Miyagi Zao Sumikawa – DROP THE BEAR!

Zao SumikawaBased on talking to some teachers who grew up around Shiroishi I decided that my next single day trip to the mountains here in Japan was Miyagi Zao Sumikawa. I had also read that Sumikawa was known for its deep snow and back country feel. Despite having only three lifts, the summit at Sumikawa is supposed to be one of the better areas in Miyagi to snowboard. Also interestingly enough it is the only place to see the famous snow monsters on the Miyagi side of the Zao volcano cluster. If you are so inclined, here is the entire list of ski joints in all of Tohoku.

The weather here in Tohoku has been a tad temperamental. At sea level it was fluctuating between 40°F to 50°F and then down to high teens and low twenties. These wild weather swings resulted in some massive snow storms but also some, shall we say, unfavorable conditions for snowboarding or skiing.

You would think, with all the snowfall, the conditions would be good. However after assaulting Japan for the better part of two weeks with snow storms that paralyzed many of the major cities, the weather cleared up and was unseasonably warm for a couple days. Thus a thaw-freeze went into effect. At the summit of Sumikawa this created a solid sheet of ice and then covered it the following weekend with about 3 inches of snow. I thought with the fresh snow, “conditions should be pretty good.”

Zao SumikawaI was wrong. Really wrong. You might say that I, “Dropped the Bear.”

My day at Sumikawa was rough. Mostly spent recovering from severe slips as my board scraped all the fresh snow off the ice and refused to give me an edge as if it had never been sharpened. I felt like a baby deer. This was compounded by a couple other major issues with the resort.

The first is that, aside from two runs that the top, the entire place is basically cat tracks up the mountain. There is only 300 meters of vertical at Sumikawa and almost all of that vertical is between the top and bottom of lift 1. The remaining grade is roughly 7° to 12°. Also at the top, all but one of the runs, requires a hike.

Second, the park rats love this place. Not a bad thing by itself but lift 3 ran to the top of the terrain park and nearly everyone who had come to resort was spending their time there. Which means a long line at a place that shouldn’t have one. It looked like it might have been fun if you like landing on your ass.

park rats

park rats

Third the price and the timing is really off. The bus leaves the Sendai area at 8:30AM and arrives at 10:30AM after making multiple stops in the mountain town below Sumikawa. The return trip leaves at 3:30PM. If the snow is good, this is not nearly long enough for 4800円.  For the same price you can get to Eboshi earlier and stay longer, have more lifts and better vertical.

Finally the biggest issue I had with this place is that it could have been awesome. Like really awesome. The terrain at the top was amazing except for the fact that it was covered in a thick sheet of hockey rink. If it had been deep powder snow – “oh man,” Clay Davis is right, that’s how I felt, too.

Sumikawa is intriguing because there are almost no man made barriers or boundary markers. Let it fly. Go wherever. Want to go down that gully? Done and DONE. As long as you can walk when you get to the bottom. No worries. Just, whatever you do, under any circumstance, with extreme prejudice…

DO NOT Drop the Bear.

Check out my other snowboarding adventures: Hakuba Goryu, Niseko, Happo-one, Zao Eboshi, Spring Valley

To and Frozen – Hokkaido’s Chuo Bus Reviewed

the only way to pass the time on a bus ride

the only way to pass the time on a bus ride

Buses are boring. There is nothing wrong with being a boring bus. In fact, I prefer boring to say… life threatening. Talking about buses is also pretty boring. However I have somethings I think you should know about Chuo Bus in Hokkaido.

Chuo bus is very convenient (kind of).

I took 4 trips (2 round trips) on a Chuo bus. We took the bus from Tomakomai ferry port to JR Sapporo Station. Then I also took the Chuo bus from JR Sapporo to Niseko Hirafu and back. Two very different trips but essentially the same things to say. To get from the ferry terminal to JR Sapporo there are four bus pick up times posted outside at the stop. You can take an express train that goes from JR Tomakomai to Sapporo but its nearly double the price of the bus and you have to transfer from the bus to the train anyway. Might as well stay on the bus. In this respect the bus was very convenient.

Riding to Niseko was also very convenient. The bus leaves from JR Sapporo twice in the morning 7:55AM and 8:55AM and arrives at Hirafu just before lunch. The price is very reasonable at 3100円 round trip. There is a large customer service desk that opens at 7:30AM in Sapporo Station to pay for tickets and book numerous other excursions offered by Chuo bus. They also offer services that leave direct from the airport to Hirafu but I did’t explore that option because we took the ferry.

Customer Service

Customer Service

Now the inconvenient elements. Their website is terrible and almost 100% in Japanese. There is an English site seeing page but the ski link goes back to the Japanese page. The bus to Niseko requires a reservation and during peak season you may need one as it might sell out. However, my bus was mostly empty and I left on a Friday morning in peak season. Like Keio bus terminal in Shinjuku there was a massive LED readout listing trips and availability on it. My guess is that even without a reservation if you got to the station at 7:30AM right when the ticket counter opens you could get a seat on the bus to Niseko. I didn’t try that because I had someone call for me and book it in Japanese. There are 3 other main bus services that all make trips to Niseko and when I was at Niseko I saw even more buses that I didn’t find online. White Liner has the best website and you can book in English. The other services are Donan (Japanese only) and Resort Liner (English). Chuo does NOT offer online reservations because, I have no idea.

ski page for Chuo bus

ski page for Chuo bus

Style, Comfort or Both?

I can assure you these busses were completely lacking in style, but were comfortable enough. I wouldn’t take Chuo overnight somewhere as they were pretty standard fare and didn’t have any of the extra sleeping  “comforts” you get with a Willer bus. They did have regular sized cup holders which I thought was nice. The ride from Tomakomai to Sapporo and back was fraught with my largest complaint about buses in Japan, they are too warm. Inside the bus it was blistering and outside it was just normal cold weather for Hokkaido. The bus to Niseko didn’t seem to have this problem. Not sure why but I was wearing snowboard gear and it didn’t feel overly hot to me.

The in-crowd?

The buses we took were all about half full save the bus 3:30PM bus from Sapporo Station to Tomakomai. That bus was jam packed. They even had to bust out the jumper seats to fit everyone. It was a sardine can. Not surprisingly, a super crowded bus can result in a relatively uncomfortable ride. Was it worth paying double to take the train? Probably not, and there is no guarantee that the train would be any less crowded. Plus, once you get to Tomakomai, you still have to take the bus to the ferry terminal.

Something strange also happened at the bus terminal in Sapporo. The guy loading the luggage told me I couldn’t put my bag in the luggage compartment under the bus. His reason, “PASOCOM! PASOCOM.” For those of you not familiar with English words remade into Japanese words, this sounds just like the way it’s spelled: complete gibberish. After about three times of trying to hand the guy my bag we finally figured out that he was telling us laptops can’t go under the bus. Why? Who knows. After we informed him it was just clothes in my bag, he changed to normal polite Japanese, “ONEGAISHIMASU!” It was weird. The Japanese are incredibly paranoid about lithium-ion batteries but this was out of the ordinary. As if all the lithium ion batteries in cell phones, iPads, mp3 players, and laptops are some how less dangerous when raised more than a meter off the ground.

Bus drop off in Niseko

Bus drop off in Niseko

Chuo bus is very inexpensive to get around Hokkaido and it goes almost everywhere a gung-ho tourist would want to go. However, you may hit a language barrier here and there and if something requires reservations you may have to phone a friend. For skiing or boarding I thought the Chuo bus was by far the best option with the best available times. It leaves early enough to get in a solid half day when you arrive in Niseko and leaves late enough that you can have two solid days and only pay for one night in a hotel.

Miyagi Zao Eboshi – In the long run…

In the Miyagi area the snow resorts tend to be on the small side. Smaller mountains, lower elevations, less chair lifts and lower prices than what I was used to California. Zao Eboshi is similar but for one key element. From the top of the resort to the bottom there is a 4,300m run. You must be asking yourself, “How does a resort with a maximum elevation of 1,350 meters have a run that is longer than the distance from the peak of Mt. Fuji to the bottom?” The answer is simple. It’s flat.

Zao EboshiThere are three maybe four decently steep sections of Eboshi. The furthest left lift off of the main gondola (if you are facing the mountain) will take you all the way to the top of the resort. From there, right before the mogul field you can cut over to your right and there is a good steep section of un-groomed snow there (2-3 on the course guide). I would not recommend going off piste near the top as the chairs are about head height. Also from the top is the start of the 4,300 meter run which winds its way down the left side of the mountain if you are facing East. About a quarter of the way down, to the right there is an off shoot that has a short diamond run (1-3) that is the steepest area of the mountain. From there you can circle back around to the a single seat lift at the bottom of the run. As you exit the single chair lift, to your right there is a decent area for tree skiing. I saw others going out that way and that slope leads back to the gondola house. Finally there is run 10. It has a Japanese name but… yeah it’s number 10. Run number 10 was my favorite run. It was challenging, it had terrain, it was decently steep in parts and had deep snow.

Anything besides those three areas is basically a green run. A beginner snowboarder may have some serious trouble if they are unable to maintain speed through long flat and slightly uphill sections of the lower half of the mountain and the 4,300m run. The run that spits out directly in to the gondola entrance is mild but has a decent grade if you made it there from 1,000m run of flat traverse that precedes it. There are two parks for the tricksters, a small one on the top half of the mountain and a large one on the bottom half.Zao Eboshi

Getting to Zao Eboshi is an absolute breeze. There is a bus that for 4,800円 includes round trip fare and an all day lift ticket. You must make reservations a day in advance, I was able to make the reservation in English. The girl on the other end didn’t speak it well, but she was able to understand me. It leaves Sendai station at 8:00AM and also has pickups at Izumi-chuo and Nagamachi-minami stations. The bus pick up isn’t too obvious at Sendai station. Common sense would tell you it would be near the other buses, but this is wrong. It’s actually to the left of the taxi stand on the first floor, West exit, door 13. The bus arrives around 9:30 giving you the majority of the day to ski or board. The return trip from the resort leaves the mountain at 4:30 (16:30). You pay your whole fair on the bus in cash and the nice lady will give you a lift ticket when you leave the bus. If you are south of Sendai this resort is easier to get to than Spring Valley and less money if you can take the bus (or drive). If you are north of Sendai, I would head to Spring Valley instead because they are basically the same ski resort.

For being a Saturday the place was not very busy, which was awesome. I never had to wait longer than a minute or so to get on any lift. There are also three resorts of similar size within a few minutes drive of each other, so that may help spread out the crowds. The other resorts are Miyagi Zao Sumikawa, Miyagi Zao Shiroishi and Miyagi Zao Shichikashuku. Storage King Noble’s Headgear (literal translation of Zao Eboshi’s name) suffers from one major issue and two minor ones. The major issue is that their lifts are too long and slow. I consistently found myself thinking that for as short as the good runs were, I was spending a lot of time in the lift. While I was on the lift I kept thinking, “this is inordinately slow.” Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want the lifts to go too fast. The single seat lift seemed to the quickest turn around with the best run.

always with the moguls...

always with the moguls…

The first minor issue is that two of the three best runs were closed for the later half of a Saturday. One closure was for a competition. One of the better runs was open all day but there was a slalom course school going on. I shouldn’t complain about a closure for safety but I’m going to anyway. The number 6 run has a steep drop into a crevice that acts as a natural half pipe with turns. They gated it off in the afternoon because it got too warm and the snow wasn’t holding. The other minor issue was weather related. In the late afternoon some cloud cover rolled in and immediately the top half of the mountain became an ice skating rink instead of a ski runs. I had read as much on some other sites like snowjapan and ski japan but it seems to be a consistent problem at Eboshi.

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I have yet to see a “bowl” at any of the Japanese resorts thus far, something I quite liked in Lake Tahoe. The boarding hasn’t been bad and the snow has been relatively good. Even at Happo-one which is my favorite thus far, I wasn’t really blown away. Eboshi’s 4,300m run was plastered all over the ski resort. The ideal of Japanese skiing is either destroying your knees on moguls or cruising along at leisurely pace for extended periods of time. Both of these things are not great for snowboarders. On skis it’s not that bad, but when snowboarding it can be a real drag to get stuck on a long flat area and have to hoof it out to the nearest grade. My advice for Zao Eboshi is to maintain speed and go to the steep stuff early before it closes.

Hakuba, Japan – A pricey winter getaway.

Hakuba has earned it status as an ideal winter getaway in Japan partly due to its Olympic history, its regular snowfall and its atmosphere. Mostly popular with Australians, you’re more likely to hear “G’day,” than, “Konnichiwa,” walking around Hakuba city. Like many resort towns, there are numerous money pits with which to throw your hard earned money into, outside of snowboarding or skiing being terribly expensive hobbies.

Hakuba at just before sunrise

Hakuba at just before sunrise

Getting to and from Hakuba is best done by bus, as there are no direct trains. The price of the shinkansen ticket to Nagano city will be astronomical on top of 3 hours of regular train fare to arrive in Hakuba. From Narita, Haneda and Shinjuku, Tokyo there are multiple bus services that offer 10,000円 round trip tickets to Hakuba. You can read more about Keio Dentetsu bus service here, which is what I used.

Probably the biggest money drain in Hakuba are taxis. If you recall from our summer vacation posts, taxis in Japan are expensive. A trip from Hakuba station to your hotel could run you between 2,000円 and 3,000円 on the low end. Not to mention there aren’t really enough cabs in peak season for everyone staying Hakuba, so there is usually a wait. In the ice and snow the cabs are constantly slipping and spinning their wheels which we surmised also increased the cab fare, but have no idea by how much. The expensive cab fare compounds with the fact that regardless of the time of day, convenient public transportation is nearly non-existent.

hakuba BnBThere is a train line that has 3 major stops in Hakuba: Iimori station, Hakuba station and Shinanomoriue station. However one glance at the time table for the Oito line and you will defer to other methods of transport. Moreover, the train line in Hakuba isn’t really anywhere near most of the resorts. We stayed just West of Iimori station and it wasn’t a bad walk to the Bn’B, but it was impossible to get to Iimori station by train between 12:30PM and 3:00PM without taking the train 3 stops North to go one stop South.

As far as buses go, there are a couple different “options.” If you are staying within the center of Hakuba, near either Happo town or Echoland, there is a free shuttle, IF and only if, you have skiing or snowboard gear. The free shuttles work in a loop and spoke system through the center of town focusing on hotels and the Happo town information center and stop running around 5PM. There is only one shuttle in the morning from Hakuba station (8:05AM) and it is not really at the station, it picks up across the street from a travel agency here. Some of the nicer hotels will run their own shuttles but be prepared to be confined to the area you stay in unless you are heading to the mountain itself or the Happo-town information center, the only two places with regular bus stops at regular intervals throughout the day, if you are skier or boarder.

The second bus is called the Genki Go bus, it is 300円 per person, one way and has the most stops of any bus in Hakuba, even going all the way down to Iimori area for a couple pick up spots. However, it only comes 3 times an evening at the further out spots and stops running between 9PM and 10PM. So if you want to stay out late and enjoy the night life of Happo or Echoland, you’re taking a taxi back to the hotel or walking.

Since we stayed in Iimori, we were subject to some of the worst of the transportation difficulties that would have been alleviated by staying in a more central location. Our room and board was quite cheap as far as resort towns go (3,500円 per night) but the cafe where we stayed had maybe the most expensive beer in all of Japan. 500円 for a small Asahi was a little steep but since Iimori is at the far south end of town there wasn’t really anywhere else to sit around the fire and have a beer. Not that our hostel had a fire anyway.

It’s become an expectation, particularly in the US and Australia that food and drink ON the mountain is going to be costly. They got you by the short hairs, who wants to leave the mountain and carry their gear around when they could eat right here by the lift? One of the most pleasant surprises in Japan is that food on the mountain in Hakuba was actually cheaper than food in the town. For about 1300円 I got a massive plate of curry and a beer at 47 & Goryu, although we can argue the intelligence of getting a curry while snowboarding, you can’t argue with the price. It’s not cheap but its not insane like the $12 to $15 you pay at a place like Northstar at Tahoe for an awful hamburger. At Happo-one it was even less expensive. For 1000円 I got a massive bowl of ramen and a side of rice, later I bought a 500mL beer for 500円. Where am I going with this? Oh yeah, food off the mountain: Dig deep, it’s pricey. Everywhere we went, particularly drink prices were in the 600円 to 1000円 range and even small plates were hard to come by for less than           600円.

Luckily we met some friends to help us find a decently priced izakaya but still managed to spend a boatload because, well, we ate too much. DUCK YAKITORI. I REPEAT, DUCK YAKITORI. Anyways, food is expensive, particularly in Happo-town and at the base of the mountain. Places like Uncle Steven’s were jam packed, with an hour plus wait to sit, relatively small portions  and a bill that will run you at least 3,000円 a person. Most places were really busy but that’s peak season in a resort town anywhere in the world.izakaya in Hakuba

onsen hakuba

Juuronoyu

There are many onsens in the Hakuba area and I tried to enjoy the local onsen in Iimori called Juuronoyu (十郎の湯). Thankfully we had a coupon to use that brought the price down but as onsens go Juuronoyu was a little pricey (although the beer was cheaper there than it was the bed and breakfast we stayed at). On an unrelated but equally annoying note to exorbitant costs, my nice towel was stolen at the onsen. Theft, particularly petty theft, is highly uncommon in Japan, especially outside of the major cities. The fact that my wallet, hotel key, clothes and wedding ring were all left unmolested but my towel vanished made me think someone just forgot their towel and thought mine would do. Never mind that onsens are nude public baths and there aren’t spare towels just lying around. Luckily I had walked down there with a linguist from Reno who was fluent in Japanese, and he was able to get me two small towels as gifts from the onsen. To this day, I can’t get over having my towel stolen from the locker room of trust that is an onsen. I even stuck around the onsen a while to see if anyone was stupid enough to toss their ill gotten gain over their shoulders on their way out. Sadly, my revenge will have to wait.

My opinion of Hakuba is like a gemini horoscope, two sided. It may be stupid to expect anything else other than highway robbery when staying in a resort town. That’s fair, I understand. It doesn’t mean I have to like it or think its cool. The snowboarding was fantastic. Some of the best I have had. Still not on par with Snowbird, Mt. Bachelor or Kirkwood but it was certainly better than most. If you head to Hakuba, be prepared to be milked for all your worth, and for that matter make sure you really enjoy the snow because you’ll be paying for it.

Keio Dentetsu – highway-buses.jp reviewed

In our recent travels around Japan, Shana and I have been going for bus travel to save money. It costs a fair bit to use shinkansen and flying low cost airlines isn’t a savings guarantee. From Sendai there several options for bus travel but Willer Express is the company that we have chosen now for three separate trips to Tokyo because of their English friendly booking system and their relatively low cost fares. Sadly, Willer does not operate everywhere in Japan. Certain destinations require using other bus companies or spending the money on shinkansen and regular train fare. We recently took a trip to Hakuba, which is a small town in the western mountains of the Nagano prefecture. Keio Dentetsu offers direct busses from Shinjuku station to Hakuba for around 4,700円Keio bus terminal

Keio operates a bus system that brings together highway buses from all around central and south central Japan, a bit like a bus cooperative. In Nagano, the buses that Keio uses are from Alpico Kotsu. I think it is important to understand that not all the buses that Keio uses will come from the same company, so your results maybe very different than my experience.

Keio has two websites (Japanese and English). The English page is watered down substantially and focuses solely on four tourist destinations because it is apparently unthinkable that anyone would want to travel anywhere else if they are not Japanese. When going through the reservation process there is an option to book one way tickets but only from Shinjuku or Nagoya. Despite all that, the English site is simple, and well laid out if you need to book a round trip ticket. A seat will be reserved for you and you show up and pay at the terminal the day of your departure. Be aware, the terminal is cash only. You can also purchase tickets without a reservation but during peak season you may not get a seat.Screen shot from Highway-buses.jp/enThe Japanese page (if you can read it) has some benefits. First off, there are special prices and promotions for certain routes offered on the Japanese website. Second, there are far more options for booking buses through the Japanese website, as well as one way options in any direction. Finally you can register an account on the Japanese page, to earn points towards future bus travel, get email reminders, special pricing, manage bookings and save favorite routes. The Japanese site also offers a smart phone version of the main site that would allow you to login and do any reservations adjustments, provided you can read Japanese or have someone who can read Japanese, do it for you. Below are all areas serviced by Keio bus listed on the Japanese version of the main website.

I booked roundtrip tickets through the English version of their page and did not receive and email confirmation. It may have ended up in my junk folder, but I couldn’t find it so be careful. A phone number is required to complete the reservation and they were able to look up my reservation using my Japanese phone number. When I finished my booking I was able to save a PDF of my booking confirmation.

Keio bus terminalThe bus terminal in Shinjuku is very easy to get to from the West or the South exit of the JR lines.  It is right across the street from the station and in front of Yodobashi Camera (ヨドバシカメラ). Despite the place being a little hectic (and what isn’t in downtown Tokyo) it was very well run. I was able to pay for my tickets very quickly and set my stuff down. The buses leaving the station are very punctual. I didn’t see a single bus leave more than a minute behind its scheduled departure time, I would not be late for these buses. Basically the opposite of everything in Greece.

Once on the bus to Hakuba, the Keio website explains that it takes about 4 hours and 40 minutes to get to Hakuba but based on weather and traffic may change. I would count on a 6 hour bus ride. Both ways we hit major delays and something else I was not expecting. The bus made regular stops like a city bus. The Willer buses are as advertised and ONLY stop at rest stops and their terminal destinations. The Keio bus we were on stopped several times along the freeway and in rural mountain towns in Japan to pick up and drop people off. On the English website it makes no mention of this and appears in every way to be a direct bus but it isn’t.

what the bus felt like.

The seats themselves were reasonably comfortable but not as nice as Willer Express. The bus ride was calm and uneventful unlike our bus adventure on Jeju island. We ended up wanting to get off a stop earlier than what our tickets were printed for but the bus driver made no difficulty for us and helped us get our stuff off the bus. I’ll leave the issues of getting around Hakuba for a different post because they don’t have anything to do with the Keio bus lines. Keep your bus ticket handy. The bus driver for Keio will ask for your tickets when you exit the bus and I’m not sure what the repercussions would be if you didn’t have them.

Two major complaints that I have to register regarding Keio and Willer Express here in Japan. I didn’t mention this in my first review of Willer because I thought it was a fluke. Six bus trips later I want to bring up some issues with temperature control and lights.

The driver of the bus doesn’t seem to be aware of the climate of the rest of the bus. The ventilation was not being used on a relatively warm day which made the bus ride very uncomfortable from a temperature perspective. We had to switch seats several times so we could make use the cold window by pressing our faces and shoulders up against it, also this made us look like crazy people.

My second major complaint is that Japanese buses at night leave their boarding lights on. On both Willer and Keio they left main lights on the entire bus ride. After 5 hours of constant florescent lighting my eyes were really sore. It’s like being in an exam waiting room on wheels. Not to mention it is impossible to sleep in that much light. I also had a friend inform me that the bus lights are left on for the overnight buses as well but I have not personally experienced that.

Overall I have to give Keio a passing grade. For half the price of shinkansen I got where I wanted to go. The journey had its annoyances like the frequent stops, the temperature and the running lights but mostly was comfortable. We even got to hang out and look at Mt. Fuji for a few minutes in Futaba. The buses leaving the station were very efficient and the bus terminals were well organized and unlike many things in Japan, didn’t do their very best to confuse the hell out of me. I would still choose Willer Express over Keio however because of Willer’s much better English reservation page and seemingly lower all around prices.

Tokyo Adventures: Shopping and Mexican food

Gundam

Gundam

Recently we have made several trips to Tokyo by bus and while individually they did not amount to much, collectively they are a solid 2 days in Tokyo. We haven’t tried to replicate our “Million Things” style tourism in Tokyo since our first visit but we have done a few things that I think are worth recapping.

A couple friends of ours who live in Tokyo had told us about the Mori Art Museum (MAM) and since they had not been there before either we decided to take a group trip out to Roppongi hills to check it out. The MAM is very focused on contemporary and modern art and doesn’t keep a permanent collection. It is located on the 53rd floor of the building opposite the Grand Hyatt and TV Asahi in Roppongi. Since the collection is constantly changing, a recap of what I saw won’t do you any good, but I can tell you it was laid out well and was quite interesting. Moreover, the top of the MAM also has an observation deck that looks out over Tokyo. We went to the art museum because it was raining really hard. On a clear day, the MAM is one of the better places to get a high up look at Tokyo (not as tall as the Sky Tree and not as free as the TMGB though).

On that same trip we also spent some time in Ikebukuro which much like most of central Tokyo is a densely packed urban center with loads of shopping and restaurants. We went there specifically to visit a mall called, “Sunshine City.” Sunshine City is home to an El Torito, one of three in the Tokyo area. The other two are in Shibuya and Yokohama. It is very difficult to get Mexican food in Japan that actually tastes like Mexican food, so we indulged in a rather expensive night out with real margaritas, Mexican beer, taquitos, tacos, and fajitas. Sadly, just like El Torito back in California, the food is passable but not mind blowing. Somethings, in Japan I have just learned to live without, and Mexican food is one of those things. For the price, El Torito probably isn’t worth it, but on a special occasion it will sate a craving.

Pizza in IkebukuroIkebukuro is also home to a shop known as Tokyu Hands. Tokyu Hands can best be described as the love child of Japanese culture and a Michael’s craft store, which then had a love child with a comic book and anime collector’s shop. Did you need stuff to fix an antique watch? Perhaps you would like to dress up in steam punk attire? Maybe you need some fake eyes for your back pack or a life size figurine of Hatsune Miku? Yeah, they have that stuff, along with countless other items. If you want anything that is a Japanese souvenir, this is the place to get it, or if you like making things yourself, Tokyu has the supplies.

Speaking of shopping, Tokyo is basically a shoppers paradise. Just about every neighborhood in Tokyo is centered around some sort of massive shopping district. It’s like the city planners were having a contest to see how  many covered shopping arcades and multi-story shopping malls they could fit in to the city. Odaiba, which is built on a formal naval base and reclaimed land in the Tokyo harbor, is no different. With no less than 5 gigantic shopping malls, a science museum and the Fuji Media headquarters, Odaiba could keep someone occupied all day. Shana and I spent an afternoon there wandering around ダイバシチー Diver City (I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE) and its surrounding park.

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There is a small replica of the Statue of Liberty as well as a life size replica of Gundam (the precursor to Transformers, which was Takara Toy Company’s answer to the success of the Gundam toys from Bandai). The Statue of Liberty is situated on the water with greater Tokyo as a back drop. It is very hard to appreciate just how big Tokyo really is, but check out this panorama shot, almost a full 270° of non-stop metropolis. I kept thinking, “I can fit Chicago’s skyline here, and here and here…”Tokyo panorama

A friend mentioned it would be funny to see the Statue of Liberty and the Gundam either go on a date or fight. If you are an anime buff then enjoy the long line to sit in the Gundam cafe for over priced food. If you are from California head into Diver City to the roof deck on the south side. On the roof there is a skateboard park as well as a Wahoo’s Fish Tacos. The Wahoo’s is no imitation. It is the real thing, possibly the best non-Japanese food I have had in Japan since I got here. Also in Odaiba, there is a One Piece themed observation deck in the Fuji Media headquarters. The deck costs 500円 and unless you are really into One Piece, I would skip it. There are better or equal views from the waterfront promenade by the Statue of Liberty and those are free.

Costco - real pizzaAlso on the subject of shopping, Shana and I gave up on buying things in bulk almost immediately after coming to Japan. We just don’t have the room and Japanese stores typically don’t sell things in bulk anyway. HOWEVAH, while in the Tokyo area we made a special trip to Costco in Saitama. “Why Costco?” You ask. First and foremost, DON’T JUDGE ME. Second, pizza. So far in Japan, Costco is the only place that sells anything remotely similar to pizza in America. Third, underwear and goat cheese. Kirkland signature products do not vary around the globe. They have an Aristotelian quality of always being what they are. So if I buy boxer briefs, I know they will fit. Goat cheese is a costly commodity here in Japan. About 4oz. will costs 550円 at the local import store in Sendai. At Costco 1480円 gets you 2, 16oz “logs” of goat cheese. Shana uses goat cheese for just about everything in the kitchen, so we bought 2 packs of 2 to last us through the winter.

ShinjukuTokyo is really hard to appreciate from a tourism perspective, but I can see why so many people really like living there, especially as foreigners. As a tourist, Tokyo is a large, confusing, crowded and expensive. The multiple train systems even more complicated address system make getting around a hassle sometimes. As a resident it maybe one of the only places in Japan (the other being Osaka) where you can find things that remind you of home. Where you can find things that aren’t always utterly Japanese 100% of the time. Where, if you know your way around, you start to appreciate just how amazing Tokyo can be. Hopefully as we make a few more trips to the most populated place in the world, we can start to appreciate it even more.

Mt. Izumi – Spring Valley Ski Resort

Spring Valley - IzumiAre you in the Sendai area? Do you like snowboarding? Do you feel that, “Hell is other people,” particularly when it comes to going down a mountain strapped to a waxed piece or pieces of composite wood, polyethylene, and fiberglass? If you answered Yes or No to either of those questions then you will likely enjoy Spring Valley Ski Resort. (English here)

Mt. Izumi will never fool any one into thinking that it compares to Nagano, Colorado, Lake Tahoe, Whistler, or the Swiss Alps. It’s a small, dinky little mountain measuring just under 1,000 meters at its highest point. It boasts three “diamond” runs and twelve total runs. You can pretty much board the whole mountain in about 2 hours if you go slow. I maybe underselling this place a little bit.

One of the best things about Spring Valley is that it is cheap. 3,600円 gets you on the mountain all day. Food is between 200円 to 1000円 and beer was between 350円 to 500円. Compare this to Boreal which is a small mountain near Lake Tahoe in California. Boreal has 33 runs so it is much bigger but is universally referred to as being “flat.” Boreal will cost you $59 during peak days and food starts around $5 to $6 bucks although they do offer $25 lift ticket specials and $15 Friday student discounts (read: Fridays are stupid crowded).trail map - Spring Valley Izumi

If you want variety in terrain then Spring Valley will not be your cup of tea. The view from the “summit” isn’t much to look at either but, I don’t really go boarding for the view, it’s just a nice benefit. If you like a solid day of nearly solitary boarding without too much fuss and without breaking the bank then definitely check this place out. My day started with a few bluebird runs, then some clouds rolled and it snowed hard for about an hour making it a mini pow day for the last runs.

In spite of that there are a couple problems. If you don’t have a car, Spring Valley is 40 minutes by bus from the furthest North subway station (Izumi-chuo) in Sendai. It will take a minimum of 90 minutes to get to the mountain on public transportation unless you live within two stops of Izumi-chuo. Second, the bus schedule is terrible. There is one bus at 7:15AM and the next bus isn’t until 10:20AM.  This means: arrive 30 minutes before the mountain opens or arrive just before lunch. There are no other buses. On special holidays there is only one bus in the morning at 8:45AM. Coming back from the mountain is a little easier. There are buses at 3pm and 4pm.

Something else to keep in mind is that the bus is 900円 one way. So that is 1800円 to get there and back from Izumi-chuo plus whatever your fare is from your station (for me its roughly another 900円 each way). That puts me at 3,600円 just to get there plus another 3,600円 for my lift ticket. This bothered me so I made friends with a couple of guys at the mountain and hopefully I can catch a ride with them next time. Also, lugging a snowboard through train and subway stations is obnoxious. Below is the bus schedule as listed on the Japanese version of the Spring Valley website and the Google translation of it.

Regardless of the bland terrain and the terrible bus schedule, I still quite liked Spring Valley. It felt like a locals only place and a bit like a well kept secret, despite being only a short drive from downtown Sendai for those with a car. I will likely check out different resorts in the future but that is only because I don’t have the rest of my life to go snowboarding in Japan.Mt. Izumi

Here is a link to some other ski resorts with direct access from Sendai station.

Check out these other awesome places in Tohoku as well.

A Day in SendaiKokubunchoYamaderaMatsushimaZao Okama, Minamisanriku