Archives for category: Japan

Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture
Nikko – a town with a lot of history, winding up a river valley past elaborate shrines to Oku-Nikko National Park and the Japanese Alps.

Lake Yunoko

Lake Yunoko

Transport

At 120km from Tokyo, Nikko can be reached pretty easily by train, even close enough for a day-trip if you’re really pushed for time.

The fastest way from central Tokyo is of course by shinkansen. The  line runs direct from Asakusa to Nikko, takes about 2 hours and costs 1320Y. Another alternative is to use JR line trains, heading from Ikebukuro via Omiya to Utsunomiya, then taking the JR Nikko line – altogether this takes just over 2 hours if you time your connections well, and costs 4820Y, including the seat fee for the shinkansen. Local trains will be about half this, and get you there eventually.

Check out the Tobu Nikko Free Pass available from Asakusa Station, which from 3,600Y  includes a return trip from Tokyo, free travel to the National Park and shrines on buses, and discounts or free entry to various spots.

Decorative detail at Toshogu

Decorative detail at Toshogu

When?

The most popular time to visit Nikko is in autumn to see the leaves changing colour, a tradition known as koyo. Nikko is famous as a koyo viewing area, and expect heavy traffic during those 2 weeks of the year. As a picturesque and convenient escape point from Tokyo, Nikko is often pretty busy at weekends around the shrines. However, since many tourists seem to come for an afternoon, visit the Toshugu Shrine then immediately return to Tokyo, once youre away from the World Heritage area Nikko is suddenly very peaceful. The many hiking trails surrounding the Oku-Niko area are quiet, and at night even the main road or station front is a ghost town (more on this later). A couple of weeks after hanami (cherry blossom viewing) madness withdraws from Tokyo as the petals fall, the trees further north in slightly colder Nikko come into bloom, so expect more poeple around then, but the rush is much less noticeable than during koyo. From mid-November Nikko becomes very cold, shops close at 4pm and heavy snowfall can close the roads leading to the Oku-Nikko park.

Shinkyo Bridge

Shinkyo Bridge

Where to stay

There are ryokan and small hostels dotted liberally around Nikko, but some are much further away from the town than you might imagine. Checking the address on a map or Google to make sure it`s within walking distance of the station if you aren`t driving could be a good move, although some hostels will offer a free pick-up service from the station at certain hours.

Smaller roads are poorly lit at night, so plan your route carefully and carry a torch if your hotel is pretty far out

Things to do

World Heritage area

The Toshogu shrine is the Sistine Chapel of Kanto: breathtakingly intricate, beautifully preserved, and heaving with tourists. The site is pretty vast, entered via a `museum of treasures` (mostly ancient and ornate Buddhist statues) which then leads into a temple courtyard, up a gentle slope to the many-storied pagoda that marks the beginning of the wonders, and follow everyone else through the gates. Tori, the red gateways outside temple entrances, signify you are moving from the normal physical world into a higher and holier plane. The various gates around Toshogu have a similar effect, as though entering a land of fantastic colours and strange beasts.

Toshogu

Toshogu

Not far from here is the Shinkyo Bridge arching over the river, which you can take pictures of from the modern bridge just downstream but sadly can`t go on.

A little out of town to the west is the Kanmangafuchi Abyss, or Narabijizo. Next to a vivid blue alpine river is a line of old, mossy jizo statues, ranging in size and age. Local folklore states that if you walk along counting them one way, then turn back and count them again you will get a different number each time.

Kanmangafuchi Abyss

Kanmangafuchi Abyss

Hiking – Oku-Nikko Park

Irohazaka Winding Road is quite some feat of engineering and would make an ideal setting for a motorbike advert if not for the traffic. A series of hair pin bends lead steeply uphill to the Oku Nikko Park area, turning sharply and offering flashes of views down into the valley and over distant mountains before another lurching 120 degree turn. A separate road goes downhill, and once you see the twists and turns you`ll see why one-way traffic is a must on this thing. Irohazaka refers to a traditional way of writing the Japanese hiragana alphabet, so each turn has a letter – the first bend is “i”, the second “ro”, the third “ha” – looking out for these is one way to offset travel sickness.

Buses all travel to Lake Chuzenji, a high alpine lake with mountains rising from the shores. Mount Nantai towers over the faded town at 2486 metres, and to the north the land lifts to the Yumoto Highlands, passing waterfalls and marshlands. On the southern shore of the lake is Chuzenji Temple, with an ancient Buddhist statue carved from a single tree trunk, a watchtower offering good views over the lake, and a huge ceiling mural of a dragon.

Some buses will take you to Yumoto, an onsen town on the edge of Lake Yunoko. A good walk heads from there past the lake and Yudaki waterfall, back down the valley, over duckboards in the Senjogahara marsh to the Ryuzu Falls. There are several walks around here, and it might be worth buying a copy of the Oku Nikko Hiking Guide from the Tourist Information Office at Nikko Station.

 

Senjogahara

Senjogahara

Cycling around Chuzenji is a good way to take in most of the lake, a few places do cycle rental around there. Hardcore mountain bikers may want to try cycling up the Irohazaka road.. good luck.

Watersports in summer you can get out on the lake for a sightseeing cruise, or take an archaic row boat or swan shaped pedalo. One shop on the western shore had boats shaped like 1950`s style rockets.

Hot springs feel incredible after hiking. There are a few in Nikko itself, but the ones in Yumoto are said to have great curative properties. The smell is stronger than at some other onsen which can put some people off, but once you`re soaking in an outdoor bath you probably wont care.

Nikko has a lot to offer to fans of nature, history and hot springs, but dont expect a vast array of restaurants to be open if youre there mid-week:  on my trip in mid-April only the Gusto and the convenience store had reliable opening times, and the hostel owners told me most shops close at 4 or 6pm.

Links

Train Times – http://www.hyperdia.com

Accommodation – http://www.hostelworld.com

General information – http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3800.html offers detailed information on the history of Nikko and has good recommendations

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Zao Onsen, Yamagata

Transport
Not impossible without a car but whichever way you go it won`t be quick. By shinkansen it’s going to take 6 hours via Omiya and Yamagata, followed by a short ride on a local train. This will take around 3 hours and set you back over 10,000yen.
When I tried to search for local trains I was recommended to fly to Yamagata Airport  instead – not surprising since it would take over 7 hours and cost nearly 6,000.

The easiest way is to take a bus from Shinjuku Bus Station. These are mostly overnight buses, which take about 7 hours and cost 6000yen. An alternative is to join a large organised tour which has hired a private bus – snow sports clubs like Tokyo Snow Club (www.tokyosnowclub.com) or Tokyo Gaijins (www.tokyogaijins.com/ski) run package tours. These are usually done over a weekend, and they will also arrange accommodation, lift passes, and rentals if required. Although it can take away some of your freedom over travel times, going with a big group has advantages like getting discounts on passes or bus fares. 

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When?
Obviously if you’re planning on skiing or snowboarding then winter is best. The peaks are usually open and snow covered from December to late February, but you might get a longer season during cold years.

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Where to stay
Zao Onsen has some ski-in hotels right at the bottom of Uwanodai, one of the main slopes, and these are by far the best places if you want to avoid walking up to the slopes, or waiting around for shuttle buses. They serve meals and have drying rooms or gear storage areas. There aren’t many independent restaurants, so try and get a hotel which does food.

I stayed in Jingisukan Lodge, which had beautiful tatami rooms. It was warm and comfortable, had great service, and the food was mostly good.

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Skiing or snowboarding  are the sports most travellers come for. There`s a range of courses to suit all abilities, ranging from bunny hills to suicidally steep, and lots of ski lifts to take you up. The longest run goes from the peak of Mount Sanpokojin, standing at over 1,600 metres high, but requires using more than 1 lift to get up. The most direct route uses only 2 lifts, but expect waits of over 40 minutes for both of these at peak times. Sanpokojin has a landscape of `Ice Monsters`, trees so thickly covered in snow that they look more like surreal sculptures or bizarre sleeping creatures.  Not much on the slopes themselves except the occasional restaurant tacked onto a ski lift, but on the positive side the slopes look much more wild and natural.

I went during an unexpected warm spell during the peak season, so the lift waits on the most direct route were around an hour. Apparently all the snow on the Ice Monsters had melted off anyway

Lift passes are around 5000yen for an adult 1 day pass during the `regular season`, but cheaper if you go outside this time: either before late December or after late March. 2 day passes are around 9000, 3 days 12,500, and 4 days will set you back around 15,000.  Children under 12 are half adult price. Theres another option, the `Exciting 10 day Pass`, but sadly I couldn’t find out why it was so exciting – although you can use it any time during the season. Lifts are mostly open 8.30am – 4.30pm. Night skiing passes are available from the end of December to the end of March for a few of the slopes which stay open until 9pm.

There`s also a snowboard park for those looking to practise jumps, a family snow park for small children, and the chance to try snow shoeing. Snow shoeing tours run between late January and late March. Zao Wakanjiki offers guided tours conducted in Japanese on 2 routes, both of which cost 4000yen and take up to 5 hours. Zao Chuo Kogen Kanjiki don`t offer guided tours, and cost 2500yen.

The onsen has a reputation for being very hot and acidic, but is rumoured to aid some skin conditions and will probably feel great after a long day out too.

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Events

The Zao Juhyo Festival offers an incredible fireworks display right on the slopes at Uwanodai in early February, as well as the chance to watch jumping (I don’t know if confident bystanders can join in)

Moonlit walking tours are available on late February weekends with a full moon, which cost just over 2000yen. The tour is conducted in Japanese

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There aren’t many shops in Zao. There`s a few restaurants in the village, which are all pretty far apart, and one convenience store near the bus station, and … that’s about it. Take a lot of cash and snack food with you, and don’t expect nightlife

Zao is fantastic for snow sports, but there isn’t a lot more going on here – no museums or things like that. It’s a very small town, so either go out on the slopes or be prepared to make your own fun.

Links

Train Times – http://www.hyperdia.com

Accommodation – http://www.hostelworld.com

General information – http://www.japan-guide.com

Izu Peninsular is an area south-west of Tokyo known for its thickly forested mountains, natural hot springs, stretching beaches and blue seas cut with jagged islands. Usami is a small town on the eastern coast surrounded by small mountains that open up to a curving beach with some of the best surfing in Izu.

Transport There are several ways to get there: easy and expensive (shinkansen bullet train from Central Tokyo, about 4,000 – 6,000 yen),  or slow and with a lot of changes (local trains, about 3,000 yen).We took a shinkansen for the first time, before I was put off by the price but it was travelling at its finest – relaxing, easy, and watching the scenery roll past while enjoying the extra leg room. 

When Usami can be surf paradise when the weather and tides are right – July through to mid-September is warm enough in regular swimming gear. Outside that you`d be better with a wetsuit. Also, after late August there`s a chance of jellyfish being swept into the bay. Some of these, like the box jellyfish native to Australia, can be dangerous. I visited in mid September during peak jellyfish season – they kept us out of the water for a day before they finally got swept out to sea. I was stung by a `safe` one and it felt like an electric shock. I also saw Portugese Man of War jellies about a week before along the coast nearer to Tokyo, but if there`s lots of people in the water then you should be fine.

Where to stay There are a few small hotels and guesthouses in Usami, some right next to the beach. Its a small town so don`t expect an overwhelming choice. Also restaurants are few and far between, you`d get more choice in the bigger towns of Atami (to the north) or Ito (one stop down on the train line to the south) if your hotel doesn`t offer any meals. Or just rough it on convenience store food.

Things to Do In Usami Get in the ocean. Take an onsen. Drink beer on the beach. Simple, but a pretty good mix for a relaxing beach trip. Theres a 50 foot Buddha statue you can see from the town if you fancy a hike up into the mountains to explore some temples. I havent tried this yet as the beach/bath/beer combination was just too compelling, but it looks impressive even from the coast

Things to do near Usami To the south of Usami are some of the most popular spots in the Izu Peninsular.

Jogasaki Coast is a walk along the cliffs with spectacular views of cliffs, small islands and waterfalls. It passes through thick forest, a mix of tough Japanese pines clinging to sheer clifftops or perched on tiny isles in the ocean, and semi-tropical rainforest. At both ends of the walk there are suspension bridges which offer views over coves and cliffs, and along the way there are temples, shrines and Izu Oceanic Park, where you can go swimming or try scuba diving.

The full walk is over 12 kms and surprising tough going because it follows the natural line of the cliffs, so the path meanders along all the inlets and small bays, and rises or falls steeply in some places. Although it is not an easy walk it is extremely rewarding – the meandering coastline means the view is always changing, and there are over 30 famous viewpoints signposted that include waterfalls, tiny valleys full of hydrangea flowers or cherry blossom at the right time of year, statues and temples, as well as the staggering natural beauty of the coast itself.

Walking along Hashidate Bridge

If you do not want to do the full walk then the bridges at either end can be accessed easily from local train stations. Jogasaki Kaigen Station at the north east end is just over 1km from the Kawowaki Suspension Bridge and lighthouse, and Izu Kogen Station in the south west is 1km from Hashidate Suspension Bridge.There are bus tours to visit Renchakuji Temple and Izu Oceanic Park too.

Jogasaki can be reached by train from Ito Station, the trains are every 20 minutes on the Izu Kyuko line and the ride takes around 25-35 minutes.

Personally I would recommend trying the full walk because of the amazing scenery and fascinating sights along the way, but wearing loose comfortable clothes and taking a lot of water is a good idea, as between Renchakuji Temple and Hiashidate Bridge there are no water fountains and on a humid day you will get hot walking on the steep parts. I would also suggest wearing practical shoes like walking boots or trainers after watching a girl in stilettos stumble around on the rocky parts at Kawowaki Bridge.

Izukogen Station offers several museums, many of them pretty unusual, as well as the Jogasaki walk. These include the Music Box Museum, the Teddy Bear Museum, the Doll House Museum and the Museum of Interesting Things.               I have not visited any of these, although the Museum of Interesting Things sounded… interesting.

Seven Waterfalls is another well-known walk near Kawazu Station through forest in the centre of Izu. It is about 1km, and can be reached by bus from Kawazu Station on the Izu Kyuku line.

Snorkelling or scuba diving can be done in Kawazu. Expect to pay 1,500yen to rent a snorkel, mask and flippers, then pay an extra 1,500 yen if you want to dive on the beach near the harbour. This money is demanded by the fishermans union so they can earn cash `when they can`t go in the water because of divers`. Thats one way to translate it. The other is frankly `We want to rip off tourists.Also we own the ocean. Because we say so, thats why`. Follow the road that goes along the beach to the south, it goes around a couple of bends and you`ll see a tiny unspoiled tranquil beach where you will see a ton of fish and show the fishermen exactly where they can stick their tax

Shirahama Beach is the most famous beach on the peninsular and is a long stretch of white sand near Shimoda. There are areas near here for snorkelling or scuba diving. You can get there on the Izu Kyuko line from Usami.

More information

Trains http://www.hyperdia.com lists train times in English or Japanese

Rocky slops of Nasudake

Nasu – Tochigi Prefecture

  Nasu is a hot spring area at the edge of the Kanto plain where the utterly flat and heavily built up land rises and arches into green mountains. The tallest of these, Mt Nasudake, is actually an active volcano with several hiking courses leading around the crater in the centre past steaming vents, which are locally and optimistically known as Eternal Hell. The small town of Yumoto is the nearest to the summit of Nasudake, with several onsen, including one at a scalding 53 degrees C.
Transport

Bus from Tokyo you can take the JR Kanto bus from Shinjuku to Yumoto. It has several stops in and around Yumoto, but you will need to take a seperate bus if your hotel is beyond here.

Bullet train The Yamabiko Shinkansen connects Omiya and Nasushiobara, then change to the Utsunomiya line. The full journey from central Tokyo takes about 2 hours and costs around 5500 yen

Local train The Utsunomiya line runs via Akabane and Utsunomiya to Kuroiso station. It’ll cost around 3000 from central Tokyo, and takes 160 minutes… so take a book.

Although a lot of people drive to Nasu or rent a car there, a good way to travel around the Nasu area by public transport is to take a bus that goes from Kuroiso to the Nasu Ropeway. Its uphill all the way from Kuroiso so I wouldn’t recommend cycling it! A 2 day pass was about 2000yen. Their website hasn’t been updated for a while so all the times were about 40 minutes out.

Small shrine near the Nasudake crater

When? 

Theres a few ski slopes and lifts so it might be popular for snow sports in winter. North of Yumoto is an area called Tsutsujio, azalea flower. Take a trip there in late May and you`ll find out why – a large park dedicated to azalea bushes are in full bloom around then, with vivid pinks and purples stretching as far as you can see. It is also popular to visit in autumn to see the leaves change colour. The Nasudake Ropeway is closed in winter, but is a great place to start hikes from the rest of the year.

We visited in late May and saw azaleas in bloom in the valley, caught some sunshine on the slopes of Nasudake, and found some lingering snow from the previous winter too

Where to stay

Yumoto has several hotels and onsens you can stay at but they don’t come cheap. Smaller hostels lie outside Yumoto but be prepared for a bit of a walk to bus stops or attractions.

We stayed at a very cheap hotel in the south of Yumoto.The area was extremely quiet, with no drinking places and only a couple of restaurants. Luckily the steak restaurant was really good and not too expensive. Some roads are not illuminated and go through think forest, so take a torch if you’re going out at night

Last traces of snow near Nasudake

Things to do
Mt Nasudake (1915 metres)

Ropeway This takes you up near the summit of Mt. Nasudake in 5 minutes, although at weekends you might be queuing for 40minutes to get in the car. From the top of the ropeway its a short but steep climb over uneven rocks to the top, we took about 40 minutes with some breaks to admire the views. There are several routes around and from the summit of Nasudake to other ridges or down into the valley. These are well marked with yellow paint so its hard to get lost but the rocks can be loose so tread carefully. One path spirals down from the summit past several steam vents, where the sulphurous gas pouring from the dormant volcano and strange rock colours earned it the name `Eternal Hell`. The ropeway costs 650yen for a single trip, or about 1000 for a return ticket. It’s just opposite the final  bus stop and a car park
The cars can get very crowded – not good if you’re scared of small spaces and heights!

To avoid queues at the ropeway stations, you can hike all the way from the bus stop. It’s about 3km and half of that is pretty heavy going, although it levels out nearer the summit. Again the paths are clearly marked in yellow paint

Volcanic gas clouds

History and Legends – Murder stone

This large rock vents poisonous volcanic gases. A legend says it is the body of an evil 9 tailed fox spirit, who transformed into a beautiful woman and caused chaos while she travelled from China to Japan. She was eventually killed here, with her body transforming into a huge rock. A monk prayed for days to calm her spirit, and the rock shattered.

There are also legends of monks disappearing or being sucked down into Hell in this area.

The murder stone is at the edge of Yumoto, you can walk up from the town or take a bus for a few minutes

Azalea garden

Azalea garden

Also on the bus route and easily accessible from Yumoto, this large garden of narrow winding paths and full-grown azalea bushes is beautiful in late Spring when the flowers are in full bloom. There are viewing platforms to get a bird’s eye view of the garden or to the distant mountains

Heisei no Mori

Walking trails lead through forest that was once owned by the Japanese royal family. Particularly good to visit in autumn, when the leaves are changing colour.

Nearby –  Shiobara Onsen

This small town has several onsen, including some mixed or open-air baths. If you’re feeling more active there`s a popular walk which goes past 3 waterfalls. Shiobara is hard to access by publ;ic transport directly from Nasu, but  you can take a train from Kuroiso down to Nishi-Nasuno, then a bus to Shiobara.

Food 

During my trip there wasnt a lot of choice. It seemed most places were closed, I’m not sure whether they are closed over summer and open during the ski season, or simply closed down. I`d recommend finding out whether your hotel offers meals, and bring some snacks with you just in case

Links

Train Times – http://www.hyperdia.com

Accommodation – http://www.hostelworld.com

General information – http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e6300.html

UNDER CONSTRUCTION – Please check back soon for the final version, complete with directions and all!

Sick of being ripped off? Bored with going to the major chains? Check out some small, independant and well-worthy places to stop for a drink

Shinjuku

MARU

Narrow rowdy upstairs izakaiya, with self-service. You can mix your own cocktails from a sticky selection of brandless spirits, or get a mate to surprise/traumatise you. The beer pumps are particularly cool, automatically tilting the glass for you and spraying on a liberal head, so all you have to do is push a button.  Nomihoudai is 300yen for half an hour, so about 1,200 yen for the average 2 hour binge. The food isn’t great but from 60Y for a yakitori what do you expect? You have to order some food to get the drinks deal but they don’t force you to actually eat it. The staff are a lot less polite than the norm in Japan but since everyone there is completely hammered I guess I can’t blame them.

Overall; Fun, cheap, but not fancy. Definitely not good for a first date.

Take the South Exit out of Shinjuku Station, go straight down the main road. Take the 3rd left, its the building near the end of the street with a big orange sign, on the 4th floor. Shinjuku 34-14, Shinjuku 3-Chome, 160-0022

Ikebukuro

Standing bar

Often busy with a good atmosphere, this small bar has a retro feel. The usual crowd is older drinkers and salarymen leaning on the wooden tables and unwinding after a long day. They dont offer nomihoudai but its only about 300Y for a beer, which you pay for as they come so there`s no big bar tab to come as a nasty surprise at the end of the night. No seats, but this means no table charge. Good for a quick drink, or a few if youre not hungry and still capable of standing up.

West exit,__________ second floor

Shimokitazawa

Barba

Upstairs bar, hard to find twice. Pirate themed, the arching roof, murals and assorted nautical tat make it feel like drinking in a boat. usually quiet. Nomihoudai advertised for 700yen for 2 hours – if you want beer and tequila its an extra 200Y, and the table charge is about 400y. The waiter told us half way through we had to order food (about 400Y, standard fare) but since he didnt say this at the beginning we could argue it. You can make your own takoyaki at the table, takes a bit of practise if its your first time though. Not much atmosphere early on but good for a quieter drink, and the unusual design plus extensive cocktails/ sours menu make it worth checking out.

Overall; Cheap, but check what you pay for before you start

Take the south exit out of Shimokitazawa Station, turn right, go past McDonalds, go two blocks and look for it on the left hand side near am-pm, its on the second floor   http://www.hotpepper.jp/strJ000789228/

Kichijoji

For a real change of drinking style, take the Chuo line to some of the best cities in Tokyo. Kichijoji is the perfect example of this – tiny rock bars, theme bars, Okinawan-esque wooden shacks with overpriced cocktails… but there’s some really unusual stuff once you get onto the side streets

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Yurei – Ghost Bar

Not the cheapest on this list but definitely worth heading to, if only for how unique it is. This horror-themed ezakaiya offers a range of ghoulishly presented food and drinks, in a creepily decorated black-lit basement bar. The friendly staff are dressed as traditional Japanese ghosts – trailing white dress, shockingly pale. Think Sadako in the Ring … only serving you beer instead of crawling out the tv. The best deal is for 3 – 4 people, doing nomihoudai/tabehoudai. The food is a bit pricey but fantastic, and the presentation is cool. We ordered spare ribs – the lights go dim, something in a shot glass is poured over the meat, the spark of a lighter, and a foot high flaming inferno is placed in front of you. Wow.Some specials too, like the Valentines Day “Russian Roulette” – the theme being “heaven and hell”. Two identical looking gyoza arrive on a plate – one tasty, the other a burning nightmare of wasabi. Go in on your birthday and get a surprise.

Kichijoji Station south exit, head towards Inokashira Koen, go past Marui, and its on a small street to the right (B1, 1-8-11 Kichijoji Minami-cho). Or just follow the sound of wailing and screaming.

Harmonica bars

You can find these in loads of towns along the Chuo line. Most drinking holes in Japan you’re at a table, set a bit apart from others, inside a bar that probably doesn’t have windows.

The harmonica bars are very very different. These tiny places sit side by side on maze-like narrow streets, each only about the size of 6 tatami mats, or a handful of metres square, cluttered with small tables and chairs pushed together back to back, the walls decorated with old movie posters, graffiti, toys, memorabilia, books, found … things.. One wall is open onto the street, with sheets of plastic like a shower curtain to pull across if its raining. The chairs overlapping with the bar next door, the music and shouts mingling; its  more like drinking outdoors than in.

Dont expect a huge range of food and drink – there literally isnt space to store it. The bar counter in most of these is smaller than my kitchen sink. Theres bar snacks and maybe a yakitori grill or a couple of pots of something simmering away in the cramped space behind the bar. These aren’t places designed for eating a big meal in with a more limited selection than in most izakaiyas, but they compensate for the lack of choice by serving a few quality dishes. Theyre designed for banter – something you don’t get much sat at seperate tables, with everything brought to you by a waiter. The layout forces you to talk to others, passing their drinks over, squeezing past their chairs. It’s a great place for chatting to strangers, making new friends, and of course flirting.

Most of them are too small to have their own toilets, but there`s usually a public one nearby. For example in Kichijoji a few of the harmonica bar owners clubbed together to build a block of loos and they give you a key to use them. Just try to remember which bar you were drinking in so you can give the key back. There`s no table charge, beer around 500Y

Overall; Friendly, lively and great for having a chat or getting a few phone numbers

Kichijoji: Come out the main entrance of the train station, turn left and the harmonica bars start in a small sidestreet just across the road near Sunshine Dori.

Shibuya

standing bar

This is a great place to meet foreigners outside the Hub Trap (Hub Trap: you start a bit of conversation waiting at the bar, they seem reasonably cool, come over to join you, then rapidly descend into arseholes). The staff  understand a fair bit of English if you’re not too great at Japanese. It’s a standing bar, so good for mingling, or if there’s a big group of you, or if you just want to skip the table charge most places will insist you pay. They do a small range of beers, including dark beer, which makes a refreshing change from lager. Theres a few bar snacks available but no real food – if you want something a bit more substantial there’s one of Tokyo`s few kebab shops just up the street, opposite the McDonalds. I tried the snack pasta, initially disappointed by what appeared to be dry pasta covered in salt, but crunchy and good drinking food.  They show major league European football and baseball, although good luck keeping your attention on the game.

Happy hour is until 7pm where a medium sized beer is 300Y, about 400 after that.

Shibuya Station, exit 3a. Go straight down the main road, turn right at Shibuya Flag, turn left, and its on your left hand side. Udagawacho 33-14, Shibuya, 150-0042

Nerima `Ten Ten`

Another standing bar, pretty laid back and entirely covered in wooden panelling, so you get the nice fresh wood smell. You buy tickets from a machine, just like in the cheaper kind of ramen shops, then tell the staff behind the counter what you want, everything is 300yen. The food is pretty good but the portions are small.

Come out the central exit, cross Senkawa dori, and turn left at Mr Donut. The bar is on a right hand corner on the next street.

Ooizumigakuen `The Moon`

One way off the beaten track in so many ways, The Moon is a 1950’s style American diner bar full of chrome, red leather booths, vintage style posters and neon signs. Small bowls of popcorn are refilled for you, and there’s even a notebook and biro on the table in case you want to do some doodling or grab someone’s number. The service is really quick, the drinks are good and its super cheap.Nomihoudai is around 1,300 yen at weekends, and if you fancy early doors mid-week bingeing you can start from 4pm for 150yen a drink

The bad news? Madonna or slightly out of date Top 20 hits on repeat. The same forty minutes of taped MTV videos, over and over.  The opening hours are kind of random and they host a lot of private parties too, so phone first to confirm its open before heading all the way out here.

From Oozumi station pass Mizuho and keep going down the hill, cross at the main intersection with Geos on the corner and its across the street.

Torikizoku

Well worth a mention, this relaxed and super cheap izakaya chain gets its own entry. They sell a lot of cocktails, whiskey, beer and yakitori style food. Everything is 270Y, theres never any table charge, no waiting around. The staff are always really helpful and they usually have an English menu kicking around too if you need it. Nomihoudai/tabehoudai deal is 2800Y per person and only for groups of 8 or more for some reason – you probably won`t end up saving much unless you pillage the food deal

Branches mostly along the Seibu-Ikebukuro line,  in Ikebukuro itself (West exit, go through the Metropolitan Park and turn right,  left at Marui and left again at the police box, its near Lawsons), Shinjuku, Shibuya, Shimokitazawa, and even one in Kyoto in the middle of Pontocho.


Hakuba is a small town popular with skiiers, snowboarders and hikers. There are world famous slopes and can be reached easily from Tokyo – it’s a popular resort for a weekend of snowboarding or skiing. Go with an organised group or mid-week for discounts. Please see the main Hakuba article here for more information

Transport
Shinkansen – 6 hours via Matsumoto on the Azuza Limited Express,  8,000yen.
Local trains – 7 hours, 6,000.
Keio highway bus from Shinjuku Bus Station. They run every couple of hours, the trip takes 4-5 hours with a couple of rest stops along the way, but at least you’re guaranteed a seat and can take a nap.

When?
Obviously if you’re planning on skiing then winter is best. The peaks are usually open and snow covered from mid-November to April, but you might get a longer season during cold years.

Slopes

Hakuba hosted some events when the Winter Olympics were held in Nagano Prefecture in 1998, and you can see the ski jumps and courses laid out from then. There’s tons of slopes ranging from bunny hills to suicidally steep, and lots of ski lifts to take you up.

Hakuba Goryu – Very easy to reach from Hakuba, there’s a shuttle bus every 20-30minutes if you can’t handle the 10 minute walk. Goryu has some easy beginner slopes and steep advanced courses too, most of these are fairly short runs but if you go a bit off course you can get a good long ride in.

Hakuba 47 – Long adventure course – pretty narrow and with some steep drops. From Hakuba I went up in the biggest lift to the top, but the bottom of the adventure course ends on the other side of the mountain so its a long walk home.

About half the courses are intermediate but there’s a range of beginner slopes and longer advanced courses.

One day pass 4,500

Two day pass 8,000

Head up north to the wide snowlined streets of Sapporo, the biggest city in Japan’s northernmost Hokkaido island

Taj Mahal

Transport
Plane or boat?
Flights from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport are usually pretty cheap, booking 2 months in advance gets you a return ticket for about 20,000 and if you’re a little flexible with dates there might be even better deals. Try not to spend too long in Haneda – the Domestic Departure Lounge contains one shop selling overpriced souvenir snacks, and overpriced souvenir airplane-themed toys. Unbelievably for Tokyo there’s no restaurants: microwaved food is available from the shop but you’ll have to stand up and eat it
Take sandwiches

Boats are not for the fainthearted – the sea separating Aomori and Sapporo is rough, stormy and freezing cold in winter – but if you’re feeling adventurous or simply cant bear the thought of delays in Haneda Airport then a boat could be for you. I don’t know of a direct Tokyo-Sapporo ferry, but you can head out to Oarai north of Tokyo. From there you can get a 19 hour ferry to Tomakomai, a city about an hour south of Sapporo. It’s cheap at just 10,000, but to travel at peak times or in “first class” comfort (ie a bed in a semi private room) you might pay twice that. The basic style is sleeping on a tatami mat floor in a common room.
Take earplugs and travel sickness tablets just in case

When?
The Sapporo Snow Festival is held in the first 2 weeks of February. A slight rise in temperatures mean the snow and ice sculptures start melting later in the month – to prevent this the sculptures are bulldozed down after the last weekend of the festival and the extra snow dumped in a nearby river.
This is the busiest time to visit, so expect to pay a bit more.
Hokkaido is a popular winter sports destination from January to March. Many Japanese will also visit in summer to escape the hot humid weather further south.

Where to stay
Central Sapporo has a ton of hostels.  Susukino is the nightlife area, a little similar to Tokyo’s Shinjuku, buzzing with bars, restaurants and stumbling tourists. It’s very near the Snow Festival.
For a more relaxing stay check out  the hot spring town an hours drive from Sapporo, and wander between onsen and ryokan.

Things to do
The Snow Festival is held in Odori Park, a long narrow park bizarrely situated between two main roads and broken up by sidestreets into 10 small blocks. Perhaps because of the unusual layout of the park, the larger sculptures take up one block each, while smaller ones are arranged in 2 or 4 rows. These range from 10 metre blocks elaborately carved by the Japanese Self Defence Force, international entries in blocks about  3 metres square, and smaller ones made by local students. Highlights from 2012 include a replica of the Taj Mahal, a huge underwater scene with sealife leaping out, and giant models from popular manga.

Light show on the sea life sculpture

During the day shows and performances are held in front of, or even on, the larger sculptures. Unfortunately most of these are organised by the sponsors, and definitely aren’t very impressive – a promotion for local apples, bingo,and a Coca Cola drinking contest are typical examples. At night the larger ones are illuminated with multicoloured lights and some of them even have specialised light shows, where carefully choreographed lights pick out details in the sculptures.

It gets crowded – over 2 million visitors come during the 2 weeks of the festival – so a ‘one way system’ is used to stop overcrowding and chaos as people bash into each other trying to get to the most popular sculptures. Volunteers in day glow jackets help at busy crossings by herding visitors en mass across the side streets.
These crowds will quickly tread fallen snow into thin dangerous layers of ice, so liberal amounts of grit are applied to the pavements. This makes the surface very uneven in places, so it might be difficult for disabled visitors, pushchairs, or high heels.
To fully enjoy it, wrap up warm. Youre walking outdoors for a few hours, between snow sculptures, in temperatures between -1 and -15 degrees. You can buy heat pads (hokkairo) which can help keep toes or fingers warm, and theres tons of food stalls selling hot snacks or warm wine too.

Real frozen fish

The sculptural fun continues round the corner in Susukino, where dozens of ice sculptures are displayed in 2 long rows, sprinkled with stalls and ice bars. Most of these are lit up at night too.

Other stuff
Snowboarders and skiiers can take the subway one stop to Niseko, a popular slope. You’ll pay up to 10,000yen for a lift pass and rentals during the festival, so if you dont mind travelling there’ll be better deals further from the city. If you go with a big group you can get some good discounts.

In the north of the city is Mount Moiwa Ropeway, which takes you up nearly 1,200 metres to the top of a ski lift. On a clear day you’ll get a good view over Sapporo.
I went up at night, unfortunately clouds obscured the night view of the city lights, but the lights from the ski slope made weird colours and patterns in the snow. Psychedelic, if you can deal with freezing wind and the odd mini blizzard… I lasted about 3 minutes.

The onsen town is about an hour and twenty minutes bus journey from Sapporo Station. Theres loads to choose from, offering a vast range of indoor and outdoor baths. Some even have bars in the outdoor area, if you want to sit in a hot bath, surrounded by snow, while drinking cold beer.

Food
Eating in Sapporo can be a day’s activity in itself. On the top floor of Isetan Tower (in Sapporo station) are several ramen shops crammed in, each with its own specialty sauce or topping. Crowds wait patiently in queues that often circle right round the shop, so try to avoid going at lunchtime on a weekend.
Jingisu Kan (pronounced a bit like “Genghis Khan”) is a local stew of lamb and potatoes, pretty unusual ingredients in Japanese food.
The seafood is ace, and especially kani, the huge crabs found around Hokkaido. Gluttons will love the all-you-can-eat deals involving these king-sized crabs.

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