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”

Adventure to the Japanese Alps

From when I locked the front door of my apartment behind me, to when I returned back home, was roughly a massive 17 hours!! What an insane adventure Saturday was.

I’d been to Hakuba before to go snowboarding, and had always wanted to go back in the summer to go mountain climbing/hiking but just never really got the chance. Then last week, I was scrolling through Instagram and came across a beautiful picture of a misty lake surrounded by the most beautiful autumn colours – and it just happened to be located in Hakuba! The photographer said the colours would last just another few days up in the mountains. I already had a busy weekend planned, but could I squeeze this in?! I sat at a restaurant with my iPhone and researched the details of the trip and the cost, scribbling down notes on a napkin. It was going to be a hectic and expensive day. But I was so keen to see the lake and who knows when my next chance would be. To go or not to go?! Like most decisions in my life, I based it on the saying “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count, but the life in your years”. And that was that!

The train ride from Shinjuku to Hakuba Station was direct, but 4 hours long. It was a rapid express train that runs only once a day, departing at 7:30am. Being a sunny Saturday, it was packed! The entire reserved-seat section was booked out, and the non-reserved section where I got on, was even more intense. I had to stand in the aisle for the first hour! As we got further into the countryside, people started getting off, and I eventually found a window seat to call my home for the next couple of hours.

The train pulled into Hakuba at 11:30am. The place was of course unrecognisable compared to winter when it’s covered in snow. I stood in awe at the bare, towering mountains forming a backdrop to the town. I desparately wanted to get up there as soon as I could! From the station, it was a short bus ride and then a 10 minute walk to the Gondola, the first of 3 lifts. It was fascinating seeing the foliage becoming more and more colourful the higher I went. It’s amazing what difference just a few hundreds metres in altitude makes!

The final lift took us up to 1830m above sea level. I felt like I was up in the clouds. The air was cool and fresh, and the sun warm and welcoming. And those autumn colours!! And that beautiful blue sky! It was all insanely spectacular! I felt so lucky to be there, and was happy I’d decided to go even just to see this.

After taking in the exceptional view, both up the mountain and back down over the valley, it was time to start hiking. It would take about 45 minutes to climb another 230m. The path alternated between loose stones, wooden stairways and boardwalks. It was fairly tiring – though nothing like the gruelling Mt Fuji. It probably didn’t help that I was holding an ice cream in one hand and my camera in the other!

And then, there it was. My destination. From a distance, the lake looked like a puddle amongst the gigantic mountains! The autumn colours were just past the peak viewing time, so it wasn’t as bright and amazing as it had been lower on the mountain, but it was still so pretty! There were dozens of people around the lake, having lunch and taking photos. A light breeze meant it was hard to get that perfect mirror reflection, but as soon as the wind died down, you could hear all the camera shutters going off! We’d get about a 2-second window before the reflection was completely erased! I was fascinated by the tree-less mountains in the background. They literally could have been a painting; it hardly looked real. The evidence of snow left from last winter is a sign of how chilly it was. After hanging out at the lake for about 45 minutes, I had to start moving again to warm up. So, I bid farewell to this special corner of the world and made my way back to the chairlifts.

I took my time going back to Hakuba, stopping to eat a delicious locally-caught salmon croissant, as well as admire the pretty sunset. I had planned to catch the 4:36pm train, but missed it. Like a lot of rural towns, trains run very infrequently through Hakuba. The next one wasn’t until 6:14pm, which meant it was past 11pm when I finally got home.

It was an epic day, a little crazy even for me perhaps, but what’s life if you don’t do things like this every now and then? The journey there and back was just as much a part of the adventure as seeing the lake was, and I would do it all again in a heartbeat!

 

 

Kamikochi: a Summer Escape

In the middle of summer, when the concrete jungles are stifling and humid and you are barely managing to get through each day, you can either spend your weekends inside with air-conditioning… or you can leave the city and head UP!

One of my favourite summer getaways to date has been to the remote Hida mountains of Nagano prefecture. Tucked away in a valley near Mt Hotaka is an area called Kamikochi. Although at the base of a mountain range, it’s still 1,500 metres above sea level! The surrounding peaks are all around 3,000 metres high. The area is part of a national park and the only way to enter is via a special sightseeing bus or taxi. The park is open from mid April to mid November, before they close it off for the snowy winter months.

Stepping off the bus, I felt like I’d stepped straight into a picture-perfect fairytale. Through the lush green forest, the first thing I saw was the well-known Kappa Bashi suspension bridge. The water swirling past under the bridge was crystal clear and seemed to change from teal to turquoise to emerald depending on where you looked. The river looked so pure and inviting. Of course, this water was running down fresh off the mountains and was ice cold. Even dipping your toes in would give your body a shock! And the mountains… Wow! It was a drizzly, overcast day. Looking up towards Mt Hotaka, I could see a lot of white. It couldn’t be snow, could it?! I thought I may have been imagining things. But when the clouds and mist lifted, the white streaks were still there in the crevices of the mountain. I couldn’t believe I was seeing snow just a few hours away from cities that were sweltering in 35 degree heat!

The area around Kappa Bashi is closest to the bus terminal, and as such is packed with tourists. But if you go 5 minutes in any direction, the crowds quickly disappear. There are a few trails, some with boardwalks, others just a path through the forest. Some hikers take on the vertical climb up to one of the peaks, but I decided just to follow the river downstream towards the volcano Mt Yake.

Along the way, I came across all sorts of wonderful sights. There are a bunch of swamps and marshes where the water is so still it looks like glass. Taishiro Pond is also one of the most photographed spots in the area. An ex-colleague, who is also a photographer, gave me a stunning photo he took of this pond in winter when the whole place was covered in mounds of untouched snow. I’m not sure how he was able to get in there in January (maybe that’s a whole other story), but I was very impressed!

There’s also plenty of wildlife to see. I came across a family of monkeys carrying bark they’d ripped off trees. It was very bizarre! A few were up in the trees and for a brief second I thought I was seeing koalas! They weren’t worried about the humans passing by and went about their business as though we didn’t exist.

At the end of the trail was Lake Taisho. On a still, clear day, you can see a beautiful mirror reflection of the mountains. This large pond was actually created from a volcanic eruption in 1915. Oh, so I guess we should say… Happy 100th birthday! The lake is known for the trees which stand decayed in the middle of it and since 1928 it has been protected under a law because of its natural scenic beauty.

Kamikochi truly is one of the treasures of Japan!

Kamikochi

Kamikochi
Lake Taisho

Hiking the Kiso Valley

Right in the centre of Japan is a very old highway spanning over 500km: Nakasendo. Between bustling villages, the road winds through misty woodlands, farmlands and valleys full of mossy rocks and waterfalls.

Nakasendo used to serve as the main road connecting Kyoto to Edo (now Tokyo). In the Edo Period (1603-1867), samurai, government officials, peasants and pilgrims would frequent this route. There were 69 post towns between the two cities – 11 of these in the Kiso Valley. Many of the towns no longer exist, but since WWII a number have been restored to their original state as part of a preservation project. There are many sightseeing/hiking spots, and it’s common to drive the length of the road making pit stops at certain places along the way. My friend and I decided to do an 8 kilometre hiking trail that stretches from Tsumago in Nagano prefecture to Magome in Gifu prefecture. It was a completely spontaneous decision to go but it turned out to be one of my favourite trails in Japan!

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To hike this part of Nakasendo, you can start at either Tsumago or Magome. Although we started at Tsumago, I believe most people start at Magome because it has easier access from the train station. That, and it has more downhill sections so is a bit easier!

Walking down the streets of Tsumago, you feel like you’ve stepped through a time portal. Everything from the traditional wooden buildings to the lamp posts to the street signs, are a reminder of how things used to be. In restoring this town, they went as far as concealing all electricity wires, TVs and satellite dishes. And although the town looks like an open-air museum, the buildings are actually fully functional. Some are used as inns, souvenir shops and cafés!

Kiso Valley Kiso Valley

After soaking up all that history in Tsumago, it was time to hit the road. Once we passed through the township, we followed a road over the river and towards the forest. The scene changed dramatically once we were outside of the tourist area. The shops disappeared and were quickly replaced by agricultural fields and quaint country houses.

We noticed a few bells along the way. At first I thought they might have been like a shrine where you ring the bell and say a prayer. But actually the sign below them said to ring the bell to scare off bears! I wonder how often a bear is sighted here?! After the bear bell, we came across a rest stop manned by a really nice old guy. We had a chat with him and he gave us some delicious warm soup from this very traditional fire place which you see in old houses. At the Nagano/Gifu border, we stopped at another rest house to try escape the rain that was pouring down. I bought a few sticky rice cakes wrapped in leaves. I’m not the biggest fan of mochi, but I loved how they were presented! I bet travellers back in the Edo period would eat this to give them energy, too.

I imagine this road was once a lively, busy place. There are actually a few famous ukiyo prints that depict farmers herding their ox along the path, or peasants balancing woven baskets on a rod over their shoulders as they make their way between the towns.

But now, it’s a very different story. There are many sections of the trail where you literally feel like you’re the only person in the world (apart from your hiking partner). The woods are so peaceful; all you can hear are birds chirping, trees rustling in the winds, streams bubbling, and the occasional waterfall. The trail twists and turns through the valley. While some parts were steep and slippery in the wet weather, most of the trail was either gravel, bitumen, concrete, grasslands or forest floors.

It was a very do-able and well-marked hike and took us about 3 1/2 hours with a few rest stops due to the rain. The thing I loved most was how the trail passes through so many different types of landscape, rather than just going up and down a mountain. The scenery was always changing, but always beautiful!

Even though the weather wasn’t great, we did see a few other hikers every now and then. The ‘hiking spirit’ in Japan always makes me smile. In the city, nobody pays any attention to anyone else, but as soon as you hit the countryside, we all magically change and greet each other with こんにちは (hello) and sometimes even a 頑張って! (keep going!) during more difficult parts of the trail.

Kiso Valley

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!

Colourful Karuizawa

Karuizawa: Round two!

I was in Karuizawa just last month, enjoying some beautiful nature spots as well as shopping at the huge brand outlet Prince Shopping Plaza. I liked it so much there that I decided I HAD to go again! This time, it was during their Autumn Festival. I stopped off with a friend on our way back to Tokyo from Toyama.

The colours, the vibrant colours! Reds, yellows, oranges, greens; and blue skies reflecting in the water. It was a sight to behold. I spent the whole day on foot, exploring the backstreets and woodlands, marvelling at the beauty of this lovely town.

Despite how these pictures may look, it was actually very, very crowded, especially at the famous Lake Kumoba. The autumn-leaves spots higher up in the mountains, like Shiraito Falls which I visited last time, were already past their peak, so everyone seemed to be making the most of the lower altitude places while they still could. Like in Toyama, the forecasted rain held off, and instead we were blessed with a sunny (but chilly) day!

Perhaps the next time I visit Karuizawa, it’ll be winter, and that fake snow will be covered in the genuine stuff. I can’t wait to go snowboarding, but it’s a little too early to be thinking about winter. One season at a time. The peak autumn-leaves viewing time in Tokyo is coming soon!