tokyo

This museum covers the history of tobacco and salt production, and includes sections on Japanese and foreign salt. In the early days, Japan specialized in sea salt, as there was no other natural sources. Salt has also played an important part in Shinto ceremonies for purification. You are sure to gain even more appreciation for that next Salty Dog or Margarita. Admission: 100 yen.

6. Ramen Museum, Yokohama

Learn all about the history of this Chinese noodle as well as the obsessive culture that surrounds it in this 3-floor museum. In the section called “Ramen Town,” a historical theme park, you can taste the 4 main types of Japanese ramen, from Sapporo, Hakata, Kumamoto and Kitakata. There are ramen shops inside the museum where you can perfect your slurp until 11pm. Admission 300 yen. Ramen extra.

 7. Yokohama Doll Museum, Yokohama

This museum has a collection of 12,926 dolls from 140 countries, 7,577 of those dolls from Japan. Dolls have traditionally played an important role in society as good luck charms and to ward off evil. The museum covers doll-making techniques and explores how dolls relate to our every day lives. Admission 500 yen.

 8. Toyota Automobile Museum, Aichi Prefecture

From Leonardo DaVinci’s self-propelled cart to the Toyota Prius, this museum has a variety of automobiles on display. Check out the list of the autos in the collection at the URL below. Admission 1,000 yen.

9. The Costume Museum – Kyoto

This museum houses a collection of costumes worn throughout Japanese history in the Nara, and Heian to Meiji Periods. Costumes are displayed on life-size dolls. There is also a recreation of the Haru no Goten palace from the Tale of Genji. Admission: 400 yen.

 10. Japan Footwear Museum, Fukuyama, Hiroshima Prefecture

This museum is situated in Matsunaga, a town that has been making Japanese wooden geta sandals for over a century. The exhibits include geta sandals, straw sandals, various shoes and even an astronauts lunar boots! Learn why the sound of wooden clogs over pavement is sexy. Admission 1,000 yen for the well-heeled.

11. Shikoku Mura, Kagawa Prefecture (Shikoku)

Also called “Shikoku Village” this is an “open air” museum featuring traditional Japanese buildings from the Edo and Meiji periods found on the island of Shikoku, long isolated from mainland Japan. Walk among farmhouses, workshops and storehouses that have been preserved. Admission: 800 yen.

12. Beppu Hihokan Sex Museum, Oita-ken (Kyushu)

Although sex museums can be found throughout Japan, this is a particularly good one in Beppu, a region better known for its natural hot springs. The museum features erotic art, drawings and wax dolls. They also show a movie called “48 Love Positions.” Forty eight? Find out for yourself. Admission: 1,000 yen. No website available.

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com