Category Archives: Japan

April Showers bring Cherry Flowers!

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Cherry blossom season is well under way, and nowhere else is it as revered as in Japan.

The “Land of the Rising Sun” has a special relationship with cherry blossoms, even going so far as to hold “cherry flower-viewing parties,” picnicking under the pink trees with family and friends. The holiday Hanami literally means “flower-viewing,” and is the art of admiring these little ephemeral gifts. Best complimented with an old temple or castle.

Since cherry trees bloom for only a short period each Spring, they reflect the Japanese Buddhist concept mono no aware, the beautiful impermanence of life.

While of course cherries aren’t endemic to Japan, it seems to be the only culture that really takes the art to indulgent levels. As two well-known haikus by legendary Basho say:

Hana no kumo

Kane wa ueno ka

Asakusa ka

A cloud of cherry blossoms.

The temple bell, is it Ueno

Or Asakusa?

Sama zama no

Koto omoidasu

Sakura kana

How many things

They call to mind

These cherry blossoms!

If you happen to be in Japan right now, Japan-Guide has a useful Cherry Blossom Forecast.

Thinking about Japan? Princess Cruises is offering a special sale in 2018! Call us for the details: 503-224-0180 or email info@wittravel.com.

Or simply call us up for a chat about Japan! Our Agent Pam at Willamette Intl Travel has recently been to Japan and she’d love to share with you her impressions and help plan your trip to the Land of the Rising Sun.

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Ice Festivals around the World

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From the Desk of Wailana, Social Media Correspondent based in Stockholm

Glacial Artscapes

It’s freezing in my adoptive home of Sweden, about -10 C (that’s 14 F!), and venturing outside puts me knee-deep in snow. Coming from Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest, it’s not something I’ll ever be used to!

But ice and snow has its charms. Sweden just opened its Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi for 365 days of the year (previously it was only in winter season), so that puts me in the arctic spirit! And the rest of the world seems to agree. From December to March each year, cities and towns all across the globe host beautiful Ice Sculpture Festivals and transform their streets into a glacial winter wonderland.

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World Ice Art Championships — Alaska

Since 1989, Alaska is THE destination for worldwide ice art competition. Bringing together more than 100 sculptors and upwards of 50,000 visitors each year, the Ice Art Championship is a place to see masters excel at their craft. Judges break down the competition by Single Block (one block of ice) and Multi-Block, and Abstract and Realistic artworks. These “Olympics of Ice Carving” are a fantastic way for artists to demonstrate strength, vision, and feats of engineering. Usually held between February in March, giving youth carvers a chance to challenge each other during Spring Break. The theme tends to be up to interpretation, with topics ranging from pop culture to folklore; but many artists do favor naturalistic motifs, celebrating local Alaskan fauna or indigenous culture.

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Harbin Intl Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival — China

The magnificent and luminous International Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival in Harbin, China (whew what a title!), holds the title of largest ice festival in the world. Originating way back in 1963 (albeit interrupted for some years during the Cultural Revolution), it typical runs from January to February. This is one crazy festival–featuring ice lanterns, carving competitions, a fireworks show, converts, water swimming and other ice sports. Sculptures reach their peak in 2007, when a Canadian-themed sculpture was awarded a Guinness Record for biggest snow sculpture (a whopping 820 feet long and 28 feet high!). Tourist packages often combine winter travel in China with a stop in Harbin. (Call Willamette Intl Travel for the scoop!) Come at night for the best multicolored illuminations!

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Sapporo Snow Festival — Japan

The world-renowned Sapporo Snow Festival attracts 2 million people to Hokkaido in early February. Its humble beginnings start all the way back in 1950, when a group of high school students challenged each other with a mere six snow statues in Odori Park. Since then, it’s been growing, and the festival garnered international attention during Sapporo’s Winter Olympic Games in 1972. Guests can enjoy still sculptures in Odori Park, where lights illuminate the frozen dragons, flowers, supernatural beings, musicians, (and so on!) until 10pm.

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Dutch Ice Sculpture Festival — Netherlands

The Netherlands have thrown a few Ice Sculpture Festivals (including one in Bruges!) over the years, but it’s this year (2016-2007) that one is at last coming to Amsterdam. Forty-two expert ice artists will transform the Arena Park into a magical ice-scape from December to February. The theme: Music Inspires, so expect Mozart, Elvis, and maybe even Prince to make an appearance.

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Quebec City Winter Carnival — Canada

More of a parade than an exhibition, Quebec’s City Winter Carnival is a time for the whole city to shake off winter hibernation. Masquerade balls, winter sports, snowmen pop up here and there, and the parade hosts a fair share of ice sculptures to admire and applaud. Don’t forget your glass of Caribou, a hot melange of red wine, whiskey, and maple syrup!

 

Flickr CC images: art_inthecity, RageZ, Jay Cross, Fredrik Rubensson, Thomas Wanhoff

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Filed under Alaska, Asia, Canada, China, Europe, Japan

Christmas in Asia

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Christmas is a widespread holiday, celebrated in countries all over the world. Did you know that it’s a popular holiday even in the Far East?

Though many people don’t associate Christmas with Asia, this holiday is celebrated all the way from Japan to the Philippines. Depending on where you go, it can be a religious holiday or a secular time with family and friends.

In Japan, Christmas is widely popular as a holiday for friends or lovers. Cities decorate their streets and halls with Christmas trees and illuminations, and pipe out Beethoven’s 9th Symphony on the radio. Japanese people may eat Christmas cake, a sponge cake with whipped cream and fruit toppings. December 25 is a romantic holiday, with many Japanese preferring to spend a romantic day with their significant other.

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In Hong Kong, locals go all out with a festive Christmas. December 25 is an official holiday in Hong Kong, and the city dresses up in massive Christmas Trees, German-style Christmas markets and beautiful light shows. The ballet does a yearly Nutcracker that is a delight. You can get your photo with Santa, known in Hong Kong as Lan Khoong or Dun Che Lao Ren.

In China, the New Year usually overshadows Christmas as the most important holiday. Still, many Chinese people like to get into the holiday spirit just for fun. Children can get their photos with Santa (known as “聖誕老人 shèngdànlǎorén”) at department stores, and people give out cellophane-wrapped Christmas apples as gifts.

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In Korea, where 30% of the population is Christian, Christmas is a holiday for families and lovers. This official official holiday is a time for families to get together and eat traditional dishes like barbecued beef, kimchi and rice cake soup. Santa Haraboji is a traditionally dressed grandfather with a top hat (gat) and blue robe, who hands out gifts to children. Like Japan, it can also double as a romantic night with your significant other!

In the Philippines, thanks to Spanish influence, Christmas is a huge holiday. Filipinos decorate their homes with candles, lights and wreaths, and dress up a bamboo pole with a lighted star. Christmas Eve is a big deal—people don’t generally sleep this night, instead they hold the Feast of Noche Buena, which begins after midnight. The dinner consists of delicious oxtail stew, stuffed chicken, pudding and sticky rice. Children line up in front of an elder family member, who passes out coins as gifts.

Vietnam also gets into the secular spirit with decorations and light shows all over Ho Chi Minh City. People throw confetti and eat out in fancy restaurants.

Next Week is Christmas! Where are you spending the holidays? Let us know in the comments!

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Winter Illumination Wonders of Japan

Welcome to Monday!

We hope you all (in the USA at least) had a fabulous Thanksgiving weekend — we sure did!

Today, let’s step halfway across the world to welcome winter, with enchanting illuminations!

Here in Portland every year the city rolls out its annual light parade, complete with floats, installations, sculptures, performances—even lectures on Light itself at the science museum! But did you know that, across the Pacific ocean, Japan also goes all out with the wintry lights? And we’re not talking a couple of small towns, or even just Tokyo—dozens of cities all over the nation have gotten caught up with the illuminations craze. So if you’re in Japan this winter, be sure to catch the closest one near you!  Continue reading

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Pam in Japan! : FAQs

Our readers might remember that our own agent WIT Pam spent two weeks last year in Japan visiting her son Matt, who is living and working in Tokyo. As it has been years since anyone from Willamette spent time in Japan, we were thrilled when she came back with such great firsthand feedback!

Have you been thinking about travel to the Land of the Rising Sun? Pam will be happy to answer your questions about travel in Japan and arrange a spectacular trip for you. Call her for a chat at 503-224-0180 or email pamd@wittravel.com. 

Pam used Delta nonstop, and booked a package plan with a prepaid hotel in Kyoto, which saved a lot on airfare. Whilst in Tokyo she visited the famous Asakusa, Shinjuku & Ueno areas–each with their own unique flavor. She took a day trip to Kamakura, where you can tour the many temples without the throngs of visitors found in Kyoto. And she did take the Shinkansen train to Kyoto, spending a fabulous 3 nights there.

Here are a few quick questions we had for her on logistics while traveling in Japan: 

What is the link for the portable wi-fi you used? I used http://www.japan-wireless.com There are a lot of companies that do this, but this is the one where Matt has his phone and they are one of the larger providers in Japan. The device cost $55.00 U.S. for 9 days. It allowed me to use Google maps and their GPS function on my I-phone. I could sync it to 4 different devices. It can be delivered to your hotel.

Is there hardware that needs to be returned to the company you rented from, and if so, how is it returned? In the package you get they include instructions for syncing it to your device and a prepaid return envelope. You can drop it in any post box in Japan and it will be returned to them. It is about the same size as a cell phone.

Prepaid ticket for the airport bus: How did you pre-purchase the voucher? I got the bus voucher from JTB in Los Angeles at the same time I got the Japan Rail Pass. It would have been ok to purchase the bus ticket when you got there – it was a little hard finding the booth. I went out to where the buses left and found the bus, and they directed me back inside the terminal to the place where the voucher had to be exchanged. If I were doing it again, I would opt to take the train into the city – it is faster and goes to more stations than I realized.

Green Class Japan Rail Pass: There are multiple train companies in Japan – Japan Rail is the only one you can use on the pass, so depending on where you are traveling you sometimes may still have to buy some tickets. They do go most places, though. You also have to watch what kind of train you are taking – some of the newer high-speed trains still have supplements that you have to pay on top of the pass. I think that for tourists it is worth getting the Green Pass – I can’t stress how crowded and miserable the trains are around Tokyo – and if you are in the Green Car at least they are a little less packed. The long-distance trains from Tokyo to Kyoto can be reserved – there is a small fee for doing this, but you are guaranteed a seat and car number. This can only be done in Japan at a ticket office. I got a 7 day pass so didn’t use it on my arrival. The passes are for consecutive days only, so it didn’t make sense for me to have it validated until I was within 7 days of leaving Tokyo, since Matt isn’t on a JR line. I used it from Tokyo to Kamakura and back as a day trip, from Tokyo to Kyoto and back, for a side trip from Kyoto to Nara and back, and for the return Narita Express back to the airport. The pass price was about $316 and Matt’s ticket purchased from Tokyo to Kyoto round trip around $210. So I figure it was good value for me, but I wouldn’t do it for somebody who was just traveling one way from Tokyo to Kyoto to Osaka, say.

Suica or Pasmo card: Are the kiosks all over so they can easily be re-charged? Are they loaded only with cash, or can they be loaded from a debit card or credit card? These are 2 different cards both pre-loaded with money but they are universally accepted. The kiosks where I bought the cards were self-service – located in the train stations, and I think Matt said that you could buy them in convenience stores also – like a 7-11, of which there are thousands. We ended up reloading the cards at the train stations – Japan uses a lot of cash and you end up with pounds of small change, so we would take the card to the machine, toss in the cash and change, and it all got loaded on the cards which was a good way of getting rid of it. There were instructions on the machine that could be switched into English.

This feedback was also featured in our Winter newsletter. Give us a call for a hard copy in the mail!

 

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Where in the World is the WIT Agent? — Kyoto, Japan

Ever wondered what makes Kyoto such a favourite destination for Japanese and foreigners alike? WIT Agent Pam headed there from Tokyo last week to find out exactly why. Call us at 503-224-0180 or email info@wittravel.com to chat the ins and outs of Japan.

Formerly the imperial capital of Japan, Kyoto is known for its rich history, exquisite gardens and ornate palaces. Chief among them is Kinkaku-Ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, so-called due to its pavilion that is lavishly coated in gold-leaf. The gold is meant to purify any negative thoughts towards death.

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Be sure to stop by the peaceful grounds of the Imperial Park, where you’ll find the Imperial Palace, beautiful gates and gardens. The palace was home to the imperial family until 1868, when the emperor moved his residence to Tokyo.

Just a half-hour’s walk away, Nijo Castle was originally built as a shogunate residence. It is famous for its “nightingale floors,” wooden floors that squeak to note any presence that passes through its halls. Toji Temple is also a must-see, if only for its colorful interiors and elegantly carved Buddhist sculptures. The temple grounds is also home to a flea market on the 21st of the month, where visitors can find old postcards, movie posters, traditional crafts and other souvenirs.

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Higashi Hongan-ji temple is worth a stop just for its unusual hair rope, a thick rope of human hair. This is the last remnant of the the hair ropes used during construction of the temple in the late 1800s. Historically, ordinary rope was not available–so women would donate their hair to make stronger ropes.

Other places of note is the Museum of Kyoto, which houses a huge collection of ancient pottery, and the International Manga Museum, home to over volumes and items of 300,000 manga, Japanese comic books. The latter keeps books in both Japanese and foreign languages, and is popular with the 30 and younger crowd.

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But there’s more to Kyoto than temples and museums. Hop on a bike with a small group for a healthy paced, but intimate look into the real former capital. Join a walking tour into the Inari district to learn about sake production from the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum. Or hit the culinary path and explore the Nishiki Food Market with a knowledgeable guide.

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If you’re only in Japan for a week or two, Kyoto is the place to go for an immersion of traditional culture. Experience a traditional tea ceremony or samurai sword demonstration. Here you can witness the elegance of Maiko, or apprentice geishas, during an evening of delicious kaiseki cuisine, dancing and festive games.

For a more inclusive experience, delve into the world of Geisha. Follow a private guide into the Gion neighborhood, savor high-cuisine at an invitation-only dinner with a geisha, learn about her hidden world as your guide translates, and enjoy her performance of dance and music.

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Did you know? Kyoto is just a short jaunt from Tokyo on the Shinkansen, Japan’s famous bullet train.

Check out Pam’s photos from her trip to Japan in our Gallery.

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Where in the World is the WIT Agent? — Japan

WIT Agent Pam just returned from her fantastic trip to Japan, and she’s come back with some gorgeous photos. Her whirlwind tour included Tokyo, Kamakura, Yokahama, Nikko, Kyoto and Nara. For her pics in our newly updated Gallery, just click here.

Thinking about Japan for your next family getaway? Let WIT plan your trip! We can design air, hotels, trains, day trips, and tours throughout the country. Call us at 503-224-0180 or email info@wittravel.com for more.

For escorted tours, we highly recommend Alexander & Roberts–click here to learn more about their small groups to Japan and beyond.

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