Friday, May 25, 2012

Tokyo Sky Tree: Japan's new fascination

Over the last few days, there seems to be only thing on everyone's mind : The Tokyo Sky Tree. This newly opened broadcasting tower seems to have caught everyone’s fascination. It’s opening on May 22nd 2012 was a much awaited event. Within days of it’s opening the Sky tree is being touted as Tokyo’s newest landmark with an estimate of 32 million expected visitors in it’s first year. 
Tokyo Sky Tree at 634 meters is Japan’s tallest structure having displaced Yokohama’s Landmark Tower which previously held this distinction. Tokyo Sky Tree also displaced China’s Canton Tower to become the second highest tower in the world after Dubai’s Burj Al Khalifa. The Guinness Book of records has certified the Sky tree as the world’s tallest free standing structure.

The Sky Tree was constructed to broadcast television and radio broadcast signals. The Tokyo Tower which served this purpose earlier was unable to broadcast digital terrestrial television signals as it’s height (333 metres) was not enough especially since it is surrounded by many high rise buildings. Most of Japan’s top broadcasters including NHK, TBS, Fuji Television, TV Tokyo, TV Asahi moved their broadcasting antennae to the Tokyo Sky Tree.

The Sky Tree was constructed at a cost of 40 billion JPY ( equivalent 440 million USD). The construction work commenced on 14th July 2008 and construction was completed on 29th February 2012. The Sky Tree was opened to public on 22nd May 2012 in a grand ceremony making it one of the most highlighted events in Japan in recent days.

The Sky Tree’s height of 634 meters was selected for a reason. It’s Japanese Kanji characters can be read as Mu-Sa-Shi ( 6-3-4) which is the old name for the area where the Sky tree stands. Even it’s name was selected by a nationwide voting !

The Sky Tree has already become the No 1 tourist attraction in Tokyo. Its dual observation decks at 350 meters (Tembo Deck) and 450 meters (Tembo Gallery) above ground offer spectacular views of Tokyo city and beyond. The decks rank among some of the highest observation decks in the world and definitely the highest in Japan. The decks put together have a capacity to accommodate 2,900 people. The Musashi restaurant (on the lower deck) , souvenir shops and other shops and restaurants make it a total tourist cum shopping destination. The tower is in fact the centrepiece of the Tokyo Sky Tree Town, a commercial centre  which includes Tokyo Solamachi complete with an aquarium, shops, planetarium, restaurants and entertainment complex . The tower is illuminated using LED lights and two illumination patterns: blue and white will be used on alternative days to light up the tower.

In earthquake prone Japan, where even the smallest of houses is built using earthquake proof architecture, it is no wonder that the Sky tree is constructed using the most advanced earthquake resistant architecture. It has seismic proofing and is said that the tower’s structure can absorb upto 50 % of the energy released during an earthquake.

Japan seems to be banking on the Sky tree boosting the tourism industry which  saw a fall in number of tourists ever since the March 11 earthquake. Perhaps with this hope, Japan seems to have gone all out to create a hype about the Tokyo Sky tree and succeeded. Here’s how the Tokyo Sky Tree became the “talk of the town” :

  1. Sale of tickets for the attraction began a few months before the opening date  and tickets upto 10th July 2012 were sold out within hours. Only advance internet reservations were accepted till 10th July 2012. Sale of same day tickets will commence from 11th July 2012, making the visit even more coveted.
  1. On Tuesday May 22nd  2012, the opening date, thousands of people thronged the Sky Tree making it’s opening a grand success, despite rainy weather playing a spoilsport to the much hyped event. Views from the observation deck were blocked due to the rainy condition. 2 of the tower’s 13 elevators were closed due to the inclement weather. But that didn’t deter the enthusiasm of the visitors. People queued up from 4 am on the opening day to make it to the top deck. The opening was marked with the playing of the traditional Taiko drums. Amongst the people who cut the ribbon was Japanese baseball legend Sadaharu Oh. 
  1. The tower’s construction stages have been well covered in the media. Much was also written about how the construction work was resumed within few days of the March 11 Great East Japan earthquake and how the construction was completed with only a two month delay, on February 29th 2012. The delay was due to shortage of supplies in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami. 
  1. In the weeks before it’s grand opening, various merchandise promoting the Sky tree were launched for sale. Merchandise included souvenirs, limited edition collectibles and even ice lollies shaped like the Sky Tree. 
  1. On New Year’s Day 2012, the Tokyo Sky Tree was lit up and people were encouraged to capture it’s pictures and send in the entries. This prompted thousands of entries from the public, some taken from hundreds of kilometres away showing the tiniest view of the Tower. 
  1. The Tokyo Sky tree was complemented with the renaming of the Narihirabashi station as the Tokyo Sky Tree station which in turn led the Tobu Isesaki Line to be nicknamed as the Tokyo Sky Tree Line. 
  1. The Imperial Couple’s visit in April followed by the Crown Prince’s visit in early May only added to the public’s enthusiasm. 
  1. Lady Gaga’s visit to the Sky tree on May 15th even before it’s opening added  glamour to the already hyped media coverage. 
  1. The name Tokyo Sky Tree was selected from a wide number of suggestions from the general public. Eight names were shortlisted and in a nationwide voting, 33000 of the 110,000 votes were cast in favour of the name “Tokyo Sky Tree”. The entrant  who had suggested the name was given the honour of being the first visitor on the top deck on the opening day.
Location: Sumida ward, Tokyo, Japan

Timings: 8:00 -22:00 hrs

Closing Days: Open on all 365 days.

Entrance: Adults 2000 yen ( 350 mtr deck) ;  Additional 1000 yen (450 mtr deck)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Zao Quasi National Park and Okama crater

After a brief visit to the Shiroishi Castle, we visited the Zao Area. Zao lies an hour's drive away from Sendai, the biggest city in northern Japan.

The Zao mountain range lies between Miyagi and Yamagata prefectures in north eastern Japan. The Zao mountain range is actually a cluster of strato-volcanoes with many active volcanic terrains. The area is part of the Zao Quasi National park and is a popular tourist destination. The park was opened in 1963 and is spread over an area of 400 square kms  filled with gorges, rivers and waterfalls, marshlands, beech forests and alpine vegetation. During winter Zao is a popular skiing destination due to the abundant snowfall in the region. Many popular skiing resorts are located in Zao area. The strong winds blowing from Siberia create Juhyo monsters, snow covered trees which resemble monsters.

The highest mountain in Zao is Mt Kumanodake (1841 meters). The central volcano of the Zao mountain range is Mt Goshikidake (1674 meters). A volcanic eruption of Goshikidake in early 18th century led to the formation of the “Okama” crater lake. 
It is called Okama owing to it’s resemblance to a tea kettle, (“okama’ in Japanese).  The lake is 200 feet deep, measures 1 km in circumference and has a diameter of 325 metres. The lake is also known as “Goshikinuma” or “Five coloured pond” because the colour of the lake changes according to the angle of sunlight.

The colour ranges from emerald green to turquoise blue depending on the weather. When we visited in early May, the lake was still frozen, but we did get to see the colour difference. 
The surrounding Mt Kattadake(1759 meters) still had some snow and we had to tread through a patch of snow to get a good view of the lake.
The volcanic mountain sides are various hues of red and brown 

The Kattamine Jinja is situated on top of Mt Kattadake which offers a commanding view of the Zao mountain range and the Okama crater. 
Another Kattamine Shrine, popularly called Shirotori Daimyojin, because of the custom of worshipping swans as the messengers of god,  is located in Miya, closer to the Shiroishi IC on Tohoku expressway.

It is possible to take a chairlift from the foot of Mt Kattadake to the top to view the Okama crater lake and the mountains. A round trip is priced at 700 yen per head. We chose to drive up to the top and skipped taking the chairlift.

The 26 km long Zao Echo line is a picturesque road which connects Miyagi and Yamagata prefectures. The road was opened in 1962 and offers good views of Zao mountain range. Driving along the Zao Echo Line visitors reach the Takimidai Waterfall Viewing Point. 

The lookout offers a good view of the Sankai waterfalls (181 meters high) and the Fudo taki waterfalls ( 53.5 meter) high.
Driving a little ahead is the Fudo taki lookout. 
A statue of Fudo stands at the entrance to the short walking trail to the lookout. The road is closed during winter. A part of the Echoline was still under snow and we drove through a few snow corridors.   

Togatta onsen town lies at the foot of the Zao. The footbath in the centre of the town is popular among visitors. The visitor information centre situated next to it has lots of booklets and guides (also in English) and the staff are helpful ( unfortunately not in English, but broken Japanese works too). "Koi no bori" (carp streamers) were strung above a river flowing through Togatta for the upcoming Kodomo no Hi. 
Zao is famous for its milk farming and while driving from Shiroishi to Zao, we passed by the Zao Milk Farm. Visitors can experience milking cows. The other famous product of Zao is its handmade sausages. Visitors can experience Sausage making for a fee . Zao’s cheese and milk treats are popular “Omiyage” (souvenirs) among visitors. Zao has it’s own version of the Kokeshi doll. We couldn’t resist picking up one.

Fees: 520 yen for a mid sized car ( Toll for Zao Echo line)

Access: Zao machi, Katta-gun, Miyagi Prefecture

Phone: 0224-34-2725 (Information centre in Togatta)

Shiroishi Castle

Our Golden week trip to Naruko area was combined with a visit to Zao and Shiroishi.
Shiroishi town’s most popular sight is the Shiroishi Castle.
 The castle is situated atop a hill overlooking the city and the outlying Zao mountain range.
This castle was originally the residence of Katakura clan, the retainers of the Date clan, the family of Date Masamune.
The original castle was built in the Kamakura era and served as an important meeting place during the Boshin War . It was demolished in 1875 and the current structure is a 1995 reconstruction which has restored the castle’s original Japanese architecture.

The castle’s tower offers a panoramic view of the Zao Mountain range.
A shrine stands next to the Shiroishi castle.

 A sundial that we saw on the grounds of the shrine. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

On the Geyser trail : Naruko, Onikobe and Jigokudani

During the Golden week holidays this year, we visited the Naruko onsen area in Miyagi prefecture.
Naruko is a popular onsen area in Miyagi prefecture in Japan .Our main reason for visiting Naruko area was to view the geysers in Onikobe. Onikobe is a little distance away from Naruko town. We drove past Naruko dam, Lake Arao and  picturesque snow covered mountains to reach Onikobe. 
We passed by an interesting “Oni” bridge on our way. 
“Oni” is the Japanese word for “demon” or “ogre” and the Onikobe area has a folklore associated with an ogre !
The highlight of Onikobe is the Onikobe Geyser which is also known as “Benten” geyser. 
Hot water sprays up  like a fountain as high as twenty meters high at times, every 10 minutes.  Visitors eagerly await this spectacle. 
Water temperature ranges between 100 deg C - 120 deg C. 
A small “rotenburo”, open air bath is located closeby. 

It was closed during our visit but we got to have a look. An “Ashi-yu” (foot-bath) close by has boiling hot water, a boon for tired feet.An “Omiyage” (souvenir) store sells food and other souvenirs. Visitors can also purchase eggs which they can then boil in the small covered hot spring pit closeby.

Entrance fees: 400 yen ( Adults)
Address:  Aza Fukiage, Onikobe , Naruko Onsen, Osaki- shi, 989-6941, Miyagi Prefecture
Phone: 0229-86-2233
Closed: Winter ( December to March)
Parking: Free parking available (20 cars)

Located a few hundred metres from the Onikobe geyser is “Jigokudani”. “Jigokudani” translates as “hell valley”, appropriate for a place that resembles a volcanic hell. Jigokudani is also referred to as “Katayama Jigoku” of “Fukiage Jigoku” valley.
 A 1.2 km long walking trail leads past many hot geysers. Boiling water flows from beneath rocks and small outlets. A few geysers blow out hot water fountains every few minutes. 
Visitors bring eggs to boil them in the flowing hot water.
One particular geyser made a strong sound of boiling water and we waited patiently for about 25 minutes before the geyser obliged us with a spectacular show. It was worth the wait. 
At the end of the trail is a waterfall. 
Opening days: 365 days
Opening hours: Round the clock
Entrance fees: Free
Parking: Free parking available.
Access: Follow the signboard on the left side of the road (while driving up from Naruko town) just before the road leading to Onikobe geyser.

After visiting Onikobe and Jigokudani, we drove back to Naruko.The Naruko Onsen area comprises of five hot springs scattered Naruko town- Naruko, Higashi Naruko, Onikobe, Kawatabi and Nakayamadaira. The speciality of the onsens in this area is the presence of sodium chloride and sodium bicarbonate in the hot spring water. The water is used for therapeutic diseases and as such the onsen area is visited by people with chronic ailments. Needless to say the entire area is full of bath houses.
We visited Waseda Onsen in Naruko. This Bath House was is named after a group of students from Tokyo’s Waseda University who visited Naruko after the World War II to learn about well drilling and successfully discovered a hot spring. This bath house is popular among visitors.
(Admission Yen 500 per adult and Yen 300 per child. Additional 1000 yen for using the Family Bath. Towels available for sale.  Phone: 0229-83-4751. Opening Hours: 9:00-22:00 hrs) 

Naruko area is also popular as one of the largest manufacturers of the Kokeshi dolls.  Kokeshi dolls are said to have originated in the Tohoku region and Naruko is one of the towns which claims to have been one of it's original makers. 
No wonder the Kokeshi doll can be seen everywhere even along the roads.
Our last stop in Naruko area was the Katanuma swamp.
This caldera lake was formed during a volcanic eruption and the high acidic content gives the lake’s water a turquoise blue colour. 
In fact, Katanuma has the reputation of being the lake with the highest acidity levels in Japan.  Katanuma reminded us of the Bishamon pond on the Goshikinuma trail in Bandai. 

Our visit in late April coincided with the Cherry Blossom season and Naruko to had it's share of Sakura blooming.

We drove to the Shiraito falls near Naruko on our way back, but we found it average after having visited many other spectacular waterfalls in Japan. 
Naruko Kyo ( Gorge) is a popular destination among visitors especially in October-November when the autumn foliage is at its best. Abundant snow in winter makes Naruko a popular skiing area. However the Onikobe geyser and Jigokudani are closed during the winter.