Summer Bliss at the Izu Peninsula

The Izu Peninsula was beyond anything I had ever imagined. For most people in Japan, Izu is synonymous with beaches and onsens. It’s a popular weekend trip from Tokyo, but I’d only been to the area once before, to see the early-blooming cherry blossoms in Kawazu. Continue reading “Summer Bliss at the Izu Peninsula”

Off the Beaten Path in Fukushima

Living in Tokyo, the public transportation system is so extensive and reliable that there really is no need to own a car. So these days when I travel around the country, I actually try my best to plan trips to places where you need a car! That’s how much I miss driving. Besides, who doesn’t love a road trip!? Not only does it let you do things at your own pace, but it gives you the chance to go where no trains or buses go. In other words, it gives you the chance to step off the beaten path. And that’s exactly what I did on a recent trip to Fukushima.

Day One – Exploring Aizu

We left Shinjuku Station on the 9am bus bound for Fukushima Prefecture. We made our way out of the metropolis, past farmlands, through mountains (literally), and deep into the countryside, before arriving at Aizu-Wakamatsu Station just after 1pm. The most well-known attraction in Aizu-Wakamatsu is Tsuruga Castle, and it seemed like the entire town was an extension of it. The streets were dotted with preserved warehouse-style buildings that you can see in many ancient castle towns in Japan. Even the train station and underpass entrances replicated the castle’s roof design. I felt like we’d stepped into an open-air museum or a movie set.

We decided to use the town’s hop-on-hop-off sightseeing bus for the afternoon. The first stop was the castle for a history lesson. Many castles in Japan look similar, but one thing that makes Tsuruga-jo different to all the others is its red tile roof – which I imagine looks exceptionally beautiful when the 1,000 pink cherry blossoms trees surrounding it are in bloom. Aizu’s bloody history is also well known in Japan. During a 17-month civil war in the late 1800s called the Boshin War, there was a large group of teenage samurai in Aizu called the Byakkotai. After one battle in particular, 20 boys were separated from the rest of the clan and retreated to a nearby hill. From afar, they thought they saw the castle on fire and decided to commit seppuku (suicide for samurai) thinking the war had been lost. Sadly, the smoke they had seen was actually from a fire outside of the castle walls. 19 of the boys died, and one survived to tell their story. The tragedy has been adapted into novels, TV dramas and movies and their tombstones are visited by many people each year.

Our second stop for the afternoon was Higashiyama Onsen, a hot springs town located in the mountains just outside of Aizu. A river runs straight down the middle of the town, with ryokans lining each side. I’d read that this area was in need of some TLC and unfortunately those reviews weren’t wrong. It felt like an abandoned town for the most part, with ugly cables running along the water’s edge and the buildings looking old and worn. Further up the river, however, things were a little different. Wild flowers were everywhere, and the river felt more natural without the invasive concrete structures. The streets were clean and atmospheric and whole place felt peaceful. We chose a ryokan and soaked in a hot spring by the river. Bliss!

To end the day, we tracked down a Kitakata ramen restaurant. This is one of the most famous regional ramens in Japan, and is originally from Kitakata, the town next to Aizu. The noodles are thick, wavy and soft; and the soup is made using soy sauce. Delicious!

Day Two – Road Trip

On day two, we were up early to have some breakfast before going to pick up our rental car. We’d reserved the car from 9am to 6pm and weren’t going to waste a minute! From Aizu, we headed south to a place in the middle of nowhere called Ouchijuku. In the old days, Aizu was connected to Nikko via a trade route through the mountains. Along the route were a number of post towns like Ouchijuku where samurai, travellers and farmers could put their feet up and grab a bite to eat. Ouchijuku is especially picturesque because all of the houses feature thick thatched roofs, similar to those in the World Heritage Shirakawago, to protect the buildings from snow during winter.

Ouchijuku is fairly small and there is just one main street lined with houses, but I found it fascinating. I loved the traditional houses. I loved eating the local dishes – DELICIOUS tempura manju and very interesting Ouchijuku-style soba eaten with a long leek instead of chopsticks!! I loved all the colourful flowers blooming everywhere you looked – cherry blossoms, rapeseeds, tulips, snowbells. I loved talking to the local people who were so cheerful and friendly. Needless to say, I’d 100% recommend a visit if you ever get the chance!

From Ouchijuku, we headed further south to an even more remote place called To-no-hetsuri. We had happened to see this place on a local map earlier that day, and then were recommended to go there by some people we met at Ouchijuku, so we made a detour to go check it out. Over thousands of years, the river and wind have eroded the soft, white walls of the cliff to create some very unusual formations. Some gaps are so large that they have created caves that you can walk into. As usual in Japan, they have even built a shrine inside one of the caves. I loved the deep green-blue colour of the water, too. And with the bright green foliage up top, it made for an impressive sight.

On the road again, we travelled a couple hours north, around the huge Lake Inawashiro, into the forest between Mt Bandai and Mt Adatara, and down a lonely dirt track. We were very, very far from the beaten track, that’s for sure. From the car park, we walked through a few natural wooden torii gates and followed a shallow stream full of moss-covered rocks. Everywhere we looked, everything was green. Bright green. I could feel the negative ions swirling around us, purifying our pores and taking away any stress and worries.

We passed under one final torii before the gorgeous and graceful Tatsusawa-Fudo Falls came into view. I hear the autumn colours are stunning here, and in the winter, the waterfall freezes over. In summer, the weather is nice enough that you can walk behind/under the waterfall! During spring though, the water and air temperatures were still very cold, and we made do with admiring the waterfall from afar.

The sun was starting to set and eventually we pulled ourselves away and hit the road back to Aizu, making it back to the rental shop at 6pm on the dot. The following morning we caught the bus back to Tokyo, wrapping up our adventurous trip to Fukushima.

 

Waterfall Paradise in Nikko

I arrived in Nikko well after sun down. A stunning, pink-washed sunset had been quickly replaced by the black night sky. As I got off the train, I breathed in the cool, fresh air. It was good to be back!

The township looked pretty deserted. There was no music blaring from bars, nor people eating in busy restaurants, as you would usually expect on a Saturday night. It was very calm and quiet. The only shop that was open was a convenience store, so I picked up a few things to eat for dinner and headed up the road to my lodgings for the night. My accommodation was a hostel right by the rushing Daiya River. It was so loud it sounded like rain was pounding on the roof. After getting some local knowledge from the owner of the place, I knew I had to be up early to make the most of my one-day to explore. I went to sleep to the sound of the river, excited for the following day.

I’m never one to get up early, so not surprisingly, it was already 8:30am before I was up and on my way. It was probably a blessing in disguise as I had a big day ahead of me and needed all the rest I could get. After picking up a Bus Pass, I jumped on a bus that snaked its way up into Oku-nikko, the hinterland of Nikko. In about 45 minutes, we had ascended roughly 700 metres. My first stop was Lake Chuzenji and Kegon Falls, the most famous waterfall in Japan.

For the massive waterfall that it is, Kegon Falls was surprisingly easy to get to. From the bus stop, it was a quick 5 minute walk. The upper (free) platform gives you a teasing peak at the top half of the waterfall. It really is worth it to pay for the elevator ride down through the rock to the lower platform where you get a magnificent view of the whole waterfall, plus a few others in the vicinity. With gusts of cold water spraying over us, we stood in awe of the amount of water that was tumbling off the cliff from Lake Chuzenji and smashing on the rocks 97 metres below. Kegon Falls itself has such a grand, powerful presence, yet with all the greenery around it, it also had a softer feel. There’s no doubting its status as one of Japan’s most beautiful waterfalls.

After tearing myself away from Kegon Falls, I had a quick look around Lake Chuzenji, before jumping back on the bus and climbing higher up into the mountains. The next stop was Ryuzu Falls. In Japanese, this double waterfall is called ‘dragon’s head’. Ryuzu Falls is most famous in autumn when the deciduous trees change to red and yellow. Being summertime, the trees were full of green leaves which made for a pretty scene, but at the same time, covered up a lot of the water. A souvenir shop and restaurant sit basically at the edge of the bank, which kind of ruins the atmosphere. In the photo below, I’m standing on the balcony. I was so close I felt like I could have almost touched the waterfall. I would have moved on straight away, but my stomach was telling me it was lunchtime. At least the view from the restaurant encouraged us to slow down and admire the beauty in front of us!

After slurping down a delicious bowl of soba, I was eager to keep going. Above Ryuzu Falls was an intriguing staircase of rocks, the ‘tail’ of the dragon. The water looked like it was flying past on a magic carpet. My immediate thought was that this would make a fun waterslide! This slope was actually created from the powerful force of lava, and you can easily imagine the burning hot liquid crashing down through the trees.

From the top of the falls, a hiking trail follows the river upstream, through the woods and on into the Sanjogahara Marshlands. This area was so unexpectedly gorgeous that it was probably my favourite part of the whole trip. There was waterfall upon waterfall breaking up the cool, crystal clear river. Some waterfalls were like a washing machine, vigorously churning bucketloads of water. Others were gentle and calm, sweeping over the moss-covered rocks.

Above, the trees rustled in the breeze and birds continually called to each other. A few carefree ducks swam by every now and then. There were just a few other hikers that I passed, and each time we greeted each other warmly.

It was just a beautiful place!

Oku-nikko

Oku-nikko

Oku-nikko

After wandering through the marshlands, I decided to catch the bus again, but not before indulging in an ice cream! I bought what was probably the most delicious strawberry ice cream I’ve ever eaten! I’m not sure what ingredients were used, but it was advertised as available for a limited-time only. It could have been the best 300yen I’ve ever spent!

With a satisfied stomach, I hopped on the bus and made my way to Yudaki Falls. Like most of the waterfalls in Nikko, Yudaki flows down a rock cliff created from the lava flow of a nearby volcano. From the top of the waterfall, the Yugawa River seems to just drop off the earth and vanish! It was a little scary. The waterfall surges down at a steep 45 degree angle. As you walk down the zigzag stairs along the side of the waterfall, you can really feel its strength and force. Nothing can get in its way!

Oku-nikko

From Yudaki Falls, Yumoto Onsen was a 15 minute hike away. The final stop for me. Yumoto Onsen sits on the northern shore of Lake Yuno where there were many fishermen in boats and families playing at the water’s edge. It’s almost 1,500 metres above sea level, so a little breezy and chilly. There were numerous times when I thought I should get my jacket out of my backpack, but managed to get by without it. In winter, this town actually turns into a ski resort!

The town is made up of 22 hot springs and had that distinct smell of sulphur, although it wasn’t as strong as places like Beppu in Oita. The milky-white water is believed to have healing powers as well as being good for beauty (skin). There’s only one thing to do in an onsen town: get in the water! I found a ryokan that had an outdoor hot spring bath and soaked for an hour so, giving my body the relaxation it desperately needed. It was the best way to wrap up an incredible day.

I’d spent 5 hours getting from Nikko town to Yumoto Onsen. The return trip, past Lake Yunoko, Yudaki Falls, the marshlands, Ryuzu Falls, Lake Chuzenji, down the mountain and back to reality, was just 75 minutes. An unusually talkative young Japanese guy sat next to me on the bus, and I had a great 3-hour conversation with him, all the way back to Tokyo in fact!

The final descent on the winding Irohazaka Road gave us a spectacular send-off. A little Bambi even came out to greet us. She dashed onto the road, and the bus slowed down to avoid hitting her! Then she proceeded to prance up the road, past 3 or 4 other cars, before realising it was not a good idea to be there.

Oku-Nikko is a waterfall paradise; a treasure for nature lovers; a wilderness escape up in the clouds; and in my opinion, one of the prettiest places in the world!

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!

Karuizawa: Luxury meets Tranquility

I asked a few Japanese friends what came to mind when they thought of Karuizawa. Everyone had the same reaction:

“Summer resort!”

I only found out about Karuizawa recently, actually. After the summer holidays, a colleague told me about his great trip there with his ‘well-off’ friends! Curious to see this resort for myself, I made it the destination for the second day of my two-day trip. After a day exploring the town of Matsumoto, I jumped on the train and made my way around the mountain range to Karuizawa.

The town lies about an hour’s train ride from Tokyo (via bullet train). It’s roughly divided into five different areas, with plenty to do in each – camping, swimming, fishing, birdwatching, playing golf or tennis, horseback riding, hiking and lots more. It’s all about being able to relax and enjoy being surrounded by nature! And at 1,000m above sea level, this cool mountain town makes for the perfect getaway during hot July and August.

For those less ‘outdoors’ inclined, Karuizawa is also home to lots of boutique stores, gourmet restaurants and one of the biggest brand outlet shopping malls in Japan, the Prince Shopping Plaza. This massive, and very beautiful I might add, mall sits on a 26-hectare lot complete with a lake and gardens. With about 240 shops, I was hoping to snag a bargain, but alas even outlet items are still far beyond my reach. It was nice to dream though!

Karuizawa is not just any old summer resort. It is also known as a playground for the rich and famous. Since the late 1800s, the town has been frequented by the Imperial family, prime ministers, sportspeople, actors, musicians, writers and poets. Many wealthy Tokyoites have second houses here (like my colleague’s friend). Over half of the homes in the area are used only as holiday houses! In the summer, so many people migrate here that the population of the town increases tenfold!

Despite the allure of shopping malls and mansions, it was a walk through the woods that really captivated me. The air was so pure, so cool, so fresh! I just wanted to stand there and breathe it all in. From the bus stop, the walk up to Shiraito Falls is a short 5 minute one. But once you get there, it’s hard to leave! The waterfall naturally comes out from the rocks, although I did read that the rocks have been altered in some way to help the whole ‘curtain’ look. Still, it is impressive.

I can definitely understand why thousands of people flock here in the summer. Luxury meets tranquility. It’s a beautiful place and has made me see Japan in a new light. I had no idea such a resort existed! So Japan is not all about ‘work work work’, but they do enjoy a dash of ‘play’!