What’s In Tochigi?

Whenever I tell people I’m living in Tochigi prefecture I always get the same question, “Why did you choose to stay there?” Well, I didn’t get to choose my placement through the JET program. Although I’m sure JET tried to be accommodating to everyone, I assume most JETs were placed at random all around Japan. As excited as I was to come here, I had no idea where Tochigi-prefecture was and had to google it just to get an idea of where it was at.

Tochigi Prefecture

Tochigi is a landlocked prefecture in the Kanto region, surrounded by Gunma, Ibaraki, and Fukushima. For people who might not know Japanese geography it’s only about 2 hour train ride away from Tokyo.

It’s pretty rural compared to Tokyo. The trains come once an hour, there’s rice paddies everywhere, and everything closes around 5pm. When I first came, I wrote off Tochigi as boring. Assuming that there isn’t much to do and spent most of my weekends going to Tokyo. Now that I’m more concerned about where my money is going (Tokyo is expensive) I’ve settled down and started exploring inside of my prefecture a little bit more.

The likeability of Tochigi isn’t all flashy lights and weird niche cafes. It’s more about appreciating nature.

  1. The Sano Outlet

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Starting off with my little town of Sano, there’s the popular Sano Outlet right  next to the Aeon Mall. It’s not the most exciting place to visit in all of Tochigi but if you’re in Sano with nothing better to do, I highly recommend going there. It’s a 20 minute ride from Sano station and features I think over 120 different stores and restaurants.There are some familiar brands such Nike, Addidas, Levi’s, etc. And although the restaurants are a little bit pricey, the food is great. People from all over the Kanto area come to the outlet, and there’s a bus that comes here straight from Shinjuku station.

 

2. The Ashikaga Flower Park

 

Ashikaga has two claims to fame; 1. the oldest school in Japan, 2. The Ashikaga flower park. The flower park is home to some of the oldest wysteria trees in Japan. When they start blooming, people from all over Asia come and travel to Ashikaga specifically to see the wysteria. It’s about a 15 minute walk from Tomita station and depending on the season ticket prices range from about 600 yen to 1500yen. Inside the venue, it’s exactly as you would expect, a giant park filled with a variety of flowers.Then during the winter season the park has Christmas illuminations in place of the flowers.

 

3. Nikko City

 

I couldn’t choose one specific thing in Nikko because I think the whole city of Nikko is interesting. It’s most famous attraction is the Toshogu shrine. The most lavishly decorated shrine for Tokugawa Ieyasu. Nikko has been the center of Buddhist and Shinto mountain worshiping and a lot of that same spirituality can still be felt through the current architecture. Walking through Nikko feels as if you took a step back through time a little bit. And if you’re a fan of hotspring bathing, Nikko has several of the most famous onsens in Japan.

4. Nasu

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Not too far away from Nikko is Nasu. It’s a very small town that’s famous for Mt. Nasu. Mt. Nasu is actually an active volcano that is located on the boarder between Tochigi, and Fukushima. Getting there is a little bit difficult, especially since the area is very rural. But if you’re a fan of climbing mountains, Mt. Nasu is a good place to go to.

 

 

5. Utsunomiya City

Finally, there is the capital of Tochigi prefecture, Utstunomiya city. The city is most famous for its gyoza (chinese dumplings) so understandably there are plenty of gyoza pop up shops to choose from. Near Tobu Nikko you can walk through Orion Dori which is basically an outdoor mall with plenty of stores and bars. The most popular shrine is the Futarayama shrine which is lined by a massive stairway that’s several stories high.

 

Tochigi isn’t as exciting as Tokyo or Osaka but there’s still plenty of things to do around here. If you’re looking for a quiet place to be at while being one with nature, I would highly recommend visiting Tochigi prefecture.

What about you fellow readers? Have you been to Tochigi before? If you have, what was your favorite place?

 

Take Me Back: Enoshima

It’s been so long since  I last made a post on here. Over the past few weeks my life has gotten surprisingly busy. Unfortunately not with traveling but, fortunately it’s been filled with a pretty active social life. In the spirit of summer vacation which is approaching in about three weeks and me needing a vacation, here is a little throw back post of my time in Enoshima for Golden week. Enjoy!

Enoshima

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The weather is quickly heating up in Japan and my need for a little fun in the sun is quickly approaching. Unfortunately, since I live in Tochigi I’m landlocked completely and the idea of sunbathing in a park just doesn’t seem to appealing.

Fortunately in an area not to far away from, Kanagawa prefecture is full of beaches that I could go to. Out of the three I’ve been to Kamakura, Zushi, and Enoshima; I would have to say Enoshima is my favorite one.

Enoshima is a small island off the cost Kanagawa. From Tokyo you can easily buy an Enoshima day pass which greatly reduces the cost of traveling and gives you access to most of the attractions in the area.

 

 

 

I’ve only been to three beaches in Japan so far, but so far all three have been very scenic. The route to the beach isn’t surrounded by long board walks filled with novelty swim wear shops instead Japan or at least Kanagawa prefecture has done a good job of upholding local architectural aesthetics. As for Enoshima beach it’s kind of small in my opinion it seems like it would be terrible to visit here if it gets to crowded. But the experience of the rest of the island makes it the best one of the three.

 

IMG_1916From the station there’s a long walkway that takes about 15 minutes to walk to get to the main Enoshima island. Once you’ve made it on to the island from there the rest of the way is a constant up hill battle through crowds of people, past all the food stands, and souvenir shops until you reach Enoshima-Jinja

It starts in the market area that’s a complete up hill climb. At first the crowd seems kind of uncomfortable to go through but you soon realize that everyone is moving at a predetermined slow pace so as long as you stick to the same direction as you want to move in it’s not that bad to get through.

 

You’ll soon reach the large temple at the top which has plenty of great areas for a nice scenic photo opt. After there are a plethora of stairs to climb however if you’re feeling faint, for a small feel you can take the escalators (going up only) all the way to the top.

Surprisingly there are many attractions on the island that you can visit such as a flower park, sky candle, and at least three museums. At the end of your island trek you’ll reach the rocky shore of Enoshima which gives you the most amazing view.

 

Summer vacation has gotten off to a slow start but at least I’ve had some time to explore.

 

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Beach Bum

 

The Foreigner Trap

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China Town in Yokohama 

These past few weeks have been overwhelming in terms of making new friends. It’s always funny how a quiet evening drinking at a cafe can quickly turn into an adventurous night on the town and an invite to the family BBQ (true story). While I was trying to pretend like I can keep up in conversation, I was vaguely aware that the conversation switched over to foreigners living in Japan and interacting with foreigners. They expressed how they want to interact with more foreigners (I’m assuming they mean more Americans and Europeans), but find that communicating with the one’s here to be a little daunting.

The most common issue was of course the language barrier, which I can understand. You can’t really communicate with someone if there isn’t a common language. The second problem was just stereotypes trying to avoid the otakus (anime nerds) and all the ones with yellow fever. Which I can understand I wouldn’t want to talk with anyone who thought rap and hip hop was the only aspect of black culture. However there was a third issue they brought up that seemed to be kind of ridiculous; foreigners that aren’t interested in talking to Japanese people or at least not in Japanese.

I was at a lost for words. I mean why would you travel thousands of miles away from home to not speak a word of Japanese to an actual Japanese person? But then it hit me, I think the foreigners they’re talking about are stuck in a trap. Something I call the “Gaijin Trap”.

 

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Enoshima Island Temple

 

 

 

This happens when you live in another country for a while but you don’t really make I think a connection with the host culture. This disconnect could happen for a number of reasons maybe you didn’t really want to live abroad and you’re only here because of work. Maybe you don’t find the culture as interesting as you thought you would. I think everybody has fallen victim to it or at least has the potential to. I know I have when I first studied abroad in Osaka. My main group of friends from that time were other English speakers and I felt comfortable that way. I had fun of course but not experiencing things the way I should’ve been. Which didn’t really make me feel the most confident in my skills when I returned home.

So what can someone do to prevent this from happening? How can you break loose from the perpetual cycle? This isn’t a step by step guide on how to make authentic Japanese friends but simply just a little bit of food for thought. Maybe the problem is just simply being to self-involved. Self-involved meaning always waiting for someone else to make a move or assuming that you inherently don’t fit into whatever image you’re currently looking at. Looking back on my experience from before and my experience now. Some of the best times I’ve had come from me simply making the first moves and letting go of that initial fear of not being good enough.

I have to remind myself just because I look different on the outside, doesn’t entitle me to any sort of special treatment. Especially in a place like Japan where being different isn’t necessarily a good thing (personal experience). I’ll be the first to admit that I fell victim to this way of thinking before. Always thinking of myself as the “other” when in reality that really wasn’t the case. As much as I’m intimidated about starting conversations with Japanese people I’ve come to find out they’re just as intimidated by me. And even if they don’t plan to visit the U.S. anytime soon, most people find the casual culture exchange to be just as interesting.

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BBQ’s during Golden Week

 

What are your thoughts on the situation? Do you think the “Gaijin Trap” exists? I’d love to hear outside opinions.

 

Kairakuen: The Plum Blossom Festival of Ibaraki

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きれいですね~

“Spring begins with plum blossoms in Mito,” all the pamphlets read. Just before the Sakura (cherry) blossoms start to bloom, the plum blossoms are well fully blossomed. Although Sakura blossoms are known as the symbolic flower of Japan, plum blossoms are still a sight worth seeing.

Kairakuen garden was built during the Edo period  and has been a well known spot since then for plum blossom viewing. This festival is held every year from February 20th to March 31st and is completely free. More than 3,000 trees fill the park and, the colors range from snow white to a very vibrant pink.

Some views of the park.

Getting there is about a two hour train rid from Tochigi prrefecture. There are three seperate sections for the park. The main area is where the trees and festival food is located. Here many people eat bentos (Japanese lunch boxes) on the grass and watch some traditional kimono dance performances. You can walk through the house of Nariaki Tokugawa to see an imperial emperor style home, visit the spring water park, and walk through the beautiful Tokiwa shrine.  The park is pretty big but I do recommend walking the full length just to get a good view of the entire area.

Tokiwa shrine

It’s not the most famous festival in the Kanto area but it’s been gaining a lot of notoraiity over the past couple of years. It’s free and on a beautiful day, it’s the perfect setting for a lovely park stroll.

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A lovely couple taking wedding pictures

Nakimushisan and Uncountable Monks: A Hidden trail of Nikko

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I was so tired here…

A well known area of Tochigi prefecture is Nikko (日光). Nikko, a city to the north of Tochigi prefecture, has been the center of Buddhist and Shinto mountain worshipping. Every year thousands of visitors come to this realively rural city to enjoy the reminicents of ancient Japan. Nikko, being home to three big mountains in Japan is also a popular spot for hiking.

Some views of the mountain hike

 

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Trail map starting from the station

Meet Nakimushisan (鳴虫山), a small mountain in Nikko located just a ten minute walk away from the Tobu Nikko Station. I never hiked before so I wasn’t sure what to expect from the excursion. I fooled myself into thinking that it would be a light stroll. Maybe there would be some hills, and a few rough spots, nothing could’ve prepared me for this hike.

It was rough from the beginning, the path started out narrow and never widened at any point. Due to erosion and earthquakes, many of the man-made paths were torn apart. Despite how hard the trail was, this is still considered a 2-4 hour hike. After the treacherous climb the view from the top of the mountain was really nice. Up top, on a clear day you can see just about all of Nikko city and the point of Nantaisan.

Views from the top

The hike down was the hardest. The other end of the path was just rocks, so unstable in fact most of the path you had to use the ropes to get down safely. At the end of the path was the real beauty, the Kanmanga-fuchi Abyss.

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It’s a gorge in central Nikko that is easily accessible by bus or off the mountain trail. In the gorge is a long row of Buddhist monks that watch over travelers and the Nikko Botanical Garden. The monks lined up are called Bake-jizo which loosely means uncountable. It’s said it’s impossible to know how many monks are in the garden, each time you count them you’ll supposedly get a different number.

Very beautiful scenery

 

Even though my legs still hurt from the weekend, overall I would rate this as a positive experience. The hike was treacherous but the view at the end was well worth it.

Makabe Town: Stone Lanterns and Hina Dolls

Two weeks ago I had a cool opportunity to write for Japantravel.com. A company based in Japan, they pay foreigners to travel around Japan and write articles about their experience.  They covered my travel expenses and in return, I wrote a 500 word article about what I did and learned. I was nervous at first because, my work would be published for many people to see. Then, I became even more nervous when I realized that my tour guides couldn’t speak any English.

It was hard because, a lot of historical Japanese words are difficult to understand (somethings just don’t translate to English) and general vocabulary for stone making is a little difficult as well (I never thought I would learn the word for stone lantern or craftsmen). Nonetheless my guides were very nice to be sure I understood most of what they were saying. If you’d like to read my article you can find it here.

Reading this was actually a lot easier than you think.

Makabe Town is a small rural town located in Ibaraki prefecture. Even though it’s tiny it’s a pretty well known spot to visit in Japan. Makabe is most famous for it’s Makabe Stone (makabeishi) which is the stone used to create the lanterns and statues most commonly found at temples and shrines in Japan. I think it’s safe to say that most of the statues and lanterns at least in the kanto region originated from this small town. The beauty and aesthetic of these lanterns comes to life once the color starts fading and moss starts to grow. Makabe town takes a lot of pride in their stone sculptures. They’re incorporated in every aspect of the town.

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A small view of Makabe Town
Some Makabe stone statues. These can be found pretty much anywhere all over Japan.

This area is also well know for it’s buildings that have remained standing since the Edo period, earning Makabe the name of koedo (little edo).

Some photos of the house I visited

While I was visiting, the town had already set up their Hina dolls. Hina dolls are used to celebrate Hina matsuri, also “Girl’s Day”. It’s the day to celebrate good welfare for your daughters. People place them out for display in early February until the festival on March 3rd. It’s said once the festival is over you have to put the dolls away quickly or else your daughter won’t get married.  During this time residents set out their dolls displays and open up their homes to visitors to get a glimpse of little Edo. Many of the homes simply wanted to display their dolls creations but most residents were selling trinkets and goods reminiscent of Edo times.

 

I will admit, that I was a little put off when I received the topic for my assignment. Writing about rocks wasn’t super exciting, but this was a lot more fulfilling than I expected it to be. I know Makabe town would be a little difficult to explore without proper transportation but it’s definitely a place worth visiting. Who knows you might even learn something new.

Me, with my tour guides. They were so nice.