The Beautiful Red-Crowned Cranes of Hokkaido

My first encounter with a red-crowned crane was many, many years ago. I was probably around six when I first saw the Japanese folktale book, Tsuru no Ongaeshi (The Crane’s Return of Favour). In the story, a red-crowned crane is rescued from a hunter’s trap by an old man. Under the disguise of a woman, the crane visits the man and his wife to repay them for helping her. Continue reading “The Beautiful Red-Crowned Cranes of Hokkaido”

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Into the Wild: Akan-Mashu National Park

From the air, the first thing I noticed as we glided over the sea, past the coastline and descended towards the runway, was the vast forest that carpeted the land below. There were virtually no other buildings around the tiny Kushiro Airport. We stepped off the plane, and filled our lungs with Hokkaido’s fresh summer air. Continue reading “Into the Wild: Akan-Mashu National Park”

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! Continue reading “Snow Magic in Sapporo”

Food and Fun in Hokkaido

Last month, I went on a very short trip to the top end of Japan. My big sis, her partner and my little brother flew over for a bit of fun in Hokkaido! It was awesome to have some family time so far away from home. I wish I could see them more than once or twice a year!

Hokkaido is one of Japan’s four main islands, close to Russia, and gets some pretty serious snowfall during the winter months. The snow arrives in November and sticks around til May! It’s bizarre to see the tops of road signs sticking out from a field of white. In the mountains, they use overhead signs to tell drivers where the road is. Summer huts, and any evidence of summer for that matter, get completely buried!

The snow in the north is famous for being powdery dry – perfect for snow sports. But there’s a lot more to this huge island that just that. When I think of Hokkaido, I think of a remote (…very, remote) land, hot springs, the Sapporo Snow Festival, delicious butter corn ramen, the freshest of fresh seafood, mountains and vast plains, Sapporo beer, and the indigenous Ainu people. I’ve never been in summer, but from what I hear it turns into a wilderness adventure land… mountain climbing, rafting, fishing, camping – that kind of thing!

This was my second time to the north island – both of my trips have been to go snowboarding. Last year I visited a small, local ski resort called Kiroro with a friend, and this time we headed to the world famous Niseko at Mt. Niseko-Annupuri. The beginner slopes were pretty packed, but further up it was very spacious with lots of skiers choosing to zip through the trees instead. I’m always in awe of little 5-year-olds flying down the runs – no fear! Apart from the actual slopes, another reason I loved Niseko was for the spectacular view you get of the neighbouring volcano, Mt. Yotei.

Niseko is famous for its village as much as its slopes. There are plenty of restaurants and bars to enjoy, and there’s just as many people about at night time as there is during the day! With the help of cheap airfares and package deals, the village becomes overrun with Australians making the most of the ski season. The resort is so popular among Aussies that one of my favourite Aussie hiphop groups actually played a gig at a bar in Niseko a couple of weeks before we went! That was very cool, although not cool we missed seeing them…

The more time I spend in Hokkaido, the more I love it. It’s a great place to get away from it all!

Top 10 Trips around Japan in 2014

I can’t believe it’s already the final day of 2014! It has been an incredible year, full of adventures, making new friends, and just enjoying life as much as possible! It was my second year living in Tokyo and I’m feeling more and more like a “Tokyoite”. Living on the west side of the city means I’ve gotten to know Shinjuku, Shibuya and Harajuku pretty well. Seeing the famous Shibuya Scramble no longer gives me that rush of excitement – it’s now kind of amusing seeing tourists running out to take their pictures of the masses crossing the intersection! These days, I like to think I’ve got Shinjuku Station down pat. And by that I mean I only sometimes get lost there – in my defence there are more than 200 exits, okay?! And in Harajuku, I’ve discovered some pretty cool little cafes.

2014 was also a year of many many ‘firsts’. I visited the United States for the first time, I finally got my Japanese Drivers Licence and drove for the first time in Japan, I watched a Japanese musical (The Little Mermaid), attended a sports match, and joined in on the Japanese custom of sending nengajo (New Year postcards)!

I also squeezed in a lot of travel within Japan – on holidays, weekends, and days off – so much so that this post is going to be based on these trips. I had a lot on my travel to-do list this year, and it’s an awesome feeling to say that I’ve ticked off most of them. It’s all about determination and organisation!

Without further ado, I give you my Top 10 most memorable trips around Japan this year (in chronological order).

Tokamachi Snow Festival (February)

Tokamachi is serious snow country in winter. It lies in the middle of Niigata prefecture, about a 2-hour train ride north of Tokyo. I went to the Snow Festival there with my mum who was visiting back in February. Of all weekends, it just happened to be on one that saw a major blizzard sweep across the country. We were forced to stay longer than we had planned, and all of the snow sculptures were unfortunately covered with fresh snow, but it was still one of the coolest things I’ve seen! I’d definitely go back again next year.

Visiting Hokkaido for the first time (April)

I was super pumped to fly to Hokkaido for the first time. It had been on my bucket list since moving to Japan. This northernmost island of Japan is most famous for its powder snow, so a friend and I went up for a few days of snowboarding. I met some extremely kind people who made the trip all the more special, visited a chocolate factory and a beer factory, ate a lot of fresh seafood and discovered the wonderful Otaru Canal – a beautifully preserved waterway that used to link the warehouses with ships in the bay.

Snow Corridor and Japan Alps (May)

After visiting snowy Hokkaido, I was inspired to see the famous Snow Corridor in Toyama prefecture. This road is along the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route, and is closed for the duration of winter. A snow wall, up to 20 metres high, is created when they clear the road in spring, and is visible from April to June. Beyond the snow wall is Mt Tateyama, a part of the Northern Alps. This pure white landscape was truly spectacular!

Rainy season at Meigetsu-in (June)

A bit closer to home, Kamakura is a city just an hour or so south of Tokyo. I went to a temple called Meigetsu-in for the first time, after hearing about their beautiful hydrangea stairway. I loved seeing the unusual shapes and colours of the flowers, some which are only found in Kamakura.

Fuji Rock Music Festival (July)

I’d wanted to go to the Fuji Rock Music Festival for ages, and finally made it happen this year. A friend and I went for the final of the 3 days and camped overnight there. It is a massive festival, with 7 main stages plus many smaller ones as well as other attractions. The festival is located at a ski resort in the middle of nowhere in Niigata prefecture. It really is like a rave in the mountains!

Climbing Mt Fuji (August)

By far one of my best memories of 2014 was witnessing an epic sunrise from the summit of Mt Fuji. It was a tough hike. We started at 2,300m at 7pm, getting to the top, 3776m, around 2am. We eventually made it back down around 9am. Luckily we had amazing weather the entire time. I was left with some foot related injuries, but I still think it was one of the best experiences of my life!

Matsumoto Castle (September)

One of 4 castles that are national treasures, Matsumoto Castle is the only black one. It’s nicknamed the Crow because of its colour, and was never actually attacked by enemies which has left it in a remarkable condition. Matsumoto Castle is in Nagano prefecture, about 2.5 hour bus trip from Tokyo. The day I went, there happened to be an event celebrating Matsumoto’s sister city relationship with a town in Switzerland. I got to watch an amazing taiko (drum) performance, as well as hear some genuine yodelling!

Discovering Karuizawa (October-November)

One of my new favourite places in Japan is the town of Karuizawa in Nagano prefecture. It’s known as a summer resort with lots of sporting, shopping and outdoor activities for young and old. I visited the town for the first time in October and fell in love with the natural beauty of the area! I was back a few weeks later to enjoy the mesmerising autumn colours. It’s an easy 2 hour trip from Tokyo, so I will definitely be going back many times in 2015!

Road trip to Ibaraki (October-November)

After finally getting my act together to get my Japanese Drivers Licence, some friends and I went on 2 road trips to Ibaraki prefecture, a few hours north-east of Tokyo. I was very excited to be back behind the wheel! On our first trip, we went to the Hitachi Hillside Park to see the bright red kochia shrubs. The second time was an overnight trip, visiting a few autumn leaves spots like Fukurodo Falls. Ibaraki is beautiful in autumn!

Autumn colours in Toyama (November)

The BEST autumn leaves spot of 2014, in my opinion! After talking with a sweet elderly lady who we met on our way to the Snow Corridor back in May, my friend and I decided we would return to Toyama to visit the Torokko Train. I’m so glad we listened to her advice. The scenic train winds through the Kurobe Gorge, parallel to the emerald-coloured Kurobe River. We timed our trip perfectly and were able to see the colours at their peak. It was an unforgettable experience and I’ll always treasure the memory of being there.

As you can see, most of my trips were to Nagano, Niigata, and Toyama prefectures which are all in the Chubu region of Japan, and no more than 3-4 hours from Tokyo. If you’re planning a trip to Japan in 2015, please consider these places for a day or overnight trip!

As for me, there’s still so much more to discover in Japan. Some places at the top of my 2015 list are Shikoku, Yakushima, Okinawa, Niseko, as well as return to northern Tohoku. Can’t wait!!

Happy New Year to you all! Party safely!

Weekly Photo Challenge: Nighttime

This post is in response to the Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge. This week’s theme is “nighttime“.

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This is the Otaru Canal, in the old port city of Otaru, one of the most famous scenes in Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. At nighttime, the reflection in the water is so clear that it looks like there’s an underwater city! So beautiful and romantic! The canal was created in the 1920s to transport products from ships to the stone warehouses along the waterway. Now, it’s just a tourist attraction, and the warehouses have been converted into various businesses.

Otaru Canal Otaru Canal

Otaru Canal