Snowy Tokyo

I love having Fridays off work, but today is extra exciting!! I’m sitting here in a café 26 floors up. Looking out of these giant glass windows, all I can see is a vast sea of ‘white’! It’s bizarre but very cool seeing snowy roof tops in Tokyo. You’d be forgiven for thinking this was snow country, but it actually only snows a few days a year.

Snowy Tokyo

Snowy Tokyo

I woke up this morning to the delightful sound of snow crunching under people’s boots. It has since turned into icy rain, but a beautiful mist is left hovering over the city. From inside this warm cafe, it actually looks quite cozy out there, like we’re inside of a fluffy cloud. With visibility only a few kilometres, Tokyo has suddenly become quite small!

This morning, I visited Shoin-jinja, a shrine built in the 1880s. It was originally dedicated to Master Shoin, a teacher of military strategies and tactics, who was killed when he was 30. These days, it’s dedicated to the God of Learning and apparently many people come from all over to pray for success with their studies. Shrines feel so much more peaceful covered in snow. I always feel like I should tread softly!

There’s just something intriguing about snow. Maybe it’s to do with the change it brings. It completely transforms a place that you have gotten used to seeing every day. I know there might be some people reading this who are currently 5-feet deep in snow and wishing they were anywhere else, but when it’s not something you’re used to seeing, it’s like that feeling you got as a child waking up on Christmas morning! My inner child wants to run out and build a snowman or start a snow ball fight! I love seeing kids wide-eyed in wonder when they see all those beautiful snowflakes falling from the sky.

After all those pictures of a grey concrete city covered white snow, I leave you with these bright and cheerful flowers.
Have a great weekend everyone!

Snowy Tokyo

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!

Cool Japan!

Recently, I taught a unit on “Cool Japan” to my Year 11 students. Cool Japan is this ongoing campaign to promote Japanese culture to the world and basically tell them why this country is ‘cool’. If you ask me, it’s a bit of an ego-boost for the Japanese! They are quietly proud people. But actually, the goal is to increase business and trade overseas. The brand ‘Cool Japan’ was used in the successful bid for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. And there’s a TV program of the same name on NHK, where they get a bunch of foreigners to give their opinions about certain topics like Mt Fuji, cosplay, gift wrapping, castles, expressing gratitude, advertisements, etc etc.

I got my students to think of their top 10 favourite things about living in Japan. The most common? Safety. You don’t need to worry about things getting stolen or getting mugged in a dark alley. Japan is a safe country. Not that most of these teenagers have even been outside of Japan to experience an ‘unsafe’ country, but they are not wrong! It’s definitely a major plus point for Japan. Their other ideas were things like manga (comic books), food, J-pop music, tea ceremonies, and flower arranging. It’s nice to see they still appreciate traditional culture too.

So what do I think is coolest about Japan? The FOUR SEASONS! And specifically, how Japanese people have made the seasons such an important part of their lives.

Spring is a warm and happy time. The fleeting cherry blossoms come around March and April and everyone rushes out to enjoy a hanami picnic under the pink and white petaled trees.

After a brief rainy season, hot and humid summer descends. July and August is when all of the major fireworks festivals happen. Literally millions of people get dressed up in summer yukata and drink beer and eat yakitori under the spectacular night shows.

Autumn is always a welcome relief after the exhausting heat. In November the momiji maple trees turn from green to red to yellow to brown before gracefully falling to earth. People flock to places like the ancient temples of Kyoto to witness this gorgeous natural display of colours.

As the momiji leaves drop, so does the temperature. Winter is long and gloomy. But it’s not all bad. Japan has some of the best snow in the world, like Hokkaido, famous for its dry powder snow. For skiers and snowboarders, and strange people who like the cold, this is the best time of the year.

Then, the snow melts, scarves and gloves are put away, and spring returns once again.

I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the world that is quite like Japan.

Changes in Nature
Summer sunflowers at Shirakawago, Gifu; Spring cherry blossoms in Tokyo;
Autumn maple trees at Tofukuji temple, Kyoto; Winter snow monkeys at Jigokudani, Nagano.

Nature

One scene, Four seasons

shunkashuto

Making the most of every season

Spring: Hanami under the cherry blossoms at Kinuta Park, Tokyo

Spring: Hanami (cherry blossom viewing)Summer: Edogawa Fireworks Festival, Tokyo [attendance about 1.5 million people!]

Summer: Edogawa Fireworks Festival

Autumn: Koyo (maple leaves viewing) at Tofukuji, Kyoto

Autumn: Koyo (maple leaves viewing)

Winter: snow sports at Kiroro Resort, Hokkaido

Winter: snow sports

What are some of the popular seasonal events where you live?

If you’ve visited Japan, what did you think was ‘cool’?  I want to know!! :-)

A Spring Adventure: Tateyama Alpine Route

I was in a dream, standing on a vast plateau of snow, 2.5km above sea level, looking up to Mount Tate (3015m) and the surrounding alps. In every direction, as far (and high) as the eye could see, there was blinding ‘whiteness’. Snow-covered mountains sparkled under the bright sun. Clouds, although deceivingly soft and delicate looking, would roll by at such a high pace that in a matter of minutes, the striking blue sky would be smothered in a complete white-out.

On one side of the plateau, the mountains reached up to the heavens. Though, with no trees to contrast against the white slopes, it was hard to grasp just how massive these mountains were. It wasn’t until I discovered that those tiny black moving dots on the side of the mountain were actually skiers, that I realised the true scale! By the way, this is no ski resort… there are no ski lifts. The only way to ski down the mountain, is to first trek to the top! Those guys are tough!! I love snow sports, but that is taking it to whole other level!

The opposite side of the plateau is where most visitors tend to go. Beyond a pretty crater lake (which is frozen and covered in snow until June) and ‘Hell Valley’ where volcanic gas constantly billows out of the ground, there is actually a ryokan hotel with restaurant and indoor hot springs. It seemed a bit weird to see a man-made object plonked in the middle of the natural surrounds, but where there are people, there will be buildings!

Besides all of that, however, is something that stands on its own as the main attraction. Something that had been on my bucket list for ages, and is the reason I came to know about the whole place… the Tateyama Snow Corridor.

After five months of closure during winter, a narrow road is dug out for the opening of the alpine route which is accessible from April to November. They use machinery that cuts away at the compacted snow, and shoots it up in the air away from the road. At the deepest point near the Murodo Plateau, the height of the wall has been known to reach up to 20 metres after a harsh winter with heavy snowfall!

It’s a place I would highly recommend if you enjoy being in the great outdoors. So let me show you how to get there.

Tateyama
Toyama Station
Tateyama
Tateyama Station
Tateyama
Steep ascent with beautiful views

After an overnight bus ride from Tokyo, we arrived very early in the morning (around 5:30am) in Toyama on Japan’s west coast. After grabbing some breakfast, we went from Toyama Station to Tateyama Station via the Toyama Chiho Railroad and Tateyama Cable Car. Even at 6 in the morning, there were plenty of other people all headed for the same place, so we basically just had to follow the crowd. Along the way we passed beautiful, clear rivers and so much vibrant greenery!

The next leg was from Tateyama Station to Murodo Plateau via the Tateyama Highland Bus. Here, we travelled through a cedar forest full of ancient trees and wild animals. Some cheeky monkeys were playing on the road, grinding all traffic to a halt. When the coast was clear, we continued up the winding road through thick fog – sometimes we couldn’t see anything at all out the window. As we got higher up the mountain, the banks of snow on either side of the road got higher and higher, until we literally couldn’t see over the top of them.TateyamaTateyamaTateyamaTateyamaTateyama

 

And finally, we made it! The mighty snow corridor! The walls towered over the people and buses, stretching 13m straight up. One section of the wall is designated the ‘graffiti wall’ for aspiring artists such as myself :-P You can see messages written by people from all around the world!

Tateyama

 

The wall was very cool, but the best part for me was the spectacular plateau and mountain range. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before.

Tateyama
Snow-covered crater lake and Mt Tate in the background
Tateyama
Turquoise Mikurigaike Lake
Tateyama
Jumping for joy!
Tateyama
Hell Valley – volcanic gas
Tateyama
Watching the clouds swiftly roll by
Tateyama
I spy… teeny tiny skiers!

And finally, a postcard sent from the highest post office in Japan (2,450m)! The lucky recipient should get it soon!

Tateyama

Currently in… Hokkaido!

I’m so excited to be in Hokkaido – it’s my first time to be up in the northernmost island of Japan! I have traded the first few days of cherry blossoms in Tokyo for the small ski resort of Kiroro, about 75 minutes west of Sapporo.

It’s my third snowboarding trip in as many years, and I love it. Since I’m still technically a ‘beginner’, and having heard plenty of horror stories of things going wrong on the mountains, I admit it’s kind of scary! But the thrill of cruising down a run is not like anything else I’ve done. It’s an exciting sport both to do and watch!

Kiroro is a fairly unknown ski resort near Otaru city. It’s pretty small compared to the other resorts I’ve been to in Nagano. I didn’t really know this before coming as my friend was the organiser so I was a bit bummed at first. But actually as it turns out, the lack of crowds has meant lots of runs all for ourselves and I don’t have to worry about accidentally running into anyone! This is a very good thing. I’d say 90% of the visitors are Japanese which is a nice change from places like Hakuba which are basically an extension of Australia! The only down side to the trip has been that the famed dry ‘powder’ snow hasn’t shown itself. It hasn’t snowed in at least a week and the snowfall has been generally lower than the usual 13 metres per season. The ski season lasts until May in Hokkaido but it’s been very warm, spring-like weather, which is very rare and not what I wanted! Anyway, it just means I’ll have to come back again next year!

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Tokamachi Snow Festival

The Tokamachi Snow Festival is like one of Niigata’s best kept secrets. Most of my Japanese friends have never heard of it. But, each year it attracts about 300,000 people – 5 times the town’s regular population! For Tokyoites, it’s a cheaper/closer alternative to the world famous Sapporo Snow Festival in Hokkaido. It was originally created to ’embrace’ the enormous amount of snowfall (up to 3m) the region sees, and give the locals as well as tourists something to get excited about in the middle of winter.

Unfortunately, on the exact same weekend as when I went, a massive snowstorm swept across the country. We made it to Tokamachi with no problems, but we arrived to see most of the snow sculptures covered in snow, which was a huge shame for the artists that had spent days carving out the fine details! If that wasn’t bad enough, the next day, we also learned that the snowstorm had shut down the train network and people couldn’t get in or out, including us! We were forced to stay a second night. We were fine with that, as it meant we could stay to watch the grand finale performance… until we heard that that too had been cancelled. So, all in all, it was just a trip to see a whole lot of snow and test how long we could put up with the cold!!

Despite feeling like my frozen toes were going to fall off, it was great to walk through the town and find different beloved characters – Doraemon, Anpanman, Totoro and Hello Kitty. The festival’s masterpiece of Mt Fuji and two shrines was incredible, but my favourite sculpture was one sponsored by the Lions Club dedicated to the Sochi Olympics. It was in an unroofed area within a building, so we could go and see it up close. Even covered in freshly fallen snow, the detail of the dragon was not lost.

It would be great to visit this festival again someday!