Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, in Kamakura

A stay in Japan would not be culturally complete without a visit to a Shinto shrine, and Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu is just one of the more famous of those, located in Kamakura City, near Yokohama (and not far from Tokyo).  Kamakura was an easy day-trip for us as we were staying near Tokyo.

Hachiman-gu is the Shrine of the Samurai deity, named Hachiman.  Turugaoka is the name of the location - meaning the Hill of the Crane.

The Hachiman-gu Shrine complex at this location was built in 1191 and historically was both a Shinto Shrine and Buddhist temple, and also used as a Shogun (Samurai leader) Parliament.  Kamakura City was a Samurai Capital from 1185 until the end of the Shogun rule in 1867.  The buildings you see today were built in 1828 and 1624.
There is a 1000-year old Ginko tree to the left of the stairs, which is now a couple of stumps sprouting new branches, as the giant tree collapsed in a storm in 2010.

From the top of the stone steps, looking down you can see the 1.8km Wakamiya Ouji, the main street in Kamakura leading from the ocean on the south, all the way to Hachiman Shrine.

Wakamiya Ouji has three Torii gates (which you can see in the photograph above) 
and the section closer to Hachiman Shrine has a raised walkway in the middle of the street, lined with Sakura (cherry blossom) trees.  Wakamiya Ouji also happens to be the pathway from Kamakura Station to  Hachiman Shrine, so you can enjoy the historic walk (about 15 min) on your way to the shrine.
I'd love to see this street in the first week of April - Sakura blossom week.

The ponds in Hachiman-gu also have historic significance, dug in 1182, with white lotuses planted in the east pond and red in the west, signifying the warring Samurai clans.  The Minamoto clan (who built the shrine) were represented by the white lotuses, and the Taira clan (who they warred against) were the red lotuses.

Purification is very important when visiting a Shinto Shrine.  You should wash your hands in a certain way which is described here, before proceeding into any shrine.  
I am not a Shinto follower but I like the symbolism of this ritual.

On the day we visited Hachiman-gu, There was a flock of doves circling near the base of Tsurugaoka mountain. 

This is one of the scary-looking Samurai which you see at the Hon-gu 
(Main Shrine at the top of the stairs)

Wakamiya (Lower Shrine):

Stone lanterns line the pathway toward Hachiman-gu.

More information and how to get there here.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Start Here: Easy Japanese

If you're new to Japanese cooking, these are a few quick and easy recipes for Beginner Japanese Cooks.

If you see any ingredients you've never heard of, this is where to look for the explanation (and see what else that item is used for!)

Okonomiyaki Super-easy everyday dish, with endless Variations.

Nikujaga Meat, potatoes, onions and some carrot.  You're done.  A legendary Japanese home cooked meal.

Kimchee Nabe I put this one here because it's impossible to get wrong!

Basic Udon Soup ...with Australian style veges

Gyudon Beef simmered in soy sauce, ginger and sake, served on steamed rice.
Tsukimi Gyudon That's with the optional Egg on top.

Yakiniku Various meats and vegetables barbecued at the table, served with dipping sauces and steamed rice. (Japanese Barbecue at the table)  If your dipping-sauce is pre-made from the store, then this is about the easiest meal ever.
Hiyayakko No cooking required. Soft tofu with soy sauce.  Try it a couple of times and eventually you'll crave it.

3 min Corn Potage Recipe  Creamy Corn Soup, not out of a packet.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Cheap Flights Australia to Japan

Ok this isn't "Free flights to Japan" but it is some good news if you live in Australia and want to visit Japan.

AUD$254 (incl baggage) one way is a very cheap flight from Gold Coast (Australia) to Japan, and recently it's been happening more frequently.  The secret is timing - when to buy.

Having flown to or from Japan more times than I can count on all my fingers and toes, I'm always on the lookout for cheap flights.  Now, Jetstar didn't ask me to say this (I'm just sharing info for the benefit of everyone) but Jetstar generally has much cheaper flights available than any other airline, for flights between Gold Coast, Australia, and Japan.  What I really look for, though, are the Japan sales, which are either around half the regular ticket price, or two-for-one sales.

Over the years I've had my eye on these sales and they seem to have a pattern.  (Except for 2011, after the March 11 disaster.)  Heads up.  In previous years, I generally saw Jetstar Japan sales in March, May, June, September and November, for flights in March, April, June, September, October, November.

In 2011, after the March 11 disaster, Jetstar had Japan sales every month, approximately one month apart, from May to October.  The flight period for each of these sales was generally the following month or the following two months.

In general, flights that aren't in August, Golden Week (A Japanese holiday week in May) or Australian School holidays will generally appear as sale fares, on sale about 1-3 months prior to the flight.  Sometimes there are exceptions to this rule, such as in 2011, and also part of the Australian school holidays in June-July or September-October are sometimes included in last minute sales.

There's just one issue I've had with Jetstar occasionally that doesn't happen so often with Qantas or Jal (and pay several hundred dollars more) which I should warn you about.  Occasionally, when passenger numbers are too low, they will cancel and combine flights, for example, a direct nine-hour flight from Gold Coast to Narita may end up being a twelve hour trip with a stopover in Cairns.  Other than this sort of thing (which for the most part won't happen) I've had an excellent time flying with Jetstar, and saved a lot of money.

I recommend Japan in the first week of April, for the beautiful Sakura blossoming season.  Sakura only bloom for about two weeks, for most of the Kanto-Chubu-Kansai area (Kyoto, Tokyo etc) they begin in the last week of march and are beginning to wane in the second week of April.  

The month of November is also particularly beautiful, being the season of Koyo, meaning red Autumn leaves.  Koyo is much more predictable than Sakura, as the red-leaf season lasts for much longer than the delicate cherry blossom petals.

In both Sakura and Koyo season, famous Buddhist temples and sightseeing places will have about a week when they open at night with light-up of the featured sakura or red-leafed trees.  These are both spectacular sights and something not to be missed if you can time your trip to coincide with these events.

Here is an example of a Jetstar sale on now:
It's been extended until Monday 16 January 2011 at midnight.
Link for more info:    Jetstar Japan Sale
Sale on now until midngiht (23:59 AEDT) Wednesday 11Monday 16January 2012, unless sold out prior. Sale may be extended.
International routesTravel periodsOne-way Sale fare AUD^
CairnsOsaka13 Jan - 28 Mar 2012$199
CairnsTokyo (Narita)17 Jan - 28 Mar 2012$199
Gold CoastOsaka14 Jan - 28 Mar 2012$219
Gold CoastTokyo (Narita)11 Jan - 28 Mar 2012$219
SydneyOsaka1 Feb - 28 Mar 2012$318
Via Cairns
Melbourne (Tullamarine)Osaka14 Feb - 28 Mar 2012$331
Via Cairns
Melbourne (Tullamarine)Tokyo (Narita)14 Feb - 28 Mar 2012$331
Via Cairns
Sale fares are one way, checked baggage not included^. You can choose from 15kg to 40kg checked baggage for an additional $28- $70 per passenger per fare. Fares may not be available on all flights and days.