6 - 19 Apr 2015

Trains like bullets and bullocks on the gravy train

Unless you (naively) set out looking for a specific street address in Japan, you will find pretty much everything else in this intriguing country operating in an orderly, super efficient manner. Ancient traditions and modern imperatives blend together to create the world’s third biggest economy. And 127 million very proud and nationalistic inhabitants occupy an archipelago with a total land mass about half the size of New South Wales. But somehow, having a logical addressing system has become lost in the centuries-old urban sprawl as farmlands make way for the inexorable growth of the villages, into towns and ultimately into modern fast-paced cities.

Speaking of fast and orderly, the Greenmount Travel farm study tour group were mightily impressed at being whisked between various destinations on the Japanese bullet train network at speeds of up to 300 km per hour and in absolute comfort. The number of services and the “on-time” performance of the bullet trains are legendary. In fact, if you are stopped on a bullet train for a minute or two at anywhere other than a station platform, it’s because the train is ahead of schedule and has to wait its turn.

With an early April departure, our group was able to the enjoy the splendour of cherry blossoms on full display with the added bonus of some late season snowfalls.

The cherry blossoms, sights and scenes and local hospitality were all magnificent, but we were in Japan to learn more about a nation – that each year imports around $4 billion worth of Australian farm products – and an agriculture which enjoys some of the highest levels of government assistance and tariff protection on the planet.

Australian import links

While in Tokyo we met with Toyota Tsusho and their Food and Agribusiness Division. We learned that the company puts a high value on having strong links with Australian farm product suppliers, and in turn a consistent supply of quality imports. To this end, they have created a firm foothold in Australia by investing in the Toowoomba-based commodity trading company, PentAg Nidera.

Our group then travelled south to the heartland of Japan. The farms, cities and sights of the Matsumoto, Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto and Hiroshima regions all gave an insight into how the traditional and modern nation has evolved over the ages.

We then flew north to the island of Hokkaido. This is Japan’s ‘frontier’. The island has less than five per cent of the population but more than 20 per cent of the nation’s total landmass. Some of the best agricultural land in the country is interspersed with beautiful national parks, soaring alpine regions and theraupeutic thermal springs.

The group visited the Tokachi Ono farm near Obihiro – a 2000 head wagyu beef feedlot – to check for ourselves how the locally produced meat we’d been consuming throughout the tour could be so good. Cattle being fattened for around 40 months or so on a grain ration is a big part of the answer. Three or four day old calves would be introduced to a powdered formulation and then a hay/grain mix before literally spending a few years on a high grain ration. 

The cattle would not eat grass throughout the period and would be constantly shedded and sold at three to four years old. The sale price of better than $US20,000 per head tasted pretty good as well. 

Our two week tour ended very appropriately and traditionally in a Japanese ryoken (hotel) and onsen – open air baths fed by natural hot springs – at a very remote location on the shores of Lake Shikotsu. At this hotel beds gave way to futons, and for the adventurous, togs gave way to ‘au-naturel’ in the hot springs.


View or Print Itinerary

Day 1

Mon 6 Apr

Depart Australian ports for Tokyo. Evening arrival and transfer to city hotel.

Day 2

Tue 7 Apr

Early morning option to visit the Tsukiji fish market, the biggest in the world, handling more than 2000 tonnes of 450 types of seafood daily. The Japanese eat seafood at every opportunity (cooked and raw) and much of it goes through the Tsukiji market. Nearby are some great street stall to sample the seafood, then an afternoon city tour including the traditional area of Asakusa with the famous Kaminari-mon gate and Sensoji temple. Hopefully, we will have the timing right to view the cherry blossoms at their peak in Ueno Park, although this varies widely with the season. Ueno Park is famous for its more than 1000 cherry trees. During the cherry blossom season, the park becomes one of the country's most popular spots for hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties.

Day 3

Wed 8 Apr

Coach out of Tokyo to the fuedal-era town of Hakone for lunch with a view of Mt Fuji. Hakone is part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, less than 100 kilometers from Tokyo. Famous for hot springs, outdoor activities, natural beauty and the view of nearby Mt. Fuji. Then on to the Fuji Five Lake area and hope for some clear viewing weather for the magnificent mountain. Head up to the Kawaguchiko 5th station of Mt Fuji, one of the most popular starting points for climbing the mountain. Then back to Tokyo.

Day 4

Thu 9 Apr

Make sure you pack your Greenmount Travel overnight bag to cover the necessities for the following two nights. The large suitcases will be sent straight to Osaka to allow much easier movement on trains. In the morning, catch the subway to Tokyo Station and transfer to the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagano in the Japanese Alps – less than two hours. Meet our coach and transfer to the Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park,

an incredible opportunity to interact with Japanese macaque monkeys in the wild

and in their natural social groups as they bathe in the hot springs. Continue on to Matsumoto (maybe visit a wasabe farm on the way) and visit the famous medieval castle. The cherry blossoms around the castle should be at their peak.

Day 5

Fri 10 Apr

Continue into the Japanese Alps to Takayama, a breathtaking town surrounded by 3000 metre peaks. Takayama is a castle town of old wooden houses dating back to the 16th century. Afternoon visit to rice fields then to one of the town’s famous sake breweries. Sightseeing tour of Takayama including the Hida Folk Museum (Minzoku- kan) that passes down facts and images of traditional life in farming villages.

Day 6

Sat 11 Apr

Option of a morning visit to a market where the wives of local farmers sell fresh mountain vegetables, as well as homemade miso (Japanese bean paste) and folk-art goods. Visit to a Hida beef cowshed. Afternoon board an express train to Nagoya for a tour of the Toyota motor plant where Landcruiser Prados are put together. Also visit the Toyota Kaikan Museum, where Toyota's new models and technologies (and robot shows) are displayed. We change to the Shinkansen (bullet train) bound for Osaka. Reunite with your luggage.

Day 7

Sun 12 Apr

Full day trip to Hiroshima via bullet train. Visit the Peace Park and the A-bomb museum. The park and museum are built around the A-bomb dome which is the skeletal remains of the former Industrial Promotion Hall, one of the few buildings near the centre of Hiroshima which was left at least partially standing after the first atomic bomb was detonated several hundred metres away and 600 metres overhead, on the morning of August 6, 1945. The Peace Park is a fitting memorial to the horrors of nuclear war.

Then visit Miyajima Island and its famous giant floating torii gate.

Later in the afternoon, transfer back to the station for the bullet train back to Osaka.

Day 8

Mon 13 Apr

Private coach to visit a Kobe Wagyu cattle farm. Kobe beef refers to beef from the black Tajima-ushi breed of Wagyu cattle, raised according to strict tradition in Hyogo Prefecture. They are raised on only 262 farms, some with as few as five cows. Each animal is massaged daily and fed a strictly controlled diet including large quantities of beer and sake mash. Kobe beef BBQ lunch. Then continue on to the beautiful city of Kyoto, which was the Japanese capital for over 1000 years.

Day 9

Tue 14 Apr

Tour of this beautiful city including Nijo Castle, the Imperial Palace. Golden Pavilion, Kiyomizu temple and Marayuma Park, followed by Hozugawa river boat cruise. Free afternoon to enjoy the prettiest city in Japan. In the evening there are plenty of great restaurants along Pontocho Street and lightlife in the Gion area.

Option for a traditional Kaiseki dinner and Maiko dance performance.

Day 10

Wed 15 Apr

Catch a bullet train back to Tokyo Haneda airport for a flight to Obihiro in the highly productive agricultural region of Tokachi on Hokkaido.

Day 11

Thu 16 Apr

Hokkaido is Japans frontier island with the lowest population, beautiful national parks and some of the best agricultural areas. Farm visits in the largest cropping region of Japan which is also a major beef and dairy region. We will spend the day with farmers from a local farm group, SRU (Soil Research Union). There are 40 farmers at this branch, one of 12 SRU branches in Hokkaido. Visit a 2000 head beef operation plus highly productive dairy farms. At dinner we will be joined by some of the farmers at Bitou's restaurant, run by one of the farmers and serving fine beef from Tokachi Ono farm.

Day 12

Fri 17 Apr

In the morning, visit a wine research centre and winery near Obihiro before heading west with afternoon farm visits on the way to Sapporo. Evening farewell dinner.

Day 13

Sat 18 Apr

Quick look around Sapporo before heading to the airport for afternoon departure direct to Tokyo and Australia.