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Snow-capped Peaks and Flower Gardens in Hokkaido

The first time I heard the name Biei was when we were driving through an expansive landscape of rolling hills and open skies in the middle of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island that is famous for its powder snow, rugged terrain and unspoiled nature. Not only had I never heard of this small town, the name, like those of many areas in Hokkaido, sounded distinctly un-Japanese, giving the place an exotic feel, even though all the signs were in Japanese and… Read more »

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Navigating the Hills and History of Nagasaki

At the top of a particularly steep hill that leads to the historic foreigners’ quarters of Nagasaki, there is an unusual traffic sign with an illustration of a bicycle and a diagonal line running along either side of it, indicating “no bicycles.” It isn’t that the flagstone-paved street is reserved for pedestrians. There are plenty of cars going up and down the hill, known as “Oranda-zaka” or “Hollander Slope,” after the foreign residents who could be seen walking to and… Read more »

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Jinya – Home to Totoro’s Tree

Tokyoites in need of a break from the hustle and bustle of city life usually head to the hot springs and scenic comforts of Hakone or Izu, which are within easy reach of the megalopolis by car or train. But relatively few of them may know that there is an onsen, or hot spring town, which is even closer to Tokyo than either of the city’s best-known getaway sanctuaries. Tsurumaki Onsen is a small town in Kanagawa prefecture, which has… Read more »

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Shodoshima – a Scenic Sanctuary in the Inland Sea

The trees along the mountaintops were just beginning to show hints of autumnal gold and vermillion, the villages dotting the narrow road that wound its way inland from the coast were deserted, and everything seemed as one would have expected on a secluded island long after the summer crowds had gone. But Shodoshima, a small island in the Seto Inland Sea off the southwest coast of Japan’s main island, Honshu, turned out to hold a few surprises when we visited… Read more »

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Grand Shrine of Ise

It is one of the most popular destinations in Japan, visited by more than 7m worshippers and tourists each year and revered as the spiritual home of the Japanese people. But Ise Jingu, or the Grand Shrine of Ise, is also a mystifying site that, to many Japanese, is likely to seem at once familiar and strange. It was this paradox that I found most striking when I visited Ise Jingu recently on a pilgrimage that most Japanese are encouraged… Read more »