Adventure · Travel

Japan part 1: Where we went

Whenever Mr M and I are on holidays, we start planning our next one. Something about being away from the ‘real world’ seems to stir up our wanderlust. So, when we strolled past the travel agent while on a mini-break in Port Lincoln after Christmas, we felt the pull of adventure.

We didn’t really have a destination in mind. Actually, that’s not quite true. Greece, South and Central America and Alaska are the top of our travel to-do-list at the moment – plus returning to our ‘food homes’ of Spain, France and Italy.

However, in the face of restricted annual leave, if we were going to get away in the first half of 2016 our trip had to be somewhere reasonably close to Australia. We also had to juggle a holiday around an interstate wedding, my work deadlines, Mr M’s farming calendar, and a much-needed trip to Queensland to visit my parents.

So, we settled on Japan. It not only ticked our logistical boxes, but ensured Mr M got his annual fix of snowboarding. It was a relatively short flight away, and we could easily access a few areas in a short timeframe.

It also linked in well with our interstate commitments – there are no direct flights from our nearest city, Adelaide, to Japan, but we could fly out from Sydney after our friends’ wedding and then return via Brisbane for a weekend with my parents.

Japan is also one of the few countries neither Mr M nor I had been to before (on our individual or collective travels) and we wanted to visit somewhere new.

So, where did we go?

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Mount Yōtei, the ‘Mout Fuji of the north’

Niseko

The trip was first and foremost a ski/snowboarding trip so we started with a week at the snow in the little town of Niseko, in the Abuta district on Japan’s north island of Hokkaido (famous for beer and potatoes). We flew from Tokyo to Sapporo and then caught a bus into the mountains – about 2.5 hours away.

We arrived after dark to find the slopes around the town alight for night-skiing, it was beautiful. Daylight also revealed stunning views as Niseko sits at the base of the Annupuri ranges and overlooks the (inactive) volcano Mount Yōtei.

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Staying warm on an evening stroll around Niseko.

Niseko is a ski-in, ski-out town with direct access to four ski areas spread out across the Annupuri ranges. Because the town swells with skiers over winter, there are SO many restaurants to try. (I’ll be sharing our gourmet adventures in the next post). A shuttle bus runs throughout the town all day, and stopped right outside our apartment for easy access to the lifts. There are plenty of lifts to choose from, and once you are higher up the mountain it’s easy to traverse into all four ski areas. Unlike more alpine regions we have skied, such as Chamonix-Mont-Blanc in France and the Dolomites in Italy, the volcanic terrain around Niseko provides long, wide runs. I even conquered a few black runs, which certainly were not as daunting as black runs in Europe or New Zealand.

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A chair lift for the brave!

Niseko’s ski lifts deserve a special mention. The mountain is not very high – 1308m at the peak of Mt Niseko Annupuri – and the slopes are not steep, so the lifts are long. One gondola stretched for more than 2.6km! However, the lifts that had Mr M and I most amused were the single chairs with no bar or chain for safety (pictured above). You just kind of hung in the breeze, 10m or so above the snow, for an 800m ride.

Even though Niseko is a ski resort, popular with snow bunnies from around the world, it has retained its regional Japanese charm. The lift attendants are armed with hand-made straw brooms and sweep snow off the lift seat before each person gets on. Apart from a few Aussies working at ski rental shops and the bigger chain hotels, all the staff are Japanese. There were very few ‘western’ style restaurants (with the exception of hotel chains which we avoided anyway) so it’s virtually impossible not to have traditional Japanese fare. Add in the traditional onsens (natural, nude public bathing pools), the cheerful cries of ‘arigatou gozaimasu’ (thank you very much) from bus drivers and lift attendants, and lashings of sake and plum wine and it certainly doesn’t feel like any other ski town in the world.

We timed our ski trip very well. The peak winter season had ended so there were no crowds and we got great deals on accommodation and ski/snowboard hire. However, it was early enough that it still snowed on the first few days we were at Niseko, giving us good skiing conditions and some fresh powder. On our final day, the crowds were starting to build up again for spring skiing but with warm conditions the snow was beginning to turn slushy so we were happy to skip town and head south.

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Golden temple: Kinkaku-ji is a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto

With our limited timeframe, Mr M and I decided we would visit one traditional city and one more modern city, so we packed up our ski jackets and headed to the former Imperial Capital, Kyoto. We flew from Sapporo to Tokyo and found our way to the central train station (thanks to directions from a friendly pilot on the airport monorail who also gave us a list of ‘must see’ and ‘must eat’ places for the rest of our trip).

Mr M and I were armed with JR passes, special rail tickets for foreign visitors which provide virtually unlimited rail access. Japan’s rail network is really amazing. Shinkansen (bullet trains) ran from Tokyo to Kyoto every few minutes. We reserved seats at the ticket booth (free, but not necessary as there are un-reserved carriages) waited 10 minutes and were speeding our way south on comfy, reclining seats.

Mrs M’s travel tip: the Shinkansen do not have wi fi so kick back and watch the world go quickly by, or bring a book if you’re travelling at night.

Although most of the locals we met were not fluent in English (and as my Year 6 Japanese wasn’t really up to scratch) public transport was quite easy to navigate. Subway and train stops are numbered, which makes it easier to remember the right stop, and signs are written in Kanji as well as the English translation. We had a couple false starts when we caught a train heading in the wrong directions but trains are so frequent that we jumped off and the next stop, waited two minutes, then were heading the right way.

Accommodation was expensive and limited in Kyoto (hello cherry blossom season), so Mr M and I booked a self-contained apartment on AirB&B. (Our host deserves a special mention for her ah-mazing directions: she emailed me photographs, taken step-by-step along the five minute walk from the Karasuma Oike subway station to her apartment. For two weary travellers arriving in a strange city at night it was fantastic!) The unit was small, but much more spacious than some Japanese accommodation options. The only issue was the height of the doorways, which proved a headache – literally – for tall Mr M.

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Mrs M, in the tranquil gardens of Nijo Castle, Kyoto.

My gorgeous friend Mrs W prepared a travel itinerary based on her time living in Japan as an exchange student, and it was perfect! Mr M and I prefer to soak up life on the street rather than spend all our time in museums, and Kyoto was perfect for our style of travel.

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Nijo Castle, Kyoto.

Kyoto is a beautiful city, and very accessible by public transport and walking. In our short visit, we were able to visit two beautiful shrines, the impressive Nijo castle, and spend hours walking through windy, cobblestone streets of the old city taking in the sights, sounds and smells: baby cherry blossoms emerging into the sunlight, shy geisha girls ducking down alley ways, the ear-splitting noise spilling out of pachinkos (as Mrs W described these places: kind of like the pokies but crazier), quiet gardens for reflection, prayers handwritten on wooden discs and tied up outside shrines, temples nestled between apartment buildings. It is a city for all the senses.

Mrs M’s travel tip: spend some time wandering through Gion, Kyoto’s geisha district. This old part of the city has cherry blossom lined canals, rambling streets, and fabulous places to eat.

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Cherry trees, in the heart of Tokyo.

Tokyo

Then, it was back to Tokyo on the Shinkansen for our final two days in this huge, busy city. Mr M and I stayed in Ginza, one of the main shopping areas of Tokyo (I swear I didn’t know this Mr M). It was central and, thanks to Japan’s network of subways and trains, very accessible.

Ginza was a short walk to the Tokyo Imperial Palace – the main residence of the Emperor of Japan. Most of the grounds are usually closed to the public, but we just happened to be there on one of the rare days when they throw open the gates, for the annual spring showing. Although we didn’t see inside any buildings (or even catch a glimpse of the palace) it was nice to walk through the large park, which is a beautiful, tranquil area set against the hustle and bustle of modern Tokyo.

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Imperial Palace? Check! (Mr and Mrs M are accidently matchy-matchy!)

Next stop was the Harajuku area for a taste of funky fashion. Mr M and I hopped off the train and were greeted with this sight:

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Welcome to Harajuku!

So. Many. People.

This one narrow street is lined with boutiques selling everything from crazy fashion to spun-sugar treats. It was a little overwhelming and we risked our lives a couple times trying to go against the crowd. We were two little salmon, swimming up-stream!

We wandered around the area for a while, checking out other more restrained streets, before walking over to the nearby Meiji Shrine.

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The gates to Meiji Shrine separate the tranquil forest from the busy city.

It was like another world: a tranquil forest of towering trees just footsteps from Harajuku. Deep in the forest is the Shrine, a quiet place for prayer and reflection.

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Colourful containers of sake, donated to the Buddhist monks of Meiji Shrine, Tokyo.

Our final destination for the day was Shinjuku. This area is just a train station or two from Harajuku or, via the Meiji Shrine, only a 15 minute walk. The Shinjuku Station area is another attack on the senses: bright lights, shops, billboards, people, sky rises. However, we were on a mission to find a tiny piece of old Tokyo, on the edge of all this modernity.

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Memory Lane, or ‘Piss Alley’ as it’s also known, is a smoky maze of authentic street food.

Omoide Yokocho. Memory Lane. Piss Alley. Whatever you call it, if you love authentic street food don’t miss it. This network of narrow, smoky alleys is home to dozens of traditional yakitori – tiny bars and restaurants cooking up fresh skewers on open grills. Nearly every kind of meat is on offer – we even saw whale and horse advertised – washed down with sake.

Omoide Yokocho, meaning ‘Memory Lane’, dates back to 1940s post-war Tokyo when it housed street vendors and black market traders. Although a fire razed the area in 1999, the rebuilt alleys retain their authenticity and provide a rare taste of ‘old Tokyo’ in this modern city.

Mrs M’s travel tip: Visit Omoide Yokocho at night for a truly memorable night out, and be prepared to soak up the smoke, the grit, the noise, the charm.

For a 10 day trip, Japan sure served up a smorgasbord of experiences. I’ll be delving deeper into what we ate and where I shopped in my next blog posts but for now, I’ll say sayonara!

Love, Mrs M xx

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