by Scott, staff writer of japan-guide.com
This journal is a log of my travels within Japan. Here you'll find my personal opinions on the places I've been and the things I've seen. Also expect to see the occasional review and editorial. Thanks for reading.
2011/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2011
Obviously Japan spent quite a bit of time in the news this year, the majority of which was under the shadow of the March earthquake and subsequent disasters. But as the end of 2011 approaches, we'd like to take a moment to look back at some of the good memories from this past year and finish up with our traditional end of year post where we highlight our favorite experiences, attractions, and sights of the year. As always, it was a hard list to narrow down.
Number 10: Kobe Beef and Katsuo no Tataki
Most people are familiar with Kobe beef, one of Japan's most premium brands of wagyu. Though expensive, the meat is flavorful, tender, and literally melts in your mouth. Luckily we spent some time in Kobe this year and had a chance to do some on site research at a local teppanyaki restaurant. My mouth still waters when I think about that delicious tenderloin.
Katsuo no Tataki, on the other hand, is a seafood dish consisting of katsuo (bonito or skipjack tuna in English) which has been lightly seared around the edges, sliced, and garnished with green onions, ginger, garlic, and a citrus soy sauce. Though served at izakaya around the country, the best katsuo hails from Kochi on Japan's southwest Shikoku Island, and is harvested in autumn when the tuna have fattened up for the winter.
Number 9: Onsen
I really like onsen (hot springs), which is good because visiting them is an integral part of our job. I think the office record is something like 9 different hot springs in one day. This year we visited quite a few, including some really rustic ones that were little more than pools of hot water. Among my favorites were Oyadaninoyu along the Hakusan Super Rindo, the baths at Yorozuya Ryokan in Yudanaka Onsen, and Iwanoyu Ryokan in Seni Onsen (Nagano Prefecture).
Number 8: Norikura Dake
This autumn we headed over to Nagano Prefecture to do some hiking around Norikura Dake in the Northern Japan Alps. While the mountain top was quite beautiful, my favorite part of the trip was the Sanbondaki, a collection of three waterfalls at the end of a small trail through the Norikura Kogen area at the base of the mountain. Each waterfall is beautiful in its own right, but standing in the middle of the forest at the point where they all flow together into one stream was simply breathtaking. Pictures absolutely don't do it justice.
Number 7: Toji Flea Market
I'm a big fan of flea markets, so I was thrilled when we unexpectedly found ourselves in Kyoto on the same day as the Toji Flea Market. Held on the 21st of each month at Toji Temple, the flea market is billed as one of Japan's largest, with over a thousand stalls selling all kinds of antiques, clothes, kimono, food, toys, tools, art, and plants. It was incredibly fun, and the prices were pretty good, with plenty of bargains to be had if you had the stamina to check out every stall. We were there for three hours and probably covered less than half of the grounds.
Number 6: Nishiki Market
Nishiki Market is one of my absolute favorite places to visit when I'm in Kyoto. This year I made several trips there to explore the market, check out the different seasonal vegetables and seafood, and sample all kinds of Kyoto specialties that are sold along 400 meter long street. I recommend checking out the Daiyasu oyster grill and Uchida pickles shop at the western end of the market, and the Aritsugu Knife Store towards the eastern end.
Number 5: Kitakami
Some of the best cherry blossoms that I saw this year were on a late season trip up north to Kitakami in Iwate Prefecture. We lucked out on our timing and found ourselves there during their annual cherry blossom festival. The cherry blossoms were beautiful, but the highlight for me were the Oni Kenbai (demon sword) dancers who performed their traditional regional dances under the cherry trees.
Number 4: Mount Hakusan
We also do a fair bit of hiking around Japan and climb a few mountains every year. My favorite this year was Mount Hakusan in Ishikawa Prefecture. It has a beautiful hike to the top, with lots of changing scenery along the way, and a huge mountain hut (more like a hotel than a hut) near the summit. It's not that easy to get to though, and is probably more enjoyable to tackle over two days if you don't have a car.
Number 3: Shiretoko National Park
I'm a pretty outdoorsy type of guy, so I was looking forward to visiting Shiretoko in north western Hokkaido and going on a bear watching cruise. But I had no idea that we'd see so many bears while we were there. In less than two days we saw around 16 bears! We saw most of them from the safety of the tour boat, but we also had a closer encounter while in driving around in the car.
Number 2: Ogasawara Islands
Though technically part of Tokyo, the Ogasawara Islands are some of the most remote places in Japan and can only be reached by a 26 hour long ferry ride. But once you're there the islands are a paradise with all kinds of beautiful, one of a kind nature spots to explore. My favorite was exploring the half sunken ship wreck off of Sakaiura Beach on Chichijima Island. The ship sank in such shallow water than you can easily snorkel out to the wreckage.
Number 1: Tohoku
I think it's fitting to end this list with the entire Tohoku Region. It's a part of Japan that I have really enjoyed visiting in the past, and I was surprised to realize that a Tohoku attraction has consistently held the top spot in my travel highlights posts (see Travel Highlights 2009 and Travel Highlights 2010). The area has so much to offer travellers, and I hope that people don't shy away from visiting in the future.
We took a few trips to the disaster zone a few months after the earthquake to check out the tsunami damage and see how of the region's tourist sites fared. The terrible destruction that we saw was both awesome and awe inspiring in the sense that it was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Though I had seen the pictures and videos, I was caught unprepared and didn't fully grasp the scale of the devastation until I was standing in the middle of it all. Yet, it was inspiring to see the people work together through the chaos to clean up and rebuild, and to hear the outpouring of international aid and goodwill that came in afterward. So even though this isn't really a positive highlight, it was an experience that made and impression on me that I don't think I'll ever forget.
The following are some of the photos we took when visiting the disaster areas: