Sapporo Snow Festival – Yuki Matsuri

We can finally check another island off our list! Since moving to Japan, we have visited over twenty cities, but never left the island of Honshu. Two weeks ago, we went to Hokkaido to see the famous snow festival in Sapporo. Besides yuki matsuri, we fit in a couple other sites in Hokkaido, and slept on a ferry for the first time. You can read about the ferry experience here (Coming Soon!).

Yuki matsuri is a yearly 6-day winter wonderland where people from all over the globe create massive snow sculptures that remain on display day and night. It is rated as one of those must-see experiences, and it was definitely impressive. February is arguably the “worst” weather period for Hokkaido, as it is below freezing and often snowing. The festival coordinators do their best to provide fun winter activities throughout the day, but there is only so much fun one can have for extended periods outdoors in -7°C degree weather (even colder at night). Lots of food stalls line the main sculpture park, offering temporary respite from the cold, and since the festival features works from many countries, it is a great chance to get non-Japanese food. We particularly enjoyed the fantastic Indian cuisine in front of the huge snow Malaysian temple.

You can also watch singers and dancers perform on frigid outdoor stages, partake in ice skating and sledding, and see Japanese snowboarders and skiiers do tricks off an Olympic-style ski jump. One 14 year old snowboarder was fantastic and apparently devoid of fear. And… that’s about it. You can make a nice day of it, or day and a half, since there are three separate locations for ice sculptures, but with five days scheduled in our trip, we realized we’d have to fill up the time elsewhere.

While I’m sure Sapporo is a happening place in the summer, it can be a bit dull in the winter. What there is to do and see may be dampened by perpetual snowfall. Indoor activities it was then! Luckily, Sapporo boasts a nice subway system that is concise and easy to use, so you don’t have to do a ton of outdoor walking. I especially recommend the Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art. The temporary collection is rotated often, but contains many works by Japanese artists schooled in French impressionism and École de Paris. A five minute walk from the Nishi 18 Chome station, in winter the museum observatory overlooks a snow filled garden where you can relax on a couch with a good book (I took this time to read a personal account of autism by a Japanese teenager, check out The Reason I Jump for a fascinating narrative).

The special exhibit was a fantastic collection of the works of Ken-ichi Kuriyagama. He was a wonderful Japanese artist who created paintings of Hokkaido for tourism posters. 120 posters were on display along with 40 of the original paintings on canvas, in colors even more vibrant than the posters can imply. The paintings were not only stunning in their beautiful simplicity, but the collection led one back to the times when advertising was actual art. Frankly, it was very hard to go back to the subway station and look at all the heartless, digital ads after viewing that exhibit. When did we lose the desire for beauty in our search for commodities? Needless to say, it was one of the most beautiful things I have seen in Japan.

Close to the art museum, one subway stop west at Maruyamakoen, is a bona-fide Louisiana-style southern restaurant, Dixie-Roux. If you are in the area (especially if you live in Japan and are a little tired of the culinary monotony) you must give it a try. Perhaps the number one selling point for me, outside of the fabulous inner décor, great service and wonderful food, was the drink menu. Nowhere in Japan have I seen mint juleps, hurricanes, or the crème-de-la-crème, a Cosmopolitan.

Yes, you heard right. What is a ubiquitous cocktail back home is impossible to get here. I have never seen uh cranberry, let alone cranberry juice, in Japan. How they can live without it is a mystery, so I immediately ordered one. It was perfection, although in the spirit of all things Japan, too small. The food itself was equally reminiscent of home and authentic. I sampled some local Hokkaido cheeses and bread and had a big bowl of brown roux gumbo. Sadly there were no fried green tomatoes or shrimp and grits on the menu, so I consoled myself with a second Cosmo and enjoyed the jazz music on the radio.

When the weather gives you snow, make snowmen; or hang out in museums…you know, same difference.

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Tokyo Adventures 2: Japanese culture past and present

Recently Tokyo was listed as the world’s largest Mega-city. I don’t think it takes a special list to understand that Tokyo is massive. One trip to the Skytree, the Tokyo Metro Government Building, the Daiba waterfront or the Mori Art Musuem sky deck and Tokyo’s size will become startlingly clear. This sprawling metropolis is a playground for the gastro-brave, the weird, the culture buff and the shop-a-holic. Tokyo is so massive that many of our trips there have been between other business so they don’t make for good chronological reading. That doesn’t mean we didn’t have anything worth sharing.

The crowd on a quiet day at Senso-ji

The crowd on a quiet day at Senso-ji

In the first Tokyo Adventures post I talked about finding western food and shopping for crafts and cosplay items. This set of adventures highlights the interesting dichotomy between Japan’s traditional culture and it’s backwards march in to the future.

Senso-ji & Skytree

Asakusa is by far one of the top tourist destinations in Tokyo. I won’t be able to share anything with you that isn’t already covered ad nauseum somewhere else. It’s no surprise that one of the top tourist destinations in the most populated city in the world is a little crowded. I was there on New Year’s Eve during the day which is supposedly off peak. I would hate to see what it’s like when it is peak season.

The main temple in Asakusa is called Sensō-ji and its large pagoda tower and main temple building are impressive and well maintained. Throwing a 5円 coin is considered very auspicious but all I had were 10’s. One throw for my wife and me! The immensely crowded thunder gate, which just got a new lantern, is at the entrance to Sensō-ji. If you were hoping to take that perfect picture of the bright red lantern looking all serene, you can pretty much throw that thought away now or show up at 5AM. On the bright side you will have many random Japanese people in your pictures and you can make up stories about them…

Asakusa is lauded as being one of the better preserved wards from older eras of Tokyo but for my money it just looked like Japan. Not to mention from Asakusa you can see the Asahi building, with its “golden flame” on top (we thought it looked like a golden flaming poo) and the Tokyo Skytree, which are both ultra-modern. The Sky tree costs a whopping 3,000円 to get to the top although it is the tallest tower in the world at 637 meters. We skipped it since the TMGB is free.

Not too far from Asakusa is Ryogoku. Right outside the station there are many Chankonabe restaurants. Chankonabe is basically “sumo food.” It’s a special kind of hot pot recipe that is basically a light stew. You can check out our Cooking in the shower recipe for Nabe here. To the immediate north of the station is Ryogoku Kokugikan and the Edo-Tokyo Museum. The Kokugikan is still a functioning sumo arena as well as a museum of sumo wrestling. We stopped here for the Edo-Tokyo museum and a special exhibition of ukiyo-e artwork.

The Edo-Tokyo museum has a strange a ultra modern appearance but was designed to resemble old kurazukuri store houses from Edo period Tokyo. I thought it resembled a star destroyer. Anyways, the museum in and of itself was interesting as a survey of Japanese history. A majority of the display space is centered around Tokyo after the capital changed from Kyoto to Edo in the early 17th century. Attention is paid in the museum to just about every influence that shaped Edo into Tokyo from kabuki to rice production in the Kanto region.

We attended for a special exhibit of ukiyo-e 浮世絵 (pronounced: ooo-key-yo-eh) which translates to “Pictures of the floating world.” Ukiyo-e is more commonly referred to as “Japanese wood block prints.” The Edo-Tokyo museum had gathered together an entire retrospective of famous ukiyo-e from around the world and put it all in one chronologically ordered display. Hiroshige and Hokusai are easily the most famous of the artists but they were active in the mid 19th century. The floating world has been captured in Japanese art with roots all way back in the Heian period. The time line of ukiyo-e acts as a window to the development of Japanese culture, as the themes and subjects change based on the economic and social influences around them. The British Museum, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the Boston Museum of Fine Art and the National Library of France all have massive collections of ukiyo-e. In Japan, the largest collections are at the Ukiyo-e Museum of Nagano and the National Museum of Modern Art – Tokyo. What made the Edo-Tokyo museum’s display so impressive is that they had gathered the signature works from all of these museums and many more and put them all in one exhibit. We were truly blown away by  the comprehensive collection of the “floating world.”

The Great Wave off Kanagawa is one of the most famous examples of ukiyo-e

Spending the day in the past made us forget about modern Tokyo even though the building we were in looks like a spaceship from the outside. That same evening we spent some time Harajuku and the experience, while still amazing, couldn’t have been more opposite. Harajuku is the heartbeat of fashion culture in Tokyo and the bleeding edge of Japanese trends. Ultimately, Harajuku has become ultra popular with westerners, cosplay enthusiasts, fashionistas and artists because of the everything but the kitchen sink mentality of the district. The standard fare in fashion are there with Zara, H&M, Uniqlo and then there are stores that sell hoodies with faces on them, a t-shirt that just says, “Locality” and costume stores where you can get just about any female anime character pre-made, wig and all. Check out the Harajuku Tokyo fashion blog on Tumblr for a glimpse at some of the outfits you’ll see walking around. Also near Harajuku is Meijingu, or the Meiji Shrine which contrasts so heavily with the hustle and wild freedom of Harajuku, but remains just as much a part of Japanese culture.

Modern Japan is also closely associated with electronics, state of the art trains and robots. The Toshima ward which houses Ikebukuro and the flagship stores of Yamada Denki and Bic Camera is no stranger to technology. Toshima is also one of the most international areas of Tokyo with a high concentration of foreign born residents and the first ward to elect an openly gay assembly member. If two massive electronics stores weren’t enough, you can take the train to Shinjuku or Akihabara and see pretty much all the same stuff. In an area about 1/10th the size of Disney World in Orlando there are more than 260,000 people living and at peak hours more that 400,000 in the Toshima area.

Visiting Ikebukuro and the Toshima ward offers a little slice of everything from from modern art at the Tokyo Metro Art Space to Cafe Du Monde’s beignets to stores where normal size women can shop for shoes to the largest selection of laptops I have ever seen. I previously mentioned Sunshine city but Ikebukuro is so much more than that if you need to do some shopping in Tokyo. Although it isn’t as popular as Akihabara, Shibuya or Shinjuku, that you will still  have many intimate moments with store staff as you are forced to touch crotches to let other people by in the aisle.

Tokyo’s modern culture and history clash all over the city, the above is only a small sampling. A place where there are lines around the block on New Year’s Day at the shrine to burn offerings and where two eight story electronics stores next to each other didn’t stop a third store from going up across the street. A place where carrying a flip phone and a smart phone is no big deal. A place where repressed cultural norms lead to covering up the top half of your body, but still wearing the shortest skirts imaginable. The list of examples could go on and on as a very traditional society adapts, fights, struggles and moves forward in the largest megacity in the world.

Modern Tradition.

Modern Tradition.

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.

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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.

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.

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

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