Monthly Archive May 2016

ByMark Guthrie
May 27, 2016

Bicycling in Japan – Know the Laws

bicycle (2)

The time has come again for commuters to abandon the stress and discomfort of the public transport system in favor of their trusty bicycle.  Before you saddle up and join them, it is important to know the “rules of the road,” or the laws governing riding a bicycle on the streets of Japan.

1. Ignoring traffic signals (red light, orange light, etc)
2. Ignoring traffic signs (driving the wrong way up a one way street, or in other “no riding” zones.)
3. Riding in pedestrian only areas
4. Riding in the incorrect traffic lane
5. Interfering with pedestrians on side of road / pavements
6. Entry into the railroad crossing when the barrier is down
7. Interference with the flow of priority (right-of-way) vehicles at intersections
8. Interference at intersections with right turning traffic
9. Interference at large artery intersections that causes a breach of safety
10. Ignoring stop signs (where a full stop, by placing your feet on the ground while standing still, is required)
11. Blocking or interfering with pedestrians on sidewalks
12. Operating a bicycle operation without brakes
13. Riding a bicycle after having consumed alcohol
14. Reckless bicycling

If you have spent much time here already, that last sentence may have come as a surprise, as it looks for all the world like cycling in Japan is a lawless endeavor, with riders beholden to no law but their own. However, there are many rules and regulations pertaining to cyclists, and while many of these laws are frequently ignored and rarely enforced, at this time of year traffic police will be out in numbers, looking to clamp down on infractions.

Before we begin, you can find more information provided by the Japan Traffic Safety Organization in English here, it is a PDF file.  This pamphlet goes into more depth than this article.

Bicycle Traffic Safety in Japan Pamphlet

No riding on pedestrian sidewalks! 

For a start, unless otherwise designated, cyclists are not permitted to ride on pedestrian sidewalks unless they are under 13 years of age, over 70, or disabled. If you must ride on the sidewalk, you must ride less than 10km per hour.

If there is a designated bike lane on the sidewalk it is actually illegal to ride on the street.  Anyone that has spent more than five minutes on a Japanese street can tell that this law keeping bikes to the street or designated bike lanes is barely enforced, if at all, but it remains a fact that bicycles are classified as light vehicles, the same as motor scooters, and are bound by the law. In practice, however, for sake of convenience, most cyclists prefer to travel on the pavements.

Keep left! 

When on the road, stick to the left hand side. You will have seen many cyclists riding into traffic and the wrong way down one-way streets, but due to rise in bicycle related accidents, a revision to the Road Traffic Law came into effect in December of 2013, with cyclists facing up to 30 days in prison or a ¥20,000 fine for cycling against the flow of traffic.

Hands on the handlebars! 

Again, despite all evidence to the contrary it is also illegal to cycle while holding an umbrella, using a cell phone or carrying a passenger (although a child in a passenger seat under the age of six is permitted).  Like riding on pedestrian sidewalks, you may have seen countless riders – from school children to grandparents – flouting these laws, despite the potential ¥500,000 fine.  Despite being illegal, these types of practices are extremely unsafe, and should be avoided.

Turn on the lights!

If riding at night, cyclists must have both a headlamp and a bell.  This is an example of a fully enforced law.  In no uncertain terms, riding at night without a light (turned on) will get you stopped by the police.  A bike lacking a bell may be stopped, but I have heard others say that officers routinely look the other way regarding that infraction, but again, it is the law and the law should be obeyed!

Show me your papers! 

Bicycle theft is a particular concern in Japan, and with good reason.  It sometimes seems like drunken salary-men will take the first bike they find on their way home, and rates of theft seem a contradiction to the widely held “safe and honest” image of Japan.  Even worse, the recovery rates for stolen bikes are quite low, meaning if you lose it you are likely not getting it back.  As a result of this cyclists are required to register their bicycles. If store bought, your bike will have been registered by the shop at the time of purchase, but if your bike is second hand (or from you should take it to a bicycle store or police station where they will register it for a small fee.

As mentioned, stolen bicycles are rarely found, yet police enforce this rule assiduously.  It should be noted that the police are anecdotally said to use their right to ask riders to prove registration is used to check foreigners “visa status,” as a way of combating over-stayers.  They are not supposed to do this, and it remains an open question whether they actually are stopping foreigners more frequently or not, but if stopped it is best to give them the information they ask for and be polite.  Arguing will do little more than make both of you angry, and it is important to note that Japanese police can detain you for up to 2 weeks without charging you with a crime.  In short, they can make your life miserable if you mess with them, so don’t.

Don’t drink and ride! 

Another law put into practice is the rule that bans cycling under the influence of alcohol. You have possibly seen many a salaryman swerving down the street, fresh from an izakaya, but like driving, riding after consuming even 1 single drink is forbidden, and while most drunk riders will simply be locked up for the night to sober up, you could also face a sentence of up to five years in prison, a ¥1,000,000 fine, and even deportation for riding under the influence.

Cycling is perhaps the best way for getting around Japan, particularly if you live and work in one of its bustling metropolises. If you stick to the laws and keep out of trouble, it is the perfect way to enjoy this beautiful season, for what is better than traversing the streets and parks under the resplendent beauty of the cherry blossom trees?

Photo: Icd at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

ByJustin Hanus
May 26, 2016

Enjoy Akashi’s Okura Beach

Okura Coast

Though there really isn’t a bad time to visit the Seto Inland Sea’s coastline alongside Akashi, the summer season is particularly incredible. With more people venturing outside and gathering to enjoy the mild temperatures and sunshine, Okura Beach provides the perfect setting to experience the best that summer has to offer.

A 5-minute walk from JR Asagiri station will take you right to this gorgeous beach park. There you can enjoy a nice stroll along the sand or walking paths spread out among the grassy parks. With the wide and open beach stretching east to west across the length of Akashi, many runners and cyclists also enjoy making use of the paths. When the beach is crowded, you can see people engaging in all sorts of activities that are open for anyone interested! Whether you’re up for an intense game of shogi (Japanese chess) in the park, swimming in the water, fishing, tasting some of Akashi’s famous seafood from a nearby stand, having a picnic, or simply relaxing on the sand, Okura Beach is truly a hub for summertime fun!

A popular summer pastime throughout Japan is to have barbeque gatherings and enjoy the beautiful natural views of the season. Okura Beach offers many different park plots for you and your friends or family to join together and enjoy a barbeque picnic by the seaside. In the busy season when the weather is the best, make sure to get to the beach early to reserve your grill and picnic area for the day!

One of the highlights of this beach in particular is the scenery at sunset. Looking across the water at Awaji Island in the evening will give you a beautiful view of the colorful sky, as well as the romantic illumination of the Akashi Kaikyo suspension bridge which is lit up at night. If you’ve spent the whole day on the beach or just drop by for the nighttime sights, checking out the views over the water is definitely worth your while.

Since the beach is close in proximity to a lot of the best area restaurants, shopping, and the popular fish market Uontana, it is the perfect resting point for your day of exploring the beautiful port city of Akashi.

Okura Kaigan

Location: Okura Kaigandori, Akashi 673-0879, Hyogo Prefecture
Admission: Free

By halfrain (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
ByJustin Hanus
May 23, 2016

Kyoto and Nara – The One-Time Capital Cities are Storehouses of Japanese Heritage


It is quite possible that you may detect some good-natured, chest-puffing sparring between the denizens of Nara and Kyoto over their respective heritage as one-time capitals of Japan. Nara was the first permanent capital of Japan but the government was uprooted after less than one century. When the capital moved to Kyoto it stayed for more than one thousand years. Primacy or longevity? Let’s examine both sides of this history smackdown.

The First Capital – Nara

Traditionally the capital of Japan was set up in the hometown of the emperor and when he died the ancients believed that the place of death was stricken with eternal bad karma. Hence, the capital was moved from place to place. By the eighth century, however, the government was becoming larger and more bureaucratic therefore a permanent base was required. Nara, the country’s first true urban center, got the call in 710.

The first capital was modeled after the government center in China’s Tang Dynasty. Japan was adopting many ways of Chinese life including a writing system and the Buddhist religion. Emperor Shomu was a leader who believed devoutly in the power of Buddha to protect Japan from natural disasters. In 743 he directed Buddha temples be constructed around the country.

In the capital of Nara more than 2,600,000 people were put to work building Tōdai-ji, a temple complex that would include shrines for worship, two pagodas soaring 100 meters high, and the Japanese headquarters of the Kegon school of Buddhism. Castings were also begun for what would be the world’s largest bronze statue of Buddha – about 15 meters high. The creation of the Daibutsu of Tōdai-ji used just about every scrap of bronze in Japan. The entire project nearly sunk the country’s economy but when the Great Hall officially opened in 752 there were 10,000 monks and 4,000 dancers on hand for the ceremony.

The Buddhist monasteries grew so powerful that subsequent emperors feared for the rule of the central government and in 784 the capital was moved to Nagaoka. The capital had left Nara briefly before but this time it did not return. In 794 Emperor Kammu moved the government to a new city called Heian-kyō (translated as “tranquility and peace capital”). It would eventually be named Kyoto.

Nara shriveled in national importance after the departure of the government. The Great Buddha Hall burned twice and was rebuilt each time. The current building dates to 1709 and remained the largest wooden building on the planet until it was surpassed in 1998. Tōdai-ji today houses seven Japanese national treasures and the Tōdai-ji Culture Center that opened in 2011 functions as a museum devoted to Japan’s first capital.

Japan’s Longest Tenured Capital – Kyoto

Kyoto was the Japanese capital until the Imperial Restoration in 1868. One thousand years is a lot of time to build shrines and palaces and Kyoto boasts 26 national treasures, more than any other city aside from Nara, which has 29 in total. The Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Since the government had relocated to Tokyo by the time of World War II, Kyoto was spared much of the destruction from Allied fire-bombing. Kyoto was actually the original number one target for the dropping of the first atomic bomb but Secretary of War Henry Stimson intervened and removed it from the target list to spare the cultural treasures which he had admired on his honeymoon years earlier. The result is that the city contains the largest concentration of designated Cultural Properties in Japan, with the oldest dating back to the 10th century.

So there you have it. Age versus longevity. Does being first trump 1,000 years? There are no winners or losers in this debate – both are must-see Japan destinations.

By 663highland  [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
ByMark Guthrie
May 22, 2016

Aichi Beach Events, 2016

UtsumiIts getting to that time of year again when the thermostat starts to rise and thoughts of beaches spring to minds.

Although Aichi isn’t necessarily famed for its beaches, there are plenty of nice places at which you and the family can play in the sea and catch a few rays. Also, some of the beaches have events, parties and theme days for you and the family to enjoy.

Aichi Beach Events Calendar 2016

Below is a calendar outlining just some of the events occuring on beaches in the Aichi area.

June 4 -Ise Ebi Matsuri

  • Starting at 10:00 with a fair and concluding at 21:00 with a fireworks display, the Ise Ebi Matsuri (lobster festival) is actually on Mie prefecture’s Oyahama Beach and thus falls outside our remit, but it is such a spectacle, it would be a shame to leave it off of this list. Website.

June 5 – Beach Volleyball and Athletic Meet

  • Shinmaiko Beach holds a Beach Volleyball and Athletic Meet for children. The final date for registration to take part in the volleyball contest is May 25. However if you miss that cut off, you can still come by and watch, or join in with the beach sandal flicking contest, the beach yoga, or enjoy food and drink from local stalls. Website.

June 11 -Mihama-cho

  • Opening day for Mihama-cho beaches of Onoura, NomaWakamatsu and Okuda.

June 12 – Ironman 70.3 Japan

  • Ironman 70.3 Japan event kicks off at 7:30 am from Shinmaiko Beach. The swimming portion of the course takes place from Shinmaiko Marine Park. The Iron Kids event takes place the previous day between 13:30 and 16:30. Website.

June 19 – Utsumi Beach

  • Utsumi Beach opening day.

June 26 – MinamiChita -Cho

  • Opening of MinamiChita -Cho’s beaches: Yamami Kaisui YokujoShinojima and Himakajima.

July 26-28 – Treasure Hunt & Movies!

  • Watch movies and take part in a mass treasure hunt competition at Utsumi Beach

August 2-4 – Treasure Hunt & Movies!

  • Watch movies and take part in a mass treasure hunt competition at Utsumi Beach

August 12 – Fireworks

  • Rokkasai fireworks festival takes place on Utsumi Beach. Gather with family and friends on the beach to watch some 70,000 fireworks go off.

Aichi Beach information

Shinmaiko Marine Park

The nearest beach to Nagoya, Shinmaiko Marine Park, is perhaps the most conveniently located for city dwellers.  While it is a man made artificial beach it is no less lovely for it. There is a sizable barbeque area that you can rent out, and charcoal can be supplied at a small additional cost. However if barbecue isn’t your thing there are food stands selling refreshments of all kinds. For those who don’t like the feeling of sand between the toes, there is a large grassy area on which to lounge, and for the more energetic of you, you can take advantage of the extensive beach volleyball courts.

Getting there: Get off at Shinmaiko Station on the Meitetsu Tokoname Line and walk 10 minutes across Fine Bridge.

Contact: 0562-56-3980

Ono Beach

One never feels such an affinity with society’s upper echelons than when lounging on the beach. Wherever we are, we never feel far from George Clooney on Lake Como, or families royal in St Tropez. Well, at Ono beach you can feel like a Shogun. Said to be the world’s oldest sea bathing spot, this 500×100 metre beach was visited by the ruling Owari and Tokugawa clans. While its historical importance may be of interest to some, it is the magnificent sunset that turns the ocean a glorious red that is perhaps the greatest draw of this location.

Getting there: Get off at Onomachi Station on the Meitetsu Tokoname line and walk for 5 minutes



The biggest in the Tokai area, Utsumi Beach is arguably the most popular. Visited by approximately 500,000 people each year it was chosen as one of the top 100 beaches in Japan, and it is not hard to see why. The coast stretches for 2km along Chidorigahama and Higashiyama areas with over 30 seaside clubhouses and hotels. In recent years it has gained a reputation for being dirty, however this year has seen a major clean up initiative bringing the sparkle back to the sea. A word of warning: September is jellyfish season, so be careful!

Getting there: Get off at Utsumi station on the Meitetsu Chitashinsen Line. Walk 15 minutes or take a bus and get off at Utsumi-kaigan stop. From there it is a three minute walk.

Contact: 0569-62-0403

Nisaki Beach

Should you be sceptical of the effectiveness of Utsumi’s claimed clean-up, perhaps Nisaki beach is the place for you. With consistently high marks in the annual water quality surveys and dazzling white sands, Nisaki is popular with families for its calm waves and the lifeguards that patrol them. There is even a small camping site nearby.

Getting there: Get off at Mikawa Tahara Station on the Toyohashi Tetsudo Atsumi Line from where you can take a 15 minute taxi ride.

Contact: 0531-23-3516

Shiroya Beach

Shiroya beach has a 600m shoreline, within which there is a 60m manmade sandy area.  Newly developed in 1997, the surrounding palm trees give a real feeling of being in an upscale resort. There is a seaside park play area for children and the water is particularly clean. The sand is, however, a coarse grained sand so more sensitive children may require footwear at all times.

Getting there: Get off at Mikawa Tahara Station on the Toyohashi Tetsudo Atsumi Line. Take a taxi for about 10 minutes

Contact: 0531-23-3516

Coconuts beach Irago (Irako)

On the north side of the Irago cape lighthouse, Coconuts Beach Irago is considered to be the best beach in the Atsumi peninsula. With 350m of white sand and clean water it is popular with visitors of all ages, particularly for the beautiful sunset and the large grassy area that can be enjoyed throughout the year.

Getting there: Get off at Toyohashi Station on the JR or Meitetsu Lines. Take a Toyotetsu bus and get off at Irago eaPark-mae stop. The beach is a 2 minute walk from there.

Contact: 0531-23-3516

Most beaches close some of their services from September. For further details contact the relevant tourist information centres on the above numbers.


By Mark Guthrie

Image –– modified

Image: “IMG_0416.JPG by fisshaasan (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) – Modified

ByJustin Hanus
May 19, 2016

Osaka is the Tenka no Daidokoro (the Nation’s Kitchen) – Not What You Think


Before the world bought into the abstract concept of money – whereby a piece of metal or paper can stand in for something of real value – trade was conducted in commodities that had actual value. In the Mediterranean, one of those commodities was salt, and we still have remnants of that trade with words like “salary.”

In Japan, one of the earliest valuable trade items was rice. Members of the samurai class centuries ago were paid in rice, not money. Landlords accepted rent in rice. Rice was the medium of exchange in Japan and the biggest and busiest rice brokers operated out of the Dōjima area in Osaka. And in 1697 a license from the shogunate established the official Dōjima Rice Exchange.

A Misnomer

Thanks to the Dōjima Rice Exchange, Osaka has earned the sobriquet “the tenka no daidokoro” (the nation’s kitchen). But it was not recipes the Osaka rice brokers were cooking up – it was money. The rice trade was ridiculously profitable and Japan’s early economy revolved around the harvests.

Gradually the rice brokers evolved into moneychangers as paper money was introduced to represent rice. Over time the lion’s share of economic transactions was handled by the brokers at the Dōjima Rice Exchange who were independent contractors. They would hold rice in “accounts,” make loans and dispense withdrawals. The exchange became the forerunner of Japan’s banking system, first in the city and then the prefecture and eventually across the entire Tokugawa shogunate which ruled until 1868 and the restoration of imperial rule.

The Kitchen Grows

The merchants of Osaka did not restrict their activities to rice. The city was the traditional port of call for trading ships and feudal lords from the far reaches of Japan built private warehouses on Osaka docks to handle their own trading activities.

Since a Japanese kitchen was the storage area of the house, Osaka was commonly known as “the tenka no daidokoro” (the nation’s kitchen). So it was this function as a giant pantry and not the abundance of fine cooking that linked Osaka with the kitchen in the national consciousness.

The Merchant City Goes Gourmet

Osaka’s nickname grew from its fame as a merchant city but it has picked up a few signature dishes along the way. Okonomiyaki is a delectable confection somewhere between an omelette and a pancake that is stuffed with meat or seafood and baked with noodles. Kitsune udon takes fried tofu and layers it on top of a thick noodle soup.

A sushi unique to the Osaka region is Hakozushi, which cooks or cures the ingredients in a bamboo box. The Osaka style sushi is then cut into small squares and sold – often six to a box. Popular choices are mackerel sushi, poached shrimp, sea eel, and red snapper. For snacking on the streets of Osaka pick up a boat of round balls of Takoyaki, a snack of wheat batter filled with minced octopus, pickled ginger, green onion, and tempura.

More globefish is consumed in Osaka than anywhere else in Japan. Since globefish contains a deadly poison it is necessary for chefs to earn a special license to prepare it for human consumption, a test first administered in Osaka and now mandatory throughout the country. A special knife is required to filet the globefish for the hot-pot dish known affectionately as “techiri” among devotees, a shorthand for foodies for tessa sashimi.

By No machine-readable author provided. [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
ByJustin Hanus
May 17, 2016

The Tunnels of Mount Ikoma Bridge the Cultures of Osaka and Nara



The city of Osaka is sheltered on the shores of Osaka Bay to the south and east by the Ikoma Mountains. This is great for defense, especially in olden days but in modern times the natural barrier caused more isolation than was desirable for the growing seaside population.

Enter the Osaka Electric Railway Company in 1910. The company was formed with the express intent to link Osaka to the Japanese inland city of Nara and markets beyond. The plan called for constructing a railway tunnel through Mount Ikoma, the highest of the Ikoma Mountain peaks at 642 meters.

A Sacred Place

Looming over the city, Mount Ikoma was a place of worship for the people of Osaka as far back as the 5th century when a shrine was built at the foot of the mountain. Buddhist monks lived and trained on its slopes a millennium ago and the popular Hozan-ji temple was erected in the 17th century.

The sacred mountain did not take kindly to having its innards clawed out by the hordes of workers required to dig a tunnel over 3,000 meters long. On January 26, 1913 the tunnel collapsed, burying 152 workers in the rubble. Nonetheless the tunnel, one of the longest in the world, was completed in 1914.

Osaka Transformed

With the opening of the passageway through the Ikoma Mountains, Osaka and Mount Ikoma entered a new era. With the ease of public transportation, religious pilgrims flocked to the mountainside – there are now said to be over 300 religious institutions practicing on Mount Ikoma.

For others, Mount Ikoma became a recreation destination, a favorite for picnickers and sightseers. Inns sprouted below the ridgeline to accommodate the pleasure seekers and in 1918 cable cars began running to the summit. The Ikoma Cable Railway is the oldest in Japan. The Ikoma Sanjo Amusement Park opened to cater to the many families who came to Mount Ikoma. Most dramatically, Nara developed into a bedroom community for downtown Osaka workers.

More tunnels

All was not fun and games on Mount Ikoma, however. As the Osaka Electric Railway Company bought up other lines to evolve into the Kinetsu Corporation and become the largest Japanese rail concern outside of Japan Railways, there were still incidents with its tunnel. One train fire deep under Mount Ikoma claimed 98 casualties, including the loss of 23 passengers. Another fire injured 40 people.

The worst disaster occurred on March 31, 1948 when a brake failure sent one train barreling into the rear of another. Forty-nine people were killed and another 282 injured. The original tunnel was closed in 1964 when a new Nara Line was built out of Osaka. The new tunnel sports dual lines to better avoid those early disasters.

Even newer tunnels and lines have been constructed through the Ikoma Mountains in the past half-century but one fact cannot be altered even by the increased connectivity – the mountains still serve as a cultural wall between the traditions of the Nara Prefecture and the Osaka Prefecture.

Mass Ave 975 at the Wikipedia [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
ByMark Guthrie
May 15, 2016

Japan’s Amazing Festivals

OnbashiraAs a Brit I am loathe to take a look at another culture’s customs and denigrate them in any way, particularly if you look at some of the strange things in which my own countrymen believe. However it is difficult not to see some of Japan’s festivals and not consider them, hmmm, a bit on the crazy side.

Japan has quite an extensive list of festivals or 祭り (matsuri), and it seems that every city, town and little hamlet has their own. In fact some estimates put the number at 200,000 happening throughout the year. Putting aside the festivals based on genitals (there is more than enough of this stuff on the internet all ready), we are going to have a look at some of the more eccentric, dramatic, spectacular, strange, picturesque and even terrifying matsuri that the country has to offer.

Onbashira Matsuri – Log Riding Festival

OnbashiraRight, let’s start with possibly the most crazy, insane festival of them all, the Onabashira Matsuri, the log riding festival. Held every six years – in the years of the tiger and monkey – in Nagano’s Suwa, it is claimed to have continued uninterrupted for the last 1,200 years and its purpose is cleanse the local shrine. The actual festival goes on for a couple of months, but the most famous bit is the ‘Yamadashi’. Huge logs are dragged down the mountain and at some points are skidded. During these moments young men prove their bravery by riding them down in a ceremony called ‘kiotoshi’, tree falling (pictured, above). In 2010 two people died partaking in kiotoshi.

Naki Sumo – Baby Shouting Festival

From one festival that is physically dangerous to one that is potentially psychologically damaging. Naki Sumo is held in various places around the country, but the most famous one is held in May in Tokyo’s Sensoji Shrine. In it loincloth wearing sumo wrestlers each hold aloft a child born in the previous year and hope for them to cry (the babies, that is, not the wrestlers). Babies that cry the loudest and longest are declared winners and the tears are believed to bring good health in the coming year. If they don’t cry a priest dons an ‘oni’ demon mask and shouts at them in an attempt to force the tears. It’s one of those events that makes you roll your eyes and say ‘oh Japan’, but were it to happen anywhere else you’d have child protection services turning up in seconds.

Hitori Zumo: The One Man Sumo Fighting Festival

If you like your sumo-based festivals but not keen on crying babies, then Hitori Zumo on Omi Island in Ehime, is the the festival for you. While the festival’s name literally means ‘Solo Sumo’, a close English idiom would be ‘Tilting at Windmills’, as a sumo wrestler battles agains an imaginary opponent in the ring. The unseen adversary is the spirit of a rice plant and the outcome of the epic battle determines the outcome of that season’s rice crop. You can see one such battle here.

Hadaka Matsuri – Naked Festival

From one loinclothed man to thousands, there are a few versions of the Hadaka Matsuri, or Naked Festival (including one in Aichi in which you can take part), but the daddy of them all is the one in Okayama. Up to 20,000 men clad in nothing but ‘fundoushi’ loincloths in the middle of February head towards Saidaiji temple. After dousing themselves in cleansing water, freezing and shivering they will pile into the temple where bundles of bamboo sticks are dropped from the ceiling. The men who can fight tooth and nail for them will have good luck and even cash prizes in the coming year. If he doesn’t get battered or catch ‘flu in the process.

Hokkai Heso Matsuri – Belly Button Festival

Belly FestA festival that is slightly more sedate, relatively better dressed, but equally up there on the strangeness scale is The Hokkai Heso Matsuri at the end of July in Furano, Hokkaido. Having started in 1969 it is a relatively new festival, meaning that whilst it doesn’t quite have the gravitas, at least its meaning is not lost to the mists of time. As Furano is in the very center of Hokkaido, and the Heso (belly button) is the center of the body, what better way to bring the citizens of this slightly far flung city together than to gather together, paint faces on their abdomens, and have a big dance? Has to be seen to be believed.

From the bizarre to the spectacular, The Yamayaki Matsuri (literally burning mountain festival) in Nara city is something that takes the breath away. Popular folklore has it that the festival has its origins in a dispute over the boundaries of two of the city’s most famous temples: Kofuku-ji and Todai-ji. The story has it that in 1760 a mediator was brought in and the centre of the dispute – Mt. Wasakusa – was set on fire. (Another theory is that the fire was set to clear out wild boars, but that’s less fun.) Today, each January, following a fireworks display the grass of the mountainside is set ablaze, a sight that can be seen all over the city. For a similar experience, check out the Daimonji Festival in Kyoto.

Miyajima Water Fireworks Festival

The island of Miyajima in Hiroshima prefecture is one of the most beautiful and tranquil places in the country (if you can ignore the hordes of tourists, that is). From the free-wandering deer to the sublime Itsukushima Shrine, it is quite breathtaking. However, in August it becomes even more dazzling as its Water Fireworks Festival takes place. Over 300,000 visitors turn up to snap pics of the 5,000 fireworks casting a gorgeous silhouette of the its ‘floating’ torii gate.

Naha Great Tug-of-War

In my elementary school days, one of the Sports Day events was a tug-of-war in which one class pitted their strength against another. It always ended in chaos with kids sprawled around the floor. But that was nothing in comparison with the Great Tug-of-War in Okinawa’s city of Naha. Here up to 250,000 people watch 15,000 competitors – half from the east side of the city, half from the west – battle to pull the immense rope (200m in length, 1.5m in diameter and weighing 40 tons, mentioned in the Guinness World Records as the world’s largest straw rope) 15 metres over a 30 minute duration. The team who pulls the furthest wins, and has the right to hack the rope to bits and take it home as a keepsake.


Mark Guthrie

Image: by EPA – Modified
Image: "ALX_9518" by Alex Aw (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) – Modified
Image: "Fukagawa Hachiman Matsuri 2014 53" by Hideya HAMANO (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) – Modified
ByMark Guthrie
May 11, 2016

The Great Japan Beer Festival Tokyo – Beer Fest 2017

When I first arrived in Japan, I was somewhat disappointed by my perception of limited decent beer selections. It seemed that no matter where I went I could find nothing more on draft than the near identical brews of the ‘big 3’: Sapporo, Kirin and Asahi.

While these can be refreshing and are fine for cooling you down on the hot summer evenings, I still craved more. However, I soon found a burgeoning microbrewery movement that, in the last six months in particular, has exploded with a new craft beer place opening seemingly every week.

The Great Japan Beer Festival

Yes, craft beer (typically beer that is made by small or ‘micro’ breweries independent of the large brewing chains) has taken off in Japan in a big way, and nowhere is this more evident than at the Great Japan Beer Festival. Hosted by the Japan Craft Beer Association (JCBA), the Great Japan Beer Festival (also known as Beerfes) is Japan’s largest beer festival and has been going strong since its inaugural hosting in 1998.

The festival consists of three sessions of three and a half hours each over two days, essentially working on a nomihoudai, or ‘all-you-can-drink’, basis. You will be given a tasting glass on entry along with a list of the available beers. You take this glass to one of the stands with a beer you want to try, and you will be poured a small measure to taste, after which you can move on to as many stalls as you wish to sample.

Being indoors, the Great Japan Beer Festival is a little more formal than the many Oktoberfests and beer festivals that frequent the city. However, whether you are new to craft beers, or are a long-time enthusiast, it is a great introduction to some of the best beers of Japan as well as around the world.

Beerfes Tokyo tips:

  • Do choose your time to suit your needs – There is invariably a long queue for entry, so if you are serious about your beer, it is advisable to get there early, as some of the more popular brews can vanish quickly. However, if you just want to enjoy the day at your own pace, after the first hour queues for the beer thin dramatically meaning you can go at your own pace.
  • Don’t lose your glass – Your glass is your admission ticket, and with no glass you get no beer. Also, it is a nice little memento to take home with you.
  • Do drink water and eat – Take plenty of water breaks, and have a bite to eat now and then, particularly if you are not a strong drinker. This helps you not only cleanse the palette so you can enjoy the next beer, but also to keep you upright.
  • Don’t go overboard – The tasting glass may be small, and some breweries may only serve the tiniest of amounts, but it all adds up. If you are there from the beginning, you can be there for more than three hours of drinking, and some of these beers fall into the double figures alcohol by volume percentage-wise. Pace yourself if you want to enjoy the full day.
  • Do rinse you glass – Using the rinsing stations regularly is important to ensure that the beer you are tasting isn’t being affected by the previous brew.
  • Don’t forget to rank – Many enthusiasts will rank or keep notes on each beer. While this is not imperative, it really helps you remember which ones you enjoyed for future consumption, as after three hours the memory can get a little hazy.
  • Do repeat things you like – Just because there are 200 beers to try, it doesn’t mean you can’t go back to something you have enjoyed, and the attendant staff are more than happy to refill your glass.
  • Don’t drive – Both venues are easily accessible by public transport, so there is no need to bring your car. However, if you do drive, appoint a designated non-drinking driver. Stay safe, don’t drink and drive.

Great Japan Beer Festival 2017

BeerFes Tokyo

Where: The Garden Hall at Yebisu Garden Place in Tokyo
When: June 3 and 4, 2017

Afternoon session 11:30 – 15:00 (Last call 14:45)
Evening session 16:00 – 19:30 (Last call 19:15)

Sunday session 13:00 – 16:30 (Last call 16:15)

Price: Advance 4,800 JPY, at door 5,200 JPY

By Mark Guthrie

Photo: “BeerFes 東京 2014 – 13” by cyberwonk (CC BY-SA 2.0)