Free Guide Services

Free Guide ServicesJapan can be a difficult place to get around if you don’t speak Japanese. If you stick to the big cities, you’ll have no problems as information in English is available, but for anyone who wants to get off the beaten track a bit, you just might want a guide who can communicate in English, show you around town to some of the sights and take you to a regional restaurant known for it’s local specialty.

Professional guides can cost over US$200 per day, but if you are willing to use volunteer guides, you can get by quite cheaply and you may even have a more local, cultural experience.

The one thing about using volunteer guides is that most of the guides volunteer because they want to practice their language, and guiding, skills. As a result, you may find that some of the guides do not speak very fluent English or that they cannot answer your questions in much depth. But Japanese people are very sincere and very proud of their culture, so they will always try their best, and often go above and beyond what is expected to make sure they give you good service.

Volunteer guides do not make money from their guiding. They get paid by the experience and their chance to improve their linguistic and guiding skills. You are not expected to tip them but you should pay their expenses for food or entrance fees to the places they take you. If you want to tip, Japanese people would feel more comfortable receiving a small gift, perhaps something from your country, than receiving money. If you feel you must give a monetary gift, always put it inside an envelope. To receive cash in public, or front of other people is always embarrassing for Japanese people. An envelope always leaves the possibility that the contents could be just a letter of gratitude.

For a list of contacts for “Goodwill Guides” in various areas throughout Japan, see the JNTO website

If you cannot find a guide for the place you are headed to, you can always ask at the information desk of any train station.

Amy Chavez is a columnist for The Japan Times. Visit her website at

Japan’s Rainy Season

Japan’s Rainy SeasonFrom the beginning of June to mid-July is “tsuyu” Japan’s rainy season. However, it is a misnomer in some ways. Most Japanese agree that the rainy season used to be a far more significant event than it is now, mainly due to global warming. The rain isn’t as heavy or frequent as it used to be. Sometimes it hardly rains at all during the rainy season.

There is a saying in Japanese: Three days rain, four days sunshine. Even if the weather doesn’t follow this pattern anymore, it is still telling of typical rainy season behavior. During the rainy season, you will still have days of sunshine, and when it does rain, it is a very steady rain. It can be heavy at times, sometimes even all day long, but there is usually no wind associated with hard rains during the rainy season.

My first trip to Japan was during the rainy season and it left a lasting impression on me. The foliage was extremely green and fresh and the smell of earth and flowers permeated the air. Snails sauntered along sidewalks while flower petals dripped with moisture. I was touched by the beauty of Japan’s small moments.

The rainy season is also a good season to feel Japan’s strong relationship with the seasons. Walls will be graced with framed paintings of Ajisai flowers (Hydrangea), a symbol of the rainy season. Zen meditation is best performed while listening to the rain fall outside. Japanese gardens have lily ponds that thrive in the rain and frogs express their approval of the rain by croaking all night long.

The downside to the rainy season, besides having to slog through lots of puddles, is the pervasive dampness that allows mold to grow and build up, especially in concrete structures. Wooden structures, such as temples and shrines offer better opportunities to enjoy the atmosphere of the rainy season. Indeed some places, such as Kyoto and Nara, are considered better to visit during a good rain to really soak in the mood. Traditional Japan takes on a romantic and spiritual sense during this season.

Although it is extremely humid during the rainy season, Japan is always humid in the summertime and at least the weather is cooler because there is more cloud cover.

But if you really hate rain, you might want to skip this season altogether, or head to Hokkaido (which has no rainy season) or to Okinawa, where the rainy season is earlier, from May through June.

Yahoo Japan Weather:

Choose the prefecture you’d like the forecast for

For the weather-obsessed, see Weather Underground which includes all-Japan maps for temperature, humidity, wind and the jetstream, among others.

Amy Chavez is a columnist for The Japan Times. Visit her website at

Should you visit Yasukuni shrine?

Should you visit Yasukuni shrine

A recent visitor to Japan told me that she had an uneasy feeling visiting Yasukuni shrine as a foreigner. She reported that there were very few Japanese people there, especially considering it was a public holiday, a time when most shrines and temples in Japan are overflowing with temple tourists. “Not only that, it was kind of eerie and sad,” she said.

Yasukuni shrine is a controversial site in Japan. Former prime minister Yoichi Koizumi was constantly criticized for praying at the shrine and prime ministers have been judged according to whether they visit this shrine or not. The shrine itself was built in 1869, under orders of the Meiji Emperor, but it did not become controversial until the mid 1980’s.

What’s so controversial?

Over 2.4 million soldiers are honored at Yasukuni and their names appear in a special book housed at the shrine. Of those soldiers, 1,068 have been convicted of war crimes, 14 of whom were Class A war criminals.

You can look at a visit to Yasukuni in two ways. 1: That if you visit Yasukuni shrine, you are basically showing your respect for war criminals and the Japanese Imperial Army of that time. At the same time, you are showing disrespect to the countries who were victims of the war crimes. Or 2: That Yasukuni is a shrine that was built as a national shrine to commemorate all people (including aid workers and foreigners) who lost their lives during military service to Japan.

While Yasukuni was at one time under the control of the state, it is now a privately funded operation which also runs a war history museum on the same grounds. For tourists, there are many festivals and rituals year-round, including a daily “Kagura” event.

Despite its apparent right-wing connections, Yasukuni is an important part of Japan’s history, politics and culture. A trip to Yasukuni should bring more awareness to war, its inevitable crimes against humanity, and should be used as another plea for world peace.

Yasukuni Shrine Homepage (includes schedule of events and museum hours)

Amy Chavez is a columnist for The Japan Times. Visit her website at

Favorite Haunts

Favorite HauntsRecently, there has been an increased interest in Japanese people visiting haunted places. Where are these places? Below are some of the creepiest places in Japan. What makes them so scary? Why not go find out for yourself?!

Osore Mountain —- “Mountain of Fear.”

Though not really a mountain, this area in Aomori prefecture is the traditional gateway to Hell for Japanese people. It is a volcanic wasteland with many sulpher springs that give the place the smell of rotten eggs. Many people do visit the temple and surroundings here, but only in the summer time as the area is snowy and cold in the winter months.

Suicide Forest—bottom of Mt. Fuji

This is a famous place for people to commit suicide and is responsible for nearly 70 deaths per year. The area is dense forest, so not many things grow inside. The place is also popular among sports-minded people who use the grounds for walking, jogging and sightseeing. All you have to do is get off the path, it can be very, very scary and hard to find your way back.

Kotsu Tunnel—Kamakura

This tunnel was dug to connect Kamakura to the city of Kotsu. However, the tunnel was dug underneath a cemetery of “yagura” (graves in the steep hillsides). These graves are said to be the tombs of soldiers. To have the scariest experience, walk through the tunnel at night and climb up the mountain to the graveyard.

Kamakura is also the site of a mass suicide by over 800 samurai who committed hara-kiri in front of Tosho Temple in 1333. The samurai faced being captured by imperial forces and chose the samurai way: suicide over surrender. Harakiri Yagura is a cave where the remains of the samurai were buried. Not recommended that you visit alone or at night….

If these places sound a little too scary for you, then you might want to try some of Japan’s haunted houses. Toei Uzumasa Eigamura (Kyoto Studio Park) is an entertainment park where you can see filming of Japanese period dramas. Inside the park there is a reputedly very realistic and scary haunted house.

Another is Fuji Q Highland Amusement Park’s three-story Haunted Hospital, about and hour and a half outside Tokyo. This was previously a real hospital that was abandoned and afterwards made into an attraction. Some Japanese people believe it is actually haunted.

Amy Chavez is a columnist for The Japan Times. Visit her website at

Japan’s Swimming Season

People often ask me when the swimming season is in Japan. This is difficult question because nearly every beach and pool opens at a different time.


The swimming season officially starts when the Shinto priest holds Umi Biraki (opening of the sea) ceremony. In this ceremony, the priest purifies the sea and water, making it safe to swim. Where I live, on an island in Western Japan, Umi Biraki is always held on the first Sunday in July, which seems a little late for a public swimming beach, but the crowds start coming only after this.

Other beaches open earlier. I have heard of some of the popular Tokyo beaches opening near the end of April and in warm Okinawa, they can open in mid—March. . Most Japanese on Honshu will wait until the official swimming season, even though the weather may be warm enough for swimming before then. July and August are generally considered to be the swimming season months as they coincide with the summer school holidays.

This doesn’t mean you cannot swim before Umi Biraki, it just means that you won’t see many Japanese people, if any, swimming so early as they consider it outside of the swimming season.

Much of this adherence to a “swimming season” may be due to the fact that in Japan, going to the beach is a special event, much like we would take a picnic in the West. While we tend to take a minimalist approach to going to the beach packing just a hat, sunglasses, a book and a beach towel, the Japanese will take everything plus the kitchen sink: A tent to keep out of the sun, a large vinyl sheet to sit on, some beach chairs for the adults, their own BBQ and a cooler to store food and drinks. Going to the beach tends to be a family or a group event.

As a result, most families plan to go to the beach once during the whole summer. Therefore, they’d prefer to go when it is really hot outside and they can appreciate a day of cooling off and lounging by the sea.

August 16th marks the rather abrupt end to the swimming season, which is also the last day of the summer “O-bon,” (Festival of the Dead) holiday. The end of the swimming season coincides with the time of year when jelly fish start making their appearance in the waters so it can be dangerous to swim. To discourage children from continuing to swim after O-bon, adults will tell them that there are “kappa” (water nymphs) in the sea that will come up and grab their legs!

Check with the local beach, or the locals who live near there, to find out when Umi Biraki is.

Swimming Pools

Public swimming pools also have a swimming season but no special ceremony for opening that I know of. The indoor (but not heated) pool where I live is open from June through August, even if it is warm enough to swim before or after these months. Check with the local swimming pool for their times of operation.

Amy Chavez is a columnist for The Japan Times. Visit her website at

Planning for Golden Week

Planning for Golden WeekGolden week, from the end of April to the beginning of May, is one of the biggest travel times of the year for Japanese people. It’s called Golden Week because several national holidays line up during this period and, together with a weekend on both side, means many people can take the entire week off, if not longer.

The dates for 2008 are: April 29 Showa Day, May 3 Constitution Day, May 4 Greenery Day, May 5 Children’s Day, May 6 (Greenery Day observed).

If you happen to be traveling in Japan at this time, however, be warned! Trains, planes and busses are crowded and sometimes it is impossible to get seat reservations on any kind of transport. One good thing to remember is that the heaviest travel days are the first day of the holiday, when everyone is leaving on vacation, and the last holiday when everyone is returning home. If you’re trying to book a flight, for example, try one of the in-between days rather than the first day or last day (or two) of the holiday.

Following are some of the best online tools for planning your trip to Japan during Golden Week or any other time.

Hyperdia Timetable – Want to know exactly what trains to take, at what time, the exact price and the distance in hours and kilometers? This web site has all the plane and train routes around Japan. Just type in your starting point and your destination and let the web site do the rest. Hyperdia is up-to-date and accurate. Make a printout of your search and you’ll have at least 5 possible routes to compare by time, price and convenience. To access the site, go to then click on “English” in the upper left hand corner box. Then type in your starting point and destination. Wallah!

Time and – This is one of my favorite sites that is good not just for Japan, but any country in the world. Time and gives you the current time in Japan as well as helpful planning tools such as a calendar showing all of the Japanese holidays. It also has fun tools such as a customizable count-down till your trip date, sun and moon calendars, a meeting planner and calendars for any date in the future.

Remember, the key to traveling successfully during Golden Week is to make your reservations for transport and hotels early.

Amy Chavez is a columnist for The Japan Times. Visit her website at

Arm Chair O-hanami

Arm Chair O-hanamiPink is the only color you’re going to see for the next few weeks while it is cherry blossom season in Japan. The good news is that even if you’re not in Japan, you can still do quite a bit of arm-chair cherry blossom viewing. So put your rose-colored glasses on and let’s start some virtual cherry blossom hunting!

To start with, you’ll want to join the crowds of Japanese internet surfers following the blossoms as they first open up in Okinawa in March and travel north where they will finally bloom in Hokkaido in May. You can get the cherry blossom report for over 50 locations in Japan, so you can know exactly where the trees are blooming. Once you know that the cherry blossoms are blooming in a certain area, you can do your O-hanami (cherry blossom viewing) online.

The following dates were predicted for various cities around Japan: Tokyo, Yokohama and Nagoya: March 26; Hiroshima and Takamatsu: March 29; Osaka: March 30; Fukuoka: March 27; Kagoshima: April 1; Niigata: April 11th.

The cherry blossom forecasts are available on the net at:

Japan’s Meteorological Agency site tracks the blossoms and has weekly updates at

Weathernews Web site (The Sakura Project).

This is the best prediction and most user-friendly but there is no English page. Just roll your cursor over the part of Japan you want to see and click. Look for the pink leaves!

For scenic spots in Kyoto accompanied by photos, see Kyoto Tourism’s page at

Learn how to distinguish cherry blossom varieties according to their color and petal characteristics with photos at

Happy Armchair Cherry Blossom Viewing!

Amy Chavez is a columnist for The Japan Times. Visit her website at

Baggage Courier Services

Baggage Courier ServicesOne thing you’ll notice while you are travelling through Japan is that the Japanese never seem to have any luggage. You’ll meet Japanese people travelling all over Japan by train, but they’re not schlepping around large suitcases through train stations, up and down stairs and through train car aisles. No, the Japanese are too smart for this.

Instead, they send their luggage ahead with a baggage courier service. These services are extremely safe and efficient. The most popular service is Takkyubin offered by the Yamato Transport company and Pelican from Nittsu (Nippon Express). For a small fee, they will transfer your bags from, say, the airport to your hotel, or from your hotel in Tokyo to your hotel in Kyoto. You can send your baggage to any address inside Japan. Unless you are travelling a great distance, such as from Hokkaido to Kyushu, these couriers offer next day service. A suitcase from Tokyo to Osaka would cost approximately 1,900 yen and arrive the next day.

With no luggage to worry about, taking public transportation in Japan suddenly becomes much more convenient. It also means that you do not have to stop and find a locker to store your things while you go off to explore some sights while en route to your destination.

Then, when you are ready to leave Japan, you can send your luggage from your hotel to the airport the day before. When you arrive at the airport departures section, your bag will be there waiting for you. Simply walk it over to the check-in counter at the airline and you’re finished!


If for whatever reason, you should still have to muscle your luggage through Japan’s busy train stations, remember that wherever there are stairs, there is either an escalator or a lift nearby. Look around before you drag that ball and chain up that flight of stairs!

In the airport, the courier service counters can be found at the Arrivals Hall. Just take your trolley over to the desk and tell them you’d like to send your luggage. They’ll be happy to take it off your hands.

All hotel reception desks as well as convenience stores can arrange luggage transport for you. If you are attending a conference, the venue will have a courier set up a temporary booth so that you can send your luggage from the conference venue. This is great for when you have extra luggage for presentations.

Skis, snowboards, golf equipment and surfboards can also be sent by courier.


Amy Chavez is a columnist for The Japan Times. Visit her website at

Benefits of a falling yen

The Japanese yen and the US dollar are losing ground on the world market. The Euro and the Australian dollar are getting stronger. What does this mean to you as a traveler to Japan?

If you’re from Europe or Australia, I don’t need to tell you, as you already know that Japan is becoming more and more affordable as a result of the weak yen. But for those wishing to travel to Japan with US dollars, how is a weak yen, paired with a weakening dollar, helping them?

Japan is not as expensive as it used to be

Although Americans won’t benefit from their currency getting stronger against the yen, Japan is still much cheaper than it used to be. Despite the US annual inflation rate of around five percent per year, Japan has had no inflation for a long time. Accommodation and food, for example, haven’t gone up in price since I first came here 15 years ago. So even a weak dollar is buying more today than it would have five years ago.

No longer Made in Japan?

Not only have prices not changed, but many things have actually gotten cheaper. As the Japanese can no longer afford to spend money as they could 20 years ago, Japan has turned to importing goods from China where the labor is much cheaper. Everything from daily necessities to food now comes from China at a much reduced price.

Budget accommodation abounds

Budget accommodation is still especially cheap. You can still get basic accommodation for 2,000 yen to 3,000 yen per night in many of the smaller tourist towns. You may find that the decor in these accommodations is a little quaint and outdated, but you can still expect the rooms to be clean and management efficient. After all, if they did update, they’d also have to charge a higher price.

The most expensive part of your trip in Japan will be transportation. Trains and taxis are still expensive. So choose cheaper ways to get around, such as long distance buses and ferries, for the longer parts of your trip.

For many people, it still may be hard to imagine Japan as a cheap destination. Being able to get by on so little money in such a first-world country with all the mods and cons is a nice contrast if you ask me.

Keep an eye on daily currency conversion rates at

You can also type in yen amounts to find out their values in your currency.

Currency Calculator offers exchange rates, a calculator and historical graphs of changes in currencies.

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

Bean throwing

Go into any convenience store or supermaket in Japan now and you will see displays of devil masks and dried soybeans. Pick up a set (they’re sold together) and get ready for the annual bean throwing ceremony! Held every year on Setsubun (Feb. 3), the last day of winter according to the lunar calendar, bean-throwing ceremonies take place all over Japan in private homes, and also temples and shrines. The ceremony dates back to to the Muromachi Period (1333-1568), and the purpose is to drive evil away for the next year.

And exactly how does one drive evil away? Easy! By yelling “Devils out, fortune in!” while throwing beans at symbolic devils, represented by people wearing  devil masks (see photo). The very polite and obedient Japanese devils (oni) apparently listen and keep away for the year.

There are several famous places to go to see bean throwing events, such as at Sensoji Temple in Akakusa, Tokyo, where 150,000 people attend. If you’re a sumo fan, visit the Setsubun festival at Tomioka Hachimangu shrine, where they also honor sumo wrestlers with their names etched into the “Yokozuna Stone.” Several sumo wrestlers throw beans and rice cakes to crowds of people. If you catch one, you’ll get a whole year of good luck.

But if you’re not into crowds and would like to participate, ask around at a small local shrine or temples where it is done more as a tradition than an event. Or, tell a Japanese person you’d like to see the ceremony, and they just might invite you to their house for the real thing!

When the festival is performed in the home, the father will dress up in an oni mask, and the family members will throw beans at him while chanting the “Devils out, fortune in!” mantra.

What happens to the beans? You eat them afterward–one bean for every year old you are. This will bring you even more good luck.

If you can participate in the Setsubun event, I don’t suppose you’ll have to worry about running out of luck this year.

Bean-throwing events Feb 3, 2008

Sensoji Temple
2-3-1 Asakusa, Taito-ku (Asakusa station) Tokyo

Tomioka Hachimangu Shrine

1-20-3, Tomioka, Koto-ku, Tokyo

Get off at Monzen-nakacho on the Tozai subway line

Or contact the Tokyo Tourist Information Center

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