Sweet Plum Blossoms

It’s mid-February, and it feels like spring is just around the corner. As winter begins to draw to an end, the warmer weather brings out one of my favourite flowers: the plum blossoms! Continue reading “Sweet Plum Blossoms”

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Winter Paradise at Takaragawa Onsen

Being the volcanically-active country it is, Japan is teeming with natural hot springs. Though these onsen are everywhere from cities to the seaside, the best ones are always found in the mountains, in my opinion. There are few things more relaxing than soaking in an outdoor onsen (rotenburo) alongside a river in the middle of a forest. I’ve only had this experience once before – at Kurokawa Onsen in Kyushu. For another onsen to top that one, it would have to have something extraordinary. Continue reading “Winter Paradise at Takaragawa Onsen”

Setagaya in the Snow

The entire country, bar the subtropical Okinawan islands, has entered a deep freeze this week. On Monday, a snowstorm swept across Honshu, and Tokyo welcomed its first heavy snowfall since the “snowpocalypse” of 2014. It usually snows only a few days a year, and rarely enough each time to accumulate on the ground. So of course, snowstorms are even rarer. Since WWII (when records started), there have only been 9 occasions when Tokyo got over 20cm of snow at one time… this week was the 10th. Continue reading “Setagaya in the Snow”

The Monkeys of Hell Valley

With their gentle pink faces and thick fluffy coats, the snow monkeys have to be one of the cutest wild animals in Japan. I’ve encountered Japanese macaques in a few different areas – Kamikochi, Tateyama, Kyoto – but nowhere is comparable to seeing them at Jigokudani Yaen-koen. Continue reading “The Monkeys of Hell Valley”

To Market, to Market

There’s less than one week till Christmas! I hope everyone is ready… presents bought and wrapped, Christmas tree up, ugly Christmas sweater (that you secretly love) waiting to be worn! Isn’t it just the best time of the year?

One of things I love about celebrating Christmas in the northern hemisphere are the Christmas markets. I got my first taste of authentic German-style markets last winter when I visited the Czech Republic and Hungary. Despite the freezing outdoor temps, the markets were full of warmth and coziness. Held in the centre of the town, people seemed to come not only to shop but just to socialize with friends. Personally, I couldn’t stop drinking hot chocolates and mulled wine and eating trdelník (or kürtőskalács) pastries!

Christmas markets have been gaining popularity over the past few years in Tokyo. Some of the more well known ones can be found at:

Roppongi Hills…

Ebisu Garden Place…

And the Red Brick Warehouse (in Yokohama)…

But my favourite – and in my opinion, the best – is the Tokyo Christmas Market at Hibiya Park.

It’s the largest of all the markets in Tokyo, making it a fun way to spend a whole evening. There are loads of stalls selling gorgeous wooden toys, ornaments, stollen bread, sausages, eggnog, hot cocoa, etc. There’s also a huge, heated marquee where you can escape the cold while enjoying some live entertainment.

Take a look for yourself!

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Hibiya

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Snow Magic in Sapporo

Sapporo, the city of the north… Despite it’s harsh winter weather and average annual snowfall of about 6 metres, it’s surprisingly Japan’s 5th largest city. It’s not constantly dark and gloomy, though. Just think, endless chances to have snowball fights, make snow angels, go skiing, eat fresh seafood, slurp down miso ramen – there’s a lot to love! And there’s one more big reason we are obsessed with Sapporo…

During the second week of February, the normal 2 million population skyrockets as people from all over the world come to see the annual Sapporo Yuki Matsuri. This year, the event saw a hefty 2.6 million visitors! There are many snow festivals in Japan – you may recall I went to the Tokamachi Snow Festival a couple of years back – but Sapporo’s is the grandfather of them all. It’s been on my bucket list forever!

The main park, Odori Koen, transforms into an outdoor snow museum with sculptures of all sizes. There are many small sculptures, but the towering 20m-high ones are the biggest drawcard; this year, there was a Star Wars-theme, Final Fantasy VII-theme, Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, and world heritage Kofukiji Temple sculpture. It’s incredible to stand below these and realize just how much work went into creating them – it really is like snow magic.

Another section of the park is dedicated to the International Snow Sculpture Contest, where teams from around the world compete to be the snow sculpture champions. This year the Macao team won with their ‘crane dance’, and Latvia came second with their ‘wooden dreams’ – both were my favourites, too. The crane sculpture reminded me of the elegant mating dance Japanese cranes do in winter, which is something I want to see with my own eyes one day. And the design of the Latvian sculpture was so original and intriguing – a head made of timber with a forest inside its forehead!

Meanwhile, the downtown area of Susukino is where you will find the ice sculptures. Oddly, they are placed in the middle of a busy road, so you’re forever dodging cars. It’s harder to see the detail in the ice sculptures, but there was one of a crown tail fish which I thought was absolutely stunning.

Aside from the sculptures, there is a lot of other entertainment. We went ice skating, watched music performances, cheered on ski jumpers, climbed to the top of the TV tower and ate as much Sapporo food as we could before jumping on the plane back to Tokyo.

♦ The city

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♦ The food

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♦ The sculptures

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