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.

Links

Kyoto is affectionately known as the heart of traditional Japan, its historical and cultural centre. The second biggest city in Japan is built around several famous temples, a castle, palace and dozens of museums. Some old areas of the city dating from the Edo period are well preserved and still lived in, often popular with tourists by day and drinkers by night.

Transport
By shinkansen its going to cost you around 15,000yen, but you’ll be there in 3 hours from Tokyo.
Local trains will take forever, and at 10,000yen its not much of a saving
Night buses are perhaps the best public transport option. These cost between 5,000 – 9,000 yen depending on the type of seat. You could try “cocoon”, where each seat is in an individual pod and reclines almost horizontally. Although you get some privacy and it was very quiet, the cocoon seats may be too small for tall travellers. Its the most expensive way to travel but might be worth it for a good night’s sleep, or just for the ergonomic space-travel style of the pod.
Much cheaper, but less cool, are the standard seats. These usually recline a little. I paid 6,000 yen for one, and was surprised to find slippers, an eye mask, bottled water and facial wipes provided free of charge!

When?
Kyoto will have something to offer all year round. It is most popular during hanami (cherry blossom viewing) and koyo (autumn leaves viewing) so expect crowds during May and November. Summer will be hot and humid, but the winter may be milder than in Tokyo.

Where to stay
As you’d expect Kyoto has a ton of hotels and hostels to suit all budgets. These range from huge concrete megaliths to rooms available in the temple’s monks quarters. The famous landmarks are scattered throughout the city, so first decide whether you’d like to be near the train station, in the middle of the nightlife, or next to a well known temple.

What to do
Temples
Kyoto is full of temples, especially in the north-eastern side of the city where they’re lined up along the Philosopher’s Walk. The most famous one include Kinkakuji (with the beautiful Golden Pavilion which seems to levitate over a tranquil pond), Ginkakuji, and Kiyomizu with its high veranda offering a commanding view. Temples can occupy a lot of space, with a Zen garden or lake and several smaller shrines on the same site.
I’d suggest leaving a lot of time for each of the major temples, and expect it to be busy – on my visit to Kinkakuji there were busloads of Junior High school students

It can be refreshing to visit much smaller or less well known temples too, often within a few minutes walk of the major attractions but extremely quiet.
Budget around 600yen for entrance to the famous temples, many of the smaller ones are free to visit but please leave a small donation in the box outside

Nijojo (Nijo Castle) is a wonderfully restored gem near the city centre. Manicured gardens and canals seperate it from the busy roads, and its easy to imagine it during the ______ period where the Toshigawa shogunate ran all of mainland Japan from within its elaborately decorated walls. High points include the screen paintings inside, the corridors of nightingale floors, and the gardens, which were carefully planted to ensure one plant or tree looked its best in each month.

The Imperial Palace is preserved from when the Japanese Emperor resided in Kyoto (the Emperor now lives in central Tokyo)

Gardens are another huge draw to Kyoto. These range from the small but World Heritage certified Ryoanji zen garden, to large painstakingly maintained gardens with snaking paths and multiple viewpoints. Ryoanji is an enclosed dry garden, in which gravel and rocks serve as metaphors, possibly for islands in a vast ocean, although there are many interpretations of it. Although this part is well known, it is surrounded by a wider garden featuring a large lake, forested parts, and several flowering plants. Even people with no interest in gardening can be surprised by the level of dedication it takes to keep these gardens in peak condition – gardeners may pick up leaves individually, or clip the moss on rocks using nail scissors.
Ryoanji’s walled garden is probably the most famous Zen garden in Japan, although the atmosphere of tranquility and meditation can be diluted by swarms of tourists. Try and go during off-peak times to get a better impression

Traditional areas are just fantastic. There’s Gion, the geisha district, with two-storey wooden houses where geishas and their apprentice maikos live and continue traditional arts, such as dancing, plays and playing instruments. There are several walking tours of Gion offered in Japanese and English, and are well worth checking out to gain more knowledge of the area and how geishas lived.


Its more lively neighbour, Pontocho, is a series of inviting narrow streets lined with bars and restaurants, lit by the red lanterns of izakaiyas. Go by day to notice the old style guttering and architecture from when these were houses of working people, or in the evening to really enjoy the nightlife. Or go twice.

Traditional arts are still widely practised in Kyoto. If you can afford it, you can see geisha or maiko performances, attend a tea ceremony, try on a kimono, or try akebane flower arranging.

Links

http://www.hyperdia.com
http://www.willerexpress.com
http://www.japan-guide.com
http://www.hostelworld.com

Hakuba – Japanese Alps, Nagano
Hakuba is a small town popular with skiiers, snowboarders and hikers. It is in a wide valley ringed by foothills which rise up to the majestic peaks of the Japanese Alps.

View over Hakuba valley

Transport
Not impossible without a car but whichever way you go it wont be quick. By shinkansen its going to take 6 hours via Matsumoto on the Azuza Limited Express, and set you back over 8,000yen.
When I tried to search for local trains I was recommended to fly instead – not surprising since it would take 7 hours and cost nearly 6,000.

The easiest way is to take a 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 February, but you might get a longer season during cold years. For hiking in the higher mountains be warned that it can start snowing from October, so peaks may be closed to hikers.

Where to stay
Hakuba may be a small town but there are plenty of hotels there and even more within easy reach by public transport. They range from backpacker’s hostels to huge Swiss-style lodges. There are a few mountain huts on the peaks too. There’s a fair few restaurants but these may keep shorter hours outside of the peak skiing season. Amazingly there are only 2 convenience stores there at the time of writing, so stock up.
Outside Hakuba roads are not illuminated, so plan your route carefully if you’re travelling at night

Small alpine lake on the mountain

Things to do
Skiing is the sport most travellers come for. 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. 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. More information on slopes near Hakuba available here

Hiking in Hakuba is awesome if you cheat and take a ski lift instead of battling up one of the Alps from the ground. Take a lift during the off season to 1,000 or 2,000 metres, and the views are stunning. What appeared from the ground to be a ring of hills around the valley reveal their true identity as foothills to the mountains, that stretch in long blue tinted ridges all the way to the horizon in every direction. In Autumn you can fast-forward through time as you climb up in the lift, seeing green leaves at the bottom of the slopes changing into yellow, orange and red as you ascend.
Mt _____ is a popular hike which goes past 3 large cairns, permafrost and uncountable views before the peak. To do it within a day you’ll need to take all 3 ski lifts in succession, then keep up a fair pace to be back for the last lift at 4.30 (costs 1,500yen). If you can’t manage the full walk in one day, or you want to go further, there’s a mountain hut near the peak open during the summer for hikers planning to walk from the summit along an alpine ridge.
Give yourself some time to adjust to the higher altitude before setting off and take warm clothes – its bloody cold up there!

Mountain shrine

Cycling around the valley can be beautiful. Its not far to Lake Aokiko, called after the still and deep blue of the water, where you can often see clear reflections of hills, forest and peaks. A road goes through the valley, through a long, dark and very echoey tunnel then turn left to go around Lake Aokiko. Although the busy road from Hakuba has a couple of hills along the way, once you’re at the lake its completely flat and very quiet, and on the way back there’s a great downhill.
If you can’t make it all the way to Aokiko, along the road there is a large marsh and a small forest with bike trails, including a boarded walkway that winds through the middle of the swamp. Although the marsh is near the main road it is very peaceful, so look out for dragonflies, butterflies and birds.

Watersports Lake Aokiko has some watersports during the summer, such as canoeing, waterskiing and windsurfing.

Walkway through marsh

Hakuba is a beautiful place with lots to explore but it is an ‘outdoors’ town – there’s a small history museum in Hakuba, a few shops and as far as I’m aware that’s it for indoor attractions, although the onsen are always good for relaxing in when the weather’s bad. Aim for good weather, and get out even if it’s raining.

Links

Train Times – http://www.hyperdia.com

Accommodation – http://www.hostelworld.com

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

Fujigoko

Fuji in clouds

Fuji 5 Lakes is pretty much how it sounds – a series of lakes, forests and small towns with good views of Mt Fuji. Its a popular place to stay and prepare before climbing Fuji, or for some serious relaxation after.

Transport
This definitely isn’t as expensive or arduous as some other places. Lake Kawaguchiko is the most built up and easy to get to. You can get there by bus, local or express train without spending too much cash or time.

Buses run by Fujikyu go from Shinjuku Station quite frequently, take about 2 hours and cost 1,700yen each way.
Local trains take the Chuo line to Takao and onwards to Otsuki, then switch to the Fujikyu line to Kawaguchiko. It will cost about 2,500yen and take around 2 and a half hours
Express trains go from Shinjuku, cost about 4,000yen each way and takes just over 2 hours.

Getting around the Lakes isn’t too hard as there are regular buses between Kawaguchiko and Saikyo and some less frequent buses to the other lakes. There’s also several places that rent bicycles if youre planning short trips – the prices vary a lot so ask around if it seems expensive.
Check if your hotel or hostel offers discount bike hire, mine was 1,000 yen for a day

When?
For climbing Mt Fuji you’ll have to go when the mountain is open to climbers during the summer months. For general sightseeing and short hikes any time of year should be fine if you remember to wrap up warm in winter. It will get humid in June but is slightly cooler than Tokyo.

Where to stay
There’s tons of hotels and hostels on Lake Kawaguchiko with a wide range of prices. It may be harder to find a room on quieter lakes but there are several campsites in the Fuji 5 Lakes area.

Lake Kawaguchiko

What to do
Lake Kawaguchiko has the most to offer for outdoor activites and sightseeing.
Climbing Mount Fuji has to be the most active of these. Start from the 5th Station, stay overnight in a mountain hut to rest and get used to the higher altitude, then ascend to the peak and come down the next day. The mountain huts are closed except during summer, don’t try to climb Mt Fuji during winter!

If youre not up to climbing the biggest mountain in Japan there are some shorter hikes starting from Kawaguchiko. Mt Tenjo on the south-eastern shore can be climbed in around 2 hours, although the first half is very steep there are some good viewing points for catching a glimpse of Mt Fuji. The exceptionally lazy can even take a ski lift most of the way up between 9am and 5pm.
From Mt Tenjo there is a walk along the hilltops on the eastern shore to Mt Mitsutoge. This can also be climbed from the north-east corner of the lake.

For alternative ways to see the lake itself, hire a pedalo or rowboat if youre feeling active, take a guided tour by boat or jump in a speedboat for a faster ride. The rowboats are about 1,500yen per hour, pedalos 2,000 per hour. The guided tours or speedboats vary in price so try different places before you buy a ticket. There are several leaving from the eastern shore. There’s also rented bikes to go round the lake on the shoreline road
Hire a rowboat, do 10 minutes rowing and you’re away from it all. Take a few cold beers or a picnic and enjoy the quiet

If you love huge coasters and you don’t mind 2 hour queues for 2 minutes of screaming and nausea, try a day trip to Fuji-Q . Fuji-Q has some huge and heart stopping coasters, its one stop away on the Fujikyu line and costs 1,300 yen.
Don’t go at the weekend or during school holidays is you can avoid it. It will be ridiculously painfully busy

entrance to the Bat Cave (no bats)

Lake Saiko is slightly smaller than Kawaguchiko but offers some unusual attractions on the south-western edge. There’s a series of 3 caves formed when Mt Fuji last erupted near the Aokigahara forest, known as Bat Cave (300yen, no bats), Ice Cave (280yen, cold) and Wind Cave (also 280yen, also very cold). Iyashi No Sato , a traditional village of wooden houses, is near these caves.

Aokigahara woods can be explored on well marked paths. This vast forest stretches far to the south and has a dark reputation for travellers getting lost. The trees are growing thickly almost directly out of cooled lava which makes for some creepy protruding roots. The trees grow so close together it is hard to see far ahead and its fairly dark even at midday – this combination can make it easy to get lost and impossible to find the path again.
There’s also canoe hire and jet skiing on Lake Saiko.

Dragon Cave in Aokigahara woods

Lake Yamanako is the largest of the lakes, and there’s a wide range of watersports there. Mt Fuji can be seen from the northern shore, and some of the outdoor baths of the onsen have good views.

Lake Shojiko is the smallest but has excellent views of Fuji from the north shore. You can also see a smaller mountain that mimics its shape, known as Kofuji or “baby Fuji”. Surprisingly the smaller mountain is an extinct volcano and an older vent for the same magma pool that created Mt Fuji, so the ‘baby Fuji’ is actually older.

Lake Motosuko is hard to reach using public transport and isn’t very developed. Sorry for the brief post, I haven’t visited Motosuko as it seemed impossible to get to without a car and there seems to be little information available in English

Food
Hotto is a regional specialty, made of thick fresh noodles in a meaty soup. Flavours range from pork to bear.
That’s not a typo. They really have bear meat

Fuji from top of Kachi Kachi ropeway - for some reason I can`t get it the right way up


Fuji 5 Lakes has so much to offer, whether it’s intensive mountain climbing or cruising in a slow boat. It can get very busy during summer weekends, so book ahead

Links

Buses to Kawaguchiko – http://transportation.fujikyu.co.jp/english/gettinghere/01.html#pgm03

More information on the Lakes – http://www.japan-guide.com

Train times – http://www.hyperdia.com

Fuji-Q English site – http://www.fujiq.jp/en/

Shimoda – Izu Peninsular

View over Shimoda from ropeway

Shimoda is popular for its beaches – long stretches of white sand, or small coves with waves perfect for surfing. It is also important historically as the landing place of Commander Perry, an American who came to open Japan’s borders in the 19th century and ended the Edo Era.
 

Transport Shimoda lies on the southern tip of the Izu Peninsular, about 200km from Tokyo. Although there are major roads connecting Shimoda with Tokyo, these are often very busy at weekends or during public holidays so expect long traffic jams and delays.

Trains run from several major stations in Tokyo. It can be a little confusing planning trips to Shimoda, as the station’s full name is Izukyushimoda.

The Kodama Shinkansen travels from Tokyo and Shinagawa stations to Atami in about 40 minutes, where you have to change to the Odoriko Ltd Express. The journey costs around 7,000 one way but is the fastest option.

Alternatively, travel to Yokohama and catch the Odoriku Express from there, which takes about an hour and a half but will take you directly to Izukyushimoda for 4,500 yen.

The cheapest option is to travel by local trains , but this can be gratingly slow. Take the Shonan Shinjuku line to Ofuna and the Tokaido line to Atami, the Ito line to Ito, then finally the Izu Kyuku line to Izukyushimoda. If you make all the connections on time (good luck!) this should take about 3 and a half hours, but set you back a measly 3,800 yen.

Boat travel to Izu may take longer than trains but could be more exciting. They travel via Oshima island near Tokyo, you could try the night boat from Tokyo to Oshima which takes around 8 hours and leaves at 11.45 nightly, or splurge on a jet boat which gets you there in about 2 hours.

 

When? For surfing aim for summer, the sea should be warm enough to surf or swim without a wetsuit between late June and mid September. During August (especially the last 2 weeks when most people are on holiday) the beaches become extremely busy. Typhoons sometimes come near the Izu Peninsular, mostly during early September and make the sea very unpredictable and dangerous.
If you would prefer to explore the harbour and museums then any time of year should be fine.

 

Where to stay Shimoda itself has a huge amount of hotels and hostels, which fill quickly at busy times. There are also hotels or guest houses in smaller towns around Shimoda, clustered around the coastline and boasting easy access to a more secluded and private beach.

These smaller towns may have minimal facilities, no shops and little public transport, but compensate for it with quiet beaches and beautiful scenery.
If you are staying outside Shimoda some roads are not illuminated, so plan your route carefully if you want to go to the city at night

 

Things to do
Beaches Shirahama Beach is a long stretch of white sand and gentle waves that is extremely busy in summer – with people sunbathing by day or drinking and watching small fireworks by night. Get there by bus from next to Shimoda station in about 10 minutes.

Tatado beach is a bay slight south-west of Shimoda, about 30 minutes walk from the station with excellent waves for surfing. There are surf and body boards for hire for the day, and the beach showers are open in the summer. Look for stalls selling food or cold drinks, as the nearest shop is the Lawsons on the edge of Shimoda!
Further along the road to Tatahama is another small beach, with no stalls or stores nearby but bigger waves. I think it is called Iritahama beach.

History There are several museums concerning Commander Perry’s landing in Shimoda. You could visit the Shimoda Museum, or the collection of artifacts in the small museum near Ryosenji temple. Both are south of the train station.

Ropeway This takes you up Mt. Nesugatayama where you can see over a lot of Shimoda city and harbour, past the small islands dotted in the bay all the way to the Izu islands on the horizon. On top of the mountain are viewpoints, a small temple and some relics related to the Perry landing, such as the watch-house built to keep track of his ships in the harbour.
It goes from behind the train station, costs about 1,000yen and takes a few minutes to ascend. The cable cars come every 15 minutes or so
The cars can get very crowded – not good if you’re scared of small spaces and heights!

Food , always an important part of travelling in Japan, is especially good here. Wasabi a spicy horseradish-like plant used to season sushi , is grown here and added to several dishes – the best, or most unusual anyway, is the wasabi-flavoured ice-cream available at the top of the ropeway. As you’d expect from a seaside town, a lot of the fish dishes are exceptionally good.
Shimoda is a very small city by Japanese standards so most restaurants close earlier than those in the major cities. Don’t plan on finding a restaurant after midnight!

 

Links

Train Times – http://www.hyperdia.com

Accommodation – http://www.hostelworld.com

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

Matsumoto is at the foothills of the Japanese Alps, famous for hiking in summer, skiing in winter and its well preserved Edo era castle.  The third largest city in Nagano Prefecture, Matsumoto has as good a range of restaurants and bars as you`d expect to find but also has some traditional streets of one storey wooden buildings and several impressive temples.

Traditional houses in Matsumoto

Traditional houses by the river in Matsumoto

Transport Getting there from Tokyo is easy but not cheap and certainly not quick. It takes 4 hours by express train for nearly 7,000 yen, or if youve got plenty of time but less cash you can try the 6 hour local train for about 5,ooo.  There is also a bus that takes about 3 hours, you can get a return ticket for around 6,000 yen. Alpico and Keio run the service, going from Shinjuku Bus terminal to Matsumoto Station every hour.

I would recommend taking the bus, it is comfortable and fairly quick with a 20 minute rest stop about halfway. Set off early if you want a full day in Matsumoto.

 

When The mountain hiking season is from April to September or October. If  the weather turns cold early then several of the mountains may have snow on and be unsafe to hike. The mountain huts (basic accomodation for hikers and climbers to stay in overnight near the peaks) will only be open between spring and early Autumn, and some campsites may close during the off season too. June is the rainy season in Japan when it can rain heavily for several days. The summer months are hot and humid which can mean sweaty climbs in the beginning, although once you are fairly high up the temperature drops 2 or 3 degrees and there could be a nice breeze too.

 

Where to stay  There are several hostels and hotels in Matsumoto. Cheap comfortable rooms are between 3,000 to 4,000 yen per person per night. Some offer free onsen baths, breakfast or bike hire. The breakfasts are usually Japanese style, miso soup, rice and fish, its tasty but dont expect bacon and eggs. The bikes are mostly mamacharis, bikes without gears, so although they are good for exploring the city (or going up small hills if you`re willing to stand up and pedal) they arent suitable for cycling in the mountains.

I seriously recommend NOT exploring mountains on a mamachari, unless pushing a heavy bike for hours up steep and twisting mountain roads is your idea of fun (I found out it isnt mine, although the terrifyingly fast ride back down the mountain was amazing)

 

Things to do in Matsumoto

Matsumoto has several large and well cared for temples. The most famous is Zenkoji Temple with an onsen on site, although there are many that are less well known but equally impressive in the area. The least efficient but most rewarding way to find temples is to look for a curving roof, listen out for the copper bells or follow the smell of incense to find one.

Matsumoto Castle is huge and beautifully designed. Explore the castle grounds or the dark and atmospheric interior, with collections of samurai armour, swords and fantastic views across the city to the mountains. To find out more about the architecture and history of the castle here are several boards with information and a small leaflet is available in English too.

Matsumoto Castle

It is open until 5pm and costs 600 yen for an adult, or if you can gather a mere 300 people you get a group rate of 420yen per person.

Onsen There are plently of hot springs in the area too. On the east side of the station are the Asama and Utsukushigahara hot springs, and there are some large ones further from the city centre on the west side of town. Smaller hot springs can be found in the city centre too. On maps the symbol for onsen looks like a circle with 3 curving lines coming from the top half (to represent a pool of hot water with steam rising from it).  Like the majority of hot springs, these are single sex and feature different baths (hot, cold, and super hot). Larger onsen often have saunas and a peaceful (and private) outside area to lie in baths looking at the stars or distant mountains.

Towels are sometimes provided free, or you can hire them at most onsen. I would suggest bringing a large towel to dry yourself with, and a small one to put around your waist while in the bathhouse. It is considered bad manners to go into the changing rooms while dripping wet, so the small towel can be used to dry yourself with a bit too. A well written description of how to take an onsen is at  japan-guide.com (link below)

 

Things to do near Matsumoto

Kamikochi  Roughly translated as “the place where gods descend”, you dont have to walk far to realise why Kamikochi got its name. The views in this high valley are simply stunning, overlooking wide rivers or still lakes, surrounded by sharply peaked mountains. A path winds around most of the valley by the lakes and through forest. As if the amazing scenery isnt already enough reason to go, there are also groups of wild monkeys in the trees or by the rivers. If youre really lucky you might see one come onto the path, or watch baby monkeys playing in the trees, they seem quite tame although there are a lot of signs telling you not to feed them.

Kamikochi view

The route  takes an oval shape with famous suspension bridges and bus stops at both ends. It is mostly flat and only takes a few hours. The most crowded spots are near the bridges and bus stations, but despite Kamikochi`s popularity there are several places along the route where you might not pass another person for a few miles. There are some restaurants, gift shops and toilets along the way. If you cant drag yourself away, there is a campsite and cabins near the northern end of Kamikochi, although it is very busy in summer months and you should probably reserve in advance if you want to spend a night there.

To go there you have to use public transport, cars are not allowed near Kamikochi and there is no parking for private vehicles. Get a train from Matsumoto to Sawando, then a bus from there. It takes about 30 minutes on the bus and costs 2000yen for a round trip. They depart quite frequently from a stop next to Sawando Train Station.

Bring your own food, the restaurants are pretty expensive

Other peaks Go east of Matsumoto and you hit the Japanese Alps, they are easy enough to find. You cant miss the mountains, although the roads and footpaths are small, winding and usually arent signposted so get a map. Mt Jonen and Mt Hachibuse are towering impressive mountains with well marked paths, although I couldnt find public transport there and it seemed impossible to cycle. Utsukushigahara Plateau is an easy walk once youre at the top, with amazing views over the valley and a couple of places to eat. You can get a bus there from Matsumoto Bus Station straight to the art gallery on the plateau, or get off at Sanjiro to hike it. For other mountain hikes near Matsumoto check out an excellent guide (link below)

Graveyard near small shrine on the path up Ougihara

Mt Ougihana is near Utsushigahara Plateau. At just over 2000 metres tall, the views are great from the top and there is a small car park and a traditional-looking restaurant which serves the best soba noodles I have ever eaten about an hours walk from the peak.

I seriously recommend leaving your bike near the bottom of the mountain and hiking up, it took 6 hours to cycle/ push the bike from the west side of Matsumoto and 1 hour to hike up from the soba restaurant, although cycling back down took only 20 minutes

 

Matsumoto Alpine Park is hidden at the top of a steep hill quite near Matsumoto, about 1 hour by mamachari if you pedal hard, or maybe 20 minutes by car. It has good views over the plain to Matsumoto and nearby mountains, a small zoo and an awesome adventure playground with ziplines and rope courses.

alpine park

Links

General information on Matsumoto http://welcome.city.matsumoto.nagano.jp/

Mountain hiking near Matsumoto http://welcome.city.matsumoto.nagano.jp/contents12+index.htm

 

Hostels http://hostelworld.com

Onsen etiquette http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2292_how.html

 

 

Yaayyy! I finally had a weekend off and enough money to do something with it. So I decided to check out Ito, a town in Izu Peninsular famous for beaches, hot springs and mountains. My partner found a good deal on a traditional style hostel for 3,000 yen a night and checked how to get there cheaply by local train, it should take about two and a half hours from the grim wastes of north west Tokyo to the sun drenched beach at Ito. If I woke up early enough I could be there by 10am and have a full day to explore some mountains, chill on the beach or sweat in an onsen. Heres how it panned out:

6:15am Alarm clock goes off, continues ringing unheeded until it felt embarrased and stopped. Alarm clock makes other unsuccessful attempts to wake me until finally at 6:45 I get up, shout at it for waking me up early on a weekend, then remember why I was getting up early and shout at it for not waking me up early enough, it must be pretty crap being an alarm clock.
7:24 By now we should be on the train. Instead I am watching my boyfriend debate whether to buy cigarettes with free chewing gum or normal cigarettes, he continues weighing up the pros and cons of each choice for 2 minutes while I pace back and forth and drop increasingly urgent hints. Eventually he decides not to buy anything.
10.30 We finally arrive at Atami, a city to the north of Izu where we can take a train down to Ito. Theres a queue for the ladies toilets and our train is due to leave in 10 minutes, so we run across the road to a McDonalds to use theirs. “Ill meet you here in one minute” I shout just outside the loo.
10.35 Waiting for boyfriend
10.38 Waiting very impatiently for boyfriend
10.39 Give up on catching 10.40n train, settle down to pretend to read a book while silently planning argument
10.42 Call from boyfriend, who has been sat downstairs eating a burger while he waited for me. Argument ensues.

ITO! Green mountains slope up behind the town and curve round to the calm blue sea fronted by a deserted beach. Palm trees line one of the main roads. Its sunny, hot and very peaceful. we kicked off our shoes and ran excitedly towards the sea yelling with excitement, then starting sprinting and screaming in pain because the sand was roasting hot. The sea feels incredibly cold but once we slowly got in, wincing at every step, it felt fantastic. did some swimming and basking, then wandered up the coast to look at the harbour.

Here we encountered the Dolphin Boat. It looked innocent enough from the outside. Actually it looked ridiculous. There is no way to put a large plastic orange dolphin on top of a boat and expect it to look stylish, but we went on anyway like the gullible fools we would soon be proved to be. It was 1,600 yen for a tour round Ito, the sign boasted close up photos of the jagged islands scattered around the area and brightly coloured fish you could see through the glass bottomed part. We couldnt see anyone on board and gleefully imagined having a whole boat to ourselves. this illusion was shattered when we went downstairs to find the glass bottomed part crammed with people. we stood in the middle clinging onto the sides, and then more people came on so we squeezed onto the stairs. from here we could sometimes catch glimpses of small fish over peoples heads, but mostly it was like being in a rush hour train with the added bonus of seasickness. this lasted for about a minute before the boat took off and all you could see out the windows was foam as the boat sped away from the harbour. We went up on deck where a guy with a microphone was monologuing while the boat travelled to an island. My boyfriend translated some of what the guy was droning on about, but stopped when he realised it was mostly fishing statistics. To spice things up he would throw in comments about the excellence awaiting us at his familys seafood restaurant. we went to about 800 metres from an island, then immediately the boat tuirned around and came back. We docked in the harbour and were gracefully allowed almost a full minute to look at fish before being hustled off. From the harbour we noticed you can see the same fish swimming around for free.

CURSE YOU DOLPHIN BOAT! CURSE YOU!

We got the sour taste of disappointment out of our mouths by trying all the free samples of snacks and beer in the Izukogen beer shop on the harbour and then crossed the road for some excellent 100 yen a plate sushi before going back to check out our hostel. We stayed in K`s House Ito, built over 100 years ago in traditional Edo era style from wood, paper and bamboo. Everything about it was beautiful: the free hot sping baths, the private onsen, the decorative carvings on the pillars. Even the corridors looked good, each room looks a bit like the front of an Edo era house so it feels like walking down a street 200 years ago, only cleaner and with less typhoid.

"Wow, its great (moment of respectful silence) now lets move all this crap out the way so I can lie in front of the air conditioner"

After a dip in the hot spring we went to a restaurant for a special set menu they have for foreigners where you get to try different courses cheaply, classics like grilled fish and tempura, then a platter of aji sushi special to the region. Unfortunately this is only for foreigners which seems a bit harsh when most of the tourists in Ito were Japanese but its great value if you can pull off being gaijin.

Back at the hostel were some friendly people with vodka to share but it had been a long day and we were up early to get to Jogasaki Coast. A definite benefit of hostels vs hotels is being able to socialise with other guests more easily in the kitchens and lounges, especially if those people are cool and happen to have free booze.

It turned out we`d need the extra energy the next day. Jogasaki Coast is a tough walk, 12kms from the bridges at each end as the crow flies but this doesnt account for all the inlets the path winds round, or the steep parts where you stumble breathless up steps then immediately go back down. The scenery is amazing though, every 5 minutes was a different view of cliffs battered dramatically by waves with tiny pine trees clinging on, or narrow valleys lined with flowers, or trees draped with vines in thick, rainforest-like greenery. We saw waterfalls and temples, statues and weird rock formations. Sometimes mist cloaked the horizon and it felt like walking in a Chinese ink scrollpainting, just a few trees and a rock clearly visible with the shoreline fading into grey

Sometimes the fog cleared abruptly with a gust of wind and the coast would stretch out suddenly and all the colours brighten, like walking from black and white to technicolour. We saw butterflies with wings the size of my hand and lizards basking and a hawk hanging in the air, waiting. The path went past high viewpoints where spray from the waves was flung 4 metres high, and sometimes dipped down to the coast where you can see rockpools and lagoons left by the receding tide.

Cliffs near Kadowaki Bridge, Jogasaki

It was a warm day and humid so after a few slow paced kilometres climbing up and down the shoreline we were soaked with sweat and knackered but it was well worth it.

After ogasaki we were planned to do something in Izukogen, like visit a museum for an hour or so before heading back to Tokyo. Theres definitely something strange about Izukogen. Stuff to do there included The Teddy Bear Museum, The Dolls House Museum, The Fairy Museum, a museum of music boxes and the enticing vague Museum of Interesting Things. It was kind of late in the day for kitsch but Ill definitely check it out on my next trip there. And I wont get on any damn dolphin boats either.