Part 3 – Japan – Tokyo – Disneyland (Dec-Jan 2014/2015)

Tokyo

We decided to buffer our snow trip with a couple of days in Tokyo at each end. I didn’t want to travel all that way and miss exploring such a lively place. Tokyo is a modern, fast paced city and there are treasures and interesting things to be discovered all over. We choose to stay a little out of the CBD as I feel you get a more authentic taste of what Tokyo has to offer and the city centre really is all about business with people in suits rushing everywhere and tall, commercial buildings towering over you. We did venture in and found ourselves at the Imperial Palace Gardens which is a nice walk.

It is easy to get around on the subway trains as many signs are in English or numbered/colour coded and they run on time and are efficiently managed. I also found the iPhone app  Tokyo Metro Subway and trains.jp to be of great help. There are two companies that run trains in Japan: JR (more regional express lines) and Metro (city to suburbs, stops all stations) so you need to utilise both apps (they didn’t need wifi when I used them) to find the most direct route or if you do have wifi and know where you want to go, the website HyperDia is quite useful.

Some notable suburbs worth losing yourself in are Shinjuku, Shibuya, the Golden Gai and the famous Harajuku. Takeshita Street in Harajuku is full of busy markets and quirky stores where you will find all manner of items. I go just to people watch and have glimpsed the Harajuku girls of Gwen Stefani fame a few times. There are awesome little food stalls everywhere and many are just a hole in the wall or down random stairs so make sure you keep an eye out. You can easily spend hours walking around the Tokyo suburbs and not get bored as the sometimes eccentric Japanese culture oozes from the pavement until the cityscape changes dramatically after dark.

There are a range of cultural displays in the park at the end of the Harajuku suburb. These lanterns were so intricate.

There are a range of cultural displays in the park at the end of the Harajuku suburb. These lanterns were so intricate.

The Golden Gai is a strip in the Shinjuku area. It is famous for the food and nightlife and has a range of wacky and weird shops and 'shows'. Vendors try to get you in the door at every chance.

The Golden Gai is a strip in the Shinjuku area. It is famous for the food and nightlife and has a range of wacky and weird shops and ‘shows’. Vendors try to get you in the door at every chance.

The train network is elaborate but works so efficiently. The trains aren't always this empty, and lugging our snowboard gear around Tokyo station during peak hour is one of my favourite memories as people stared at us with open mouths. I have come to appreciate how the Japanese are able to sleep on the trans and wake up just before their station. I came to call these 'Jap naps'.

The train network is elaborate but works so efficiently. The trains aren’t always this empty, and lugging our snowboard gear around Tokyo station during peak hour is one of my favourite memories as people stared at us with open mouths. I have come to appreciate how the Japanese are able to sleep on the trans and wake up just before their station. I came to call these ‘Jap naps’.

Just soaking up the sunlight on quite a frosty morning

The Imperial Palace Gardens. Just soaking up the sunlight on quite a frosty morning.

Lost in translation. Sometimes it is just as fun to point and then eat what comes.

Lost in translation. Sometimes it is just as fun to point at the menu and embrace what comes. Usually, it is delicious!

Disneyland – The happiest place on Earth

Disneyland wasn’t originally on our itinerary however, we felt that we had seen a lot of Tokyo in the first few days of our trip. So we started researching how to get there from Tokyo while still in Niseko to discover it was a viable option for the two spare days we had on our way home. It turned out to be just over an hour train ride from Tokyo and was fairly easy to get to so, we made our decision and decided to go all out by staying on site to fully utilise our two days. At Disneyland, there are two whole theme parks side by side: Disneyland and Disneysea. I felt that Disneyland was aimed at a younger audience (parades, shows, mild rides) whereas Disneysea was more for the bigger kids (like myself) and included more rollercoasters and sea/water themed rides. We seemed to luck it in with the crowds as the park was not crowded for both of the days we were there, and the longest I had to wait in line for a ride was about 20 or 30 minutes (I have waited MUCH longer at Dreamworld at home). I also took advantage of the ‘fastpass’ system which allows you to collect an advanced ticket for a particular ride for a certain time period so you can jump the queue. This is explained on the many signs and does seem to work fairly well. We did this for most of the bigger rides that had lines or if we wanted to go on something more than once. We spent our days exploring Disneyland and Disneysea, eating the many flavours of popcorn and enjoying the atmosphere like excited children. We stayed at the Disneyland Hilton, one of the affiliated hotels which featured Disney themed levels and rooms with spectacular views of the harbour. It felt overly spacious and luxurious compared to the pension lodge we had been staying at, and it wasn’t so obtusely expensive that it broke our budget. It was a relaxing way to spend a couple of days letting our sore bodies recover before flying back to Australia.

This bought back memories of watching Fantasia as a kid.

This bought back memories of watching Fantasia as a kid.

An underwater restaurant fit for a mermaid named Ariel.

An underwater restaurant fit for a little mermaid.

The only Disney character which did not have a huge line up.

The Toy Story soldier. The only Disney character which did not have a huge line up.

The famous castle from every Disney film ever.

The famous castle from every Disney film ever.

Every girl wants to be Minnie Mouse at some stage in her life.

Every girl wants to be Minnie Mouse at some stage in her life.

Our Hilton room was a slight upgrade from our pension room in the snow.

Our Hilton room was a welcome upgrade from our pension room in the snow.

That is where I will leave Japan for now. I will do another backlog blog about my second trip to Myoko, Japan a little later on. Coming soon is the Sri Lanka series.

-rocketandramble

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Part 2 – Japan – Niseko – Hirafu (Dec-Jan 2014/2015)

Food Glorious Food – A couple of special mentions

There is an awesome  pizza shop located down some stairs on the corner of the main junction, called Niseko Pizza. It has tasty food, wine, a cool seating area and bar. After a long day boarding and eating Japanese most meals, it is nice to get in touch with Italian food coupled with a vibrant atmosphere.

Another group favourite was Wild Bill’s, which is about as un-Japanese looking as you can get. It is a large log style cabin with multiple bars and a pool table split across two levels. They serve delicious Japanese tapas (izakaya) and it can get quite ‘wild’ if you stay past 10pm. It is an easy way to start a fun night out if you are so inclined.
The final mention goes to “Fridge Bar” (aka Bar Gyu). It is an awesome boutique bar, nestled in the snow, a little way from the main drag and has a fridge door as the entrance. They serve hot food and drinks in a cosy and interesting ambiance with vinyls lining the walls. I had many spiked hot chocolates here listening to some  tunes.

Funky boutique bar with a cool atmosphere and drinks menu.

Funky boutique bar with a cool atmosphere and drinks menu.

Enjoyed many hot chocolates and cocktails here in the cosy atmosphere.

Enjoyed many hot chocolates and cocktails here in the cosy atmosphere.

Snowboard Lessons with Pro Ski

My partner could already snowboard having been on a trip previously and he swore that I wouldn’t need lessons and that he could ‘easily’ teach me. He didn’t get lessons when he learnt, but tends to be a freak of nature when it comes to picking up sports. He tried to convince me that I would easily learn just like he did. I was willing to let him at least attempt to teach me. I had borrowed my board and bindings from a friend, but loaned boots and a helmet from one of the ski shops in the village. In day one, my partner spent a couple of hours trying to teach me some basic moves and how to get on and off the lifts without much luck. Needless to say, I did not learn anything, and had already started counting my bruises. After lunch, I went and booked a lesson and improved significantly with better directions fro my instructor and a little more patience. I went with Pro Ski and just did a half day lesson, but there are a variety of other options and a kids club. There were five girls in my lesson of varying ability and we all slowly ‘leafed‘ our way down the family run. I then spent two days practicing what I had learnt in the lesson, but I couldn’t quite perfect my technique and kept crashing, so I booked a second lesson on day three to correct any bad habits. I am so glad I did! It helped correct a variety of snowboarding sins and after that lesson, I felt I snowboarded with less effort and found I didn’t fall over so much. After three snow trips (Japan twice and Canada) I have progressed to my own board and are attempting jumps and tricks with ease. So don’t give up 🙂

Onsen Etiquette – Yukoro

If you have ever wondered about why Japanese women are so liberal about getting changed in public bathrooms, onsen is the answer. Japanese onsens can be quite a daunting experience for westerners. An onsen is a natural spring of hot water that is believed to have healing properties due to the minerals it contains. Some are naturally occurring and others are built up around shines or sacred areas. They are steamy, unusual and definitely an experience worth having, even just for the awkward story. Onsens are usually gendered but some can be mixed. They are quiet and peaceful places that Japanese people go to meditate and relax after a long day.

The Yukoro onsen was my first experience and it was just a short walk from our accommodation. I have now been in a variety of onsens, from indoor to outdoor, on rooftops and private baths in fancy hotels. After boarding or skiing for 5 or so hours, onsen is the perfect way to unwind with a beer or soft drink to let your muscles recover. Leave your shoes wherever everyone has left theirs and then pay the person behind the desk (usually a couple hundred yen). Find the locker room and follow everyone’s lead, by taking off your clothes and putting them in a locker, making sure to remove jewellery and watches etc. Use your modesty towel to cover up if you are shy (or are lucky enough to get one) or just go without and strut your stuff proudly (maybe have a few drinks beforehand, but not too many as you can pass out from the heat). Most people avert their eyes and are respectful anyway. Next comes the washroom. For my first time, it was located down a flight of steamy stairs and did resemble a dungeon a little. But do not fear! It is expected that you will wash yourself thoroughly BEFORE entering the onsen bath. You are supposed to sit on the little plastic stools and use the showers and products provided to clean your hair and body. Standing is unusual, but no one will say anything if you don’t want to sit on the plastic tubs. Before entering, women are expected to put their hair up (not let it sit in the water). Entering the onsen gracefully is really hard work as it is really hot and I found I had to choose which part of my body I covered with my very small modesty towel. Sitting on the edge of the bath, stark naked, slowly forcing yourself into the hot water is quite a humorous situation to find yourself in, made even more awkward and hilarious when with friends. At the Yukoro onsen in Niseko, we were allowed to bring beers and drinks bought from the vending machine outside into the onsen (the rules depend on the onsen) and the common practice (once you have got used to the heat) is to sit in the bath and place your modesty towel on your head (it shouldn’t go in the water) with snow on top to keep you cool if you are too hot. A word of warning, sometimes there are whole Japanese families going into onsen together, it is a little weird at first hanging out with women of all ages naked in a bath, but the more you do it, the better it gets. Trust me. Embrace it. Once you are done (about 20-30mins for me before I get too hot or dizzy) you can rinse off in the washroom, dry off and put your clothes back on. You will sleep like a baby I promise. This became a daily routine and an awesome way to thaw out after all that time in the snow.

Tokyo and Disneyland coming soon.

-rocketandramble

Part 1 Japan – Niseko – Hirafu (Dec-Jan 2014/2015)

Hirafu, Niseko was the destination of my first group snow trip. It is located on the Hokkaido island, which is north of Japan’s mainland. On the way to Niseko, we stayed a couple of nights in Tokyo (a couple is all you will need) before flying domestically (approximately 2 hours) to Sapporo on Hokkaido island. I do believe there is a bullet train as well, but I haven’t delved any further. Once you arrive in Sapporo, you catch a bus (approx 3-4 hours depending on the weather) to Niseko. It is a scenic route as the roads slowly get snowier, the bus window gets colder and the tree branches begin to fill with snow. At the 30 minute stopover, was the first time I got to really witness snow falling and snowflakes and play in the huge mounds of it that get pushed to the side of the road. I was like a child again, giddy with a new experience and uncontainable excitement. The snow in Japan is so light and fluffy, it really is like powder and it is magical. It is one of my best memories.

The view from the bus on the way up the mountain just keeps getting better.

The view from the bus on the way up the mountain just keeps getting better.

The slopes of Niseko access a variety of mountains with a a range of difficulty levels and off piste areas. Japan’s slopes do have tress but they are fairly small and easy to manoeuvre around and can actually be quite fun to go through with the fresh powder settling waiting for you to hurtle through it. I would recommend a helmet though, just in case you can’t stop in time. Maps of the slopes can be found online here and the mountain passes can be bought for one or multiple mountains depending on how far you want to explore each day. We organised an 8/10 day ski pass before we arrived (trust me you will need a couple of days to rest your legs when skiing for that long) to save on money and then just purchased our last few days as we went. Hanazono had a great park for those who are interested in that sort of thing. Over the two weeks we were in Niseko, we explored all three mountains and were still finding new runs and sections. I highly recommend getting up early for first tracks at least one of the days, and Niseko has some excellent night skiing as well. It is best if the snow has been falling consistently all day and you haven’t quite had enough. It is cold, but can be worth it as the crowds thin out.
The Niseko village is small, but quite touristy and well established. Most people speak English well, but learning a little Japanese goes a long way. In peak season, I would advise booking accommodation as soon as you have your plane ticket, as it does get very busy and fills up quickly.

It is cold, but if it has snowed all day, I would recommend doing it at least once. The lit up runs aren't long, but they are uncrowded and totally fun.

It is cold, but if it has snowed all day, I would recommend doing it at least once. The lit up runs aren’t long, but they are uncrowded and totally fun.

There are a range of places to eat that cater to all tastes and cultural appetites. It can be done cheaply if you stick to the Japanese restaurants as the western food tends to be more pricey. If you want to eat out in large groups (more than 4) I would encourage you to book ahead during the day so you do not get turned away, as most of the boutique restaurants won’t be able to fit large groups on a whim. We found if we ate a little later than usual, they could squeeze us in, but sometimes we were waved away as the venues aren’t very big. To eat on the mountain, you will pay a premium price so we found we could eat really cheap by making a rendezvous time at Seico Mart (the small convenience shop in the middle of the village, just down from the bottom ski lift. You can’t miss it) and we would get sushi, rice dishes, dumplings or noodles and have a bit of a picnic out the front instead. Trying to figure out the hot chocolates and coffees from the vending machines is still a bit of a novelty. It was also pretty fun trying the Japanese snack food and chips, choosing only by the pictures that don’t always relate to what is actually inside.

The village at night is just beautiful with all the snow pushed to the side to make way for the roads. It is so marshmellow-y.

The village at night is just beautiful with all the snow pushed to the side to make way for the roads. It is so marshmellow-y.

Accommodation

My partner and I stayed in a place called the Grandpapa Lodge Pension, which is a large Japanese house run by a local family. The house boasts many rooms (twin or double) with shared bathroom facilities and a communal kitchen. The accommodation is quite modest, but comfortable enough if you aren’t too fussy. There are a range of accommodation options that can suit any budget, just make sure you book well in advance. Our room had twin beds, a table, heater and we used the shared bathroom. It also included breakfast which was a always an interesting talking point to start the morning on as we tried to guess what was in our meals. The family who ran it were lovely and tried to meet any needs we had. It was small, but warm and we didn’t have many issues with the bathroom after the initial shock of no locks and multiple showers in one room (after you have been to an onsen it all makes perfect sense- a post on onsen etiquette is coming soon). Our modest accommodation came in at AU$60 per night with breakfast included and you can’t really beat that. My only complaint was the many stairs we had to walk up and down to get to our room which was on the second level. Usually it would be no problem, but after 3 days learning to snowboard I could hardly lift my legs, let alone walk up stairs.

Grandpapa Lodge had a variety of quirky and interesting decorations scattered throughout its walls.

Grandpapa Lodge had a variety of quirky and interesting decorations scattered throughout its walls.

Part 2 to follow with recommendations, onsen etiquette, snowboard lessons and… Disneyland!

-rocketandramble

Packing for the Snow

My first time packing for a snow trip was a HUGE learning curve. Living in sunny Queensland with only moderate winter temperatures, I really lacked the necessary items to go to the snow. All I really had that was appropriate for minus degrees was the outerwear items I had purchased online. The problem with that is I started to notice that there were going to be multiple occasions when I would have to wear something else such as for dinner, drinks, walking around the village, lounging in the apartment, doing touristy things etc. I didn’t think to plan my outfits a little more carefully and I panicked a little at the last minute and packed way too many items that I didn’t wear because they weren’t warm enough, didn’t match each other or were a little impractical for the snow.

For my net snow trip, I was determined to pack smarted and halve the number of items.  It has been a few years now and I can admit that I was a serial overpacker, because I like to be prepared (is that the scout’s motto?) for all occasions. I have learnt a lot over my last few adventures and especially in preparation for my one year abroad (Blogs to come soon). I found being “fashionable”  in the snow really depends on which country you come from, but pretty much anything goes, as long as it is bright. This included whole families in the exact same neon pink and green onesie ski outfits. The parents weren’t losing those kids! My outfit consisted of dark purple snow pants and accessories and a green patterned jacket.

There is no real dress code on the slopes as long as it keeps you warm and you aren’t blending in with the snow. You want to stand out, especially as a beginner, so people can see you coming and friends can spot you if they need to wait.  When you are not on the slopes, it is common to see jeans and jackets with ugg boots or wellingtons. For most occasions, jeans, a top and a beanie were perfectly acceptable attire. At night, I often wore thermals under jeans, a thermal singlet and top and then my snow jacket over the top with gloves, a scarf and a beanie. When I wanted to dress up a little more, I had a warm long sleeve dress that I wore with thick thermal tights.

The temperatures during the day in Niseko sit around -10, dropping to -15 at night but I found 2-3 layers was enough for me. In saying that, I do find that I am a ‘hot’ person and don’t have trouble keeping warm so if you are not so lucky consider a fleece middle layer. Most people wore their snow jacket over everything to walk around outside, it is the most convenient and warmest, waterproof option. Once you go inside, the snow will melt and soak your clothes, so the jacket is helpful and you can leave it hanging in the cloak room until you leave.

I might type a comprehensive packing list up that I now take use for my snow trips somewhere in the near future. My friend Lauren is a master of the packing list, so I might coerce her into helping me compile one. In the meantime, there are a range of lists that you find online and then modify to get you started.

This is me packed into my partner's snowboard bag. I am pretty good at procrastinating.

This is me packed into my partner’s snowboard bag. I am pretty good at procrastinating.

-rocketandramble

#rocketandramble @rocketandramble

Japan – An Introduction

Japan

Dec 2013 – Jan 2014

As much as Australia is known for its beautiful beaches and endless sun, many Australians also love the snow. Australia does have a handful of snow resorts but even on their best seasons, they aren’t much to be desired when compared to other countries. The snow fall is sporadic and can be decent, but it usually comes in flurries and then just as quickly melts away. The cost for mountain passes, accommodation and gear hire (if you don’t have your own) adds up quickly and often it is those who live close to the snow fields or those who want to do a short, trip such as a long weekend  who end up heading to Thredbo or Perisher. Those with a little more cash usually take the short plane trip to our neighbour New Zealand. New Zealand does tend to have (in my professional snow judging opinion) more consistent snowfall than Australia, but even then, seasons vary and costs are still quite high. The next best option, and my personal favourite for snow is Japan. It’s comparable on price, has amazing food, an interesting, unique culture and history to explore and the sheer amount of snow is beyond description. (YouTube Japan powder runs for confirmation)

As a born and raised Queenslander, I had never experienced snow before I headed to Japan with a group of friends. Snowboarding was something that always caught my attention and I reasoned (foolishly before I learnt how to do it) that it was similar to surfing, which I can do. I realised that I was wrong shortly after falling off a ski lift and holding up the line as they dragged me out from underneath. The appeal of traveling to Japan was more that just the soft landing for my butt while I learnt how to snowboarding. I hadn’t skied or snowboarded before, and was quite excited for the trip.

To cut costs, I borrowed a snowboard and bindings from a friend’s sister and put it in my partner’s snowboard bag, while I took a suitcase. I purchased outerwear online to make it cheaper, after trying on brands and styles in store at Snowbiz (Australia’s primary snow gear company) to see what brands fit (Australian gear is very overpriced and has limited colours and patterns. Of course, this is problematic for a semi-fashion conscious girl like me). Even with the airfare, (also bought while on sale – make sure you check the terms and conditions for any block out dates) our budget allowed us a longer stay in Japan for almost the same budget when compared to the Australian resorts. The time of year suited us better to take holidays as well (Dec-Jan is season for Japan). So why not go overseas instead?

Japan’s ski pass prices vary depending on which mountains you go to, or whether you opt to get a three mountain pass versus a one mountain pass, but mostly they vary from AU$50-70 per day. Australian passes are often more than twice that! To fly from the Gold Coast to Tokyo takes about 9 hours. Japan’s runs are definitely not the longest and the mountains not the largest, but they are some of the most fun and they have great parks, if that is your thing. They cater to all levels with great beginner slopes topped by plentiful powder which saved some serious bruises. The snowfall on average is 13 meters per season and it is not uncommon to get dumps everyday of 20-40cm or more, with snowflakes the size of 20c coins. Bluebird (sunny) days aren’t super common, so buy/pack appropriate lenses for your goggles. However, we managed to get 2/3 bluebird days per 15 day trip.

More information on Japan to come including packing, accommodation, recommendations and onsen etiquette. In the meantime, check out some of my photos to get you excited.

-rocketandramble

Every car is a snow mobile. Most cars traveled around with at least 30 cms of snow or more on their roof.

Every car is a snow mobile. Most cars traveled around with at least 30 cms of snow or more on their roof.

The Japanese sure know how to do bakery treats. Delicious!

The Japanese sure know how to do bakery treats. Delicious!

Detailed and descriptive instructions, just incase

Detailed and descriptive bathroom instructions

Bottom of Annupuri Gondola

A view of the fields from Annupuri Gondola

When the sky was clear enough, Mount Yotei was quite a sight.

When the sky was clear enough, Mount Yotei was quite a sight.

Our pension room's view. It was like Christmas everyday.

Our pension room’s view. It was like Christmas everyday.

There is something so pretty and delicate about a snow dusted tree

There is something so pretty and delicate about a snow dusted tree.