Blog Archives: Japan


The Wow Factor

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Solar Eclipse

Our relationships and close contacts overseas make it possible to create truly bespoke and beyond the ordinary experiences for those that travel with us. We have our own favourite travel moments, a truly out of this world place or experience. What will be your next Steppes wow moment?

Australia

Commission a piece of original Aborginal artwork and watch it being created, go mud crabbing and dine on your catch at a remote beach or lunch in a submarine under Sydney Harbour. Australia is full of fun experiences if you know the right people. See our blog on the benefits of booking Australia with Steppes.

Experience Australia

Yirrganydji Aboriginal men play Aboriginal music on didgeridoo and wooden instrument during Aboriginal culture show in Queensland, Australia

India

Sublime in both location and experience and arguably beyond the ordinary, the converted 18th century palace Raas Devigarh, stands like a mirage above the sleepy village of Delwara. Tucked away in the Aravalli hills of Rajasthan.

Devigarh landscape

For an experience to remember, let us arrange private candlelit dining in the magnificent and atmospheric Sheesh Mahal mirrored room. The cuisine here is cutting-edge contemporary using regional flavours. Taste the traditional thali’s and the delicious rose-petal ice cream.

Sheesh mahal Devigarh
Kumbh Mela 2019

Not for the faint-hearted but seriously beyond the ordinary. Experience the incredible Kumbh Mela, the largest spiritual congregation in the world. The next one is at Allahabad from 19th January – 6th March 2019.

Sadhu in Varanasi, India

Stay at the Sangam Nivas luxury camp specially curated for you to experience the festival with en-suite luxury tents, a wellness centre and Satvik vegetarian food.

Experience India

Super Luxury Deluxe Tent A int Kumbh Mela Sangam Nivas Allahabad

Madagascar

“Watching the sun rise over the lunar landscape of Andringitra is a moment I’m instantly aware that I will never forget. Standing in the shadow of the towering granite cliffs behind me, dragonflies hovering in the still air.”
– Chris Johnston our Madagascan expert.

Andringrita Massif Madagascar

“For luck,” says my guide Justin, as he bends down to pick up a pinch of earthy dust. He places it carefully in his pocket. I find out later that such is the Malagasy love of home that whenever they leave, they take a small handful of soil with them to ensure their safe return. 

Read Chris’s Blog.

Madagascar guide

Alaska

Ultima Thule Lodge Flying Safari

Located 100 miles from the nearest road, in the middle of the largest protected wilderness on earth is Ultima Thule Lodge. Set within the wild and remote Wrangell-St Elias National Preserve.

Explore the area by plane, landing amidst remote and pristine scenery where literally no-one has set foot before.

Experience the Alaskan Wilderness

Ultima Thule Lodge plane and landscape

New Zealand

Fly by helicopter through Milford Sound, land on a remote beach for some beach combing while your pilot heads off shore to haul in a crabbing cage containing a freshly caught crayfish. Hop back in the heli for a scenic flight through the mountains to a beautiful lodge for a lunch of probably the freshest crayfish you will ever experience. Sound good – that’s what our travel expert Amy did on her trip to New Zealand earlier this year. Book now for Jan/Feb.

Experience New Zealand

New Zealand heli doubtful sound

Turkey

Float high above the unique landscape of Cappadocia in a hot air balloon and sleep deep underground. In the heart of Cappadocia on the site of an ancient monastery in Old Uçhisar Village, Argos hotel has carefully restored the remains of historical dwellings, underground tunnels and caves to offer not only an unsurpassed place to stay but a unique perspective.

Experience Cappadocia 

Hot air balloon flying over rock landscape at Cappadocia, Turkey

Japan

Explore Tokyo with a resident photographer,  visit the renowned Tsukiji fish market and learn to make your own sushi. In Kyoto you can explore by bicycle, visiting the temples before dining with a geisha.

Experience Japan

Maiko geisha in Kyoto, Japan

Chile

For an out of this world moment, witness the solar eclipse in Chile on 2nd July 2019.  For this most optically awesome observation, we can book you a seat on board an innovative flight to carry you above the clouds in a Boeing 787-­9 taking off from Easter Island and chasing the eclipse for up to 9 minutes of its interstellar journey. This is about three times more than ground observers will see and close to a maximum limit for total eclipse viewing. Please call for details.

Experience Chile

Solar Eclipse and passenger airplane in the clouds

Republic of Congo

Explore the wildlife riches hidden deep within the dense forests of the Odzala National Park. Track lowland gorillas and encounter forest elephants in a jungle wilderness that hides in the far north of Congo.

Experience Republic of Congo

The 33 Interval Temple in Kyoto

Sanjusangendo Temple

The 33 interval temple. Such a humble name for such an impressive place. It wasn’t a temple that I knew anything about before arriving in Kyoto but the impact it’s had on me will undoubtedly remain with me for a long time to come.

We just seemed to stumble upon it and in a city of around 2,000 temples and shrines, it would have been so easy to continue walking by without stopping. I can’t explain how pleased I am that we decided to pause at this one in particular, as it’s easily the most awe-inspiring temple I have ever seen.

From the outside, the Sanjusangendo Temple structure is the longest in Japan, measuring a length of 120 metres. During the Edo period, annual archery competitions required competitors to direct the arrow accurately from one end to the other. I’m not sure how successful they were as there is still plenty of evidence of archers who didn’t quite get their aim perfected.

The usual ritual of removing shoes over with, we were then told very insistently that no photos could be taken in the main hall and that cameras will be checked on departure. This suddenly piqued my interest. In a society where the mobile phone is mostly found hanging around your neck waiting for the next selfie opportunity, I was astonished and delighted to be told that everyone must put them away. An experience that was to be enjoyed and also savoured by allowing yourself to be in the moment with no distractions. Brilliant.

After a brief historical explanation from our guide Chiaki, I tentatively began walking into the main hall. I really had no idea what to expect. I turned the corner and tried to process what I was seeing. I had been told that the figures inside had all been handmade from wood and clad in gold leaf and depicted Kannon, the goddess of mercy. Already I had been impressed but when I saw the detail on each figure, I found it hard to comprehend how the carvers had managed to duplicate such an exact copy on each statue.

Despite being a Buddhist temple each statue reminded me of the Hindu God Durga as each had 42 arms holding something different, 11 heads to better witness the suffering of humans plus an intricate crown. Standing at the same height as a typical Japanese person, each statue was then stood on a lotus flower, as it was believed that us humans live underneath.

Once I had analysed the first few figures in my immediate sight I allowed my eyes to travel down the length of the temple. Incredible. Row upon row of identical, human-sized statues. Numbering 1,001 in total, it took 100 years to accomplish this feat, meaning that the original shogun who commissioned the temple was not alive to see the finished product.

The task of putting into words the feeling of surprise, beauty and awe is almost impossible. It was such a personally emotive feeling that it is hard to describe. To be honest, I would rather leave it unsaid and simply encourage you to go and experience it for yourself. And don’t worry, I’ve neglected to describe the whole temple so there’s still an element of surprise left for you too…

A Personal Journey Through the Street Food of Tokyo

Yakitori Bar

There was no denying it, I was nervous. I was nervous that every meal I was to be given on the street food tour around Tokyo would be fish. Perhaps a ridiculous thing to be anxious about, but as it’s rarely my food of choice, I was delighted to hear that a Yakatori bar, specialising in skewered chicken, was to be our first stop. From the street, Nimo, our guide, directed us through some curtains which opened out into a small atmospheric bar. We sat around the bar front on stools and watched mesmerised as the Yakatori chef deftly cooked the skewered meat on the barbecue before serving them to the awaiting mouth-watering crowd. Tender and well-seasoned, the appetisers soon disappeared whilst being washed down with a cold Asahi beer. Maybe I could just stay here. This was my kind of food.

Apparently not, as a few moments later it was time to move on. The nervous fish dread was back.

This time I was right to be worried as the next bar specialised in sashimi. After Nimo had detailed some of the strong Japanese traditions linked to how hierarchy plays such an important part of eating and drinking habits in Japan, the fish arrived. Or to be more specific, the raw fish.

There were four different types of fish placed in front of me along with a bowl of soy sauce and a helping of wasabi. Whilst the other people in my group of eight started digging in I simply looked at the plate. Rather than being put off, I started to get curious. The rest of group were all displaying signs of enjoyment, so I had to try it, didn’t I?

I decided yes, I did. Using the chopsticks, I gingerly picked up a piece of raw tuna, dunked it in the soy sauce (for luck more than anything I think) and took a bite. Wow. Not what I had expected. It just melted in my mouth and tasted …. well… tasted not particularly fishy. I was so impressed I went back for more and soon enough my plate was empty. Something I had never thought would happen. I was seemingly loving this sashimi thing.

That was until the next plate arrived. On this plate was a whole fish with a skewer threaded through it and its meat, having been expertly sliced off, lying neatly next to it. More sashimi but the only difference this time was that this fish was alive just minutes before arriving at our table. How was I so sure? Because the head and tail were still twitching. I’m sure the raw meat would too have tasted amazing but this time I was not so inquisitive to try it, so graciously I left it for my new friends instead.

It was then time to travel on to our third destination of the evening: the yokocho or otherwise known as the alleyways. On our walk over, we were reminded that the Japanese are generally shy in character, so restaurants often provide separate rooms where small groups can dine. It was therefore surprising to come across such a social eating scene in Tokyo as these alleyways.  As we squeezed through the crowds the undercover alleyway uncovered a myriad of small open-fronted bars, packed solid with people eating and drinking. This felt like the place to be in Tokyo. I would have had very little chance of finding this place without Nimo. Most of the yokocho are post-WWII when they were used to support the black market, nowadays they offer a perfect way to feel like a local. We settled into our reserved spots in a tiny bar and almost immediately a tapas-esque selection of dishes appeared on our table. Okonomiyaki; a squid-filled omelette, prawns and avocado mixed in a mayonnaise sauce and Takoyaki; fried dough balls filled with minced octopus. I was eating more fish and seafood than I ever had. As I delved in, I took in the atmosphere, which was buzzing with Saturday night chat. I strangely felt quite proud of myself. From a fish disbeliever, it seems I had been thoroughly converted. Now time to bring on that sushi…

Dawn in the Japanese Alps

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Inishi Inari

Light strobes through the partitions of the rice paper shutters. It’s a Baltic cold morning with my breath visible as I lie warm wrapped in my duvet. The stiff Tatami mats I have slept on overnight have tied knots into my spine and I reluctantly rise into the cold of the room, stretching to loosen my weary limbs. Shuffling forwards the first thing I do is to turn on the gas heater over in the corner which kicks into life with the ‘tick, tick, tick’ of the ignition and the blue, warm flames whirl into life. Still wrapped in my duvet I shuffle across the mats and open the partition to reveal the deep blue skies above. The tiled roof of the temple I am staying in is cloaked with a thin veil of frost, sparkling in the morning light.

I am walking a section of the ancient Nakasendo trail, once crowded with samurai, pilgrims and travellers and now a peaceful route dotted with old post towns through the Japanese Alps. It is 6am and I have forced myself out of my warm cocoon to rise early in time for a Buddhist ceremony. As I get ready, I don my issued Yukata – a synthetic kimono-esque gown – and squeeze on my tiny slippers which barely fit my size 11 feet, a daily theme throughout my trip in Japan. Walking along the lacquered wooden floors I flip-flap my way to the bathroom, stopping to look at the temple’s very typical interior garden. As I stand there I find myself mesmerised watching the bamboo Shishi Odoshi slowly fill with water, emptying its contents into a stone bowl below with a thud.

I spot a pair of slippers neatly left outside a room and see that as a sign of where I am meant to be. I slide the partition open and peer inside to see two others already kneeling with eyes closed and hands clasped. I shuffle in alongside them and take my place, mirroring exactly what they are doing. I feel completely out of place.

The priests soon come in with lit candles in their hands, dressed delicately in pastel coloured robes and bow to us before resting in lotus positions. The ceremony begins as I watch on wondering, with mystical chanting and the constant dong of tingsha bells. Before too long the blood supply in my legs begins to cease as I shuffle like a geriatric and settle myself in a part-crossed leg position. I look on as the ante of the ceremony rises higher, the flames from a cauldron burst in that dimly lit room as incense and oil is sprinkled on to the fire. Onwards still, I wonder.

My meeting with a Geisha

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It may sound cheesy but I really did feel quite emotional at my evening with a Geisha in Kyoto. It was actually, a meeting with a Geiko as they are known in Kyoto or Maiko who are the younger Geiko in training and recognisable from a few differences, many of which are incredibly subtle.

The main difference is that a Maiko will wear an elaborate hair style fashioned from her own hair which is crafted once a week and after which they are expected to sleep on a wooden block pillow to preserve the style. However, a Geiko will wear a wig and surprisingly will also wear a far less elaborate kimono with shorter sleeves and much simpler hair accessories.

When a Maiko becomes a Geiko it is known as the changing of the collar, a first year Maiko will wear a red embroidered collar showing under her kimono and as their experience grows this collar will be slowly covered with white silk embroidery until after 5 years it is completely white.

Other more subtle differences lie in their makeup, with one Maiko who spent time with us having only her bottom lip painted red, signifying that she was only in her first year of training. With childlike excitement she told me that in one month she would be able to paint her top lip too but she was also scared of the expectation and pressure this would bring.

A Maiko is generally aged between 15 & 20 years and are at some stage within their five years training to become a fully-fledged Geiko. These first years are spent living in an okiya with their ‘mother’, who will support them and loan then all their kimono, many of which have been handed down through generations and can cost tens of thousands of pounds.

During these years there are no mobile phones or computers allowed in their lives so it can be an incredibly lonely existence which when asked, the girls said they had got used to it, but they did miss their friends and family who they could only see during their two weeks annual holiday. After five years it is their decision if they wish to ‘graduate’ and become a Geiko. Destined for a life alone, this is a huge decision for a young girl to take as no boyfriends or husbands are allowed in the world of a Geisha. It is an all consuming and ancient trade that takes incredible dedication, strength of mind, and body.

It seems I was extremely privileged and had the chance to be entertained by a Maiko in her fourth year of training. Alongside her was a Jikata (older Geiko) who had a wicked laugh and naughty air about her, playing the shamisen, a traditional three stringed instrument. When they had to leave for a further engagement we were joined by a young Maiko in her first year of training. She spoke excellent English, having spent four years of her young life living in New Zealand before returning to her place of birth Kyoto to become a Geiko. We were also joined by a third generation okiya owner or ‘mother’ as they are known to the Maiko.

As we were shown to a room covered with the traditional tatami flooring the sense of occasion and anticipation was palpable, I was surprised by how nervous I felt.

Initially a very awkward and foreign situation, we sat surrounded by these three women, who served our food and poured our drinks for us. Slowly conversation began in fast babbling Japanese with stilted translation for me.

I asked the young Maiko if she enjoyed her job and would make the decision to become a Geiko at the end of her training. She was suitably coy and her mother said they hoped so as she was one of the best with wonderful skills.

‘’I enjoy dancing the most’’ she said.

This was shown later when two beautiful dances accompanied by the Jikata were performed. So graceful and fluid with such intricate and seamless use of the flowing kimono she wore made me realise how much  of a craft this really was. It was mesmerising.

Between courses of our wonderful Japanese meal – which I’m afraid to say was a little overlooked when surrounded by such beauty and culture- we were asked if we wished to engage in a drinking game. I had read about this and heard that the Geiko were notoriously hard to beat. The simple game involved two people sitting opposite each other and tapping an upturned beer holder with a flat hand, alternately and in time with the music. When one of you picked up the beer holder the other had to tap the empty table with a fist rather than a flat hand. You could pick up the beer holder three times in a row but not more and the first to tap incorrectly was the loser so would have to drink. The music and speed of the game increased as it went on. I am ridiculously proud to say that I beat the lovely Maiko twice and there was general disbelief that I had never played the game before.

Sadly as with many ancient traditions it seems that the Geisha world is also changing as there are now far fewer private clients willing to pay the hefty charges to be entertained by Geisha. As a result they are having to find new ways to make money, one of them being to entertain tourists. There are still some ochaya or tea houses where it is only possible to enter and spend time with the Geiko by invitation. However, many of the old traditional houses where Geisha would entertain have been forced to become restaurants too in order to make ends meet.

My experience is a world apart from some of the tourist shows one can now have, where tribes don their tribal regalia to greet the tourists, only to be back in their jeans and trainers an hour later. Life for a Maiko and Geiko is still truly a way of life so although a ‘tourist experience’, it is a truly authentic and magical one. Daily life for the girls is taken up with lessons and training, before being dressed in their kimono in the early evening and applying their makeup, heading out for their evening appointments.

There are currently around 60 Maiko in Kyoto and about 180 Geiko with the oldest being around 90 years of age and still entertaining. Although not a cheap addition to a holiday an evening like this really does offer a magical window into an ancient world.

Get in touch to learn more about our holidays to Japan and the chance to spend time with a Geisha. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

Cherry blossom in Japan

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Cherry-blossom-in-Japan

March-April: Although the timing is difficult to predict, each year during these months the famous cherry trees in Japan bloom for one spectacular week. The exact dates of the cherry trees peak throughout the country, with certain regions blossoming earlier than others. This year, forecasts predict the trees will open on March 26 or 27 in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, and be at their best April 2-10.

Experience Japan in blossom with Steppes, call us on 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com for more advice.

Japan - Highlights of Japan

Highlights of Japan

13 days from £3,795pp

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Japan - Family Japan - Ninja, Bullet Trains and Beach

Family Japan – Ninja, Bullet Trains and Beach

12 days

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Why Tokyo is amongst my top 10 cities

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I am not normally a ‘city’ person, preferring to head out to wilder and more scenic parts as soon as I touch down, but Tokyo seduced me.

It’s vast, I mean huge. It’s hot and bustling, as most capital cities are and yet there is a sense of calm and things seem orderly. A fusion of old fashioned genteel manners and modern, almost futuristic creative flare combine so beautifully. Glittering towers juxtapose with the old but still grand shrines and temples. It really does make for great exploring.

As a single female traveller I don’t think I have ever felt so safe. Within 3 hours of landing I was walking the streets, hopping on and off the bewilderingly efficient local transport networks and when I did get lost (often!) no one seemed too busy or to have too little English to try and help. The result is one of the most relaxed city explorations I have ever had, knowing if I did get lost, all would not be lost. Admittedly it was a Sunday, so I was fortunate enough to miss the normal commuter craziness of any city. Even on the following the following day, despite public transport being considerably busier people still had the time to smile.

A highlight, and some may say a strange one at that, is undoubtedly the Tsukiji fish market. Buzzing and atmospheric, it’s a thrive of activity even at 5am. I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be for the workers to go about their daily business surrounded by camera wielding tourists dodging the odd looking forklift trucks transporting the fish and desperately trying to capture the perfect shot. But they do, and so too with a smile and a gentle acknowledging nod of the head.

The tuna auction, where these huge fish can sell for up to $10,000 begins at around 5am daily, with the exception of Sundays and only small numbers are granted entry each day. Just 60 tickets are available and split into 2 tours at 5 & 530, not pre-bookable, it is just a case of an early rise and queuing with crossed fingers. The market is due to move but the latest news is that this won’t happen until 2020 or even 2026 when it will relocate to Toyosu, one of the artificial islands in the bay of Tokyo.

There can’t be many places in the world where one can see fish go to auction at 5 in the morning and be eating it in a world class sushi restaurant that very evening.

Add to this the plethora of eateries (both Michelin standard and street food), shops, sky scraping towers, enough temples and museums that could keep one busy for weeks, plus surprisingly pretty parks and waterways Tokyo is definitely in my top ten cities.

My first onsen

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I had mastered the hammam after numerous visits to the Middle East so I was determined not to miss out on what is an ancient and beloved tradition for the Japanese, the onsen, a hot spring bath.

Staying in a traditional ryokan in the mountain resort of Takayama I had a choice of onsens, from the mixed sex one on the 7th floor – I think not- or the female only onsen in a small building some 100 years old located opposite the hotel.

I had been given some instruction with limited English as well as a face towel, socks (the ones suitable for flip flops) an onsen bag (to carry all of ones toiletries) and a yukata, a traditional Japanese dressing gown.

My first dilemma as I was going to be walking across the road was, did I take the yukata with me to put on after the onsen or would this be like walking across the high street in your pyjamas? I decided against taking it, my first mistake, albeit not a dramatic one.

Entering through a low doorway offering no indication of what was inside I was delighted to find a beautiful building of dark wood with low beamed ceilings.

A group of Japanese women were busy getting dressed and as I undressed and entered the onsen area through rice paper sliding doors. It appeared I had the place to myself. I had already read that the water in the pool is for soaking in, not for cleaning oneself so I showered and washed before entering the shockingly hot water of the onsen. I wasn’t expecting such heat and after about 3 minutes sat waist deep I bailed and sat on a rock with my legs dangling in. Pathetic, I know. I was the only westerner and it was fascinating watching seasoned onsen users come and go. One woman spent about 15minutes cleaning herself from head to toe, removing every last speck of dirt from her hair and skin before submerging herself up to her neck in the steaming water. After about 5 minutes she exited the onsen. It appears it was not an endurance test and certainly not one that I was willing to sustain.

Mount Fuji Becomes UNESCO World Heritage Site

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Japan’s most sacred mountain has been added to the prestigious list of UNESCO World heritage sites, citing Mount Fuji for its contribution to Japanese culture, UNESCO stated the mountain has “inspired artists and poets and been the object of pilgrimage for centuries.”

Mount Fuji is 3,776 metres high, a now dormant volcano which last erupted in 1708 and is the highest peak in Japan. It is not surprising that the nearly perfectly shaped volcano has been worshipped as a sacred mountain and experienced huge popularity among artists and common people. Visibility of the mountain tends to be better during the colder seasons of the year rather than in summer and in the early morning and late evening hours. It is officially open for climbing during July and August using several different routes. Around 300,000 people climb Mt. Fuji every year and the overnight trek to watch the sunrise from the roof of Japan is one of the most popular trips out of Tokyo.

Mount Fuji really comes to life when visibility is good and the snow peaked mountain appears over the clouds, making it a photographers dream.