Hello Kitty is popular with small kids – and the occasional college-age girl – but who knew the Japanese character could make a good introduction to Japanese culture that appeals to all ages?
A new book, Hello Kitty's Guide to Japan, features lots of friendly illustrations that are put to good use: regions of Japan feature their iconic qualities, such as Niigata's rice fields and sake.
What's more, there are solid explanations of nuanced parts of Japanese culture – even Buddhist funerals!
The book is bilingual, with writing in English and Japanese, which makes for good cross-cultural sharing across small kids. It also makes for good fodder for Japanese-English conversation partners.
Quoth Japan Subculture, which reviewed the book:
This book is not childish at all, read it and you will learn much about Japan and its people, children, youth, adults and elderly people. And there are absolutely no pictures of green tea KitKats or high-tech toilets. We expected this book to be awful—it turns out to be awfully entertaining.
You can grab a copy at Japan's domestic airports – except Narita, sadly.
Wherever you are in Japan, there's sightseeing to be done on the street. Literally.
Manhole covers are used as works of public art all over Japan. Patterns and even painted colors are used to create local images that can be seen by locals and visitors alike.
The variety of images is impressive. Nature makes a big appearance, as trees and birds are especially common throughout the nation's prefectures. Cherry blossom trees are especially frequent. Also appearing are dragonflies, deer, cranes, and other animals that are either locally common or well-known in the national mythology.
There's also a high number of firefighter-themed manhole covers. Those covers give firefighters easy access to water in case of emergencies.
Good Luck Trip, a magazine publisher, has put out a new issue of its free guide to Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe, and it's accessible online for free too. The guide is pretty long (over 50 pages) and full of stuff to do if you decide to leave Tokyo.
Osaka Osaka has historically been known as a town of commerce, and even today one of its major draws is shopping. The neighborhood of Tennoji is recommended as a shopping area, but the guide leaves out America-mura, a rather un-American area that's the center of the city's fashion. The guide also dedicates a page to basically advertise Yodobashi Camera, which is actually a national chain and not unique to Osaka at all.
Kyoto Naturally, Kyoto is known for its cultural tourism. Options include the tea ceremony, Zen meditation, a Maiko dress-up session, and of course tons of temples. Don't miss the old-school Gion district.
Kobe Kobe is a great town for a mix of the above two environments. It's more relaxed than Osaka, but still has some big-city energy and lots of international cuisines. I can hardly recommend a better place to eat churrasco (aka Brazilian BBQ) than here.
The Hokkaido branch of JR is offering cheap one-day trips for skiing, snowboarding and hot springs in Japan's northern winter wonderland. For about $75 you can get an inclusive trip of train pass, one-day lift pass, and ski/board rental for some of the world's best snow.
Or for as little as $85 you can get a day at an outdoor hot springs, in the snow, with a buffet lunch.
Some trips also involve a bus trip to the particular destination, but that's also included in the price.
Your options include:
Skiing Niseko Hirafu with view of Mt. Yotei: 6,200 yen (special note: we just covered Niseko!) Sahoro with view of Tokachi plain: 10,300 yen Tomamu with 16 courses: 9,100 yen Furano with courses for all levels: 5,750 yen Teine, just 40 minutes from Sapporo: 5,850 yen
It's looking like an amazing ski season is underway in Hokkaido. Niseko, an area in northwest Japan 500 miles away from Fukushima, is having great snowfall and is doing good business with Asian tourists.
Japan's snow is legendary. Even regular slopes are comparable to the best untouched wilderness in North America. Last year, the ski season went all the way to mid-May. This season, December's fresh snowfall was the best it's been since 1964.
What's better, even during crowded holiday periods there are no waits for lifts and resorts keep their Japanese roots despite a constant influx of tourists from major Asian cities like Hong Kong and Singapore.
Japan was born in what's now Shimane Prefecture, according to the country's mythology. In 2012, the prefecture will host a Mythology Expo to share its historical roots with the world.
Shimane is one of Japan's most rural prefectures and is a good choice for those looking to go far off the beaten path. Its public transit is limited and train service is much more sparse than the major cities. On the plus side, the access to untouched nature is second to none.
According to histories recorded over 1,000 years ago, Japan's many gods gather at Izumo Taisha, one of the country's grand Shinto shrines, to convene and discuss affairs.
The activities will be split between the prefecture's Exhibition Hall and the Museum of Ancient Izumo.
In the Exhibition Hall, you'll find:
A movie theater with a 10 x 50 feet screen
Mythological Gourmet featuring local foods and Souvenir Market
Walking Tours of Izumo Taisha
Appeal of Shimane Stage with traditional Kagura theater and performances by new character Shimaneko (right)
In the nearby Muzeum of Ancient Izumo, you can check out:
A mini replica of Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine as it stood during the Heian Period (ended 1185)
Land of the Gods photography exhibit
Ancient artifacts: 358 bronze swords discovered in 1988 and 39 bronze bell-like vessels extracted in 1996
At the Museum you can also learn to make magatama, beads shaped like commas.
The expo will go on from July 21, 2012 to November 11. It's best to reach the city of Izumo by plane: at least 5 flights leave Tokyo Haneda airport daily.