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

Fare is Fare – Taiheiyo Ferry – Reviewed

Recently we embarked on a journey to Sapporo for their Snow Festival. We live in Sendai and there are only two airlines that have regular service to New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido. Nearly all flight plans will take you through Osaka or Tokyo a.k.a. “the wrong direction” before they put you on the frozen tarmac of Hokkaido’s main airport. Flights are around $230 one way from Sendai! Then there is shinkansen or hi-speed train. If you live in Aomori City that is probably pretty reasonable. If you live in or around Sendai its about $180US one way and takes forever with multiple transfers. There is highway bus, but to go such a distance would likely take two full days of uncomfortably warm bus rides and two full nights of sleeping really poorly if you can even find a bus that does that particular route.taiheyo ferry

Then I stumbled across Taiheiyo Ferry. Taiheiyo Ferry services the ports of Nagoya, Sendai and Tomakomai. For prices as low as $40US one way you can get a ride from Sendai to Hokkaido in about 14 hours. The trip is done over night rather than during the day. This sounded like a pretty sweet deal so I decided to jump ship on land travel and head for the open sea.

The Digs and the Ride

The ferry is awesome. I’ve been on a few ferries and this one was very steady. There were times where I felt the pitch and yaw of the boat but not like the catamarans in Greece. The common areas are definitely nice. The decor is a little bland but its basically a floating hotel, unlike an overnight bus, which is basically a rolling prison sauna. There is a game center, 24 hour vending machines (with beer in them), karaoke room, several bars (with terrible hours but I mean, thats what the vending machines are for), ventilated indoor smoking rooms for those with a tobacco habit, a restaurant, a movie theater, live entertainment. Its basically a cruise ship lite. Incredibly clean restrooms, public bath (onsen style) although it’s more like a wave pool because of the constant swaying of the boat, as if it were on an ocean or something. The slippery floors in the onsen can be quite hazardous with the unsure footing of a sea faring vessel. There are a few comfy couches in the lounge area and some really not so comfy ones. Lots of plugs to charge electronics as well.taiheyo ferry

Sleeping arrangements were mediocre although we bought the two cheapest rooms available. I can imagine the suites and first class cabins are quite nice and on par with the common areas. On the way to Tomakomai we had individual berths which work like a capsule hotel and start at 5,000円 each, one way. Two levels of capsule style berths are available, one has a TV in it, the other doesn’t. We found that the berths with the curtains drawn got very stuffy and quite hot through the night. There is not a lot of room to store your stuff so I ended up cuddling with my snowboard. I was gentle.

The common room or “Japanese style” is the least expensive at 4,000円 per person one way. These are large tatami rooms with roughly twenty sleeping pads arranged around the room to fit as many people as possible. If the ferry is sold out (which I think is unlikely) you will get to know the people to your left and right very well. There are only about 5 or 6 inches of space separating the sleeping pads. Also the pillows in the common rooms are basically bricks. I’m not exaggerating. They are shaped like bricks, and while made of fabric, have zero give to them. Perfect if you are Japanese, horrible if you are used to actually being comfortable while you sleep. There are ladies only common rooms that require a key card if you are a lady and traveling by yourself.

(The cafe shakes… a lot)

I was a little disappointed with the lack of an outdoor deck because I am insane and I wanted to feel how crazy cold that siberian ocean air was.

My biggest complaint is very silly though. I understand that it is silly, but I’m still going to complain about it anyway. There was not even a pay as you go wi-fi available on the boat. Its like being transported back to the early nineties (the color scheme on the boat helped with the illusion of a time warp) when you didn’t have constant access to the interwebtubes. If we can get wifi on a plane, we can get it on a boat. Get with the 21st century. We brought our WiMAX+ device but at times out on the ocean we didn’t have any signal. Don’t count on any streaming services and download everything you want to watch/listen to on the boat before you get on the water. Service is shoddy after the boat leaves the harbor.

Pretty nice overall, the spartan sleeping conditions not with standing. B+

But how convenient was it?

taiheyo ferry

japanese page

Booking online is by no means particularly easy. There is a lot of rigamarole involved with an online ticket. First you have to sign up for an account and be able to use katakana on your keyboard. I also had numerous problems with their web page rejecting common characters as invalid inputs even though they were in Japanese. Adding Japanese characters to your computer input is easy. Just Google what you need for your operating system.

The process works like this: Fill out an online application form with your personal info to open an account. Once you get the email confirmation you can log in (you need a phone number for this, likely a Japanese one). Once you have confirmed your account you start by finding the route you want to take, then you’ll get a calendar and you choose your dates. They do not allow you to book very far in advance but if you wait too long the special deals will not be available. About 8 weeks before the departure date is ideal. The online advance booking price is half of the normal list price. You must book online and you must pay in advance.  Our berths would have been 10,000円 and 8,000円 each respectively if I hadn’t booked online during this special window. To book a return trip is really easy because you can go into your confirmed trips and click a button that says book reverse direction.

English reservation page

English reservation page

For online booking, it’s one of the more headache inducing set ups I’ve worked with, but you can book online so there is that, brush up on your Japanese for a successful booking. B-

The Value

I waited a bit too long on the return trip and they had “sold out” of their capsule berths at the 5,000円 price, so I booked the common rooms instead of which there were only two spots left. One in the all women room and one in the standard. Once we got on the boat I decided I would inquire about the upgrade price to regular berths. If you do change your mind about your quarters the upgrade price to change rooms on the boat is equal to the remaining half of your advance booking price plus the difference in price between the two berths or rooms.

My berth was 4,000円 (regular price is 8,000円) which I paid in advance. To change to the capsule berth, one grade above the common room was an extra 6,000円, more than I paid for the room in the first place. The regular price for the capsule berth is 10,000円 so they figure if you really want it you should pay regular price.  I didn’t pay for the upgrade but it did make me think, “Did they just preserve their pricing structure or did they lose a sale?”

rage face

rage face

I went and had a peek back in the capsule berths, an entire wing of them was completely empty. I don’t know if they have security do a bunk check or anything but after 9:00PM I didn’t see any staff from the boat wandering around. If you hate your common room you can probably find and empty capsule without paying for it. What are they going to do, kick you off the boat? Since they had unsold berths, I would have gladly paid the 1,000円 difference in my booking prices to upgrade, but not more than I paid for my original berth. So they effectively turned away a sale which they didn’t have in the first place. You could sell an extra two bunks for 1,000円 each or make no money at all and have empty sleeping quarters that wont be filled because the boat already left the dock, which makes more sense?

Enough of that, it’s just bad business to turn away money.

Speaking of extra cost, getting to and from the ferry terminals was actually much easier than I thought it would be. Once in Hokkaido there is a Chuo bus (reservations not necessary) and Donan bus (not sure about reservations) that go to Tomakomai station and Sapporo JR station. If you are planning on using JR trains to get to central Sapporo from the ferry terminal its about 2,200円 one way. If you fly to Sapporo your extra train cost is about 1400円 from the airport to downtown. The Chuo bus is 1,270円 all the way to Sapporo and you’ll have to get on that bus anyway unless you take a taxi to the train station. I would recommend taking the bus all the way; no transfers, it saves you money and it isn’t that long of a ride. In Sendai there is a city bus that goes from Nakanosakae station to the ferry terminal, but in the evening the timing may not be reliable. We took a taxi and it was 900円 to be dropped off right at the door.

The value compared to the very pricey travel methods of flight and hi-speed rail is phenomenal, especially if you book in advance. From Sendai, it’s sort of like paying for one night in a hotel, except you can’t leave the hotel, well, you could… but … never mind. What I’m saying is, if you can book in advance and don’t mind the sleeping arrangements, it is by far and away one of the best ways to get to Hokkaido. If you are on a tight schedule or prefer regular accommodations, the value starts to slip as you will eat up a lot of time getting to and from the ferry (and being on it). Lastly if you have to pay regular price, you are looking at 20,000円 round trip for a private sleeping berth. Flights start to look much more attractive at that price and if you live near a major hub, like Tokyo or Osaka, there are probably less expensive flight plans than what Sendai has to offer.

B provided you book far enough in advance to get the half price tickets. C- if you don’t.cost chart ferry

Overall I thought the ferry was actually pretty cool. We had a really good time hanging out, playing cards, drinking beer and just relaxing in general. It is a very hassle free way to travel. If you are in Sendai and want to go to Hokkaido in summer or winter, the ferry is a good way to go.

Matsushima Oyster Festival

oyster festivalThe first Sunday in February every year since 1978 is the Matsushima Oyster Festival or Kaki Matsuri. Not to be confused with the persimmon festival which is also Kaki Matsuri but isn’t held in Matsushima or in February. Matsushima is one of the top three most scenic places in Japan according to the list of Japanese unnecessary but thorough lists of things. For reference you can see 100 best waters of Japan and 100 best soundscapes of Japan.

The Oyster Festival is a celebration in the peak of oyster season of the delicious little bivalve. The oyster can be consumed in numerous ways. In Matsuhima the preference for eating oysters is grilled. Japanese oysters can be quite massive and on the half shell can be a real choking hazard. If you brave the cold you can stand in a massive line for one free grilled oyster. A free oyster for as many times as you can make it through. However, you get more oysters (three or four) for your time from the kakinabe line. Nabe is a stock soup that can be customized with different ingredients. At the oyster festival they give out free bowls of oyster soup to those patient enough to make it through the long wait. I recommend the kakinabe, it’s worth the wait.

Besides free grilled oysters and free oyster soup, there are both paid for and complimentary grill stations where you can set down with your group of friends and family and grill out in the cold February air of coastal Miyagi. Many of the food stalls will have deals on bulk seafood and meat for your grilling pleasure as well as single pre-cooked portions for the impatient or grill handicapped. Not to mention if you don’t get there early, there will be a long wait for a grill since the festival is very popular. Our group did not indulge in the grill area as we were feeling a bit lazy and wanted the food cooked for us.

Free OYSTERS!!

Free OYSTERS!!

There was a fantastic crab soup, grilled scallops, grilled oysters, tsubu (a conch shell), abalone, squid, octopus, as well as numerous desert stands selling crepes and chocolate dipped bananas. The cold weather made a cold beer unappealing but there was also hot sake available to warm you from within. My favorite besides the kakinabe was the grilled pork stand, for 400円 you got a cup o’ pork which, included sausages, bacon and a good cut of ham. The best value was probably the 5 fried oysters for 350円, they were very tasty and a real bargain.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Outside of stuffing your face, there was very little do at the festival that wasn’t geared towards entertaining younger children. Although interestingly enough, we did meet Jenny the PR dog from New Horizon 2 Unit 1. There was a military display of the Japanese Self Defense Force and some nihon-shu retailers were giving out free samples of sake on the street. So we definitely stopped there.

Unless there was a recent snow, winter is not the best time visit Matsushima as all the trees are bare and missing their spring flowers, summer greens or autumn fire. If there has been a recent massive snow fall before the festival, dress warm, and take a walk out to Fukuurajima while you’re there and check out the beautiful island covered in snow. There is the Zuigan-ji museum which is pretty cool and it’s indoors so you’ll have a chance to warm up. Also at Zuigan-ji is a special exhibition of statues that normally aren’t available for public viewing but because the main temple is under renovation, the statues are on display.

finished

finished

Overall I think once at this festival is enough. In Japan there is always an excuse to have a festival. I mean, there is a snow festival and a fire festival as well. Oysters are great but I prefer mine overpriced and in a classy restaurant. If you do end up heading there next year getting to Matsushima is very easy from JR Sendai Station as the Senseki line (tracks 9 and 10) goes directly to Matsushima Kaigan station twice an hour during peak times. Matsushima Kaigan is about a 10 minute walk from the festival area if you move slowly. Make sure you don’t go to Matsushima Station on the Tohoku line, it is much further away and not nearly as nice of a walk.

Ski and Snowboard Resort List – Tohoku

It has been difficult for me to find a comprehensive list of ski resorts in Japan, in English, with functioning links.

Until now…

Well, for Tohoku at least. I have finished a massive project, organizing all of my snowboarding research into 6 spreadsheets (SPREADSHEETS ARE SO INTERESTING) that you can sort with links to all the active websites I could find (websites which, unfortunately, are mostly in Japanese).

Zao Eboshi

If you have solid Japanese skills or the patience to use your web browser’s translate function you can use Snoway.com, my most frequented source for information but Snoway is still incomplete. Also, before you hop in a car or on a train, I would verify directly with the ski resort that they are actually still in business. Post 2011, many of these places have had trouble getting skis and boards on the mountain and tourism in general is depressed all around Tohoku, particularly in Miyagi and Fukushima.

Spring Valley - IzumiThese lists are not complete. Many of the ski resorts in Japan are small municipal parks with or family owned. My research method consisted of cross referencing wikipedia.jp, snoway.com, snowjapan.comskijapan.com and area searches on google maps. It is likely that I missed a small resort or two. If you know of any that aren’t on the list that are cool and worth checking out please send them along or leave the info in the comments. More over, I have included ski trail map links to the larger places.

All that being said, this is likely the most comprehensive list you will find in English.

MIYAGI – You can check out my in depth reviews of Zao Eboshi Zao Sumikawa and Spring Valley.

Trail Maps: Zao EboshiZao SumikawaZao ShiroishiZao ShichikashukuSpring Valley

YAMAGATA

Trail Maps: Zao OnsenYonezawa – RitsukoTengendaiAsahigatakeJangle Jungle

IWATE

Trail Maps: Appi-KogenShizukuishiHachimantaiGeto8OkunakayamaAmari OnsenIwate KogenHiraniwa

AKITA

Trail Maps: Tazawako – JeunesseOpas TaiheizanDaisen Odai

AOMORI

Trail Maps: Naqua ShirokamiOwaniMoya Hills – Hakkouda

FUKUSHIMA

Trail Maps: Alts Bandai – Inawashiro – Takatsue – Numajiri – Hatoriko – Daikura – Minowa – Nekoma – Takahata – Nango – Grand Sunpia – Adatarakogen

There you go. I hope you get out on the mountain and shred some serious pow!

If you want to the whole list in in excel format: Tohoku Snow Project

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

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

Minamisanriku – A lesson in perseverance

IMG_6269At the end of typhoon season here in Japan, I spent two consecutive weekends in the small coastal village of Minamisanriku. My experience there was heart wrenching to the say the least but it was also filled with some of the most heart warming and genuine moments of my time in Japan. I detailed some elements of my camping trip in Minamisanriku in my post about Earth Camp. I wanted to provide some additional highlights in a dedicated post.

I camped both weekends at the Kamiwarizaki campground on the southern side of Shizugawa. It’s pleasant with a nice big flat areas for tents and a view that can compete with the likes the Mendocino coast and Big Sur campgrounds in California. However, the real highlight for me was sunrise. I got my happy ass out of bed at 4:3oAM to hike down and watch the sun come up over the water. A true land of the rising sun moment. What a spectacular sight. A some points in the year the sun can actually be seen rising in between the rocks of Kamiwari. This is all in Japanese but it’s got a picture of the sunrise

view from Hotel Kanyo, the onsen view is similar

Near the camp ground there is a massive hotel that sits jutting out into the bay called Hotel Kanyo. Hotel Kanyo is very luxurious. Why am I talking about a hotel when I spent the entire time I was in Minamisanriku camping? Well the onsen at Hotel Kanyo is amazing. It is an indoor / outdoor onsen that looks out over the bay and surrounding islands. It is also an all natural onsen. One of my most memorable experiences here in Japan is sitting outside in the Hotel Kanyo onsen, in the rain, and being absolutely filled to the brim with serenity, zen, peace and comfort. The onsen is relatively expensive as onsens go at 800円 but it is totally worth it. Plus if you like camping, you know that camp showers are terrible and possibly the most disgusting places on earth.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlso during my stay in Minamisanriku I made several trips to the local “shopping village.” After the 2011 earthquake and tsunami the Shizugawa district of Minamisanriku was completely obliterated. Since then the village moved most of its commercial enterprises inland about 3 kilometers and set up shop. The village is primarily concrete block and temporary buildings so its not much to look at. However, some of the best food around is served in the shopping village. The village itself serves as testament to the spirit of the people of Minamisanriku. The village is filled with happy customers, a packed central dining hall (even during a typhoon), Japanese mascots like Octopus-kun and live music on a regular basis. There are some great handmade crafts as well that are great for gifts.

Despite the imminent typhoon my friends and I decided we would try to get to the peak of Mt. Tatsugane (田束山). It’s a relatively tame mountain as far as hikes go especially since we were driving almost all the way to the top. When we got there it was calm (but misty) and we had a running joke regarding the use of the word atmospheric. A tour guide site listed a mountain near Wakayama as being “atmospheric.” I should hope so, if not, everyone would die. Regardless the atmosphere of the mountain in Minamisanriku was misty, foggy and super creepy to drive through. On a sunny day I would recommend getting to the top.

Probably the worst thing about Minamisanriku is that it’s a little difficult to get to, and once you’re there, to get around. The train service to the area has been suspended for the foreseeable future due to the damage from the tsunamis. The train tracks have been paved over and there are now express busses that run where the trains used to.  Without a car however, navigating in and around Minamisanriku would be very difficult. I lucked out with my friends having a van to take us everywhere. There are not a lot of places to walk to and from. so I would say a car is a must.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Northeast coast of Japan is one of the most beautiful areas in the world from Matsushima all the way up the coast in to Iwate. It’s a mirror image of the North and central coast of California. Think Big Sur, Mendocino and Bodgea Bay, now subtract the wine country and the redwoods and you have the Northeast coast of Japan. Places like Kyoto, Nara, Fujiyama and Tokyo will give you more Japanese culture for your travel dollar but the Tohoku area is home to some of the best natural wonders of Japan. If you are looking for something off the beaten path in Japan, Tohoku is a great place to go.

Check out these other awesome places in Tohoku as well.

A Day in SendaiKokubunchoYamaderaMatsushimaZao Okama, Mt. Izumi