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Raina's Japan Travel Journal
by Raina, staff writer of japan-guide.com

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2015/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2015

2015 was a massive travelling year for me, as I went to all the major regions in Japan from Hokkaido to Okinawa. Despite having covered 33 out of the 47 prefectures this year, I have not been to all the prefectures in Japan with two still remaining. Being on the road so often also meant that I improved my "living out of a backpack" game and have a small bag with my travel essentials ready to go. I had a great year travelling across the country, learning and experiencing new things, revisiting old haunts and below are my top ten highlights of the year.

Number 10: Cherry blossoms in Hakodate

Hokkaido is one of the places to see cherry blossoms after the season has long passed on the main island of Japan. I was fortunate to be in Hakodate at the peak of the season and the view from Fort Goryokaku was simply stunning. It became one of my favourite cherry blossom viewing spots for this year.

Looking down at the fort from the observation deck

Number 9: Ise Shima in Mie Prefecture

I spent a couple of days in Ise Shima visiting a number of tourist spots in the area. No trip to the area is complete without going to the Ise Shrines, the most sacred shrines in the Shinto religion. Hinjitsukan, a villa constructed in the Meiji Period to accomodate royalty and important guests visiting the Ise Shrines, impressed me with its design. Ago Bay at the tip of the Shima Peninsula was yet another delight as I went on a sightseeing cruise of the bay, and got to see a beautiful sunset from my ocean view accomodation.

A huge tatami room inside the Hijitsukan
Watching the sunset from my room

Number 8: Art festivals in Nakanojo and Echigo Tsumari

I had the opportunity to cover two art festivals this year, the Echigo Tsumari Triennale and the Nakanojo Biennale. Both were outdoors and spread over a large area. Public transport was available at both festivals, but I was glad to have driven instead. There were lots of amusing and inspiring art works at the festivals, utilising the available facilities as well as incorporating the landscape into the artwork. I definitely recommend going the next time they are on again.

Echigo Tsumari: A rolling cyclinder that spun as you walked through
Nakanojo Biennale: Suspended glass bubbles inside a brick warehouse

Number 7: Autumn colors in Kankakei and along Route 292

Autumn color reporting usually involves more hiking compared to cherry blossom reporting. Going to higher elevations are also common as the colours tend to develop earlier there. While the alpine route was just as amazing as it was last year, this year, the Kankakei Gorge and the Route 292 report trips were my favourites. Despite the weather not being very cooperative on my trip along Route 292, I got to drive through some awesome fog and was treated to dramatic views of the area. Kankakei Gorge lived up to its reputation of being one of Japan's three most beautiful gorge and I left determined to go back to Shodoshima Island to see the rest of it.

Lots of winding roads along Route 292
Perched on a small outcrop with these two guys

Number 6: Cat cafes in Tokyo

One of the best day trips to Tokyo was when I went to check out the various cat cafes. I visited about six neko cafes that day and got to hang out with some very tame feline friends.

Looking straight at the lens

Number 5: Tokyo Motor Show

The last time I went to an auto show was back in 2008, so it was great to be able to go to this year's Tokyo Motor Show. I got to see concept cars and new releases, tested the driver's seat of a few cars. The motor show is an event not to be missed if you are into automobiles, and entry is relatively inexpensive at 1400 yen.

Mercedes-AMG GT S
Sitting inside my dream car, the Audi R8 V10 plus

Number 4: Beaches

This summer, I spent some time visiting the beaches near Tokyo, specifically in the Izu Peninsula, the Shonan Coast in Kanagawa Prefecture and the Miura Peninsula which is south of Yokohama. Beaches tend not to be very high on the list of tourist must-go places but are very popular with the locals come summer. One of the trips was a three day cycling trip in the Izu Peninsula, which I enjoyed immensely. It was really a train trip with cycling portions, so I did not cycle the entire way, but I still got a crazy sunburn cycling to the various beaches under the hot summer sun.

My bag and foldie bicycle at a beach in the Izu Peninsula

Number 3: Tokushima

Tokushima Prefecture was one of the prefectures I had never been to, and had the chance to go just before the end of the year. I visited the Iya Valley and its mountainous interior. A couple of highlights were walking across the Kazurabashi vine bridge, and staying in a 300 year old farmhouse (kominka). I had a day of excellent weather and a day of heavy rain, but the low clouds and fog just added to the atmosphere of the valley, making it seem all the more hidden and secluded.

It was a sunny day when I took the Oboke sightseeing cruise
Inside the gorgeous 300 year old kominka
Treading carefully across the vine bridge

Number 2: Kerama Islands in Okinawa

Any trip to Okinawa always gets a thumbs up from me. This trip was about visiting the Kerama Islands, specifically Zamami and Tokashiki islands and the weather could not be better the entire time we were there. We went snorkelling in beautiful azure waters, went up to several observation points to take in the views, and went to a couple of uninhabited islands for more snorkelling. We also dined at Ashibiuna, one of the best Okinawan restaurants (in my books) in Naha. The traditional residence (kominka) with a beautiful garden turned into a restaurant served up delectable food, and the entire experience felt like a reward after a day out in the sun.

Furuzamami beach on Zamami Island
Orion beer and goya champuru for dinner at Ashibiuna

Number 1: Knife making at Takefu Knife Village

This trip to Takefu in Echizen, Fukui Prefecture, was the first trip I took at the beginning of this year. We had lunch at a local soba shop with a blacksmith and found out later that the soba was cut with a soba-kiri he made. It was cold and there was lots of snow, but it was nice and warm in the forge. I had the opportunity to meet blacksmiths and knife sharpeners, hammer together and sharpen my very own kitchen knife. Making a knife from metal to sharp clearly requires years of practice and I had the blacksmiths laughing at my attempts to control the machines while I could only marvel at their adeptness. Definitely a great way to start the year, and hopefully 2016 will bring more adventures and travels!

Cold and snowy in Echizen
Inside a blacksmith's workshop, metal everywhere
My kitchen knife cut into shape
Sharpening my knife on a huge sharpening wheel
The finished product together with gifts from the blacksmiths

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List of Posts:
2017/07/24 - Remote Riches in Toyama
2017/07/03 - Spiritual Chichibu
2017/05/02 - Fuji Shibazakura Festival
2017/04/14 - Sneak Peek from Ginza Six
2017/03/21 - A bit of everything in Fukui
2017/03/13 - Nikko Toshogu Uncovered
2017/02/15 - Subculture in Ikebukuro
2017/02/07 - Travel to the Goto Islands
2017/02/06 - Nagasaki Lantern Festival

2016/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2016
2016/12/19 - Winter Illuminations in Tokyo
2016/10/24 - The way of old on the Kunisaki Peninsula
2016/10/11 - Following the Tadami Line in Oku Aizu
2016/08/27 - Fool's Dance at Koenji Awa Odori
2016/08/16 - The three sacred mountains of Dewa Sanzan
2016/06/20 - Train travel into the Ise-Shima region
2016/04/03 - Setouchi Triennale 2016
2016/03/08 - The hunt for Namahage on the Oga Peninsula
2016/03/02 - Sake Sangria
2016/02/20 - Tokyo Plum Blossom Report
2016/01/26 - Tour de Reinan: Obama, Oi and Takahama
2016/01/25 - Tour de Reinan: Tsuruga, Mihama and Wakasa

2015/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2015
2015/12/10 - 48 hours in Tokushima
2015/11/20 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2015/11/19 - Autumn Color Report: Kankakei
2015/11/18 - Autumn Color Report: Korankei
2015/11/17 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2015/11/13 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2015/11/10 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2015/11/09 - Autumn Color Report: Koyasan
2015/11/08 - Autumn Color Report: Miyajima
2015/11/07 - Autumn Color Report: Dazaifu
2015/10/28 - The 44th Tokyo Motor Show
2015/10/21 - Hirado, where East meets West
2015/10/20 - Kujukushima Islands and Winter Illumination at Huis Ten Bosch
2015/10/19 - Navigating the Christian sites in Nagasaki
2015/10/18 - Cosplay at Haco Stadium Tokyo
2015/10/15 - Autumn Color Report: Nikko
2015/10/05 - Autumn Color Report: Route 292
2015/09/28 - Autumn Color Report: Oze
2015/09/24 - Autumn Color Report: Alpine Route
2015/09/16 - Nakanojo Biennale 2015
2015/08/19 - Traditional culture and hot springs of the Aizu Region
2015/08/17 - Nature and Hot Springs at Naruko Onsen
2015/08/04 - Echigo Tsumari Art Triennale 2015
2015/04/30 - Sapporo Cherry Blossom Report
2015/04/29 - Hakodate Cherry Blossom Report
2015/04/23 - Kakunodate Cherry Blossom Report
2015/04/22 - Hirosaki Cherry Blossom Report
2015/04/21 - Kitakami Cherry Blossom Report
2015/04/16 - Sendai Cherry Blossom Report
2015/04/09 - Tokyo Cherry Blossom Report
2015/04/08 - Fukushima Cherry Blossom Report
2015/04/06 - Tokyo Cherry Blossom Report
2015/04/03 - Kyoto Cherry Blossom Report
2015/04/02 - Nara Cherry Blossom Report
2015/04/01 - Osaka Cherry Blossom Report
2015/03/31 - Kyoto Cherry Blossom Report
2015/03/27 - Fukuoka Cherry Blossom Report
2015/03/26 - Kumamoto Cherry Blossom Report
2015/03/25 - Tokyo Cherry Blossom Report

2014/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2014
2014/12/15 - Seasonal Illumination: Sendai
2014/12/09 - Seasonal Illumination: Tokyo
2014/12/04 - Autumn Color Report: Kanazawa
2014/12/03 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2014/11/21 - Autumn Color Report: Osaka
2014/11/20 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2014/11/19 - Autumn Color Report: Korankei
2014/11/18 - Autumn Color Report: Miyajima
2014/11/17 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2014/11/13 - Autumn Color Report: Fuji
2014/11/04 - Autumn Color Report: Fuji
2014/10/31 - Autumn Color Report: Karuizawa
2014/10/21 - Autumn Color Report: Bandai
2014/10/20 - Autumn Color Report: Towada
2014/10/01 - Autumn Color Report: Oze National Park
2014/09/29 - Autumn Color Report: Alpine Route
2014/06/19 - Toranomon Hills opens in Tokyo
2014/04/24 - Kitakami Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/23 - Morioka Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/22 - Aizu-Wakamatsu Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/16 - Matsumoto Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/15 - Kyoto Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/14 - Yoshino Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/13 - Osaka Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/12 - Kanazawa Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/10 - Tokyo Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/06 - Kyoto Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/05 - Hiroshima Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/04 - Osaka Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/03 - Kyoto Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/02 - Nagoya Cherry Blossom Report
2014/03/31 - Tokyo Cherry Blossom Report
2014/03/26 - Tokyo Cherry Blossom Report
2014/03/04 - Early Tokyo Blossom Report