Archives for posts with tag: 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


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


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.



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.




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.


Train Times –

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General information – offers detailed information on the history of Nikko and has good recommendations


Zao Onsen, Yamagata

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 ( or Tokyo Gaijins ( 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. 


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.


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.

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.



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


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.


Train Times –

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General information –

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.

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


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.


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


Train Times –

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General information –

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

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.

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.


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

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

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.

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.


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.

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!

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
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.


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

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

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.


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