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.
2015/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2015
Well 2015 year has just flown by, and we've reached that time again where we take a look back and remember some of the highlights of our travels over the past year.
Number 10: Hokuriku Shinkansen
This year saw the opening of the Hokuriku Shinkansen extension connecting Tokyo to Kanazawa, and we were lucky enough to have been on board one of the initial pre-opening runs along the line. Its an exciting time for train enthusiasts, with more in store over the next several years including the Hokkaido and Nagasaki Shinkansen and the introduction of the brand new maglev Chuo Shinkansen.
Number 9: Miyajima at Low Tide
I've probably been to Miyajima a good half dozen times over the past few years, and I always enjoy exploring the variety of attractions, the temples and shrines, nature parks on the mountain slopes, the souvenir shops and small restaurants around the town, that the shrine island has to offer. However, I had never been able to get the timing right to visit the island during low tide when you can walk out to Itsukushima Shrine's massive torii gate that stands out in the bay. This year I finally made it and it was even larger up close than I had imagined. Timing is critical to catch low tide, so be sure to check out the tide charts if this is something that you want to experience.
Number 8: Lake Kawaguchiko in the Snow
Lake Kawaguchiko at the foot of Mount Fuji is another site that I regularly visit, but got to see in a different light for the first time this year. We usually take a few day trips to the area to check out the autumn colors or cherry blossoms in their respective seasons, but this year we did an overnight in winter when everything was covered in snow. The lake in its winter trappings was breathtaking and so different from what I am used to.
Number 7: The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route
The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route is a popular traverse of Japan's Northern Alps via a variety of transportation including cablecars, trolley buses and a ropeway. My favorite part is the Kurobe Dam and the Tateyama Ropeway where the slopes turn bright hues of yellow, orange and red during the peak of the season, and this year I was lucky enough to see one of the more colorful seasons along the route in a long time.
Number 6: Takeda Castle
This summer saw me up hours before dawn, hiking in the dark to a mountainside observation deck in central Hyogo. The goal was to take pictures of the ruins of Takeda Castle, which, if you're lucky, appears to float on a sea of clouds that fill the valley below the fortifications. Although the clouds were not as thick as I had hoped, the aptly nicknamed "Castle in the Sky" (after the mysterious floating castle of Miyazaki's film of the same name), still made for an impressive site and a memorable experience.
Number 5: Shima Onsen
What would this list be without an onsen on it, and several heavyweight contenders, including Beppu and Kinosaki Onsen, came to mind from this year's travels. But I think my favorite this year have been the baths at the Yamaguchikan Ryokan in Shima Onsen for their beautiful atmosphere and variety. Definitely a place that I'll want to revisit in the future.
Number 4: Kawachi Fujien Wisteria Garden
Pictures of the Kawachi Fujien Wisteria Garden went viral a few years back, launching the private garden into popularity practically overnight. In these situations you have to be wary of the hype, but in this case the garden was just as spectacular in person as the internet made it out to be, thus earning it a well deserved spot on my top ten.
Number 3: Oya Historical Museum
The Oya Historical Museum is a former stone quarry located just next door to us in Tochigi Prefecture. The quarry was made famous for the easily cut and shaped Oya Stone that was mined there and used as a popular building material during the Meiji Era. Today visitors can head down into the mines and explore the cavernous galleries and halls cut into the mountains.
Number 2: B-kyu Gurume and Ramen around Tokyo
I always enjoy checking out the local food when traveling, especially the B-kyu gurume (B-class gourmet) found in the hidden back alley dives, crowded markets and street side food stalls. This year I ended up spending quite a few meals along Tokyo's back streets exploring tiny izakaya around areas such as Shinjuku's Omoide Yokocho, Shibuya's Nonbei Yokocho and Yurakucho's Gaadoshita. There's just something that I love about the tiny, packed-in izakaya in these areas that make a few beers and yakitori sticks that much more enjoyable.
Ramen also typically falls on B-kyu gurume scale, although this year I've found myself eating at more and more trendy ramen shops rather than dives. It started off with many trips to Afuri outlets in Harajuku, Roppongi and Azabu Juban with their delicious yuzu-shio ramen, but the highlight of the year was definitely a trip to Tsuta in Sugamo. Tsuta's been a big name in the ramen world for years now, but the shop just exploded in popularity when it was awarded a Michelin star earlier this month. Not sure how that will bode for the restaurant (there are already rumors that they'll be relocating due to the popularity), but the ramen was absolutely top notch. Getting a seat in the restaurant is a journey and a whole other blog post in itself, but if you consider yourself a ramen fanatic then it is probably worth it.
Number 1: Tsukiji Fish Market
One thing that I enjoy while traveling is exploring the local markets, especially those where you can wander around and check out the myriad things for sale from the various vendors. One of my favorites is of course Tsukiji Fish Market, which I'd probably consider a must do visit for foodies coming to Japan. This year I took some friends down to explore the outer and wholesale markets on what will probably be my last chance to explore the bustling market, as the entire thing is scheduled to relocate to Toyosu next fall. Information about the new site is somewhat unclear about what will be accessible to visitors, but there are plans to build a new public market outside of the wholesale areas. I'm just afraid that a lot of the history, the crowded narrow lanes, the grittiness of the place, will be lost in the move, and if you can I'd recommend visiting the current site one last time before it is gone forever.