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.

Wakayama, a little slice of SoCal in Japan

We left Seoul around 10AM and we were back in Osaka shortly there after. Since we had been on the move for a solid 18 days at this point we opted for a day and a half of solid relaxation. We had already spent enough time in white hot Osaka. Himeji Castle and Byodo-in Temple are currently covered in scaffolding. The ninja capital of Japan, Iga, was just far enough away to make it rather unappealing to go there and try and get back for our 7AM flight in two days.IMG_1847

We had originally written Wakayama off as there didn’t appear to be much to do in the area. Japan guide lists Wakayama as a great place to do an overnight Buddhist temple visit, hike up Mt. Koya to an “atmospheric” temple or a pilgrimage to the Kii peninsula in Kumano. If you remember from my exposé on yuru-kyara, the Kumano region is home to a frightening demon.

However, after mulling over all our options we found there were several beaches with train or bus stops close to them and sounded like the perfect solution to the weary traveller.IMG_1837

First we arrived in Wakayama in late afternoon. With the last weeks of summer vacation wrapping up most of the hotels in Wakayama were booked. Wakayama is a small city so AirBnB was not an option. At the central gate of the station the Tourist Information office handed us a nice map and helped us by calling around to hotels in the area. We looked at a BK Pension and they were booked. Finally we settled on the Hotel Dormy Inn Premium. However we had to book through Agoda.com because the room was $110 online but $160 if the tourist desk at the station booked it for us.

I have a friend here in Japan who swears by Dormy Inn. Thus far they are the closest I’ve seen to western style hotels without a western brand name like Hilton or Marriott. The Wakayama Dormy Inn was built in 2012 so it is about as new and clean as a hotel can get. We got settled and relaxed for a little bit before heading back out.

Despite being late afternoon with only a little sunlight left in the day we headed to Isonoura Beach. This is one of the few beaches in Wakayama that allows surfing. Wakayama’s train set up is a little awkward though and not particularly convenient. The main JR station is across town from the main Nankai Railway station. This means that you either drop $2.20 on a 20 min bus ride between the stations or take the “once an hour” train between the two and transfer at an extra cost. It isn’t really convenient to walk between the two stations since its about two and a half kilometers.IMG_1840

We settled for the bus and about an hour later we were at Isnonoura beach. Isonoura is pure surfer. While the waves were not nearly as big as San Clemente or Bodega Bay the water was a very pleasant temperature. We sat and watched the super tan Japanese people ride waves and take a couple dips in the ocean ourselves to get a small taste of the salt life as it were.

On our way we had stopped at a “conbini” to grab some canned drinks called “ChuHi.” They are like adult Hi-C. They come in an array of flavors and so far all of them are terrible. The closest I can get to an accurate taste description is somewhere between old, liquified jolly rancher and baking soda dissolved in ethanol. They are in no way like the chu-his that can be ordered at most Japanese bars and izakayas. We choked down a cherry, kiwi and an orange one because we paid money but couldn’t make it through the fourth one we bought. Had we finished I’m sure we would have been at least considered for a Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Isonoura is quite lacking in things to do after the beach however so we took the train back to the main JR station and walked back to our hotel where we took an hour or so to enjoy the onsite onsen. Two pools with different temperatures of hot water, a sauna, a freezing water pool and TV’s showing the game. This was a man-sen. Also it was quite tastefully decorated with cool little rocks and waterfalls to sit near. Several Japanese men there appreciated the novelty of having a westerner in their onsen and we exchanged words that neither of us really understood. Also, saunas are really hot. Like uncomfortably hot.

After a relaxing soak and clean we headed to Wara Wara. This restaurant is deceptively cheap. Nearly everything on the menu is under five dollars. Even drinks! Beer is $2.80, easily the cheapest beer in Japan outside of nomihoudai. However the food is really good and much like tapas you keep ordering the small plates of octopus, gyoza, yakitori, and fresh salads and suddenly your bill is sixty bucks. Ugh. The food was excellent though and we got to try a local specialty called, chuka-soba, which is a pork broth ramen. I highly recommend it.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The next day we went full beach day and headed to Kataonami Beach which is an artificial beach that juts out in Wakayama Bay. This beach is geared towards families. Rental umbrellas, beach chairs and inner tubes are available and snack bars line the back of the beach. The main problem with Kataonami is getting there. The closest train station is just over two kilometers away. This means a bus ride is required to get within 15 min walk to the beach. Or have a car. There is a parking lot there, for cars. I was starting to feel like Ulysses Everett McGill, ain’t this place a geographical oddity, it’s 2 kilometers from everywhere!

The bus system in Wakayama appears to be similar to that of Kyoto’s without the helpful pocket map. The bus timetable is on a little card only in Japanese but there is a big sign outside the JR station with the routes laid out in color and sometimes there is a guy standing there who will help you find the right bus. I’m not sure why they don’t put the route map on their tourist guides because that would be actually helpful. The time table is useless if you don’t know what stop you are at.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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All complaints aside we had a perfectly relaxing day at the beach. The water was comfortable and there was a nice breeze coming off the bay that kept it from getting too hot underneath the umbrella. The only real highlights of the day were: I got stung by a jellyfish (See Right) and we had to engage in a full sprint to catch our bus. The sting wasn’t anything big or painful but enough to make me stop swimming and glare at the water to see if I could spot the assailant. In mid to late August the beaches around Wakayama get an influx of jellyfish.

And this, this was the end of our summer adventure. Well. Not entirely but telling you about spending a night in the airport is about as interesting as watching someone mow a lawn. In your best interest I’ll leave out the details.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the worst thing that happened on the trip.

Osaka-Kansai, a plague on both your terminals.

It boggles my mind that they have a 24 hour airport with a lounge designed for overnight stays with showers, a kitchen, a 24hr McDonalds and yet it is nearly impossible to get to the airport after about 10PM or earlier than 6:30AM. I had done some research and found that there were night busses that go to Osaka-Kansai but too late I found out they only leave from hotels and not the train stations or bus stops near the train stations. This resulted in fifty dollar taxi ride to go from Izumisano station to the airport terminal (this is about twelve kilometers because the airport is built on an artificial island connected to the mainland by a massive bridge). The trains basically stop running after 10 and don’t start again until 5:30AM and the train takes an hour which doesn’t work if you have a 7AM flight. My advice would be to not book any flights earlier than 9AM ever out of Osaka-Kansai. It is very difficult to get there early in the morning and expensive to get there after 10PM. Or don’t use Osaka-Kansai at all, use ITM (Osaka Int’l) which is much closer to the city. A mistake I wont make again.

When our flight landed in Sendai we had travelled roughly 1550 miles. In 20 days we had been to 10 different cities. Rode on nearly 20 different types of public transport. Climbed so many stairs. So. Many. Stairs. Dealt with record breaking heat and thunder storms. Saw things from modern Japan, medieval France, feudal Japan, Korean independence, ancient Korea. Fish from around the world on display and on the grill. 11 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 1 of the New 7 Wonders of Nature,1 of the 13 finalists for the New 7 Wonders of the World and much more. We ate baby octopus, adult octopus, fried octopus, grilled octopus, octopus dumplings and saw numerous live octopus escape attempts.  Walked hundreds of miles collectively. Feared for our lives once, maybe twice and met some really cool people.

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My obsession with volcanoes continues…

The Queen Hotel actually had the first comfortable bed we had come across so far in our travels, so we slept in a bit to enjoy it. Still sitting in bed, we decided we had better buy our plane tickets off the island. I had researched Jeju Air, which flies out of Jeju to Pusan, before coming to Korea, and saw that there were about six to ten flights each day in the neighborhood of $67 to $80. We didn’t know exactly what dates we would be on Jeju however, so we didn’t purchase the tickets ahead of time.

Our view from the Queen

Our view from the Queen

Big mistake, as we found out it was “peak season,” and there were no two seats on any one flight to be had. We agreed to both fly on separate planes and went to book online when Jeju Air’s website informed us that further transactions could only be performed on Window’s Internet Explorer. Excuse me, Jeju Air? Korea is one of the most technologically advanced countries I have been to and you only use Internet Explorer? Way to hate on Apple, Chrome, Firefox and all tablet users. We called customer service and asked the woman who answered if there was someone to help us in English. While using perfect English, she proceeded to explain that no, there was no one available but she would have an English-speaking representative call us back. By this time, there were only two seats even available for Saturday, so we logged on to Korean Air and purchased two tickets, unfortunately for double that of Jeju Air, but at least it gave us peace of mind for the next leg of our journey.

After some lame convenience store breakfast (Japan definitely has a one-up on Korea in this department) we grabbed a taxi and headed to the Jusangjeolli Cliffs on the Jungmung Daepo Coast. I have a thing for volcanoes. They are awesome, and I attribute some of my fascination with them to the fact that I was born in Mt. Shasta. Wherever we travel, I usually end up dragging Andrew to some kind of volcanic phenomenon. Last year it was Santorini and Dikteon, and this year it’s Jeju, basically one big volcano. When Mt. Hallsan was active, between 140,000 and 250,000 years ago, lava flowed down toward the ocean and when it reached the cool water the lava cracked, fractured and contracted, creating pillars of hexagonal rock formations reaching 20 meters into the sky.

I like to think of them as “The Cliffs of Insanity.” Again, you have to pay a couple bucks to walk down and enjoy them from a restricted viewing area among other tourists, but they are definitely worth the time. The rows and stacks of nearly perfect hexagonal columns is almost too amazing to be believed. We reveled in the view and the sea breeze for about half an hour, and then decided to head up to Jeju City on the north side of the island to see more volcanic rock formations. Next up, the Manjanggul lava tubes!

The tourist information booth at Jusangjeolli gave us directions on which bus to take to Jeju-si, but the actual bus stop was a thirty minute walk because a major tourist destination doesn’t need its own bus stop or anything. Since we were carrying our luggage, we decided to ride in a taxi to the stop, which we had them write down in Korean. This is very important to do if you are taking taxis on Jeju! We found a cab no problem, but halfway to the bus stop he asks us where we are going on the bus. We tell him Jeju City Bus Terminal and he immediately lights up and tells us that he will take us there. Considering this ride took 90 minutes on the bus, we declined, only wondering what the meter would ring up to by then. But Thailand tuk-tuk driver-style, he showed us 15,000 won (about $15) and promised it would only be fifteen. Having seen this trick before, we were naturally very hesitant, but it was more tempting than waiting for the bus. We also managed to save a lot of time, as he flew across the island, proceeding to point our various tourist attractions along the way. As we neared Jeju-si, I realized I had been holding my breath, not only for the wild driving but in expectance of something worse to come when we arrived. I couldn’t think of just what he might decide to ask for in addition to the fifteen bucks, but my mind was ripe with possibilities. Luckily, he stopped in front of the bus terminal, took the fifteen and smiled. Whew! No proverbial “other shoe” dropped.

Again, we had to hunt around for a bit to find a guesthouse with vacancy, but this time we made the smart decision to stay within walking distance of the bus terminal. We found a reasonably priced guesthouse that let us leave our baggage with them, even though we couldn’t officially check in yet. Back to the terminal, we took a bus headed east to the Manjanggul lava tubes, which are part of the Geomunoreum Lava Tube System on Jeju. Hundreds of thousands of years ago underground magma from the volcano flowed from Mt. Hallasan until it eventually reached the surface, creating these long, hollow caves in its wake. There are actually numerous underground tubes all over Jeju Island, but Manjangull has one kilometer that has been outfitted for visitors. The whole cave has been designated a Unesco World Heritage Site. The bus stop for the lava tubes is actually quite a trek from the site itself. Luckily we had read about this ahead of time and found a couple other tourists to share a taxi with. Soon we were descending into the tunnel, which was fantastically cold! Footlights had been placed to help you see your way through, but the floor has not been altered, so you walk on actual hardened lava flow. It is quite uneven, so I was glad I wore my hiking shoes.

After a kilometer of pure volcanic bliss filled with stalactites, stalagmites, lava rafts and lava shelfs, you come to a 7 meter high lava pillar, the largest in the world. It is truly impressive, and is eerily lit by colored lights that slowly change, so you can get a picture of it in hellish red, electric blue, or neon green. Thoroughly impressed and quite cold by now, we headed back out the way we came. The tubes continue on for over three kilometers, but the rest is not open to the public. Unfortunately, the moment we surfaced we were hit by the heat, the feeling of which is akin to having all of the moisture in your body suddenly transport itself outside your body via explosive decompression. Immediately drenched in sweat, we met back up with our taxi share-mates and headed to the bus stop. After a few minutes of waiting, we boarded a crowded bus that unbeknownst to us was being driven by a fiend of hell.

You may debate over whether it is a sad day or an awesome day in which the only reasonable comparison you can make for your bus ride is a roller coaster from Six Flags, but in the moment, any possible enjoyment was lost on us. Initially we had to stand in the aisle, hanging from bars on the ceiling as our bodies proceeded to slam against every possible nearby surface, including other passengers. Our driver had apparently decided to execute a crude Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride Through Hell while impersonating Murdock from the A-Team, rocketing through blind turns, catapulting the back of the bus off the ground as he hit speed bumps at full force, and leaving himself exactly one second before imminent collision to apply the breaks. There are seat belts on the bus for a reason. Finally managing to snag an open seat, I attempted to sit down. My behind was forcefully greeted by the arm rest and not the cushion as the bus lurched and swayed, leaving me a nice shiner to remember my adventure.IMG_1700

After nearly an hour of this nightmare on wheels, we nauseously stumbled off and walked to our guesthouse for a little air conditioning and stable ground. Eventually we recovered our appetites and headed down to a local’s area west of the bus terminal for some dinner. Enticed by some pictures of what appeared to be Chinese food, we wandered into an empty restaurant and encountered a gentleman employee clearly startled to see foreigners. Since he had no English skills, we pointed to a couple photos on the wall and soon enjoyed some kind of saucy octopus and noodle dish and gyoza. $10 later and still a bit hungry, we found a Korean BBQ place with patio seating and cold beer. While it’s definitely a messy meal, I could probably eat this for a week and not get tired of it. I suppose this is passé for a local, when there is so much good Korean food out there, but there is something comforting about a meal you know how to eat when you are traveling. If only for a moment, you get to pretend that you live in Korea and know what you are doing.

After a relaxing meal we went to Loveland, a cheesy “museum” on Jeju filled with pornographic sculptures and sexual dioramas. For some reason, all the travel guides include this as a must-see, if only for the novelty of watching reserved Asian people’s reactions, but I found it pretty tame and a bit expensive. Since it is one of the only things you can do after dark, at least it wasn’t blazing hot. Back to our guesthouse for a late night glass of makgeolli and plans for tomorrow’s beach day excursion.