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Trip Report Crispy's 2017 Japan Trip - Sightseeing, culture, food and a bit of snow

Discussion in 'Japan' started by Crispy013, Feb 11, 2017.

  1. Crispy013

    Crispy013 One of Us

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    Well another ski season was upon us and as much as I try to stay away from the place to save a bit of coin, I keep getting sucked back in. For me this was lucky trip #7 (in as many years :whistle:), and accompanying me this time was the +1 and her close work colleague. Both of my travelling partners were Japan freshies and also skiing newbies so this was lined up to be an interesting part tourist/part snow trip if the Japan powder machine was firing.

    Considering none of the accompanying crew had been to the country before, I formulated a bit of quick-fire 'intro to Japan' tour that had us land in Osaka, before spending a couple days in Kyoto, then up to Hakuba for a week's skiing before finishing the second week and flying out of Tokyo. For me, this was definitely the earliest in the season I had ever travelled to Japan so I was interested to see how the snow and crowds in early Jan compared to when I would usually head over later in the month.

    My partner and I were both finishing up our Christmas period with the family over in Perth, so we decided to give Singapore Airlines a whirl which surprising had some pretty competitive flights - even over the New Years period which is historically a mind boggling expensive time to travel. Flight up to Singapore went smoothly (only a touch over 5hrs!!), then a quick stretch of the legs and trying madly to stay awake for our 1am flight to Osaka. Oh and also celebrate what was the most underwhelming New Years I think I have ever had in Changi Airport - you could hear a faint clap and applause at midnight LOL. It was another fairly smooth overnight flight up on the top deck of the A380 and we arrived in Osaka raring to go at 6am the next morning.

    Touch down in KIX - 1st Jan 2017 - Happy New Year
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    Not too sure if it was the early flight arrival, but the transition from the flight deck until we were outside customs with our bags was all of 25 mins. Seriously Japanese efficiency in action! Next up it was a quick rendezvous to the takkyubin desk to send my board bag off to the lodge in Hakuba, pull out some spending money and then across to the train terminal to pick up our train ticket and Hello Kitty themed Icoca pass. All of 30 minutes later and we were rocketing towards Kyoto on the Haruka express. Bring it on!

    Toot toot - Haruka express from KIX to KYOTO
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    80 minutes on the Haruka service and we had arrived at the stunning Kyoto station. For me, this was my second time in the city but I think I was way under prepared for all the tourist sights last time and missed out on so much, so I was keen for round 2.

    As we were staying up near Sanjo / Higashiyama for the next 3 nights, we then all had to wrangle the many levels and corridors with our bags down to the local subway system. It was fairly straight forward and didn't take too long until we arrived to check into our accommodation.

    Standard fare on the local subway system

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    I managed to find a pretty nifty little place called Resi Stay Sanjo Higashiyama which was absolutely perfect for our party of 3. Good location, huge rooms and also a little kitchen if you wanted to cook meals. The other bonus of the place was that it came with free bicycle hire - winning :thumbs:.

    Outside our accomodation - so much Japan in one photo
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    After dumping our bags, we wandered over the Sanjo bridge towards the shopping district to try and locate lunch and give our legs a bit of a stretch after the long journey. After a quick dirt cheap and dericious ramen, we decided to continue up towards the Gion district, with the Kiyomizu-dera temple being the final destination to watch the sun go down.

    Being a national public holiday weekend, plus adding into the fact that it was a Sunday, the crowds were seriously out of control. Almost unbearable. However, we somehow managed to meander our way up Shijo Dori past all the cute little stores before squeezing through the masses at the Yasaka Shrine.

    Yasaka shrine entrance - standard crowds
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    Shijo Dori - just mental amounts of people
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    Year of the Rooster!
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    After popping out the side of the Yasaka shrine area, we managed to loose the crowds as we snaked up the many back streets of the Higashiyama district, keeping our ever hopeful eye out for the elusive Geisha possibly slipping out one of the back entrances. No luck at the hour we were wandering through, so we had to settle for the masses of tourists dressed up in their robes walking along the beautiful preserved streets en route towards Kiyomizu-dera district.

    Geisha spotting in the back alleys of Higashiyama

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    Best we could find
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    We hit the crowds again as we made our way up through historic Higashiyama walkway, but just wandering through and exploring all the little stores along the way made the journey so worthwhile. As we were checking the shops out, we also found a neat little artist's store and were just drawn in to get a picture done - the artist's there are seriously talented! Highly recommend for a cheesy momento.

    Strolling the streets of Higashiyama
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    Eventually after making it up the Ninenzaka and Shannenzaka stairs we arrived at the temple area just on sunset time. Just sublime!

    Made it!
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    Keeping up with the Crispy's
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    Colours definitely on point
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    After a big soak in of the city behind, we headed into the temple area to get a look at the massive wooden structure that is the Kiyomizu-dera temple. Putting the crowds aside, it was simply stunning. A hands down must do when you are in Kyoto.

    Sunset at Kiyomizu-dera - can't not take a bad shot.

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    Overall, it was a pretty good first day in Kyoto and great start to the 2017 trip. More Kyoto and outskirts to come. Stay tuned...
     
    cin, tot, Kimski and 19 others like this.
  2. Mike Pow

    Mike Pow One of Us

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    Fantastic. Keep it coming :)
     
  3. M_G

    M_G M_G_ = Make skiing great again Ski Pass: Gold

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    Looking forward another epic trip report. No pressure!
     
  4. cruisin along

    cruisin along A Local Ski Pass: Gold

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    brilliant !!!!!!
     
  5. Crispy013

    Crispy013 One of Us

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    Acknowledging the crowds from the previous day around the Kyoto hot spots, we awoke the next morning pretty early in hopes of getting in some sights before the masses awoke. Today's plan saw us heading south from Kyoto for a day trip to Nara, with a little stop over along the way to explore the fairly eerie Fushimi Inari Shrine.

    All aboard!
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    A quick 5-10 minute journey from Sanjo station on the Keihan line and we had arrived at Fushimi Inari station - and by the looks of it, so had half of Kyoto. Even at 7:30am in the morning, the place was packed! I guess everyone else had the same idea as us :eek:. Was funny seeing the police and crowd controllers in place so early directing the pedestrian traffic up the right streets towards the shrine entrance - apparently some streets were 1-way only (for pedestrians!).

    Jostling up the main street towards the Fushimi Inari Shrine entrance
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    Markets and stalls in full swing

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    No relief in sight from the crowds
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    Settling for the fact that we were going to have to embrace the crowds again, we got in line and slowly started to snake our way up the mountain through the thousands of beautifully stark orange Tori gates that line the trail. For those who haven't been here, it truly is pretty mind blowing how many there are all the way up the mountain.

    Praying for some good fortune
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    Start of the uphill journey
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    The walk uphill was fairly slow, as we had to constantly start and stop to account for (a) the tourists just randomly stopping and wanting to get 'that perfect photo' without anyone in the background, as well as (b) what appeared to be a huge proportion of elderly Japanese locals who I guess come out to wander the path and pray at the many shrines with their family and friends. Much respect for the second group, because their activeness and energy puts most of us to shame.

    After making our way through the very inception like double tori gate feature towards the bottom of the trail we eventually made it about half way up and started to enter the heavily forested and bamboo filled section of the mountain. Honestly, even after doing this walk last time I was in Kyoto, it still takes my breath away with how still and serene the environment is.

    No crowds - must be photoshop
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    Standard battle of people up the trail
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    Eventually though after about a good hour, we made it to the crossroads lookout with an amazing view back down over southern Kyoto. A well earned sight that we soaked up quickly before racing back downhill to continue our day towards Nara.

    Crossroads at Fushimi Inari Shrine
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    We made it back down the trail and quickly slipped out the side of the shrine entrance street back towards the train station. A quick journey down to Tambabashi station, and then over the Kintetsu line to Nara. Not more than about an hour and we had arrived in the heart of Nara raring to go.

    But before we could go on, it was lunch time. After a quick little wander down the arcade beside the Kintetsu-Nara station, we found a little place call Tonkatsu that a small local crowd was lining up for...my thinking was that they were onto something good so we jumped in the queue. After about 15mins we had a table and were quietly impressed with the menu - just bulk Katsu. I think we tried about everything on offer there (pork, chicken, prawn) and were certainly not disappointed. I'm actually salivating right now thinking about it.

    Front seats to the Katsu making action
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    Chicken katsu bento - dericious!
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    With our bellies full, we headed up the main road towards the Nara attractions. It didn't take long until we came across the infamous Nara deer population, with stampedes of the wildlife flying across the empty parks and also dodging traffic. I can see why there are traffic signs up warning of their presence - they are so unpredictable!

    Local deer population

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    The biggest scam of the century though we found out was the so called 'deer crackers' which we blindly bought off a small little lady on the side of the street for about Y150. We tried to coax one of the deer's across to us for some photos only to realise that they had no interest in the crackers at all.

    Can I keep him?
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    After some fun trying to play around with the deer (and also dodge their poo which are everywhere!), we eventually made it to the entrance of the famous Todaji temple. Again, it was no surprise that it was jammed packed again, but not as bad as the bigger sights in Kyoto. After making our way through the huge wooden entrance gate, we arrived at the very awe inspiring wooden Todaji temple.

    Todaji entrance gate - impressive
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    Classic tourists at the actual Todaji temple

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    Inside the temple, there is a huge 20m high or so bronze Buddha. There was also some cool little scaled recreations of the Todaji temple which described how it had been rebuilt several times! Apparently it was a fan of being destroyed in wars. What amazed me though was the pure scale and detailing of the wooden structure. Just amazing.

    Incense for days
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    One big Buddha[​IMG]

    Once we had been through the temple we were pretty tired so made tracks back to the train line to head back to Kyoto. There were a number of other shrines and attractions in the Nara area that I would have liked to have seen if we had more time. Oh well, there is always next time!

    Overall I really enjoyed the vibe around Nara. Definitely put it on your schedule if you are in Kyoto or Osaka and feel like a day trip.

    More Kyoto adventures to come before we head north to snow country...
     
  6. ojisan

    ojisan station master Ski Pass: Gold

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    Nara is a cool place...
    Did you see them make mochi the traditional way?
    I remember there was a place right near the station that did it
     
  7. Mike Pow

    Mike Pow One of Us

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  8. LMB

    LMB Old but definitely not Crusty! Ski Pass: Gold

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    Your travelling companions have really lucked in! You have such awesome adventures.
     
  9. Vermillion

    Vermillion Pool Room Ski Pass: Gold

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    1. I never realised you were so tall.
    2. The only thing that stopped me from epic jelly-ness last year was my own trip. This year i'm not going to Japan so I guess in order to preserve my sanity I wont be looking in this thread again.....
     
  10. Whiteman

    Whiteman A Local Ski Pass: Gold

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    Fantastic. Thanks for sharing.
     
  11. Scoober

    Scoober One of Us

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    Hey @ojisan ,
    Heading to Nara for a look in August. Be interested to see them making the mochi. Is it easy to find near the station? Any particular exit? Cheers
     
  12. ojisan

    ojisan station master Ski Pass: Gold

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    All I remember is that it was near the station... sorry I can't be more accurate.... the station isn't very big & it was in among touristy stuff
     
  13. Crispy013

    Crispy013 One of Us

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    Day 3 and it was our last full one in Kyoto before we started our move north. Today's plan was to start the morning exploring Arashiyama (western Kyoto) before finishing the afternoon off at the Kinkakuji temple (northern Kyoto). Again we were off early hoping to enjoy the famous bamboo groves before the masses arrived.

    From our accommodation near Sanjo station, we took the subway line and then transferred to the above ground JR train line at Nijo station, before arriving about 20 mins later at the Saga Arashiyama terminal. Our Icoca cards were getting a good workout, but all the different networks and companies worked seamlessly on the pass which was awesome. The walk from the train station towards the main drag of Arashiyama only took about 10 mins of casual strolling. Luckily for us too, the Japanese national holiday long weekend had come to an end so the trains and streets of Arashiyama in general when we arrived appeared back to normal conditions again.

    Arashiyama main street - reprieve from the crowds, finally!
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    After hitting the main street, it was about a 5 minute walk north to the entrance of the bamboo forest walk and was pretty well signposted in English. At first I was kind of disappointed, hoping for a more extravagant display of bamboo trees, but soon realised we initially walked through an intro section and had to continue another 500m until the real section began near the side entrance to the Tenruji temple.

    Entrance to the bamboo forest
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    The section of bamboo forest walk then continues for about another 500m until it hits a junction. This was the part that you see in most tourist books and, in the early morning with no crowds, is absolutely breath taking. Such a relaxing and beautiful feel as you wander through and hands down one of the most memorable parts of the Kyoto section of the trip. Again another must do if you are in the region - make sure you get there before about 9am to get the best conditions.

    Classic tourist snap
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    After getting our fair share of photos of the forest, we slowly wandered back towards the side entry into the neighbouring Tenruji temple. From this entrance you pay about Y600 and then get to explore the magnificent gardens that lay around the temple itself. Personally I think this was the best value we spent on this section of the trip, because you got to check out the absolutely stunning and perfectly manicured gardens, whilst being able to peer into the various open rooms and exhibits of the Tenruji temple. In the morning light, it was just bliss and, I think, rivals the Kenroeken gardens in Kanazawa.

    Don Burke eat your heart out

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    Tenruji temple gardens

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    Arashiyama morning bliss
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    Mr Miyagi keeping a tidy ship
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    We spent maybe an hour or so wandering through the gardens before heading back towards the main part of Arashiyama. As you approach the Katsura river, the main drag past the Keifuku electric railroad station houses a number of little shop fronts and restaurants which we also checked out on our way over to start our journey up to the monkey park which was next up on our list. To get to the entrance of the walk, you cross over the quite beautiful Togetsukyo bridge which offers some incredible views up and down the valley.

    Looking west up the Katsura river in Arashiyama
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    From the other side of the bridge, it's about a 30-40 minute uphill slog to the monkey park but definitely worthwhile for the views back over Arashiyama, as well as the monkey park exhibit itself. From memory it was about a Y600 entrance fee so nothing too extravagant.

    Getting the heart rate up
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    The reward
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    We made it!
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    As soon as you reach the top lookout, you'll immediately see the masses of monkey around the little hut that sits up at the peak. Local monkey controllers help manage the animals and make sure they don't somehow get into the hut itself which is used as a bit of safe house to feed the animals. There were a lot of rules about not coming to close or staring into the monkey's eyes that would potentially set them off attacking you.

    It's quite a fun novelty going inside the hut to hand feed the monkeys. Little bags of cut up apple set you back about Y150 and gives you countless opportunities for a cheesy shot. Even cuter when the baby monkeys come in off Mum hoping for a feed.

    Sucker for the apple portions
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    Little bubber looking for a scrap
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    After about an hour we had our fair share of the monkeys and decided to head back down the mountain for lunch. As we were leaving though they blared some crazy music which apparently rounded up all the monkeys and brought them in for a feeding show. This was quite comical and a pretty cool way to right in close to the monkeys without the cage in front of them.

    Top dog stealing the show (and food)
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    Monkeys, views, what else could you want?

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    From the lookout we headed back down to the main part of Arashiyama and into the Keifuku electric railroad station to catch our next mode of transport towards the Kinkakuji temple area. A couple of steam buns filled a nice gap in our stomachs and whilst waiting for the next service out of Arashiyama we stumbled across a beaut little foot onsen at the end of the station. For about Y500 (which included a little momento towel) we ended up having the whole onsen area to ourself - talk about a win.

    Foot spa all to ourselves - yes please
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    Heaven
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    After nice little reprieve, we dried off and put our shoes back on to continue on the electric tramway that took us gently north-west from Arashiyama through the suburban area of Kyoto. We ended up taking this to the very end of the line which terminated at Kitanohakubaicho. From here, there were a number of bus routes that can take you up to the entrance of the Kinkakuji temple.

    No surprise to see the crowds building around this hot spot, however the line-up to get in was very manageable. After turning through the main entrance and poking through the crowds you eventually see what all the fuss is about - an awe inspiring gold temple.

    Sight to behold
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    Another one of those jaw dropping experiences whilst in Kyoto and just has to be seen IMO. The crowds were pretty good too and everyone was taking their turns for photos. Once we had a couple of our own, we continued around the temple route that takes you through the gardens of the exhibit.

    After snaking our way through, we decided to call it a day and head back to our accommodation. From where we were though, the only feasible public transport option was the bus so we managed to find one that would get us over towards the eastern temple areas of the Ginkakuji, etc. This was unfortunately a VERY long experience having to sit in afternoon traffic for quite a period. Lesson learnt - avoid Kyoto buses where possible.

    We managed to have a quick afternoon siesta and then decided to make the most of the bicycles we got with the accommodation and have a little tour along the canals of Kyoto. In the afternoon sunset, it was stunning to watch the fisherman in the river, locals exercising, couples sitting down on dates and lights of the buildings and restaurants that line the waterfront near Pontoncho Lane. A bit of a spur of the moment outing, but one that really capped off the time in Kyoto.

    They see me rolling...
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    Thank you Kyoto!
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    Overall Kyoto delivered and then some. I think to really get the most out of the city, you need at least 3 days here and get around exploring the many parts and side trips that are on offer nearby. So much history, so much culture and so much fun. Really, there is a bit of everything for anyone's appetite.

    Next up, we travel north to start our week in Hakuba....
     
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  14. Gimp

    Gimp One of Us Ski Pass: Gold

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    Must be good, he's gone stealth
     
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  15. Crispy013

    Crispy013 One of Us

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    It'll come I promise :D
     
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  16. Vermillion

    Vermillion Pool Room Ski Pass: Gold

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    Dont give us too much at once, just a little teaser, otherwise I reckon I might overload.
     
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  17. Crispy013

    Crispy013 One of Us

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    After a pretty amazing 3 days in Kyoto, it was (un)fortunately time to move on and head towards the mountains. For us, this was spending the next week based out of Hakuba.

    Today was a fairly long but straight forward journey from Kyoto to Nagoya on the shinkansen, before switching over to the local JR line that would take us up through the mountains towards Matsumoto where we would pick up our hire car.

    From our accommodation in Sanjo, it was pretty much a mirrored trip along the subway system back to Kyoto station to start the main part of the journey. Shink tickets were simple enough to manage from a little vending machine set to English, and with a short stopover at the local Family-Marto, it wasn't long before we were all rocketing along at 260km/h towards Nagoya.

    Cutting it fine towards the non-reserved line-up

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    Got tix?
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    All of about 40 minutes later on the Nozomi service and our contingent had arrived at the Nagoya terminus. Somewhat of a short lived experience for my counterparts, but fun nevertheless. From the shinkansen platform, it was a fairly simple transfer over to the local JR line to wait for the next Shinano Ltd Exp. Wide View service.

    This section of the trip appeared to drag on for a while, but probably because we'd just come off the bullet train beforehand. Despite this, the trip is visually gorgeous snaking it's way up the valley and takes about 2 hours before it docks in Matsumoto.

    Lunch time hits and we arrive at the foot of the Japanese Alps. Surprisingly, it was very difficult to find a spare locker around the station capable of storing our large luggage for a couple of hours while we go and check out the local shops and castle attractions. Eventually we find one on the far side where the bus terminal is, dump our gear and start out pilgrimage towards the Matsumoto castle grounds.

    Yes that's correct - 16C!
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    It was somewhat of a t-shirt kind of day with temps around 16C upon arrival. Ouch. Not overly promising considering we were heading into a week of skiing, plus the fact that no significant snow had fallen on the central Honshu resorts over much of the last month. Oh well, not much we can do now but enjoy the trip!

    Not to be taken away, we made it the short 10 minute walk or so down to check out the city's prized castle. Entry into the grounds was again fairly reasonable which offer's you the opportunity to climb inside the castle up through the man levels and exhibits within. A very nice tourist attraction and a great way to spend an hour or two.

    Matsumotooooooo
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    Making friends with the local security force
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    After snaking our way up and down the castle, it was back towards the main station where we would be picking up our car to continue on towards the Hakuba valley. Again, Tocoo delivered with simplistic bookings over the net and we rolled out of the Nissan hire yard with a sweet little Cube - snow tires and all.

    Navigation set for Hakuba, just need to get out of this traffic :|
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    Pit stop at Family-marto for some travelling essentials
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    Once we eventually navigated our way out of the downtown streets of Matsumoto, it was fairly smooth travelling up towards Hakuba. The navigation system in the Nissan cube was brilliant being in English and also delivering English directions. Input the phone number for the lodge and we were off.

    The roads up towards Hakuba are still fairly commercial/residential and you are constantly stopping and starting at as you pass through numerous smaller townships (Azumino, Ikeda, Omachi) and a frustrating number of traffic lights. Unfortunately there is no real bypass or way around this so we just had to suck it up.

    Along the way though we did manage to find a neat little sports store about 30 mins out of Matsumoto where we picked up a complete snowboard set for the +1 for Y20,000 - bargain! Considering this was probably going to be the cost to just hire for the week, it was a no brainer.

    As night time fell, we slowly rolled into Hakuba and the temperature was slowly dropping from the remarkable levels we saw at lunch time. Light snow began falling as we passed downtown Hakuba station and snaked our way out towards the lodge which was situated just off the road between Iwatake and Tsugaike.

    We made it!
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    We had the next week booked at Backcountry Lodge Hakuba, which from some very positive online reviews had me really excited. Away from the hoards of downtown Happo, we could really embrace the snow country life and have easy access to the northern Hakuba fields of Iwatake, Tsugaike, Norikura and Cortina.

    Immediately, the lodge owner's Eric and Fumie were incredibly accommodating, as too was their golden retriever Hime who I think my partner still has a soft spot for.

    Teasing Hime with some ichigo
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    Once we had settled into our incredibly huge western room (with private bathroom!), we spent the rest of the evening chilling out in front of the beautiful fire, looking forward to hopeful continuation of snow that had begun falling. Bring it!

    Tomorrow was looking good!
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    We hit the mountains tomorrow...
     
    #17 Crispy013, Feb 26, 2017
    Last edited: Feb 26, 2017
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  18. Kimski

    Kimski One of Us

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    Great report and the photos are almost like being there :thumbs:

    I'm already thinking about a 2018 Japan ski holiday and hoping to fit in a few days in Kyoto so this is great trip inspiration for me.

    Can't believe the crowds, especially at Fushimi Inari. I was lucky enough to visit there on a drizzly day when it was half deserted. In fact the weather just made it more atmospheric.
     
  19. Crispy013

    Crispy013 One of Us

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    Finally, it had come to the snowboarding section of the trip which I was most excited for. Unfortunately, the conditions were very unlike the ones I'd come to expect on previous trips. The season was off to a slow start (by about 2-4 weeks by most accounts) with most resorts along the Hakuba valley only having certain parts of their respective mountains open for business due to the low base. Throw in the fact that it was the New Years period and I could see some crowd and lift line frustrations coming on.

    Anyhow, considering both of my travelling partners were beginners on the snowboarding front, some lessons were in order so today was all about getting them confident on the snow. Short of paying some high price to get a private lesson at the nearest resort, we decided to head down to Goryu/Iimori for some group English lessons.

    Dropping the crew off at the Iimori base, it was very clear that Hakuba (and most of central Honshu) were struggling. I had never honestly seen such conditions in all my trips to Japan and is what I'd expect Australian skiing to resemble.

    Iimori base - needs moar snow!
    [​IMG]

    Nevertheless, once the beginners were in ski school, I popped back over to the Goryu gondola to check out the conditions up high. Noting the limitations on certain runs due to snow conditions, most main piste runs were crowded big time! And there was absolutely no chance of any side country or tree runs today unfortunately.

    Not my cup of tea - get me higher
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    Up at the Goryu top station I strap in and take a few initial turns to get my edges back. The plan was to drop down to the nearby Alps 1st lift which would take me up to the top of the Goryu resort. Unfortunately again, crowds were bordering on unbearable, which was made worse by the fact that the top lifts were inadvertently closed due to wind. Boo!

    Everyone in line then had to shuffle back up to the Alps restaurant before dropping onto the other side of Goryu. This side held some nice enough snow on the marked trails, but there were obvious signs of exposed rocks and sasa grass which still needed another good 50cm+ of snow to really cover them. I had to concentrate quite hard on the runs down to control speed and avoid the numerous hazards.

    Upper Alps Daira zone of Goryu

    [​IMG]

    I only managed a couple of runs on this upper area until wind closed the top lift forcing every man and his dog to funnel their way back down the cat track towards the Goryu base. For me though, I put this day down to getting my feet back and shortly met back up with my crew after their respective lessons.

    Mrs Crispy finding her edges - on day 1!
    [​IMG]

    Overall, conditions were less than ideal. I really felt for my partner and her friend just beginning to learn how to snowboard, because the icy narrow trails were difficult enough for a seasoned snowboarder like myself, let alone someone who just started less than 3 hours ago.

    To overcome a fairly frustrating day, we made sure to treat ourselves to a nice meal that evening. Following suggestions off our lodge owner, we tracked down a neat little ramen joint along Route 148 that hit the mark very well.

    Hitting the spot
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    As we returned from dinner, the forecast started to look promising and some nice snow was beginning to fall. Just needed a sneaky 50cm or so to drop before tomorrow and we'd be back in action.

    Tomorrow we hit Tsugaike!
     
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  20. Crispy013

    Crispy013 One of Us

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    We awake the next morning to a very pleasant surprise. The snow had obviously kept ticking over last night because there was about 10-15cm of accumulation on the ground and over the cube. Not sure if it would fix the base situation at the resorts, but every little bit helped at this stage.

    Standard dusting overnight
    [​IMG]

    A quick dust off of the snow and we were headed 5 minutes around the corner to check out the closest resort to the lodge: Tsugaike.

    Enroute to some Tsuga-pow

    [​IMG]

    For me, this was the only major resort along the Hakuba valley which I didn't visit last time and this was probably due to being scared off by the large proportion of beginner runs on the trail map. However, given the entourage I was with this time, this actually suited our group perfectly.

    We rocked up at the lower base of the resort which houses a number of lifts and very wide open runs for beginners. Our lodge owner was also very helpful coming along and seeing if he could snake us a lesson from an instructor he knew who spoke some English. Unfortunately that contact wasn't around today, so we decided to just wing it and I'd try and help skill up my snowboarding newbies - how hard could it be?

    Tsugaike - beginners paradise, but BIG terrain above

    [​IMG]

    Following some troubles for my partner's friend trying to pick up snowboarding, she decided to switch back to skis today to see how she fared. We pick up her hire gear at the nearby lift station and then headed up to the gondola to get us some elevation.

    The mountain at Tsugaike is very much spilt into two sections, with the first half being very wide open beginner runs down low, before it kicks up into the alpine trees and gullys of the upper area. The gondola offers a half-way stop at the top of the beginner section before you can continue up to the very top station. For a group with a mix of abilities, this is perfect as you can both catch the same gondola and just get off where you feel comfortable.

    To get the legs going though, we jump out at the half-way point and try and make the most of the morning fresh. We take a couple of hesitant runs down the very manageable green runs through the trees and out onto the wider sections. For beginners, this was ideal and the recent snow made any falls a lot softer than the icy conditions on the previous day.

    Staying upright on the skis

    [​IMG]

    Fresh pow for breakfast

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    After the girls gained more confidence, I was itching to get up and see what I could find at the resort. I decided to head up to the top Champion lift area lookers right from the base which had a very nice steep,open and untouched face. I managed to get up there just after opening and found some surprisingly good snow!

    Making my way up to the Champion lift - fresh face lookers right
    [​IMG]

    Boot deep, but I'll take it
    [​IMG]

    Cutting shapes down the Champion face
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    After a couple of runs down the various sides of the champion slope, I ventured back to my group for lunch. Surprisingly, I was making fresh tracks all morning on this run as I guess it gets overlooked by most advanced riders who continue up on the gondola to the top station.

    After lunch, I decide to continue up higher on the gondola to scope out the upper terrain. The trip from the half way station takes a good 15 minutes, but gets you some serious elevation. Oh, and not to mention, some tasty terrain. What caught my eye was the Tsuga-pow area under the top lifts.

    Loving these mountains
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    Inviting terrain under the top lift
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    Upper Tsuga bowl - just magic
    [​IMG]

    I play around in the upper bowl which still held some amazing snow and powder even after lunch! From the top area, there were a large number of groups heading higher into the backcountry terrain which looked amazing. Seriously, the variety and size of the area at the top of Tsugaike was just awesome. Despite the restricted runs down low on most Hakuba resorts, up high the main runs were business as usual. Unfortunately the tree runs between the resort were still very sketchy. I attempted one back under the top lift, but kept snagging sasa grass so decided to abort trying this again until some decent snow fell.

    Making my way back down
    [​IMG]

    Overall, I was very surprised by Tsugaike. Don't be thrown off by the trail map which is littered with green runs. There is some serious terrain and variety that, given the size of the resort, never feels too crowded. This was soon a real favourite resort of our group.

    After a big second day, everyone feeling more confident on the snow, we decided to head back into town and hit the Highlands Hotel onsen before closing. A great end to the day and ready for more adventures.

    Them views
    [​IMG]

    Tomorrow it's Norikura's turn...
     
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  21. Vermillion

    Vermillion Pool Room Ski Pass: Gold

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    27C and drizzle in Melbourne looks much more appealing than that....said no one ever.
     
  22. Kimski

    Kimski One of Us

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    Looks like your other half is doing well with the boarding :thumbs:
     
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  23. LMB

    LMB Old but definitely not Crusty! Ski Pass: Gold

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    Agree!
    She looks like she's really enjoying it. Says a lot for her introduction - great job @Crispy013, you've created us another snow loving lady!
     
  24. Crispy013

    Crispy013 One of Us

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    Yep she picked it up quite quickly and loved it. But was her own worst critic at times and kept losing confidence even if she took a small fall. At the beginning she was terrified of running into other skiiers on the runs, but I had to keep telling her to focus on her turns and the faster skiers will go around - not that there were too many people on the runs LOL.

    We're already booked to head back next season :thumbs:
     
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  25. LMB

    LMB Old but definitely not Crusty! Ski Pass: Gold

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    Without wanting to generalise, that actually seems quite common for girls, and is often the source of giving up before they get through the pain to the fun stuff. We judge ourselves harsher than anyone else could imagine.

    Good on her!

    And good on her friend for recognising she might have better luck on skis despite being with boarders. She's also having a mighty crack at finding the joy on the hill.
     
  26. Froff Life

    Froff Life A Local Ski Pass: Gold

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    I've taken two different beginner boarders to Japan in the last couple of years, both times they were progressing really well, only to have a big edge-catching fall. And then after that neither boarded again for the rest of the trip :(.
    One big fall can really rock your confidence, especially when you're still learning.
     
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  27. Kimski

    Kimski One of Us

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    Can relate to that. First ever snow trip to Mount Buller I was collected by an out of control snow boarder on my second or third day. I whacked my head pretty badly (no helmet) and spent the rest of the day in bed with a headache and feeling nauseous. Stupidly I didn't get it checked out but luckily I was fine.

    Still got back on skis the next day but to this day, hearing a snow boarder right behind me raises my blood pressure.
     
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  28. Crispy013

    Crispy013 One of Us

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    Another day, another dusting of snow and I was just hoping the flood gates would open to set the season off, but had to settle with about 10cm of fresh outside the lodge. Ever so slowly the trees and undergrowth were filling in, but it really needed a good meter to kick it into full winter mode.

    Better than nothing!
    [​IMG]

    Today we decided to head along to the next resort up the valley called Norikura. It is actually connected to the back of Cortina, but I think gets largely overlooked on big days with everyone flocking to the neighbouring powder mecca. I actually had the days of my life here in 2015, so was keen to get back and explore a bit more of the resort (minus the 1m of overnight snowfall this time).

    From the base area it was also very evident that the whole of the resort was still a good couple of dumps away from being fully open. The steeper sections of snake gully lookers left from the base and all the tree runs between the courses were very limited and closed off with rope for the most part. Anyways, for me though I was just happy getting a little bit of ungroomed piste stoke whilst skilling up my better half.

    Today was feeling good

    [​IMG]

    Such a contrast to last time I was here

    [​IMG]

    Sticking to the main trails today
    [​IMG]

    While I go and show the girls to the lower green trail lookers left from the base, I head up the far left lift to hopefully snare some early more pow. I was one of about 6 people lapping this lift and found endless stoke to keep me entertained for most of the morning. God I love mid week powder days.

    Lift lines are a drag LOL
    [​IMG]

    Get me on it
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    Finally!
    [​IMG]

    Morning froth
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    After a couple laps down the main ungrooomed trail, I decide to venture off the back side of the resort. What I soon find is that it was a bit of a mine field with the streams and creeks still not fully covered over. It ended up being a bit of a game of strategy to make sure you didn't get snookered onto one side the creek, or worse, fall into one.

    On the hunt for some lines
    [​IMG]

    Norikura side country
    [​IMG]

    Dropping
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    Creamy snow, but a bit heavy
    [​IMG]

    I only did a couple drops out of the side of the resort before catching up with the girls to see how they were progressing. They were actually having a really great time lapping the green trails down low and felt like celebrities because they were the only ones on the trail.

    When you have the whole trail (and lift) to yourself

    [​IMG]

    Another successful day and we head back to town to end it with a nice dip at the Kurshita-no-yu onsen which is located just outside the main Happo village. I guess being a little bit away from the main town, it felt quite authentic and the water itself was quite brown - I'm guessing with minerals :rolleyes:.

    Post onsen views to Happo
    [​IMG]

    After we had our soak in the onsen, it was then time for dinner and following another great recommendation from our lodge owner, we snag a reservation at a local classic izakaya called Hie.

    All I can say about this place is wow. Authentic, fresh and delicious food. Get here!

    Mmmm, food!
    [​IMG]

    Yakitori, edamame, karaage, plum wine...need I say more?
    [​IMG]

    Up next, we have a lay day to visit the snow monkeys as the weekend crowds transcend on the mountains...
     
  29. LMB

    LMB Old but definitely not Crusty! Ski Pass: Gold

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    Hie is fantastic!!
    Thanks for the reminder. It was the first place we had Basashi.
     
  30. Tonester

    Tonester Lift Line Nazi Ski Pass: Gold

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    How good is that? There is beauty in simplicity, to be sure.
     
  31. smackies

    smackies A Local

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    Ahh Norikura. Mashed my wrist there. Likely the same day (it was a low tide Friday). :(
     
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  32. Crispy013

    Crispy013 One of Us

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    With the weekend upon us and some variable temperatures anticipated, we decided to lay off the slopes and have a tourist lay day. Today's mission was to make our way over to the snow monkeys which were located on the other side of Nagano. From Hakuba, it was a pretty big drive, but we made the most of the day (and car) by taking a bit of a scenic route through to Nagano via Ogawa.

    Another cracking morning
    [​IMG]

    It was a beautiful blue bird day, so we took up the recommendation from our lodge owner to check out the Ogawa lookout which after about a 45 minutes drive up some narrow winding roads, provided a pretty special vantage point back over the Hakuba ranges.

    Ogawa lookout
    [​IMG]

    From Ogawa, we snaked our way ever so cautiously down the icy and narrow roads into downtown Nagano. Our initial plan was to stop via the Zenkoji temple area, but traffic was hideous around this tourist hot spot so we decided to can that idea and just push forward to the snow monkeys.

    Mandatory morning tea pit stop
    [​IMG]

    The journey through downtown Nagano and then up towards Nakano was very painful. So much traffic, so many lights and a max speed limit of about 50 km/h. But, nevertheless we eventually made it to the Shibu / Kanbayashi Onsen town to start our journey out towards the snow monkeys.

    Trying to stay upright on the icy trail to the monkeys

    [​IMG]

    The trail out to the monkeys is about 2km in length and winds along the side of a long valley. During winter it is usually very icy and muddy so I'd implore good footwear if you're planning on going. Oh, and also being down in a valley its bitterly cold - I probably under dressed with a t-shirt and jumper and my face and fingers were frozen by the end of the walk.

    Despite the temperatures, the walk is utterly gorgeous. Really beautiful sights of the sunlight through the dense forest, the sound of a nearby stream and general calmness.

    Magic conditions
    [​IMG]

    Nearing the entrance to the Jigokudani monkey park
    [​IMG]

    After a good 40 minutes of trudging we eventually made it to the snow monkey park entrance. A quick warm up of our hands inside the main hut and we funnelled our way out the back to witness the snow monkeys in action.

    The main attraction
    [​IMG]

    Kid in a candy store
    [​IMG]

    The main onsen up the top of the area didn't have a great deal of monkeys in it - only about 2-3 during the whole time we were there. But, it still gave some great opportunities to get some close up shots. After a feeding show, the masses came out of the hills and swarmed the whole area.

    Little bubba prized for a dip in the big pool
    [​IMG]

    Big dog on the war path

    [​IMG]

    After about 45 minutes we decided to call it. The attraction was enjoyable, but it was a pretty big journey from Hakuba (2.5hrs+ each way) and the team was pretty spent by the end of it. To get the energy back up, we decided to pop into a nearby local Soba restaurant out on Route 292 where you would normally catch the bus back to Nagano.

    I'll tell you what, sipping on that complimentary warm green tea and followed up with a Soba special definitely helped cap off the day.

    Meal of the trip
    [​IMG]

    We eventually made our way back to base camp in Hakuba and decided to use the rest of the afternoon exploring a little bit more of what the valley has to offer. After a recommendation from our lodge owner, we decided to head up to check out the Olympic exhibit at the ski jumps which you can see adjacent to the Happo One resort.

    Local idiots

    [​IMG]

    For about Y500 you get to take a chair lift up to the base of the ski jump towers and then ride an elevator all the way up to the top of the jumps to check out.

    Cheeky chairlift selfie
    [​IMG]

    Making our way out to the jump station
    [​IMG]

    It's kind of a weird feeling being able to walk out to the ski jump station and see the view that the athletes would be faced with at the top of the jump. If you are afraid of heights, this attraction will really test you. But, nevertheless, the view from the top of each run back over the Hakuba valley is superb.

    Ready to drop - intense!
    [​IMG]

    Hakuba ski jump center
    [​IMG]

    From the ski jump you also got a great view onto the left hand side of the Happo One resort. Conditions down at this elevation were very ordinary which painted a good picture of most of the resorts in Hakuba at the time.

    Happo in dire straights
    [​IMG]

    Once we had got our fair share of the jumps, we wandered back down the tower through some Olympic exhibitions which showcased old footage and memorabilia of the 1988 spectacle. Overall, it was a pretty cool little attraction and something you should get along to if have a couple of hours to kill on a lay day in Hakuba.

    As night falls, the clouds roll in and finally the snow starts again, albeit a bit wet.

    Keep going!
    [​IMG]
     
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  33. Vermillion

    Vermillion Pool Room Ski Pass: Gold

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    Wow, very low tide.
     
  34. Crispy013

    Crispy013 One of Us

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    Realised I forgot to end this TR, so here goes nothing.

    The next couple of days we had in Hakuba were very much repeats of the earlier days on the slopes - a couple of return visits to the nearby slopes of Tsugaike and Norikura, but the snow (or lack there-of) was very much hampering any great exploration beyond the main trails. It did however provide some good opportunities for skilling up the better half who also tried out her first red run after only 4 or so days on the snow. Just need to get her confident on using/dismounting the lifts and she'll be keeping up with me soon :rolleyes:.

    On the horizon however was the 'season starter' which would end up dumping 2m+ in 6 days, however our itinerary had us unfortunately moving on and heading back to Tokyo to end our trip. Unfortunately this trip there was no Iwatake (low snow), Cortina (mad crowds) or further trips to Itoigawa Seaside or Charmant which was a little disappointing. Was also kicking myself for not trying out Sanosaka when a southerly swung through and dropped 30-40cm on the resorts down that end of the valley. For me, this really cemented in the variable nature of snow - even in Japan...in January! The risk of going semi early in the season I think got the best of us this time and we just had to accept it. Oh well, there is always next season :D.

    Overall, myself as well as the other two girls ended up having an absolute ball in Hakuba despite the conditions. Car is most definitely king, as too is having local help with recommending/booking restaurants and other attractions around the valley which were off the beaten tourist path.

    Massive, massive shout out again to Eric and Fumie at Back Country Lodge Hakuba who seriously went above and beyond for us. At some points during our stay, we literally were the only guests in the whole lodge - which felt odd given it was prime holiday season. It's not difficult to see why we've already booked to come back next season.

    Until next season BLH

    [​IMG]

    Goodbye Hakuba :cry:

    [​IMG]

    Will miss these morning views
    [​IMG]

    Once we bid farewell to our hosts, we make our way back down to Matsumoto to drop the car off before hopping on the local Shinano line continuing through the mountains towards Nagano. It is a seriously beautiful journey coming over the last stretch into the Nagano valley. At Nagano, we change onto the shink line and strap in for our 80 minute or so journey back into the metropolis of Tokyo.

    We arrive quite late into Ueno station, where we then had to make another seamless transition onto the local subway line out to Asakusa. I snagged a pretty good deal staying the last couple nights of our trip at The Gate Hotel. It was located right in the heart of Asakusa, almost directly opposite the main Sensoji Temple entrance. Big, modern rooms and views of the Skytree - winning!

    After our check in, we venture down that evening to explore the Sensoji Temple area. A full swing of markets and stalls line the alleyway that eventually leads you to the temple. A tourist must-do I guess when in the area, but after coming from Kyoto, it kind of felt a bit cheesy.

    Crispys at the Sensoji Temple entrance

    [​IMG]

    Year of the Rooster on everything!

    [​IMG]

    After a quick wander through here, we swing back to the local train line to check out the nearby Skytree. At the base of this humongous structure, there is a pretty cool shopping centre and ice rink which kept us pretty busy until we called it a night.

    The next morning we wake up fairly early and head towards the western side of Tokyo to check out Harajuku, Shibuya and Shinjuku, before returning back that afternoon via central Tokyo station and Ginza. As we made it to the end portion of the trip, the girls were very much over the major tourist/cultural sights so a shopping day was in order before we flew out the next morning.

    Good Morning Tokyo!
    [​IMG]

    We start the morning at Shibuya to witness the classic pedestrian rat race at the famous intersection outside the main train station. A couple of overpriced kohi's from Starbucks, but we got a pretty good view of the crossing.

    Shibuya boy!
    [​IMG]

    Paying for the view
    [​IMG]

    From Shibuya, we head back to Harajuku to wander the main streets and check out the various shopping alleys. Takeshita Dori was enjoyable, but being a weekday it didn't really have the same vibe as going on a weekend when all the teenagers really transform the area. Nevertheless, I think we all enjoyed the department stores more and pretty much walk out of the Nike store with at least one pair each, so Tokyo was really cleaning us out of our spare yen.

    Shopping going well!
    [​IMG]

    It wouldn't be a true shopping day without visiting Ginza. But first, we managed to track down a bite to eat at nearby Shake Shack (sorry, GF is a SS tragic). Back to the Chou Dori street in Ginza and we make it to finish the day checking out the large Uniqlo and Abercrombie & Fitch stores.

    A good end to the day - 11 or so levels of goodness
    [​IMG]

    With our shopping adventures over, we spent our last night checking out a local restaurant in Asakusa where we got to make our own okonomiyaki. Well, a little help from the very friendly host who was keen to practice her English with us.

    Find this place - it's good!
    [​IMG]

    Making our own dinner - yummo!

    [​IMG]

    Ooishi!

    [​IMG]

    Another year down and many more adventures and memories forged. This country is truly something special and keeps me coming back each year. Its no surprise that my partner is now also hooked with next year already well into the planning phase. This trip was more-so about striking a good balance between the snow and tourist/cultural sights than previous and I think we struck a good ratio.

    Some overall observations or take-outs from this trip (mainly Hakuba focussed):
    • Early January CAN be risk for central Honshu ski resorts. There is always the possibility that the base has not formed which can limit the variety of some resorts. TIP: aim for mid Jan to be a little safer.
    • Feel like a broken record, but, get a car - seriously changes the whole experience of the snow trip. Flexibility to visit supermarkets, restaurants, onsens, etc which are away from the masses. Driving in the snow is very straightforward as long as you're not an idiot.
    • The drive from Matsumoto to Hakuba blows. Its not overly far, but just takes ages along local streets. Hire from Nagano would be my choice.
    • Visiting the snow monkeys from Hakuba is a HUGE day. IMO not worth it. If you are in Myoko, Noz or Shiga its fine, but trying to get across Nagano and various smaller towns really sucks from Hakuba.
    • Don't forget about Takyubin back to your departure airport if you have a couple days in Tokyo before flying out. There is a black cat just outside Echoland which avoided some challenging train trips with a large board bag.
    • Organising train tickets is super simple - just rock up to the machine, press the English button and input your information. Easy. Oh, and get a Suica or Icoca card!
    • Don't discount Tsugaike on the face value of the green runs all over the trail map - it's surprisingly good!
    • Kyoto - do your research! Its a treasure trove of sights and you could spend a week there easily. Arashiyama and Kinkakuji were a real favourite of mine this time round. As was Nara!
    Until January 2018, Crispy out :thumbs:
     
  35. M_G

    M_G M_G_ = Make skiing great again Ski Pass: Gold

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    Another great report. Looking forward to next years with your take on Kyushu.
     
  36. Froff Life

    Froff Life A Local Ski Pass: Gold

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    Great report Crispy :)
     
  37. Crispy013

    Crispy013 One of Us

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    Yep, really looking forward to Kyushu! Only a taster with Fukuoka & Beppu, but I'm sure there will be more trips in the future to explore further south towards Kagoshima.
     
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